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Peter came up to the Lord and asked: ‘How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough?’ Jesus answered: ‘Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!’
(Matthew 18: 21-22)
We all know that families don’t always get on and there are times when someone goes off in a different direction. Take the opportunity this week to make peace in your families and community.
Peace comes when we learn to forgive each other and walk together, so we pray for families and communities, great and small, who are divided. When families and communities are divided by disagreements,
Let your peace come down.
When we fall out with those close to us, Let your peace come down.
When the world seems full of violence, Let your peace come down.
And may we be peace-makers on our journey too. Amen.
Bible Reading Malachi 3:1-3
A small exiled community, oppressed by Persian rule, economically weak, and lacking spiritual vitality. The was no peace with God, no practical peace within the community, or within the hearts of the people. They were in desperate need for a timely Word from God. And it comes through the messenger Malachi, who said:
I will send My messenger, and he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple, even the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight. He is coming, says the Lord of Hosts. 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; he will purify the sons of Levi, and refine them like gold and silver, and they will present to the Lord [acceptable] offerings in righteousness. (MEV)
Message Malachi 3:1-3, Luke 3:1-18
Stand - By Refinement to New Actions
What you just heard was God’s answer to the community’s cynical thinking that God had let them down because they were living in a harsh survival mode – accusing God of loving evil doers (the Persian Empire) more than this own people – “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17) was a demanding attitude that they didn’t tire of. They never got tired serving God. They didn’t put any energy into serving him so it never wore them out. But their sins and words were tiring out God, and if you can wear out the God who never tires or grows weary – then it must be a pretty bad thing. They gave offerings that were not heart felt, but merely an outward ritual action by which they expected God to then owe them the best overflowing blessings. Kind of like throwing carelessly throwing vinegar and baking soda together and expecting a great reaction. In science it does work, but God reacts to the committed heart relationship, not cold and calculating “magical or scientific or economic formulas.” “I gave you that, so now you have to give me ALL of THIS!” It doesn’t work that way.
The answer comes, God said his messenger would prepare the way, and then the lord would suddenly (and the word means imminently (very soon)) be at his temple, and the messenger of the covenant they were longing for would bring the justice they were looking for -- but it was not the justice they were expecting. They thought that the justice of God needed to be investigated and God needed to adjust to think like they were thinking. But Malachi reminds them that it is the impurity of the people that needed to be adjusted to God’s thinking. The question, “Who can stand when he appears?” is a rhetorical question – “When the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.” (Isaiah 40:3-5), none will be able to stand before the judgment of justice. We must prepare for his coming through a true change of heart.
A common symbol in the Bible for God’s personal presence is fire. Think: The Covenant first made with Abram – and between the offering Abram gave was a smoking firepot and a blazing torch (Genesis 15:17), The Call of Moses in the burning bush (Exodus 3:2), The giving of the Law on Mt Sinai covered with smoke and fire (Exodus 19:18), and the psalms and prophets (Psalms 18:8, 68:2; 97:3) and author of Hebrews speaks of his presence as all-consuming destructive fire (Hebrews 12:28-29).
But Malachi says, wonder of wonders, when the Lord appears, the covenant messenger will sit down and instead of delivering the well-deserved all-consuming fire of justice, he chooses instead to purge his people only of their impurity and restore them to right standing before God.
Fire is not always destructive. Like a bonfire camp fire or Christmas hearth, it can be warming, bonding, used to cook food, it can nourish the soil, it can be used to forge steel along with a myriad of other productive uses. We’ve already seen the fire of God is not always negative and destructive -- the covenant of Abraham and the call of Moses -- and here it is aligned as the tool of the refiner’s fire -- especially of silver. Why silver? Perhaps because the process of refining silver is very delicate and it is very easy for contaminants to come back into the silver so that it is not pure. That’s a warning, isn’t it? Remember Jesus talking about the demon that was cast out, but seven came back because nothing filled up that person instead? The book of Hebrews warns us again and again that once you’ve started, don’t fall back – it’ll be all the worse. But if it is done right – if the refiner does it right, and since God is the refiner, he will do it right -- but we need to cooperate with the process -- when the refining is done, the refiner knows it is complete because he can see his own image reflected in the surface of the silver. So the application here, to put it in the words of Alan Robinson, “God will now that is work [of sanctification in the New Law] has been completed when he see reflected in the Christian soul his own image.” When you see a Christian, you can see God reflected there.
And when the soul is right, then sacrifices can be offered rightly -- (The phrase has the word imagery of – (unlike cookie week where the thumb goes on the scale so you have to pay more 😉) it is an imagery is of balances, weights, and measures that are just and true and will not be unfair. And they will be true because the offerings are now offered with heart-felt, worshipful commitment to a relationship with God.
That leaves only two questions for us -- who is this messenger that clears the way? and what does a “heart felt right offering” look like? Malachi warning, and promise, was given around 440 BC.
There is some debate about who the messenger is. Some say it is Malachi himself preparing his contemporaries for the imminent (right now) fulfillment of God’s coming. After all, Malachi means “My Messenger” -- we aren’t even sure if the name of the book is the prophet’s name or title.
Other scholars say he is the embodiment of the whole line of prophets, going back to Elijah and all the way through – God’s message that comes to his people again and again and again. Others say it is some ideal figure. And there is also an idea that prophecies have multiple fulfillments. It was clear Isaiah was speaking to his own day and prophecies were being fulfilled, but then there was also a sense that they were being more ultimately fulfilled – later in the future.
For many Jews, the historical ideal prophet was Elijah, just as the ideal king was David -- and they were looking for both of them to return – not necessarily them in person, but in their line and in the way that they lived. Those kind of prophets and kings would come back and then all history would be wrapped up, so to speak, in ideal fulfillments. The messengers and messages and promises were fulfilled in similar circumstances more or less in the day the prophets spoke, and then again in future times, but then the New Testament connects these two figures as ultimately and finally, once and for all, completely fulfilled, not to be done again – in Elijah by the prophet John the Baptist, and David in the Messiah Jesus Christ…
Luke 3:1-2 Luke begins by naming the Roman political and Jewish religious leaders of around 27 AD. His goal was not so much to give us the approximate year of 27 AD, but to describe what the social climate was like because these are the kind of leaders we have -- moral degeneration, severe and cruel chaos, even amidst the religious leaders who were dismissed and replaced as the Roman rulers decided. In other words, times very living in times that were very similar to Malachi as well as many other negative times in the history of the Jewish nation – or for that matter, many nations.
In this dark and desperate period, God’s word pops on the scene -- first in John as the forerunner of the Jesus, who would appear on the scene about 6 months later. John’s work was to get the people ready for the heart cleansing, life-refining work that Jesus would bring to them.
He did this by preaching repentance of wrong-doing and baptized those who confessed their sins and gave indications that they desired to lead a different and better life. Do we desire to live a different and better life? With the assurance that God grants pardon to those who sincerely repent. He was nicknamed the baptizer because while the Jews did have some water ceremonies, and they actually did use baptism for those entering Jewishdom, John was doing something entirely different.
Luke 3:8b-10 In fact, he made the point that He coming into the heritage of Jewishdom was not enough, that going through the rituals of Jewishdom was not enough. There needed to be a different kind of preparation that was important. And it was especially important to prepare the people because their expectations were off. Just like in the days of Malachi, they expected God to come and in justice, wipe out everybody else and then they would be okay. Are you picking up the pattern? It keeps coming and coming and coming, doesn’t it? “God is to visit on the non-believers his justice, so that the believers would be privileged above all others – and then they could live however they wanted to live just because they were “God’s people” – as long as they somehow “connected themselves with the name”. And Malachi, and all the prophets, and John and Jesus said that’s not how it works.
The right offering
LUKE 3:3-6 Every crooked path had to be straightened, (if we are doing wrong, we need to straighten up) What is that phrase, “straighten up and fly right”? Fill in every stumbling pot hole, lower every obstacle so that the people can get back to a heart-felt commitment to a relationship offered and lived under a God-given covenant.
And this was hard work for John and the prophets and all who proclaimed this type of message because the people were always looking for God’s blessings as if God owed them, and never looking to their own lives and realizing their own sinfulness and spiritual failure… John had to point out to them their true need and told them to
LUKE 3:8-14 “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Luke 3:8) And then Luke gives a sampler of John’s sermon and of the types of different things that various people had to do to make that happen -- but the real issue is -- what should we do? (Luke 3:10,12,14) What do we need to do? And the specific application to our lives is how we apply this general principle which commentator Ralph Smith describes this way: “John replies [to the people] that [we] must do what lies [within our power] to carry out the well-known [covenant] demands of God – [which he sums up as] to show true neighborly love, and to not abuse what is within [our] power to take advantage of others “for [our] own enrichment”.
Luke 3:15-16 John’s preaching was so powerful that people began to wonder if he was the God-anointed king in the line and type of king David. Well, they got it mixed up. So, “John replied to all of them, ‘I baptize you with water. But the one who is more powerful than I is coming. I am not worthy to untie his sandal straps. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’” (Luke 3:16)
John says I can offer only an outward form indicating the desire for which people hoped. But after me, Christ is going to come and with the Holy Spirit is going to give you the inward baptism with a refining fire that consumes all impurities and cleanses the heart from the guilt and power of sin.
The Advent season promises a time of new beginnings, a renewal to God’s people, a hope of refining and purifying that leads to peace with God and others, and even within ourselves.
The purpose of the Christian seasons and the holy days is so that we can relive and recognize what God has done throughout all of history because what he has done through all history he has done for us because we are his people. The story of the faithful through the generations is our story. And so we put ourselves into the story so we can learn what they learned when those stories actually played out in history. So let’s put on our creative hats and put ourselves into the story today.
Our life, or the life, or both in the nation isn’t going that great. And when that happens, What do we expect from God? We wait for certain expectations, but are they accurate? Are they what God actually promised or are they what we made up because it is what we want God to be and do for us? And we wait, but nothing seems to happen. We get impatient. We have doubts. How heart felt is our covenant commitment? Can it hang on in the tough times? And then the prophets come and tell us that God isn’t the problem. That our expectations are wrong, and that is why we are mixed up. And while we wait, maybe we need to consider our own lives. And instead of thinking God needs to change and act, maybe we need to be acting differently. What might that look like? How purely do we demonstrate love for God and others? We long and seek for God -- we come out to join in on the movement reaching toward God. What entanglements need to be gotten out of the way as we reach for him? What obstacles need to be lowered, potholes need to be filled, curves need to be straightened out to smooth our way on our path toward God. What keeps us from getting us from where we need to be for him? Remember Hebrews 12:1? After all the examples that have been placed before us, we too should throw off everything that weighs us down and the sin that so easily entangles and fix our eyes on Jesus and move forward on the race that is set before us. We humbly approach the prophet as he comes on his way, and we move toward the front of line and his attention now turns to you, and so we say the question we hear everyone else saying, “What must I do?” The prophet turns and his fiery eyes meet yours and you know he looks past your face – he is looking into the depths of your soul and he knows all the doings of your life. He knows your words, he knows your attitudes, he knows your activities -- and he tells you what you must do so that you can be refined so that you can better live out your covenant loyalty … What does he say… to you… this season?
Closing Prayer Lord we are your people, your community. In a couple weeks Jesus will be born anew among the life of your people. Guide us to be ready for your coming. Help us to look at our work, our school, our recreation, our hobby, our home – every aspect of our lives -- look at our hearts and see if there be any wicked way within and reveal to us what is wrong that we may -- by your spirit, amend our ways and be cleansed and renewed in our discipleship of you. Amen.
Closing Blessing Now as you go, stand firm in the faith. Give yourself fully to the worthwhile work of the Lord. Be an example of how to prepare God's way to your heart, that you may welcome his coming and continue to grow from darkness to his glorious light - that we all may come and worship the king born in Bethlehem.
Closing Hymn # 220 (vv 1,2,4) Angels From the Realms of Glory