December 9, 2012
While the world outside the church is a winter wonderland, and every radio station plays songs announcing that all is merry and bright, inside, we hear two prophets declaring the moral bankruptcy of God’s people. John proclaims the need for “a baptism of repentance” that will bring forgiveness. Malachi announces a messenger who will bring purification.
Most of the little book of Malachi consists in his laying out the reasons for this needed cleansing. The priests of Israel have desecrated the temple with disrespectful sacrifices. Judah has turned toward foreign gods by marrying outside of the covenant people. The people’s faithlessness has wearied the Lord. Overall, the problem is clear: The people have erred and need to be made clean.
Now Malachi is a book about events that probably that took place around 500 years before Jesus was born — around the time when the new temple was completed. But the charges he brings against the people of God are sadly pertinent for every place in every century. It’s no secret that in our time there are still that false prophets and priests who do not contribute to the righteousness of the temple, but who twist the Lord’s teachings to suit their own needs. We still fail to adhere to God’s commands, or to fulfill our duties to God, or to build up our neighbors. Some people who claim to speak for the Christians faith do not urge us to work for justice or to care for those in need, but instead endorse policies that privilege the already-privileged. The poor among us still lack food; and the sick and elderly still lack proper care. Earth’s health is shunted aside in the name of jobs and profitability. We sacrifice animals, plants, soil, water, and air for the sake of those who wield the most power. The word of the Lord, spoken by Malachi, is a word for all people: The Lord is not pleased with what is going on in our world. Repent!
About 500 years after Malachi calls the people to repent and get ready to be refined by God, John the Baptist also calls for repentance. Like Malachi, he speaks to his context, but again it sounds like he’s speaking to ours. Luke does his best to set John the Baptist and his sermons clearly in the midst of the political and religious environment of his day. He tells us the names of the emperor, governor, the high priests, and other political rulers of the day–the ones who are supposed to care for the welfare of the citizens of their territories. We are meant to understand that John, the wandering preacher with dreadlocks out in the desert was sent to bring these powerful, but negligent leaders, to see how they had corrupted the world God loves.
As far as we know, however, none of them ever did repent and get baptized by John–not Herod, not Pilate, not Caiaphas–nor any of them. But instead, large groups of ordinary people went out to the wilderness to hear John preach. They heard John announcing dissatisfaction with the way things are. They listened to him teaching that the whole world needed to be rearranged–the mighty mountains and leaders must be brought to humility, and the lowly, ostracized and ignored parts of the world be raised up to new heights. John calls for a baptism of repentance–of metanoia, which means literally, a turning around, a re-orienting in a new direction. And next week we’ll hear him announce that the baptism through which these changes will happen is a baptism of fire.
While both Malachi and John preached a message for their time and place, somehow their words are not dated. Both of them speak of an imbalance of power in our world, and a neglect by the powerful of those who have little or none. They are words that should cause high leaders to tremble and oppressed people to hope. They are words for us: words that call us to be alert, to examine our own lives and the world around us. John and Malachi remind God’s followers not to be complacent in the face of injustice, but instead to seek forgiveness and strive for lives that bear fruit according to God’s vision for the world.
We all have the potential to “over-spiritualize” the Bible and our faith, but these prophets are solidly rooted in the political and economic and social structures of their times. They are not speaking about simply a spiritual realignment, but reminding us that what we believe about God cannot be disconnected from the real needs of the real world around us. John warns us against ignoring the truth about our sinfulness and the brokenness in the world. He tells us to wake up, to pay attention, and to turn around before it’s too late. Someone is coming!
Malachi, too, announces someone is coming, and cautions us that the one who is coming is a refiner who is will purify and refine the people “like gold and silver.” A refiner heats precious metals to the point that they become molten, and then separates the impurities from the pure element. When the dross is thrown away, what remains is purely the element itself. Which sounds kind of terrifying–the idea that we will have to be melted down to get rid of those parts of us that are impure.
Both Malachi and John are pointing toward God’s coming. They are not the message; they are the messengers. And it just may be that Malachi and John are not meant to scare us straight. Maybe the promise that God is on the way is not scary news, but Good News! While we, as 21st century believers, hear Malachi’s prediction of the approaching refiner as a reference to Jesus, that may not have been what he meant. In any case, Malachi’s description of the one who is coming doesn’t match how Jesus behaved when he did come among us the last time. To our great relief, when our Lord Jesus did come to his people, he did not melt them down. Jesus used a lot of fire and brimstone imagery, but he never enacted it. He ate with the sinners and healed the sick. He spent time with the lonely and opened up the Scriptures to those who were confused. Finally, he died and rose for the flawed people he loved; he did not throw anyone into a refiner’s fire.
John and Malachi remind us that God wants to change the way things are, and both call us to repentance. But we have the gift of knowing that such a visit will not melt us away. Instead, we can cling to the promises that God is the refiner, and God is gracious. In fact, we have been refined by the fire of baptism: washed cleaned as by the “fullers,” who prepare wool to become the fibers for cloth. The Lord who pulled free from us all that keeps us from being our truest selves is coming once more, to realign a world so badly out of kilter. The Lord is coming once again with the power to refine us, to make clean what is unclean, and to ready us to offer what will be “pleasing to the Lord…”
I do not know what shape this refining and washing will take for you or for me. So much depends on where we stand right now–up on top of a mountain of power, or wallowing in the valley of need. I do not know whether the refining process will be painful or not. But I stake my life on the hope that when Jesus comes again this time around, again with the power to cleanse and purify us, it will be with the intention of helping us be more fully ourselves, more purely in the image of the God who made us and loves us. So it is with hope and courage that we can join Malachi and John in pointing toward the Savior, who loves us and the world God made. Having been baptized into the forgiveness of sins, we can be assured that whatever else Jesus brings when he comes again, the refinement will be enable each part of the universe to be more fully ourselves, more whole, and more like the image of God. Come, Lord Jesus!
~Pastor Susan Schneider