The prophet Malachi opens up his prophecy like most prophets by telling the people what’s gone wrong.
Thus sayeth the Lord of hosts: O priests, who despise my name. You say, “How have we despised your name?” I say by offering polluted food on my altar. And you say, “How have we polluted it? I say by thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised. When you offer filthy animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong?Malachi 1
The whole first half of the book of Malachi sounds like this. God’s main gripe is with the priests, and he’s complaining about a bunch of filthy animals they bring to the altar. In the Temple sacrificial system, the Lord is to receive the pick of the litter for sacrifice and the meat distributed among the worshipers, but what the priests under Malachi keep bringing is filthy animals, while they keep the best for themselves.
But by the second half of Malachi, there’s a change. By chapter 3 it’s not the offerings, or just the priests, but the whole people who he calls filthy animals, unfit to withstand the presence of God.
Advent is the season in which the church reads from prophets like these who foretold of a coming savior, but Malachi’s Advent promise sounds more like a threat, “The one whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple, but who may abide the day of his coming? Who shall stand when he appears? He will come to judge, with the heat and flame of a refiner’s fire!”
We modern people don’t like to be judgmental, or at least to seem judgmental, and we don’t like the idea of a judgmental God and yet, in response to our Advent question “Who will save us and from what?” the scriptures come back at us ablaze with prophetic fire, “Who’s going to save you from God?” The prophets ask, “Who can abide the day of the Lord’s coming?”
Five centuries after Malachi it was in the wilderness, at the time of the first Advent when John the Baptist came on the scene. John spits the same prophetic fire saying “You brood of vipers! (again with the filthy animals) who warned you of the wrath to come? Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. The Lord is coming and his winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
I’d love to say Malachi and John are the only ones with such a message but Christ himself comes with fire and judgment too, calling people sheep, dogs, and snakes, filthy animals all, asking “how will you escape being condemned to hell?”
So I guess today’s message might as well be “Merry Christmas you filthy animals.”
We got out more of our family Christmas decorations this weekend, among them were what feels like dozens of nativity scenes, some of which are family heirlooms which have to be placed out of reach, but others our kids can and do play with. There’s something sacred about sitting on the floor with a child and setting up the scene: a plastic stable, a miniature mary and joseph, some shepherds, an angel, some wisemen, and then, of course, a menagerie of filthy animals.
The thing about these prophecies is that in the end, when he comes, he doesn’t incinerate all the filthy animals, instead he is born among them. He comes and the sheep follow the shepherds to his light. The ox and ass know his name. He comes with fire, but it’s a fire that comes to primarily lighten the world’s darkness.
It’s true. Jesus preached fire, and he came and will come again to judge, but in the end he doesn’t come with a winnowing fork in his hands, he holds bread in his hands. He doesn’t take an axe to the root of the tree. He gets hung from it.
Much as we may not like the idea, we need Jesus to be our judge. In a world of sin and death, with a heated climate, with human lives being sacrificed on the altars of violence, and profit, and choice, it is clear, we are like sheep without a shepherd, are stubborn as any ox or ass, we are a brood of vipers ready to strike anyone who treads on us, and we did so to him at his first coming! It is right of us to ask, who among us can abide the refiner’s fire? Who will save us from a righteous and holy God?
As it turns out, the answer is God. Jesus proves it on the cross where he reveals the mercy of God as the means of God’s judgment, and ultimately, even though it’s not what the prophets had in mind, it fulfills their prophecies.
Malachi spits fire, but did you notice? His fire is a refiner’s fire. It’s a fire that removes impurities in order to reveal and restore the silver and gold beneath. John preaches judgment, but did you notice? He says “the one who is coming will baptize you with fire,” but at Pentecost when that fire comes it is a fire that alights and illuminates, transforming ordinary people into ministers of the gospel?
Jesus preaches a coming destruction of the temple, but when that time comes, it is the temple of his body which receives the judgment, and it’s that same broken body which is raised and restored in the resurrection.
There is plenty in this world to be judged, including the church, including all of us, and we do have a God who is a judge who has, and does, and will come to judge it all. But hear the good news: the Judge is Jesus. This is our only hope as a people, as a species, that the judgment God has every right to bring, has already come in Christ, and it is this kind of merciful judge who was and is and is to come.
At the end of Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament, in the last chapter of the book we read the last words of the Old Testament before Matthew lists off the genealogy of Jesus, Malachi includes these words:
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, says the Lord of hosts, But for you who know and revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. And then, you shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.
Filthy animals, leaping out from their stables, leaping for the joy of the hope that lies before them. If, no, because this is true, then filthy animal that I am, I say Come, O Lord and save us.