Monday, December 10, 2012

December 9, 2012 - The Messenger

Luke 3:1-6
Malachi 2.17

     Celia and I have a long-time friend, Kathy. She loves Christmas. Her house at Christmastime is a wonderland of lights and magic. The tree goes up early; the packages are out by the first Sunday of the season, each perfectly wrapped. The only problem with having Kathy as a friend is that she is working on her Christmas all year long. She really buys Christmas decorations at the half-price sales after Christmas. At annual conference, her mind is focused on December. If we travel with them, she is always shopping for Christmas gifts. All of this obsession would be maddening except that when the Christmas season comes, she is ready – really ready – from the very beginning of the season. Once the Christmas season begins, she is calm and relaxed and makes the season a pleasure for everyone around her.
            One year, I visited in their home just after Christmas. The children began to bring out their treasures. Her husband was looking good in some new bit of clothing that fit perfectly. We must have been with them a lot over the year leading up to that Christmas. It seemed that everything they showed us was something I had seen Kathy choose on one of her summertime shopping trips. As we saw their Christmas displayed that day, I understood why each of those shopping trips over the past year had been important. She really had prepared for a great Christmas.

            To read the Prophet Malachi is watch God at work preparing as only God can for the perfect Christmas. 400 years before the birth of the Christ Child, God was addressing the people of Israel, calling them to watch, sharing the sort of Christmas that God had in mind, and reminding them that God is already preparing for the day.

I. TEXT: The Prophet Malachi comes at the end of the Christian Old Testament. The book was most likely written in the years after the Exile when the Israelites had returned home to rebuild Jerusalem. Life is hard; patience and faith are in short supply. Instead of being a nation among the nations of the earth, Israel is just a province of Persia with a foreign governor. Jerusalem is not a great capitol; it is not at the center of anything. The people are living in poverty; and they are morally failing.
            Malachi understands the objections and misery of the disappointed people, and so his entire book is set out as a series of disputes between God and the people. The concerns of the book are fairly common ones, which might apply in any age or community:
+poor service by the priests;
+the breakdown of marriage;
+people are disillusioned with God’s justice – or lack of it;
+misuse of the tithe;
+finally, there is sorcery, adultery, false witness, oppression of working people, against the widow and the orphan, and mistreatment of the alien among them.
In the center of this listing of commonplace sins, stands the passage we have read this morning. It turns to the promise of God returning in power and in justice. Without it, we might set aside Malachi as a fussy teaching on everyday living. With this passage at the center, all that is happening becomes the context for God’s great intrusion into history and the world.

            A. The Passage begins with the prophet’s charge that the people have wearied the Lord with their words. The people come back: “How have we wearied the Lord?” You can imagine a lively town-hall meeting in the Temple area – the prophet shouting his message and the crowd talking back with cat-calls and debate. The prophet will not back down: “You have wearied the Lord by saying, ‘Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.’ Or by asking, ‘Where is the God of justice?’”
            I can imagine the prophet shaking his fist in righteous indignation for the Lord. But, I also hear the pain in the crowd. Times were hard: economically, politically, and as a result, spiritually. They were ruled by the Persians; they did not own their nation.
            Their situation, though worse than ours, sounds familiar. We have been through several years of recession. We have just gone through a bruising election campaign. We are the weary ones, too.
            **I was at lunch in early November, just before election day, talking about what the election would mean. Realizing that our group represented more than one political persuasion, we were studiously avoiding any partisan claims that would have divided our fellowship. At some point one of our most conservative friends around the table said simply, “I’m worried about our country.” And, perhaps the most liberal person around the table responded, “Yes, I think we are all worried about our country.” On that we all agreed.**

Well, it is one thing for a group of friends to express their worries around the lunch table. It is a completely different matter for a prophet to start pointing fingers. If the prophet Malachi were among us, would he challenge our city on its moral failings? Would he challenge us on our lack of faithfulness to God? Would the prophet challenge the complaints we are raising against heaven? The Israelites responded: “How have we wearied him?” We would probably respond, “What are you talking about?” And “Who are you to tell us how to live anyway?”
            As we re-read the exchange in the town hall meeting between the people and the prophet, you sense an unspoken worry. It is a worry that is likely the source of their weariness and contentiousness. They speak as people who are not sure about the presence of God among them. Ancestors they can name led them into Exile. Ancestors they can name saw the destruction of Jerusalem. And now the grinding poverty makes the promises of blessing and grace and presence seem very hollow indeed. “Is there any word from God?” They don’t quite state the question so directly, but it is there, just below the surface of the argument.

II. So, before the Prophet lets us get bogged down in our indignation, he pronounces a promise from God.         
3 “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts.

This is a direct promise that the Lord is among us and cares about this world which God created. More than merely watching, our God is coming among us. It is God’s answer to our greatest worry and our fondest hope.

III.  But read on: as this messenger goes before the arrival of Lord, his coming will be a frightful thing. Wait! I thought that when the Lord came, it would be a joyous thing – like Christmas is supposed to be joyous. But the prophecy goes on to say:
            2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

There is an ominous ring to these words.
            Well, between the end of the O.T. and the writing of the N.T., the belief grew that this messenger, this forerunner, would be the returning Elijah, the greatest prophet of the Jewish history. For Christians, who heard the stories of John the Baptist preparing the way for Jesus, he was the one foretold by the prophecy.
            Luke recalled this expectation in his description of John the Baptist at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'"

7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." (Luke 3:2-9 NRSV)

Like Malachi, John was filled with fire and brimstone. The people are not ready to see the coming of God. If the people are going to find the joy at his arrival, they will only do it through repentance and return to God’s righteousness. Odd, isn’t it? There is joy in Christmas. There is hope in God’s story. But, God’s hope comes through turning and returning in righteousness.
            So, does God intend the coming of the Christ Child to be a source of joy or judgment? Should we be terrified at His coming or delighted? *Does the modern joy at Christmas miss the point?* Let me explain it this way.
            I am a hand washer – I wash my hands before eating, before handling things that should stay clean, sometimes for no reason at all. I come by it honestly. One of my long-time friends is a doctor who goes through flu season using hand sanitizer before and after each patient. Actually, he does not wait for flu season to start this; he does it year ‘round. He proudly observes that he rarely catches what his patients have.
            I take some grief for my hand-washing fetish but remain unrepentant. As a matter of fact, I was in the hospital recently to visit a newborn baby and her mom. As I entered the room, the mother stated matter-of-factly, “If you are planning to hold the baby, you’ll have to wash your hands.”
            I smiled at her standard: First, she offered to let me hold the baby. Second, everything I believe about washing my hands had been vindicated. It was a good visit. 
          We have arrived at the 2nd Sunday before Christmas. The words of the Prophet Malachi speak in two voices. His words promise a great joy which shall be to all peoples. His words also speak of the preparing for Christmas with righteousness and faithfulness. Both voices must be heard; both voices speak this great message.
            It’s almost Christmas, friends. We wait out in the fields with the shepherds watching our flocks by night, working well through the second shift. When the angels come with Good News, we want to go even unto Bethlehem to see this that the Lord has made known to us. I can already see the old prophet sitting by the door to the Christmas manger watching the crowd straggle in to see the baby. But, he is not silent; he holds up a hand to catch our attention: “If you are planning to hold the baby, you’ll have to wash your hands.”

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