Is everyone comfortable? I don’t ask because this is going to be a long sermon. This will be about the usual length. But, the question of comfort is important here. I invite you to think about how comfortable you are here, right now? And in your life – relationships, station in life, living space. Are we comfortable? We’ll come back to this.
December, 2010: an unemployed Tunisian man tries selling vegetables to make ends meet. The police seize his cart. His poverty and powerlessness are too much. He sets his own body on fire. The Arab spring is launched! Has it really been two years? Tunisia – Yemen – Egypt – Libya – and now Syria; also in that time three decades of civil war led to the birth of a new nation, South Sudan. It’s been a time of war, violence, and death. But at some level we respect people asserting their right to freedom and democracy. I think of the musical, Les Miserables, which depicted Victor Hugo’s novel about the French Revolution.
“Do you hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men?
It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again.
When the beating of your heart echoes the beating of the drums
there is a life about to start when tomorrow comes.
Will you give all you can give so that our banner may advance?
Some will fall and some will live, will you stand up and take your chance?
The blood of the martyrs will water the meadows of France.”
From 500 BC to the birth of Christ, it was not an age of rebellion, but an age of empire – empires that stretched over much of the geography that has experienced revolutionary movements these past two years. The Assyrians and then the Persians and Medes, and then the Greeks and the Ptolemies and Selucids and finally the Romans – these great empires dominated the world. Egypt rose in these times, rivaling Babylon. Caught in the middle of the wars of these historic heavyweights was this little country that claimed they were God’s chosen and their God was the only God. Abraham, Moses, David – the great heroes of Israel’s history were fading into the distant past by 500 BC. Israel was not even a nation, but rather was a vassal state – controlled, exiled, and allowed to return at the whim of monarchs who lived 100’s of miles away from Jerusalem.
Today’s world lives in a season of Spring that is bloody and new and 2 years after the dramatic beginning is still going on. The Biblical world was a time of empire and for the Jews, a time of powerlessness. They went where they were told. They were possessions of masters who lorded over them. We are not a part of this Arab spring. We watch from a distance. We went through that in 1776. We are not slaves. The Biblical context is not ours. What’s our story?
There is poverty here and hunger, and it is bad. A worse problem for us, including for the poor among us, is obesity. Some people don’t eat enough. Many more don’t eat the right foods. Obesity and diabetes are killing us. The children we care for in Ethiopia and the children Laura visits in Ukraine would happily take many of the things we complain about. The Tunisian guy who burned himself to death would trade his poverty for ours. The poor among us struggle but not to the point of revolution. We’re a middle class nation whose frustration is that our middle class life is not comfortable enough.
Our story is a story of comfort and stability. Are you comfortable? I am much of the time. Is God happy with our comfort, or is God about to disrupt our lives with some difficulty?
In writing about Old Testament Prophets, Gerhard von Rad describes an encounter the Prophet Amos has with a priest. Amos lives in the 8th century BC and forecasts the judgment that is coming on Israel. The priest, tied to the establishment, tells the king that the land is not able to bear the words of the prophet (7:9). Von Rad notes that this priest recognized that prophets are dangerous, especially to kings, people who are comfortable. I read that and thought of my own comfort. I wondered out loud, are the prophets still dangerous? Your individual life may be assaulted, unsettled, and uncomfortable. But overall, we are in a place of stability, safety (terrorist attacks scare us but only actually hit an infinitesimally small percentage of us) and a place of comfort. Are the words of the prophets dangerous to us? That depends. Are we listening?
God says, “I am sending a messenger” (Malachi 3:1). ‘Malachi’ literally means ‘messenger.’ New Testament writers were aware of Malachi the Messenger’s “messenger talk.” They remembered how he wrote that a messenger would make a path for the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah. In Luke 1 we read, “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.” Previously the people had turned away from God and away from faith, but after this one comes, they will turn back. “With the Spirit and power of Elijah he will go before [the Lord] to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous” (Luke 1:16-17). John the Baptist was the Elijah described by Malachi.
Was John dangerous? King Herod thought so. He locked John up. He cut off his head. Then when Jesus, King Herod laid awake at night worrying that John was back from the grave. A prophet speaks God’s word with such inspired power that the word still infuses fear into the wicked and hope into the downtrodden long after the prophet has exited stage left.
Is Malachi dangerous? In our comfortable chairs, are we listening?
Seeing the might of God in God’s coming, Malachi asked, “who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears” (Mal. 3:2)?
The first time Jesus came his blood, running down a cross, horrified his followers. They fled, they wept, and they crumpled in heaps on the ground. None could stand. Then he was resurrected. When the angels announced it, Roman soldiers fell to the ground so overcome with dread they were like dead men. Jesus’s followers at his feet to lay hold of him. Who could endure his coming? Who could stand?
At his second coming, Paul writes that there will be a trumpet blast from an archangel and the dead will rise right out of their graves. The living will be caught up with Jesus in the air (1 Thessalonians 4). All will be judged according to their works (Rev. 20:12). Revelation says the kings of the earth will call on rocks and mountains saying, “Fall on us and hide us” (6:17). Who can endure the 2nd coming?
But wait! Neither is our problem. That first coming with things like virgin births and angel choirs, and crucifixions and resurrections – that happened 2000 years ago. How forceful is that, really, when we can reduce it to a ceramic nativity scene we put on the mantle and a silver cross we wear jewelry. That’s an old story, a good one, but not one that’s dangerous to us.
And the second coming is so unknown, we don’t consider it a possibility in our lives. The actions of Bible-believing people in our context today do not show them to be people who think Jesus is coming back in their lifetimes. They might say they think He is, but their lives say something else. So the second coming story is for later, and is not dangerous now. We are enjoying this comfortable spot between the comings and goings of God. God is welcome here if He will quietly take his place and not disturb us.
Malachi gives us reasons to listen to stories about the coming of God. We should listen with invested attention. The Lord comes as a refiner, refining with fire. When Malachi said this, he was specifically talking about God’s refining of the priests in the temple in Jerusalem. But we read in the New Testament, “you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1st Peter 2:9). Malachi’s talk of God the refiner is for us – we are the ones refined.
The Lord comes a fuller, scrubbing with soap that won’t stop cleansing us until all impurities are gone, says Malachi. Is there anything in our comfort that might not jive with God’s radical call on us to be his people, spreading the Gospel of His Kingdom in the world? He will come in Spirit and Truth and he will rub us raw until all the filth is off and it will hurt.
Jesus adds that he cuts away the unfruitful branches in our lives. But what if we love some of those unfruitful branches? No, no, Jesus, I’ll follow you. But don’t cut this out of my life. This addiction. This extravagance. This bit I know is sinful but I love it. Don’t prune. I’ll be a disciple most of the time. Jesus, the Lord who refines with fire and scrubs with harsh fuller’s soap, cuts with the sharp two-edged blade that is the word of God (John 15:2). Burning; scrubbing; cutting; this is what God does among his followers who are comfortable. This is the work of the Holy Spirit, the word of God, and the church in that time between comings.
Who can endure His coming, the prophet asks? Our days of comfort are numbered.
What could be more dangerous than listening to the prophet Malachi? How about not listening? It’s short little book at the end of the Old Testament. Nobody ever reads it. And it makes me uncomfortable. We’ll skip it and jump to angels and wise men and nativity scenes in Matthew and Luke.
In refining, scrubbing, and pruning, God helps us become who He made us to be in the first place. Paul tells the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling. They’re saved in that they have trusted Jesus. But he wants them to give themselves fully to God. Paul has read Malachi. He says this with fear and trembling. He knew God was a refiner.
As dangerous as it is to listen, it is far more dangerous to ignore Malachi. When God refines, he is purifying us and sometimes it hurts, a lot. Sometimes the walk with God feels better than any emotions or titillating sensation we can conceive. It is high and low all at once. But to ignore is to be cut-off.
If we listen now, we are purified. If we ignore now, at the judgment, we are punished. I am not convinced that God imposes eternal damnation. I just think God counts up our ledger at the judgment, finds us thoroughly sinful, and because we have rejected him and his prophets and Jesus, then he turns us out. I really believe all the word pictures of Hell in the Bible are metaphors depicting eternity cut off from God. I think actually spending eternity knowing one will never ever be able to be in relationship with God is worse than unquenchable fire, than outer darkness, and worse than weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.
We listen to Malachi and the entire witness of scripture now, and at the last judgment, when accounts are settled, Jesus takes us and says, “I’ll stand for these people. HillSong church? I know them. Their entire record is on me.” God looks at Jesus, looks at us, smiles, and says, “Welcome my children, enter into the joy of your master.” By the way, that’s Heaven. It is not some pearly-gate, gold-streeted place. Those metaphors try to picture the emotions we’ll have when God looks us in the eye and says, “Welcome, my child. Enter my joy.”
But what of today? All that burning, scouring, and cutting doesn’t very pleasant. Often it is not. It is though, necessary. And in the process, God gives us complete grace. We receive it and pass it on. God shows us what love is. We live in it and give it. We become changed which really means we return to the image of God in which we were made. Our sins have dirtied that image. He cleans us. We submit to Him in Word and Spirit, and we cannot stand, but He picks us up.
Standing in His power, we discover there are no limits our world can impose. The age of empire, the Spring of rebellion, the comfort of middle class security – we realize all of this is shadow and reality is the Kingdom Jesus envisioned. In Christ, we live in the Kingdom even as spend time waiting for the final consummation.
Yes the purifying messenger’s words are still dangerous but after we are knocked down, we are made new and we walk in the light. We see beauty and deal in love. And before we know it we are the ones sharing the words, preaching the dangerous message so that others may be saved from their comfort and save for life with God.