Sunday, September 18, 2016

Preparing the Way (Part One: the Back Story)

“It was a dark and stormy night.”1 “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”2 The first sentences of a book are often interesting. What words does the author choose? What is the intent and how does the author grab the audience’s attention? In Mark’s New Testament gospel, his first sentence simply states “The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The word “gospel” can be translated as “good news” or a “good story.” “Jesus” means “the Lord saves” and “Christ” is another term for “Messiah” or “The Anointed One.”3 So, in other words, Mark is saying to his readers: Settle in, because I am about to tell you a very good story about God’s son, the one he chose and sent to save us.

Then he begins his story with a quote from the Bible’s Old Testament: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.” (Malachi 3:1). This quote is from Malachi, a prophet that lived long before Jesus’ life on earth. Though Malachi’s book is the last one in the Old Testament and only a few pages long, its small size packs a big punch. And it is oddly applicable to today’s world.

Malachi addresses the people of Israel. The Israelites are fed up. They are grumbling, discontent with life and have a few complaints lodged against God. God hears their grievances and offers his answers via Malachi in an interesting question and answer session. 

          The Israelites first ask: We honor God, cry out to him, offer sacrifices, pray, and yet he doesn’t listen to us. God doesn’t respond. Why?

God addresses their concern, but also draws attention to their spiritual condition: You say you honor me, but it is with your leftovers. You save the best of your flock for yourselves and give me the diseased and unwanted animals. You treat your offering as if it is a burden to you, and give it with contempt. The Israelites called out to God and wanted him to answer their prayers, but they were praying out of selfishness, and to feed their own greed. They wanted God’s blessing, but their lives did not honor him (Chapters 1-2).

Then the Israelites file a second complaint against God: There is no justice in the world. Evil people get away with doing evil and God does nothing.

God answers: I am coming to take care of this myself. I will visit the earth. First I will send a messenger to prepare for my visit [as referred by Mark], and “then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple” (3:1). Then God adds a caveat: But you who are asking for judgement, beware, because I will judge, but I will start with you. My coming will be like a “refiner’s fire” and a “launderer’s soap” (3:2). God will judge injustice, but he starts in the depths of each person’s being. In the hidden places he finds deceit, cheating, fraud, oppression, lack of empathy and prejudice. And he responds: there is a better way, but you will have to let me start with you and change your heart (3:5-6).

The Israelites counter: What is the point of following God? How does it benefit us?

God responds: I listen and hear those who love me. They are my “treasured possession,” and of great value to me. I love my people, care for them, and though this life is filled with mourning, the day will come when “for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall” (4:1). A time of restoration, peace and joy is coming.

Malachi ends his book with the promise, again, of a messenger to come, a messenger that will arrive before God’s visit, to get ready the hearts of his people. Those are the last few words of the last book of the Old Testament, and they leave the Israelites waiting for the arrival of God’s messenger. Several hundred years pass, and then Mark starts his story: Settle in, because I am about to tell you a very good story about God’s son, the one he chose and sent to save us. It starts with God’s messenger, sent to prepare the way.

 Next time: Preparing the Way Part 2, The Messenger.


1 Edward Bulwer-Lytton, Paul Clifford; Snoopy, It Was a Dark and Stormy Night; and many, many others.

2 Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

3The NIV Study Bible 10th Anniversary Edition (Copyright Ó 1995 by Zondervan Publishing House) NIV notes from Matthew 1:16 & 21, and study notes from Mark 1:1.

All photos courtesy of

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