Malachi: Desire, Refining & Purity

The Waiting Place…
                                …for people just waiting.

Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or a No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

Waiting for the fish to bite
or waiting for wind to fly a kite
or waiting around for Friday night
or waiting, perhaps, for their Uncle Jake
or a pot to boil, or a Better Break
or a sting of pearls, or a pair of pants
or a wig with curls, or Another Chance.
Everyone is just waiting.

Dr Suess, Oh, the places you’ll go!

Advent is a season of waiting, but often our preconceptions and experiences of waiting are no help as we try to imagine how this can be anything but an in-between limbo time. Unlike all those apathetic people stuck in The Waiting Place, however, our waiting in Advent is not a vague hope that circumstances will change around us, but an active process of allowing God to prepare our hearts for what is coming. 

240 meters above the Colorado River, arching out from the side of the Grand Canyon is a tourist attraction called the Skywalk Platform. This horseshoe shaped walkway has a glass floor so that visitors can look directly down and see the vertical drop into the canyon below, so it’s not a visit for the faint-hearted.

Turing the blank page between the Old and New Testaments can feel a little like gazing down into a giant chasm with our hearts in our mouths. How can we reconcile the two halves? How can we bridge these 400 years as the prophetic voice is silent?

The second candle on the Advent wreath represents the Old Testament prophets, who help us to leap across the chasm as they make us expectant for the coming Messiah. In this post I’m going to be looking at just three verses from the prophet Malachi, whose words were written on the brink of that chasm of expectation, at the very close of the Old Testament.

During our Advent service at St. Pancras, I paused after each of the sections below and played the relevant bit of Handel’s Messiah. You might also like to use the questions to turn your waiting into an active process in response to the challenges of God’s word.

Many of the verses in Malachi’s four chapters are written to the religious leaders in Israel, the priests and the levites. They are guilty of dishonouring God as they lead the people in half-hearted worship and offer deformed and second-rate sacrifices. Malachi writes to expose their impurity and confront their wrong expectations of God.

Desire.

In the first of our three verses from chapter three, Malachi examines their desires.

“I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.

Malachi 3:1

On the face of it, this verse seems upbeat. They have been asking (in 2:17) for the God of justice to come and now the prophet tells them their request will be granted. But like our world today, the priests live in a consumer society and even their prayers are tainted by their greed rather than being a devotion which brings glory to God. Malachi says that they have wearied God with their constant calls for him to come and bring justice to the land when they are a big part of the problem.

Meditation: So what are we asking of God? What is it that we desire? Ask God to make your longing for Him to be deeper and more profound than our longing for stuff?

Refining.

The best place to be buried if  you were Jewish was on the Mount of Olives, to the east of Jerusalem, looking across the Kidron Valley at the temple gates. This was a good place to wait because this was the route which the glory of God took when it departed from Jerusalem in Ezekiel’s vision during the exile. And as He had gone, so He would return. 

In another, very familiar story, there is an often forgotten detail. It is how Jesus gets to the temple before he turns out the money-changers and traders. His route should come as no surprise to the alert reader of the prophets, however. He comes from the direction of Bethany, over the Mount of Olives, across the Kidron Valley and into the East gate of Jerusalem and into the temple. Suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple…

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.

Malachi 3:2

Some 400 years after Malachi’s rebuke to the priests and levites, it was business as usual in the temple. Lacklustre formulaic worship was being offered, while the people were short-changed and fleeced by greedy leaders. No wonder Jesus accuses them of turning the temple from a house of prayer to a den of thieves.

But what were they expecting? Malachi makes it clear that if they though God would be on their side, the priests were sadly mistaken. Their expectations of God were way off the mark, he was coming to give justice, but they would find themselves on the end of his judgement.

The two images used in this verse are images of pain. A refiner’s fire is a smelting furnace, hot enough to melt away the dross and leave only the pure metal. Similarly the launderer’s soap is not some Fairy nonbio-esque powder. The image is of ammonia or lye, which bleaches out stains. There’s a memorable (and disturbing) scene in the film Fight Club where the protagonist is given a chemical burn on his hand from pure lye, and these two images combine to show us how painful it can be when impurity is exposed.

Meditation: What impurities is God exposing in your life? What are you hiding from Him? Ask God to reveal to you the places in your heart where his refining is needed.

Purity.

Exercise gurus have popularised the expression ‘No Pain – No Gain’ to motivate us to regular workouts, but the principle is the same here. Although rather than motivate us to undergo suffering, the prophetic message is more positive – there is real gain to be had from this pain.

He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness.

Malachi 3:2

The problem Malachi was addressing was that this priestly tribe, the tribe of Levi, were making what they offered to God unacceptable by their sin. And God’s solution is the pain of refining. But this is not an arbitrary punishment for sin, God’s people are to undergo this suffering so that the impurities are melted away and the stains are bleached out. Then this priestly tribe will be able to ‘bring offerings in righteousness’ – their worship will be acceptable to God once again.

And the picture is similar for Christians. When God exposes our impurities we don’t just ask for forgiveness from them, we also pray that God will refine us to remove them altogether. We endure temporary pain for lasting gain.

Meditation: Do we want God to refine us from the impurities in our lives? Are we just at the stage where we ‘want to want’ that? Ask God to help you submit to his refining and to give you a vision of what it might be like to have a heart like silver and gold.  

Stepping out across the Chasm.

So is the gap between Old and New Testaments so scary? Not if we remember how the one ends and the other begins. Despite the silence of 400 years, the Old Testament closes with the promise of that “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me”.

And the New Testament does not begin with a baby in a manger. It begins with a priest, a son of levi, alone before the altar, receiving the news that he will have a son who will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17)

The chasm has been bridged, but we are still called to wait. While we do so we can make waiting an active process where we allow God to expose our impurity and confront our wrong expectations of Him.


During Advent I’m linking up with Tanya Marlow’s advent series on Thorns and Gold. Next week, John the Baptist.

Abraham: Promise, Hope and Groaning

During Advent I’ll be doing a few things differently. At church we’ll be having midweek Morning Prayer services looking at the four characters traditionally depicted by the four candles on an Advent Wreath. I’ll also be linking up with Tanya Marlow as part of her ‘Advent Thoughts’ series on Thorns and Gold. To top it all I’m reading Paula Gooder’s book ‘The Meaning is in the Waiting: The Spirit of Advent’. Paula’s meditations explore the same characters, so any similarity to what I’m writing  is entirely intentional.

First Advent Sunday

The first candle on the Advent Wreath represents Abraham. We first meet Abraham in Genesis chapter 11, but it is at the start of chapter 12 that Abraham’s story really begins as God calls him to leave behind the ordinary and live an extraordinary life of faith. Even his name will change to reflect his new calling, from Abram (Exalted Father) to Abraham (Father of Many).

Throughout the portion of his life which is recorded in Genesis, the dominant verbs are about movement: go; he went; he took; he set out; he arrived; and that’s just in the first four verses of chapter 12. What is extraordinary about Abraham is that his willingness to go is based on nothing less than his faith that God would keep his promises. And what promises they were:

“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you. ”

Genesis 12:2-3

Abraham’s faith in the promises of God is why he is a model of waiting for us. I’m going to look at three words from his life which give meaning to our waiting: Promise, Hope and Groaning.

Promise

 After this, the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision:

“Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.”

But Abram said, “Sovereign LORD, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

Then the word of the LORD came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son who is your own flesh and blood will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness.

(Genesis 15:1–6)

Can you imagine an expensive but really inappropriate gift? Maybe a hand-made sofa for someone who is about to emigrate to Australia, or a hot air ballon ride fro someone who is afraid of heights. That’s how Abraham seems to be responding to God’s ongoing promises to him: ‘What’s the point of giving me anything, even the world, because I can’t keep it in my family – all my property will pass to a servant in my household”.

But God makes another game-changing promise to Abraham, not only will he have a son (and not an adopted son, but his own flesh and blood) but his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky.

Abraham believed God’s promise and it was ‘credited to him as righteousness’.

Hope

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed and so became the father of many nations, just as it had been said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”Without weakening in his faith, he faced the fact that his body was as good as dead—since he was about a hundred years old—and that Sarah’s womb was also dead. Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God,being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why “it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Romans 4:18–22

Oh! So that’s why Abraham’s faith is such a big deal. At 100 years old, Abraham was well past the age when anyone could reasonably expect to have children, so was his wife Sarah. Humanly speaking, Abraham’s faith was ‘against all hope’, but Abraham was the first person in the Bible to use reason to interpret the Word of God. Abraham reasons that God has the power to do what He has promised. He was fully persuaded that God could bring expectancy out of barrenness, and so Abraham trusts God.

This is where Abraham’s example informs our waiting. Christians are waiting for Jesus to return and as time passes, humanly speaking, this looks to be against all hope. “Yet Abraham did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised.” We are called to the same faith as we wait.

Groaning

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands. Meanwhile we groan, longing to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling,because when we are clothed, we will not be found naked. For while we are in this tent, we groan and are burdened, because we do not wish to be unclothed but to be clothed instead with our heavenly dwelling, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. Now the one who has fashioned us for this very purpose is God, who has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come.

2 Corinthians 5:1–5

Abraham was a nomad and his life was spent under canvas, but that wasn’t all he had to look forward to. Hebrews 11:10 tells us that Abraham “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God”. The Christian life is supposed to be marked by dissatisfaction. Not in the sense that we are not content with what God has given us, but that we are longing for something better, an eternal house build by heavenly hands, rather than the ‘tent’ of this mortal life. So our waiting is characterised by hope, but it is driven by longing, and punctuated by groaning. As we move towards the nativity narratives during Advent we have licence to use the richness of imagery or childbirth and elsewhere Paul talks about our longing for heaven as groaning as in labour. So this groaning is hopeful, labour should lead to new life and so our longing for heaven is a longing that death is swallowed up in life.

In the mean time, we are not left alone to trust all on our own. “God … has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come”.

So we wait, trusting the promise, reasoning that our hope is well founded and groaning as our longing for heaven eclipses our comfort and satisfaction with this world.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face
and the things of this world
will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace

Hel­en H. Lem­mel, 1922