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The Place to Begin

December 7, 2015

“The Place to Begin” Malachi 3:1-7 and Luke 3:1-15 © 12.6.15 Advent 2C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It’s been said that the tone of any organization is set by its leaders. If they are indecisive, the people in their charge will drift without purpose or direction. Should they seek only their own good, the needs of their constituents will go unnoticed and unfulfilled. But leaders of vision will inspire their folk. And those who see their task as service will set an example for all to follow.

What’s true today was also the case centuries ago, in the time of the prophet Malachi. So his program to return God’s people to their glory days and more importantly, to their Lord, began with the leadership, the Levites. If their hearts were unalloyed, devoted only to their calling, then God would dwell again with his own. If the leaders were cleansed of all but the purest motives, then the offerings of Judah would be accepted. The former days of close relationship between God and his covenant partners would come again.

Malachi still had confidence in the ability of the formal leadership to make a difference in the life of the community of faith. By the time of John the Baptist, though, God appears to have given up on those traditionally invested with power. Notice that Luke names political and religious leaders, but the Word of God does not come to them. Instead, it is on the lips of John, one man crying in the wilderness. He’s outside the bureaucratic structures and strictures of the day; in fact, he criticizes them bitterly. Rather, John is in a place of great risk, with few resources, a lone voice trying to say what God is doing.

His message is one of radical inclusiveness. “All flesh” shall see the salvation of God. “Every valley” shall be filled; “every mountain,” made low. Plus, there is implied in Luke’s recitation of the names of the leaders of the day that, even though the Word does not come to them, they are somehow part of this picture of salvation. John’s words are tough, his demands stringent. But they touch hearts as no one’s had for a long, long time.

This strange, marginalized prophet’s message shares one common element with that of Malachi. Both are interested in preparing the way for the Lord. John and his brother of long before insist that everything that would impede God’s journey to the human heart and into human history must be done away with. For Malachi, the blocking factor was the impurity and unrighteousness of the lives of the leaders. For John, it is the distinctions made among people, symbolized by valleys, mountains, crooked and straight roads. The way of the Lord is a plain, bisected by a straight ribbon of highway. When God comes into human history, he insists on a level playing field for all; equal access to his grace, removal of barriers that hinder his approach, and a sense that the great equalizer among human beings is that all stand in need of forgiveness and cannot be sustained except by the abundant mercy of God in Jesus Christ.

It seems to me that both John and Malachi have an important message to and for us this Advent or any season. It’s that each person can and must do something specific to make a difference in the life of the community, to ensure the blessing of God, to make amends, to live faithfully. The word of these prophets is this: it begins with us right where we live, in what we’re doing. Or to address it to ourselves in the first person even more simply: it begins with me.

It begins with me in matters of social justice. Whatever the issue and across the political spectrum, there’s quite often some local and personal dimension and something an individual can do. Like becoming and staying informed about a chosen concern. Giving money. Writing a letter or posting a blog entry or signing a petition or voting one’s conscience and convictions. And most of all these days, if there is incivility and discourtesy, prejudice, and hostility, it begins with me to diffuse conflict, to speak a helpful word, to stand up for an ill-treated neighbor, to refuse to enter into hateful conversations around the holiday dinner table or in the workplace or on social media. Let it begin with me when I obey my Lord’s command to love my neighbor, live out my calling to follow One who urged me not to heap up goods, and honor my commitment to see God’s reign come on earth among all peoples. Let it begin with me if people are to see someone who truly follows Jesus, doing justice, loving tenderly, and walking humbly with God, as the prophet Micah told us the Lord requires.

Each of us is given gifts by the Spirit in baptism to help us be faithful in these and other ways. The presence of God in us inspires a desire in our heart of hearts to make a difference. Frederick Buechner says that “Neither the hair shirt nor the soft [bed] will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (Wishful Thinking; 119). And the late Stephen Covey once wrote about finding your voice, which is where talent, passion, the need of the world, and conscience meet: “When you engage in work that taps your talent and fuels your passion—that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to meet—therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code” (The 8th Habit: 5).

It begins with me not only when the call is to do justice and love mercy. It begins with me if the good news is to be shared. Evangelism is every member’s calling. So each can ask: whom do I know who is seeking meaning? Whom do I know who is hurting? Whom do I know that is unchurched or alienated from the church, maybe even this congregation? Let each of us say in our heart and put into practice: if First Church is to thrive and be known and reach out, it begins with me. I’ve got to take the chance, I’ve got to put myself out there, I’ve got to tell my story. It begins with me.

It begins with me not only in battling the wrongs in the world or helping the church to grow spiritually and in numbers. It also begins with me if this season of Advent is to be a time of reflection and preparation. How many of us complain about the stress and hurry of Christmas? How many long for a quieter, simpler holiday? How many say that Christ has been taken out of Christmas, because it’s so commercial? If those are our concerns, each of us can ask how change begins with our own attitudes and actions. Maybe it begins with me when I reject the constant calls to hustle, hurry, and get the deals before they’re gone. Could be it begins with me when I decide, despite objections, that I will not load up my family with more stuff. I will give less of that and more of myself. I’ll consider my mission, mistakes, and motives, and ask how they either welcome or hinder the coming Christ. I’ll look around my house this Advent and see what it is that needs cleaning out and giving away. I’ll look inside my heart and discern what needs cleaning out and giving up, so I may walk more faithfully with God. Believe me, making changes isn’t easy. We go against the culture. We sometimes end up at odds with our own families. So, if it “begins with me” this Christmas, we ought to be prepared for opposition and misunderstanding. But we also may anticipate feeling a new peace.

Let each of us say: it begins with me. If we long for the presence and power of God among us, then let our hearts be turned to him in prayer and repentance. Let us seek his grace that will cleanse and forgive our faults. Let us claim his gifts, given to each and all, to use for the good of the community of faith and for the sake of the world God loves. Let us say with the songwriter: “Let there be peace on Earth—and joy and hope and faith and love and justice and mercy—let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”

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