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 expressivism 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.
So many beautiful, inspiring words over many years. Thank you. Jeremiah 1: 5-19 comes to my mind when I think about most of your words….I have often wanted to ask you, “Who are you?” “Who do you say you are?”….and then I smile….you are a voice in the wilderness…However poorly and rudely I have spoken to you at times it has almost always been with the intention of coaxing you to “gird your loins” so to speak.☺To push past the precipice of your own significant intellect and into the mystic. Into that place where prophets go.
I cannot choose you. You cannot choose you. We cannot elect you. Still I have often wondered if God has chosen, is choosing you.
His peace be with you always. Your words, your spirit here have and continue to be, dear to me.
This is very kind—I don’t even know what to say. So, I will simply say thank you. His peace be with you, too. Always.
I am just recently born again in an atheist environment. I fear being the seed that falls on fallow soil. I read my bible daily but don’t really understand it (Acts) and watch sermons on my iPad (wonderful – Paul Washer). I try to be better but I think I need help. Unfortunately, I am mostly bedridden so getting to church is very difficult. Any suggestions for understanding the bible better (my cheap kindle bible doesn’t allow me to cross reference). I grew up a Catholic so I really am starting from scratch. Any help would be greatly appreciated. Bless you.
Rio, I’m so glad to hear of your commitment to Christ even as I am saddened by how difficult you are finding the journey thus far. I’m not sure how much I can be of help in this limited medium. It would be ideal if you could find some people willing to walk with you in your own community. The Internet is good for many things, but the kinds of questions you’re wrestling with, not to mention the challenges of your unique situation really require face to face human relationships. This is one of the ways that I am convinced that God works through us. We have been created in this way, I think.
With respect to the specific question of how to understand the Bible, a great place to start might be a book called How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth by Fee and Stuart (they’ve written another one called How to Read the Bible Book by Book which is also helpful). These books give great background information to the bible as a whole and how best to read and understand it.
I wish you much grace and peace for the journey ahead.
Reminds me of an image my son shared with me in his teens. He listened to a Christian musician who said, “You want God to step into this world and deal with sin? Where do you want him to stop? We would all be destroyed except for grace!”