The Rev. Paul J Cain
Wednesday of Advent 2, 09 December 2009
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Malachi, which means “my messenger,” is the last prophet of the grace of God until John the Baptist appears approximately 400 years later. And so it is fitting for Malachi to prophesy concerning the forerunner of Jesus, who will proclaim: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The prophet predicts the function of John: “ ‘See, 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” (3:1). Jesus’ forerunner is referred to as one like Elijah in the concluding verses of Malachi: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse” (4:5–6; cf. Mt 11:13–14; 17:12–13; Mk 9:11–13; Lk 1:17).
In Jeremiah’s day, 600 years before Jesus, Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed. This we learned last week. The people were taken to exile in Babylon. Seventy years later, the exiles return. Spurred on by the prophetic activity of Haggai and Zechariah, the returned exiles (under the leadership of their governor Zerubbabel) finished the temple in 516 B.C. In 458 the community was strengthened by the coming of Ezra the priest and several thousand more Jews. [The] King (Artaxerxes) of Persia encouraged Ezra to develop the temple worship (Ezr 7:17) and to make sure the law of Moses was being obeyed (Ezr 7:25–26).
Although the Jews had been allowed to return from exile and rebuild the temple, they were discouraged. Their land remained but a small province in the backwaters of the Persian empire. The glorious future announced by the prophets (including the other postexilic prophets, Haggai and Zechariah) had not (yet) been realized. Their God had not (yet) come to his temple (3:1) with majesty and power (as celebrated in Ps 68) to exalt his kingdom in the sight of the nations. Doubting God’s covenant love (1:2) and no longer trusting his justice (2:17; 3:14–15), the Jews of the restored community began to lose hope. So their worship degenerated, and they no longer took the law seriously. This is the situation Malachi ministered to, about 400 years before Christ.
Malachi once more reassures and warns his readers that “the day [‘that great and dreadful day of the LORD,’ 4:5] is coming” and that “it will burn like a furnace” (4:1). In that day the righteous will rejoice, and “you will trample down the wicked” (4:1–3). So “remember the law of my servant Moses” (4:4). To prepare his people for that day the Lord will send “the prophet Elijah” to call them back to the godly ways of their forefathers (4:5–6).
In walks one like Elijah, that is, John the Baptist, whom we read about on Sunday. A portion of St. Luke chapter 3 is our Gospel lesson this week, but only the first six verses. The remainder of the chapter is relevant to what Malachi said about the coming Lord: 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.
St. Luke 3 shows that John does the work Malachi foresaw: John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 “What should we do then?” the crowd asked. 11 John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” 13 “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. 14 Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.” 15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. 16 John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and preached the good news to them.
John certainly did exhort the people. But before he gets to the Good News, he proclaims the law. He shares about the coming judgment that the Messiah would bring. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire…His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.
The refiners fire. Thrown into the fire, Burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. Malachi and John are talking about the same things. The reference to the coming wrath is both a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem that occurred in AD 70 and the final judgment, the Day of the Lord that Malachi speaks of in chapter 4, the same chapter where he prophesied about John being one like Elijah. “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them.
Fire means judgment, coming wrath. The ax is at the root—a symbolic way of saying that judgment is near for those who give no evidence of repentance. His winnowing fork. The chaff represents the unrepentant and the wheat the righteous. Many Jews thought that only pagans would be judged and punished when the Messiah came, but John declared that judgment would come to all who did not repent—including Jews.
After His first Advent, the judgment, wrath, fire, ax, and winnowing fork were reserved for the unbelieving Jews. The Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed yet again in AD 70. John preached, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” But his words were not heeded by many. And destruction was the consequence. Both the preaching of Malachi and John the Baptist prepare us for what we know as the Second Advent, the Second Coming of the Messiah, the Christ as Judge. “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance,” we are told. Our works do not earn our salvation, but our thoughts, words, and deeds can threaten our salvation, if they are not in keeping with repentance. Let us learn from the mistake of those who would not repent after hearing John’s preaching. Let us heed the words of our Lord’s messengers as we prepare for the Day of the Lord. It will be great and dreadful for those who do not repent. But for those who repent, the Judge is our advocate. Let us heed the words of our Lord’s messenger:
“See, 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 LORD will 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.
Our offerings are acceptable to the Lord, and we bring them in righteousness, only because the Lord Christ has purified and refined us like gold and silver. But He did not purify us using gold or silver, as we confess with Dr. Luther: I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true. Amen.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.