PEACE REQUIRES PREPARATION

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Malachi 3

1 “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.
2 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. 3 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, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.

 

My dad used to say, “Prior planning prevents poor performance.”  When things are planned out, when preparation is made, then the nerves go down a bit and the execution is at a good level.  Just think of a kid who is taking a biology semester exam.   That’s kind of one of those times when you need to be prepared.  You need to make sure you have your biology notes, because the history ones won’t help you much.  And you need to give those notes a little more than a glance.  You need to get in their and work at it, maybe even for a few nights if you want to be to prevent a poor performance.

I remember being in this exact situation at Martin Luther College my sophomore year.  Science classes weren’t really a forte of mine in school.  So in order to avoid squelch the nerves, in order to avoid a poor performance, I studied multiple nights.  I wasn’t totally calm going in or coming out of that final exam but studying sure helped.  I can’t remember what my grade was, but I remember being at peace with it.

Malachi is describing for us something that has a little more weight than a biology final.  In Malachi 3, he’s talking about the coming of Christ.  He asks, “Who can endure the day of his coming?”  The reason he asks is because the people of Judah have become pretty indifferent.  This is the time after they returned from exile.  There had been a positive spiritual resurgence when those, who were captive in Babylon, were allowed to go back home to Judah.  They rebuilt the temple, rebuilt the city, rebuilt the walls, and that also rebuilt their foundation on God’s promises. But the pattern that existed for the Jewish people in the Old Testament cropped up again to the point where the people were questioning the Lord.  Think of that!  The people got lazy about worship and faith and they figured one of the reasons was God’s fault.

Maybe you notice the same kind of thing going on now.  People are waiting for the Lord in their own ways, not his, if they are paying attention to him at all.  Even among us, from time to time, we question God’s power and love.  If we are his children, then why do we have to face struggle and pain?  Why can’t we have what we want all the time?

That is ultimately what the people of Judah are asking for.  That’s the implication when Malachi says, “The Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come.”  We get caught up looking for God to be what we want him to be.  We want the comfort and the easy life.  It’s this kind of selfishness that often looks at Jesus to be a soda machine, giving me what I want when I want it, instead of looking at Jesus as the Savior from sin and death that I need.

Jesus’ work was not to give Judah what they wanted or to dispense to us every last wish and desire we have.  He is the messenger of the covenant, a covenant that God made to forgive sins and bring deliverance to people who do not deserve it.  His job was to save us.  I like the picture that God paints through the prophet Malachi.  Jesus is described as a refiner or launderer.  Those two metaphors are a lot more useful to us than a soda machine, dispensing what we want.

Jesus is the refiner, purifying us by his death. He has burned off every impurity from our record.  It cost us nothing; Jesus did it all to bring us as pure and righteous children to his Father.  But that doesn’t mean our lives are going to be easy.  Jesus is the purifier and refiner of our lives.  That means he is going to use some heat to melt off what is not of value to our faith.

The same thing is true with the metaphor of the launderer.  Jesus has washed us clean.  He has removed every stain with his blood to present us as holy and spotless to God.  But that doesn’t mean we are off the hook, that we can live in any way that makes us happy.  We are the dirty laundry that Jesus scrubs and cleans.  He uses his Word as powerful soap and applies it to our lives so that stains will not seep into our lives.  A dirty, filthy faith is, again, of far less value than a cleansed faith.

This is not a pain-free process as Jesus works on the faith that he purchased for us.  The law drives us to our knees in sorrow and the inability to cleanse ourselves. Self-righteousness is burnt up by the law’s perfect standard.  Pride is washed away in the law’s holy demands.  As Jesus works on us he will also pinpoint things we love but hinder our relationship with him, and he will work to remove those things from us.  Jesus can even use the hardships of living in a broken world to work for our good.  Weakness forces us to rely on his strength.  Sorrow forces us to the eternal comfort only Jesus provides.  We have the kind of Savior who allows and even brings the painful fires needed to purge our faith of impurities so that we can avoid the far greater, far more painful, eternal fire of hell.  God loves us enough to prepare us the right way for the Last Day, so that we can be at peace.

Think of it this way: is a parent helping their child by neglecting discipline?  A parent might be able to convince themselves that discipline is cruel and that they love their children too much to put them through any kind of pain or discomfort.  But in avoiding that little bit of pain, parents like that open their children up to much greater pain.  They will grow up to think there are not punishments, that “I get to do whatever I want,” that “the world revolves around me.”  God loves us too much to leave us spoiled and unprepared for Jesus’ return.

However, God does not save us from destruction just to keep us from the destruction.  He saves us and purifies us to be who he created us to be.  He keeps us safe and prepares us properly for Christ’s coming so that we can glorify him with each other and help others prepare as well.

Notice who is brought up in this section; it’s the Levites.  When the Promised Land was divided up for the 12 tribes of Israel, the Levites didn’t get a section of land.  They were the ones who served at the temple; that was their place among God’s people.  They were the priests and leaders of worship.  So God specifically includes them to show us that there are not levels for those who need purification.  You don’t have the pastors and religious scholars up here.  You don’t have church councilmen and board members here.  You don’t have Sunday School teachers and choir members here.  You don’t have ushers and other weekly attenders here.  You don’t have those who can’t seem to make worship the priority every week here.  You don’t have the delinquent list members here.  And you don’t have the rest of the pagans and unbelievers here.  No.  Everybody has the same need to be cleansed and purified by Jesus.

And when Jesus cleans you up and purifies you from all the things that have no value to your spiritual life, then it doesn’t matter who you are, you get to serve the Lord with thankfulness and joy.  To think that there are only certain types of believers that can serve God in the church or help out with ministry is not only ludicrous, it’s a destructive lie that comes from our sinful flesh, from the world around us, and from the devil, himself.

If Christ died for you, if he came back from the dead to give you eternal life, if he washed you in baptism and strengthens you with his Word and sacrament, if he cleans you and purifies you so that you can serve him even better, then I sure hope you notice what you are going to do.  You are going to serve the Lord in all sorts of ways.

One of those ways that God mentions through the prophet Malachi is offerings.  Without people who believe in the Lord, where would the support for ministry be?  But God has brought us into his family, where we live in thanksgiving.  We live with joy for the home we have in heaven.  We see things better.  Jesus continues his work as the refiner and launderer so that we will continue to serve him with thankfulness.  We do it now to a degree, but imagine what it will be like when we can give the Lord our best in the perfect glory of heaven.

Peace comes from the kind of preparation that Malachi is talking about.  People about 400 years after Malachi needed peace, and that’s when God sent them John the Baptist.  Even thought his message was somewhat striking, it was exactly the kind of preparation the people needed.  Mountains of pride and self-righteousness needed to be leveled.  Valleys of despair and self-loathing needed to be filled in.  Blockades that people had erected to the clear gospel had to be removed.

The same things are true today.  Maybe we don’t have a guy like John the Baptist wearing camel’s hair and eating locusts as our guest preacher during Advent, but in a pastor, God gives people a servant to help with preparations.  But just like it wasn’t about John back then, it still isn’t about the pastor today.  God’s message has always been about the messenger of the covenant, that second messenger who not only proclaims peace but then goes out and accomplishes peace for us, Jesus Christ our Savior.

For now, with such joy and excitement, we are in a time similar to getting ready for a Christmas party.  You know it will be fun and joyous, and you are looking forward to it eagerly, but before that party comes there are hours and hours of planning and preparations.  Sometimes we think that this life is the main event for us.  But it’s not.  The party comes later.  Now is the time for the hard work that prepares us for the party.  We have peace and comfort now because Jesus did the hard work for us when he came the first time and purchased it for us with his holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death.  We are on God’s side and he will never declare war on us.  We have peace to live as children of God.  We have peace as Jesus refines us and washes us to make us even better at our service of thankfulness to him.  We are at peace because God is doing so much to prepare us for Jesus to come back and take all his people to heaven.  So, in peace we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus, and take us home.”  Amen.

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EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED

12.3.17

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Isaiah 64

1Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
that the mountains would tremble before you!
2 As when fire sets twigs ablaze
and causes water to boil,
come down to make your name known to your enemies
and cause the nations to quake before you!
3 For when you did awesome things that we did not expect,
you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.
4 Since ancient times no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?
6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins.

8 Yet you, LORD, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

 

This past week I was flipping through Netflix as I often do when it’s getting late and I’m giving Jet his bottle, and I saw the movie based on the book, The Case for Christ.  So, over a couple nights I watched it.  It’s the story of Lee Strobel’s quest to prove Christianity false.  He read the Bible.  He read books about the Bible.  He went to presentations.  He held interviews with professionals in all sorts of fields: psychiatry, medicine, theology, linguistics, archaeology, and on.  He was a raging atheist who was expecting to prove his wife’s new-found faith wrong.  Do you know what happened to Lee?  All his investigating, his interviews, his reading, and research led him to a very surprising, unexpected conclusion: it’s all real.  Christ, his death and resurrection, the Bible, the faith, the church, all of it is real.  He went from a man on a mission to bring down Christianity, to a man with a mission to bring Christianity to all.

Now, I’m not going to say you have to queue it up on Netflix tonight.  I’m not going to say you have to look up Lee Strobel and all his books.  In fact, the doctrine he preaches and writes, isn’t always what you will read in the Bible.  But I will say this, God does not operate according to our expectations.  Lee Strobel expected to prove Jesus and the Bible wrong, but what really happened was so much different.

That is also something Isaiah noticed during his years as a prophet in Judah.  The people of Judah and Israel thought they knew what would happen.  They were God’s people, descendants of Abraham, chosen as heirs of God’s kingdom.  They took that as a license to do whatever they wanted to do, because God would always be on their side.  If you told them that God would allow the Assyrian empire to ransack the north and carry Israel away form their homeland as exiles of war, they would have laughed it off.  “Never!  We are God’s people.  He would never do something like that.”

Well, during Isaiah’s 60 years as prophet that is exactly what happened.  Israel in the north was leveled, never to return as a nation.  The people living in the south, in Judah, were supposed to get the hint that God takes his Word and his people seriously.  He loves like the gracious and all-powerful Father he is, but even a loving father has to discipline and rebuke and train his child.

Isaiah had the job of warning the people of Judah that they too would suffer God’s discipline if they did not take God’s message and his grace seriously. If Judah did not listen, the nation of Babylon would rise up and do the same things that happened in the north.  Judah would be carried off into Babylonian captivity.  But that would not last forever.  God would get his message across to the people and continue to keep his promise of the coming Savior.  In fact, the Savior would come and rescue people from sin and hell.  He would set up a kingdom that never ends.  God’s people, all true believers, would enjoy this promised deliverance for eternity in heaven.  It’s as if God was telling all the people in Judah, through the prophet Isaiah’s message, to expect the unexpected. And then, everything happened exactly the way God had said.  The people in Judah didn’t expect it at all, and yet it was the stunning reality for them.

Expectation vs. Reality is the new worship series for Advent.  As I was looking through the assigned Scriptures lessons for the next few weeks, I kept thinking of the expectations we have and how reality is often such a striking contrast.  It’s kind of like the people of Israel and Judah during Isaiah’s ministry as a prophet.  What are the expectations and then what really happens can be so far apart.

This week in our Scripture readings, the topic is Christ’s coming.  It’s not his coming as a baby in Bethlehem but his coming at the End of Time.  If you think about that is not an odd place to start our preparation for Christmas.  To enjoy why Jesus came the first time, you have to see where it leads.

Jesus came from heaven once before so that God’s promise would be fulfilled and heaven would be opened.  God did what no one expected.  He actually took on human flesh for us so that people could have heavenly bodies forever with him.  That’s the final goal.  That’s where Christmas leads.

So, is that where your focus is right now?  Is that where your eager expectations are aiming?  I don’t know if that is how we operate at this time of year.  There is so much going on, so much to get ready for the next 21 days.  (Yes!  That’s all you have.)  And look how much we do to get ready for that?  People expect so much out of Christmas every year, and the reality is it can never provide what people really need.  We can try and try and try as much as we want, but even a really great Christmas celebration this year can’t fix what’s wrong.

Isaiah writes, All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.  All our best efforts can’t change the facts of what is going on in my heart and yours.  When the focus is on the present, or all the presents, then we aren’t ready for what’s coming, for who’s coming.

And we fall into this trap all the time.  We get wrapped up with all the earthly stuff, because we expect that the End is far off.  Instead of alert, ready, and watchful for Christ to come back, we are alert, ready, and watchful for the next big deal, for the next party invitation, for the family members to arrive.

It’s like the people of Israel and the people of Judah.  We focus on ourselves. That kind of preparation leads away from our God.  And that kind of self-centered life that leaves Jesus on the back burner leads Isaiah to ask for us, Why, Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you?  When you think that our Lord is not vital in your life every day, every hour, every breath, then is it a surprise that he seems distant?  When you put him second or third or 15 down the priority list, what do you expect the relationship will be like?  Not the best.

That should make us expect something terrible at the End of time.  For people who do not put God first, can we really expect God to come for us?  It would make a whole lot more sense for Jesus to come against us, for him to destroy us.

Brothers and sisters listen to what Isaiah says.  When you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you.  God did not do what we expect.  Yes, there was trembling, but it was the enemies of God.  Satan didn’t stand a chance.  Sin, death, and hell were not a match for Christ when he came down the first time.  He is the Redeemer, the rescuer, the deliverer.  He did not crush us, but the serpent’s head.  That is the reality that exists for you.  Your sins are gone from your record.  Every time you have let the earthy stuff distract you, every time our Lord has been pushed to the back burner, every time we have not lived up to God’s holy expectations, every time has been washed away.  We are cleansed.  We are children of the Most High God.  Isaiah puts it this way. You, Lord, are our Father.  We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.

God’s reality for us is better than anything we could ever expect.  Heaven is our home.  Christ made the full payment for us when he came down the first time.  Now, he is preparing the places in paradise for you and me and all believers.  He’s getting ready for his return.

So, we should, too.  Getting ready for that is a little different than the all the stuff you’re seeing lately.  It’s not filling up on all sorts of treats, it’s filling up on God’s Word. It’s not putting up strings of lights, it’s putting up your light of faith.  It’s not giving presents, it’s giving the gospel of Jesus.  It’s not sending invitations for parties, it’s sending invitations to worship.  The Christmas stuff is not sinful, but it can be if it doesn’t leave you any room to prepare for Christ.

All that stuff is very easy to understand.  We see it.  We hear it.  It comes.  It goes.  We expect it every year. But the reality that God has provided for us goes way beyond expectations.  Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

This time of year, it’s good to talk about the End.  It’s where Christmas always leads us.  Through Christ, God tells us to expect the unexpected.  Sinners are forgiven.  Heaven is open.  Our place in paradise is purchased and ready.  Christ is coming to take us there.  Be ready.  Be alert.  As Jesus says, “Watch!”  And as you prepare, use these ancient words from Isaiah as your prayer: Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down.   Amen.