Second Sunday in Advent: Mal. 3:1-4
We are not very good at seriousness. We are not very good at seriousness because we frequently mistake being cranky or in a bad mood for seriousness, either in ourselves or others. So we tend to opt for and prefer levity, laughter, and we often praise people for not being too serious. Of course humility doesn’t take oneself too seriously, but it isn’t kind not to take others seriously. When a friend faces tragedy, it isn’t comforting to laugh it off. Or perhaps levity becomes a sort of coping mechanism, a cover for deep wounds and heartache. In other words, by embracing levity and laughter, you can actually ensure that you won’t be happy. What I want to argue this morning is that the serious business of Advent is first of all the announcement of seriously bad news. And it is only when we face this message honestly and seriously, that we are opened up to the possibility of serious joy.
Who Can Stand?
Malachi announces that God is coming. And He asks, “Who can endure the day of His coming? Who can stand when He appears” (Mal. 3:2)? And the implied answer is: No one. The prophet describes God’s coming: “For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver… For behold the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze” (Mal. 3:3, 4:1). Or hear the Prophet Joel, “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains… Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns… For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome; who can endure it?” (Joel 2:1-3) Who can endure the day of His coming? Who can stand when He appears? No one.
Why No One?
Because God is holy, and we are not. When the Prophet Ezekiel saw a vision of the Lord, He saw a “human appearance” that was like “gleaming metal” with the “appearance of fire enclosed all around” and “there was brightness all around,” and Ezekiel says, “Such was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord. And when I saw it, I fell on my face…” (Ez. 1:26-28). Or Isaiah, when he saw the Lord, high and lifted up on a throne with angels surrounding Him covering their faces and shouting to one another “Holy! Holy! Holy!” and the whole house was filled with smoke, and Isaiah said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Is. 6:1-5). The temptation for conservative Christians is to think that we are somehow safe and clean and unaffected by the massive injustice and evil in our world. Our parish group just finished the book we read together this Fall: Defending Marriage by Anthony Esolen. As the book went along, I grew more and more uneasy. I began to feel sick to my stomach. It wasn’t so much that he pointed out the evils and the sexual confusion in our culture. It was the growing realization that it is simply not possible to point across the street or across the political aisle or the denominational divide and say, “that is their problem over there.” No, this is our problem right here. It was the chapter about male friendship that most broke my heart. Because I realized that it was true. That what we have allowed in our nation by turning our backs on God and His Word is the kind of massive confusion that has stolen and is stealing something as simple and good as friendship from our children, from one another. And if you are honest about what we are up against, all kinds of other evils are already in the air we breathe, in our families, down out streets. We are all infected with sin. No one is righteous; no, not one (Rom. 3:10-19).
The Gift of Gravity
This is why the Prophet Malachi says that nobody gets to avoid the fire. The fire burns all. The fire consumes all. In fact, the Bible says that when a culture gets to this point of public and judicial confusion, the fire is already kindled. When people and nations turn away from God, He gives them up to their lusts (Rom. 1:24). He gives them up to their dishonorable passions (Rom. 1:26). He gives them up to a debased mind (Rom. 1:28). This is the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18). It’s not just that God’s fire is coming; His fire is already here. But Malachi says God is like a refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap. He sits as a refiner and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and purify them like gold and silver (Mal. 3:2-3). A little further he says: “Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of Hosts” (Mal. 3:7). Or when the Prophet Joel says that God is coming with fire to devour the people, he says, “Yet even now, declares the Lord, ‘return to me, with weeping, and with mourning, and rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:12-14). The point is that we can’t fix this. Only God can. And only when you take the fire and darkness seriously, are you able to turn to Him.
Facing death is perhaps the most serious thing we face in this life. And it is the gift of God to bring us face to face with our sin and His holiness. Why is it a gift? It allows us to honestly assess ourselves and our situations in light of a holy God and eternity. Constant levity won’t pause and consider death, judgment, heaven, and hell. But the coming of God, the Advent of God, the judgment of God is His holiness, His fire arriving in history, in our lives, in our world. You can try to shrug it off. You can try not to take it seriously. But then what will you take seriously? What can you afford to take seriously, if not Your Maker? But this serious business of Advent is the path to serious joy because it gives us the ability to bear up under the hardships of life and the impossibilities of the world around us. We are sinners and rebels, and God is holy and just. There is no escaping this reality. Our only hope is in Jesus. Because God took our sin seriously, He sent His beloved Son to enter into our darkness, our insanity, our sexual confusion, our political scheming. Because God took our sin seriously, so can we. If turn to Him, He will turn to us. If we take the Advent of Jesus seriously, He will purify us and make us shine like gold.