A reading and reflection for Friday, December 7, 2012.
The sixth day of Advent.
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This passage from the prophet Malachi (last book in the Old Testament, if you're curious), is an interesting passage. The prophet here is communicating to the people a message from God, a message that is probably a response to an earlier passage in chapter 2:
"You have wearied the LORD with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “All who do evil are good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?”
The people who are receiving Malachi's words have exhausted God with their attempts to rationalize and systematize evil in this world. They were saying--whether figuratively or literally--that God delights in those who do evil and they are good in God's sight. In the face of a reality where the wicked become rich and the righteous remain poor, it doesn't take long before one starts assuming that God might in fact be okay with all this injustice and evil. When one applies the "I'm okay, you're okay, we're okay" model to God and to the human condition, we arrive quickly at something similar. We hear something like this all the time at our churches sometimes: "God loves you just the way you are, don't change, you don't have to do anything, just show up to church and pray the prayer of confession and you're all set. God doesn't care about the sin in your life, he just wants you to like him."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian pastor in Germany during World War II, thought that the greatest threat to the Christian church was what he called cheap grace. In his book, The Cost of Discipleship he wrote:
"Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ."
The practice of cheap grace is one example of the kind of exhausting language Malachi attributes to the people he was addressing. In a sense, the people were saying that God cares little about sin or repentance or purification. And in so doing they began to question: "Where is the God of Justice?"
To these people, Malachi promises that God's messenger is coming to prepare the hearts of the people to receive God into their midst. He rhetorically asks: "But who can endure the day of his coming?" He is like a refiner's fire and fullers' soap. This messenger will ignite a flame that will burn away the impurities (read: sin) of the people, that's what a refiner's fire did; this messenger will clean, bleach, wet, and thicken the "clothes" (read: righteousness) of the people, that's what a fuller did.
It would seem that the people are going to be met by this refiner's fire and this fullers' soap and that once again, God would be pleased with their offering and with their hearts.
As we read this passage during Advent we read this text as being a reference (or at least a job description) for John the Baptist. The lectionary would agree as it pairs this reading with that of the Gospel introduction to John's ministry (Luke 3:1-6). And John's ministry was about repentance, purification, preparation. John was "a voice crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord!'" (Luke 3:4).
So as we encounter this passage during this the end of the first week of Advent, we are prompted to consider the fact that this God we worship, and offer prayer to, and sing to, and serve in our daily actions, this God is a God who becomes figuratively weary with our attempts to reduce the importance of repentance by assuming that God forgives us and makes no demands on our daily life. Advent, as a season, is a giant reminder that to receive Christ as a lowly infant, to conceive that God would come among us as one of us, necessarily implies a change in our lives. If God came to us, died for us, forgave us, then we need to go to others, sacrifice for them, forgive them. To receive forgiveness without repentance, to receive grace without sacrifice is to threaten the very integrity of our faith.
God's love is embarrassingly gratuitous. During Advent, let us all pray that we might respond to God's love in a way that prepares our hearts and lives to receive his presence.
Take out a piece of paper. Along the left side write out some things in your life that you need to repent from, no matter how small. Now, on the right side, write out the opposite word that corresponds to what you wrote on the left. Here's an example.
Being judgmental Being generous
Drinking too much Sobriety
Now, connect each pair of words with a line. And as you draw the line, pray that God would begin a new process in your life by which you become more refined and filled out. Accept that you are wrong, more than you probably realize, and that you need to repent from these things. Tell God that you are sorry, and ask God to send the Holy Spirit to help you find new ways of changing and preparing your heart to receive Christ.