Seward United Methodist Church
Saturday, January 22, 2022
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The God Who Comes

Malachi 3:1-5 and Luke 3:1-6

 The Apostle Luke, whom we know to be a student of history, does something none of the other Gospel writers did:  He puts the story of Jesus firmly in its place in history.  Of course, it is a timeless story, but it is also a story that happened in a certain place, at a certain time.  

 It was a common practice in the ancient world to date events according to the reign of the current king or emperor.  In fact, they didn’t have a calendar as we know it.  This was the only way to date events.  Unfortunately for us, if we love the precision of knowing exactly when something happened, we’re out of luck.  There were two different systems in use, one according to Roman custom, the other according to the Near Eastern custom, and we don’t know which Luke was using.  But we know this much, the fifteenth year of Tiberius’ reign was either 27-28 AD, or 28-29 AD.  So that two year span will have to be close enough for us.  

 From there, Luke goes on to note the reigns of various local rulers.  Pilate was the Roman governor appointed to Judea, Samaria, and Idumea, the Roman region of Palestine.  Herod Antipas, we’ve met him elsewhere, was in Galilee and Perea.  His brother Herod Philip was in Iturea and Trachonitis.  And some guy named Lysanias was in Abilene, which is today Syria, and other than this, we know nothing about him.  

 And then Luke moves on to talk about the religious leadership of the day.  Annas and Caiaphas were high priests.  Well, that’s strange because there was only one high priest at a time.  You see, Rome got it into their heads that they could pick the high priest, so they replaced Annas.  But since the Jews considered it a lifetime office, they still looked at Annas as high priest.  And Annas used his influence to make sure that his choice became the next high priest.  In this case, it was his son-in-law, Caiaphas.

 So there’s the who’s who of the rich and powerful and spiritually “important” people of the day.  And yet, the Word of God came to none of them.  Rather it came to a poor prophet wandering around in the desert, John the Baptizer.

 Wilderness has several different meanings in Scripture.  Sometimes wilderness was a place of refuge, safety from evil.  David hid in the wilderness when King Saul was trying to kill him.  Wilderness could also be a place where people went when they rejected the evils of society.  Many prophets went to the wilderness because society was corrupt.  But wilderness could also be a place of anticipation.  Israel wandered in

the wilderness till God brought them into the Promised Land.  And so John may also have been in the wilderness because he was expecting God to do something very soon.

 When the Word came to him, he went about preaching a message of baptism.  That was weird, too.  You see, in Judaism of the time, baptism was only a rite of conversion.  It was how a non-Jew became a Jew.  But John was preaching to a predominantly Jewish audience.  He was telling those who were already secure in their identity that they should not be secure, because the only real security before God is found in repentance.  

 To repent is to turn around.  Literally, the word means to change your mind:  To stop going one way and start going a different way.  To repent means that we turn away from sin and turn to God.  It’s not just a matter of stopping one thing, but putting something else in its place.  We stop doing what is wrong and start doing what is right.  We reject the bad and embrace the good.  And only in doing that can we find some measure of security before God.  

 That was John’s message.  And he was the one that Isaiah had looked forward to centuries earlier, when he said, “He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.  Straighten the roads, fill in the valleys, level it out and smooth the rough patches!”  

 It was common practice in the ancient Near Eastern world that each spring a king or emperor would go out and make a survey of at least part of his kingdom.  Before he went, he would send messengers ahead to go into each village and city and announce the coming of the king.  That way people would be able to go to work and fix everything up before he came.  Roads that were damaged by winter rains would be fixed so that the king’s journey would be a pleasant one.  

 Is that what Jesus wants of us?  A road improvement project?  No.  Jesus wants us to repair our lives, not our roads.  He wants us to straighten our living, not our highways.  He wants us to fill in the emptiness of injustice with the fullness of right living and right relationships.  In short, he wants us fix our lives.

 It’s easy for us to substitute the comfort and security of “religion” for the difficulty of genuinely seeking to know God and do what God desires.  It’s easy to go to church, put our money in the plate, sing the songs, and feel good about “doing our duty,” even as we are doing wrong and not living in right relationships.  

 The coming of God is not necessarily a comfortable thing.  That was the point Malachi was trying to make.  

 Malachi begins just like Isaiah:  “I am sending my messenger ahead who will prepare the way for me.  And then the Lord will come to his Temple.”  

 How did Jesus first come to his Temple?  He first came as an 8 day old infant to be dedicated.  And yet, even then, there were some who recognized him when he came!  It certainly wasn’t what people were expecting.  And we see that all through Jesus’ life; he wasn’t what people were expecting of the Messiah!  

 One of the things we see in the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah is that they often mingled or did not distinguish between his two advents, his two comings.  We understand that Jesus came once as a child in Bethlehem who grew into the man who died on the cross and rose again.  And we understand that he is coming again to renew this creation and complete his salvation.  But the Old Testament often mingled images of Jesus as Savior and Judge.  We know both identities are true of Jesus in both of his advents.  But I think it’s fair to say that while his first advent was mostly about salvation, his second will be mostly about judgment.  But often the prophecies mingled these ideas together, not really distinguishing between his two appearances.

 But then Malachi says, “You eagerly look for him.  But who can endure when he comes?”  He will be like a blazing fire that refines metal.  Malachi is talking here about cupellation, the process of refining silver.  Silver was found in an ore called galena that was mostly lead. It was refined in a bowl made of clay or bone ash.  After it was melted, some of the impurities would bind to the bowl, and the rest would rise to the surface of the mixture.  From there they could be skimmed off.  The refiner knew the process was finished when he could look into the molten metal and see his own face reflected in it.  And that’s what God wants to see in us.  We were made in his image.  But the image of God in us was broken when we turned away from God and sinned.  God wants to refine us till his image is again visible in us.

 The other image that Malachi uses for God is a launderer’s soap, specifically lye soap.  Lye is pretty strong stuff.  It will get laundry clean.  Though, it will also melt your skin.  Both images are of purifying, but a purifying process that is difficult, even painful.  

 When he comes, Messiah will purify the Levites.  I think this is an image of the Church.  The Levites were the tribe of Israel that was dedicated to service to God.  And

from the Levites is where the priests came.  And I think that’s a good picture of the Church.  We are to be a people dedicated to God.  We are to be a priestly people, a people who help to restore others to a right relationship with God.  

 But when he comes, Messiah will also be a witness against those who do evil and injustice:  He will testify against liars, adulterers, cheaters, and those who oppress the powerless.  

 He will both refine those who love what is good and destroy those who love what is evil.  In other words, no one is safe in the presence of Messiah.  Even being refined is a difficult process.  

 The presence of God in our midst is only a comforting thought if we are genuinely committed to repentance, to turning away from evil and seeking out good.  Only then can we endure the presence of the one who is, and was, and is to come again.  So let us ask ourselves:  Are we ready for the God who comes to us?  

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