Malachi 3:1-4 CEB
Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me; suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming, says the Lord of heavenly forces.
Who can endure the day of his coming?
Who can withstand his appearance?
He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.
He will purify the Levites
and refine them like gold and silver.
They will belong to the Lord,
presenting a righteous offering.
The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in ancient days and in former years.
I want to make sure I am clear, I love Christmas! This is my favorite time of year, with the music, and the decorations, and all those tasty Christmas treats! Just in the past few days, my family and I started decorating for Christmas, setting up the tree. I can hardly believe that we are already two weeks into Advent with only a few more weeks left before Christmas. During this season of Advent, we eagerly wait for the coming of the birth of Christ all over again. We stand with the shepherds on their hillsides, frightened and awestruck by the choirs of angels. We kneel with the expectant mother, getting ready to greet our savior in a barn. The music this morning reminds us of this time of celebration and joy as we wait for the coming of Jesus! One of my favorite songs is Silent Night. Those soft peaceful lyrics carry us into this season.
One of my favorite versions comes from Simon and Garfunkel. I am not sure if you have ever heard it before, but it opens with the duo singing those familiar lyrics and we sink into those peaceful Christmas feelings. Before long though, there comes a buzz, faint at first but then louder until it becomes clear. A newscaster starts to speak in the background sharing the news of the day. Serial murder and social unrest haunts the headlines as it starts to grow louder and louder until it overwhelms Simon and Garfunkel’s singing. We are reminded that not only Christmas night but there is no night that is calm and quiet. We crave peace but our world is full of conflict and sorrow. The same is true for the world of the prophet Malachi. Peace does not seem to be a quality of our world, quite the opposite in fact, for how many of us could journey home turn on Silent Night and turn on the news either locally or globally and find a similar off putting dissonance between peace and reality. Right now, peace is missing and things are not right, and the same is true in the time of Malachi and Judea.
Malachi prophesies to a people restored to Jerusalem. The exile from Babylon is over! The temple in Jerusalem has been rebuilt! There should be peace! There should be celebrating! Instead, the people are not making peace happen as they have chosen to turn away from God. They have turned away from each other. They have turned on each other. They are not walking in the good and Godly path their Lord desires from them, and Malachi delivers a startling prophecy, echoed by other prophets before. The Day of the Lord is coming! Now, this might not mean much to us today, but to the Judean people, the Day of the Lord is full of meaning. It is the day that Yahweh will return and be with them, and it is a day of cleansing. This day will clear away what has been to prepare for the birth of something new.
Malachi points to the coming messenger, a voice in the wilderness, a voice we see in John the Baptist, saying that the Lord is coming. Zechariah, John’s own father, gives a prophecy that his son would go before to prepare the way for Jesus. Advent is our time to listen to these voices, these voices crying out for us to prepare the way for the coming birth of a child. In Malachi we hear that this time of preparation will be like a refiner’s fire, melting and purifying the metals that are you and me, to clear away the dross. You see when metal ore is melted it becomes a liquid and a scum and crust forms on top made up of all the impurities to be scooped out to make the metal pure. Again, Malachi says that this time of preparation will be like getting cleaned with soap. Not a gentle soap, like Dawn. Instead, it will be fuller’s soap, a lye soap, abrasive and potent. You would use this soap to clean your clothes, and those washed in this will not just be cleansed but scoured. Especially back in those days where you did not throw clothes into the washing machine, rather you would stomp and kick with your own feet to get these clothes cleaned. Preparation not only seems uncomfortable but even dangerous!
This is not what we want to hear for the Christmas season! This is a season of joy and peace! What is this peace though? Is it something comfortable, something that does not cause any trouble? Do we seek a peace that ensures that we have right and just relationships with the world and each other? Do we seek God’s peace, God’s shalom, or our own peace found in calmness and safety? During this season when we put up decorations and make food and sing wonderful songs, none of us, including me, wants to be a Scrooge crying “Bah humbug!” to Christmas! At the same time, we are reminded today of our not-so silent nights, and to cry peace and silence where there is none may silence those to whom Christmas is neither joyous or peaceful.
Tell me, do you know the spaces in our community where peace and joy are in short supply? They do not prepare themselves for a Christmas feast but work to have enough food for another day. They do not put up decorations but instead seek the basic necessities of life. While we may worry where and with whom we will celebrate this holiday, they worry whether they might have heat or running water. There is disquiet in our community. Do we face it, or do we turn away like those Malachi speaks to this morning?
Notice how turning away from each other entails turning away from God. Malachi encounters disquiet, those voices that the Judeans have tried to drown out by simply singing louder, but these voices are heard by God. The widow, the orphan, and the alien in the land were not only heard, but God promises that the divine will bear witness against those that overlook them! Malachi delivers the reminder, prepare! In another translation, like our own this morning, it is rendered as clear away! Clear away the dross, clear away the dirt! These things that stand in the way, these things that hide the uncomfortable realities around us. The Lord is coming and it is not safe to keep these barriers in place! Maybe you would say to me this morning, “Pastor, shouldn’t we feel safe with God? Isn’t Jesus the good shepherd? Why all this harsh talk? Aren’t we safe with the Lamb of God?”
Friends, my answer is that perhaps we have hidden away parts of Jesus. John cried out in the wilderness, make straight the paths and prepare! At the same time, a baby Jesus may not seem like something to inspire us to clear away the clutter from our lives. A baby is gentle and sweet. My own is definitely sweet and very gentle! They seem very safe, so we have a very safe image of God! However, in having a safe God we have made a safe peace, one that does not make us uncomfortable. We make God controllable and manageable. We imagine things will be predictable. However, a child is never safe, and a baby that also happens to be God will never be something we can control or predict.
How many here have read C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? Would you be surprised to know that you could argue that it is a Christmas book, Santa Claus even shows up in it! It is a favorite of mine, and I cannot forget the central character of Aslan! Aslan, the narrative’s Christ figure, does not appear as a human, instead he is a great lion! He is here and there in the story, spoken about but it takes a while before the children in the book encounter him. Infact, the children are first told he is a lion by a couple of welcoming and chatty beavers, and the children respond:
“‘Ooh!’ said Susan, ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
‘That you will dearie, make no mistake,’ said Mrs. Beaver, ‘if there's anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.’
‘Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy.
‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”
Malachi echoes this, God is not safe, but God is good. God challenges, God asks us to prepare. God does not desire a safe peace. Didn’t Jesus say he came not to bring peace but a sword? Jesus constantly pulls people off balance, especially when we try to turn away from each other. Maybe that’s what Jesus’ sword is, a challenge to our desire to not change, to stay comfortable. Being comfortable means being unwilling to be remade, to be reborn as a new thing. Being made into something new is not an easy or safe thing! Much like when Jesus encountered a young man who was rich and comfortable, his challenge was to give up his comfort and his safety to come and follow him!
During Christmas, we celebrate a new thing: God became incarnate, dwelling among us. God drew near to us, calling us back. This is something good! It is something to sing about and to dance for joy! In turning back to God, we will be remade. God will strip away the dross and dirt that not only hides the divine from our sight, but the walls we build to be safe from one another. Jesus is coming to remind us again, prepare. John calls out, prepare! Malachi delivers a prophecy, prepare! How can we prepare? My friends, church is a great place to begin this work! We prepare each week to encounter Christ. We prepare to invite Christ into our lives, clear away anything that keeps us apart from him. We prepare to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. We prepare to care for the widow, the orphan, the alien that lives in our land. We prepare to become peacemakers, not peacekeepers. We prepare to not drown out the cries of those around us, rather turning toward each other and turning toward God!
In turning toward God, we turn toward true peace. I mentioned shalom earlier. It is the Hebrew word that we translate as peace. It can mean to be safe, but this is not the safety of comfort but of restoration. Peace, God’s shalom, points toward us being made complete, made good, and restored. To work toward the peace of Christ is not simply saying that we love our neighbors but to actively work to move out of our comfortable places to live and work with those on the margins, to restore our relationship with them and with our God. In this way, in this restoration, we might have true comfort and joy where all experience peace and rejoice!
We are accustomed to preparing for celebrating the holidays during this time of year, and let us never forget to still do this! The Day of the Lord is a day of celebration too! However, let our preparation include being made new. Each and every year, that urgent cry comes again during Advent to prepare! The voice cries out in our hearts, in each song we sing, in each bough we hang, and in each person we turn toward in love. Are we willing to hear it? Are we willing to unplug our ears and hear a not-so silent night? In a few weeks, Christ is coming again. As Christmas comes closer, let us be confident in a God who is not safe but good. Let us be confident in a peace that is not comfortable but life changing! Let us clear the dross from our lives that keeps us from loving God and each other, so we too can be made new and join with Jesus in preparing for a new kind of peace. Amen.
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Pastor Paul Grossman