Today begins the season of Advent—the New Year in the life of the church. It is the time when we prepare for the coming Messiah. It is a whimsical time, filled with lovely things, most especially our anticipation of the little baby Jesus, which the sight of takes our breath away. But the truth of Advent is that Advent should scare the breath out of us! It should scare us witless. Instead of talk of Santa’s belly shaking like a bowl full of jelly, we should be talking about how our legs turn to jelly; how our knees shake, and our blood turns to ice water. And while that may sound odd, it is true.
Though we may associate Advent with emotions of being the most wonderful time of the year, we get a very different view from the curmudgeonly prophet Malachi, whose thundering’s we read in this final book of the Old Testament.
Our text from Malachi, which is his prophecy of the coming Messiah, suggests that the initial emotion that’s most suitable to Advent is not whimsy and lovely things, but fear and trepidation. And while this concept may seem a bit obtuse, my bet is that all of us can actually recall a time of fear and trepidation in the midst of Advent.
Maybe you remember as a child, or with your children, when you were made to sit on Santa’s lap and what followed was screams of bloody murder. Maybe you know the fear of figuring out how to pay for Christmas. Maybe you have felt the trepidation of anti-Christian sentiments that often surface this time of the year. Or consequently, the counter assaults that some Christians make when they feel that a war is being waged against Christmas. Maybe you feel horror that comes with the sheer number of things to do before Christmas Eve arrives… in just 25 days. These thoughts and others bring about real fear and real trepidation.
Well surprise-surprise; this is not the fear and trepidation Malachi is talking about. He’s talking about heart-clutching fear, “I’m-going-to-die” horror, “This-can’t-be-happening-to-me” trepidation. He’s talking about Advent in such away because Advent is, in fact, not just a prelude to the celebration of Jesus’ birth in a Bethlehem manger. Rather, it’s a time to think more broadly about God’s coming—“advent” after all, means “coming.” Not only in the past when Jesus was born, but also in the future, when he comes again.
And as those living long after his first coming, it is his coming again that we should really be preparing for. And in this season of Advent, we can do just that.
Malachi was the last of the Old Testament prophets. His ministry took place about 460 B.C., almost 100 years after the people of Judah had returned from exile in Babylon and more than 50 years after the temple had been rebuilt in Jerusalem. Some of the people had hoped— even expected— that the completion of that building would launch a new era where Judah would return to her former glory and independence. But that had not happened, and the people had to deal with the fact that they would remain subjects of the Persian Empire. As a result, there was not a lot of incentive for vibrant worship of God. According to Malachi, even the priests had become careless and sloppy with their duties in the temple. And the attitude and practices among the people centered less on the things of God and more on the things of this world.
In response to all this behavior Malachi tells the people that they have “wearied” the Lord with their words. Biblical commentator Peter Craigie says that the people Malachi addresses “have become, by their attitudes and actions, functional atheists, not bothering to deny the existence of God, but destroying any link between God and justice.” The people were abandoning their focus on God, and consequently were veering off the path of faithfulness.
So what does Malachi do? Well, he tells the people of another messenger to come, who will be an advance man for God Almighty. And that messenger’s job will be to make the way ready for the Lord. That messenger will function like a refining fire that rids gold and silver of impurities, only his fire will purify the people.
He will be like fullers’ soap, which is nothing like today’s laundry detergents. What Malachi is talking about is a caustic concoction of harsh cleaning agents. It will get things clean, but it’s very hard on what it cleans, and we’re, of course, not talking about clothes being washed, but people. The smelting and scrubbing this messenger will do is, in effect, God’s judgment for all. And for all, that judgment should bring fear and trepidation, says Malachi.
Commentator Peter Craigie says further, “To be sure, Malachi is saying everybody will be judged, but his implication is that those who will be redeemed are those who turn to the Lord. They will be saved, but it’s not going to be easy. It is as if Malachi is saying, those who will be judged will be like a disease riddled person facing a treatment regimen that will cure him, but the regimen itself will be so ruthless and harsh that it fills him with fear. But to be healed, he must go through it.”
This was Malachi’s message to the people of God hundreds of years before the Messiah came—to get themselves ready for this difficult and harsh redemption that was surly coming, but know full well that it will be worth it. And Malachi is saying this same message to us today.
As I mentioned, all of this isn’t your typical Christmas whimsy. It’s not the most fearful time of the year; it’s the most wonderful time of the year. But we would be wise, and faithful, to permit a bit of fear and trepidation into our Christmas preparations. Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought the same thing when he preached a sermon in which he spoke about the emotion for this season.
Bonhoeffer said, “It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly. Previously peoples trembled at the day of God’s coming. But we have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us.”
Bonhoeffer was right then, and he is right today. Advent implores us to prepare for Jesus’ coming, which we should be freaking out about, but instead we freak out about other things at Christmas. Things like…
Will I get it all done? When are we going to get the kids Christmas picture taken, printed, and sent out to two hundred people? How will I pay for it all? Why doesn’t my red disposable cup of overpriced coffee have a snow-flake or a Christmas elf on it because now I have to post a mindless rant to social media!
Our fears and our trepidations are misplaced when it comes to preparing for the Messiah during Advent. Though Bonhoeffer’s sermon didn’t specifically mention Malachi, his words reflect the message the prophet brought. Get yourselves ready—because something big is coming.
Now I get that this imploring of fear and trepidation sounds and feels odd or even flat out wrong as coming from a church pulpit at the beginning of the Christmas and Advent season—the season of hope, peace, joy, and love. We don’t have candles of fear and trepidation. If fear and trepidation is what we want we need only look at: what happened in Paris, the increased tensions of the already tense Middle East, the political posturing and not so idle threats, and so on.
So why then this call for more fear, more trepidation in the one place we should at least escape it? Well, it’s because we shouldn’t be looking to escape it, we should be looking to find a way through it—and there is a big difference between escaping it and finding a way through it.
In the sermon mentioned previously, Dietrich Bonhoeffer explained how we can find a way through when he said, “Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness of God. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us; God comes to us with grace …”
When we step into the fear and trepidation we face all that needs to be redeemed in us and in our world. We don’t hide from it. We stop ignoring it. We face it. We name it. And we bring it before God so that it may be redeemed.
Yes, it is a scary proposition—one that will make our legs and knees shake. But when we take the risk of facing our fears and trepidations of the Messiah’s coming then we will positions ourselves to realize more fully than ever before that the Messiah’s coming means redemption and new life. And that’s where we find true, lasting, life giving: hope, peace, joy, and love.
It’s clear in the New Testament that the gospel writers understood John the Baptist as the messenger about whom Malachi spoke. And we note that John’s call for repentance from sin was not a soft and tender moment either.
But that was the first Advent. It’s the second Advent that’s ahead for us, because Jesus is coming again, and Malachi’s messenger may precede him.
So, during this season, let’s face the fear and feel the trepidation! Let’s let our priorities be reprioritized. Let’s seek out no a whimsical hope, peace, joy, and love, but a stout, rough, life cleansing and redeeming hope, peace, joy, and love.
For by doing so, we are reaffirming our commitment to Christ and we will come to a greater awareness of the grace of walking with him as faithful disciples. Amen.