Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 9, 2018

Malachi 3:1-4 Commentary

A number of years ago I preached a series of sermons on the Minor Prophets entitled “The Gospel in a Minor Key.”  Obviously, that was a play on words, but it also reflected the fact that these unusual little prophetic books proclaim the Good News in unexpected, dissonant, almost off-key ways.  Our text for this Second Sunday of Advent is a perfect example.  Here we have moved from Jeremiah’s quiet little picture of the coming Messiah as a Righteous Branch (or a shoot from a stump ala Isaiah 11:1) to the roaring furnace of a silver refiner or the alkaline churning of a commercial laundromat.

These jarring images remind us that Advent is not about preparing for a “merry little Christmas.”  Advent is about warning, about judgment, about repentance, about a refiner’s fire and a launderer’s rough hands.  That is the Gospel in such a minor key that I suspect most preachers will skip this reading and move on to, say, the Gospel reading.  Except, wait a minute, the Gospel reading from Luke 3 is precisely about John the Baptist, the loud voice in the wilderness who prepared the way for the Lord with ferocious calls to repentance.  The major challenge of Advent Two is how to preach good news from such hard texts.

The answer lies in discerning the hard background that led God to speak in such jarring ways.  That background is summed up in the question at the beginning of this passage, a question that the Lectionary has unfortunately cut off.  Our passage should really be 2:17 to 3:5, because it begins with a complaint from God, a question from Israel (one of the dozens of questions that form the structure of this little book), God’s response to that question, and then the main prophecy.  The question was, “Where is the God of justice?”  Israel had asked that question so many times that God was weary of it.

Why would Israel repeat that question ad nauseum?  Because it seemed that God favored the wicked while the righteous suffered, which produced a prolonged religious malaise.  A little historical background will help us understand why Israel was so down. Though they had returned from Exile in about 537, rebuilt the Temple in 516 under Zerubbabel, experienced a religious revival under Ezra in 458 and rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in 445 under Nehemiah, Israel had not returned to her former glory, as the prophets had promised.

No longer trusting God’s justice and doubting his covenant love, these post-exilic Jews began to lose hope.  Their worship degenerated into a listless perpetuation of mere form, and they no longer took the law seriously: tithes were ignored, the Sabbath was broken, intermarriage with pagans was common, and the priests were corrupt.  Worst of all God had not returned to his Temple with the kind of majesty and power that would exalt his Kingdom in the sight of the nations.  He has left that temple in Ezekiel 10:1-22 and 11:22-25.  Israel was just a small province in the backwaters of the Persian Empire, a pale shadow of the mighty Kingdom she had been under David.  That seemed all wrong to Israel, so they incessantly whined, “Where is the God of justice?”

Somewhere toward the end of the period described above, God spoke through Malachi.  Our text is God’s major answer to that recurring question.  “See, I will send my messenger (Hebrew, malachi, the name of the book), 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 Yahweh Almighty.”  Where is God?  He is right there, “see him.”  God speaks directly to his disheartened people; indeed, the first-person singular is found in 47 of the 55 verses of Malachi.  Israel is getting a more direct answer than they ever expected.  It is an answer that will stun them, as it should us.

But, before we get to the shock of the prophecy, we need to wrestle with these opening words.  To whom does God refer in verse 1?  Who is the messenger who will prepare the way for the Lord?  The lectionary’s choice of Luke 3 for the Gospel reading suggests that it is John the Baptist.  Who is the messenger of the covenant who will come into the Temple as the Lord?  The Lectionary pairs this part of the prophecy with the presentation of Jesus in the Temple in Luke 2.  That, of course, would happen over four centuries later.  So, the word “suddenly” cannot mean “immediately.”  It must mean unexpectedly, in the blink of an eye, when you have given up all hope.  That is a shocking message for ancient Israel.

Even more shocking perhaps is the message in verses 2-5.  When the forerunner and the Messiah finally come, they will bring judgment and justice, but it will be visited upon Israel.  You cry out for God’s justice, but when it comes, “Who can endure the day of his coming?  Who can stand when he appears?”  He will come, not to comfort, but to cleanse, “for he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.”  The Lord will focus his attention not on your enemies, but on you.

That message was addressed to ancient Israel, but if the Lectionary is right in applying these words to John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, then they must also apply to us.  Jesus did not come only to comfort, but also to cleanse.  Though he brought the forgiveness of sin, he also wants to rid us of those forgiven sins.  As we look back at his first coming and ahead to his second coming in this season of Advent, we must ask where Jesus wants to purify us.

Verses 3 and 4 point to worship, while verse 5 focus on obedience of the Torah.  Like a refiner of silver and gold, the messenger of the covenant who is the Lord himself will purify the Levites, who led Israel in worship. Once the priests are pure, “the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable again, as in days gone by, as in former years.”  Israel had become lackadaisical about worship, presenting offerings that were flawed, led by priests who were corrupt.  Only pure offerings and priests are acceptable to God’s holiness.

Of course, Jesus is both spotless sacrifice and sinless priest.  Only through him can our worship be acceptable to God.  But as we come to God through Christ, we must present ourselves, both people and priests, as living sacrifices, giving our best to him.  Is there a message here for the casual way we worship today?

Verse 5, which the Lectionary inexplicably excises from our reading for today, says that the now invisible Lord “will come near to you for judgment.”  He will judge your disobedience of the Torah.  The list of condemned sins here is common in the Old Testament: sorcery, adultery, and perjury, and then a whole list of social justice sins, ranging from not paying your employees enough to oppressing widows and orphans to depriving aliens of justice.

Talk about throwing shade over our celebration of Christ’s birth!  In a day of widespread sorcery, where people use the Lord’s name to manipulate the powers of darkness; in a day where adultery is so common that it is seen as entertainment; in a day where lying under oath and lying in the media has destroyed the public trust; in such a day, these words of Malachi are a bombshell.

And when you think of the huge gap between the salaries of CEO’s and the salaries of their employees, and the movement by some politicians to balance the budget by taking away welfare benefits from mothers and children, and the way some leaders want to deal with illegal aliens, these words will make many of our church members very uncomfortable.  In fact, if you dare to tell them how Jesus has come to purify those who commit such sins, you may become very uncomfortable.

Preaching this text will not make you popular; it will make you faithful.  And it is a word of hope in the end.  The invisible God who seems to pay no attention to the wickedness in this world will come one day, even as he did come one day, to clean things up.  He used his own blood to wipe away the guilt of our sins.  He will use his Spirit to cleanse us of the presence of our sins.

That is not a pleasant prospect, but it is precisely what we keep asking for.  “Where is the God of justice?”  Now we know—up there on the cross and down here in the fire.

Thank God for speaking the truth to us.  As Walter Kaiser put it: “the day of the Lord would [not] be some kind of magic cure-all.  It would not be that at all; it would be a terrifying day with tragic consequences for all who were not morally and spiritually prepared.”  The work of preparation referred to in Malachi 3:1 is “levelling the road and straightening out the path,” metaphors for the necessary preparatory spiritual work of repentance and faith.  That’s what this Second Sunday of Advent is all about.

Illustration Ideas

As a way of preparing your church to hear this text, you could play over your sound system that part of Handel’s “Messiah” that sings this text.  The thunderous bass and the furious pace of that piece will prepare your people viscerally to hear the Word of the Lord.  Even those who hate classical music will feel the threat and promise of this Gospel in a Minor Key.

It might be difficult to find a jeweler who can demonstrate how silver and gold are refined, but you could show videos of iron smelting to capture the sense of this text about the refiner’s fire.  Or, more simply (and less frightening), you could have several brands of detergent on a table and talk about which one cleans best.  Used in conjunction with the old gospel hymn, this could be a powerful entry into the Gospel here.  “What can wash away my sins?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus!  What can make me whole again?  Nothing but the blood of Jesus!”


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