Imagine you went to bed tonight and when you woke up, it was suddenly Christmas Day. Would you be ready? Are the gifts bought and wrapped, the cookies baked, the decorations perfectly arranged, the house cleaned, the bags packed, the car gassed and ready? If Christmas was tomorrow would you continue to sit there calm and quiet – at peace – or would you break out in a cold sweat and start tapping your foot anxiously, praying for this sermon to end? I doubt if any of us are completely ready for Christmas just yet. We need time to prepare, and we hope that if we are well-prepared, we will have a measure of peace when that day comes. The fact that Jesus came 2000 years ago in humility is proof that he will come again in glory, to judge the living and the dead. This morning, Malachi asks a chilling question: who can endure the day of his coming? The answer, of course, is: only the one who is prepared. For the one who is prepared, even if it is tomorrow, it will be a day of peace. The question we must ask, then, is how do we prepare?
Malachi lived and worked about 100 years after God had brought his people back from exile in Babylon. Upon their return there was something of a spiritual revival. They rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord. They enthusiastically celebrated the feasts and festivals and joyfully brought their offerings and sacrifices. Unfortunately, this enthusiasm was short-lived. Soon enough spiritual apathy and indifference returned. They brought blind and lame animals to be sacrificed instead of the flawless specimens God demanded. (Malachi 1) They began to intermarry with the godless nations around them and thought nothing of using divorce and violence, lies and fraud to settle their personal issues. (Malachi 2 & 3) To make matters worse, instead of exposing and rebuking this wickedness, the priests encouraged and supported it. To top it off, when the people observed their culture spiraling toward destruction, they pointed the finger of blame at their Lord: where is the God of justice? (Malachi 2:17) Malachi’s response is, essentially: “Oh, don’t you worry, he’s coming and you will meet him, face to face. Are you sure you’re ready for that?”
And Jesus did come. He came in a manger to bring salvation. And he’s coming again, this time to bring judgment. Are we ready? Are we at peace? The reality is that spiritual apathy and indifference is just as prevalent in 2018 as it was in 400 BC. We see evidence of spiritual apathy when we prioritize Christmas decorations and gifts over preparing our hearts with Word and Sacrament, when we present our offerings to God as if it is a chore and a burden rather than a joy and a privilege, when we use and abuse our spouses rather than cherish and treasure them as gifts from heaven. Apathy can be heard when we gripe about the obvious lovelessness and immorality in the world around us, and pretend as if those same sins don’t show up in our hearts and lives, and in the fact that even though God chose us in Baptism, guides us in his Word strengthens us with his Sacrament and gives us eternal life – we demand more, tangible, material evidence of his love – we demand he give us this earth too. We teach spiritual apathy to our children when we drop them off for Sunday school and then leave – as if learning the truths of Scripture is only for children.
Jesus is coming, the fire of his judgment will expose any and all apathy and indifference in your heart and mine: who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? Who of us could say we’re ready? What would you expect his response to be? “Tough, you knew I was coming, you know that I demand perfection not just your best effort, you had plenty of time to prepare – if you’re not ready, then get out of my sight and join the weeping and gnashing of teeth in hell.” That would only be fair. Thank the Lord that he is not fair. Instead of judgment, he promises to send a messenger – actually two – to prepare us: see, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the Lord Almighty.
The first is a clear reference to John the Baptist. (see Matthew 11:7-15; Mark 1:1-4; Luke 7:24-28) God sent him to prepare the hearts of Israel by preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Luke 3:3) John’s work and message are representative of the work of every single prophet, apostle, pastor and teacher God has ever sent. John preached undiluted law and unconditional Gospel. He called on everyone – from corrupt tax collectors and soldiers to outwardly pious religious leaders (Luke 3:7-15) – to repent – because he understood that it didn’t matter whether a person was wearing prison orange, their Sunday best, or a pastor’s gown – in God’s eyes we are filthy and unclean. (Isaiah 64:6) And then, he baptized all those who repented, announcing that their sins had been forgiven, fully and freely for the sake of Christ – no matter who they were or what they had done. John’s work then is every pastor’s work today: to proclaim Law and Gospel, repentance and the forgiveness of sins to all people.
The second stage cannot be carried out by any man, but only by one who is both God and man, the Lord you are seeking, Jesus Christ himself. 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 the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. I don’t think we mind throwing a load of clothes into the washer, but imagine being the clothing! That’s the picture: Jesus is the launderer – we are the clothing; he is the refiner – we are the silver. You don’t have to work in a laundromat or refinery to see that this stage of preparation is much more comprehensive, much more personal, and much more painful than a simple confession and absolution in church. Whether it’s self-righteousness, pride, an unhealthy attachment to this world, our trust in ourselves, our strength, our good works, despair or doubt or unbelief or apathy or indifference – it all needs to be removed if we are going to be ready to receive Jesus with peace rather than terror when he returns. Since this involves the death of the sinful nature that lives within all of us, this purifying is a painful, lifelong process. Jesus may use the soap of disappointment or disease or job loss to remind us just how weak and helpless we really are – and how much we need to rely on him. He may use the fire of tragedy or disaster or death to burn out of our lives things and people we love – but which stand in the way of faith. Over the course of a lifetime he may use the general misery of life in this world to convince us that this world is not going to get any better so that we long for our perfect home in heaven.
This may not seem like good news, it may not seem like a message of peace, but it is. It is proof of his love for us. Think of how a loving parent disciplines their child – bringing them short term pain for their long-term gain. Your Lord loves you too much to let you face Judgment unprepared. So he sends messengers like John to preach Law and Gospel, and he works behind the scenes in your life to refine and purify you to receive him as your Savior now so that you can have peace when he comes as Judge.
Of course, there is no true peace to be found merely in the fact that we sit and listen to a preacher shout Law and Gospel in our direction or that we groan under the pain of the Lord’s refining and purifying work in our lives. Because no matter how effective the preacher and the pain are, they cannot provide perfect cleansing; they cannot give us perfect peace. Sin is stitched so deeply into the fabric of our being that it cannot be removed by a million confessions or a lifetime of pain. As God drilled into the Israelites through his requirement of thousands of animal sacrifices, the process of removing sin calls for blood, it requires death. In his mercy, God spared us this part of the process and laid it on his own Son. True peace doesn’t come through what Jesus does to us, but what he has done for us. To see the fire it took to remove the impurity of your sin from your record, look at the cross, where Jesus hung, bleeding from head and hands and feet, enduring the blazing fire of God’s wrath for your sins and the sins of the world. To understand what it took to cleanse the stain of sin from your soul, see that soldier plunge his spear into the side of God’s lifeless Son, unleashing the blood (John 19:34) which purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:7) However humiliating it is to confess your sins, however much it hurts when Jesus cuts your ties to this dying world – know that you are not and never will suffer the punishment for your sins – Jesus already did that. Repentance and pain are how the Lord leads you to trust in him, purifies your faith in him!
And this process reaps real results here and now. Just as you don’t wash clothes simply for the sake of making them clean or refine ore simply for the sake of having a lump of pure gold or silver – you do it so that they become useful again – so God hasn’t saved us from destruction so that we could just sit around and wait for Jesus to arrive. Malachi concludes: Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. The Hebrew word for offering (mincah) doesn’t refer to a sin offering but rather a thank offering. Imagine that: God promises to humble us with repentance and make our lives painful and he expects us to thank him for it! Really? What else could we do? Even with our imperfect earthly parents, we (hopefully) eventually thank them for disciplining us, for causing us temporary pain to bring about long-term gain. How much more shouldn’t we thank God for the pain that leads to eternal life? How do we thank him for the gift of salvation? Through our offerings, our hymns of praise, our confession of faith, our attendance in worship and the time we set aside for daily devotion and prayer - yes. But it’s so much more than that. Having been purified by Jesus’ blood, our whole lives are living sacrifices (Romans 12:1) which are acceptable to the LORD. Your diligence at school and work, your love for your family and friends, your preparations for Christmas, whatever you will do when you leave here and when you wake up tomorrow – it’s all acceptable to the LORD because it comes from you: purified, prepared believers. You, dear friends in Christ, are the real results of the Lord’s purifying process.
Peace requires preparation. That’s how it works in this world – before any big day, party or gathering. That’s how it works when it comes preparing to receive Christ when he comes. We often make the mistake of viewing this life (or some part of it) as the “main event.” It’s not. Every moment of this life is preparation for the party to come. But even now, in the middle of this troubled life, we have peace – the peace God’s angels sang about on Christmas Eve. We know that in spite of the stains and impurities that are inherent in us, God has declared peace with us through Christ. We know that when Jesus returns or calls us home the trouble will be over once and for all – and we will experience perfect, permanent peace. And until then, we know that the Lord uses pain in our lives for our good, to lead us to believe him as our Savior today so that we can have peace when he comes as Judge. Thanks be to Jesus for this gift of peace. Amen.