The scriptures referred to are Malachi 3:1-4.
In Advent we await the coming of our King, Jesus. If an earthly king were coming to your home or workplace, there are things you would do in preparation. Last week we talked about being alert, being aware of how things are. And it isn't a pretty picture. We are living in a time when, as Jesus says, “the love of most will grow cold.” (Matthew 24:12) People are becoming more callous. Even Christians seem to have forgotten what Jesus said about helping the sick, the alien, the imprisoned, the hungry, etc: “Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.” (Matthew 25:45) We have instead comforted ourselves with the thought that such people don't deserve our help because people who are poor are lazy. We hear this lie often, despite the evidence all around us that, if your job doesn't pay a living wage and benefits, you can work long hard hours and have almost nothing to show for it. How many lost their jobs, homes and/or savings in the Great Recession, through no fault of their own? Not everyone who gets cancer smoked; not everyone who is poor did it to themselves.
But I don't want to get into a whole lot of statistics. As I said last time, these things are symptoms. The cause is a lack of empathy, a lack of compassion. And were self-professed Christians as few as they were in the first century that would be understandable. Our impact in a largely pagan empire was not enough to change it right away. But the time was ripe. Pagans thought the gods did not care for human beings. They prayed and made sacrifices to them to gain their approval or avert their jealousy and wrath but they were never under the delusion that their gods loved them. Imagine how you would feel if the cockroaches in your home left you nice gifts. You would be less inclined to squish them. But it wouldn't mean you had warm, fuzzy feelings about cockroaches.
What attracted pagans to Christianity was the good news that God actually loves people, even those who are disadvantaged, like the poor, the disabled, women, and slaves. But the pagans wouldn't have bought into the gospel if it weren't for the fact that Christians displayed such love by helping the poor, rescuing unwanted babies left on the roadside, taking care of orphans and the elderly, and nursing the sick even during times of plague. Which made the pagan population start to feel sorry for these religious oddballs during times of persecution. Folks whose principal entertainment was seeing people fight to the death in arenas and get torn apart by wild animals stopped enjoying seeing Christians dying bravely for their faith. Courage and compassion on the part of Christians changed people's minds.
Today there are about 2.3 billion people in the world who self-identify as Christians, almost 1/3 (31%) of the earth's population. Why are so-called Christian countries not that different from non-Christian ones? Why are people in these countries leaving the church? The church does a tremendous amount of good: creating and running hospitals, schools, food pantries and homeless shelters and helping out in every disaster. But that has been overshadowed by the scandals in which the church has not acted out of love or courageously. Rather than compassion, some have heaped hate on certain groups of people or even on other Christians. Rather than courage, some have showed cowardice by hiding sexual abuse rather than doing whatever they can to stop it and to report it to law enforcement. Rather than speaking prophetically to those in power, some have cozied up to those with secular power and turned a blind eye to injustice, cruelty and corruption. And some have sold Jesus as a path to financial prosperity. They have tried to make Christ the servant of Mammon. Jesus said that, while those in authority lord it over others, it is not to be that way with us. (Mark 10:42-43) Yet we have let power corrupt us.
What should we do? One of the things we should do anyway but especially as we contemplate the coming of our King is to clean things up and throw out whatever garbage we find. Our passage from Malachi speaks of the messenger of the covenant as one who “is like a refiner's fire and like a fuller's soap.” The metallurgic image of the refiner's fire also shows up in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. Usually it is a symbol of judgment. Jeremiah says, “The fiery bellows of judgment burn fiercely. But there is too much dross to be removed. The process of refining them has proved useless. The wicked have not been purged. They are regarded as 'rejected silver' because the Lord rejects them.” (Jeremiah 6:29-30; cf. 9:7) Ezekiel elaborates: “The word of the Lord came to me: 'Son of man, the house of Israel has become slag to me. All of them are like bronze, tin, iron and lead in the furnace; they are the worthless slag of silver. As silver, bronze, iron, lead, and tin are gathered in a furnace so that the fire can melt them, so I will gather you in my anger and my rage. I will deposit you there and melt you.'” (Ezekiel 22:17-20, NET) It goes on a bit but you get the picture. If the ore has too many impurities, the process of smelting will destroy rather than refine.
We get really uncomfortable when God is depicted like this. And yet would we rather he be like those in power in the church who did not react to child sexual abuse by rooting it out ruthlessly but just shuffled offenders around and covered up the wrongdoing? Don't we expect God to do the right thing and not tolerate evil? So what are the sins for which Ezekiel and Jeremiah are calling the people out? In the same chapter of Ezekiel we were quoting he goes onto say, “The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have wronged the poor and needy; they have oppressed the foreigner who lives among them and denied them justice.” (Ezekiel 22:29, NET) Jeremiah says, “'That is how they have grown fat and sleek. There is no limit to the evil things they do. They do not plead the cause of the fatherless in such a way as to win it. They do not defend the rights of the poor. I will certainly punish them for doing such things!' says the Lord. 'I will certainly bring retribution on such a nation as this!'” (Jeremiah 5:28-29, NET)
Justice arises from love. If you don't care about people, you don't care about injustice to them. God is love, even if it is not seen as starkly in the Old Testament as in the New. But it is there. Jeremiah says of King Josiah, “'He upheld the cause of the poor and needy. So things went well for Judah.' The Lord says, 'That is a good example of what it means to know me.'” (Jeremiah 22:16, NET) To take care of those who are disadvantaged is to know God. Why? Because God is love.
In Isaiah the image of the refiner's fire is more about purifying people than executing justice. It says, “I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities.” (Isaiah 1:25) God would rather be the agent of reform than of retribution. And it is this use of the image that Malachi seems to intend because he parallels it with a fuller's or launderer's soap. Soap doesn't destroy; it loosens dirt allowing it to be washed away. As Isaiah says, “'Come, let's consider your options,' says the Lord. 'Though your sins have stained you like the color red, you can become white like snow; though they are as easy to see as the color scarlet, you can become white like wool.'” (Isaiah 1:18, NET) The red is blood, as is made clear just a few verses earlier. God says, “When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood.” (Isaiah 1:15) White is an extremely hard color to keep clean and, as a nurse who first worked before we were allowed to wear colorful scrubs, blood is one of the worst things to try to get out of a white garment. Our sins, our destructive and self-destructive thoughts, words and acts, stain us but it is not permanent. To continue the passage from Isaiah, “Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong. Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah1:16-17)
Social justice has become a term of derision today, mostly by people who think God is only concerned with personal behavior. And that's a weird dichotomy. Of course God wants us to clean up our individual acts but to stop there would be like being obsessive about doing car maintenance but not obeying traffic laws. A car in tip-top condition, driven by someone who does not take the other motorists into consideration, can still do a lot of damage. For instance, Hitler didn't eat meat. That could be a sign of a principled man who is concerned about cruelty to animals or one who merely is concerned with his own health. Hitler liked dogs. That could show compassion for all beings or merely that he liked beings who were subservient and always wanted to please him. It is Hitler's behavior towards other human beings that exposes the evil within.
People are full of contradictions. How one treats other people is a better indication of a person's character than how they treat themselves. That's why Jesus told us to treat others as we treat ourselves. We tend to forgive ourselves more readily than others. When we do something wrong, we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions rather than by the results of we've done. We tend to make allowances for our own weaknesses. When in a bad situation, we want others to go at least a bit out of their way to help us. We want people to see things from our side. So Jesus wants us to give others the slack we give ourselves. He wants us to not be harder on others than we are on ourselves. He wants us to see things from their perspective and not just our own.
Of course the incongruous outward appearance of good which someone displays may not be part of an unconscious personal contradiction but camouflage. After Russia annexed Crimea, Catherine the Great wanted to see her new territory. It is said that in order to disguise the devastation the war caused, her former lover and minister Gregori Potemkin ordered the construction of mobile villages. The Empress would float down river on a barge, stop to tour the village, swarming with peasants, and then return to her barge. The village would then be disassembled by those people Potemkin had hired to dress and act like peasants and moved further downriver, so that Catherine could see how nice her new part of Russia was. This story, which may be apocryphal, gave rise to the term Potemkin Village, meaning anything constructed to deceive others into thinking the situation is better than it is.
God is not gullible. He is not fooled by such discrepancies. In Isaiah he says, “For day after day they seek me out; they seem eager to know my ways, as if they were a nation that does what is right and has not forsaken the commands of its God. They ask me for just decisions and seem eager for God to come near them. 'Why have we fasted,' they say, 'and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?' Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarreling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high.” (Isaiah 58:2-4) As he says to Samuel, “The Lord does not look at things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1Samuel 16:7) And as Jesus pointed out, “For from within, out of people's hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.” (Mark 7:21-22)
So how do we clean up our hearts? Only God's Spirit can do a thorough job but we can help by being open and honest with him. As you should tell your doctor all of your symptoms and unhealthy habits, even the embarrassing ones, so you need to talk to God honestly about your sins. Remember they are symptoms of what is wrong with you spiritually. God doesn't want to punish you but purify you.
Part of cleaning up is throwing stuff out. In penitential seasons like Advent and especially Lent, we give up certain things or habits. One thing to throw out is our narrow definition of “good.” When we are small children our definition of “good” is primarily “what is pleasurable or beneficial to me.” As we get older that definition expands to include what is good for those we like and love, like family and friends. But if our idea of what is good doesn't continue to grow to include what is good for everyone, it can become the pretext for all kinds of evil. Hitler did what he thought was good for his race and his nation, and to hell with everyone else. If we put what is good for others outside the parameters of our definition of what is good, that is not in accord with what God calls good. As Jesus said, “But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:44-45) God is gracious and expects us to be as well.
Another thing we can throw out is the idea that we should only help the deserving. Jesus said, “Do not pass judgment, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged...” (Matthew 7:1-2) For one thing, we can't can't see into people's hearts. We can't always know their intentions or thought processes. So we can't just dismiss people on the basis of what they seem to have done. Mind you, we can judge if certain actions are spiritually or morally healthy or not. But we can't always know if a bad action was done out of malice or ignorance or a lapse in judgment. Give people the benefit of the doubt, Jesus says. Let God be the judge.
We are not to decide who is worthy of our help or not. We are to help whoever needs it. After all, that's what God does for us. Paul reminds us that “...God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) We are not worthy of his love or grace or forgiveness. That's not why he redeems us. How can we demand that others make themselves worthy of our help?
To get ready for our King we need to clean up our acts and throw out a lot of ideas we have about the limits of whose good we seek and whom we should help. It will take working on ourselves as temples of God's Holy Spirit and working with others on how to best exemplify the Body of Christ on earth. And in a cold and ethically compromised world a good part of that will be demonstrating compassion for all and moral courage, just like Jesus. As it says in Isaiah, “Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the poor and homeless into your home, to clothe the naked when you see him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here I am.” (Isaiah 58:9)