In the season of advent we are continually reminded of God’s coming. And as the lights on our advent wreath build to that coming light, two promises seen last week are built upon this week. First, the Lord’s coming is for sure and for real. There is nothing remotely uncertain or abstract about it. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. Second, that coming will be welcome, a very good thing. He will prove to be the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight. As we read in our Old Testament passage from Malachi …
1“Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But 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.
But wait a minute! That sweet good news of Christ’s promised coming turned into some pretty sour questions right quick didn’t it? Who can endure the day of His coming? Who shall stand when He appears? The ominously implied answer is a resounding No One! … Why Not? Because of our sins, that’s why. Only a divinely strong detergent can wash away our sins. Only a blazingly hot refiner’s fire can purge away our dross. And this is the very promise of God through the prophet Malachi. When the God of justice appears, all people will be found guilty. When Christ comes suddenly to His temple there will be no excuses left, and no sinners left standing. “Christ is not merely the Purifier but also the purifying agent. He is not only the Blacksmith but also the Fire; not only the Cleaner but also the soap.” (Luther)
It’s what John the Baptist was preparing people for in the Gospel reading. Malachi’s “My Messenger” is fulfilled in the wilderness preacher who proclaimed: 7“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?”
And well they should ask. And so should we. What can we do? Have we born the fruits of true repentance? Have we produced enough of the good fruit God seeks? Is there enough time left to do so or are we just so much rotten wood waiting to be chopped down? Who can endure and who can stand?
5“Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. 7From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them.
Who can endure and who can stand? We could start listing each of the commandments in turn and asking the the question “How have you fared?” How has your life stacked up? But the whole of the season of Advent would not be enough to do it justice, and I don’t think your spirit would hold up for long. And mind you, this is only one of many biblical catalogs of sins to which the Lord of hosts will testify on the Day of Judgment. So we can jump right to the last indictment as a summary and source for all the others and simply ask “Do you now, and have you always had a proper fear of the Lord?”
Money, time, possessions do they serve you or Him? Attitudes, actions, desires are they driven by temporal wants or eternal needs? Who really gets the first nod, top priority, and final consideration in your plans? What really, when you get right down to it, makes your life look so different from all the heathen around you?
Who can endure? Who can stand? Not us. Not when so much of our lives is spent walking in any and all directions contrary to God’s intended course. And that is why the great Advent refrain comes to us again from God’s great messengers like Malachi and John. Turn aside from turning aside. Turn back again. Repent! And this is precisely what Jesus has come to make possible for us who could not endure or stand otherwise.
3He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
It is not an easy task. It takes time, and effort. It comes with pain and the stripping away of so much we like, but isn’t good for us. It cannot come through holiday cheer or properly decked halls. First must come the cross, and only then the glory. But in that cross is the greatest gift of all. For it is the gift that keeps on giving, as purified and refined by Jesus we will present Him offerings in righteousness, stemming from the righteousness He Himself has given us through His saving person and work. (epistle) 6And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
And in this gift of Christ to us God will be pleased as in former years. For God longs for the good old days before the fall when people once again will be back in full relationship with Him and walk once again in righteousness and purity before Him. Even though we have changed in the intervening years, God hasn’t. And for that reason He hasn’t destroyed His sinful people. For that reason He still longs for our return to Him.
6“For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. God is the same from everlasting to everlasting. His love for us in Christ promised, delivered and returning never fails. Even so the Church of Christ is preserved even in the midst of hypocrisy and deceit, and while the wicked will finally be destroyed. For God continues to condemn sin, but His mercy also endures forever.
Who can endure the day of His coming? Who shall stand when He appears? No One! … Unless they have been the recipients of the purging and refining work of Jesus Himself. Who can endure the day of His coming? The person who abides in Jesus now. That’s who. “And now, little children, abide in him, so that when he appears we may have confidence and not shrink from him in shame at his coming.” (1 John 2:28) Who shall stand when He appears? The one who stands even now in the Lord. That’s who. “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.” (Ephesians 6:13)
Who can endure the day of His coming? Who shall stand when He appears? Only those who are with Him even now, in His house around His table, receiving again and again His words of grace and forgiveness, His body and blood for forgiveness, and the constant reminder that you have a God whose love for you will never change, whether you are naughty or nice, crying or pouting, bad or good for goodness sake. And that love is found in Christ who came once in human flesh, who comes even now in Word and Sacrament, and who will come again in glory to call you home.