November 28th, 2016

We think we’re supposed to get it right.  God wants us to get it together.

Malachi 4:1-6; Luke 1:11-17


The appendix and the cradle

How did Thanksgiving go at your house? Early in the week I went to see Mom in Suffolk, Virginia. My sister lives nearby in Portsmouth, and I have two brothers who live in Chicago and one in Baltimore. All five of us were together for dinner Monday evening and yes, most of the conversation centered around President-elect Donald Trump. Did that happen with you? 

If we could wind the clock back eighteen months when 20+ candidates first started declaring their intention to run for President, I don’t know that anyone could have predicted Donald Trump would win. However, in retrospect you could look back to 2014 and before and say that Donald Trump’s victory fulfilled of a number of events and factors that were building not only for two years but for eight or even for decades.

I’m not really interested in the political argument either way. I’m interested in an analogy to the Bible. You may have heard somewhere that there are 353 prophecies about Jesus in the Old Testament. (You may separately hear that 2000 biblical prophecies have been fulfilled.) Depending on how you use the word “prophecies” that number is either vastly overstated or understated. I wouldn’t say there are as many as 353 unmistakably specific predictions about Jesus in the Old Testament. But I would say that there are hundreds if not thousands of ways in which Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Testament.

The Old Testament and the Gospel are like my tweed sport coat, a fabric of interwoven threads that create warmth and their unique appearance only when left intact. If you start to pull threads out separately (like we sometimes do with the New Testament or Old Testament texts), you unravel and destroy the garment.

For the next four months, every sermon at Corinth will include a New Testament Scripture reading that makes a direct or indirect reference to an Old Testament story, name, or event. It won’t be hard to find examples. I have on my desk a 1200-page Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament the index of which includes 5000 +/- New Testament references cited somewhere in the book as being connected to the Old Testament.

Today’s Scripture is a great example. When the angel of the Lord says to Zechariah that his son “will go on before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah,” he doesn’t mean that Elijah himself predicted John the Baptist. If you read Malachi saying, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes,” he doesn’t mean that Malachi grasped the full meaning of John the Baptist.

What he means is this:  you cannot understand John without the story of Elijah, nor can you understand Elijah without the story of John. They are inseparable parts of one narrative. One explains the other.

Too many Christians avoid the Old Testament because they think it’s irrelevant or it takes too much work to understand. By contrast, World War II-era German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer said that a person who reads and connects only to the New Testament is “no Christian.”[1] The sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther said that the Old Testament is “the manger in which Christ lies”[2] – in other words, that the Old Testament is the cradle that contains Jesus. On the first Easter Sunday, Jesus himself told the disciples on the road to Emmaus that they were “foolish and slow of heart” not to see his life, death, and resurrection all over their own Scriptures (Luke 23:25).

When I was working on my Doctor of Ministry degree a decade ago at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Charlotte, I made the mistake one day of bringing to class a small New Testament. One of my professors, Tim Laniak, now serves as Dean of the seminary. At that time he was professor of Old Testament. When Dr. Laniak saw my “Bible” on my desk, he quipped, “I see you brought the appendix today.”

That may have been tongue-in-cheek, but Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Paul, and even Jesus would all agree that we cannot grasp the meaning of passage in the Gospels or New Testament letters without connecting them to Moses and the prophets.

God remembers

The two Scriptures we read this morning are the closest tie, chronologically speaking, between the two testaments. Malachi 4 is at the end of the Old Testament in your Bible, and it closes what we call the canon of the Old Testament. There were some writings preserved in the 400 years between Malachi and the announcement of John’s birth, but none of the so-called Apocryphal writings are Scripture according to both Jews and Protestant Christians. So we have a gap, sometimes called the “400 silent years.”

Among the four gospel writers, Luke starts the story of Jesus’ earthly life the earliest. He alone tells us about the angel’s announcement to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus, but he picks up the story even earlier than that. He starts with the announcement to the father of John the Baptist, a man named Zechariah.

After a brief prologue (Luke 1:1-4) Luke introduces us to Zechariah as a priest “who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah” (5). Luke tells us his wife Elizabeth was also from the priestly line, and that both of them “were upright in the sign of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly” (6). However, they had no children and were past child-bearing age (7).

All of this only makes sense if you have read the Old Testament. 1 Chronicles 24:1-19; 28:13 says that priestly work was organized into family groups a thousand years earlier, under King David. Zechariah’s name means, “God remembers.” His wife Elizabeth had the same name as Aaron’s wife (Exodus 6:23), a name meaning “My God is an oath” (i.e., keeps his promises faithfully). All their lives these two had honored everything they had been taught, and yet they had no children and no heirs – which in their culture was not only emotionally wrenching but cause for shame. That part of their story also connected them to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Rachel, Elkanah and Samuel, and others. But God remembers them; he keeps his promises.

Twice each day, a priest from the division on duty was chosen by lot (like throwing dice) to burn incense according to Exodus 30:7,8. This was such a rare honor that the overwhelming majority of priests were never chosen, and those who had the privilege were excluded from ever doing it again – to give others a chance. While he went inside, the other priests and pilgrims would pray in the temple court, the enclosed area off-limits except for Jewish men. As soon as the crowd outside saw the smoke from inside the holy place, they would fall face down and spread out their hands in prayer. Dead silence would follow for several minutes. This was Zechariah’s privilege in our story (8-10).

That moment on this day, however, was different for Zechariah inside the holy place. Luke says “the angel of the Lord” appeared (11). Once again a reader of the Old Testament immediately understands this is either God himself or a messenger so closely associated with God that the same response of awe and submission is called for.

Zechariah is terrified (11-12), as so many other Old Testament characters had been in the presence of God or his angels (Genesis 21:17; Exodus 15:16; Judges 6:22-23; 1 Samuel 4:20; 2 Samuel 6:9; Isaiah 6:5; Daniel 8:16-17). The angel informs him that he and Elizabeth will have a son named John (13) which means “The Lord is merciful.” This son will be a delight to his parents, will avoid strong drink like a Nazirite (Numbers 6), and will be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth (14-15). All of this is parallel to the birth announcement for the great transitional prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 1-2), and indicates a unique calling even above other prophets.

John’s role will be to “bring back (the people) to their God” (16). Then after all these allusions, we find the most direct reference to the Old Testament. John will “go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous – to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (17-18).

The story of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and John continues, and it’s fascinating, but let’s stop here. The sermon today (and the sermons ahead) are not so much about one New Testament story or about one Old Testament story as they are about how the Holy Spirit weaves together the two. It’s about how Elijah helps us understand John, how John helps us understand Elijah, and how both of them help us understand God and us.

John and Elijah

The story in Luke alludes directly to Malachi 4, without saying so directly and while intentionally altering the allusion to fit John the Baptist.

Malachi 4:5-6 Luke 1:17-18
See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah,
He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous –
or else I will come and strike the land with a curse. to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.


This passage could be connected to other Old Testament passages (Malachi 3:1; Isaiah 40:3; 2 Samuel 7:24), but the primary connection is Malachi 4. Malachi’s prophecy ends with the desire of God to avoid judgment. The new Elijah will avert the “great and dreadful day of the LORD.” God doesn’t want to “strike the land with a curse.”

Luke is writing not only 400+ years after Malachi, but a good 60 years or more after John’s birth and 30+ years after Jesus’ ascension. He knows that (a) all the people of Israel did not turn back to God or to each other, and (b) the judgment of God has not yet come. Jesus himself had connected John the Baptist to Elijah (Matthew 11:14; 17:12).

So how does John help us understand Elijah and vice-versa? In Elijah’s time, if you recall the stories, nothing significantly changed. Elijah wanted the people to turn back to God, but they didn’t. He expected them to turn back to true worship of the one true God, and even descended into deep depression because they didn’t. At the time he felt useless, burned out, disillusioned.

Elijah was a failure in his own eyes, but not in God’s eyes. There’s a huge lesson about Elijah you miss if you only study the Old Testament. The measure of your life is not in the moment. The meaning of a nation or an election cannot be seen only in the present. God is so much bigger than that. Be careful of over-interpreting either victories or defeats. Elijah had a powerful ministry of prayer and demonstration of God’s holiness and presence. God was doing so much more than holding back the rain, but the drought was the only effect people could see at the time.

This helps us understand John the Baptist as well. He lived for three decades in obscurity, perhaps among the Essenes for part of that time. When he did appear, he drew crowds, but only for a very brief time. Then he stepped aside to give the platform to Jesus. He tried to confront Herod the way Elijah had confronted Ahab. Elijah lived to tell the story. John was imprisoned for a while, then beheaded. His ministry also seemed like a failure. But he accomplished his mission, which was to point attention to Jesus. Humanly speaking, Jesus’ ministry would never have “taken off” if it hadn’t been for his cousin John.

And what was Jesus’ life and ministry all about? It was about providing a way for sins to be forgiven so that the judgment of God would be averted. That was Malachi’s prophecy – that “Elijah” would show up to give a way for the curse to be avoided.

The opposite of God’s heart

The specific point of contact between the prophecy of Malachi about Elijah and the prophecy of the angel about John lies in the phrase, “to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children….” Malachi adds, “…and the hearts of the children to their fathers,” and the angel’s announcement to Zechariah adds, “…and the wisdom of the disobedient to the righteous.”

How is it specifically that John’s ministry is to change the world? By turning hearts toward each other. God is interested not only in reconciliation with him but in reconciliation to others. This is all too easy to miss and how frequently we miss it.

We think we are supposed to get it right; God wants us to get it together. Faithful Jews through the centuries have written countless pages to explain in great detail how life should be lived according to the Torah, and they separate themselves from others who do not get it right. Christians tend to separate not over duty (though we sometimes do) but over doctrine – let’s make sure I can explain exactly what the Reformed church believes, or Baptist, or Catholic, or whatever, and why all the other ways of explaining faith are partly or utterly wrong. Whether it’s doctrine or duty, we invest enormous amounts of energy studying to prove others have it wrong.

That’s not all bad as long as we’re doing it together. It’s when we come to the place where we say (or even think) your behavior or your thinking is so bad that even though God accepts you I never will… and we separate over “irreconcilable differences” – that’s a betrayal of the Gospel by which we are accepted by God. When I create distance between myself and another believer, or myself and a family member, I am moving in the opposite direction of God’s heart for me.

Here’s how the Apostle Paul later phrases it: God “reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:18). The Corinthian church had closed their hearts to Paul and he pleaded with them to open the door again (6:11-13). God is very interested that our hearts be reconciled to himself, but the evidence of that reconciliation with God is reconciliation with others. He places us in the community of the flawed precisely so that we can learn to love as we have been loved, to forgive as we have been forgiven.

A good place to begin this Advent season is to examine your life for relationships that have been severed. If your response is, “You don’t know what they did to me,” then you haven’t yet fully embraced the Gospel of Jesus. If you say, “If they apologize first,” Jesus has more work to do in you. I didn’t say you’re not a believer, but I did say you don’t get Jesus yet. Not completely. There’s work to be done in you and through you.

It’s a gospel value, a deep gospel value. At the end of the day both Elijah and John the Baptist were about repairing broken hearts that had turned away from each other.

If there is any broken relationship in your life, perhaps one that has been exposed at Thanksgiving or by the election or anything else, God is speaking to you. The Holy Spirit is asking you to make the first move to open your heart toward reconciliation.

So I encourage you to ask three questions. First, to whom is my heart closed? Second, what’s the next step? Third, who can help? This Advent season is a great time to open your heart to restore those relationships as you prepare to welcome Jesus afresh into your life. Amen.

[1] Quoted in Richard B. Hays, Reading Backwards, 6.

[2] Hays, 1.

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