I Will Send My Messenger
Some four hundred years before a bright star hung over a baby boy in Bethlehem, the word of the Lord came to the prophet Malachi. Israel had returned from exile; and even reconstructed the Temple, but the Temple seemed just a shell of its former glory.
The Lord had his grievances; he was none too pleased with Israel.
Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! (Malachi 3:8, NRSV)
If then I am a father, where is the honor due me? And if I am a master, where is the respect due me? (Malachi 1:6, NRSV)
When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? (Malachi 1:8, NRSV)
And Israel wasn't repentant, either. She had her own list.
How have you loved us? (Malachi 1:2, NRSV)
How have we despised your name? (Malachi 1:6, NRSV)
How have we polluted [your name]? (Malachi 1:7, NRSV)
How have we wearied [the Lord]? (Malachi 2:17, NRSV)
How are we robbing you? (Malachi 3:8, NRSV)
How have we spoken against you? (Malachi 3:13, NRSV)
But her most acute question was “Just where is the God of justice?” In other words, "We have returned from exile, and we have rebuilt your Temple. Just where is the glory of the restoration you promised us? We've seen none of it."
Behold, the Lord God will come with strong hand, and his arm will rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and he shall gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:10–11)
God answered in his word to Malachi.
Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple. . . . Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse. (Malachi 3:1; 4:5, 6)
After the baby boy had grown into a man, and Israel had more or less forgotten all about Malachi, a man appeared on the banks of the Jordan river. He wore a tunic of camel hair with a leather belt. He looked odd, but the resemblance was unmistakeable.
In these days came John the Baptist . . . and the same John had his raiment of camel’s hair, and a leather girdle about his loins; and his meat was locusts and wild honey. (Matthew 3:1, 3)
Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice in his upper chamber in Samaria, and lay injured; so he sent messengers, telling them, Go, inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this injury. But the angel of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, "Get up, go to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say to them, 'Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?' Now therefore thus says the Lord, 'You shall not leave the bed to which you have gone, but you shall surely die.'" So Elijah went.
The messengers returned to the king, who said to them, "Why have you returned?" They answered him, "There came a man to meet us, who said to us, 'Go back to the king who sent you, and say to him: Thus says the Lord: Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you shall not leave the bed to which you have gone, but shall surely die.'" He said to them, "What sort of man was he who came to meet you and told you these things?" They answered him, "A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist." He said, "It is Elijah the Tishbite." (2 Kings 1:2–8, NRSV)
Yahweh’s forerunner Elijah—the one Malachi prophesied of, the one who would prepare the way for him to come to his Temple—was down by the river.
Repent ye! For the kingdom of heaven has drawn near! Prepare ye the way of the Lord and make his paths straight! (Matthew 3:2, 3)
The Israelites knew this preaching. It was straight out of Isaiah’s prophecies about the great restoration, the glorious return from exile that Yahweh had promised his people.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to to
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord's hand
double [the equivalent] for all her sins.
A voice cries out in the wilderness,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all the people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
(Isaiah 40:2–5, NRSV)
Yahweh was coming back to his temple all right. And the Israelites went out to John in droves, confessing their sins, begging him to baptize them.
There went out to him Jerusalem, and all Judea, and all the region about Jordan, and were baptized of him in Jordan, confessing their sins. (Matthew 3:5,6)
But it wasn’t just Israelites who were coming to repentance. Gentiles [Pagans] too, anxious of the God of Israel’s imminent return, lined up to be baptized.
Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, “Master, what shall we do?” And he said to them, "Exact no more than that which is appointed you." And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, “And what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely: and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:12–14)
This was in fulfillment of that part of Isaiah’s prophecy that all flesh—not just the Israelites—would see the salvation of the Lord (see Luke 3:6, quoting Isaiah 40:5).
Repentant Israelites and pagans weren't the only ones coming out to John's baptisms. Pharisees and Sadducees were, too. They didn't come to be baptized. They were out to investigate this so-called prophet.
And Jesus answered and said unto them, I will also ask of you one question, and answer me, and I will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John, was it from heaven, or of men? answer me.
And they reasoned with themselves, saying, If we shall say, From heaven, he will say, Why then did ye not believe him? But if we shall say, Of men; they feared the people: for all men counted John, that he was a prophet indeed. And they answered and said unto Jesus, We cannot tell. (Mark 11:29–33a)
Seeing them, John exploded out of the water like a blitzkrieg, and dressed them down. "You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come!?!"
* * *
John, what's with the vitriol? These are Jews, God's chosen people, your people. You of all people should know that.
For he shall be great in the sight of the Lord . . . and he shall be filled with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb. (Luke 1:15)
What was behind John's scathing rebuke? We understand from later scriptures that the Pharisees didn’t want to believe that he was a true prophet of Israel. But what was back of their disbelief? The answer lies in Jonah, that prophet whose in-the-belly-of-the-whale story has been the fodder of more than a few Sunday school cartoons.