Our theme word for this Second Sunday of Advent is love, as in God’s love for us. Whatever capacity for loving God or loving others we possess as sinful and imperfect human beings does not come from us. It comes from God. In the New Testament, John reminds us, “We love because [the God revealed in Jesus Christ] first loved us.” Self-giving love, the kind of love God bears for us and that He wills for us, is foreign to us human beings. We’re born selfish down to the bone.
That’s why love, as popularly defined by the world, from God’s perspective, isn’t love at all.
Love, in God’s eyes, is more than affectionate feelings for us.
God’s love for us entails
- commitment to us (even when we doubt Him),
- confronting us for our wrongs (even when we hate ourselves for them), and
- refusing to enable us in our common human addiction to sin.
God’s love confronts the sinner, cleanses the repentant, and redeems the surrendered.
As someone has said, “God loves us just as we are. But He loves us too much to leave us there.”
God’s love calls the Christian to a life of constant Holy Spirit-powered change.
This is what we Lutherans mean when we speak of living in daily repentance and renewal.
God doesn’t force this way of life upon us.
It comes to us as we live in fellowship with Him and with His Church: as we gather in worship, as we read His Word privately and with others, as we receive God’s Word in Scripture, in the Sacraments, and in other ways, like the liturgy, preaching, and conversation with Christian friends who give witness to us about Jesus.
These are the means by which God loves us: confronting us, cleansing us, redeeming us.
As we trustingly receive God’s Word and receive the power to believe and obey, we are changed by God’s love.
It’s precisely this process of change that the apostle Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “...we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”
This morning, as we look at Malachi 3:1-7, I ask two big questions (of you and me):
First: Are we regularly spending time with God in His Word, contemplating His glory and allowing His transforming love to penetrate to every part of our lives?
Second: If we are spending regular times with God in this way, are we really listening for His confrontational, cleansing, redeeming Word (as opposed to looking for proof texts, merit badges, head knowledge, or some justification for self-righteousness)?
God seeks access to the cores of our beings so that He can make us over in the image of Christ from the inside out.
If our answer to either of those two questions is, “No,” as it can so often be for many of us, I suspect, including me, then we block Christ from having access to do His work of changing us.
Malachi, whose name literally means, my messenger, was sent by God to the people of Judah who were, sometimes without even knowing it, blocking God from their lives.
Malachi wrote sometime between 490 and 430 BC, about one-hundred years after Jeremiah, whose prophetic words we considered last Sunday. Jeremiah, you’ll remember, sat in a prison cell as the Babylonians prepared to conquer and sack Jerusalem, the place where the temple and the presence of God existed in Judah. The Babylonians exiled much of Judah’s population and destroyed the temple. But by the time Malachi became a prophet, Babylon had been conquered by the Persians. The Persians, in turn, had allowed God’s people, the people who had once inhabited Judah, to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple.
While many were disappointed that the second temple they built wasn’t as beautiful as the one built by Solomon, there was a deeper crisis among the Jews who had returned to the homeland, a crisis of faith. Scarred by their experience of being conquered and exiled, the returnees felt that God had let them down.
Have you ever felt that way? That God let you down?
You tried to be faithful but God didn’t seem to hear your prayers?
You jumped through all the hoops, but God didn’t seem to come through?
You worshiped God and trusted in Christ with all your heart, yet bad things have happened in your life, in the life of your family, the life of the world?
Likely, we all have felt at one time or another that God and His love have let us down.
When that feeling takes hold in us, we might go to worship more out of habit than conviction.
We might also spend less time with God.
We might let other habits, some of them perfectly innocent, others of them contrary to the will of God, take root in our lives, crowd God out of our lives, and then, wander further and further from God.
Malachi wrote our lesson for this morning to lovingly call God’s people back to an authentic walk with God and to hearten them with the vision of what God intended to do for them--and us--through His Messiah, His Christ, Jesus.
So, please look at our lesson, Malachi 3:1-7b. It begins: “‘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.”
God was going to send a messenger, in the Hebrew, a malachi, to prepare the way for God to process into our world.
The language is that of road building and repair, the kind that communities undertake when they know a king is going to process into their community. Even today, when celebrated people are scheduled to visit somewhere, the towns and cites spruce up in preparation. (It's been said that Queen Elizabeth smells fresh paint wherever she goes.)
Malachi says that a messenger--we believe that messenger was John the Baptizer--would prepare the world for the Lord Almighty, God enfleshed, Jesus, to arrive.
Today, as baptized believers in Jesus, our call is to prepare a way, in our lives and in the disciples we make, for the return of Jesus. How do we do that? Stick with me.
The lesson continues: “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. 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, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.”
Like other prophets, Malachi is saying that we may want to rethink our desire for Jesus to return quickly. We may not be as prepared as we think we are. We need to be refined and cleaned.
That means allowing the God we know in Jesus to clear out all of those things that keep us from being the saved, transformed people of God we were meant to be.
- All the sins, however secret we may try to keep them from the world.
- All the fears we have of this world, however much we try appearing we have it all together.
- All the suspicions that we may have that God isn’t real or that God doesn’t care about us.
The old must be discarded; the new life given to us through Christ must become embraced.
This is how we prepare for the coming of Jesus!
When we let the God we know in Jesus have access to us and go to work to cleanse us, we won’t be perfect. That will have to wait until after our resurrections. As long as we draw breath in this world, we will remain, by grace, saints AND sinners.
But Christ’s death on the cross will cover our sins and His resurrection will give us peace and hope in all circumstances and we will be prepared to meet the Lord our God!
The cleansing and renewal only God’s love can give us is ours when we can let the God we know in Jesus Christ into our lives the way David did when he prayed, “Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24)
Malachi continues, quoting God: “‘So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,’ says the Lord Almighty.” God still hates sins, including sorcery, adultery, perjury, bosses who defraud workers, and anyone who oppresses widows, orphans, or foreign strangers.
But God also loves the sinners who commit sin.
That’s why God became human at Christmas and then went to the cross on Good Friday to take our punishment for sin.
Listen: God can forgive any sin and He can give new life anyone who turns to Jesus, God the Son. “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest,” Jesus tells us (Matthew 11:28). That really is the final message God gives to us through Malachi today.
God says in our lesson: “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.”
In this imperfect world, things happen that we cannot explain, things that hurt.
Some of them will happen because of our own sin and rebellion, our failure to turn to God in faith.
Others will happen because bad things happen in a fallen world.
These things will keep happening until the day Jesus returns, when our unchanging God, will make all things right in His new creation.
Until then, our call is to daily return to Jesus.
When we return to the God we know in Jesus, day in and day out, submitting to Him as He confronts, cleanses, and redeems us, as we lay our lives before Jesus in trust, we will be prepared to meet Jesus without fear, certain of His love, whether it happens today, tonight, tomorrow, at Christmas, at the ends of our lives, or at the end of this world.
As we turn to Jesus and let Him love us, we are prepared, ready, for anything.
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]