Malachi 3:1-4 The Lord comes to clean house
Advent is a time of preparation. There are a lot of things that we do to prepare for our celebration of Christmas. Decorations to put up, gifts to be bought and wrapped, cookies to bake, special meals to cook – the weeks leading up to Christmas are a time to prepare. One other perhaps somewhat unenjoyable task you might need to do, especially if you are expecting company for Christmas, is to clean your house. You want to make sure everything is in order and looks nice for your guests.
But there is another cleaning that we need to do and that we focus on this time of year. It is a spiritual cleaning. It is a matter of repentance in preparation for our Savior’s coming – not only to welcome him with humble birth in Bethlehem, but even more as we look forward to his return in glory as King and Judge.
Our Scripture readings this morning call on us to prepare the way for the Lord. They call us to repentance. The words of the prophet Malachi point us to the ministry of John the Baptist and his message of repentance, but also point us to what the Lord does as he cleans and purifies us. The Lord comes to clean house. He sends his messenger to clear the way. He himself will purify us. And that leads us to joyful and thankful service.
Malachi was the last Old Testament prophet – about 400 years before Christ. His ministry to the people of Judah took place about 100 years after the return from the Babylonian captivity. God had delivered his people. And for a time, there was a spiritual enthusiasm and renewal – Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt. But now the people had become indifferent in spiritual matters. They were failing to follow the Lord’s Word. And yet, they were complaining that God wasn’t with them and blessing them as they felt they deserved. In their self-righteous thinking, they thought that they deserved better from the Lord. They complained that God wasn’t being fair. The wicked seemed to prosper, while God’s people suffered. The psalm writer Asaph makes a similar complaint. He writes, “For I envied the arrogant; I saw the prosperity of the wicked. … Look at them—the wicked! They are always at ease, and they increase their wealth.”
`How often aren’t we like those people of Malachi’s day? Focused on the wrong things. Indifferent in spiritual matters. Failing to follow the Lord and yet complaining how the Lord isn’t blessing us as we deserve; complaining about the Lord’s rule in this world and how he deals with us. Doesn’t it often seem as though the unbeliever has it better? That the wicked succeed and even prosper, while believers struggle?
At the end of the previous chapter, the Lord declares that he is worn out with all the complaining. He’s had enough. And yet in spite of their unfaithfulness, in spite of their complaining, God promises that he will come and fulfill his covenant.
First, the Lord promises he is going to send his messenger to clear the way. This messenger is John the Baptist, the forerunner, the prophet whose ministry would immediately precede the coming of the Savior. John had a special job. He was sent by the Lord to prepare the way for the Savior. John would point the people to Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” John would prepare the people by calling them to repentance.
That was at the heart of John’s message – “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” Repentance is more than just a sorrow over sin. Repentance recognizes that I have offended my holy Creator. I have rebelled against my loving Maker. Repentance involves the law cutting me down and leading me to despair of my own good works. Repentance means I have to admit that I have done what is wrong. I have to admit my sin. Repentance means that I don’t just gloss over my sins, but now I work with God’s help to change and not to sin anymore. It may mean that I have to give up something that my sinful flesh very much enjoys. Repentance is hard.
That is not something easy. Repentance goes beyond just a simple recognition that I’m not perfect or that I did something wrong. Notice how Malachi pictures it. John would “clear the way.” When you get ready to build and prepare the ground for construction – you get rid of whatever might be in the way. You clear away the trees, knock down old buildings. Bulldoze it to make way for the new construction. John was to prepare the way for the Messiah’s kingdom. To call to repentance, to get rid of sin and self-righteousness – whatever stands in the way. Again, that often means things and attitudes that I as a sinner love. I am by nature selfish. I don’t want to sacrifice or suffer or bear my cross. So clearing the way for the Savior, preparing hearts for the gospel is a hard thing.
It’s the picture we heard in our gospel reading – words from the prophet Isaiah – “Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be made low; the crooked will become straight, the rough ways smooth, and everyone will see the salvation of God.” Those words were first addressed to the people of Israel who were captives in Babylon. The Lord promises he would overcome all the obstacles and he would deliver Israel. That is what is pictured by the mountains being made low and the valleys being filled – the Lord delivering his people and making the way for them to return home to the Promised Land without difficulty.
But they also picture the deliverance from sin. Those mountains and valleys refer to the obstacles which the Savior finds in human hearts – obstacles which he finds in our hearts; the obstacle of sin; the mountains of pride and self-righteousness. So often we like to think that we are pretty good people who deserve to have God love us. We think that we are better than others who are such terrible sinners. I would never do something like that. And yet, we like to think we know the way is best and find it hard at times to follow what the simple word of God says. The valleys are the depths of sin and the problems of life in this world, things which would lead us to despair and to lose hope because of our sin. The sorrows and the troubles of this life – all of which are a result of sin being in this world – the devil often uses to direct our attention away from the Lord. Those things grab our attention and seek to overwhelm us. They cause us at times to doubt or at least question God’s love and concern. Instead of the straight and narrow path to heaven, we constantly wander into all kinds of sin. We could never overcome those many obstacles that stand in our way of heaven. We could never make our way to God and heaven by ourselves. Those mountains of sin are far too great for us to overcome. So John came to prepare the way for the Savior, by preparing hearts.
Malachi then points us to another messenger – the messenger of the covenant. This is the Lord himself. This is the Savior. What a wonderful comfort and blessing. God is keeping his promise and fulfilling his covenant. The messenger, the angel, of the covenant. That term would have reminded the people how the Angel of the Lord had led their ancestors out of Egypt; how he had been with Israel in the desert and how he brought them into the promised land. It was the Angel of the Lord who had destroyed the Assyrian army and delivered Jerusalem. And now, God in his grace was promising to send the Angel of the Covenant to help his people. He would come – not to destroy, but to purge and cleanse.
So Jesus came to establish God’s covenant of grace. By Jesus’ perfect life as our substitute, and by Jesus’ innocent death on the cross, he has established God’s covenant that means for us forgiveness and eternal life. Jesus proclaims to us God’s grace and mercy. He assures us that we are part of God’s people. How certain that covenant of grace is. It rests on our Savior Jesus. It is a covenant that cannot change – neither time nor eternity, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This covenant is based on God’s grace and not on our works.
But notice that the message of the Savior is also one of repentance. He comes as a refiner and a launder – to cleanse and purge. John the Baptist tells us concerning the Savior, “His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” The Savior is the judge of all. Those who reject him as Savior will receive his judgment and punishment. But the Savior is also our judge. We too are sinner who one day will have to stand before a holy and just God.
But the Savior doesn’t come to destroy, but to cleanse. He makes us clean by his blood. And then he works to strengthen our faith; he works to refine our faith. Think about that process – that isn’t always something that is so easy or pleasant for us. But it is necessary and a blessing.
And to help us in our life of faith, to strengthen our faith and refine our faith – the Lord often allows trials and troubles to come into our lives – things which make us realize our need for a Savior, our need for help and which then drive us back to the Lord and his word. Again how difficult that can be. The refining process involves placing a precious metal into great heat to purify it. The apostle Peter uses that picture when he writes, “In this you greatly rejoice, (He is speaking about rejoicing in our eternal inheritance and our certain hope of heaven) though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” God’s great love requires that he do that. It requires that he discipline us and refine our faith to keep us on the road that leads to heaven. In Jeremiah, we hear the Lord’s reaction of love to his people’s sin. “See, I will refine and test them, for what else can I do because of the sin of my people?” God’s discipline is an act of love to save us. He doesn’t come to destroy, as we deserve. But he comes to cleanse.
And the Lord’s work has an effect. The Lord’s work brings about a change. The Lord’s message of repentance and grace leads us to joyful and thankful service. We are his people through faith in Jesus. We are his priests and as such we are to offer sacrifices to God. “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” But cleansed by Jesus’ blood, our offerings are acceptable to God. In fact the Psalm writer tells us, “the LORD delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love.” “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
So as we look forward to our Savior’s coming we will be busy. We wait for him with joy, in eager expectation. That means that we will be faithful in our use of our Savior’s word so that we might draw closer to him. We will work to grow in grace and knowledge.
But it also means that we will be at work as we wait for his coming. We will be busy living our lives for him – doing good works and sharing him with others. We will work to serve our Savior even as we serve those around us. As his priests, we will bring him our offerings of our time and talents – of our very selves. What a joy and privilege to serve as Jesus’ priests and to be able to bring him our thank offerings.
Advent is a time of preparation; a time to prepare to greet our Lord – as the baby in Bethlehem’s manger and as the judge at the end of the world. By faith in him as the only Savior, we are prepared. The Lord has worked repentance in our hearts. He has shown us his salvation. And he continues to work to refine and strengthen our faith so that we might better serve him here on earth and might one day praise him in the glories of heaven.