Malachi 2:17-3:4; Luke 3:1-6
2nd Sun of Advent
St Barbara’s 09.12.18
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Over the next three Sundays, during this season of Advent, we will be listening to the words of three Old Testament prophets who looked forward to the coming of the Lord: Next week Zephaniah; in a fortnight’s time, Micah; and today, Malachi.
When was the last time you heard someone shout out “its not fair!” or words to that effect. If you spend time with children, the chances are that you will have heard those words quite recently. Children have an attuned sense of justice, especially when the scales of injustice seem to be tipped against them. But we hear it a lot in adult conversation too.
Whether its in the workplace – “why do they always seem to be able to clock off early… get the promotion… get the plum project” or in sport – “we would have won that match had it not been for the referee…” or in politics – “its not right that we aren’t getting the Brexit we voted for… it’s not right that we are getting the Brexit we voted for”, we keenly feel matters of justice, especially when the injustice is weighted against us.
Well, the people of Jerusalem, 500-600 hundred years before Christ, were feeling a sense of injustice themselves. They had been back in their home city 100 years after they had returned from exile in Babylon. 100 years was plenty of time one would have thought for all God’s promises through his prophets to have been fulfilled – promises of a restored and magnificent Jerusalem to which all the nations of the world would flock, a city of harmony and prosperity for all. Instead there was poverty and oppression, the wealthy few getting richer while the poor majority got poorer.
And so they cried out for justice.
Crying out for justice is a good thing. I remember my time living in the black township of Soweto during the last few years of apartheid. In the midst of such evident and tangible injustice – the deliberate impoverishment of whole communities, the abuse of rights, the state-supported massacre of civilians – people cried out for justice. (I remember how one night on the neighbouring street to where I lived the police escorted a band of thugs to run amok with machetes and rifles killing men, women and children in their beds, before being escorted back to their base. No arrests. No police reports. Nothing.)
My friends there cried out for justice, yearned for it, longed for it. For a day when wrongs would no longer be brushed under the carpet, but would be brought out in to the light, confronted, and put right. In essence, what they longed for was the day of the Lord, the return of God to put things right. It is one of the great Advent themes – longing for the return of Christ to bring justice to the world. And many communities around our world suffering persecution, oppression, abuse, long for it.
And we should too. To cry out with the Psalmist: “How long, O Lord, how long, before your justice comes?” In this world where communication and access to information is easier than perhaps ever before, we have less excuse for not knowing what is going on. It is less of an excuse to say: “I didn’t know”. Our God who we worship has already been this morning amongst the Rohingya people suffering genocide in Myanmar, amongst the Pakistani Christians fearing for their lives because of religious persecution, amongst the starving in Yemen, the refugees of Syria, the child soldiers in Sudan, the rape victims of the Congo. Will we join him? Will we in our prayers and in our actions call out for justice, for love and compassion?
But our reading in Malachi also warns us: be careful what you ask for.
The people of Jerusalem were not living pure, spotless lives. They themselves were perpetrators of injustice, they themselves were living lives far removed from God. Elsewhere in his prophecy, Malachi lambasts the men of Jerusalem who so easily divorce their wives, leaving them destitute and impoverished. He criticises their offerings at the Temple, which are half-hearted and stingy, getting by with the bare minimum whilst retaining as much of their wealth for themselves as possible.
If you ask for justice, Malachi says, that will be applied to you too. A light will be shone on your life. Are you ready for that?
I remember how some people in Soweto reacted in horror when they discovered that in the post-apartheid South Africa a consequence of the new order of justice and fairness was that some of their lifestyles had to change too. That what had been appropriate acts of the struggle – boycotting the payment of utility bills, for example – was no longer appropriate. Justice meant change for them too.
Malachi puts it in vivid terms: “Who can endure the day of the Lord’s coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.” Those of you of a certain generation may remember having to wash all your clothes by hand. I tried to do it a number of times when living in Africa but had to give up – the scrubbing wore all the skin off my knuckles. But to get clothes truly clean, as some of you know, requires vigorous scrubbing, pounding. It is not a gentle or painless process. Or think about your hands after you have been working on the lawnmower or the car engine and your hands are covered in oil. To get your hands properly clean, requires scrubbing until your hands are sore.
For all of us, we have ingrained dirt that needs to be scrubbed away. When we pray for God’s justice to come, we are praying that we also will be made just, that we will be made clean, and for each one of us, that can be a long and painful process. It is why another theme of Advent is getting ourselves ready, being prepared – as we pray: “watching, waiting, help us to be ready for you Jesus”.
This is the time to join in with the Psalmist, to pray: “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wickedness in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (Psalm 139:23). We long for justice; we confess our sin and ask God to help us scour us of the injustice in our own lives.
And we look forward with hope to the future. At the end of Malachi’s prophecy, he speaks of the day of the Lord not just being a day of cleansing but a day of joy: “The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.” After years weighed down by the weight of sin and injustice, we will be free to truly rejoice, to skip like calves, to jump like lambs, to tear round the playground like young children suddenly released after a long day inside.
I remember catching just a glimpse of that the day Nelson Mandela became President of the new democratic, post-apartheid South Africa. People were pinching themselves – has this really happened? There were street celebrations for days. People were smiling and honking their horns at strangers. Flags were being waved by every passing car. There was an overwhelming sense of hope and joy and celebration. Of course, South Africa’s challenges and struggles continue, and it didn’t take long for the joy and euphoria to subside, but on that day, there was the tiniest of glimpses of what Christ’s return could be like. A day when hope will triumph, a day when injustice will be no more, a day when suffering will end, a day of peace and joy.
In two weeks time we celebrate the birth of Christ, the birth that the angels in heaven celebrated with the words: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to all on whom his favour rests.” As we prepare to celebrate in two weeks’ time, let us also look forward to that day to come when Christ will come again, in glory, to bring justice fully to his world.
May we hunger for justice; be willing to change ourselves; and long for Christ’s return.
Come, Lord Jesus.