Sermon: Second Sunday in Advent, 6 December 2015

St.Alban’s Epping,6th December 2015

Rev. Paul Weaver

“HEARING THE PROPHET’S VOICE”

Malachi 3:1-14; Song of Zechariah; Philippians 1:1-11; Luke 3:1-6)

The problem with God is that he doesn’t make himself obvious.

Different things point to his existence and what he is like. Creation reveals his power and wonder and wisdom, his grandeur and beauty. But we aren’t forced to believe that he made it. Human nature seems to have the sense that there are actions which are right and actions which are wrong, even if we don’t always want to act in accordance with them. But some will claim that these principles simply reflect the evolutionary necessities of life. Human nature also displays the desire to worship, that worldwide sense that there are divine realities as well as physical realities, that there is a spiritual dimension to life. But some say that in due course we will all grow out of that childish belief.

We might say that God has raised up many people in this world to be his messengers – prophets and teachers and others. But others will say that they are liars or deluded people. And Christians will point to Jesus, in whom God revealed himself in person, sharing our humanity and our limitations and our pains and even our death. But of course there are those who see the New Testament as little more than a fairy story.

Perhaps we wonder why God doesn’t reveal himself in all his power and glory, so that no one can be uncertain, and no one can mock. But I suspect that if God did that now, it would be so overwhelming that there would be no choice. And while we live on this earth, he gives us the power to choose, the power to make our decisions; the privilege of believing without being forced to believe; the opportunity to seek and find, or to refuse to seek him at all. God doesn’t force himself on us, but there are reasons to believe.

This was the case also with Israel in the days of the Old Testament. The people were taught about Adam and Abraham and Moses and David: they knew the stories well. And they had the Torah, the teaching of Moses and the commandments handed down through him. They knew about the Covenant, the unique relationship they had with the Creator Lord as his people. And yet so often they drifted away from the Lord.

Prophets would rise up, taking the people to task for their faithlessness and disobedience, and calling them back to the Lord. Sometimes the people listened and responded, but too often they ignored the prophetic message, or even attacked the prophets sent by the Lord. Often it took a crisis to wake them up: a drought or a plague or an invasion would at least sometimes get them asking why God had allowed this to happen to them. And then they might acknowledge the need to repent and turn back to God.

We tend to think of the prophets as people who predicted the future. But in many ways they did the opposite. Their message so often looked back as much as looking forward. They constantly pointed the people of Israel back to Moses, and to God’s covenant with Israel made at Mount Sinai. They insisted that Israel was in a unique relationship with the Lord: a relationship which brought great blessings, but also involved particular responsibilities. The prophetic call was to remember, to remember the covenant, and once again to live by that covenant. Of course the prophets did also look forward: they pointed backwards reminding the people that God had promised wonderful blessings to them if they kept their side of the covenant, but they also pointed forward warning of coming judgement if the people did not turn back to God.

And so we come to today’s reading from the prophet Malachi, who preached his message about 400 years before the birth of Jesus, in what seems to have been a time of drought or locust plague when many people were struggling. Actually we don’t know the real name of this prophet: Malachi simply means “my messenger”, and the name was picked up from the first verse of our reading today, although its words are definitely not trying to tell us the name of this challenging preacher.

It was a time when the people of Israel had once again given up any real commitment to the Lord. They went through the motions of religion, but that was it. The living Lord didn’t seem all that real or all that close: why should they take him all that seriously?

The book contains a series of accusations against the people of Israel. The priests were accepting second- and third-rate sacrifices – lame and sick animals for instance – indicating that it didn’t really matter what you offer to God. The prophet castigates the people for a growing pattern of divorce and unfaithfulness in marriage, with many men leaving their wives in favour of foreign women.

In the leadup to today’s passage, Malachi attacks the attitude that says “It doesn’t matter whether I do good or evil. God’s not going to do anything anyway. He treats the evil the same as the good. Where is this God who is supposed to judge the evildoer?”

Malachi’s response to this dismissive attitude is that God is going to send a messenger. But it won’t just be Malachi with his warnings. It will be a messenger who is truly preparing the way for the Lord himself to come. Yes, says Malachi, the Lord himself is coming.

The job of this new messenger will be to purify the people, to put them through the refiners’ fire, to get them truly ready for the coming of the Lord himself. We see this prophecy fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist, of whom we read in today’s Gospel, and about whom we will hear more next Sunday. Isaiah had already given the call to prepare the way of the Lord, and now Malachi took up this phrase and looked forward to one who would do just that in preparation for the coming of the Lord himself.

But when the righteous Lord comes there are those who will need to watch out: and Malachi gives his warning to sorcerers or soothsayers, to adulterers, to those who give false evidence, those who oppress the powerless, those who thrust aside the alien.

The prophet insists that God’s commandments must be taken seriously, not set aside as if they are without value or point. Malachi was also clear that evil must be dealt with, and that God would give judgement against the evildoer. And even now the Lord was using the tough times that the people were going through to call them back to himself, and to call them to godly living.

In today’s passage, there is another challenge to the people. They are robbing God, says the prophet. How is this? Because they are not giving full tithes as commanded by Moses. These tithes were not only for sacrifices to God: they were also the way that the priests and temple workers were provided for. If people didn’t pay their tithes, these servants of God would not have the necessities of life. Perhaps it is not surprising that the priests had lost their commitment to true worship.

Malachi challenges the people to pay their full tithes: then the Lord will truly bless them with full harvests. If they become faithful again, his generosity will overflow upon them.

The New Testament does not have specific teaching that Christ’s followers must give tithes, that they must literally give one-tenth of their income to the church or to missions or to charity. But it does teach very clearly the importance of generosity to those in need. Are we generous givers? As we begin a new church year, and also a new year for those of us who use offertory envelopes, it is a good time for us to ask ourselves how generous we are with the income that we have. As I said, I don’t believe that the traditional commandment of one-tenth is specifically demanded of Christians. But the spirit of generosity might lead us to give much more if we are in a position to do so!

What is important is that we ask the questions, and seek in the light of our circumstances to be generous. As Jesus puts it, “Freely we have received, so we must freely give.”

John the Baptist came with his message calling people to be ready for the coming of the Lord. And then the Lord himself did come in the person of Jesus. His message did not sidestep the reality of judgement, but he made it clear that God’s call, his invitation, was for all people, even those who might seem furthest away from God. For the righteous God of judgement is also the loving God who freely offers forgiveness to all who truly turn to him.

So in this advent season let us hear again that challenge of the prophet: the challenge to take God seriously in our lives, and in particular to be generous in supporting the ministry of God’s church and extending help to those in need. Our government in its foreign aid budget is working on the assumption that the people of Australia will let them get away with what is really extreme stinginess: how can we call for a more generous attitude to those in need from the Government if we are not generous ourselves?

So let us seek to cultivate a generous heart as we prepare to celebrate at Christmas the humble love of God who came to share our human life. And let us seek to live lives of readiness for that day when there will be no more questions, no more uncertainty, for we shall see God in all his glory, and hear his eternal call to us all. Amen.

Paul Weaver