Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church
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"Messages and Messengers"
Malachi 3:1-4
At this time of year, as we approach Christmas, it's very easy to get caught up in the Christmas story as told in the New Covenant and to forget about the Hebrew scriptures. But if we do that, we lose touch with the roots and reasons for there to be a Christmas story, with everything that told us that Jesus was coming.
And we don't need to look very far into the Hebrew scriptures to find that link. Now, I don't mean through the front door, of Genesis, but the back door, of Malachi. Malachi is the last book of the Hebrew scriptures, the last minor prophet, which is probably a good thing, because it is SO tiny, that it would be difficult to find if we were just thumbing through.
But there is another good reason for Malachi being the last book of the Hebrew scriptures. Although nothing is known about the person of the historical Malachi, we do know what the name means. It means "my messenger." And what more fitting way to close out the thirty-nine books of the Hebrew scriptures than with a book whose title literally points to the New Covenant.
I don't know if this positioning in the canon is intentional or accidental, but the effect is to unify the two testaments, to make Malachi and Matthew not quite so alien to one another.
The pronouncement of the coming of the Messiah, in the first verse of the third chapter of Malachi, seems clear: "See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight--indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts."
But how often do we think of Jesus as a messenger? Unfortunately, that word has fallen on bad times. Too often we think of a messenger as simply one who carries a message, as if that message has nothing to do with the carrier. Yet, there are other ways of looking at this notion of messenger. More and more, those who study what goes on in communication are telling us that we really can't separate what is written and what is spoken from the person who wrote it or spoke it.
The message and the messenger, in that sense, become reflections of one another. And modern advertising has gone even further, demonstrating that the way that a message is sent, the messenger being the newspaper or magazine advertisement or television commercial, is as important as the message itself. Now, I find it not at all difficult to think of Jesus as messenger; but I have the gospels to inform my understanding, and Malachi did not. When he says that the messenger will "prepare the way," what do you suppose he meant? If we did not have the gospels to tell us what Christ did, and what Christ said, how would we respond to the word "prepare"? But somewhat perplexing for me is Malachi's prophesy that "the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple." What did he mean by the "Lord whom you seek"? Did he know what the children of Israel were looking for? Did he expect them to be pleased with what they found? I'm not so sure. But I AM sure that he was speaking out of hope that the covenant would find its fulfillment.
Malachi goes on to say, "But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap." And he raises some interesting questions. How did he envision the "day of his coming" of the messenger? How did he think that the Christ, the Messiah, would arrive? Would he have been surprised by the Christ being born into the world in the most humble of conditions? Was he expecting a grand entry? Indeed, God caught us off guard in Bethlehem. But regardless of what Malachi may have anticipated, his words still ring true. For when we consider that God CHOSE to sent his messenger in the birth of a child in deepest humility, can we indeed endure that thought, can we get our minds around that understanding? Indeed, how many politicians do you know, of either party, of national prominence, who are not rich? Not many. And how many of them would be willing to humble themselves to live like most of the rest of us? But the God of the universe, beyond which there is no greater power, no greater intelligence, did CHOOSE to enter the world in the most HUMBLE manner imaginable. And although I know that it happened, it is beyond my fully comprehending. Who CAN stand when the messenger arrives in the straw, in the barn, behind the inn in Bethlehem?
And as I said earlier, we often cannot separate the messenger from the message. So it is with Malachi's prophesy. The messenger is like a refiner's fire, like fuller's soap--or laundry bleach. And Malachi goes on to say that "he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like silver and gold, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness." So what is the significance of fire and soap? Malachi doesn't say much about the soap, or bleach, depending on your translation. And we might even think of it as simply water. But here we are not concerned with what fire and water ARE as much as we should be concerned with what they DO. They are purifying elements. And it is readily apparent how they can remove impurities from earthly materials. What is not so apparent is the OTHER impurities which can be removed. But in the third chapter of the gospel according to Luke, in the sixteenth verse, we hear John the Baptist say, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." The very presence of the messenger is like the purification of our souls through water and fire, cleansing and refining us to be presentable to God.
But what is this about the descendants of Levi, anyway? Well, we best know of Levi through the book of Leviticus, the third book of the pentateuch and of the Bible, and it is mostly a book of worship. But more importantly, we should know that the tribe of Levi was set apart by God for special service, to perform the priestly function, and this is recorded in the third chapter of the book of Numbers. So what Malachi is talking about here is the purification of the temple, the purification of the Jewish religion. But purification is not so simple a matter as Malachi might suggest. Indeed, Christ's coming brought not the purification of the Jewish religion, but ultimately a new religion of Christians. So much for the purification of the Levites.
But Malachi's prophesy has a heavier, more far-reaching message to it. For just as Christ was a messenger with a message of purification, so have many others since been messengers who have attempted, as they felt moved by God, to purify the Church as they knew it. Indeed the history of the church is an ongoing saga of controversies and schisms, or divisions.
The earliest such division that made a big difference was between the church in western Europe and the church in eastern Europe. And it resulted in the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church. Then in the sixteenth century, upset with what he saw as corruption in the Roman Catholic church, Martin Luther started making noises about the need to purify the church. He really was not intent on leaving the Roman Catholic church, just getting it to clean up its act. What he succeeded in doing was starting the avalanche of Protestantism. In a less theological vein, King Henry VIII of England became upset with the Church of Rome because he needed divorces, and lots of them. So he took control of the Church of England. But even within that church many found practices not to their liking, and they sought to "purify" the church of those practices. Within the church there was what was called the Puritan movement, and many became dissatisfied enough to leave and form their own church. The contemporary United Church of Christ can trace its roots to that movement. The purification of the church has been ongoing, and each newly-formed church which has attempted to cleanse itself of past corruption has been led by a messenger with a message. And each church has sought, in Malachi's words, to present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Malachi tells us that when the messenger has done his work, "Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years." Malachi is saying that ONCE things were right, but they no longer are. They have been corrupted. But if this has been an ongoing message throughout time, will the work of the messenger ever be completed? What is the nature of the "offering pleasing to the Lord"? To some extent, the trend of splintering denominations has reversed. In 1939 three denominatins merged to form the Methodist Church. In 1946 two denominations merged to form the Evangelical United Brethren Church. In 1968 the Methodists and the EUB's merged to form the United Methodist Church. And prior to that merger each denomination was actively consulting with OTHER denominations regarding other potential mergers, including the Methodists with the Episcopalians. Yet, although we may worship God in a corporate body, Christ comes into our lives individually, in an ongoing process of cleansing and refining and purifying, and each of us individually continues to be a messenger of Christ's message to the world. In that individuality, there remains the prospect that, over time, messengers will emerge who will speak out with a NEW message, that the church is in need of change; and if that change does not evolve rapidly enough, and if the messenger's message is strong enough, there will again be new churches formed.
As we prepare for the coming of the Christ child in this advent season, it is well for us to ask ourselves what message this divine messenger is bringing us. And by message, I don't mean the teachings of Christ which he brought to us during his earthly ministry, but the very message of his birth. What does this say to us about the place of God in our lives? Malachi calls for a return to things as they were "in the days of old and as in former years." Are we moving toward God in 2006 or away from God? Is our spiritual life better now than it has been, or is it less? Politicians like to ask us if we are better off now than we were two or four or eight years ago. Personally, I AM, because God HELPS me to be better off spiritually. But on the other hand, whenever I think of the hundreds of thousands of homeless and hungry, most of them children, while the world spends billions to enhance the ability to kill, somehow I don't feel better off.
In about two weeks we will celebrate the reception of the most profound message in the history of the world in the greatest gift that could ever be given to us. But it was not a message and a gift given just to "the world"; it was given to each one of us, individually. It was given to us to cleanse us, to refine us, to purify us, and even to heal us. It was the messenger sent to prepare the way before God and to God. And in that messenger is the best message of all, that God loves us.

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