This sermon was originally preached in December 2018.
Malachi - 3:1-6
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. 2 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; 3 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. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.
6 For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69 He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72 Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us 74 that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
78 By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Good morning! Thank you for having me again. It’s good to be together for worship, especially in this Advent season of waiting together.
As we continue to set ourselves to intentionally wait together, we call one another to be on the look out, while we’re waiting, for signs of what is coming. Signs, for example, of Peace. And signs of those calling out in the wilderness.
We, of course, have the benefit of the story. We’re not just waiting for the first time. Many of us have come to this time of Advent for years and years. It’s a story, that we have heard throughout all of our lives, and that our parents and grandparents heard throughout their lives. It’s ingrained in us and in our family lines. For others of us here, though, it’s a new story. Or a story that’s only been heard in bits and pieces, or at a distance. Whether it’s new or old, it’s helpful for all of us to see how we can hear it fresh again, and consider just what it might have been like to be waiting especially back in the time of our Scripture readings.
We find ourselves this morning, in particular, hearing the words of the prophet Malachi and the words of the priest Zechariah.
Now, you might think, at the first hearing of Malachi this morning that he may have been talking to the general public. Perhaps, one of those prophets who sat out in the public square or at the gate of the city, calling out to passersby. But really, when Malachi first spoke these words, Malachi was speaking directly to the priests of the Temple – kind of like the pastors of that day, so to people like me, or Erik, or Marvel, or Anne, or Gordy. To the clergy. He may also have been one of them. In this case, the clergy of that time, had watched how the people no longer really cared much about how to practice their faith. They no longer really watched or paid much attention to how things went during the services and sacrificial practices. So, since no one was really looking and no one really seemed to care any more, the priests started cutting corners. For example, instead of a healthy first born animal required for a proper sacrifice, they would use a lame animal. And nobody knew any wiser. Except, Malachi says, God. God knew. And God became fed up with the lies and cheating and cutting corners. And so, directly before the words for us this morning, Malachi says to the priests:
Know, then, that I [God] have sent this command to you [the priests] that my covenant with Levi [your ancestor, your founding father] may hold… My covenant with him was a covenant of life and well-being…. A covenant of life and well-being. Now, if you were here when I preached last time, a few weeks ago, you may recall me talking about Levi then and the book of Leviticus. And you may recall how the essence of the law of God in Leviticus is life for life. That’s why there were animal sacrifices in the beginning – because we could never fully atone for the all bits of life we rob from ourselves and one another every day through all manner of intentional or unintentional carelessness. So, [This covenant, God says, according to Malachi] I gave [to Levi]; [and] this [covenant] called for reverence, and he [Levi] revered me and stood in awe of my name. Now, you may recall me also saying last time, that this is the same Levi from Genesis. The same Levi who did not receive his father Jacob/Israel’s blessing because he and his brother murdered all the men in an entire town. It’s in Genesis 34, you can read it. [Pause, curious] The same Levi. God says, according to Malachi, 6 True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in integrity and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. Levi. If this is not an example of hope for all of us, I don’t know what is. Take a moment, and take it in. What was the process Levi went through to move from a young adult, probably barely 20, who could be so incited as to manipulate and destroy an entire group of people, and take the women and children captive, and to transform into the person Malachi describes as so closely connected to God. What is the repentance and healing work that goes on there to bring such a transformation about? Really consider this. Because it’s what’s a part of the whole line, from Genesis to the Gospels. That transformational process – early on with Levi, and then through Levi’s descendants, like in Malachi, and then in the Gospel of Luke. It’s a big part of this whole season of waiting. We might even ask here . . . what is it that God is calling you toward, how is God nudging you toward refinement? Nudging you inside, or providing signs all around you. How is God encouraging your refinement? And it may not be just about what you’ve been doing wrong. It may be how God wants you to grow more, or expand more of what you have the potential to do well.
See, I’ve been trying to figure something important out . . . in our Gospel passage, we hear some of Zechariah’s first words after having been mute for nearly a year. And he’s mute because the Angel Gabriel says he doubted Gabriel’s words. Now, that has always seemed really harsh to me, especially since Scripture says before that moment Zechariah was blameless. I also had mostly heard this part of Scripture preached as kind of a cautionary tale about how you need to be so careful that you don’t doubt God. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Whether it’s a chastisement for not believing and obeying Gabriel’s words, it’s clear that Zechariah benefited from pondering quite a bit while waiting for the birth of his son. Pondering, perhaps, what it has meant to him to be a priest, or for he and his wife, and now John, to all be descendants of Levi. He would have had time to review the Scriptures he had been given in silence, including Malachi, and to remind himself about how God, according to Malachi, says, 7 The lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. Perhaps he was reminded about how Malachi warns how you [priests] have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi . . . you have wearied me with your words of where is God’s justice?
And this is the exact moment where we find our words in Malachi for us today: 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 [but have tarnished] —indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But can you endure it?
For he will purify you, clergy, Zechariah, the descendants of Levi, and refine you until you present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. I wonder, did it make Zechariah consider not only himself, but his fellow priests and Pharisees, and the whole community?
According to Malachi, God says, Then I will draw near… I will be swift to bear witness, to testify. 6 For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.
If he did review these Scriptures, Zechariah would have heard the very sentiments of the Angel Gabriel echoed in them. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God, Gabriel said, and With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Then, the Gospel says, the time finally came for Elizabeth to give birth. And on the eighth day, the day of circumcision, many neighbors and relatives were rejoicing at the birth of the baby and in their joy assumed the baby’s name would be Zechariah after his father. But Elizabeth said, No, his name will be John. They didn’t believe her. After all, they said, you have no John’s in your family. Why would you pick a name that’s not in your family. So, they asked Zechariah, who still could not talk and who motioned for a slate and he wrote the name John. And at that moment, his mouth was freed and he immediately praised God. And people became afraid and felt that surely the hand of God was upon this child. And Zechariah began to sing!
Blessed be the Lord!
He has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors and has remembered his covenant!
That we might serve without fear.
After all that time waiting and pondering, what flowed from Zechariah was the reminder that priests are messengers and guardians of the knowledge of the forgiveness of sins, and a blessing for John to fulfill that mission too. A mission to deliver the message to all those who have ears to hear, eyes to see, and hearts to recognize that, by God’s mercy, the dawn breaks into the dark night . . . that sin is not the end of the story, and that there is light coming to all of those who find themselves sitting in darkness or in the valley of the shadow of death. Light that leads us all in the way of peace.
And now, hear this last word, as Protestants, we do not believe that any ordained person goes to the feet of God on any other’s behalf, but that we ourselves – each and every one of us, can have our own direct relationship with God. We believe only one person has the power to atone for another, and that is Jesus Christ. So, with Christ’s death and resurrection, we believe Christ made the way complete for what we call the priesthood of all believers. That he made the way for all of us to have the kind of relationship he had with Levi. A transformational relationship of healing. A relationship that embodied a covenant of life and well-being. It is not magic and it is not easy. But it is a covenant for all of us to claim, both with reverence and joy, especially as we, just as Levi, Malachi, Zechariah, and Elizabeth did before us, take time to consider the fullness of all that is coming. Amen.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.