We don't often spend time with Malachi, one of those “minor prophets” who appear on the stage towards the end of Old Testament history. Indeed, the name Malachi simply means “messenger” - so that the individual is subsumed by his role, as the final voice in the chorus that has, through the ages, exhorted Israel to get ready for the coming of her Saviour.
So we have a message from an unknown messenger, heard today completely out of context. That happens so often as we work our way through the Lectionary...and it's rarely helpful.
It's worth my telling you, then, that in Chapter 2 Malachi has told God's people that they have wearied God by their questioning of His justice. While they complain “All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord...Where is the God of justice” - God's response, the passage we hear today, is positively ominous. We hear it, of course, cushioned by the musical glory of Handel's Messiah, but actually, the message is far from encouraging.
“Who can endure the day of his coming?”
That seems a strange question for us in this season of Advent, when our waiting is generally full of excitement.
Excitement is fine – but what are we excited about?
It seems to me that at times the church has rather lost its grip on Advent. The world is intent on persuading us that what we are really looking forward to a festival of excess – of shopping, eating, drinking – even in a recession...or perhaps to a cute and cuddly baby, radiating unlikely though heavenly peace...and we don't seem to be very good at resisting that pressure.
Of COURSE it matters that we are able to relate to popular culture – for if we fail to do so, then we have no hope of sharing the gospel with friends and neighbours...but I suspect that sometimes we all of us take things a bit too far. It can be very hard to see anything different about the lives of all of who profess to follow Christ. It's all too easy to become simply “church goers” - defined by the way that we spend our Sundays – rather that radical disciples, co-operating with God's mission to share His love with the world.
And in Advent, it's so very easy for our preparations to be sidelined in favour of shopping, cooking, writing, wrapping...to treat these weeks as just the space in which to get ready for the feast.
But Advent focusses, too, on the 4 last things – Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell....unfashionable concepts that we prefer to skate over. But we need, all of us, to listen to the prophets...to engage with their message, which is, again and again, a call to REPENT.
The pictures that we are given make that very clear.
While Malachi finds the people of Israel accosting God with their own grievances, wanting to hold HIM to account, it is in fact they – and we – who face God's judgement. God will do anything ANYTHING to enable us to come close to him...- that's what Christmas is all about...- but as well as God's initiative, there is our response.
The Lord will suddenly come to his Temple. The Lord HAS come. The message of God to his people is lived out by Jesus, our Lord
Alleluia! God comes...
Amazing grace! God welcomes us, just as we are...
BUT as we draw near to God's holiness, those words that Malachi offered to the dissatisfied people of Israel will become true for us too.
We will be changed. We will be stripped of those things that we've clung to, those impurities that are so much part of life that we don't even notice them. They will be burned away – the very word “purify” comes from the Greek word for fire – or dissolved,as stubborn dirt by the caustic properties of fullers soap. He shall purify us, so that we too may present offerings in righteousness. That's the promise...A promise made 2400 years ago......but a promise to be trusted.
The Lord will come to his Temple – and purify his priests.
Fine words, a wonderful picture but after Malachi spoke, it seemed that nothing much happened. For another 450 years God's people waited – and then, when Jesus arrived, they waited some more.
The Lord they were seeking came to his temple, right enough,but it wasn’t what they expected. Instead of a warrior, the Lord came as a baby. Instead of military victory, the Lord experienced capture and a degrading death.
The New Testament writers had no doubt that the prophecy of Malachi was fulfilled in the coming of Jesus the Messiah. The Lord came and the people of God were remade. The whole people of God became the new priesthood, the spiritual descendants of Levi. Through Jesus’ death and resurrection, the sins of the people were dealt with once and for all, and the righteousness of God imparted to all who accept it.
But that was 2000 years ago, and perhaps we feel that we are in the same place as those Jews 450 years before Christ. The Lord came, and we beheld his glory, and then – nothing much happened.
Time, then, to listen to the wisdom of St Bernard, who said “The Lord's coming is threefold...and the third coming is between the other two and is not as visible as they are. The first coming was in flesh and weakness, the middle coming is in spirit and power and the final coming will be in glory and majesty
So – we are people who receive our Lord in that “third” coming.
Despite the creeping secularism, the mess and muddle of a broken church, we can be sure that the Lord has not forgotten us. He comes to us in Spirit and in power...transforming us as we meet Him in the Sacraments...
No longer limited to the Temple in Jerusalem, He is present in his people wherever they are. The Holy Spirit who came upon the disciples in tongues of fire at Pentecost is a transforming, purifying fire that can burn in all of us.
In these days of Advent we prepare to hear again of God's Love made flesh in the stable at Bethlehem – Christ's first coming, in all its aching vulnerability.
We heed the reminder, too, to look forward to Christ's second coming, when things that were thrown down shall be built up and all that was broken restored, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.
But we live with our daily experience of his coming – God with us to cleanse and heal as we repent and are absolved...God transforming us as He gives us himself, in bread and wine.