December 5, 2021
On this second Sunday in Advent, our Old Testament reading comes from the book of Malachi. Couple of things that are interesting about Malachi that would be good for you to know before we hear these verses.
One… is that unlike the other prophetic books in this part of the Bible, Malachi is most likely not a single individual. The Hebrew word from which we derive the title Malachi means “my messenger”. What’s interesting about that… which we’ll explore some later in the sermon… is that while this was written at a certain time and addresses the conditions of that certain time… to be Malachi… is to bring the word of God to the people of God. So being a prophet isn’t about the individual… that that individual is somehow made special in some way… different from everyone else around them… it’s about the word they bring… and whose word they bring to their particular time and to their particular conditions.
Which brings us to the second bit of information that is good to know… the how… how these words of Malachi are presented. There is an imaginative dialogue happening in this writing between the people and the prophet. The people are bringing their questions forward… not the inquiring, seeking knowledge type of questions… but questions that are being born out of doubt and skepticism. This book was written after the second Temple is built… after the time of the exile… after the people have returned to Jerusalem which had been sacked by the Babylonians a generation ago. Their connection to God is tenuous at this point in the larger story… and why wouldn’t it be with all that they had been through. So, the people put it out there before God’s messenger. “All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” Those are words born out of pain and distrust. Aren’t they? Or they ask… “Where is the God of justice?”
And that’s the question that launches our passage. Listen as God speaks to the people of God through God’s messenger.
The people ask, “Where is the God of justice?” God answers, “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” It is one thing to ask where is the God of justice when you believe you have been wronged… and you long for retribution or at least a sense of satisfaction. Where is the God of justice is a question that brings with it a long list of grievances… grievances that God had better stand and give answer to. It’s another thing, however, when the God of justice appears and instead of looking into the case you bring forward about how much you’ve been wronged… looks instead at how just you have been. How have you lived out God’s righteousness as God’s people even when… even when the world was turned against you? Even when you weren’t being rewarded in the way you believed you ought to be rewarded… in a way that you are sure you are owed because of who you are. You are God’s chosen people.
But… that designation carries with it different expectations by God.
It's the lesson that Jesus will later make crystal clear… talking about first taking care of the log in your eye before being concerned about the speck in your neighbor’s. That’s the hypocrisy the prophets highlight over and over again. Leave punitive justice to God… don’t let your concerns get stuck there… don’t let your need for retribution overwhelm your focus. Instead… first and foremost… be the just people of God. You live by God’s ways. You show God’s justice at work in the world. Make that your primary concern. Make that your defining characteristic. If we keep reading into the next verses of Malachi’s answer to the people’s questions we’ll find that same lesson at work… using the same words we have heard time and again from many different prophets. Speaking in God’s voice starting at verse 5… “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.” Those are the words from God’s messengers time and time again. God’s justice does not change. The words do not change. The actions of God’s people fall short. Their sins get named while they first call out for punitive justice against others. The day is surely coming says the Lord, but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me… these words on this second Sunday in Advent are always attached to John the Baptist. John coming out of the wilderness… coming to God’s people with the same prophetic words… repent… return to God… first be the people God is calling you to be. There is no magic to be found in John’s baptism. It is not the water that makes his baptism special. It doesn’t matter that he is standing in the Jordan. It doesn’t matter whether he is scooping up the water in hands and pouring it over the people’s heads or if he is somehow plunging them underneath. What matters is the quality of repentance. And by that I don’t mean how well they put on the sackcloth and ashes or feel sorry… it’s about repentance… returning to God… having that fear of God so that being a person of God’s justice means not being the accuser but being the creator of justice… the doer of God’s justice… even if it comes without any other reward or advantage than knowing God’s justice is done.
John comes to prepare the people in the way of the Lord. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus attaches these words we read from Malachi directly to John. And then Jesus calls out the critics and the ones who are addicted to the accusing rather than the doing… “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Change the word wisdom to justice and we’re back to where we began… Where is the God of justice? And God asks in return, “Where are the people of God’s justice?”
We see this in Luke’s gospel when John tells the crowds “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. 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.” In response, the people start to ask, “What then should we do?” Different people from different walks of life. What then should we do? And all of John’s answers are simply… do God’s justice. Do God’s justice where and how you are able to do God’s justice. There’s nothing that John says to the people on the shoreline that requires supernatural powers or a level of greatness that only comes after a long arduous quest or years of deep and heavy spiritual training. No, his answers are kinda boring and every day. Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. To the tax collectors who ask, he tells them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed to you.” To the soldiers, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” If you wonder where the God of justice is, the God of justice won’t be found where intentional sin is the fruit you bear. If the adulterer were to ask John what they should do… John would say quit committing adultery. To the liar, he would say tell the truth. To the one who oppressed the hired workers their wages… do better. Let go of oppression for profit and foster instead a culture of generosity and fairness. See to the good of your neighbor.
Saints, this morning you will elect a new class of elders for Parkway. And officially they are called Ruling Elders, not because they lord over or rule over the congregation from on high or anything like that… but because it is the purpose of the Ruling Elder to do the kinda boring stuff that it takes for us to be the people of God. Making sure we who have food give to those who do not. Or leading us in other mission tasks, or in education, or in making sure the institution is functioning so that we together can do some of these every day ministry bearing of fruit that is worthy of repentance. You know… because so many of you are ordained elders… that the Elders bring their own sense of calling to the congregation so that we might measure up to our common calling. While I was writing this week, I kept thinking about one example of one of our outgoing elders who will finish out her term, but will not stop working on her passion project. And this is in no way some sleight against our other outgoing elders and the work that they have done and will continue to do as they live their faith… but this morning I wanted to highlight real quick… here at the end… Kathy White and the work she’s done to try and create the One Child One Church program with our congregation being the one church of this pilot program. You may not remember because it’s now been years since this idea was first introduced, but the idea itself is simple… a way to inject a bit of kindness and care from a congregation into the life of one foster child. That’s it. Trying to give a bit of care to a single orphan so to speak… to use the scriptural language. Plant some seeds in good faith and see what grows. No guarantees. No false promises of success. Trying to say… here in this small way… is the God of justice as lived through the people of God. Kathy has been working on this idea the whole time she’s been an elder and… unless something’s changed this week… it’s still not figured out exactly how this idea is going to work. But it takes patient… little steps… to move us forward. In this way Kathy is Malachi. She is God’s messenger preparing the way.
In so many different ways, each of you too can be Malachi, sent and preparing the way for the Lord. It doesn’t have to shake the world… it can, but it doesn’t have to… it just has to make God’s justice a reality in some way. And that action… like any good fruit… has seeds within that may replicate and bear more good fruit.
We do with what has been given. We use what we have grateful for the opportunity to serve a God of justice. That’s the story from the past. That’s the story now. That’s the story as we constantly prepare for Christ’s return. Amen.