For those who want a change from the Gospel
Candlemas – Malachi 3:1-5
This passage is not just used at Candlemas: it is also used sometimes for Advent 2. There the primary application is to John the Baptist, coming as he does to herald the start of the Messiah’s ministry. But at Candlemas the text is used differently, to speak not of Jesus’ herald, but of Jesus himself, who appears in the Temple here as his family come to present him to God in accordance with Jewish Law and custom. It is easy to see how the NT writers could read in this text something significant about a tiny baby suddenly turning up at the Temple, unknown and unrecognised except by a couple of geriatric prophets. But what would Malachi’s original readers have understood by this passage?
The book up to this point has given us details of a series of disputes between God and his people, returned from exile but finding life not as perfect as they had thought it would be while they were in exile. They doubt that God really loves his people any more (1:2-5), the priests are offering blemished sacrifices (1:6-14), they are divorcing their wives (2:10-16), they are treating their fellow Jews with injustice (2:17), and they are withholding their tithes from the Temple (3:6-12). All in all they are behaving with arrogance towards God, but don’t even realise that they are doing so. They simply can’t see the point of any religious observance, and this is affecting their life together. So the appearing of the Messenger and the Lord are set in the middle of several futile arguments. It is almost as though God is listening in to all this grumbling behind his back, so he is going to turn up in person and they can have the proper showdown which is needed to clear the air.
It is interesting, though, that when the Lord, whom the people have supposedly been seeking, actually comes, it is not first and foremost to the people themselves, but rather to the Priests and Levites. There is no mention in this or any of the post-exilic writings of any kings, so we must suppose that leadership lay in the hands of the religious authorities. It is they who set the tone for the whole nation, and we have already seen that in their ministry they have become if not corrupt, then certainly slapdash in their approach to God. The prophet believes that the fortunes of the nation will only trickle down from the behaviour of its leaders, so some work is needed to bring them back up to scratch. Two pictures are used: a refiner heating up the precious metals until all their impurities are burnt away, and a launderer bleaching wool ready for dyeing. The latter term comes from a sort of grass which grew around the Dead Sea, which yielded strong alkaline chemicals, which would be trodden into the cloth to combine with oils and other impurities to make them water soluble. Both of these pictures are quite violent in different ways, but in each case the end product is better, more beautiful and more useful. If the priests and Levites can be so cleansed, the whole nation will benefit. In particular, when the Lord comes to judge and to purify, it will be to the benefit of those who are victims of the adultery, injustice and oppression of others. Does that sound scary? Well it is meant to be, because the bottom line problem is that priests and people alike have forgotten how to fear God.
In comparison the baby in the Temple doesn’t look anywhere near as terrifying, so it is up to Simeon to remind us that because of this child there will be both rising and falling for many, a prophecy which was to prove true during Jesus’ earthly ministry, and which will be even more true when he returns as our judge. This is equally true for Jews and Gentiles, another motif which appears in both stories. When foreigners are treated with injustice there is something badly wrong, and so this baby has come, according to Simeon, not just as the glory of God’s ancient people, but also as a flash of light to the Gentiles.
There is something important here. I believe, for both church leaders (let alone national leaders) and church members alike. When we spend our time feeling hard done by, arguing with God, neglecting both worship and service; when we are more concerning about our own desires than justice for all, the Jesus whom we say we love and long for will appear when we’re not expecting him. And when we set an example to others to do the same, we really had better watch out. But for those who really seek him, and really seek to model their lives on his ways, there will be overwhelming joy when he appears.