How lovely are the messengers

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It hit me during last Sunday’s offertory anthem. The choir was singing this wonderful piece by Mendlessohn:

How lovely are the messengers that preach the gospel of peace!
To all the nations is gone forth the sound of their words,
through out all the lands their glad tidings.

I listened to them sing this beautiful anthem, and I chuckled to myself because I thought ahead to today’s Lectionary readings with St. John the Baptizer—this challenging figure and herald of our Christian tradition. Lovely isn’t exactly a word that I would use to describe this camel hair-clothed, locust-eating, desert-dwelling prophet who challenges those around him so much that he eventually loses his head—literally.

It’s an interesting conversation between Felix Mendelssohn and Malachi from today’s reading:

How lovely are the messengers who preach the gospel of peace!


But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? He is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap…

We experience this wonderful tension that is so appropriate for Advent. The anticipation of Christmas and the joy that comes from what we know we will experience soon—and the strident prayer we shared together this morning in the Collect:

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins…

How do we blend these feelings, these experiences, with joy and anticipation…loveliness….and warnings and a fire that promises to refine us?

The answer, I think, of course, is that we don’t blend them, that we don’t try to water them down and make them more palatable…but that we hold them in tension…feel the truth that this tension holds…that we are indeed called to share in this promised birth—this indwelling of Christ—but that we’re not quite there yet. There is a fullness of which we have not yet experienced…and to fully experience it, participating in the promise is going to cost us something.

St. Luke draws back on the prophet Isaiah for his account of St. John the Baptizer’s birth—for the promise of what this herald would do.

The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.

When I read this text in the light of repeated occasions of violence and terror—of gun violence and hatred rooted in fundamentalism—a dangerous reality that Pope Francis reminds us exists in all religions—when I read this text in light of what we experience around us, I crave….I crave our crooked places to be made straight. I crave for our rough ways to be made smooth. I crave for all flesh to see the salvation of God.

And, St. John the Baptizer came to bear witness to this promise….he came to wake people up to the embodiment of hope that was soon to come among them. He was a herald of mindfulness, a prophet who pointed to the hope for which they had yearned for so long.

But, as good as this sounds, as much as we say we appreciate such a prophet, my experience is that we honestly resist them. Because nobody likes someone who interrupts them.

It reminds me of the first time my family came to see us in Atlanta. Lisa was living in Athens, I in Decatur, the year we were engaged. The family came out to visit us, and we wanted to impress them and show them what we knew of the city—and we knew very little it turns out. We wanted to take them somewhere interesting, so we loaded up on Marta, rode to Five Points Station, and walked down to Underground Atlanta. Awkward place to take one’s grandmother and mother, to be sure.

We were laughing and talking and sharing stories with each other, walking through Five Points Station, and when we stepped out of the entrance, we were met by a strange man standing on a box, yelling and waving a Bible at everyone who came within twenty feet of him.

“Repent! Repent and turn to Jesus or burn in hell!”

My very religious family froze at the sight of so much….religion. My grandmother moved away, and we all sped up and kept walking past this strange man…because he disturbed us. He disrupted our way of being, and we wanted no part of it.

We like prophets in theory. We learn a lot about them, reading about what they did in years past and how they made an impact, about how they helped usher in a new way of being. We look back at these pivotal moments in history…

But nobody likes to be interrupted.

This is the quandary we find ourselves in. This is the question we’re asked to explore—that we must explore. Are we stuck so deeply in our own way of life that we resist any pull to explore another way of being? Isaiah says that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” And, this salvation isn’t talking about some rapture-esque moment when we’re yanked out of our lives here. No. This salvation is talking about the wholeness we can experience in life here and now, a life reoriented and grounded in the promise heralded by John the Baptizer. Repent: open yourself to conversion, to reorientation. Prepare: become more aware of where we are now, of how we are now…and wonder how the Spirit is moving and leading us. Listen for the voices that cry out around us: how are we being called to embody courage in the midst of violence and pain (hint: it’s not to meet violence with more violence to overcome violence or firepower with more firepower). This conversion that the world needs—that we are promised and which we must embody—is going to take more. There’s a great hymn that points to it. See if you recognize it:

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were an offering far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Advent: this time of anticipation. This time of hard spiritual work!

And, be aware of the resistances we feel. As I read this piece from Isaiah, looking at the image he presents, here’s what my heart tells me:

I’m not sure we want all the mountains to be made low, because maybe I enjoy living above other people. I’m not sure we want the valleys filled, because maybe I want those people who live in that valley kept at a distance. In this way, Isaiah’s image invites us to explore the resistances of our own lives…our own propensity toward fundamentalism…the complexities of our own spiritual growth.

Yes, prophets are bothersome. They are annoying as all get out. We love them when they are talking about “those people,” but we despise them when their message gets too close to us.

We resist them, but we so desperately need them. We need truth tellers who will help us wake us up…sometimes inviting us and sometimes shaking us awake from our complacency.

We need the heralds who will announce the peace and justice that is coming our way…the reality of the Kingdom of God in which we are called to live and move and have our being.

The great prophets of our story, from Moses straight through to those crying out for justice for all humankind and all creation…All those who speak out against the status quo of comfort and the illusion of safety and certainty…When I think of these prophets, I see one thing they have in common:

A prophet will always rise up when the community loses its imaginative capacity, when the people lose the ability or the desire or the courage to expand their spiritual imaginations to see the hope found in God’s justice and mission rather than their own self-centered and comfortable structures.

When we lose sight that our practice of faith costs us something…prophets rise up.

When we lose the courage to speak out for those in prison, for those who are hungry, who suffer and are oppressed, for those whose hope has been taken away…prophets rise up.

When our sense of compassion fades and we become numb to the yearning and searching of our brothers and sisters around us…prophets rise up.

When we look past the sin of racism, bigotry, hatred, and vengeance…prophets rise up.

When we forget who God says we are and we start believing the script of the advertisers…prophets rise up.

How lovely are the messengers that preach the gospel of peace!
To all the nations is gone forth the sound of their words,
Throughout all the lands their glad tidings.


Fr. Stuart Higginbotham
Advent II, Year C
Malachi 3:1-4; St. Luke 3:1-6
December 6, 2015


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