Messenger of the Covenant
Those of us who are familiar with mobile phones, tablets, laptops, and desktop computers, know about the tyranny of “updates”, when a message flashes up on your screen, “Update Available” and something which follows along the lines of “Do you want to install updates now... or postpone for an hour?”
How many of us get irritated by that? Right in the middle of our busyness and important work, we get a message to say “here’s an update”. How many of us ignore it ... or postpone it ... or even shout at our computer screen?
In the middle of our busyness of preparing for Christmas, a message comes ... an update ... a different way of taking in the Good News ... an important new beginning. Will we shout that it’s annoying? Will we ignore it altogether as irrelevant to us? Will we postpone finding out what it is until we’re good and ready, until it’s convenient to our busy schedule? Or will we pick a time for the update to be taken on board, and perhaps even to say to God, “I’ll do it now!”
The book of Malachi is placed as the last book of the Prophets, which also makes it the last book in the Old Testament. The Hebrew word Malachi simply means ‘my (that is, God’s) messenger.’ Malachi was a prophet sent to the Jews who had resettled in Judea and to all Israel in general, depicted as “the sons of Jacob” (verse 6). When the Jews began returning from their 70 years of Babylonian captivity, God directed them to begin restoring Jerusalem and building the second temple (often called Zerubbabel’s temple). When they first returned to Judea from their captivity in Babylon, the Jews rigorously guarded against pagan idol worship in their land. But over time, they gradually gave in to this sin. In the process, they also began to lose sight of God’s purposes for them. Malachi 3:1 states: Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me; suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming. This passage has been interpreted as predicting the coming of John the Baptist (my messenger) and Jesus Christ (the messenger of the covenant). Malachi the prophet however was sent to assure his people that God still loved them, but that God demanded honor, respect and faithfulness from them. God would grant to those who would be faithful, obedient people an eternal place in God’s Kingdom.
The fact that we read this text today, Advent 2, re-enforces the Gospel writers identifying of the unnamed messenger with John the Baptist. (John is the focus of the other lectionary texts for today.) Because of the timing, this Scripture is re-read in the light of John the Baptist & his preaching. So the purifying fire directed against the descendants of Levi in 3:2-3 is melded with the baptism of fire that will come to all people in Luke 3:16: I baptize you with water. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit & fire. The same verses are appropriated to the fire that can’t be put out that will destroy the wicked on the Day of Judgement in Luke 3:17.
But Malachi 3:1-4 is also the traditional reading for the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the temple, February 2. The coming of the Lord into the temple (v. 1) is thus identified with Mary & Joseph bringing Jesus to present him according to the Law of Moses. Instead of coming in power, a baby is carried into the temple. But his coming still brings turmoil & fear; the question of who can endure his coming is answered in Luke in terms of the rise & fall of many. It is not only the Levites who will be purified, but a sword will pierce Mary’s heart also.
Our Christian tradition, then, gives not one, but 2 answers to the question of who is the messenger of v. 1: He is John the Baptist, but he is also the baby Jesus! Still other traditions identify him as the writer of the text (Malachi means messenger), or Elijah at his second coming & still others interpret him as an angel or God himself. That so many characters have been claimed as this messenger is seen by some as a lack of clarity & precision in the words of our text. More positively, this prophetic text, like so many others, only fails if it is read as a source of concrete factual information.
Its very ambiguity allows us to ask, today: Who are the messengers of the covenant? Perhaps we may not all give the same answer. And focusing on that question can lead us away from a host of other questions that might easily be missed: What is the message? (The task of preparation.) When might the messenger arrive? (Suddenly!) For whom is the message? (All of us; it comes from the Lord of hosts.) Where might we find this messenger? (In the temple – among us?)
In the hustle & bustle of our culture, where the emphasis of the season seems to be so much on ourselves & our loved ones, I believe a more pertinent question is: What will we do with Advent? What will we do with God’s ‘update’ message to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Christ through repentance & heart change?
We can ignore the message or dismiss it as irrelevant:
a) We didn’t read it right.
b) We didn’t give thought to its importance.
c) We didn’t have time.
2. We can decide to postpone dealing with it:
a) Deciding to do things on our schedule and not God’s – which doesn’t work.
b) Mañana – ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ – is not the appropriate response to Jesus coming into our lives. (Tomorrow never comes!)
c) As with John the Baptist & the prophet Malachi, the time is now to repent and change our ways.
God is quite clear about what sorts of actions will be judged. Verse 5 reads: I will be quick to testify against the sorcerers, the adulterers, those swearing falsely, against those who cheat the day laborers out of their wages as well as oppress the widow & the orphan, & against those who brush aside the foreigner & do not revere me, says the Lord. At first glance we may feel tempted to think that we’re exempt from the rebuke; after all, we wouldn’t think of practicing sorcery. But it becomes clear that we should examine ourselves more carefully; lying, injustice, and a lack of mercy also displease God.
Someday we will all stand before Christ and will give an account for our lives. Are there areas of your life that need to experience the Refiner’s fire?
We can respond now and be ready for the next stage –and the next– of our mission and service as a result of our faith. If we do that, we have gotten our ‘mindset’ right. God’s call is not ‘once and for all’, but has always to be reinterpreted as we face new challenges, and has constant need to be renewed. The Christian faith is a journey to be travelled and not a destination to be arrived at.
We have to be ready – now and at every stage of our journey of faith – to be responsive to Christ’s coming, and to do something about it!