Ready for the Return
Malachi 3:1-43 “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.
Philippians 1:3-11Thanksgiving and Prayer
3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
7 It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. 8 God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
9 And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, 10 so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.
Luke 3:1-6John the Baptist Prepares the Way
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene— 2 during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3 He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 4 As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. 5 Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. 6 And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
IntroductionMalachi asks the question: Who can endure (abide) the day of his coming? Who shall stand when he appears?” This is our question this morning. We celebrate the coming of Jesus some 2,000 years ago. We anticipate Christ’s return “in power and great glory.” But who can stand upright and look Jesus in the face when that day comes? How can we be ready for his coming? How can we even prepare to remember his first coming?
The Texts in ContextMalachi is the last prophet in the OT—whether or not he was the last one to prophesy, he is the one who stands at the end of the record of the Old Covenant and serves as the bridge to the New Covenant. The passage we read from Malachi is fitting indeed. Writing (or speaking God’s word) following the exile of God’s People, roughly around the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, Malachi observes that people want God’s Messiah to come (“the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple”).
Think briefly of the history of this period. Under David and Solomon Israel rose to unprecedented importance in the ancient Near East. The Queen of Sheba herself made a trip to the court of Solomon to see its glory (1 Kings 10). So somewhere about 950 years before Christ, Israel was at its height. Following Solomon’s death the kingdom divided (930 BC). For just over 200 years the Northern Kingdom of Israel continued, then disintegrated under the exile of their rulers to Assyria (2 Kings 17).
About 140 years later (586 BC) the last king of Judah was deported and Jerusalem fell completely (2 Kings 24). In spite of revivals under Hezekiah and Josiah, continued sin in the form of loyalty to other gods—shown as the prophets tell us by worship at altars of other gods, sexual sin, and economic oppression—and God brought the Kingdom of Judah also to an end. Babylon invaded and carried off their political and military leaders.
About 45 years after the fall of Jerusalem, Babylon itself fell to the Persians, and the Persian Empire took over its colonies. Perhaps only three years later the first exiles returned to Judah and work began under Zerubbabel to build a new altar, and rebuild the Temple of the Lord. The following years see the prophetic ministries of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi (perhaps around 500 BC). About 50 years later the action described in Ezra and Nehemiah takes place.
Back to our passage: Now that they were back in control of their own land, even if as a colony on the edge of the Empire, why would the people want God’s return? A common theme in Ezra and Nehemiah, as well as in Zechariah and Haggai, is the failure of the Return to fulfill the people’s hopes. The temple took longer to build than was expected; and even when it was finished the worship of the true God did not proceed as it should have. The people were aware that something was missing, that God himself needed to come down and take control.
The QuestionSo people want the Messiah to come. People want God to fix what is missing. They recognize that they cannot make life what it should be, and they anticipate God’s coming to do so. “‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,’ says the Lord Almighty.”
A side note to the point I am pursuing here: Malachi may intend one person or two people with his description. A straightforward reading of the verse could take “my messenger”, “the Lord you are seeking”, and “the messenger of the covenant” as parallel constructions, used as synonyms. Or it could take “my messenger” to refer to Malachi himself (whose name means “my messenger”) and “the Lord” and “the messenger of the covenant” to be the coming Messiah. In Christian theology we have taken the messenger who prepares the way to refer to John the Baptist, and “the Lord, the messenger of the [new] covenant” to be Jesus. In either case, God is coming; and the question that Malachi asks applies.
So the question: “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?” Now when we hear this question, it sounds like a rhetorical question, but I think that Malachi assumes there is an answer. Someone can stand in God’s presence. The question is: Who? Consider the Psalms. Psalm 24: 3f reads: “Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, who do not put their trust in an idol or swear by a false God.”
There is the answer to Malachi’s question: “Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, who do not put their trust in an idol or swear by a false God.” Of course, that is also the problem that Malachi sees, as do Zechariah and Haggai, and that Ezra and Nehemiah later address. The people have mixed loyalties, and the Levites—the keepers of the Law—have themselves become impure and unclean. That is the point of the last verse of chapter 2: You have offended God with your sin.
That is why Malachi goes on to say that the Lord who comes will cleanse his people and refine the Levites, so that they may indeed stand in the Lord’s presence and endure, even rejoice in, his coming.
Think About Us
We live in Winnipeg (and Steinbach). We are, as it were, on the edge of the Empire—the centres of political and economic power are East and South of us: Toronto; New York; Ottawa; Washington. Quite possibly we feel helpless in the face of the events that go on around us in our world. We watched the recent election of the new American President with interest and anxiety, knowing that the results would affect us deeply, but powerless to do anything about it. We also are on the edge of Empire. We may wonder what point there is to the work that we do, whether in the church or in the community.
When Lois and I moved here, people often asked us: “Why did you come here?” Although we know that southern Manitoba is a good place to live, we know also that the world does not revolve around us!
Just before Malachi, Zechariah describes the temple to which the Lord will come in a fascinating passage (4: 9f): “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple; his hands will also complete it. Then you will know that the Lord Almighty has sent me to you. Who dares despise the day of small things, since the seven eyes of the Lord that range throughout the earth will rejoice when they see the chosen capstone in the hand of Zerubbabel?” Zechariah’s point is that the people see what Zerubbabel is doing (and what they are doing) as “small things”, worth little in the grand scheme of events. But God, who sees all, lets them know that this is actually his work, not theirs, and that they dare not despise the work that he is doing.
So also with us: Consider what we do in this church, and in my church in Steinbach, and where I work, and where you work. Friday night we had our Christmas Banquet. One of the evening events was a silent auction (really a combination auction-raffle) in which people paid 25 cents for each for tickets, which were then drawn for the items being auctioned. They raised $85—that’s about 340 tickets—for MCC. Small things! But who knows where that small thing will go? God knows. As Zechariah reminds us, “Don’t dare to despise small things that the Lord is doing.”
Irene Kroeker has worked with young people in the high school who need support to make it through life. When they graduate, they keep coming to her. The result is that we (SMC) have given her an office and freezer space and closets, as she provides support to the homeless youth of Steinbach. It began as a small thing indeed, and has grown into one of Steinbach’s more notable efforts to work with a vulnerable population here.
You could tell me more stories—from your experience as business people, teachers, workers, and more. The truth is that God works in what you do and in what I do to build his temple in our lives and in our world—a temple not built with human hands, but growing as the body of Christ.
Connecting Back to our Passage
What does this have to do with getting ready for the Messiah? Well, the people wanted God to do some great work and make everything the way it used to be in the days of Solomon’s Temple. Malachi says, “He’s coming! Do you want to be ready? Let him cleanse you! Let him purify you! Let him use you to do his work in the world today. Then you will be ready for the return of Christ.
Paul’s words to the Philippians echoes this idea: He can thank God for them because God is at work in their lives. And so Paul prays that they will continue to work and serve the Lord, all the more until he appears! The coming of John the Baptist (Luke 3) inaugurated Jesus’ first came to earth the first time. John did not come to the centre either. Judah was still a colony, now of Rome; but such as its centre of power was, it was in Jerusalem. Luke carefully outlines the powers that were, and where they were, and then tells how John came to the countryside around the Jordan River. People came to him from the centre of power for baptism, attracted to his message of repentance and God’s power as he held forth in the countryside.
You see, this is how God works. God comes in the small places and to the weak people. Paul reminds the Corinthians (1 Cor 1):
26 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.
How can we be ready for Christ’s Return? How can we be among those who abide when he comes and stand in his presence?
1. Purity: Who can stand in his presence? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts. If you are looking forward to Christmas and anticipating Christ’s Return, but are not living for God now, turn to him. Turn to him now and seek his cleansing and justifying Spirit.
2. Practical Living: Don’t despise small things. What you and I do is small. We live far away from the centre of power, apparently unimportant to the Empire. But when we do God’s work, what we do can change the world. I think that I have told you stories before about such movements. For example, I believe I have told the story of John and Edith Hayward, a Winnipeg couple whose hospitality to an Indian stranger led to the conversion of Bakht Singh, whose ministry in turn led to the conversion of Prem Pradhan, under whose missionary endeavours hundreds of thousands of Nepalese have come to faith in Jesus Christ. (See Jon Bonk’s essays on “Thinking Small in Missions.”
Do you want to be ready for Christ’s return? Get to work! Do what God gives you to do. I can’t tell you what to do; that’s up to you to figure out for yourselves. But you will do it in your jobs and in your families. In the small things of our lives, far from the centres of power, God is at work, preparing the world for his return.