So we’re into the thick of Advent, now—this season of waiting and anticipation. Advent means “coming.” We’re waiting, eager for God, the One who is coming, to arrive among us in a new way. And the wisdom of the Christian calendar is that we don’t rush into what we’re waiting for. Retail stores have been trying to get us in the Christmas spirit for weeks already. If you’re a particularly organized person, you may even have your Christmas shopping done. If you’re like me, you might have realized that you’re running out of time. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I really like the cultural parts of this time of year—I like the decorations and the excitement; carols in November is a bit much, but I quite like Christmas music. Still, I’m grateful for this Church season that reminds us that there’s more going on in and around us than we can see or hear.
I’m grateful for this time that we have together to step aside from the mania of the season, and even from the more delightful diversions, and remind ourselves again that we’re not just waiting for a kind of seasonal break from an otherwise troubled world. We’re waiting for something more—not just our homes and neighborhoods dressed up in decorations and lights for a few weeks, but a world transformed by the grace and love and power of God. Advent reminds us that Christmas doesn’t have to be just a distraction from the hurt in the world, in our communities, in our hearts. What we’re waiting on isn’t a distraction, it’s a holy revolution.
Advent reminds us that we’re not being carried, helplessly, along by the currents of the culture around us—even the holly-jolly ones; we’re being caught up, graciously, in what God is doing in the world. We’re being called, here and now, to fill in valleys and level mountains, to make bridges and tear down barriers, so that the road between the world as it is and the world God wants doesn’t seem quite so impassible. We’re not just waiting for Christmas holidays to finally get here; we’re waiting for heaven’s kingdom to come—God’s dream for the world in all its fullness.
Part of that waiting is actually taking the time to think about what it is we’re waiting for. We’re not twiddling our thumbs until the angels get here, or tapping our toes ‘til we can dance with the shepherds. Our waiting is active and eager. It’s space to wonder “what will God’s dream for the world look like?” What would our lives look like if we really believe we’re getting ready for that? And so, we’re spending our Advent time this year, at U Hill, in the company of some of the Hebrew prophets—Jeremiah, Malachi, Zephaniah and Micah—these folks who are faithful in helping us think this out, relentless in reorienting us to, giving us a new imagination for God’s way in the world.
Jeremiah got the first word. Last week Jeremiah called us into a new imagination for what’s possible. He helps us take seriously the brokenness and mess of the world, even when we try to cover it in tinsel and make it smell like evergreens and cinnamon. But he also helps us look through that brokenness and mess to see that our hope is in nothing less than the God who made heaven and earth. He helps us grab hold of God’s promises, remembering that ours is the promise-keeping God. Jeremiah gives us a fresh imagination for how God’s promises have been kept, are being kept, and will be kept. In the midst of a chaotic world, Jeremiah reminds us that we are made for the presence of the God who can take chaos and shape it into beauty.
This week, Malachi picks up the promise. See, God says through him, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. Like Jeremiah’s word, Malachi calls us to see God on the move, God coming near, God doing something new. There is a difference, though, between these two prophets. The difference isn’t in the content of the promises, but the context and culture in which they are being made and kept. Jeremiah was preaching to world that was falling apart. Jerusalem was in shambles, destruction was around every corner. And things never got a whole lot better in Jeremiah’s lifetime. He sees Jerusalem utterly destroyed, and his people hauled off to Babylon, into exile. There are hints towards the end that all is not lost, and he holds fast to God’s promise through it all, but he’s a prophet during a time of massive upheaval, deep hurt and suffering—a time when it really looks like the ways of violence and death might finally win out; at time when people were starved for a word of hope.
Malachi, on the other hand, is preaching on the other side of the exile. People have been allowed to return from Babylon, to rebuild the Temple, to start to piece their life and culture back together. And in many ways, they have. Things are actually looking pretty good, by most measures. Good enough, in fact, that the peoples’ sense for what God is up to has grown dull. They’ve become lazy in their holding to God’s promises. The sharp imagination that Jeremiah had given Israel for another way, a God-shaped way, a way of life even in the midst of death, that wild resurrection way in the face of the life-destroying forces in the world, had been progressively worn down to a bumper-sticker sort of spirituality. The right words were being said, and right rituals performed, but there was no God-energy. Just before our passage for today, the prophet tells the people that their words have wearied the Lord. That’s not good.
If Jeremiah’s word comes to a people overwhelmed, Malachi’s comes to a people who seem to be kind of bored. They are sort of satisfied in the worst kind of way. They still cry out and sing about things like justice and righteousness, but they do so in a way that makes it seem as they’ve more or less accomplished those things and now what remains is for God to tidy up a bit around the edges. They seem to be under the impression that when God gets the world God wants, it’ll be a slightly improved version of the world they’ve made for themselves. Malachi’s word comes like a trumpet blast to wake up a people gone drowsy to the fact that God’s ways are not ours, that when we’re in cahoots with this God we’re in for more than we can ask or imagine!
I think it’s important that Malachi is talking to insiders. He’s talking to people who are “seeking the Lord,” who “delight” in God’s covenant promises. He’s preaching to people who hum hymns while they work and can recite their prayers by heart. His is a word is for folks who know something about the hard stuff that prophets preach about and against, folks who’ve read the headlines and seen the stats, who know that the world isn’t everything it was made to be—but who know it at arm’s length, who on most days are a step ahead of the world’s deepest needs and hurts. His word is for folks who aren’t opposed to a new imagination exactly, but who aren’t exactly desperate for it, either. I think I have to admit that for me Malachi’s word lands even more forcefully than Jeremiah’s, this year.
Malachi is bold to point out the Advent tension for those of us for whom things are going pretty well. He’s more direct about it than I happen to think is polite. The One you’re waiting for is coming—but who can stand when he appears? This seems like the scriptural version of “be careful what you pray for.” All that stuff we’re signing about—the world turned right-side-up, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as in heaven,” Come thou long expected Jesus—is going to happen. The promise is sure. God will get the world that God wants. But let’s don’t pretend as though we’ve worked that all out; let’s not allow ourselves to be satisfied just yet; let’s not let ourselves be lulled into believing that our lives are not also going to be the objects of God’s beautiful upheaval, God’s healing, and raising, and renewal.
Who can stand when God’s promise shows up? It doesn’t take a real sharp mind to figure that the prophet thinks the answer isn’t going to be very much more than no one. Malachi reminds us of the danger of waiting on the Light of the World. When the Light shows up, everything is illuminated in his presence. Nothing is hidden that won’t be revealed is the way Jesus puts it, which makes me just a little bit queasy. As Frederick Beuchner puts it, the gospel is sometimes bad news before it’s good news. When the light shines in the darkness, its shining is total, so that even the dusty corners, the junk drawers that we keep hidden from polite company, the stuff we’d really rather just cover up is lit up instead.
Malachi reminds us that we are dealing with the God to whom all hearts are known and from whom no secrets are hidden. And he seems to think that’s good news. He reminds us that the God into whose presence we come, to whom we lift our prayers and sing our praises is the One who is not content to leave us simply satisfied with our best will and efforts. God’s desire is not that we would have a comfortable living, but that we’d know life that is truly life! Life: shot through with holiness, vibrating with the gifts of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control—alive with resurrection possibilities well beyond what the world around us tells us is possible or permissible.
And while this might feel like a threat, depending on our perspective, Malachi is convinced that it’s a promise. The images he gives for God’s work not specifically in the world but in us are both intense and beautiful. A fuller makes fabrics: she scours cloth removing all the impurities, all the sullying dirt and oils, and in the process of fulling makes the fabric stronger, more durable, ready to be used for any number of possibilities. The silversmith’s fire scorches impurities and separates what is pure and valuable from the dross.
It matters that these images are not just for others and outsiders—people easier to imagine needing to be transformed. We’ve all got a list, don’t we? These images are for us, reminding us that there’s stuff God wants to get rid of in us, so that we can live as we’ve been made to live, strengthened and beautiful. God loves us just as we are and way too much to leave us that way. The stuff in us that we want hidden, God wants to shine a light on, not to wag a divine finger at us, but so that it can be dealt with. The stuff we cling to that actually weakens us, God wants to scour away. God wants to melt away the stuff that sullies our image-of-God-selves—shame and guilt, greed and fear, bitterness and hurt—God wants it gone.
Malachi isn’t especially prescriptive, he doesn’t tell us exactly what to do here. But he gives us these images that help us come a little more honestly into God’s presence. He reminds us that God doesn’t want just part of us, God doesn’t want us hanging back; God wants us fully, freely: running unbound, moving unburdened towards heaven’s kingdom, bringing it to life, here and now, for the sake of the world. He reminds us throughout this little book of sermons that there is no part of our lives that can’t be mixed up with what God is doing in the world. Our most intimate relationships, our marriages and friendships, are meant to remind us of God’s intimacy, God’s tenderness and generosity. Our day-to-day lives, our work and our play, our resources and skills are meant to reflect something of God in the world—God’s creativity, God’s joy, God’s generosity, God’s mercy and grace—all of it can find expression in us. Malachi agrees with St. Paul that whatever we do can be done with God’s glory in mind, and if it can’t then maybe that’s something we need to lay out and offer up, because it’s less than we’re made for.
I love the image, at the end of the passage, of our lives as glittering gifts worthy of heaven. In a couple weeks, we’ll hear from Malachi’s colleague, Micah, who wonders aloud what kind of gift God would want from us. What’s he come up with? Seek justice, love kindness, walk humbly with our God. That’s the stuff we’re made for. The justice we cry out for is meant to find expression in the way we live and move and have our being. The hope we proclaim is meant to be worked out in these bodies. The generosity of God is meant to be mirrored in how we are with our stuff. All of it in the presence and power and love of the God who made heaven and earth.
If we’re asking what we’re waiting for, this Advent, Malachi invites us to get personal with that question. What are you longing to be released from? Remember that ours is a God who wants to remove our sin—the stuff that binds, the stuff that messes up our humanity, that separates us from God and each other—as far as the east is from the west, further than the distance between heaven and earth. Where has your sense of what God is up to grown dull? Where do you need new energy, or a possibility you never imagined? I want to encourage you, this season, to offer that stuff to God in prayer. Know that we’ve all got it. If you can’t think of anything that God might like to change, or any corner of your life that God might want to blow the dust out of, that’s probably worth praying over, too! Not shamefully, but hopefully! Follow Malachi’s lead and come boldly and honestly to God, trusting in God’s extravagant love for you, God’s mercy and grace for you, God’s desire for you to know life that is truly life, more and more. We don’t exhaust what God wants for us. With God there’s always more: more hope, more peace, more joy, more love, more humanity.
I’ll finish with this: as I was reflecting on Malachi’s words this week, I kept coming back to the message that the church in Ephesus gets, in the Revelation. Jesus calls them to remember the love they had at first. They’re doing all the right things, but they’ve kind of forgotten why—they’ve lost that energy that comes with new love. Malachi’s word comes to those of us who might find ourselves in the same boat. And it comes as an invitation to remember. Remember the God we’re bound up with, who really will do more in us than we can ask or imagine, if we’ll allow it. Remember the lengths to which God will go to show us how loved we are—from heaven to earth, to be God with us, God on our side, walking humbly with us as we walk with him! At let that make us bold, let the wonder of it make us joyful, let the hope of it make us eager to grab hold of life that is really life.
Let it all make us ask that deep heart question: What are we waiting for?
Come Lord Jesus, come.