Nov 22: Behold He Comes…Malachi 4:1-6, Luke 1:14-17
It was around the late 4th Century BCE. Judah had returned from Babylonian captivity, rebuilt their city, reestablished a covenant with Yahweh, and quickly returned to their old ways. The old ways that contributed to their exile into Babylon such as social injustice, oppression, idolatry, and cheating God were once again common practices. Even though God had led Cyrus to free the Jews to return to Judah and rebuild their fallen city (Is 45), they quickly forgot that Yahweh called for loyalty, devotion, and sacrifice. Their behavior once again exhibited a rebellious and discontent people:
- Mal 1:6 A son honors his father—where is my honor?
- Mal 1:7 You have put nasty food on my altar
- Mal 1:10 O that one of you would shut the temple doors so you would not light useless fires on my altar…
- Mal 2:11 Judah has broken faith (been unfaithful)
- Mal 2:17 You have said all who do evil are good, and all who do good are evil
- Mal 3:5 …those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and those without a father, and deprived immigrants of justice and do not fear me…
While not in exile, the culture was returning to their previous actions. Maybe living in exile was so imprinted on their minds and hearts that restoring a relationship with the creator of the universe seemed difficult. Maybe the leadership had developed skills while in another country and used them, along with their worship to other gods, to benefit the nations. Either way, the nation was once again in exile—but a local exile. Injustice occurred regularly, people sought other gods to serve, and worship to Yahweh seemed a joke, fake, or a show. There was nothing noble or sacred about offering a sick or crippled animal to God—the author of life. Those who were called to lead, only manipulated and extorted others.
It seems similar today, doesn’t it? This is the season for giving, mercy, love, hope, and faith. While I love the holiday season, I noticed that the trees, lights, music, and commercials began a little earlier this season. Did you notice it too? As soon as Halloween was over, we were plunged into Christmas. Lori has always said, “I like Christmas during Christmas season, but there is still another holiday to go.” It brings up a good point. What happened to Thanksgiving?
The marketers have all stood back for 10 months waiting patiently to pounce on us and flood our minds with the message that “more stuff saves…” Instead of seeing this holiday season as “Jesus saves…” we believe that Black Friday will save us from certain doom. Yet these are the times in which we live. While the holiday season continues to be a battle between gifts and grace, consumerism and Christ, or materials and the Messiah; it is only a reflection of our culture.
Politically we see this struggle as well. We are now in a time when opening our borders to refugees has become dangerous (or that’s what people are saying). Our president is calling us to be hospitable, open our hearts and lives to those who are oppressed, and practice grace—even though it may cost us. Our vulnerability has driven us to fear. Some point the finger at the homeless, who have been neglected, and claim we need to care for them first. Others point the finger at our children and claim we need to protect them. Some suggest that if we are vulnerable we will be exploited. Others indicate that this is a time for us to look within and heal. The name of Jesus, the true refugee, law of God, Gospel, and faith are many times not even mentioned. We have lived in a culture that has lamented that we have expelled God, and now God is rarely consulted.
Modern authors are writing that USAmericans, and Canadians, live in a time when the church has lost its influence.
It is almost universally agreed on that the church in the Western world is in decline. After having played a central role in the development of Western culture, the church now finds itself on the sidelines, wondering how it can make a valid contribution to society. My own perspective on this is rooted in my experience as a Christian and a church leader in Canada. While Canada has a distinct story in terms of its move into post-Christendom, and the Canadian church has its own story of marginalization as a result, the experience of responding to this reality may prove informative to Christians in other contexts, in particular the United States, who are “behind” Canada in terms of their cultural experience of exile but who are clearly moving in that direction.
There was a time when the church’s place in society was central to the culture, and it may have been hard to imagine things any other way.
This is the reality of life in the post-Christian era. While the church once helped define various forms of empire in the Western world, its influence has abated, and there is within contemporary culture a deconstruction of former beliefs, patterns of life and conventions that defined the world for many generations but no longer do.
Lee Beach, The Church in Exile
North American Christian churches are increasingly marginalized, so much so that in our urban areas they represent a minority movement. It is by now a truism to speak of North America as a mission field. Our concern is the way that the Christian churches are responding to this challenge.
Darrel Guder, The Missional Church
We, like the people of old, live in a time that seems to have forgotten that God Bless America was a request, not a curse. It was not an old cliché meant to be ignored as part of our ancient and outdated past—it is a plea for God to return and live among us. For many, the desire to return to the “Good Old Days” is not a negative view of modern life, but a longing for the past to return. As David Carr once wrote concerning the Jewish captives, “I propose, like many forced-migrants after them, they lived in a memorialized past, filled with ‘still life images refusing to yield.’” To live in the past, rather than face the future—is a coping mechanism for those facing the reality of exile.
However, the solution is not always to return to what once was, but create what shall be.
“The Christian movement must be the living, breathing promise to society that it is possible to live out the values of Christ—that is, to be a radical, troubling alternative to the power imbalances in the empire. In a world of greed and consumerism, the church ought to be a community of generosity and selflessness. In a host empire that is committed to marginalizing the poor, resisting the place of women, causing suffering to the disenfranchised, the Christian community must be generous to a fault, pursuant of justice, flushed with mercy.”
Michael Frost, Exiles
Rather than succumbing to the challenges of our own exile, we can choose to take another approach altogether and seek the road of a church renaissance, attempting to bring renewal. This effort may in fact be aided by our current cultural reality of living on the social margins, just like Second Temple Jews and first-century Christians did.
Lee Beach, The Church in Exile
This is the Christmas story.
In Malachi the prophet (Malachi is Hebrew for “my messenger”) called the people to return to their God, stop practicing their injustice, and show Yahweh devotion. Why? Because God was coming. God was going to visit, God was going to see them, and God was dropping by the house for coffee. Get everything ready—here comes Yahweh. The text was both a warning and an invite, “Remember the Torah of Moses my servant…”
Did you catch the phrase? The messenger Elijah (a great prophet from the book of Kings) was going to preach and prepare people for a visit. What should they do? How should they get ready? Just as children wait eagerly for Santa and put out cookies and milk for Saint Nick (and carrots for the reindeer), so the people were to get ready for God. As children eagerly anticipate Santa’s world tour and entrance by a descent down the chimney (or under the front door), so the people were to wait for God’s return. No gifts, no cookies, no milk, and certainly no carrots. This was a time to be prepared and plan for the return.
However, Malachi prepared the people with their instructions. You prepare in this way:
- Remember the Torah of Moses, the servant of Yahweh
- Fathers/parents repent to your children
- Children repent to your parents
- Do this so that I don’t strike the land with a curse
Did you notice this text? How do the people prepare for God’s coming. It was simple, the Bible boiled down into two statements. Follow the law of God and families turn to each other. Two simple commands—love God, and families be good to each other. Are these two commands on our hearts this time of year? Love Jesus, the reason for the season, and love families…seems pretty easy. Or is the theme of the season love things and give enormous gifts to kids to make them happy?
It is interesting when one reads the Greek translation of the passage: “…to turn the father’s to the suns and a man’s heart to his neighbor.” I can think of no more stronger application to this text today than the issue of the refugee crisis. What will prevent God from cursing the land? Parents repenting to their children, and adults turning their hearts to their neighbors. The lawyer who tried to test Jesus by asking “Who is my neighbor?” was told a story about a Samaritan (who were considered rebellious infidels by the Jews) who risked his life to take in a stranger who was hurt and in need. It is interesting to me that the Jewish people translated this text differently in their Greek version. The Greeks were aliens to them, yet the Jews understood that God would bless the land that opened its heart and doors to neighbors, aliens, and those who were different. Today, it is imperative that we prepare for the coming of Jesus in our families and community. We do not try to return to the good old days—we reestablish who we are, and create new possibilities in our world. As Alain Weaver wrote, ““The exile thus represents, not a disruption in God’s plans for his people, but rather an opportunity to return to radical dependence on God.”
This is the Christmas story.
I remember years ago when we originally joined the Advent Conspiracy campaign. Imago Dei, one of the authors of this great ministry, walked ministers and churches through introducing this to churches. Many faced resistance. Many struggled to get members on board. Many shared that it was important to emphasize “giving one gift less” rather than abandoning Christmas altogether. It was evident, we needed to move slowly.
When we introduced this at Agape it took off. Remember we did the Homeless Partners and provided gifts for many people on the streets, and sent money to an orphanage in Ghana. You embraced this and we collected more than we had estimated. No one resisted.
Since then we have built numerous water wells, and helped countless women leave prostitution and survive domestic violence. Agape has never balked at giving one gift less. However, this year I want to challenge you in something different. I want to ask you if you have made preparations for God’s coming. I know you can give money, and I know you can sacrifice, and I know you can give one gift less. I have no doubt that our kids at Agape know that Christmas is a time to give life and peace to others.
However, I am wondering if you are prepared for Jesus? He not only came, we celebrate that he comes every year!
Luke’s Gospel shares that Zechariah the priest was told that his wife would become pregnant and that they would have a son. They both were well past the child bearing years, yet the angel heard Zechariah and Elizabeth’s prayer. Even though they were old they were intimate and continued to pray for a baby. Imagine that John was born to a family where mom and dad not only loved each other, but they wanted him. Yet the angel told Zechariah that his son would be great, would lead the people of Israel back to God and would:
“Turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous.”
We now have a third translation of this text. The prophet Elijah/John would prepare people by turning back the disobedient. The text has moved from children obeying parents, to loving neighbors, to the disobedient listening to the wisdom of the righteousness. In these texts preparation for the Messiah involved “the little people” learning to be respectful. However, what is even more interesting is that the verse that is consistent in all three texts is “To turn the hearts of the parents to the children…”
Preparing for the Messiah began with the parents, the fathers, the leaders, the ones called to love their kids, their neighbors, and provide wisdom for others in this world. In the midst of a culture teaching us to prepare for “Christ Mass” by saving, buying, spending, and making lists—can we try to add something else to our responsibilities? Actually, can I ask you to put something on the top of that list?
Parents, adults, wise ones—can we be a people who remember God’s law? Can we be a people who turn our hearts to our children and the vulnerable ones? Can we guide them this holiday season to grow in a relationship with Jesus?
- Can this time of year be a season of sharing, giving, and caring for others? Then can we carry that into the new year?
- Can this be a time when we lead the way in giving for a cause of domestic abuse and fresh water in India?
- Can we talk about preparing to meet Jesus by turning our hearts to God? If we need to be baptized to become a disciple of Jesus, can we model that with children? Can we show our children, and the children of others, that being a follower of Jesus is adult, mature, courageous, and awesome?
- Can we encourage our children to learn to give to a cause, this season that they will remember? When January 1 comes and they are tired of their gifts, or one of them is broken, will they remember that children in India have clean water? Will they remember that children whose father hurts them and their mother is no longer in the home?
This is a time to reflect on my walk with God and family. This is a time to prepare for the coming of the Messiah. This is a time to remember the Torah of God and guide others to also experience Jesus.
This is the Christmas Story in a New Age!