The Rev. Paul J Cain
Second Sunday in Advent C, 09 December 2012
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
About the Cover: John the Baptist heralds our Lord’s advent, crying out in the wilderness for us to make ready the way for our King in lives of true repentance and God-wrought faith. Each year when John steps before us, he challenges us to stop playing religious games and to realize that welcoming the Savior, whose opposition to sin never changes, into our lives is a matter of eternal life or death.
Malachi, whose name 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: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The prophet predicts the function of John: “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. (3:1). Jesus’ forerunner is referred to as one like Elijah in the concluding verses of Malachi: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (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, 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 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:
9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire...17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:9, 17)
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:
“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. (Mal. 4:1)
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, “Bear fruits 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:
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. 2 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 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
5 “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
6 “For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. 7 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.
Our God is trustworthy and true, unchanging, reliable, and merciful. The world may change around us and threaten uncertainty, so-called “tolerance” and a different so-called “truth” for as many people that exist, yet our Lord remains trustworthy and true, unchanging, reliable, and merciful.
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.