Sending Covenant from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.
67Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
68Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
69He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
70as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
72Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant.
73The oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us
74that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear
75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.
78By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon is,
79to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God
1See, 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. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiners fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and a purifying our silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. 5Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired orders in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.
6For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. 7Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will turn to you, says the LORD of hosts.
This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God.
The second Sunday in Advent lights the candle of peace. But I wonder if you are not at peace. I wonder if you see the flickering candle light as an empty symbol of a peace that is beyond our grasp. I wonder if your heart is too troubled to hear peace. I wonder if you some past trauma makes you suspicious of peace, because your experience has taught you that it’s fake, and that something destructive always follows it. I wonder if we could reach out for peace, if only we didn’t have so many obligations to fulfill. I wonder if you long for peace, but the worries of the world outside these church doors prevents you from…
I wonder if one of these is you. I wonder if every one of us finds ourselves on that list, one way or another. I wonder if each of us longs for the good old days when we seemed to be at peace, for the good old days when folks knew how to treat one another and our enemies seemed so far away and our God seemed so close.
If your heart is troubled and you are not at peace, then you’re in good company.
In Malachi’s day, the people had returned from Babylon, and had rebuilt Jerusalem, including the second temple. But the people, being people, still felt distant from God. The covenant was still on shaky ground for them. They were not at peace. They longed for the good old days when the covenant was sure, when it kept the people even as the people kept the covenant, and God was close, sitting within the holy of holies.
The great-grandparents of Malachi's congregation grew up surrounded by the reminders of the covenant, a king of the house of David, a temple built by Solomon, and the Torah grounding their lives. They were the ones who held the good old days in their memories.
Except those days were more myth than memory. We know enough about scripture to know that God's people have never been great at getting it right. Whatever peace the children of Jacob enjoyed was short lived. And even if we don't know those stories, we certainly know enough about people to know that no one is as perfect as we remember. We lend a rosy glow to times that were not as peaceful as we tell ourselves.
So the great-grandparents of Malachi's congregation also watched and their children were carried off into exile. The great-grandparents of Malachi's congregation watched as their children's children grew up as minorities in a foreign land, without the reminders of the covenant, without the peace that comes from a close relationship with God.
So Malachi's congregation only has the stories of their parent's parent's parents to remember the covenant, what it was like in the good old days. The nostalgic coating on those stories may taste sweet, but it’s also empty. The actions of Malachi’s congregation show that they do not feel at peace. Even though they have returned and rebuilt, they have not repented.
The prophet speaks, raising God’s words to a people who are not at peace. “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.” The people could not return to God on their own. They had grown too distant over too many generations, going all the way back to Adam in the garden, and Eve his companion. Peace was out of their grasp. And yet, God does not send his covenant to collect dust. The covenant is sure, and we will know God’s presence with us suddenly. God is sending covenant at us, until we know the peace that only comes from God’s presence “to a people who think that the covenant relationship and its God are nonexistent or merely memories of the past, the Lord of the covenant will himself come.”
If the flickering candle of peace seems like a false light, we can feel its warmth in the words of Zechariah, preserved by Luke’s gospel. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.” Zechariah ends his silence by proclaiming that the redemption of humanity is already accomplished. At the birth of his son John, whom we come to know as the Baptizer, Zechariah proclaims peace. The Lord has already come to his temple. The Lord God of Israel remembers the covenant, and has brought us close to him.
But that doesn't mean we get off easy. My experience of God is that he challenges us every step of the way, even if that means dragging us kicking and screaming in the direction God has provided us. God has already come upon us, “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiners fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and a purifying our silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.” That’s not the most peaceful image on this Second Sunday in Advent.
God’s covenant sends us a challenging grace. But this is not a destructive fire, it’s a purifying flame. It’s the wildfire that tears out the undergrowth and lets the forest grow. It returns us to health until we are able to present offerings to the LORD in righteousness. 20th century prophet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holds us up to that refining flame when he reminds us that “True peace is not the absence of tension but the presence of justice.” Is there any doubt that with God’s presence surrounds us that his justice is also present?
But that purifying flame is uncomfortable. The refining does take it out of us. And just as we saw ourselves in the list of reasons we are not at peace, so too we see ourselves in the list of injustices in verse five. “Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired orders in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.”
I wonder if I do not fear the Lord of hosts. I wonder if I have thrust aside the alien. I wonder if I oppress the hired workers, the widow, and the orphan. I wonder if I swear falsely. I wonder if I’m an adulterer. I wonder if I would rather trust some modern form of sorcery than the covenant God has sent.
We’re no better or worse that Malachi’s congregation. We’re perhaps different, but we can recognize ourselves in words given to them. We have returned, we have rebuilt, but we have not repented. And yet we are redeemed. “Unless God himself saves his people, they cannot endure his coming.” But God himself does save his people, not because we deserve it, but because that’s just who God is. “For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished.” God is sending his covenant, one that will purify us until we can respond with righteousness. God is sending his covenant to preserve us and challenge us to grow.
Perhaps we cannot get to peace on our own, but that’s ok. Because God is establishing it before our very eyes. This second Sunday of Advent, we know that peace is more than candlelight, it’s a purifying flame, and a covenant that is sending us out “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”