Who Can Endure the Day of His Coming?
Among the lectionary readings for this, the second week of Advent, is Malachi 3:1-4. I don’t think this text will find its way into my sermon this week, but it’s been finding its way into my mind this afternoon. The prophet speaks of a messenger who will come to the people of Israel—people who had been hungry for a word from God to vindicate and bless his people. The assumption seems to be that this coming is anticipated with joy and eager expectation.
But when the messenger comes, there’s an awkward and unpleasant surprise. Rather than a divine pat on the back or a reassurance that they’re the good guys amidst all the other nasty bad guys, the prophet issues a warning:
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of 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.
In other words, when the messenger comes, the people begin to squirm. You want God to come? the prophet asks. You might want to consider just what it is that you’re wishing for. God does not come to bless and baptize your every inclination nor to give your religio-ethnic boundaries a bit of fortification. God does not come to reassure you of your chosenness and the benefits thereof. God comes with mercy, certainly, but God also comes to judge, to purify, and to cleanse. There’s a bit of burning and scrubbing involved. Maybe even more than a bit. It probably won’t be much fun.
Why did the people of God need all this unpleasant refining? What were they doing that was so awful? What kind of people had they become that evidently placed them in danger of being unable to endure the coming of the God they thought they were longing for?
Malachi doesn’t leave us guessing. A few verses later, we read:
So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.
Hmm… An interesting list, that one. We might reframe it like this. The ones who find themselves squirming when God arrives, the ones who can’t endure the day of his coming, are those who…
- Prefer falsehood and deception to truth and transparency.
- Have unjust business practices and exploitative dealings with their workers.
- Refuse to look after the most vulnerable.
- Ignore the pleas of foreigners for justice.
Sounds awful, doesn’t it? What a relief that such behaviours and attitudes can be safely relegated to the dim and dusty past of “bible times.” It would be a real shame if labourers were still regularly being exploited for the benefit of the rich and the powerful. It would be pretty inconvenient if there were any vulnerable folks or foreigners searching in vain for justice and compassion kicking about in our day and age. That would make things very uncomfortable indeed for those convinced that God’s coming was for them and for their benefit.
And lest we speed too quickly and righteously ahead on the “Yeah, get ready for some divine judgement, all you who fail to practice social justice!” train, we might also notice that the prophet includes uncomfortable words like “adultery” and “sorcery” and “fear of the Lord” in this list. Apparently the fullers’ soap and the refiners’ fire are meant for more individual transgressions, as well. Apparently, in addition to being outraged by social injustices, God spares a bit of concern for our personal convictions and behaviour when it comes to relationships and sex and fidelity and religious beliefs/practices. Apparently, autonomous individuals gorging themselves at the buffet of individual expressionism and personal choice might also require a bit of purifying. What a drag.
Who can endure the day of his coming? Who, indeed.
It is a risky business, surely, to pronounce upon such things. But it’s probably worth considering that near the top of the list of those who can’t are those who are already convinced that they can.