You’re sitting in the interview, listening to the question, “Tell us how your skills would be a benefit and a match with XYZ Company?” Serious, well-dressed, important looking executives stare back at you and wait for your answer. Whether you’re hired or not may hang on this… You’re just sitting down with your #2 pencil for the ACT/SAT exam – it’s hours and hours, pages and pages – this test score will determine grants and aid and admission to schools you’d like to attend… You wait for the doctors through another contraction. The baby’s on her way – your first. You’re tired and anxious. Your first child, your growing family, is coming through this process. Your future is pressing forward with great pain and urgency… Those are nervous, tense, terrifying situations. But if you’ve polished your resume and studied XYZ Company, if you’ve practice-tested and studied, if you’ve taken care of yourself and learned something of what to expect for childbirth – if you’ve prepared, there can be a little more peace in these.
It’s good…we need to be prepared for these kinds of serious, life-changing things. But we need to be prepared for something weightier than these too. As we say in the creed, Christ is coming “to judge the living and the dead.” The prophet Malachi asks a chilling question about that day, “Who can endure the day of his coming?” The answer? Only one who is prepared. The one who is prepared will have peace even on that day. This morning then, let’s think together about how we are prepared.
Malachi the prophet lived about 100 years after Jews returned from exile in Babylon. When they came back, at first, they’d revived their spiritual lives as God’s people; but by Malachi’s time, that was pretty much dead. There was indifference toward God and worship; their pastors were negligent; their perspective on life was skewed too. In the previous chapters, the people pointed to their problems and asked, “Where is the God of justice?” (2:17). And Malachi essentially said, “Oh, don’t worry, you will meet him, face-to-face. Are you sure you’re ready?” And then, God spoke to his people no more until John the Baptist arrived on the scene.
Our section of Malachi this morning says that to prepare us God is going to send two messengers. First, “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me.” The gospels all cite these words in reference to John the Baptist. He prepared the way for the second messenger: “Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple.” This second messenger is the LORD himself – coming to his own house, his temple.” This is the promise of the coming Christ: “the messenger of the covenant” – God’s gracious salvation promise. God says, This one “whom you desire, will come.”
But…is this messenger the one we desire? Israel of old wondered whether God really loved them – though he’d chosen them as his special people, though he’d promised them his kingdom, though he’d promised heaven. They wanted earth too – all its comforts and ease. They wanted God to be their Amazon – with little text messages of when all their desires would be delivered: “Just 6 stops away, Israel!” What about you? Are you making your Christmas list – checking it twice, maybe 5x? Is your desire for God’s messages, or that God message you about fulfilling all your desires? Do your questions come in that old Israel way? “God, if you really loved me, I wouldn’t have to contend with this at work…” “Where are you God of justice? I’m so mistreated and underpaid.” “Why can’t I have the new truck – that new car – these earrings – that house?” “What are you doing God? Justice would be less fighting in my marriage or more affection.”
Whether it’s the things the world presents for us to love or just the desires of our own hearts, it’s easy to be desiring God in a way that doesn’t truly love him. Just like Israel, we can bring our own blemished sacrifices – callous offerings, little attention to his Word; we can rest in the comfort of this world – to live like those around us in our relationships and our purchases and our actions. It’s easy to forget that God owes us absolutely nothing; and that the Messiah will indeed come just as he is. This “messenger of the covenant” is the same one who was Israel’s pillar of fire, a deadly defense against Pharoah (Exodus 14); the one who slaughtered entire Assyrian armies (2 Kings 19) – he was coming into the world. And who could stand before that?
But that is exactly what God intends in his messenger – that his people stand ready. So, the Messiah, God’s messenger, will be “like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.” And, since he’s the messenger of God’s covenant of blessing and love, it serves to remember first how that purification works. God prepared it in his Son. This purification was a painless process for us – but was burning justice against sin in Christ alone. The scourge on his back, the nails in his hands, the abandonment of God on his soul. The pain of purifying sin was 100% on Christ. The benefit of his purification is 100% ours. In Jesus we are purified because in him every sin has been burned off; every stain is washed away – “the blood of Jesus, [God’s] Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7) We are prepared when we know and long for this messenger…
But all that is behind this picture. In Malachi’s words, Jesus is a refiner of silver and we are the silver. We are the dirty laundry, scrubbed with powerful soap. In connection to Jesus, God promises to remove the impurities that threaten our lives of faith. Rightly we hear and preach God’s law – to convict us of the sins we fall into again and again. It’s painful, shameful to think of our sinful desires or our failings again. It’s hard to see how far our own great goodness is from God’s pure righteousness. It hurts to have to let go relationships that are sinful, the paths we’ve chosen in life that begin to lead us away from God or to put aside useful things that bring temptations to us. God burns these away – he wants to purify us. He even launders and purifies us with the cleansing, burning hardships of living in this broken world. We’re tempted to see them all as useless, but he bends them all to his purpose: in the devastation of the world, forcing us to resign our plans to his providence; in our weakness, forcing us to rely on his strength; in sorrows, forcing us to seek consolation that only he can provide. He purifies us…
This is the God we have and the kind of messenger, Jesus, whom he sends. One who allows and sometimes even brings the fires that will purge our faith of impurities – all so that we can avoid that greater, eternal fire. Perhaps we could think of the parent who never disciplines his child – he thinks it is a result of love to not say no or never to reprimand. But in sparing them that smaller pain, the parent opens the child up possible to be utterly unprepared for life. God wants us to be prepared. He loves us too much to leave us unprepared. So he sends his Son and he turns us from our sins and sometimes uses this broken, hurtful world to help us see what we need – and in this way, he makes us ready.
Note how he intends it to be in vv.3-4. When he purifies us, “the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness…offerings acceptable to the Lord.” It isn’t just so that we escape destruction that he purifies us. But so that we can praise him day by day. He purifies “Levites” today – pastors and teachers to share his cleansing Word. Through them he does “John the Baptist” work and removes roadblocks of sin in lives of faith, preparing the way for Christ. He purifies his people to serve him too – to bring offerings pleasing to him in attention to his Word and preaching it to others, in joyful, daily work, and in perseverance through suffering. We have a God, a Lord our messenger, who purifies us to be pleasing to him. And, having been purified, to be ready to stand on that great, fiery day without fear, with the gift of his peace in hand, longing for his glory in our hearts, and joyful praise on our lips.
If you’re like me some of the most joyous days are the celebrations – the ones where memories are made – that great Christmas party, your wedding day, a graduation, even the birth of a child. The joy on those days is great in part because they’re preceded by a lot of hard work. It takes a lot of preparation to get to the main event. Sometimes we can get caught up in thinking or feeling that this life is “the main event”. But it’s not. The party is coming. Now is the hard work to make ready for that party. One day, there will be peace from all the troubling things this world brings – from this hard work. But peace requires preparation. God prepares us by sending his messenger – who brings us peace and who purifies us from our sins. Until then, we can be at peace even here – knowing that God is using all of these things to prepare us to meet him. Amen.