Take a Message

Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the Second Sunday of Advent: Malachi 3:1-12, Luke 3:1-6

This morning’s song comes from Melissa Etheridge, off her 2008 Christmas album. The song is called “It’s Christmas Time.”

What if we could create peace on Earth?
I wonder what that would look like
I wonder if heaven and nature would sing

What if we all stopped believing the lie
That happiness comes from a store?
What if we looked at the damage we’ve done
And finally shouted no more?

Fa, la, la, la, la, it’s Christmas time
Fa, la, la, la, la, it’s Christmas time

Back in the day — in what feels like a lifetime ago, when I was a reporter for radio and television — the phone was my best friend. I was constantly calling sources for stories, spokespeople for quotes, and police departments for details. The most dreaded thing I could hear on the other end of the phone was, “Officer So-and-So isn’t in right now, can I take a message?”

Journalists know what that means — you’ll never get a call back from Officer So-and-So. “I’ll take a message” were deadly words to the story you were working on. It really meant call back later and hope someone else answers the phone and puts you through. It meant you had to show up at their office if you could because they were ducking your calls. But no matter what, it meant: Don’t take “Can I take a message?” as the final answer. That just meant your job got harder, not easier.

How many times have you been the one ducking that call — be it from a reporter, a boss, a partner, a friend, an enemy — anyone who you don’t want to deal with at the moment. You mouth to the person on the phone, “Take a message!”

What if God had voicemail?

These days, voicemail is the deadly equivalent to the receptionist uttering those deadly words. Now it’s “I can give you their voicemail” that lets you know you’ve hit a dead end. If we’re honest, we all do it — we all let that call just slip over to voicemail and take a message for us, and we have the choice whether or not to ever return that call.

What would it be like if God had voicemail. Can you imagine it:

Thank you for calling God’s House. Please select one of the following options:

PRESS 1 for Requests
PRESS 2 for Thanksgiving
PRESS 3 for Complaints
PRESS 4 for All Other Inquiries

I am sorry, all of our angels are busy helping other sinners right now. However, your prayer is important to us and will be answered in the order it was received, so please stay on the line.

If you would like to speak to God, press 1; for Jesus, press 2; for the Holy Spirit, press 3. If you would like to hear King David sing a Psalm while you are holding, please press 4.

For answers to nagging questions about dinosaurs, the age of the earth and where Noah’s Ark is, please wait until you arrive here.

Our computers show that you have already prayed today, please hang up and try again tomorrow.

The problem in today’s passage in Malachi is that the ancient Hebrew people were basically ignoring God — they were taking a message and then not returning God’s constant calls. This behavior, not surprisingly, made God very angry. Throughout the book of Malachi, God lists his grievances. The people are calling evil good and are cynical about the presence of God. They are oppressing the poor and not paying fair wages. Worship, instead of being about God, is now about them and what they can get out of it. What good is church if there’s no immediate personal pay-off, they wondered. Sound familiar?

Malachi warns them, a messenger is coming — and it’s not going to be a message they will like, and they won’t be able to ignore it. That messenger will come with fire, a refining fire meant to clear away their impurities, and with fuller’s soap — the kind of soap that can give you a good, clean scrubbing and can even take a little skin off in the process. This really is a good news/bad news sort of situation. God is sending a messenger who will put things right — that’s good news. God is sending a messenger, and that messenger will put us right — and thinking about the pain of fire and harsh soap sounds a bit like bad news, depending on how much cleaning-up our lives may need.

Who is this messenger that God will send? There is some dispute among scholars about this. Malachi himself names Elijah as the returning messenger. Christian scholars read John the Baptist into this role, and even the gospels name Jesus as Malachi’s messenger.

The true messengers of Advent

Advent is a time of waiting — a time of looking forward to the birth of a messenger, a messenger of peace and hope. But who is the messenger that we’re waiting on?

What if we did create peace on Earth?
How would we feel ’bout ourselves?
If we know we were perfect and good and enough
For all we desire as well

What if we all started spreading the news
There’s nothing to fear anymore?
We are connected, one family of light

Fa, la, la, la, la, it’s Christmas time
Fa, la, la, la, la, it’s Christmas time, oh yeah

I invite you to consider that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for; we are the ones who have been called to “take a message” — and not in the sense that we take a message in an effort to avoid doing something. No, I believe God is calling us all to be modern day Malachis — after all, this word is not the name of an author, but instead means “my messenger.” We are today’s Malachis, called to be messengers of God — to take a message of peace and love and justice into this world.

Like Malachi and John the Baptist of old, we may feel like a voice crying out in the wilderness. In a world of greed, injustice, war, hatred, and oppression, taking a message of peace, grace, mercy and forgiveness into the world may feel a bit like spitting in the wind or tugging on Superman’s cape. It feels like when we call, the world tells its receptionist to “take a message” then ignores our persistent calls for peace and justice. It can be frustrating, but just as when I was a journalist, we new-age Malachis must keep calling. We must refuse to accept “I’ll take a message” as the final answer. Instead, we must repeatedly take our message of peace to the world. It may seem fruitless, but how will anyone get the message if we don’t keep speaking it, even in the face of resistance or apathy?

As I said earlier, Advent is a time of waiting, but when God speaks, it’s most often in paradox. While Advent may certainly be a time of waiting, it is also at the same time a time of acting. In Advent we experience both the future and the present, the now and the not yet. We get frustrated when we’re only focusing on the not yet — a future when wars are over and justice rolls down like waters. In our reading from the Jesus story this morning, our attention is called back to the present, and away from the future.

The beginning of today’s passage seems like a bit of fluff and full of hard names so we skim over it:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.

This long list of names that mean nothing to us doesn’t seem to signify much, but what it does is show us the immediacy of God’s word. Read it this way:

In the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency, when Angela Merkel was the president of Germany, and Nicolas Sarkozy was the president of France, and Tony Blair had retired as the prime minister of Great Britain, the word of God came…

The word of God came! The word of God comes in every era, in every moment, in every time. There is a Malachi, a messenger of God, born every minute. The word of God came to all of our great leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu. They all took the message of peace and justice seriously and didn’t let the world’s indifference or outright resistance to that message deter them. The word of God came — and they took a message of salvation to a hurting and dying world.

Messengers in the here and now

God is working as God has always worked — not just in the past, and not just in the future, but in the here and now. Our work is to be present to God and to the message God calls us to take into the world. John is crying out in the wilderness for us to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” He doesn’t say “I have prepared,” or “I’m going to prepare.” He speaks in the present tense, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and do it now. Don’t wait one more minute.

It can be overwhelming to think about how we could ever change the future. We have to realize such a task really is hopeless, because the only thing we can change is the present moment. This is the only place where we have power — not over what’s been done or what’s to come. Right now is when we should be taking the message of peace to our neighbor, to our friends, to our families — and especially to our enemies.

When we take a message of peace, future wars are over before they begin. When we take a message of peace, reconciliation happens now and not later. When we take a message of peace, understanding and forgiveness happen in the moment, not in the future. By taking a message of peace right now, we create more peace in the future.

Today, right this very minute, the word of God continues to come to each of us. You have a choice: Will you take a message and ignore God’s call, or will you take a message — and begin right now spreading that message of peace and love and justice to everyone, near and far?

I think we can create peace on Earth
By finding it inside our minds
By healing our pain, intending our love
In the world we create what we find
What if we all took the time to be still?

Fa, la, la, la, la, it’s Christmas time
Fa, la, la, la, la, it’s Christmas time
Create peace on Earth
It’s Christmas time
It’s Christmas time
Fa, la, la, la, la