A reflection on Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 1:67-80 for The Second Sunday of Advent, December 5, 2021.
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, 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; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
Malachi 3:1-4 (NRSVA)
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty saviour for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.’
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
Luke 1:67-80 (NRSVA)
I wonder how you hear words like ‘refiner’s fire’, ‘fuller’s soap’, and ‘purifier of silver’?
Even if your goal is to be more like Jesus these terms can still sound harsh. Each phrase parabolically points to a process of change. Gold goes through fire in order to remove impurities. Fuller’s soap refers to the washing out of oils and dirt from a fleece of wool. The stench of this process meant it was done beyond the city walls. Silver, like gold, is heated until liquified. Only then can the dross be removed.
Indeed, it sounds like Malachi’s question is well asked: ‘But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?’
Malachi uses these uncomfortable images to point to the role of a coming ‘messenger’ who will precede the expected ‘Lord’. They are to look for one whose mission will usher this ‘Lord’ into the temple.
A sign of the one to come.
Clearly Malachi’s use of imagery points to the uncomfortable nature of repentance and change. There are, however, moments – even here – that point to this refining as positive. Malachi reminds Israel that the unnamed messenger will work within the very law that Israel delights in. Each image contains the hope that Israel can once again fulfil its call to righteousness. While the text asks Israel to look forward, it also points back to times when the nation was more innocent: ‘Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.’
The young Israel can echo again the Israel of old.
Malachi’s prophecy, the last book in the Hebrew Scriptures, is an inherently hopeful call.
In my opinion, the song sung by the newly vocal Zechariah is rightly paralleled with this prophecy. Each of the Gospels point to John before Jesus recognising this wilderness wanderer as a ‘messenger’ or ‘witness’ to another.
Perhaps Zechariah’s song, unique to the Gospel of Luke, does this more fully than the other three accounts of Jesus’ life. There is a focus, a priority, here that we do well not to miss. Zechariah’s song opens with a celebration of the arrival of the season – not of John – but of the one his birth and mission will point to. John was not a descendent of ‘David’. The Gospels never call the Baptist a ‘mighty saviour’. It is Jesus, not John, Zechariah hopes to ‘serve…without fear, in holiness and righteousness…’
Zechariah, even at the naming of his miraculous, long awaited son, is looking beyond the role this infant will play – to the one he will usher in. To be sure, there is great celebration here of John’s role. He will be a preparing prophet, offer ‘knowledge of salvation’, and proclaim ‘forgiveness’.
All of it, however, will be dwarfed next to the ‘tender mercy’ of the God who’s incarnation this birth foretells.
A light is coming into the darkness – one that will usher in the ‘way of peace’.
Perhaps there will be an uncomfortable time of adjustment as the eyes of those so long caught in the darkness of night adjust to the bright light of day. It is, however, a wonderful process. After all, eyes were made to see – not to be rendered useless in the absence of light.
John’s message of repentance and forgiveness may contain elements of profound challenge. In the end, however, his is a message of great hope. We are not stuck in the darkness of rebellion against God. Rather, we are invited back into the light of the God in whose image we were created.
And that is a wonderfully hopeful – if temporarily uncomfortable – reality.
In what way do you see repentance as a difficult and costly process? In what sense is this good news in which you ‘delight’? Which of these angles on repentance wins for you?