Bible Readings: Malachi 3:1-4 & Luke 3:1-6

The Messenger

I’m going to start with a confession this morning. I was rather distracted from thinking about what I was going to say this morning by Youtube videos. In my defence, it all began in a good place – I was doing some research into what the process of refining silver would have looked like in the time of the prophet Malachi. The trouble is, what I found were videos of people nowadays refining silver and gold at home. There was one chap who had worked out how to extract the gold from old computer circuit boards and sim cards using various chemicals and processes. I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, I love watching things being made. Anyway, he started off with half a kilo of sim cards and the little electrical connectors that had been trimmed off computer circuit boards and two days later had a whole 1g of pure gold. Not very cost effective, but quite cool. Anyway, I’ve got distracted again, so I’d better get back to it.

Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament, written about 400-500 years before Jesus was born. The people have God have returned from exile in Babylon, have rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple there under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra. They are back in the land God promised them, worship has been renewed, the restoration and return promised by prophets like Isaiah has taken place. This should be the dawn of a new era – but it seems to be falling flat. The covenant love between God and his people is hampered by half hearted worship and the unfaithfulness of the people to the commands of God. All is not well, and Malachi has a message to the people from God, calling them into whole hearted worship and complete faithfulness. In fact, the name Malachi means, “Messenger”, to the extent that we’re not even sure if there was a man called Malachi, or whether it was someone called, “The Messenger.”

This name / title of “Messenger” appeared right at the beginning of the part from chapter three that we heard read this morning. God is speaking, “Behold I send my messenger…”

The thing about messengers is that they have a message, otherwise they’re not really messengers. A message boy with no message to give you is just a boy.

So what is this messenger’s message?

The Lord is returning to the temple, and that when he does there will be a refining and a cleansing.

Let’s think about that refining to start with. I knew those Youtube videos would come in useful really. A couple of things struck me about them. Firstly, what a complex and careful process it is to refine gold and silver. It really does take a lot of time, energy, and effort to get the precious metal out of whatever alloy or ore it’s in. The other thing that struck me was how otherwise destructive many of the processes involved are – whether it’s extreme heat or corrosive chemicals – refining is a destructive process. It ends up with something beautiful and precious, but it involves stripping away, separating, burning off.

This is particularly close to the bone for me. Who does it say is going to be refined? The sons of Levi – that is to say, the priesthood – the worship leaders. Translated into our time and culture this is a message to people in my position. Am I leading worship in a way that enables people to connect with God properly, and live fully in the new covenant, or am I getting in the way? Do I need refining?

What about fuller’s soap? Does anybody know what a fuller is? I had to look it up. Apparently, “A fuller was someone who cleaned and thickened freshly-woven cloth. The process involved cleaning, bleaching, wetting and beating the fibers to a consistent and desirable condition. Fuller’s soap was an alkali made from plant ashes which was also used to clean and full new cloth.”

Cleaning, bleaching, wetting and beating. It sounds like another complex, difficult process that leads to a good outcome, but which might not be particularly pleasant to go through.

So, the messenger’s message is that the Lord is coming, and is coming to get rid of the dross from the worshipping community and cleanse it so that it is fit to worship whole heartedly. Now, in terms of silver or cloth we know the kinds of things that need to be washed away, separated out, but what are they in the context of people?

We don’t have to guess, the message includes that in verse 5 which says, in summary, “Sorcery, adultery, lying, not paying a fair wage, oppressing the widow or the orphan, not welcoming foreigners.”

These are the things that the messenger says that the Lord is going to refine out, wash out, of the community when he returns. These are the things that God says are preventing whole hearted worship and faithful living.

This is the message that brings the Old Testament to a close.

The New Testament begins with a similar message. Four or five hundred years have passed since Malachi shared his message. The people of God are still in the land, and the Temple is still a place of worship, but things are still not right. The Romans have invaded and are ruling the country. There’s a Roman emperor, who has set up a Roman as governor of Judea and carved up the rest of the country under the rule of puppet collaborator kinglets. An increasingly heavy set of religious rules and traditions have built up around temple worship, presided over by two high priests.

One day, in the wilderness across the Jordan a new messenger appears. It might be a new messenger, but the message sounds somewhat familiar. We didn’t hear all of it this morning, but as it goes on we get to verse 17, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear the threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” It all sounds a bit like refining and cleansing to me, summarised in one of the verses we did read, “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”

The messenger has a message, calling people to turn away from sin, to be cleansed, and to be forgiven.

What are the sins that John is encouraging these people to turn away from, and what should they do to show that they have turned away from them? We get examples of these things in verses 10-14. The one who has should share with those who do not have – clothes, food etc. Those in positions of power, tax collectors and soldiers in this case, should not abuse that power, but should be fair and just in their dealings with people. These are practical, everyday examples of counter cultural ways of living that show that someone has changed.

Two messengers, one looking forward to the first coming of Jesus to earth from a distance of hundreds of years, the second proclaiming the immanent arrival of Jesus on earth for the first time. Both with a similar message – when Jesus comes it will be with judgement, to cleanse and refine God’s people, who need to repent and to worship wholeheartedly and live faithfully.

We are in a different position, we don’t look forward to Jesus’ first visit to earth, we look back to it. We’re about to celebrate the beginning of that first visit with our Christmas festivities. But it’s not Christmas yet, at the moment it’s Advent, and that is a time when we remember that as well as looking forward to Christmas, we are also still looking forward to Jesus’ second visit to earth. More than that, we are called to be messengers to others, just like Malachi and John. And if we’re messengers, then what is our message? That’s just like Malachi’s message and just like John’s message. The Lord is coming, repent, and believe.

Who is this message for? Firstly, it’s for us each as individuals. This is time to look at our lives and ask ourselves, are we worshipping wholeheartedly and living faithfully? Does what we say we believe make a difference to how we treat those on the edges of society – the widow, the orphan, the foreigner? Does it inform the way we treat and pay our employees and people who work for us? Are we faithful in our marriages? If we are Christians, then our baptism is the sign of our cleansing. We still sin, and get things wrong, and need to repent and be cleansed again and again. Being refined is a long and complex process, and it can feel painful and destructive, but in the end the output is so beautiful because it is the beauty of holiness expressed in wholehearted worship and faithful obedience.

Secondly it’s a message that needs taking to our society, to the culture that we live in. It seems to me that we live in society that increasingly demonises the foreigner, neglects the elderly and marginalises the powerless. We are part of a culture in which marriage and family life is fragmented and broken because romantic love and sexual desire are valued over patient fidelity and faithful perseverance. This Advent, and into the new year, let’s be asking God for opportunities to be living examples of a different way of being, let’s speak up for those on the edge, let’s choose to spend our money and our time in ways which support families in their lives. Refining a community is a long and complex process, and it can feel painful and destructive, but in the end the output is so beautiful because it is the beauty of holiness expressed in wholehearted worship and faithful obedience.

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