Today’s Gospel begins in a rather interesting way. Notice what the Holy Spirit does through St. Luke: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar--while Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene--during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas… It sounds like a bit of an ancient history lesson. The names of these rulers and these areas may not sound like much to us. To the first Christians that heard St. Luke’s gospel, they obviously meant something. But except for the big names that we heard of--Tiberius Caesar, and, because of the Gospels, Pontius Pilate, Herod and maybe Annas and Caiaphas--these names mean nothing to us. But notice what the Holy Spirit is doing by having St. Luke mention these names and places: He is grounding St. John the Baptizer and thus Jesus to a certain time and place. This is very important because Christianity is a historical religion. Christianity is not a philosophy where Jesus and His life and works do not matter. No! At the very heart and core of the holy Christian faith are concrete historical events--the suffering, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. Here is the foundation of our faith. The very fact of His preaching and His miracles--events that happened at a certain time and place--show us exactly who Jesus is. Without the historical events, there is no Christianity. If Christianity were merely some sort of philosophy of how to make it through this life, then the events like Jesus’ life and work, suffering and death wouldn’t matter as long as we followed some sort of thought/ philosophy that He espoused; then there wouldn’t be any need for a historical Jesus. But Christianity is a historical religion. That’s what St. Luke, the historian, drives home to us here.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar--while Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was tetrarch of Galilee... also drives home to us a very important point of theology--God became also true man and truly came, lived, walked on this earth. That’s what the season of Advent prepares us for and points us to: the incarnation; the eternal God at a certain time and certain place became a true human being in order to be our Savior. God is not a God who is “out there” somewhere with little interest and concern about us here; God is not a God who made the world, set up its laws of physics, etc. and then just stepped back and let everything run like a well oiled machine. No! God is actively involved in His creation. He Himself entered this creation--entered it in all its muck and mire; suffered the worst of the worst, all for us and our salvation--He entered it at a certain place and time: In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar--while Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod was tetrarch of Galilee... The point is this: never think of Jesus/ God as simply out there; never think of Him as One who cannot know what you are going through/ how difficult life on this planet is. No! He’s been there and He’s done that. Again, the reason for His first Advent/ His coming in the days of Herod, the king of Judea when a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered [when] Quirinius was governing Syria, was to be our Savior from sin, death, devil and hell [Lk. 1.5; 2.1,2]. God truly became man.
Today’s Gospel brings us to one of the main themes of Advent: repentance, as we are introduced today to one of the main characters of Advent: St. John the Baptizer. He was the one who was prophesied by several OT prophets. As St. Luke tells us in our Gospel that John is a voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord!... and in today’s OT reading from St. Malachi, the last of the OT prophets, He records the prophecy/ and words of the Son of God: Look! I am sending My messenger! He will prepare the way before Me. St. John prepared that way for Jesus by preaching repentance and baptism. With that repentance, every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be made low. The crooked will become straight, and the rough ways smooth. When we are brought to repentance, that is, when we recognize our sin and that our sin earns us nothing but God’s eternal wrath and punishment so that we long for a Savior from sin, then the way is prepared; then the Lord’s path is made straight--and there St. John/ the Gospel points us to Jesus: [Jn. 1.29] Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
The season of Advent gives us the opportunity to hear the call of St. John the Baptizer to repent once again and to take a close look at our heart, conscience and life to recognize our sin, to sorrow over our sin and to look for and long for a Savior from those sins--a Savior who came into this world, born that first Christmas. Although we often think of repentance as some sort of great dreary drudgery, it does us good to hear what it really is/ to hear the gracious invitation God gives us when He calls on us to repent--be it through our troubled conscience gnawing away with guilt, be it by taking the holy Ten Commandments in hand and like a mirror looking at our lives closely in them. The gracious, inviting words of God calling/ inviting us to repent? --That we find in our text: Return to Me, and I will return to you. The command: Return to Me; and the promise: and I will return to you.
Let’s look at that promise in the context of our OT reading today. Shortly before we hear the Lord: I will approach you to judge you. I will be quick to give testimony against those who practice occult arts, those who commit adultery, those who swear false oaths, those who cheat workers out of their wages, those who wrong a widow and a fatherless child, those who turn away a resident alien--all those who do not fear Me, says the Lord of Armies.
And then notice what the Lord says right after that: Certainly I, the LOrd, do not change. God does not change. He is absolutely holy and just; because He is holy and righteous, He sets His threats against the unrepentant sinner; a holy God must punish sin. That’s why the command to repent; that’s why the Lord sends St. John the Baptizer; that’s why He still calls on us today to repent of our sin. If we don’t repent of our sin and seek the Lord’s forgiveness in Christ, He must condemn us eternally in hell. That’s how serious our sin is!
The thing is, God did not change. Certainly I, the LOrd, do not change. He was not some strict God in the OT who would strike and punish sin at a drop of the hat, but now in the NT times, He is kinder and gentler, like an old doting grandfather. It’s not like now He simply winks at sin or regards it as no big deal. Sin is still sin; our sin is still damning. Certainly I, the LOrd, do not change. Even though our age today does not take sin seriously, even denying that there is such a thing as sin, God does not listen to the world. He is a holy and righteous God who must and does punish sin. Especially today we must hear the Lord’s call to repent. We must recognize the voice of the world downplaying and denying sin, changing the definition of what is sin--we must recognize it for the voice it is--the devil’s. Certainly I, the LOrd, do not change.
It is difficult to confess our sins/ to recognize the reality: that we have lived for ourselves, doing our will not the Lord’s, placing ourselves and our desires supreme not God; that we are too weak and unable to do the good things we should. What God spoke to the Israelites through St. Malachi almost 2500 years ago still applies to each of us today: Since the days of your fathers, you have turned aside from My statutes and have not kept them. The entire history of Israel is a record of departing, rebelling against God’s ordinances. If each of us honestly looks at him/herself, are our lives much better? Aren’t we used to sinning--perhaps even to the point of no longer regarding our sin as sin, overlooking or excusing it? That’s why the call of Advent; that’s why the call of St. John the Baptizer to us still today: Prepare the way of the Lord! Make His paths straight. We, too, walk in directions opposite of how they should be--we have all turned aside from My statutes and have not kept them. We need to hear God’s gracious command to us sinners this Advent--and every day-- Return to Me; and also His glorious promise to us repentant sinners: and I will return to you.
There is a very fascinating line the Lord speaks in our text. Right after telling the Israelites about the judgment for their sin, the Lord says: Certainly I, the LOrd, do not change. Yes! Emphasizing certainly His holiness and righteousness. That doesn’t change. He is unchangeably holy and just and must punish sin. But what are the next words out of His mouth? That is why you, sons of Jacob, have not come to an end. That's the opposite of what they/ we would expect. We’d expect something like because the Lord is unchangeably holy the Israelites would come to an end; the Lord would wipe them out because of their continued sin and rebellion. But He doesn’t--just the opposite is true because the Lord does not change; because He doesn’t change, He has mercy on them and preserves them. The point is this: God’s unalterable holiness and justice do not cancel or interfere with His unchanging grace and mercy. Just as much as God’s statement is strictest preaching of His Law--He is the holy God who must punish sin: Certainly I, the LOrd, do not change, so also is that very same statement the sweetest preaching of the Gospel to us: Certainly I, the LOrd, do not change, because it means He didn’t change His gracious promise to send a Savior from sin. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas--God’s fulfillment of His promise to the OT faithful to send a Savior from sin into the world, who would be a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Because God doesn’t change, we can go to Him in repentance and faith. In fact, the whole basis of our repentance is on the fact that God does not change, that we can rely on His grace and mercy/ His word and promise to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Certainly I, the LOrd, do not change. What glorious comfort! What an anchor we can hold on to. Both things are absolutely and unalterably true: God is both holy and just and also gracious and merciful. That doesn’t change. So, yes, our sin is very serious and worthy of God damning us for it, as a holy and just God is; but His grace and mercy stand unchanging.
That’s why He called to the Israelites in Malachi’s day, that’s why He called to people down through the ages, and that’s why He continues to call to us today again and especially in this Advent season: Return to Me, and I will return to you. As a holy God who must punish sin, God doesn’t have to give us the chance to repent; but as a gracious and merciful God He is long-suffering and pleads with us, commanding us Return to Me, and promising/ enticing us: and I will return to you. As the God of unchangeable grace, He is sincere and wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth; as He said through the prophet St. Ezekiel [33.11]: As I live, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Now is the time of our Lord’s long-suffering; now is the time of His grace when He calls us to repent. He calls us to repent precisely so He can shower us with the abundance of His blessings to us in Christ. Return to Me. We return to the Lord in repentance--when we recognize our sins, sorrow over them, turn away from them and put our trust in Jesus and HIs saving work--that He took our sins with Him to the cross, died for them there--enduring God’s wrath over our sin-- and reconciling us to Him. And I will return to you. Here as our unchanging Lord returns to us, He gives us the forgiveness of our sin, eternal life, opens heaven to us. He gives us His Holy Spirit who guides and leads us into a life of faith, love and good works. Yes, our sin is a serious thing: Return to Me; but just as serious is our Lord’s grace: and I will return to you. INJ