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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.