For those who want a change from the Gospel
Advent 2 – Malachi 3:1-4
Perhaps the key cliché to emerge from the Covid pandemic is ‘The New Normal’. It suggests an acknowledgement that things will never be the same again, but that they will eventually settle down into some kind of living conditions with which we feel at least partially comfortable. An international crisis has to leave some effects in its wake, but, we hope, nothing too serious.
Israel too had suffered a corporate shock to the system, having seen their nation, and their Temple destroyed, and having been taken off into exile. How they must have longed for The New Normal. Eventually release was announced, through an unknown prophet responsible for the middle chapters of Isaiah, and before long they were back home trying to rebuild. Yet several biblical books, including Malachi, suggest that The New Normal wasn’t the bed of roses for which people had been hoping. It seems that the nation was in some kind of collective post traumatic stress disorder, and as a result thing had become fractured. The prophet Malachi deals with some of these fracture lines.
In chapter 1 the fracture between God and the people is addressed. They simply can’t believe he loves them. In particular the priests seem to have compromised by letting the worship of the Temple degrade into a kind of ‘anything will do’. Then in chapter 2 the fracture lines within marriage and family begin to show, with divorce rife and forbidden intermarriage with pagan women commonplace. Finally common justice has broken down, and the quest for wealth has led to individual selfishness and lack of concern both for God’s Temple and the poor. The final arrogant cry of this diseased people comes later in chapter 3 – what is the point of religion at all? What do we get out of it? Why bother?
So what is Malachi’s answer to a nation in PTSD which is falling apart and doubts just about everything? The answer comes in the middle of the book, in our passage. God is going to turn up, and like any royal visitor he will send a herald to prepare people for that coming. The Gospel quotes from a different OT passage, from Isaiah 40, but Malachi’s words were also seen as having been fulfilled by John the Baptist and his heralding of Jesus, the Messiah.
What is different here, though, is that Malachi is not addressing the people as a whole. His words are directed at the priesthood, the Levites, who, in the absence of the monarchy, seem to have become the national leaders, and therefore hold the responsibly for keeping the nation together through these fracture lines. The passage, if we include v.5 which rightly belongs with it but has been filleted out by the lectionary compilers, tells of two actions which God is about to take. Firstly, through his messenger, he is going to purify. Malachi uses two pictures, both to do with refining and purifying. Fuller’s soap was not like a bar of Dove: it was an alkali used to whiten rough cloth by bleaching out stains. And silver would have been heated in a crucible until the impurities had burnt off. However unpleasant the process, the end result was something much better than the original. God’s first desire appears to have been to sort out the people, heal their hearts from the trauma they had been through, and mend their fractured society. But the passage doesn’t end there, and the alternative is clearly set out, just as it was to be 300 years later by John the Baptist. Those who do not fear God enough to submit to his purification will be subject to his judgement for their occultism, adultery, lying and injustice, particularly to resident foreigners.
This Advent we have the opportunity to examine ourselves, to think about what needs healing in our relationships, with God and with others, and to choose which we would rather face, purification or judgement.