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God Prepares The Way

Malachi 2:17-3:5
17 You have wearied the LORD with your words.
“How have we wearied him?” you ask.
By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the LORD, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”

Malachi 3

1 “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.

2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.

5 “So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.

Good News and Bad News

Two 90-year-old women, Rose and Barb, had been friends all of their lives. When it was clear that Rose was dying, Barb visited her every day. One day Barb said, “Rose, we both loved playing softball all our lives, and we played all through High School. Please do me one favor: when you get to Heaven, somehow you must let me know if there’s women’s softball there.”

Rose looked up at Barb from her deathbed and said, “Barb, you’ve been my best friend for many years. If it’s at all possible, I’ll do this favor for you.” Shortly after that, Rose passed on.

At midnight a few nights later, Barb was awakened from a sound sleep by a blinding flash of white light and a voice calling out to her, “Barb, Barb.”

“Who is it?” asked Barb, sitting up suddenly. “Who is it?”

“Barb, it’s me, Rose.”

“You’re not Rose. Rose just died.”

“I’m telling you, it’s me, Rose,” insisted the voice.

“Rose! Where are you?”

“In Heaven,” replied Rose. “I have some really good news and a little bad news.”

“Tell me the good news first,” said Barb.

“The good news,” Rose said, “is that there’s softball in Heaven. Better yet all of our old buddies who died before us are here, too. Better than that, we’re all young again. Better still, it’s always springtime, and it never rains or snows. And best of all, we can play softball all we want, and we never get tired.”

“That’s fantastic,” said Barb. “It’s beyond my wildest dreams! So what’s the bad news?”

“You’re pitching on Tuesday.”  (courtesy yelp.com)

Of course, that’s a silly way to start a sermon, but it helps us to get some perspective on the text we read for today.  The actual lectionary text is Malachi 3:1-4.  But, if you read that part of the text, which is right in the middle of a speech that the prophet Malachi is giving, you only get the good news.

Malachi’s news was that God is sending a messenger to prepare the way, and that the Lord is suddenly coming to his temple.

Now, that sounds like good news.  But, when you know why God is coming to his temple, that’s the bad news — God is coming to sort things out, to refine and purify, to judge and to set right everything that’s wrong.  And, of course, a big part of what’s wrong is with the people of God.

The back story to Malachi is this —

  • A rival group of priests have taken over the temple ministry, wrenching it from the descendants of the first priest, Levi.
  • As a result, life among the people of God is not good.
  • They have lowered the standards of worship so that now they sacrifice the worst of the flocks instead of the best.
  • The new priests have betrayed both God and the community by changing the standards, relaxing the teaching, and profaning their office.
  • The people have responded to this lack of leadership by dishonoring their marriages and stealing from God.
  • But, they also complain about the way things are, asking “Where is God?”  as though God were not looking out after them.

So, God sends the prophet Malachi about 450 years before the birth of Jesus to say “God is coming, but before God comes, he’s sending someone to prepare the way for his coming.”

The Coming of God To The People of God

When we think of Christmas, when we look forward during Advent to the coming of the Christ, we seldom think of God’s coming in judgment.  And, we even less often think that we’re the ones God is coming to judge.

But in the first century, as in Malachi’s day 450-years before Christ, the religious system was corrupt, the priests were on the payroll of the pagan Roman empire, the religious leaders were an extension of the politics of Rome, and worship in the Temple was ritualistic and meaningless.

Okay, we get that part, but why should we be wary of the “good news and bad news” of God’s coming?  After all, we’re not Pharisees or chief priests and we aren’t part of the evil Roman empire.  Why should we be concerned?

We are God’s people.  We are the community of the one true God.  When God comes, He comes to his own, he comes to God’s own people.

Let me back up a bit.  One of the things that God through Malachi accuses the people of is betraying the covenant with God.

It starts with God’s love.  In Malachi 1:2, Malachi says —

“I have loved you, says the Lord.”

So, the community of faith begins with God’s love.  God loved and called Abraham and made a promise to be Abraham’s God, and to make Abraham the father of a great nation.  That nation in turn would be blessed, and was then to be a blessing to the whole world.

So, God has a lot at stake in his relationship with the nation of Israel.  They are God’s plan for the future, for the salvation of the world.  And, God expected that they would follow him, obey him, and love him in return.  The 10 Commandments and the other laws of the Torah were to given, not to punish the people of God, but to distinguish them from all other peoples and nations on the earth.

So, God’s people were to

  • Worship Yahweh, God, only, and not worship idols or other gods.
  • Respect the name of God, and not invoke it lightly or profanely.
  • Take one day out of seven to give to God.
  • Honor their parents.
  • Not murder.
  • Be faithful in their marriages.
  • Not steal.
  • Not give false witness or testimony.
  • Not covet anything anyone else had.

These laws, this new code of ethics, was unheard of in the very primitive and pagan world of Moses.  Power was the rule of the day, and it was not unusual for the powerful to have their wives, their parents, or their families killed at a whim.  Not to mention taking by force what was not theirs, and so on.

The 10 Commandments distinguised God’s people from all other people of that day.

So, when God shows up, He shows up where His people are.  God showed up to provide a sacrifice for Abraham, so that Isaac would be spared.  God showed up for Moses when he and Aaron appeared before Pharaoh.  God showed up to preserve the Israelites through the Exodus experience.

Then, as they are on their way to the land of promise, God shows up to lead them, and to dwell among them in the Tabernacle first, and later the Temple.

God then shows up in the form of the judges, such as Samuel to guide the nation.  He shows up to select Saul, and then David, as King.  He shows up to guide the nation, but always calling His people to faithfulness, and dealing with their unfaithfulness when necessary.

God shows up and speaks through the prophets when the nation forgets Him.  And then, God sends John the Baptist to prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Christ to God’s people.

God comes to His people out of love, but not with lenience.  It is important that the people of God fulfill the mission of God, which is to save the world.  So, when God comes, he always comes to His people.

God Comes To His People For A Purpose and With A Mission

So, the first thing we need to learn about looking for the coming of God during Advent, is that God comes to His people.

The second thing we need to know is that God isn’t just dropping in to say “hello.”  God has a purpose for showing up, and a mission to accomplish.

God’s purpose is to preserve the community begun with Abraham that is to be the salvation of the world.

We are now that community.  Of course, we’re not alone.  There are millions of us — over 1-billion to be exact — who have named the name of Jesus Christ as our own.

And, we as God’s people are gathered in an extraordinary variety of communities.  From those who claim to be the descendants of King David in Ethiopia, to pentecostals in Africa and South America, to Chinese Christians meeting in thousands of clandestine house churches, to expressions of faith most familiar to us as Americans — we are all God’s people.

But what is it that precedes God sending someone to prepare the way for God’s coming?  It is this statement in Malachi 2:17 —

You have wearied the LORD with your words.
“How have we wearied him?” you ask.
By saying, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the LORD, and he is pleased with them” or “Where is the God of justice?”

Here’s the problem:  God’s people think they know more about how God should do his job than God does.
In Malachi’s day they were wearing God out with their complaints.  Those complaints were that God didn’t see things like they saw them. That God wasn’t judging everyone else harshly enough.
In other words, God’s people had grown so accustomed to the privilege of being God’s people, that they thought they knew more than God about how things ought to be handled.
The Problem With Arrogance

So, in short, God’s people have a problem with arrogance.  They have all the answers, they know that God isn’t doing what God ought to be about certain types of people, and because their society doesn’t favor them, they complain not just to God, but about God.
Now, here is where this gets really difficult.  Because the problems God’s people had in Malachi’s day and in the first century, are problems God’s people still have today.  Let’s go through the list found in Malachi 3:5.  This is what God is going to do when He comes:
“So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.
  • He’s going to bear witness against the sorcerers. This doesn’t mean burn your Harry Potter books.  Sorcery, in Malachi’s day, was calling on the power of something other than the God of Israel.  Idolatry and idol worship in another form.  Two commandments that begin the agreement of God with God’s people.
  • God will testify against the adulterers and perjurers.  I don’t want to pick on Tiger Woods here, but he’s the latest example of celebrity “transgressions” as he put it.  A writer this week said we used to call “transgressions” sin.  But, that’s not really my point here.  My point is that the people of God break their covenant agreements with each other, and 2 of the 10 commandments in the process.  God’s people aren’t living according to their agreement with God to be different.
  • God will testify against those who defraud the hired workers in their wages, who oppress widows and orphans, and who “thrust aside the alien.” In other words, God’s people are not only not taking care of the worker, the widow, the orphan, and the alien, they are taking advantage of them.    God is always on the side of the poor and the weak.  Always.  Write that down.  Always.  No exceptions.  That’s why we have the story of the Good Samaritan, the strong story of the sheep and the goats, the story of Jesus healing, eating with, and ministering to the outcasts of society.
Let me put it this way. The coming of God in the form of baby Jesus should be a time for us to examine our own lives and see if we are living our lives differently than the rest of the world.
That means that we don’t rely on the power of the stock market or international economics, but we look to God.  That means that we keep our commitments to our families, our spouses, and tell the truth in all our dealings.  Those things are corny and old-fashioned, and there are new examples every week of celebrities, sports figures, politicians, and movie stars who violate those values.  But we are the people of God, we are the contrast society, we are the ones different from all the world.
God Prepares The Way
In Malachi 4:5-6, the last two verses of Malachi, God says —

Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.  — Malachi 4:5-6 NRSV

So, the preparation for the coming of the Lord is receiving the word of the Lord from the messenger of the Lord, which heals the most basic of relationships.  In theological terms, we call this “reconciliation” — making peace between one party and another.  In other words, remembering what we are supposed to be with those closest to us because of God’s covenant with us.

Madeleine L’Engle has this to say about remembering who we are supposed to be —

“When spring-fed Dog Pond warms up enough for swimming, which usually isn’t until June, I often go there in the late afternoon.  Sometimes I will sit on a sun-warmed rock to dry, and think of Peter walking across the water to meet Jesus.  As long as he didn’t remember that we human beings have forgotten how to walk on water, he was able to do it.”

“If Jesus of Nazareth was God become truly man for us, as I believe he was, then we should be able to walk on water, to heal the sick, even to accept the Father’s answer to our prayers when it is not the answer we hope for, when it is no.”

“In art, either as creators or participators, we are helped to remember some of the glorious things we have forgotten, and some of the terrible things we are asked to endure, we who are children of God by adoption and grace.”

“One of the great sorrows which came to human beings when Adam and Eve left the Garden was the loss of memory, memory of all God’s children are meant to be.”

“Perhaps one day I will remember how to walk across Dog Pond.”  Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, p. 11-12.

We may not remember how to walk on water this Advent season, but we can remember this — we are God’s people, and God has come, is coming, and will come to us over and over again.
Cardinal Suhard said, “To be a witness does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery.  It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.”  Walking on Water, p. 26.
The mystery no longer resides in the manger, but in our lives.  We are the living presence of God in this world, and when God comes to us, He comes to this place, to our church, so that we might live out His mystery in this community.