The day of the Lord – Malachi 3:1-4 & Matthew 24:42-44
Whereas the first Sunday in Advent invited us to tell the truth, to yearn, to wait expectantly, to lean into God’s promised future; the second Sunday in Advent forces us – abruptly – to transition between Christ coming as a baby, the child laid in the manger, and Christ coming as the king of glory. Coming, as the Nicene Creed puts it, to judge the living and the dead!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this in his 1928 Advent sermon, “It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming, so calmly, whereas previously peoples trembled at the day of God…. We have become so accustomed the to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.”
This is the message of the prophets. Be careful what you wish for! You might ask (as at the end of Malachi chapter 2), “Where is the God of justice?” but you will discover that divine judgement rarely meets human expectations. You will discover that divine justice finds – not only your enemies – but also yourselves wanting.
It is a judgement for all people. “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” says Malachi. It is a judgement that surprises – that ignores our partisan ideas of who is guilty and who is not. “Why do you want the day of the Lord?” says Amos. “It is as if someone fled from a lion and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall and was bitten by a snake.” And it will come suddenly, says Jesus, it will feel more like a home invasion than the arrival of a welcome guest!
But there is another layer to the images in our passage from Malachi. Yes, they are images of judgement. The one who brings divine justice is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. But they are also images of purification and transformation, cleansing and renewal. All people are deserving of punishment, says the prophet Malachi, and punishment is painful, but the purpose of God’s justice is not retributive, but restorative. “The God of the world who draws near [to us],” as Bonhoeffer says, “[also] lays claim to us.”
God comes to melt us down and remake us. God comes to cleanse and totally transform us. God comes – not to move the furniture around or spring-clean or do a few minor renovations – but God is doing a knockdown rebuild. Because God is intent on moving in.
As I mentioned in Friday’s Advent reflection, I have been moonlighting as a house painter this week, working with the family on the house Miriam and her partner, Dan, have bought, and thinking about the themes in this passage I was reminded of a Geoffrey Rust poem that is titled Home improvements.
You can’t trust anyone these days.
Take this Jesus.
Seemed OK. We asked him in,
just being neighbourly, the way you do.
Over dinner he was pleasant enough
apart from his irritating habit
of turning the small talk into conversation.
Even seemed keen to hear about
our plans for home improvements.
So we showed him round.
This was the big mistake.
When it came down to it
he wasn’t really interested
in the kitchen units,
or the bathroom tiles,
or the artificial ceiling in the lounge,
but kept peering into cupboards uninvited
(as if we had dry rot)
and prizing up the edges of the carpet
(as ifwe had woodworm)
and finally disappeared into the cellar
(heaven knows what he found down there)
emerging with a hammer
and a pickaxe and a drill
and a pocketful of drawings
and smiling in a most alarming way said
I’ve just had a much better idea
and started smashing down the walls
© Godfrey Rust 1982, email@example.com
In similarly evocative language Malachi speaks of a God who works like a refiner’s fire. The text describes working with gold and silver, but being so close to the Glassworks, I am reminded of what happens in glassblowing. There are three furnaces. The first is simply called “the furnace” where, at temperatures of around 1300 degrees, the glass is melted down. The second is the “glory” furnace, where a piece is reheated in between steps of working with it. The final furnace is the “lehr” or “annealer” where the glass is slowly cooled, for hours or days, to keep the glass from cracking or shattering.
Do these images evoke aspects of our Christian experience?
Or Malachi speaks of God who acts like fullers’ soap on us and our world.
I must confess this has always sounded like a brand name to me – fullers’ soap! But fulling, or tucking or waulking, is a step in woollen clothmaking. It involves pounding the cloth with a club or with the fuller’s feet or hands to remove oils and dirt and other impurities and soaking it in water and plant sap (or fullers’ soap). (The Romans used human urine which made this a very smelly industry.) The process of fulling, of using fullers’ soap, however, not only cleans the cloth, but changes its nature, matting the fibres together to give it strength and make it more waterproof.
You may be interested to know that the surnames, Fuller, Tucker and Walker, all come from this industry. In Scotland waulking was done by groups of women and involved singing waulking songs.
These are not comfortable processes – for the gold and silver (or glass) vessels or for the cloth that is being fulled or tucked or waulked. The judgement of God is not a comfortable process the prophets tell us, but it is a process that our God who loves this world will perform – because our awareness, our capacity, our willingness to make the changes that must be made is not adequate. We see only in part. We know only in part. We love only in part. But God sees clearly, knows fully and so loves our world.
In a moment we are gathering at this communion table, and I am reminded that the words of institution in 1 Corinthains 11 are written down because – like the prophets – the apostle Paul knows the Corinthians church is not acting like it is the body of Christ. “When you come together,” Paul says, “it is not for the better but for the worse.” There are divisions among you and there is greed. Some of you eat your fill and get drunk and others are left hungry. “Do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing?” That is not what this meal – this church – the coming of the king of glory into our world is about.
23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, 24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ 25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
It is by being broken and shared that we become the body of Christ. It is by being refined like gold and silver (or like glass) that we become the body of Christ. It is by being washed and pounded and sung over that we become the body of Christ.
In that Advent sermon, Bonhoeffer goes on to say, “Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognise the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, come to us with grace and love.”
Let us continue to proclaim the Lord’s death – the Lord’s death for us – the Lord’s forgiveness for us – the Lord’s love for us – until he comes.