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Advent 2: Apprehension or Anticipation?

December 9, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2012. Be sure to read the accompanying Pastoral Prayer offered by The Rev. Sarah Henkel following the sermon.

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Malachi 3: 1-4          Luke 3: 1-6

OK, so Malachi is not exactly what we expect from scripture during Advent. Sure, God says: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way for me. The One whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.” That sounds fine, and it’s good news, right? “The messenger of the covenant, the one in whom we delight – he is on his way.” In fact, that’s great news! This is what the word advent means: ad-venire, he is coming. And then he utters that very-little / very-big word BUT: “But who can endure the day of his coming?” Now why is that? Because, Malachi tells us, “when he comes, he comes as fire to refine us, and fullers soap to purify us, so that we will be as we once were – pleasing to God.”

Wait, you mean we’re NOT pleasing to God?

Now it’s important right away to say that the subject of this text is not the individual standing before God. That’s a person we rarely meet in scripture. Rather, the text is addressed to a people who have been given responsibilities to and for one another’s welfare. It is covenantal, which means it is for all of us, together. And the text is addressed to those who are failing in their responsibilities to and for one another’s welfare. And because it is covenantal, that means all of us, together.

There are individuals who stand before God in scripture. There are, for example, the prophets as they are being called – Moses on the mountain, Isaiah in the temple, Jeremiah in his pit. But what the prophets confess when they stand alone before God is their complicity in the sins of their society, the violations of covenant justice with which they live, and their own failure or inability to stand clearly and purely apart from the institutional and cultural ills of their world. Moses killed a man. Who would listen to him? Isaiah served a religious institution that perpetuated illusions of military security. “Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips,” he says, “and I live among a nation of unclean lips.” Jeremiah found all religious language corrupt, yet the Word of God burned like fire within his bones until he spoke, and was inevitably misunderstood. Even as they call society to account, the prophets know they are not exempt from judgment.

So “who can endure the day of the covenant messenger’s coming?”

But our role, like the role of the prophets, is always to bear witness to a God who created us for, and will lead us again to, another way of being with and for one another, a way of life in which widows and orphans are protected, workers are paid fair wages, those in physical or spiritual bondage are set free, courts distribute justice, temples guarantees the distribution of goods, and life is spent in meaningful pursuits. We are to bear witness to and put in to practice covenant life, what Dietrich Bonhoeffer humbly called “life together” and Jesus simply called “the kingdom of God.” It is this for which we wait in Advent.

We need little reminder that we are a people still in waiting, that our world is not yet as God intends it to be, or that there is work for us to do. Simply look back at our past year of worship together. In 2012 alone our weekly reading of scripture has led us not only to explore some of the darker recesses of the human heart, our pride, arrogance and presumption, our fear, greed and deceit, our harsh words toward one another and our hard hearts protected from one another, but we have also regularly named our violations of the common good. We have spoken of our addiction to violence, particularly our epidemic of handgun violence and militarism; we have confronted religious hatred and bigotry, particularly that directed against our Muslim neighbors and Muslim institutions; we have lifted up economic inequality, insecurity, injustice, as well as modern day slavery and child labor – demonstrating in front of our local grocery stores alongside farmworkers from Florida; we have written letters and signed petitions and mailed postcards about the persistence of hunger in our society and called upon our congress and county to set appropriate budget priorities that respect the most vulnerable among us and respect food sovereignty abroad; we have begun to address the carelessness with which we live upon the earth, and our complicity in abusing and wasting our resources (here in our own building we have turned down our thermostats and fixed some steam valves and shaved $10,000 off our annual fuel bill); we have importantly broken the silence around sexual and gender-based violence.

These reflect sins and broken places in our world, and each one affects us personally to the core of who we are, and how we live in and respond to the world. We do not escape them and are not free of them just because we can name them, confront them, and resist them. The Word of God through the prophet Malachi on the second Sunday of Advent is that the messenger of God’s covenant is coming. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who stand when he appears? We are not ready, but desperately in need of help.

As I said, this is not the message we usually expect from scripture during Advent. When we think of Advent we usually think shepherds and angels, Mary and Joseph, the expectant Elizabeth whose child leaps in her womb, or old Simeon, whose eyes had seen the promises of God coming true and who can now depart in peace. The hopes and fears of all the years – finally fulfilled. In other words, we expect something more like the children’s message. We want to hear the promise of one who is coming to fulfill our expectations. But Malachi suggests that on the day when God’s chosen one comes, the question will be: have we met all of his expectations?

For Malachi, the last of the prophets, the coming day of the Lord is less an occasion for anticipation than it is one of apprehension.[1] It is a day of judgment. And “who can endure that day?”

But for Malachi this is also good news. Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright has said “judgment is the form God’s mercy takes when confronted with a world out of joint.”[2] Sometimes judgment is a word that we need to recall us to our responsibilities, correct our behavior, reengage us with systemic injustice, urge us to right wrongs, redistribute goods, commit ourselves again to the covenant, our common life, the kingdom vision. This passage in Malachi is not ultimately one of condemnation but a call for transformation. God’s purifying and refining of our common life is to change us so that on that day he calls “the Day of the Lord” we can stand with our head held high.

Do you remember that passage from the gospel reading last week? Speaking to his disciples, Jesus said there would be signs and portents [of judgment] in the sky, on the earth and in the seas. But when these things take place, we are to “stand up and raise our heads, because our redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:25-28). Like we said in our assurance of pardon this morning, “Who is in a position to condemn us? Only Christ, and Christ died for us, Christ rose for us, Christ Reigns in power for us, and Christ prays for us.” With the confidence of the children of God, heads held high, we are to be led forward by the vision of God’s coming kingdom of peace, God’s covenant relations of justice, God’s promise of abundant life, and to work with all people to see it a reality.

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Tomorrow, December 10th, is Human Rights Day, an annual reminder that we have “a global agreement, a global declaration, that affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, and that there is still so much work to be done to make this declaration a reality.” Human Rights Day is a reminder that “millions of people around the globe live in unbearable cycles of waiting, waiting for water and food, waiting for shelter and a place to call home, waiting for an end to daily emotional and physical violence, waiting for just a taste of God’s promise of justice.” Human Rights Day may also be a reminder that the “great vision and hope that the creators of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had for a more just and humane world” is not unrelated to the visions and hopes of this season.[3]

Especially during Advent, Christians “are called to be in the world and to call the world to better account.”[4] We not only have a word of judgment to issue, we have a covenant-kingdom life of peace and justice to bear witness to and work toward. It is for this reason that Christ is coming.

May the voice of one crying out in the wilderness become in us a joyful chorus and a way of life: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”


[1] Anticipation vs. Apprehension is borrowed from Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV, Year C, edited by Cousar, Gaventa, McCann and Newsome. (WJK/1994).

[2] Wright was cited the previous week in our sermon for Advent 1: Signs and Portents.

[3] The quotations from this paragraph are from Christine Marie Smith’s commentary for the Holy Day of Justice: Human Rights Day” in Preaching God’s Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year C, Featuring 22 New Holy Days of Justice, edited by Dale Andrews, et. al. (WJK, 2012). Follow it on facebook.

[4] The phrase is that of Leslie Woods, Associate for Domestic Poverty and Environmental Issues, Presbyterian Washington Office, in her Advent letter to our churches, “Advent Expectation and the Fiscal Cliff.”

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