Today’s Advent theme is Peace. God’s intention for creation is peace, yet we constantly fall short of it. Peace in the Bible is more than just an absence of war or conflict; it is Shalom, a Hebrew word that means wholeness. In Advent, we place a special focus on our longing for the fulfillment of Peace for all of creation. We look to the Scriptures to instruct us how to live in anticipation and hope of that fulfillment. Today’s readings challenge us in this direction.
I wonder how many of you have ever spent time reading the prophets of the Old Testament. It’s not an easy read. You get into long sections of doom and gloom as pictures of judgment are painted quite vividly. The prophets spoke of God’s intent for justice, and they railed against the people’s failure to live by the covenant God established. Anyone from our times who sets out to read the prophets will soon find themselves feeling overwhelmed by the portrayal of God’s anger and subsequent threats of punishment.
One of the keys to understanding what we find in these readings is something that was taught to me in seminary. Even in the earliest writings that portray God’s judgment, there are also signs of God’s grace. In the Bible, you never have judgment without grace, and conversely, you never have grace without judgment. It’s an inescapable truth in our fallen, broken world that there is judgment of our unrighteousness and sin. God intended creation to live with justice.
To say that God is broken-hearted with and disappointed in violence, selfishness, greed, inhumanity is to acknowledge that God is good and just. The prophets expressed God’s disappointment as wrath in ways that we have a difficult time understanding, mostly because we live under what Jeremiah called the new covenant. God’s intent is written on our hearts, so we share in God’s heartache when people and systems operate in ways that cause suffering, loss, and pain.
If you find yourself sickened by the news and disgusted when you hear of people being cheated, abused, or oppressed, you are showing that the new covenant is written on your hearts, and you have at least a small sense of how God feels about these things. So, we can read the prophets and at least glimpse how they shared God’s heart in light of the consistent breaking of the first covenant. Yet even in their portrayals of God’s wrath, they also acknowledged grace. You never find judgement without grace in the Bible, and you never find grace without judgement. They are two sides of the same coin.
So today we hear both judgment and grace in Malachi as we read a portion of prophecy that Christians see as a transition from the old to the new. When Malachi announces that a messenger is coming to prepare the way of the Lord, it has long been interpreted that this is a foreshadowing of the coming of John the Baptist as a messenger to announce the coming of the Messiah.
You can hear in Malachi’s announcement both excitement and dread. The one who is the object of the people’s desire is coming, yet along with that grace will come judgment. “Who will be able to stand on that day?,” asks Malachi.
Indeed, whenever we contemplate the coming of the Lord into our midst, we have similar feelings. Psalm 130 verse 3 says, ”If you kept a record of our sins, who, O Lord, could ever survive?” (Ps. 130:3 NLT). Though we sing O Come, Emmanuel with great anticipation, there is also an acknowledgment of the awful cost of putting things right. Jesus, who came as a gentle babe, would later endure the cross. And we share a part of God’s heart in both the tragedy and the ultimate triumph of it all.
If we acknowledge all of this, and if we claim our part in the brokenness of the world, we long for the day of justice. What the messenger cried out in saying “Prepare the way of the Lord,” was a way of saying that the time of justice can begin now. While its fulfillment may remain in the future, its establishment need not wait.
When royalty would travel in those ancient times, preparations of the route would begin long before the arrival of the royal party. A messenger would come to call for the way to be prepared. Level the hills and make the valleys smooth. No obstacles or potholes were to lie in the way of the king or the emperor. So, the people began the preparations, and the roads were made ready.
John the Baptist came as a messenger to call for preparation for the arrival of the Lord. He was not looking for road construction, but rather life construction. The one who will fulfill all justice in the future has already established the process now. So, he cries, “Repent.” Prepare the way for the Lord by filling in the valleys of your heart, and knocking down the obstacles to love and surrender. Accept the challenge and even pain that comes with purifying our lives before Christ.
Malachi even spoke in these terms, and he gave us an image of what that might look like in our lives. He compares our own purification to that of precious metals. I remember hearing a story of how silver was purified in older days. An observer watched the silversmith heat up the ore into a liquid state to burn away the contaminants. The metal would melt over the intense heat as the dross would burn away. To overheat the silver would damage the metal, so it took care to know when the process was finished. The observer asked the silversmith, “How do you know when the process is complete?” The silversmith answered, “It is complete when I can see my reflection in the silver.”
I like that image and its comparison to how we are precious to God, but in process of purification. As we grow in love and obedience to God, as the Holy Spirit leads us to repentance in our lives, God’s reflection in us becomes more evident and clear.
So there we have it. Two images of Advent anticipation and preparation. The refining of precious metal and the making straight of the pathway of the Lord. How can we apply them? Where are the obstacles and valleys in our hearts that need to be smoothed out? Perhaps some of us could start by forgiving a debt or a grudge. Maybe we could offer a long overdue apology or somehow make amends for harm we have caused. It may not be easy to examine ourselves and admit where the rough patches are. It is certainly not easy to smooth those rough patches. Because we are people of the new covenant, we share God’s heart, and we sorrow over our own failures to love and live faithfully.
But remember, there is never judgement without grace. God serves as the expert refiner putting us through some heat, but never destructively so. It is always with the aim of the fulfillment of love, love that we long for in the future, but that we also experience in the here and now.