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December 3, 2017

“God’s Messenger”

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 3:1-6

So, Laurie Anne and I just performed a portion from Handel’s Messiah for you. It is a musical interpretation of the passage just read from Malachi 3:1-4, and a little tiny bit of Haggai chapter 2:6-7. The Messiah’s words come from librettist Charles Jennens, who copied the lyrics from the King James Version of the Bible. The scriptures he selected were meant to help the listener reflect on Jesus Christ as Messiah. Jennens did a masterful job coming up with scriptures from the Old Testament and then the new, giving us a very full picture of Israel’s hope for a coming Messiah, and then its fulfillment in Jesus Christ.

You may have noticed that there were three different parts to the piece we just did for you- a recitative- which sounded a bit more like talking than singing, and then 2 parts of the aria - a slow section pondering who may abide the day of the coming of Messiah, followed by the frantic section mentioning that Messiah will be like a Refiner’s Fire. That section is marked with the tempo “prestissimo”- which literally means, “In as fast a tempo as possible.”  This quick tempo, the words and the music all provide a sense of dread.

I want to focus a bit on the recitative-A recitative is music that is meant to sound like natural speech, and its function is to deliver some kind of message, to get the listener of the music to pay attention to the spoken word. So, when Handel set the libretto to music, he chose this first section of Haggai and Malachi chapter three to emphasize the message. I literally play the part of a messenger or announcer, hoping to get you ready for what comes next, in this case the aria about the Refiner.

A messenger or announcer is someone who tries to get our attention, and is introducing someone or something,kind of like Steve Higgins, who is the announcer for the Tonight show on NBC. His main job is to announce the arrival of the host, Jimmy Fallon, and to let viewers know who Jimmy’s guests are at the beginning of the show. The Malachi passage functions almost in the same way, but with a twist- Using the Tonight show analogy, it would be as if someone were announcing that the announcer, Steve Higgins, was about to announce Jimmy Fallon was coming.  Perhaps Ed Mc Mahon? At any rate, in this section of scripture, Malachi, whose name in Hebrew actually means “The Messenger” announces that a messenger is coming to announce that God is on the way. What was going on during Malachi’s time? Where had God been and why was God coming? And just who is the messenger in question?

First, a bit of history to help answer that question. When King David’s son Solomon came to the throne of Israel in the early 900’s B.C., he had a good, long reign. He built a temple and dedicated it to the worship of God. He did really well, with the exception of one major slip up, marrying some foreign wives near the end of his life and then worshiping other gods. As a result of this, his sons, who were line of succession, were seen as suspect by some of the people of Israel. Due to their suspicions, the kingdom of Israel became divided in 2. By 796 B.C. there was Israel to the north (those who did not believe in the sons of Solomon) and Judah to the south, (those who believed in the sons of Solomon), and which had Jerusalem as its capital. In 586, a good portion of Jerusalem, and Solomon’s temple were destroyed by the Babylonians. The people of Judah were exiled to Babylon for about 70 years, until they came back, led by the prophet Isaiah. The passage in Luke actually quotes Isaiah 40:3-5. (“Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight and rough paces smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”-meaning the people will come back from Babylon, and the way home will be straight and flat. So, when the Israelites returned to Judah and to its capital city, about 520 B.C., they spent the next few years rebuilding God’s temple.

Now you would think this would be a golden age of faith- God had delivered the people across the desert back to their homes, and they had just completed rebuilding God’s temple. Unfortunately, that was far from the case, which is why Malachi was on the scene. According to the first couple of chapters of Malachi, Judah was not living righteously at all, not living in faith. They believed God was totally absent from the earth and was doing nothing. The priests at the temple became lax, just five years after it was restored. Both they and the faithful were offering lame and blind livestock as an offering to God instead of the best animals.

Here is an idea of what animal sacrifices were like back during this time-

There was a large central square in the front of the temple which served as the altar, and worshipers and priests brought animal sacrifices to be forgiven for their sins and to honor God. But their lame animal sacrifices were an affront to God. Furthermore, the priests in charge were corrupt, causing many to stumble in their faith. In addition, men in the community were callously divorcing their wives for no reason and marrying foreign wives instead. They scoffed at the notion of God being present. Malachi responds in the midst of this time of faithlessness that a messenger is coming, and suddenly, God will be in his temple. That coming won’t be pretty- Malachi’s description in chapter 2:1-3 is that God will come and curse the people and the priests, that they will put animal dung on their faces and be cast out of God’s presence.

Malachi’s message in chapter 3, which was read this morning is this-A messenger is coming to announce that God will return suddenly, and when that happens, the priests will all be purified (sons of Levi). God will bring justice (mishpat) against sorcerers, adulterers, perjurers, those who oppress the wage earner, widow and orphan and rob the foreign person of their rights. God will act to redeem the people. Malachi believes it is the prophet Elijah who will be the messenger as it was Elijah who, upon his death, had ascended to heaven in a golden chariot, and many believed he would one day return.

God was going to refine the people and the priests as a refiner of gold and silver, or like a fuller using fuller’s soap to whiten and clean a garment. Just what did Malachi mean by this? Refining consists of purifying an impure material, in this case silver or gold. In refining, the final material is usually identical chemically to the original one, only it is purer.  The Hebrew word translated "refine":  tsaraph, means literally, “to fuse" How did this process work? The silver used by the ancients was probably obtained by smelting lead sulfide ore, rich in silver. After the ore had been reduced to a metallic condition, the lead was separated from the silver by blowing hot air over the surface of the melted metal. The lead was thus changed to lead oxide which, in a powdered condition, was driven away by the air blast. The resulting lead oxide, called silver dross in the Bible, was used for glazing pottery.  The main ancient process of gold parting was by salt cementation. A fuller was a bit different. The word "full" is from the Anglo-Saxon “fullian”, meaning "to whiten." To full is to press or scour cloth in a tub by foot with ammonia. This art is one of great antiquity.

 So, the priests and people will be purified- the dross will finally be blown away, the clothes will be made clean-leaving pure, clear, shining sinless, righteous people before God.

But Elijah never came, and, although God was already present in the temple, the priests could not tell, due to their lack of faith. For some 500 years the people of God went back and forth from being faithful to faithless, all the while waiting for the one announced in Isaiah, Haggai and Malachi- They were hoping for Messiah- that is a Son of God to appear and lead the people. Although all kings of Israel were believed to be sons of God, the succession of the kings of Israel were far from this ideal.  So, the people waited and waited for a true Messiah, the true son of God to come.

That brings us to today’s second passage, Luke 3:1-6, the fulfillment of Malachi’s vision some 500 years earlier. The messenger is not Elijah, as some wonder. It is John the Baptist. John is out in the wilderness, at a very specific time, according to Luke, probably about 29 A.D. He is baptizing people out in the wilderness.  John wanted the people to repent of their sins, to turn away from them and towards God, so that they would be prepared for the arrival of Messiah.

That brings us to this morning, on the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is a time to wait and look for God’s arrival in our lives. But it is more than that. Advent, like Lent, is also a time to repent, to turn our lives back around towards God. As it says in Proverbs 28:13, “He or she who conceals their transgressions will not prosper, but he or she who confesses and forsakes them will find mercy.” We begin by stopping, turning around and looking at how we live, act and speak. Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle wrote, “Of all the acts of humanity, repentance is the most divine. The greatest of all faults is to be conscious of none.”Are we living rightly in God’s eyes?  When we stop, take stock of where we are and realize our faults, bringing those sins before the Messiah, who is for us a refiner, we can have the dross of sin taken; our clothes will be made clean with the fuller’s soap. Then we can accept a new beginning, preparing for God’s arrival, Jesus the Messiah, born in Bethlehem. I believe in a Messiah who came to show us a different way of life than this dark, violent, senseless one in which we now live. We as a people need to turn back to Messiah’s teachings and work to live them out upon this earth.

We need to reclaim those basic principles, for many in the Christian church have turned from them, embracing nationalism, racism, white privilege, neglecting the poor, and turning their backs to immigrants- all of which scripture refutes soundly. I believe in a Messiah who called us“to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.”(Mark 12:28-34)

I believe he was born, lived, died and rose again to give us hope, and to bring us hoope- the same hope we give thanks for and light in the Advent wreath today; the same hope we feel as we share the Lord’s Supper. I believe he sent us the Holy Spirit so that the God within us would act out Messiah’s principles on the earth- that we would be the heart, hands and feet of Christ until he comes again in glory. I believe in a Messiah who is the light that shines in the darkness, and that the darkness will never, ever overcome it. So, in this Advent season, let us not just wait- let us act. Let us turn our lives back to God, and heed the voice of John crying out in the wilderness“Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.”  Alleluia. Amen.

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