Advent Through the Eyes of John, Part 3

Malachi 3:1-4Luke 1:57-80

Is the cup half full or half empty?

We all know this familiar way of testing whether we’re optimistic or pessimistic, whether we tend to look on the bright side or the dark side. In college, I majored in history, and this question was one that predominated in our late night deeply profound conversations (or at least we thought they were deeply profound) about the course of history. My roommate and I would stay up to the wee hours discussing the full scope of centuries and whether humanity was moving forward or backward. It always seemed to boil down to how we might answer the question of the cup: is it half full, or is it half empty?

So which is it for you: is it the water, or the air that wins in this struggle? Are you an optimist, or a pessimist? Let’s do a quick internal test on the question, using that example of human history. Are we progressing, or regressing? Is the overall movement of the past few centuries one that has us moving forward, or backward?

If you’re an optimist, you might be drawn to those clear moments where good has triumphed over evil: the elimination of slavery in much of the world, the many victories of equal rights in our own country, the collapse of Apartheid South Africa, the destruction of the Berlin Wall. It’s not naïveté. We are not perfect. But things are certainly better than they were.

If you’re a pessimist, you might simply turn on your televisions. There is war abroad and rampant terrorism. Violence plagues our own communities. Sexual and environmental responsibilities are continually degraded. How could you possibly say that things are on the upswing? We are surely going to hell in a hand basket.

The fact is that history is far more complex of a process, where progress and regress always seem to be struggling with one another with humanity caught in the middle. History is a movement where status quo for some, if not for all, is not a realistic option. And our view of things likely has more to do with our assumptions about the world and the way it works than it has to do with a cold study of facts and figures.

But in this bifurcated world of bifurcated choices, which is it for you? Is the cup half full, or half empty?

I’m struck looking at our two lessons this morning how this same struggle, the battle between reasons to celebrate and reasons to weep, seems to predominate. In Malachi, we begin with the anonymous prophet whose name means “my messenger.” We know very little about him or her, but we can guess some things about the time in which the book was written. The Hebrew people have returned from exile and the Temple has been rebuilt. Certainly there is reason to celebrate. Their slavery has ended. They have returned to the land for which they longed, the land of their ancestors. The focal point of their faith, the sanctuary of the Lord, exists once again to receive their prayers and sacrifices.

But it seems that Malachi might be a “cup half empty” kind of preacher: the priests are corrupt, offering cheap sacrifices. The people have completely lost sight of the fact that it is God who has brought them back. What the people need, in the eyes of Malachi, is cleansing. They need the purification of fire, the sanitization of good ol’ soap. It is filth that predominates.

The work of cleansing waits for the Lord’s messenger. And it is this messenger for whom the people wait in hopeful expectation. He is the messenger who will usher in the era of the Messiah, that time of cleansing that is so desperately needed. Malachi speaks to the distress of the current time, but he also offers the hope of different times ahead.

If you followed along in your pew Bible this morning, you may have noticed that it is Malachi who gets to close out the Old Testament. And in the Hebrew Bible, it is this same anonymous prophet whose words are the last of the prophets. And so, his words are given this space of echo, moving on into the silence between Testaments, of pages yet to be written and history still unfolding.

And so, this centuries-old longing of the Hebrew prophet preaching out in the middle of history continues to linger until aging Elizabeth and Zechariah come along, now awaiting not only the birth of a child, but knowing that he will be the one of whom Malachi spoke. His destiny is set, to be the one to prepare the way of the Lord, to stand in the wilderness and forge crooked paths into straight roads.

And all of this comes, once again, in the middle of the conflicts of history. The Temple still stands, and the people flock to offer their prayers and sacrifices, but it is a Roman Occupation that rules the day. The people remain in their beloved land, able to cultivate their inheritance, but they have made deals with the devil to be there, playing the roles of corrupt tax collectors and petty kings. There is violence and slaughter, warfare and fear. There is also celebration and rejoicing, community and faith. The cup remains half full – or is it half empty? It is a time, not unlike our own, in desperate need of hope. It is a time that yearns for the promise of which Gabriel spoke to Mary and Joseph, to Elizabeth and Zechariah.

Surely Elizabeth and Zechariah are pleased, knowing that this ancient longing of the people will finally be satisfied. And surely they are terrified, knowing that their son is to be the awaited messenger, knowing what fate awaits the prophet who speaks with the voice of the Lord.

All of this is becomes clear in the question about this new baby’s name. The community prefers Zechariah, his father’s name, which means “God remembers.” It is a name that looks back to the time of Malachi and its longing, continuing back into an ancient history of aching and yearning. Gabriel has chosen John, which means “God shows mercy.” It is a name that looks forward, which describes God’s character of faithfulness and grace. Elizabeth makes it clear that she wishes this name for her newborn. And it is at the naming of his child that Zechariah finally demonstrates his faith in God’s promises, setting loose the muteness of his earlier doubt. “His name is John.”

There is something in this all that speaks beyond the simple question of pessimism and optimism to a whole different framework. And in this framework, God intervenes into human history, offering a promise of hope – not better days ahead, not bleak promises of destruction, but hope.

It is a promise that I find in the words of a great saint named Will Ormond. Some of you here will remember Dr. Ormond who spent so many years as a professor at Columbia Seminary. When he moved from Decatur to Brookhaven, he attended our Sunday morning worship regularly. A few years before his death, Dr. Ormond published a sermon collection. The one I’d like to read was first preached in 1972 at Columbia. It is a sermon that reflects on this struggle between Elizabeth and Zechariah and their community over what to name their child. And it says far better than I ever could what it might be that God promises meant for them and continue to mean for us.

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Is the cup half full, or is it half empty? Maybe it’s not even the right question to ask. It does seem to me that there is this promise of hope that intrudes on our optimistic and pessimistic attitudes alike, reminding us that God is still at work in the Church and in the world. It challenges us pessimists with the possibility that there might just be something worthwhile in what is to come. And it challenges us optimists by refusing to overlook the reasons for despair and hopelessness. It is not a naïve hope, because it takes very seriously the fact that humanity is capable of great ill. It is not a purely realistic hope, either, because it gives light to a new way of being that shatters darkness and reminds us that God continues to show mercy in the middle of unfolding human history.

Is the cup half full, or is it half empty? Or is it that we know that next Sunday there will be another cup without us ever having to ask?

sermonsMarthame Sanders