The Coming of God is not all Good News. In fact, first, it’s bad news.
‘I will send my messenger, 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 the Lord Almighty.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lordwill have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.
68 ‘Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a horn[c] of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
71 salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us –
72 to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
79 to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.’
The first passage is quite familiar from its use in Handel’s Messiah, where the prophet Malachi speaks of purification and judgment.
These are themes not associated in the popular mind with Christmas. Nevertheless, Advent is, of course, preparation not only for a remembrance of Christ’s first coming as a baby, but also for Christ’s second coming, in power and glory. We live between the two.
Isn’t it amazing that we ( we Christians!) face the coming of Christ so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the “Day of the Lord”? We have insulated ourselves by such an emphasis on the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the least shiver of fear that God is coming. We’ve become so blasé about the whole message, since we’ve carefully abstracted the “Happy Christmas” side of things and forgotten the serious side, 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 Good News, but first of all scary news for everyone who has a conscience.
I would even say that I think that we have to feel that scariness before we can understand the kindness. God is coming into the very midst of evil, to judge the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, and comes to us with grace and love.
It is fitting to think about this today, in the second week of Advent. God is coming. God is coming as a baby in Bethlehem, but God is also coming again “in glory to judge the living and the dead,” as the Nicene Creed puts it.
So how do we respond? I remember a children’s story on this, which began: “Imagine if the Queen were visiting your house. Excitement, pride, mixed up with nervousness and trepidation.” No, no: let’s try a different picture: imagine if a head social worker was visiting your house and if you failed to pass muster, he had the right to take your children away. Do you see the difference? We can exclude the nervousness factor in the first picture and concentrate on the excitement and pride, but in the second? Any reasonable person should feel at least some fear. Am I really up to the mark? Will I pass inspection?
The prophets make the same point in talking about “the day of the LORD.” Amos proclaims, “Alas for you who desire the day of the LORD! Why do you want the day of the LORD? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake” (Amos 5:18-19). Be careful what you wish for, in other words, because you may get more than you bargained for. The day of the LORD will be a day full of terror. How can it not be, as God “judges the evil in us and in the world”?
Malachi, for his part, also warns his hearers of the coming judgment: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap” (3:2). Like one who burns away the dross in order to refine gold, God will burn away all the evil within us. Like one who uses rough industrial soap to tackle those really stubborn stains, God will bleach out the stains that sin leaves in us. Refining gold and cleaning clothes are positive activities, but from the perspective of the gold and the clothing, the process holds the prospect of much pain. We would do well to feel some fear. In this Advent text, we are far from Bethlehem and the sweet music of “Away in a Manger.”
We are closer in this reading, in fact, to the banks of the Jordan, where John the Baptist preaches repentance. This Old Testament reading is paired in the lectionary with the song of Zechariah after the birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:68-79). The Gospel writers used Malachi 3:1 to speak about the role of John the Baptist (see Matthew 11:10; Mark 1:2; and Luke 7:27).
John the Baptist is the one God refers to as “my messenger” sent “to prepare the way before me” (Malachi 3:1). He is, as his father echoes, the one who will “go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (Luke 1:76). He is Elijah, the one Malachi foretells later in his book: “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes” (Malachi 4:5; cf. Matthew 11:14; 17:11-13; Luke 1:17).
If “my messenger” in Malachi 3:1 is consistently identified with John the Baptist in early Christian interpretation, “the Lord whom you seek” and “the messenger of the covenant” are most often identified with Jesus himself. It is the Lord who is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. It is he who will purify the people of the covenant. And, despite our feelings or fears about the matter, this is actually good news! Sin separates us from God. Sin clouds and distorts the good creation God made us to be. And we are helpless to clean ourselves. Enter the refiner of gold and the washer of clothes, to do the cleaning for us.
It is not an easy process, of course. Who anticipates the process of refining and cleansing with anything but pain? I remember the weekly bath that I had to endure as a small child, and my mother’s determination to scrub out the “muck of the week” as she charmingly put it. There is always pain involved in refining and cleansing! Who really wants to face up to the lies and half-truths in their own mind, to the bad thoughts and evil tendencies in a hundred conversations? Jesus calls us out to die to our old selves and rise to life in him. There is pain involved in dying and rising. But it is a process that is designed for our good, for our well-being, to prepare us for the coming of the Lord. God comes into our midst as Emmanuel, comes to destroy the evil in us and in the world, comes to draw us out of death into life.
And though that is an alarming prospect, it is also one that should fill us with joy.
(PS Some of this is cheerfully plagiarised from notes made on the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
- Malachi (biblicalpeople.wordpress.com)
- ADVENT 1: Life in the Antenatal Clinic (tithebarn.wordpress.com)
- December 1 @ Malachi (phyllisbenigas.wordpress.com)
- Radical Advent (ststephenscohasset.org)
- Why must Elijah return before the end times (Malachi 4:5-6)? (altruistico.wordpress.com)