Return to Me

Who wouldn’t want a merry Christmas?  Today’s first reading from Malachi 3:1-7b confronts us with that Advent task so that we can have a truly merry Christmas by answering God’s call, “Return to Me.”  December 9, 2018.

Do you want a merry Christmas?  Of course you do. Who wouldn’t?  That’s why we are so busy, so rushed, so frustrated, so stressed.  We have to get everything done, right? – all the party planning, house decorating, present shopping, present buying, present wrapping, menu setting, travel planning, card signing, card sending – on top of the usual tasks of year-end budgeting, semester exams, reports and projects due.  Getting everything done will allow us to heave a huge sigh of relieve on December twenty-fourth, and then we can have a merry Christmas. But while we race around to make Christmas merry, we often forget that for some merriment will be as slippery as an eel and as seemingly impossible as the finish line of a triple marathon because they will be spending this Christmas without that someone special for the first time, and the reality of the death or divorce is striking home.

But that’s the whole point of the Advent season of the church year.  It is designed to do what we too often avoid. It forces us to poke around on the inside, to dig around and deal with what only we and God know about because when that stuff gets solved and settled, we can have a truly merry Christmas.

Which is no different from what the ancient Israelites needed.  “Lord, why tell us to return when we never went away?” They had the reconstructed temple, which was nearly a hundred years old.  They had been going through the motions of showing up for worship and bringing their offerings on the prescribed days and at the right times.  They looked like they had their act together. “What’s the big deal, Lord?” But that was precisely the problem. They had been going through the motions, and they looked like they had their act together, but they had not come to grips with the Advent task of poking around on the inside, dealing with their emperor’s-new-clothes attitude of “What?  I’ve got a problem?” or dealing with hidden hurt and loneliness. Today’s first reading from chapter three of the book of the prophet Malachi confronts us with that Advent task so that we can have a truly merry Christmas by answering God’s call, “return to me.”

Pointing us to ... The preparer

God sent prophets as preparers to get the Israelites ready for the arrival of the Messiah.  Malachi was the last of those preparers in the Old Testament, who, interestingly enough, pointed ahead to another great preparer who would come right before the Messiah.  Through Malachi God said, “I will send my messenger.”  His job will be to prepare the way before me.  That preparer, predicted by Malachi, was none other than John the Baptist.

John looked and sounded a little rough around the edges.  He wore scratchy, uncomfortable clothes and lived and ate like a contestant on Survivor.  He did that to gain attention, not for himself but for his message, a message that began with plowing the ground of people’s hearts.  How can the seeds of God’s love for sinners be planted and grow in cement-like soil, in hard hearts, unless you first dig it up and remove the barriers, boulders, and stones?  So, John sounded as rough as he looked when he hollered at the we’re-better-than-others-because-we-don’t-really-sin crowd, “You brood of vipers … every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:7,10).

In order for us to heed God’s call, “Return to me,” we first have to come to grips with the fact that we have wandered away.  John’s message leads us to plow the ground of our hearts, to poke around on the inside.  When we do that, we uncover the sadness and loneliness that we wish would go away as well as the stains of misplaced priorities, me-first thinking, and Pharisaic posturing, “At least I am not as bad as those others out there.”  Malachi’s message, John the Baptist’s message, and the message from every other preparer drive us to the big question, “How can sinners ever be pure enough when God allows nothing dirty and no one dirty to get near him, not one dust speck of sin, not even one little smudge on our heart?  Who can endure the day of his coming?  Who can stand when he appears?  In Malachi’s day, there were lots of dirty people.  Oh, sure! They bathed. They went through the motions of following God’s rules about ceremonial washing.  But their hearts were dirty with selfishness and greed. Aren’t you glad you and I are above that? Oh, wait!  We need cleansing, too. We need to be purified. Take to heart the preparer’s message, and, like going to the doctor for an honest diagnosis, you will have accomplished the uncomfortable but necessary first step of returning to God and having a merry Christmas.  

Pointing us to…. The Purifier

But John didn’t stop talking.  Once he had people’s attention with his rough exterior and rough message, the highway was rut and pothole-free for the next part of his message, pointing to the messenger of the covenant, the Savior, the Messiah, who would do something about our sins.

I once had a permanent marker in my shirt pocket with the cap off.  Oops! I rubbed and scrubbed. Try as I might, that was the end of that shirt.  Into the rag bag it went. Whether hand-rubbing industrial strength forgiveness-soap into the stains of our spiritual clothes or tossing the dirty rocks of our spiritual life into a blast furnace to fire away the crud and leave behind pure, precious metal of our souls, the Messiah Jesus was and is up to the task.  He will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.  He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify [people] and refine them like gold and silver.  My sins are like that.  I can try to rub them out.  You can try to remove your sin-stains.  Try as we might, nothing will work. We’re headed for the eternal, smelly, slimy rag bag.  But there is one who can remove any and every stain. He’s the Purifier. He is the one the preparer pointed to.  When John called out, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” he could just as well have said, “Look, the Purifier who removes all sin-stains so sinners can answer God’s call, ‘Return to me.’

Pointing us to…. The priests

Jacob had twelve boys whose descendants were to become the twelve tribes of Israel.  Take out one and elevate his two sons to the status of their uncles because their dad, Joseph, was Jacob’s favorite, and you’d have thirteen.  But remove Levi from the list. His descendants didn’t get land because Levi was a murderer. But, as is the norm for God, he did the un-normal and undeserved.  Levi’s descendants were designated by God to be involved in Israelite worship. Most of them didn’t really lead worship services but were busy with related tasks, carrying the portable worship facility’s tent posts or tent curtains, tending sheep to be used for sacrificing, shoveling sheep stuff, cooking, sweeping.  Only one particular clan among the Levites served as the actual worship leaders, sprinkled sacrificial blood, entered the temple, and prayed to God for the people. Those select Levites were known as the priests. Why only a few among so many? God was teaching the Israelites that only certain people could have direct access to him, certainly not all those dirty, sinful Israelites, certainly not all those untrained Levites, only Aaron’s descendants.  And even at that, only one of the priests got to be high priest, and he had to do extra washing and wear extra-special clean clothes before entering God’s presence. The key to having access to God is to be completely pure, which has nothing to do with our height or weight or ability to color within the lines or GPA or scholarships or having perfect eyesight or being cancer-free or never making mistakes.

The season of Advent drives us to think about that.  We want to have a merry Christmas, but it’s hard to focus.  The team we want to win often doesn’t. The money is tight, and we can’t buy for others what we want.  We’d like to gather with friends for a Christmas party, but there’s no slot left on the calendar, and even if there were, no one has invited us.  But the message of Advent tells us something has changed, and the change comes from what God reveals right here. The Purifier has come, and all who trust in him get to be priests.  Then the LORD will have those who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings … will be acceptable to the LORD.  Jesus says of you and me, “The one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than [John the Baptist]” (Luke 7:28).  I am not in John the Baptist’s ballpark.  I’m not even in the parking lot. You probably feel the same way.  We are tiny compared to him. But as a small person on a mountain top has a better view than a giant in a valley, so we have a better view than John since he never actually saw the cross and empty tomb.  We see those things by faith as clear as the noses on our faces.

The added bonus of the Purifier’s work is that he has purified not just who we are but also everything we do, declaring us to be royal priests so that our lives become priestly offerings, wrapped in the bow of Jesus’ righteousness and purity.  Getting up and going to work, doing your job faithfully, looking for a new job to utilize your talents, going on the road for sales calls, engineering software, working on a class project, doing homework, doing dishes, scouring pans, vacuuming the carpets, changing diapers, writing a note to a friend, planning a date night with your spouse, reading Bible stories to your kids, all of that is part of your priesthood and an answer to God’s call, “Return to me.”

“We wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, we wish you a Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.”  You’ve sung it. I’ve sung it. But I always thought there was something missing. The song never describes how to get a Merry Christmas.  But then I did a little research on the second stanza, “Oh, bring us some figgy pudding.” While it might sound like the singers’ attempt to get some food for their efforts, figgy pudding is a traditional British little round cake with dried fruits.  The classic dish has thirteen ingredients representing Christ and the twelve apostles. A sprig of holly on top stands for the crown of thorns, and with brandy poured over it and set aflame, the fire represents the passion of Christ. Do you want a merry Christmas?  Of course you do. Then pay attention to the preparer, watch the Purifier go to work, and enjoy your role as a priest. You will be answering the Lord’s call, “Return to me” and you will have a merry Christmas.   Amen.

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI on December 9, 2018