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Malachi 3:1-4

Malachi is a book suitable for reading during Advent, in that it describes a time of restless waiting in the history of the people of Judah. The exile was over, the second temple had been built and worship there restored, but all was not as it had been envisioned. There was as yet no sign of the glory of God returning to fill the temple.

We know little about the prophet Malachi, whose name means, ‘my messenger.’ This anonymous messenger was probably the last of the prophets as they had been known. He is the last from whom we hear spoken words. The phenomenon of prophecy was about to undergo a major change, at least in terms of what we are familiar with in scripture. No doubt there continued people whom others and we might recognize as prophets in the old way. John the Baptist, about whom our Gospel reading this week speaks (Luke 3:1-6), may be an example. It is just that we do not have any record of words they are said to have proclaimed, as we do, for example, with Isaiah, Jeremiah or even Malachi. It seems that what arose to take the place of prophetic proclamation was a tradition of rereading older prophetic texts in new contexts. Hence, we get later editions of, and additions to, the words attributed to earlier figures, like Isaiah, Amos etc. Prophecy, at least within the biblical tradition, was becoming something based more in written words than in spoken ones.

But with Malachi, we are in the early days of that development. Malachi is still of the ‘old school’. Like the prophets before him, he was given a word from the Lord to speak in a particular time. The priests had strayed from their faithful worship, and led the people astray (Mal 1:6-8). People noted the inequities of life around them and asked, ‘Where is the God of justice?’ (Mal 2:17)

The passage for this Sunday from chapter 3 comes in answer to that question, with the promise of a day when all will be set right. God promises a messenger of the covenant to prepare the Lord’s way, and to herald the coming of justice. The forerunner is seen in Rabbinic interpretations as an angel appointed to avenge the breaking of a covenant, or perhaps Elijah or the prophet Malachi himself. But this coming is not only good news. It implies purification, and judgment will precede the Lord’s coming.

In his Messiah, Handel sets this passage from Malachi to music, emphasizing the refiner’s fire that will purify the sons of Levi, the priests. Only when they offer right sacrifices will God be pleased, and the people set right.

Through the prophet, the Lord gives gracious warning. The people had expected God’s blessing, but it is to come first through purification and pain. ‘Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’ is the question posed, reminding the people that they stand under the judgment of God. Earlier in the book, Malachi spoke a word of judgment on the faithlessness of the people, who had intermarried with foreign women, and forsaken ‘the wife of your youth’. This is seen as the reason God no longer heeds their prayers and offerings.

This passage accords with the tone of the gospel reading for the day, in which John the Baptist calls for repentance in preparation for the coming Messiah (Luke 3:1-6).  It invites those who have responsibility for worship to examine their hearts, to be sure that they do not become calloused when handling sacred things, or allow themselves to fall away from the faith they profess.

In the context of Advent, this text is an encouragement for people to examine their hearts in preparation for the Lord’s coming. The image of the refiner’s fire comes with an inherent hopefulness, that even when people experience pain and judgment, there may be a redemptive and purifying purpose at work. There is a sense in which texts like this one keep us from domesticating God, whose hoped-for coming is fearsome as well as graceful, an act of judgment at the same time as it is an act of salvation. We so often separate those two things, even in some instances associating the God of judgment with our Old Testament and the God of grace with the New. But such is a distortion and a great oversimplification.

Malachi’s word about the refining fire and the cleansing soap is that which creates the possibility that worship may again be pleasing to God. Words of refining, of judging are words of hope for they have the potential to take what is old, stale and corrupt and open it up to what is new, fresh and right. In a time of preparation for Christmas, this text is a reminder that our central preparation is to make our hearts ready, that our true worship is based on living a just life, in keeping with the Lord’s covenant.

Luke 1:68-79

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