Saturday, December 5, 2009
Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent (December 6, 2009)
Text: Malachi 3:1-7b
With material from Wallace Becker in Concordia Journal, vol. 35.4, p. 404-5.
“Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” It's no secret that the messenger foretold in our text today is John the Baptist. St. Luke identifies John with this messenger in today's Gospel reading. Our Lord Jesus himself does the same in Luke 7 where he says of John, “This is he of whom it is written,” and then he quotes from the prophet Malachi. John the Baptist came as a messenger to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. He did so by calling the people to repentance and faith.
John the Baptist was the prophet who bridged the Old and the New Testaments. Before he came on the scene, there was no prophetic voice for close to 400 years. The last prophet before John was Malachi, whose book is the very last one in the library of books we call the Old Testament. Malachi's name means “My messenger.” But Malachi was not the one whom the Lord was promising to send. This honor fell to John the Baptist. But Malachi had a similar message to deliver to the people of his day. His message, too, was one of repentance.
Malachi lived in Judea after the captives had returned from exile in Babylon. The walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt under the leadership of Nehemiah, the governor. The temple had been rebuilt, although this temple was not nearly as glorious as the one that Solomon had built. Some of the exiles had seen the previous temple. But when they compared its glory to the present one, they wept.
Even though the people had returned to their homeland, they were still losing hope. Earlier prophets had foretold a glorious Day of the Lord in which their enemies would be routed, the wicked would be punished once and for all, and they would experience (as they understood it) the former glory of the nation of Israel. But this was not the Day of the Lord which they expected. In fact, it was the people themselves, especially their leaders – both prophets and priests – who continued to be unfaithful to the Lord and his covenant. This, in spite of the fact that the Lord had never failed to keep any of his promises to them, including bringing them back from Babylon.
Before we consider today's text, we need to look at the last verse of the previous chapter. There, Malachi accuses the people, “You have wearied the Lord with your words.” The people ask, “How?” Malachi answered, “You say that God overlooks evil. You ask, 'Where is his justice?'” It's the age old question: “Why do bad things happen to good people, yet good things happen to bad people?”
People still ask that question today: “Where is God's justice?” They see a criminal who somehow slips through the system, only to brutally murder four police officers. They hear of repeat offenders who do unspeakable things to young victims. Atheists and agnostics declare, “If there really is a God, wouldn't he be able to stop these atrocities?”
But those who ask the question, “Where is God's justice?” usually don't consider where they themselves will stand in God's judgment. God's justice would demand that he wipe us all out and send us eternally to hell. Those who ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” fail to consider St. Paul's words in Romans 3, “None is righteous, no, not one … no one does good, not even one.” In God's eyes, there is no such thing as a good person. All are sinners and fall short of the glory of God. Each of us only deserves God's judgment. Thankfully, God is patient with us. He doesn't want anyone to perish but wants everyone to come to repentance and faith. Yet his patience is misinterpreted by many as tolerance of evil and approval of the sinner.
“Where is God's justice?” God gives the answer in today's text. God will send his messenger to prepare the way for God, the Lord. And when he comes, he will indeed come to judge, but he will judge his people first. He will hold the leaders, both Levites and priests, accountable for their sins. And then, the prophet gets specific. They were guilty of sorcery; adultery; lying under oath; dishonest business practices; oppression of widows, fatherless, and aliens; and a lack of fear and respect of God. John the Baptist and Jesus were both pretty blunt with them, too, calling them a “brood of vipers.”
All this was meant to be, as the prophet says, “like a refiner's fire and like fuller's soap.” A refiner would sit before a pot with a blazing fire beneath and watch gold and silver melt inside, waiting for the proper time to pour off impurities that come to the surface. A fuller would use lye to clean and bleach wool before it was made into garments. In the same way, God's Law is applied to remove the dirt and impurities from the people's lives and lead them to repentance. Only then are they prepared to properly to meet the Lord when he comes.
This Lord is called the messenger of the Covenant, because he brings Good News of a new covenant, a new promise from God of forgiveness and life everlasting. He will come to his temple, Malachi says. This Lord of whom the prophet speaks made several appearances there. After his birth, he was brought to the temple so that the appropriate sacrifices could be offered as required by the Law. At age 12 he visited the temple and confounded the teachers with his wisdom. Around the age of 30, he threw the money changers out of the temple, full of zeal for his Father's house which had been turned into a marketplace rather than a prayer-place. And finally, we see him arrested and crucified within sight of the temple where he became, as John the Baptist called him, “The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The sins of all people were placed upon him. Your sins and my sins, every single one of them, were placed upon Jesus. God's justice was satisfied in the death of his Son.
Toward the end of the text, God says, “For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.” God's promise of grace and forgiveness to all who return to him in repentant trust was still held out to his people. Some did repent and come to faith in Jesus as Savior. And thanks be to God that he is just as patient with you and me. The God who does not change is just as patient and forgiving as he was in days gone by. His mercy is just as readily available as it has been in the past. Return to him in repentance to receive his grace.
Advent is a season of waiting. We wait, sometimes impatiently, for something better. We get discouraged, maybe even impatient with God. This impatience may even cause us to question our faith. Maybe we're even tempted to abandon that faith altogether, especially when we question God's justice.
Whereas you and I are often impatient, God is patient with us. And that means salvation for us, as St. Peter said, “Count the patience of the Lord as salvation.” (2 Pet. 3:15) Whereas we're tempted to abandon the faith, God promises, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Heb. 13:5) Whereas we question God's wisdom in allowing sin to go unpunished, we know that God's justice was fufilled in Jesus' death at the cross. St. Paul reminds us that God's patience over former sins was meant “to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Rom. 3:26)
Advent is all about the Lord's coming. In Advent, we prepare to celebrate his first coming while looking forward to his second coming, and we rejoice that he comes to us today in Word and Sacrament. Malachi's message of preparation … and John the Baptist's message of preparation … are appropriate for us every Advent season and always. The refiner's fire and fuller's soap of his Word purifies and cleanses our hearts and brings us to repentance, so that we are properly prepared for the Lord's coming with repentant hearts and with faith in the Savior who was born in Bethlehem.
The Lord still comes to his temple. You are his temple made of living stones. And he makes each of us his messengers, sent to prepare the way for his coming into the hearts and lives of people who are not yet part of this temple, his holy, beloved Church.