The Messenger - Week 4: "Readiness"
Today we're going to conclude the sermon series, "The Messenger," our study in the book of Malachi. This series is helping us to prepare for the coming of the season of Advent.
And guess what? Advent begins next week.
The word Advent means "expectation" and our expectations should be pretty high this year.
Our expectations should be high because things have been pretty icky for a while. There have been horrible mass shootings in America, but also around the world. Over 250 people died this week in Egypt from an act of terrorism. There are wars and the rumors of war.
We could use a lift.
I'm expecting one. I think that God is still in the miracle business. I think that joy is coming and I choose to believe that peace is going to happen. I also want to straight up claim some joy and some love, too. Can I get an "Amen?"
I want so desperately for the Church, the Body of Christ to believe the same thing--that God is still in the business of performing really big miracles. Those of us who call ourselves Christians say that we do, but for the most part we live as though we don't believe a bit of it. Christians drift about in their Christian circles saying all of the right things but not really putting their arms around a faith that can move mountains. Especially when the mountains in question have names like World Peace, Hunger, Racism, War, Hatred, Poverty and Injustice.
And we live as though Jesus isn't coming.
I've heard it said that the most important life lessons that we ever learn we learn in kindergarten. I believe that. Imagine how many complicated situations could have been avoided if people just kept their hands to themselves. Or how about the warning against eating paste? That, my brothers and sisters, is a life lesson well learned. Paste is most definitely not for eating--even though it is non-toxic and tastes strangely good.
When I was in kindergarten I learned a valuable lesson that has stuck with me: kindergarten teachers have eyes in the back of their heads. And sometimes in other places as well. I was in Mrs. Rogers kindergarten class when I was five. Mrs. Rogers had been teaching kindergarten for like 30 years in 1974, and I suspect she may be still teaching it today. She was like a mystical creature to me. She knew everything that you were doing--sometimes even before you did it. It was like she could look at you and see all of your transgressions past, present and future laid before her like a map.
"Don't even think about pulling her hair," she would bark at the boy next to me who had not moved or flinched at all for the past five minutes. But by the way his face turned white, we would all know that he had been thinking about it. It was uncanny.
So I vividly remember Mrs. Rogers being called out of the room to go to the school office, which happened to be right across the hall. She gave severe instructions for us to remain in our seats with our hands folded until she returned.
Yeah, I know. We were kindergartners. And she was gone for an eternity. Well, at least three minutes, but three minutes is an eternity for five year-olds. We were like the Children of Israel in the Exodus story when Moses went up on the mountain and was busy getting the 10 Commandments and enjoying some alone time with God. They decided that since Moses was obviously dead that they needed a golden calf to give them hope. Then all hell broke loose with parties, orgies and craziness.
We were too young to worship golden calves or engage in Mesopotamian fertility rituals, but about a dozen kids began to wander around the room. One boy climbed up on the table and began to do an Elvis impersonation. The kid next to me began to yank the girls hair that he had previously been forbidden to yank. A strange boy named Douglas began shoving paste into his mouth with impunity. Toys were broken out and played with in the open. It was chaos.
And for once in my short, disobedient life I felt compelled to sit right where I was without moving.
What none of us realized, of course, was that the intercom on the wall in our room was controlled from the church office and Mrs. Rogers (owing to her 30 years of experience) had turned it on to listen to us. Suddenly her voice boomed through the intercom and across the room, "Everyone who is standing up or out of their seat needs to freeze right where they are!" The party was over. Moses was coming.
It was a sorry sight indeed that Mrs. Rogers returned to witness. Douglas froze with his hand jammed into the paste pot and incriminating paste globs on his lips and chin. The boy yanking hair froze in mid-yank which caused no end of consternation for the girl whose hair he was yanking. The boy on the table froze as he shimmied, his best Elvis snarl replaced with a look of terror.
Mrs. Rogers strode into the room with the Assistant Principal. Over a dozen kids were lined up and spanked right on the spot. It was a bloodletting.
I learned something that day that I need to be reminded of occasionally: Sometimes it pays to get caught doing the right thing.
The Scripture for this week's Advent study is Malachi chapter 4. Malachi is the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures or what Christians know as the Old Testament. Some 400 years pass between the end of Malachi and the beginning of Matthew.
And the final chapter of Malachi is incredibly hard to read. Are you ready for this? Put yourself in the shoes of the ancient Hebrew people getting this bit of prophecy:
1-3 “Count on it: The day is coming, raging like a forest fire. All the arrogant people who do evil things will be burned up like stove wood, burned to a crisp, nothing left but scorched earth and ash— a black day. But for you, sunrise! The sun of righteousness will dawn on those who honor my name, healing radiating from its wings. You will be bursting with energy, like colts frisky and frolicking. And you’ll tromp on the wicked. They’ll be nothing but ashes under your feet on that Day.” God-of-the-Angel-Armies says so.
4 “Remember and keep the revelation I gave through my servant Moses, the revelation I commanded at Horeb for all Israel, all the rules and procedures for right living.
5-6 “But also look ahead: I’m sending Elijah the prophet to clear the way for the Big Day of God—the decisive Judgment Day! He will convince parents to look after their children and children to look up to their parents. If they refuse, I’ll come and put the land under a curse.”As I read this passageI was reminded of the lesson I learned in Mrs. Rogers kindergarten class. This isn't just a season of expectation, it's a season of readiness. And sadly, I think that most Christians are just doing whatever they think is right in their own eyes because they've lost faith that the Christ is really coming to redeem all of Creation.
The Hebrew people had lost hope for the most part, not only here in Malachi, but throughout the 400 years that followed. By the time Jesus was born, the Empire of Rome so thoroughly dominated the ancient world that it was the god of the age, and Caesar was it's embodiment. As they had done in the days of Malachi, God's people began to wonder if God had begun to be pleased with evildoers, and had forgotten his people and the covenant God had with them. They, too, asked "Where is the God of justice?"
Their world was one in which the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob seemed to have all but disappeared. The Pharisees added more laws to the 600-plus Mosaic laws that already existed in hopes that by doing so they could turn things around and make God happy again. There were groups of people called Nazrites who didn't bathe or cut their hair and basically prayed for Israel night and day to be delivered. The religious centers had become corrupt and religious leaders had basically been seduced by political power and began blurring the lines between politics and faith. And the vast majority of people in Jesus' world just did the best they could to live and exist under the weight of the Empire and the dread that somehow all they had been taught about God was a lie.
That's why I love the words of Malachi juxtaposed as they are against the beginning of the Gospel stories. Malachi declares that the messenger (malak - a word for angel or messenger) is coming. The Lord will return to his temple. The religious leaders are going to be purified or consumed (it seems unclear). The Messiah is imminent and he will be like a refiners fire or a launderer's soap.
And there will be a list of people who God says will not be ready, and who will be caught doing the wrong things.
They are named off earlier in Malachi's prophecies, which makes it convenient for us:
Sorcerers (those who generate superstition and fear),
Adulterers (God uses this literally and figuratively because Israel has "cheated" on God), Perjurers (people who swear to tell the truth and then don't),
Those who defraud laborers (dishonest business people),
Those who oppress the widows and the fatherless (people who don't care about the weak and the poor)
Those who deprive foreigners justice (people who treat immigrants like trash to be discarded)
Those who do not fear God (people without a healthy respect for God and God's commandments).
In Jesus' day these same words could have been used to describe all those who had been seduced by the Empire.
Who are we kidding? These same words could be used to describe some of us.
I love how Malachi's words are echoed by Jesus so many times throughout the Gospels. Malachi calls out the religious leaders first and foremost. So did Jesus. And it's become far too easy for those of us who call ourselves Christians to become lulled by the safety of distance and to assume that these words don't apply to us. They do. Big time.
The declaration by Malachi should be frightening for any age that thinks that God is absent in the world. And here's something else that needs to be said: For those who truly trust and obey God, the coming of the Messiah will bring joy. For those who don't, it will be like getting caught eating paste when we should have been living in obedience. And before my ultra-conservative, (E)vangelical Christian brothers and sisters start feeling smug about what I just said... I would urge them to read where I illuminated those who God says will not be very happy at the coming of the Christ.
Go do it now. It was like three paragraphs ago.
Christians are guilty of these things. We generate superstition and fear if it suits them and if it will grow our churches. We deny God and God's commandments when it suits us and our own needs.
We talk a good game on Sundays but negate everything we say with the way we live every other day.
We are dishonest in business if it means that we will get ahead. We don't really care enough about the poor and the weak to live in solidarity with them. We could care less about immigrants and their plight, and see them as a nuisance and a threat. We don't show a healthy respect for God because we ignore his commands to show mercy and kindness and do justice with humility.
We're not ready, and so it looks pretty bleak for us doesn't it?
What we need to know is that the role of the prophet in the ancient world was to present a possible future. Malachi offers up the image of some pretty terrible things---IF the people of Israel continue living the way they are living.
Then he tells them that the messenger is coming... Elijah is coming... and when John the Baptist leaps off the pages of the New Testament he dresses, speaks, preaches and calls people to faithfulness just like Elijah...
And then he sees Jesus and says "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world."
Are you ready for Jesus? Is your heart ready? Is your life in order? We need to be ready for the coming of the Messiah, beloved. If we are going to live into the hope of the coming season of expectation, we need to have eyes ready to see Jesus, ears ready to hear him and hearts ready to be transformed by him.