After Malachi Before Matthew: Long Silences and ChristmasHolidays, Religion — By Kent Reister on December 13, 2013 at 8:00 am
The Harvest is past, summer is ended and we are not saved. –Jeremiah 8:20
A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. – Isaiah 40:3
When I was growing up I was always picked to play a shepherd in the manger scene. I’m a red headed, Caucasian male with not a drop of blood tracing back to the Holy Land, but I could stand still and be quiet (more or less) so I was perfect for the part. Luke 2 was a favorite chapter to act out during grade school Christmas programs, and for the past two decades, on every first Sunday of December I’ve watched the lighting of the first candle of Advent. From a young age I’ve performed rituals that cultivate anticipation.
Growing up I sang lots of Christmas carols about the coming of Christ, but never about the four hundred years of silence previous to his arrival. There was an emphasis on preparedness for Christ’s coming into the world, but there is a significant difference between anticipation for the month of December and waiting four hundred years. How long can you anticipate something without an intermittent status report or confirmation? What is it like to live in four centuries of silence?
I imagine my ancient ancestors, who didn’t anticipate a Messiah, were more familiar with silence then I am. I live in a world where expectation is celebrated every year for itself. Every Sunday the church is preaching, teaching, and singing about God’s love, his works, and his promises for the future. What would it be like for it all that to gradually go silent? And how long does it take for silence to encourage doubt—for it to make me rush to something talkative and loud? Israel once begged Moses for God to not speak to them “lest they should die.” But how long does he remain silent before you feel the anticipation of non existence?
Emmanuel –God with us—hasn’t always been a comfortable concept. “God with us” was a terrifying reality when Israel stood before Mt. Sinai. It was probably a distant memory for the anointed King David when he roamed the wilderness as an outlaw. For Ahab it was a rouge curse as Elijah cut the throats of the prophets of Baal in the light of heavenly fire. Emmanuel is a heavy reality—inviting a submission that can’t be volunteered by a hardened heart, and the obedient are always driven by Kings and nations into the wild places of the land. As Spurgeon says “men will allow God to be everywhere but on his throne.”
Throughout the Old Testament Israel’s remnant is pushed into the margins; sometimes the wilderness or as some exiled minority in a foreign city. When this happened Jerusalem became their orientation—it was the city of the temple, the place where God met with man. Inside the Holy of Holies God’s presence dwelled until it was pushed by disobedience into the tongues of the prophets. They prophesied to the nation and were killed by the nation. Zachariah is killed between the altar and the sanctuary. The reader finishes the fourth chapter of Malachi and then it goes quiet.
Four hundred years, roughly the same amount of time between Joseph and Moses. This would have been similar to the generations of Israelite slaves who slowly forgot the God of Jacob as they sweat under the whips of the Pharaoh. This would be four hundred years of building a nation that isn’t their own and giving birth to slave children threatened by population control. Four hundred years in subjection to Egyptian gods, Egyptian rule, and Egyptian scorn with no word from God.
Malachi stops writing and the situations are similar. Israel never regains sovereignty from foreign nations and is swapped between the Gentile kingdoms of the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans. Four hundred years—the excruciating pause before Incarnation.
From the barren places of the earth God sends a wild man. John the Baptist emerges—the voice of the nation’s remnant. As if the marginalized, abused presence of God in Israel was shaking with impatience John jumps out of the wilderness with a voice loud enough to be heard across the divide of four centuries. A voice so loud and direct that it could be heard through the span of history, from the ears of Moses to Elijah to the Jew under the Romans washing for repentance in the Jordan River. The spirit of the slain righteous shouts the culmination of their prophecies—the flesh blood reality of Emmanuel.
“He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate was crucified dead and buried. On the third day he rose from the dead: he ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty…”
There he sits. We wait one season at a time as creation groans. We anticipate and suffer in silence. We light the candles and count out the years, knowing that when he comes, it will be exactly at the right time.