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Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Sundays of Advent join the last few weeks of the Church Year in speaking of the return of our Lord in glory. So why all this fuss over the end times? Why not spend more time preparing for Christmas, for its message and celebration? While we can speak about preparing again to celebrate that great miracle of the Incarnation, God becoming man—and we certainly should give due regard to this most wondrous event in human history—it is an event that has already happened. We can remember it; we can meditate upon it; we can celebrate it; and we should do all of these. But the event itself is a part of history. It has already happened.
Do we prepare for Christ’s coming among us now? Yes, of course we do. We are doing it right now! And what we are doing now to prepare is not mere remembrance; it is reality! We who are Christians have already received this Advent. The Lord has come to us in His Gospel and Sacraments; He continues to do so, and He will continue doing so in the future. This Advent of our Lord is part and parcel of our daily lives.
The Advent of Christ on the day of His return, however, is something that hasn’t happened yet. It is still a part of the unseen future, the day of which is unknown to us. And yet, it is a day for which we must be prepared. And this preparation is no less important than the daily preparation we make to receive our Lord now. As Jesus says in today’s Gospel: “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” I think you will agree that this is pretty serious stuff.
And this was Malachi’s concern in our Old Testament text. There is a day coming, he said, when the Lord will return. And for all who have dwelt on the face of the earth there will be only two potential results of that return: it will either be a day that burns like an oven, and all practitioners of evil and unbelief will be burned up in a fire that is never quenched. Or, for those who fear the Lord, those who have loved Him in faith and longed for His reappearing, they will receive the healing of the Sun of righteousness; they will enter upon a life that is new, like every new day that dawns.
Malachi was part of that generation that followed the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem when Judah was restored after the Babylonian captivity. At first, it seemed that exile in Babylon had chastened Judah and Jerusalem. Despite numerous obstacles, they had rebuilt the Temple—oh, not with the splendor that was Solomon’s, to be sure, but, nonetheless, it was dedicated to the service of the Lord.
But those old, apathetic ways that caused so much trouble in the past had begun to set in again. The priests serving in the Temple were despising the Lord by their polluted offerings. They were using the sick and the lame animal as sacrifices instead of the first and the best, as God commanded. The men were marrying “daughter(s) of a foreign god,” as Malachi put it, unbelievers who would profane the covenant and influence their husbands to do the same. The society was riddled with divorce and sexual immorality. The people were not keeping up with their offerings to the Lord because they believed God was stingy and unjust. Now, there was a remnant of the faithful—there always is—who feared the Lord and worked at supporting one another. They cried out to the Lord, and He heard them and promised them a day of reckoning, when the distinction between the righteous and the wicked would be made clear for all to see.
If you didn’t know differently, you might think that Malachi was born in our days. His indictment of Judah could easily be ours. We are dogged by the same apathy. The services of our “temple,” if you will, are often distasteful to us; we find that we are bored by God’s Word, irritated by the tediousness of the Liturgy and the hymns. We turn our eyes away from the immorality that surrounds us in the media, for example, if not in our own experiences, just hoping that it will go away on its own, even though we know it won’t. We find reasons to think that the Lord has been stingy and not very forthcoming with us, and that He seems to tolerate all kinds of injustice in this world. We wonder why the wicked not only survive but also seem to thrive in this world. And then we realize that the wicked are not just others; we are there, too.
And so, Malachi’s words possess a force that we need to feel as well. It was not just Judah and Jerusalem, and it’s not just today’s purveyors of evil around us; we, too, are in need of repentance, and desperately so! We need to feel the heat of Malachi’s burning oven, its threat of endless punishment. For then we know that judgment from which we have been spared only by God’s grace. And then, in great joy, we can bask in the light and warmth of the Sun of righteousness, Jesus Christ, who comes bringing healing to our sin-sick hearts, to our apathy-ridden souls.
When all is said and done, this is what the fuss is all about. Both Advent and the final return of our Lord are about deliverance from judgment and eternal punishment. It is why Jesus tells us in this day’s Gospel: “Straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” Thanks be to God! In the name of the Father and of the Son (+) and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus always. Amen.