2nd Sunday in Advent
It doesn’t get any better than this. The Lord, whom we seek, will suddenly come to his temple. What a wonderful thing! How grand it would be if the Lord suddenly came to his temple, and extracted us all from this mess that we human creatures have created! How exciting! This is what we have long been hoping for. This is the day that we have eagerly awaited. This is our redemption; this is the solution to all of our problems! How marvelous! And then, there’s this messenger of the covenant in whom we all delight. That’s pretty grand, too! That’s what we need right now. A messenger, and a delightful one at that, to help us to get ourselves back into covenant relationship with God and with one another. This is gonna be real good!
Or will it? How about if I let on that verse one is just dripping with sacred sarcasm? OK, not just dripping with sarcasm, how about a waterfall of sarcasm, the size of Niagara?
The verses in our passage this morning were written just about 400 years before the birth of Christ, and the people of God, living at that time, were hopelessly corrupt and thoroughly evil. To steal a phrase, they were doing evil in the sight of the Lord. And the last thing that any of them wanted was a sudden visitation from God. They were getting along quite nicely, thank you very much, without any pesky interference from God, and the plan was to keep things exactly as they were. Nobody wants God interfering in their lives.
God’s people had decided that living according to the covenant that God had established with their ancestors had become a thing of the long ago, forgotten past. Nobody paid any attention to that stuff anymore; it was ancient history. It was archaic. It was ridiculous stuff in the modern world of 400 BC. Don’t be sending anyone here to tell us about our covenant obligations, we don’t want to hear it. We are not about to delight in any messenger from God; we are not interested.
And if any of us were to spend some time reading in the book of the prophet Malachi, we would discover right away just how uninterested that Malachi’s readers were. Throughout the book, Malachi pleads with his readers to return to God, to repent, and to reform their lives. But it was all to no avail. Everything that Malachi said fell on deaf and uncaring ears. I wonder if we would have listened.
It turns out that God is quite sensitive. God is able to determine those times when he is not welcome in our lives. And when people decide to shut him out of their lives, God is not terribly pushy. God will actually step back for a bit. And this is exactly what God did, after Malachi delivered the prophecy that not a soul listened to. God granted the evil wishes of his people. God went quiet. God went silent. And for four hundred years, there were no messengers, and there were no messages from God. God’s people got exactly what they wanted. They were free to live their lives and go their own way without any interference from God, at all. And apparently, nobody but God seemed to care.
And when God could stand it no longer, when God could no longer abide this separation from his beloved people, God finally relented and sent a messenger. After 400 years of holding his tongue, God finally broke his silence. This messenger from God appeared out in the wilderness, in the environs of the Jordan River. This messenger was very much a hell-fire and brimstone kind of preacher, and in spite of his off-putting physical appearance, his bizarre diet, and his uncompromising preaching, people responded to him, first out of curiosity, and then out of need. Anxious, apparently, to hear a message from God, the people repented of their sins, they were baptized in the Jordan River, and most importantly, they began to ask questions. And they asked questions about how they should live, and what they should do to reform their lives in response to the words from God that they had heard from this fiery preacher.
After 400 long years, God’s people were finally ready to hear what God had to say to them. And they responded to that word with enthusiasm and with sincerity, and their lives were transformed.
That’s the first half of Malachi’s prophecy as it is revealed in our passage this morning. Malachi announced that a messenger of the covenant would come, and amazingly, the people of God were ready to take delight in this messenger, and in the covenant obligations that he proclaimed. We know him, of course, as John the Baptist. John functions simultaneously as the last prophet of the Old Testament and as the first prophet of the New Testament. He spans the bridge between the era of Moses and the coming age of the Messiah, and he is very comfortable in that role. John the Baptist prepared the way for the sudden coming of the Lord to his Temple. John prepared God’s people for the arrival of Jesus, and the inauguration of the greatest visitation that God has ever made on this planet.
The second half of Malachi’s prophecy is much more complicated and quite troublesome. Malachi envisioned a day when the religious leaders of God’s people would be transformed. It seemed right to Malachi, and maybe even to us, that a reform among God’s people would begin first in the hearts of the the religious leaders. This makes sense. It is what we would expect. If the religious leaders are refined and purified first, then it makes sense that they are in good stead to lead a reform among people.
And so Malachi speaks of a refiner’s fire that would burn out all of the dross and the impurities from the religious leaders. Malachi imagined that these religious leaders would be renewed in their own covenant relationships with God, and then these leaders would move out into the midst of the people, proclaiming the need for repentance and renewal. Malachi imagined that the religious leaders would call God’s people back to a life of righteousness and holiness.
But when John the Baptist arrived on the scene, the religious leaders didn’t have a whole lot of interest in what John had to say. A few of them did come out to spy on him, and a few even submitted to baptism, but mostly, they pretty much ignored him. There was no revival among the religious leaders. John’s preaching didn’t have much impact on them at all. It certainly did not lead to any reformation or transformation in their lives. Most of the influence that John the Baptist had was in the lives of common, ordinary people.
And the same was true throughout all of Jesus’ ministry. Mostly common, ordinary people responded to his teachings. It seems that only common, ordinary people were interested in having their lives transformed. About the only impact that Jesus had on the religious leaders was that he steeled their resolve to do away with him. And in that, they were ultimately successful. They won. There was no reform, no return to covenantal obligations, no transformation and no purification of the religious leaders during Jesus’ ministry.
So…was Malachi wrong? Did he see something that God didn’t have in mind? Was it just wishful thinking on Malachi’s part that the renovation of God’s people would begin with religious leaders whose hearts had been transformed?
I don’t know. But this I do know. Malachi’s words stand as a powerful warning to anyone like me who dares to stand in a pulpit like this, on a Sunday morning, purporting to share the word of God with the people of God. It is an awesome task, far beyond my ability to perform it. And that is because I am, first of all, a sinner. And then, secondly, after that, I am a messenger. Is my heart sufficiently pure? Has God’s refining fire removed enough dross and enough impurity so that my messages are messages of God’s righteousness? Am I willing enough to listen to God, to hear not only with my ears, but also with my heart? Can I speak the words of God without adulterating them with my own? Do my words reflect the intent of God for the people of God?
These are hard questions. But if I am to be truthful, they are questions that I must constantly be asking myself. In Malachi’s day, the people of God had no interest in hearing from God, and the religious leaders were only too happy to comply. In the days of John the Baptist, and in the days of Jesus, revival sprung up from amidst the common ordinary people, while the religious leaders stood listlessly by, or busied themselves with plotting our Lord’s death.
Perhaps in our own day, in an era of corrupted religious leaders, it is time for revival to emerge from the pews. Perhaps it is God’s people who will listen to God. Let us pray that this is so.