A Prophet’s Holiday Greeting
I’ve got some good news to share with you. But, I’ve also got some bad news. It’s not my news really; it belongs to Advent. It’s Advent news. And some of it’s good, and some bad.
Here’s the good news: God is on the way. We’re waiting and hoping for God to come. We rejoice that God has come to us in Jesus Christ and we now look forward to God’s full arrival again. This is the good news of Advent: God is coming to save us.
So what’s the bad news? God is on the way. Part of the reality of this season of preparation for God’s arrival is the stark realization that God’s arrival puts an end to our old, comfortable, sinful ways. Part of the news of this season is that the birth of a new world means the end of the old one.
The people who first heard the message of Malachi, though, were firmly entrenched in the old world. They had spent years listening to the prophets tell them of what God was going to do through the chosen people, only to look around them and see something entirely different. Dr. Ramsay, my college OT professor, puts it bluntly in one of his books.1 He indicates that the people looked around and came to a startling conclusion: “The promises of the prophets simply had not come true.” He goes on to describe how Ezekiel had promised a glorious new temple and city, but that the Temple that was built could in no way be described as glorious. He refers to Haggai who had promised that the treasures of all the nations would flow to the Temple, but it and the people who worshiped there lived in poverty. Isaiah and others had promised that there would be a king of David’s line on the throne, but at the time of Malachi the Jews were still under foreign rule. “No wonder that they complained skeptically to God, ‘How have you loved us?’” The people looked at God and wondered if God could be sued for breach of promise, and their faith was on shaky ground.
This failure of faith could be seen in the people’s lives and worship, which Dr. Ramsay describes like this: “What they sacrificed at the Temple were the culls from their flocks, and many paid no tithes at all. Even the priests lacked reverence for their own ceremonies. Families were in trouble….Superstition, adultery, perjury, abuse of workers, neglect of widows and orphans, and prejudice against people of other races was common.” It was a low-point in the life of Jewish faith.
Sometime around 460 or 450 BC, an otherwise unknown prophet arrived on the scene and began a conversation with these faithless people. When the messenger in Malachi enters the Temple to speak to the people, he brought some good news and some bad news as well. Good news: the one you seek is coming. His messenger is drawing near and will soon be with you. But (and here’s the bad news), “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Good news, bad news. Your God is on the way.
I’ll let you in on something behind the scenes of the naming of this sermon. One of the old rules of naming sermons is that the title ought to be so provocative that if someone read it on the church sign while riding by on a bus, they would want to stop the bus and come in to hear it. (As an exercise, the professor once asked for a good example of a title that would do that. The student’s proposal was this: “Your bus is on fire.”)
I often have trouble coming up with sermon titles, but this week I had trouble clearing my mind of one. And it’s not the one printed, by the way. It all started back in college when Matt arrived on the scene. He’s now a pastor at a church outside of Memphis, and I can imagine, if he’s preaching from Malachi today, that he is using as his sermon title a statement that he always invoked anytime someone came close to sin. If someone was drifting to a bad conversation or a bad action, Matt would lean in and announce in his best prophetic voice, “Turn or burn.” “Turn or burn,” Matt would tell us, warning us that there would be consequences from Almighty God if we didn’t change our ways.
I found that a bit too harsh for everyday living—especially college living, and I also concluded that it was a bit too pedantic for a sermon title. And yet, when you read Malachi, you get the idea that he seems to be speaking the same language.
Good news, bad news. God’s arrival is drawing near. And God is coming to us like a refiner’s fire, burning away all that’s false about our lives. God is coming to us like fuller’s soap, washing away all the grimy evidence of our living and purifying us.
God’s on the way, and we better be getting ready. Listen to John the Baptist standing beside the Jordan preaching his one word sermon: Repent. Hear him talk about the ax at the root of the tree and the fire burning hot to consume all that is false about life.
Listen to the lives of those around you who challenge you by their living to rid yourself of what’s wrong with your life. Listen to the nudging of your spirit which calls you to stop doing wrong or to start doing what you know is right. Listen to what your heart hears when it hears the news: God is on the way, the God who draws near as a refiner’s fire or fuller’s soap, the God who is ending the old world by birthing the new.
God is coming and we better get ready.
That’s what Advent is about. Preparing ourselves for God to come and make things right. And part of what God’s making right is us. God, refining us once more into the people we were created to be. God, not letting us settle for being less than human cleansing us to new and fuller life.
Who can endure the day of God’s arrival? That’s Malachi’s question. It forces us to stand in the face of the truth: we are people—all of us—who need to repent, to turn around, to turn our lives to God.
For some of us, we may need to repent of the way our bitterness about past events affects our lives.
Others of us may need to repent of the way we have viewed our offerings to the ministry of the church, as if they belonged to us and not to God.
Still others of us may need to repent of the arrogance that has built up around what we perceive as our faithfulness.
Where do you feel God nudging you—or pushing you—to notice your need to repent? The messenger announces that God is on the way, and we have some preparing to do.
Ultimately, though, the bad news of this season becomes good news. God is coming to save us—not destroy us. The fire which burns and the soap which cleanses don’t destroy the good that’s there. They refine it. They strip away all that’s false and leave the true.
Good news: God is on the way. More good news: God will set things right. Best news of all: God will make us right. The hymn we are about to sing together puts it like this: “Wild and lone the prophet’s voice echoes through the desert still, calling us to make a choice, bidding us to do God’s will: ‘Turn from sin and be baptized; cleanse your heart and mind and soul. Quitting all the sins you prized, yield your life to God’s control.’”
John P. Leggett
Massanutten Presbyterian Church
50 Indian Trail Road
Penn Laird, VA 22846
December 10, 2006
Second Sunday of Advent (Year C)