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In a book called the ‘The Strange Laws of Old England’ it says that on May 2, 1648 a law was passed making it illegal to doubt that the books of Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, and Malachi were the Word of God, and to do so was punishable by death! I’m pretty sure that they are not still enforcing that law today. Actually, I’m pretty sure you’d be lucky to find someone who can pronounce these prophets’ names much less know enough about them to even know if they doubt them or not.
If you really pay attention to the prophets then you’ll know that, contrary to the popular imagination, they are not just future-tellers, but prophets are meant to unsettle us, to reveal shortcomings and injustice. They are strange and wild and unpredictable truth-tellers who rarely say what we want to hear.
In order to truly hear their profound message of hope, we have to first hear their words and warnings of anger and judgment. Civility is not the first word I’d use to describe their message.
My dad is a CPA and one of his regular jokes is to observe that churches are non-profit organizations….
I can see how that might be true. Or how we might want that to be true. Because inviting the prophets might make things uncomfortable.
But Advent is one time of the year that they get invited to the party! Which makes sense, because Advent, if we do it right, is supposed to unsettle us, to wake us from gingerbread and candy cane escapism to reveal all the ways the world is still waiting for justice and peace.
As we say in Godly Play, the prophets help show us the way to Bethlehem. And this morning, our strange guide to the manger is the prophet Malachi.
Malachi is the last of the prophets. He closes the Hebrew Canon and he closes the Christian Old Testament. His are the last words. And what’s notable about these last words is that they are so full of questions. In only 55 verses he manages to fit 22 questions. Questions directed at God. Questions returned to the people.
So hear now, God’s words and questions for you this morning, from the Malachi 3:1-7
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.[a] 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
6 For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. 7 Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?”
Malachi is speaking to a people who have just returned. Well, they’ve returned physically at least. They’ve returned from a long, destructive exile in Babylon. Back to Judah, though still under the tight control of the Persian Empire. They’ve returned back to all their memories and their home, back to where all their stories came from.
They rebuilt the temple that had been destroyed, they rededicated it around the year 515BCE, and now they look around and things don’t look like what they expected. There’s disagreement between the generations about how and what to rebuild, there are divisions in the community about what worship looks like. And contrary to what they expect to see: they look around and see that the arrogant are happy, the evildoers prosper, the ones who test God escape unscathed. And now they have questions. They returned from Babylon but they wonder if God returned with them.
The holidays are a time of returning. Return to childhood homes, return to meaningful places to visit relatives. Return to old memories and traditions colored with rosy layers of nostalgia. Return can be a happy joyful thing, but it can also be a risky thing:
Old places where memories were once made might look and feel different with the passage of time.
Traditions once full of joy can feel sad and empty in changing circumstances, reminding us of friends and loved ones lost along the way.
Return to old hopes and dreams threatens to bring into stark relief the ways we have been disappointed with the way life has turned out, or hasn’t lived up to our expectations.
Return, this time of year, to the story of God’s coming 2,000 years ago as a baby in Bethlehem, makes us notice all the ways our world is still waiting for the Prince of Peace. Still waiting for Joy to the World.
This Advent, I think we can know what it feels like to sit with those returning exiles in Malachi, to look around and feel the ache of disillusionment, the weariness of hopes that haven’t come true as we expected, the dissonance of what we think God has promised and what the world actually looks like. The questions these exiles ask might resonate in our own times too: “what does God’s love look like? Is God faithful to God’s promises? Where exactly is the God of justice?”
But even as these questions echo in our souls, we pay attention to Malachi, who, as prophets are wont to do, turns the mirror around and sends a couple questions back to the question askers. You accuse God of not returning, but really, have you?
Malachi lays out the case against the people – exposing the reality that though they rebuilt the temple, the worship they offer there has been half-hearted. They have cared more about what they offer their governor than what they offer God. Instead of bringing their best to the temple, they only bring what is expendable: Animals that are diseased, blind, lame. Tithes that are incomplete.
And this misalignment of their hearts in worship is inextricably tied to the injustice in their community. Their half-hearted love of God floods over into their half-hearted love of neighbor – and Malachi warns them of God’s coming judgment of those who don’t keep their promises to each other, those who oppress hired workers, orphans, and widows, and those who turn away the immigrant.
Malachi warns them with the honest, uncomfortable clarity of a prophet: be careful what you wish for, because you very well might be implicated in the very injustice that you are crying out against.
The Day of the Lord is coming, Malachi declares, but he quickly follows it with daunting questions, asking: But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (funny how that doesn’t make it into our Christmas Carols…)
The coming of the Lord, Malachi warns, will be accompanied by refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap. Fire so hot that it burns off all impurities. Soap so harsh that it removes all stains in the launderer’s water.
The coming of the Lord in Malachi’s imagination is not a triumphal moment of victory. But neither is it a moment of complete destruction. The coming of the Lord, rather, means restoration and justice. And that very well might be costly to those who have much.
Those with power and privilege might have much to lose when the lowly are lifted up, when the hungry are filled with good things, when the immigrant, orphan, and widow are taken care of.
And so we ask, along with the returned exiles in Malachi: “how shall we return?”
How do we ready ourselves for the Advent of our Lord? How do we prepare the way? How shall we return?
Malachi doesn’t answer the question directly. He lets it hang in the air.
Clearly the answer has something to do with costly justice, with the love of God, and the love of neighbor.
Return to the Lord begins with honesty about ourselves and the ways we ourselves have contributed to the lack of peace in our world.
Instead of only sitting around asking when God is going to return and meet all of our hopes and expectations, Malachi asks us to consider our role in returning, our role in the way things are and in the way things might one day be. Malachi holds a mirror up for us to look into and turns our questions back on ourselves.
It makes us ask about what we are holding onto so tightly and what we might have to let go of in order to have hands open and ready to receive the true gift of God’s grace and goodness in our lives. What might we need to be rid of in the refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap? How shall we return?
And even as we hear Malachi’s warnings of fire and soap, we also remember the promise of God through the prophet Isaiah who said:
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.” (Isaiah 43:1-2)
We ready ourselves for Advent knowing that we do not go the way alone. In this paradoxical season we celebrate the arrival of God in Jesus Christ and we prepare for the return of our Lord, who has actually never left us, but yet comes to us always in new and surprising ways.
I’m not sure what “prepare the way” means for you this year. But may you know the presence of the Holy Spirit as you ask that question in this special season of waiting, returning, longing, and hope. Amen.