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“A Wonderful, Awful Advent”

Malachi 2:17-3:5
Bob DeGray
October 10, 2004

Key Sentence

His coming should bring you wonder and fear.


I. The cynical question
II. The wonderful, awful response
        a. The Lord would prepare
        b. The Lord would come
        c. The Lord would purify
        d. The Lord would judge


        One of my favorite Christmas stories has always been the old cartoon version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” Not the recent movie or the Gameboy game, but the cartoon, which was faithful to the Dr. Suess book. In fact I enjoy it so much I’ve often considered memorizing it for the Family Christmas Celebration:

        Every Who Down in Whoville Liked Christmas a lot...
        But the Grinch,Who lived just north of Whoville, Did NOT!
        The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
        Now, don't ask me why. No one quite knows the reason.
        It may be his head wasn't screwed on just right.
        Or maybe his shoes were too tight.
        But I think that the most likely reason of all,
        May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.

        But, whatever the reason, His heart or his shoes,
        He stood there on Christmas Eve, hating the Whos,
        Staring down from his cave with a sour, Grinchy frown,
        At the warm lighted windows below in their town.
        For he knew every Who down in Whoville beneath,
        Was busy now, hanging a holly Who wreath.
        "And they're hanging their stockings!" he snarled with a sneer,
        "Tomorrow is Christmas! It's practically here!"
        "Why, for fifty_three years I've put up with it now!"
        "I’ve got to stop Christmas from coming! But HOW?"
        Then he got an idea! An awful idea!

        How can something be wonderful and awful at the same time? Well, it depends on your point of view. From the Grinch’s point of view stealing Christmas was a great idea. From Whoville’s point of view it was awful. It’s the same in Malachi. In Malachi chapter 3, God promises a wonderful, awful advent. It’s wonderful because it means ‘God with us’ in Christ’s first advent at Christmas and at the second advent, his return. But it’s awful because he comes to judge, and especially for those who do not believe, that’s a fearful thought. His coming should bring you wonder and fear.

I. The cynical question

        Our passage, Malachi 2:17 to 3:5, begins with a cynical question: You have wearied the Lord with your words. "How have we wearied him?" you ask. By saying, "All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them" or "Where is the God of justice?"

        Many devout believers cry out to God with questions like those in Malachi 2:17. It's natural for people who love the Lord to cry out - it happens on every page of the Psalms. Psalm 10:1"Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?" Psalm 13:1: "How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?" Psalm 22:2: "O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, and am not silent." But if you read these Psalms, you’ll find they end with expressions of trust. When the psalmists asked these kinds of questions, they asked them in a spirit of trust in God.

        Malachi 2:17 is not an example of this righteous wrestling with God: it illustrates instead cynical swiping at God by a people who have abandoned trust. They had lost their fear of the Lord. Rather than offering God unblemished animals for sacrifice, they brought diseased and injured animals as if to say, "I’m not concerned with what God thinks of my offering, because I don’t really believe.” Like many in our culture, they had abandoned absolutes - if there is no God there is no basis for right and wrong, good and evil. Their thinking became so twisted, that they affirmed God didn’t even pay attention to his own laws: "Those who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord." And those who had abandoned the truth didn't care. They asked, "Where is the God of justice?, but what they were really saying was “I can do whatever I want. No God in heaven is going to punish me."

        So Malachi calls their bluff. He begins by saying “You have wearied the Lord with your words." God doesn’t weary of the outcries of faithful saints. The Psalms do give us permission to lay our deepest questions at God's feet; as we cling to him, he welcomes our cries and tears. But when we abandon that nugget of faith and ask the same questions in cynicism and distrust, God wearies of our words very quickly. He knows these questioners are doubting in order to avoid the responsibilities of faith. They are using what they claim is God’s injustice as an excuse.

II. The wonderful, awful response
        a. The Lord would prepare

        So God answers the question, and not in a way that will make them very comfortable. In his wonderful, awful answer God reveals how he will prepare, will come, will purify, and will judge. Malachi 3:1 “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the Lord Almighty. 2But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. 3He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, 4and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years. 5"So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me," says the Lord Almighty.

        The first phrase of this answer describes the one who prepares the way for the Lord’s coming. “I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before Me.” ‘My messenger’ in Hebrew is actually the word Malachi, the name of prophet we’re studying. Most students of this text agree, however, that the prophet is not talking about himself. The words “prepare the way before me” are a clue that Malachi is thinking of Isaiah 40, a prophecy often quoted in his day. Isaiah wrote: ‘A voice of one calling:"In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”’ At the end of Malachi this preparer is named: he is a second Elijah. Yet all four gospels see Isaiah 40 fulfilled in the person of John the Baptist. In Matthew Jesus says plainly that John the Baptist is Elijah, and he quotes the text from Malachi, thus linking the two pronouncements.

        But John the Baptist himself denied being Elijah. So has this prophecy been fulfilled or not? Is Jesus wrong about John the Baptist? The best resolution of this comes when we recognize that the angel who announced John’s birth identified him as one who would minister in the spirit and power of Elijah. Just as Elisha inherited a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, so John the Baptist had Elijah’s spirit and power. In that sense he was Elijah - but there is a greater Elijah yet to come. We’re talking today about two advents. The first is the first coming of Christ: not just his birth at Christmas, but his whole life, his sacrificial death and his resurrection victory. But our text also looks forward to his second coming, the one we’re still waiting for, when he comes to judge the world with justice. In each case God will use a messenger (or in Revelation, two messengers), to prepare the world for that arrival.

        But let’s go back to John the Baptist for a moment. What was his message? Mark 1:1-8 The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2It is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way"-- 3"a voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.' "4And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. . . 7And this was his message: "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." The works and the words of John prepared the way for Jesus.

II. The wonderful, awful response
        b. The Lord would come

        And Malachi’s prophecy quickly moves beyond the preparation to the event itself: “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” Were the people of Israel seeking the Lord? Possibly. Were there leaders. It doesn’t seem so. Some may have desired God’s promised new covenant, but they were few. You can almost hear the sarcasm and irony as Malachi says, "I know you’re seeking after God. I know that you desire him. So I am pleased to report to you that he is coming."

        What does the expression 'messenger of the covenant' mean? The messenger here is not John the Baptist - it is a second messenger, someone identified as ‘the Lord’, as the one whose sandals John was not worthy to untie - it’s Jesus, God the Son. Now the Hebrews were familiar with covenants, agreements between two parties based upon a condition. As the messenger of the covenant Jesus fulfilled God’s old covenant conditions and established God’s new covenant by his sacrifice. Most covenants were sealed in blood. In the upper room Jesus said “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” God saw that blood and promised that all who trust Jesus will not come under condemnation. The good news is it doesn't matter what list of sins you bring with you: if Adolf Hitler had asked for mercy five minutes before he died he would have been saved. All your sins have been paid for by the blood of Jesus if you will simply trust in him. That was the effect of his first coming as the messenger of the new covenant.

        And yet Jesus is also the one who will suddenly come again to the temple in a second advent, to complete the New Covenant. This return is one of his great themes in the Gospels. Matthew 24:30_31 “At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. 31And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.” Matthew 24:27 “For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.” Jesus knew he’d come again, that there would be a second advent, and in the next to the last verse in the Bible, Revelation 22:20 he says “Yes, I am coming soon." and the author responds “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

        So the promise of Malachi 3:1 is for us: the one we seek and we desire will come. The Scriptural pictures of that event are wonderful. 1 Corinthians 15:51 Behold, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed-- 52in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. 53For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. 54When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."

        1 Thessalonians 4: “According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. 17After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever. 18Therefore encourage each other with these words.” His coming will bring us wonder and delight.

II. The wonderful, awful response
c. The Lord would purify

        But when Jesus comes, when this messenger comes, he is also there to purify and to judge. Given the heart attitudes of Malachi’s listeners, this is hardly a promise of comfort. They wanted their dismal forecast of God’s indifference to be true, because they wanted to continue in the evil practices into which they had fallen. But God asks “Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?” This is similar to what God had said through Amos, saying “Alas, you who are longing for the day of the Lord, for what purpose will the day of the Lord be to you? It will be darkness and not light; As when a man flees from a lion and a bear meets him, or goes home, leans his hand against the wall and a snake bites him. Will not the day of the Lord be darkness instead of light, even gloom with no brightness in it?

        The bottom line is that while the coming of Christ is a promise of wonder and joy for all who believe, it ought to strike fear in those who do not believe, and also some fear in believers. The work of this covenant messenger is pictured by two great metaphors, verses 2 and 3: He will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. 3He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. God’s goal for his people is holiness: he intends to sanctify, to make pure. This is true on an individual level for the believer who is purified for the sake of holiness, and also true of groups of his people, the nation of Israel, or the church. In these visible groups some are truly his, and therefore can be made holy, but some are not his, and must be cleansed out in that final day.

        The image used is one that would speak clearly to all the residents of Palestine through many centuries. It was the custom of those who worked in silver to melt their ore in small, portable furnaces. As the ore melted, the dross, the impurities, rose to the top and were then scraped off by the refiner. The workman kept peering into the crucible, removing dross until he could see his face in the molten metal as in a mirror: then he would know that the work was done. This image applies to us. God refines us and sanctifies us by heating us in the furnace of affliction, trial and difficulty until the dross, the impurity rises to the surface where he removes it. He continues to purify us until he can see his own image, the image of his Son in our lives. That’s a wonderful picture. God is painstaking in his pursuit of our purity.

        But this purifying also takes place withing group. It began when Jesus came the first time. His purpose then was not to judge, but it was to purify by his gracious work of redemption. He came to seek and save the lost, to bring healing and to purify his elect people. He offered living water, bread of life and to be the good shepherd and the light so that men and women would no longer have to stumble around in the darkness of sin. But as John tells us, “He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him, but as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” His first coming signaled the start of a separation, in which he was calling out of the world those who would believe in him to be a holy people.

        And this included those among the people of Israel who believed. Malachi tells us that in that day the Lord will “purify the sons of Levi”, the very people against whom most of Malachi’s charges were made. Then they would "offer to the Lord an offering in righteousness" Such would only be possible only when the spiritual condition of the offerer and the quality of the offering were faultless. Malachi has already seen this in chapter 1, verse 11 - a time when "pure offerings" would be offered in "every place". In Acts 6:7 we begin to see the first fruits of such a work among the "sons of Levi", as Luke remarks that "a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith" and believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

        But in the second advent, as the thousand year reign of Christ begins, the Lord will further purify both the Levites who administer the offerings at the temple, and the people who bring the offerings. He will remove from their midst those who do not believe, so they will be able to bring offerings in righteousness, offerings acceptable to Him. It’s not that their offerings will be effective against sin: only the sacrifice of Jesus can cleanse from sin, and as believers, the people of Israel will recognize this as fully as we do. Yet they will still bring the praise and fellowship offerings of the Old Testament, and the offerings of righteous hearts will be accepted.

II. The wonderful, awful response
        d. The Lord would judge

        But this calling out of individuals is not the whole story; there is also judgment of those who refuse to believe. Verse 5: "So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me," says the Lord Almighty.”
        Notice some key characteristics of this verse. First, the judgment is for specific sins. If any of these sinners had believed, they would have been cleansed of these sins, and would not be judged for them. Paul says the same thing in 1 Corinthians 6:9_11 “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Judgment for sins or purification; belief or disbelief; those are the only two choices for sinners.

        Second, notice that all the groups listed were responsible for social evils. This has been one focus of Malachi’s warnings. He has already dealt in detail with those who swear falsely. He has already called the people to marital faithfulness, to integrity. But workers in Malachi’s day were oppressed by being cheated. The widow and the orphan were at the mercy of the unscrupulous. The sojourner, or immigrant had rights in Israel, but he was being robbed him of them. God has a heart for those who are oppressed: he judges all who ride roughshod over them.

        Third, notice that the alternative behavior is to fear God. The sins Malachi has already condemned, and these he now adds, are just evidence that these people did not fear God. Those who hold him in awe, who respect his commands, who believe in his judgment, are the ones whose God is not too small, the ones who choose to trust and to obey. And the promise of his second coming, the promise of his soon coming to purify for himself a people and to judge those who do not believe should add to the awe and fear we feel at who God is, and what he’s done and what he’s doing.

        In fact this whole prospect of a return when the trumpet sounds and Jesus breaks in from heaven should lead us to awe and fear. We don’t know when it will happen, but we do know that it will happen, that, as Twila Paris once wrote, ‘there is a bottom line drawn across the ages.’ God is even now preparing this world, sending his messengers to further prepare it, and when his time is right, maybe soon, he will come with a shout, in the person of Christ, to purify and to judge. I can’t find the reference, but I think it was Max Lucado who speculated that when Jesus comes the word he will shout is ‘Enough!’ Enough war, enough killing, enough hatred, enough innocents slaughtered, enough blood shed. Enough sickness, enough poverty, enough disease, enough oppression. Enough death, enough mourning, enough crying, enough pain. Jesus will shout ‘enough’.

        I want to close with one more second coming Scripture that captures the sense of wonder, awe and fear we’re to have. It’s 2 Peter 3: “First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. 4They will say, "Where is this 'coming' he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation." 5But they deliberately forget that long ago by God's word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. 6By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. 7By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.

        8But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. 10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. 11Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.

        The promise of Christ’s return should fill us with holy fear and with wonder.