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OLD TESTAMENT: Malachi 3: 1-4
This passage is familiar to most of us thanks to Handel and his use of it in The Messiah. The themes here of judgment and purification may seem a little out of place to us during this season, but we need to remember that Advent is more than a season that readies us for Christmas. Advent is a season in which we are called to prepare ourselves in remembrance of Christ’s coming 2,000 years ago but also for Christ’s coming into our own lives. The writing that we know of as the Book of Malachi is the final one in the collection of the Twelve Prophets. At this point, the temple has been rebuilt, but Judah still remains a minor administrative unit within the vast Persian Empire. In human terms, it is but a shadow of its former self.
The name Malachi literally means “my messenger” and is probably a title, rather than a name. Either way, though, there is very little that is known about the author (or authors). There are no references to specific persons or events that would enable us to situate these words on the larger stage of world history.
The writings known as Malachi seem focused on attempting to reform Judean worship. In the writings, although the accusations sometimes seem a little vague, claim that the priests are not performing the rituals as they should and, in some cases, the writings indict them for being out and out profane. In other words, they are not obeying Judean law and are seen, then, as profaning the temple and the worship itself. It is hard for us sometimes to view these things as important in light of some of the other prophets’ concerns. What has happened to “justice rolling down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” like we hear in Amos? But it’s important to not dichotomize and make one thing more important than the other—religion as worship and religion as action go hand in hand, as do love of God and love of neighbor, and prayer and action. But there is also a passion for justice, the concern for the widow and orphan and laborer. The two realms are brought together—the temple and the society.
So at this point the exile has ended, the temple has been rebuilt, and worship has been restored. But it is not all that we envisioned. There was no sign of the glory of God coming to fill the new temple. So the prophet is saying that the Lord will come once the temple, the society, the people have been judged and purifed. The Lord is not going to give up on the people, but their impurities and injustices cannot be condoned. God will cleanse them and renew them. Justice and truth and goodness do matter.
There is a strong reference to the “covenant with Levi” (2: 4). Levi was the patriarch of one of the twelve tribes of Israel and was closely identified with priestly functions. Once the Levites WERE those who lived pure and righteous, who actually successfully “purified” themselves. But things had changed. In verse 3 of this passage from Malachi, the writer uses the image of a refiner’s fire that will purify the sons of Levi, the priests. Only when they offer right sacrifices, when they worship the Lord with the right heart, will the people be set right and God’s glory will be revealed. This image of the “refiner’s fire” implies some pain and even, perhaps, despair that the people must go through.
Refining requires intense heat to burn away the impurities and set free the pure metal. To work with the metal, you have to get close to the fire, dangerous as that may be. The image depicts God as a blazing fire that impurities cannot withstand. But getting close means that we have to enter the danger and risk change. We have to endure our own impurities, our own shortcomings, being burned away until we are made new. The people had expected that once the temple was built they would be blessed. But here they were and there was no justice. Things were really just as bad as before. What they did not realize was that part of it was up to them.
This is a great illustration for which the author is unknown, as near as I can tell: “But Sir,” she said, “do you sit while the work of refining is going on?” “Oh, yes madam, “replied the silversmith, “I must sit with my eye steadily fixed on the furnace, for if the time necessary for refining be exceeded in the slightest degree, the silver will be injured.” (“He shall sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.”) As the lady was leaving the shop, the silversmith called her back, and said he had still further to mention, that he only knows when the process of purifying was complete, by seeing his own image reflected in the silver.
In a 1928 Advent sermon, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this:
It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God . . . . We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience. Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. ed., Geffrey B. Kelley and F. Burton Nelson (New York: HarperSan Francisco, 1995), 185-186, available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=12/6/2009&tab=1, accessed 1 December, 2009.)
- What is your response to this passage?
- In what ways are we called to “purify” or refine ourselves and our own lives?
- What does this sense of purifying or preparation have to do with our Advent waiting?
- What does it have to do with preparing ourselves for the Lord’s coming?
NEW TESTAMENT: Philippians 1: 3-11
To read the text from The Letter to the Philippians
The passage that we read today is the formal beginning of a letter in the typical form of first century letters. Philippians is considered one of the seven “undisputed” letters of Paul (along with Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, and Philemon), so the writer Paul begins by reassuring them of his prayers and his pride in them because their faith is continuing. Paul was never interested in winning converts as if the main game was numbers. He was concerned about people entering a new relationship with God that keeps going.
Notice that he is making a real effort to cement the relationship, perhaps in the face of things that his opponents were doing to dissuade people from belief in Christ. Paul equates good relationship with God and Christ with a good relationship among Christians here and now (not least, with himself). Anything that threatens that threatens everything. Paul wants their love to abound more and more. Paul’s understanding of such love relates to God’s love flowing among us and through us into the world – for all. It is wonderfully big and generous.
For Paul, this is a love that is well-informed and able to be critical, to differentiate faith from phony or destructive forms of religion. Paul wants people to be genuine/honest/sincere and faultless/having a clear conscience. Rigid adherence to laws is something Paul would have seen not only as erroneous, but also as destructive and the opposite of everything he would understand as holy and good. That is because for Paul God’s holiness consists in God’s love, not in a kind of self-protective obsession with order and rightness where laws and rules matter more than people. Paul’s image of praising God has to do with real people living changed lives and changing others’ lives in the process.
- How does this passage speak to you?
- What gets in the way of our living this concept of holiness?
- Why is this so difficult for so many people?
GOSPEL: Luke 3: 1-6
In a way, this seems to be an odd Scripture to read during Advent. This week’s Gospel is not a beautiful canticle, or a visit from an angel promising a birth, or Elizabeth’s child leaping for joy in a womb. Instead we hear from Elizabeth’s child much later as a grown man from the wilderness on an intense mission from God. He announces salvation by proclaiming a message of repentance. In other words, he claims that we need to be ready for what’s coming. Kathy Beach-Verhey says this:
The advent of guests prompts the host not only to straighten up, but also to fix things around the house—a broken doorknob, a loose towel rack, the burned-out lightbulb, the leaky guest toilet. Preparing for company often causes the hosts to look at their home, to examine their surroundings with a whole new perspective. Suddenly the countertops are too messy, the broken chair inadequate, the silverware too tarnished. Preparing for guests demands self-examination as much as it involves a “to do” list. (Kathy Beach-Verhey, From Feasting On the Word, Year C, Volume 1, ed. by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 47.
John is calling us to do the same with our lives. It’s really not as scary as some make it sound. The time has come for a radical change of heart and mind. For what are we waiting before we renew our spirits and begin to live out our baptism. And even though it may seem a little out of place in the midst of this season of hope and glad tidings, John’s message is no different from the earlier messages of the prophets. The world is about to change. Things will no longer be as they were, and this will come as quite a shock to some. But, remember, God seldom comes in the way that we expect or at the time that we had planned or to the place that we have prepared. God will come when and where God will come and the world will never be the same. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote:
All who at the manger finally lay down all power and honor, all prestige, all vanity, all arrogance and self-will; all who take their place among the lowly and let God alone be high; all who see the glory of God in the lowliness of the child in the manger: these are the one who will truly celebrate Christmas. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, From Christmas With Dietrich Bonhoeffer,ed. by Manfred Weber (Minneapolis: Augsburg Books ).
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- In light of John’s message, what should our preparation during this season look like?
- Why is this message so difficult for so many people to hear?
- What will you do this Advent to prepare yourself for Christ’s coming?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
Hope is not a matter of waiting for things outside us to get better. It is about getting better inside about what is going on inside. It is about becoming open to the God of newness. It is about allowing ourselves to let go of the present, to believe in the future we cannot see but can trust to God….Hope is fulfilled in the future but it depends on our ability to remember that we have survived everything in life to this point—and have emerged in even better form than we were when these troubles began…Hope is what sits by a window and waits for one more dawn, despite the fact that there isn’t an ounce of proof in tonight’s black, black sky that it can possibly come. (Joan Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope)
The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything. (Julian of Norwich)
Light your candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are. (Alfred Delp)
Our God is the One who comes to us in a burning bush,
in an angel’s song, in a newborn child.
Our God is the One who cannot be found locked in the church, not even in the sanctuary.
Our God will be where God will be with no constraints, no predictability.
Our God lives where our God lives, and destruction has no power and even death cannot stop the living.
Our God will be born where God will be born, but there is no place to look for the One who comes to us.
When God is ready God will come even to a godforsaken place like a stable in Bethlehem.
Watch…for you know not when God comes.
Watch, that you might be found whenever, wherever God comes. (Ann Weems, “The Coming of God”, in Kneeling in Bethlehem (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1980), 13.