Texts: Malachi 2:17-3:5; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
Philip and Herod were not much better. They were sons of Herod the Great, the bloodthirsty king of Judea. Due to political intrigue and his own paranoia, he ordered multiple executions, even within his own family. Augustus allegedly joked “it is better to be Herod’s pig than his son" (a pun in Greek: ‘better to be his hus than his huios’), because Herod was half Jewish and, as such, didn’t eat pork, so at least his pig would be safe. (Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2:4:11) Luke will later recount how this Herod, Herod Antipas, decapitated John the Baptist to protect his pride (Lk 3.19ff) and executed James the Apostle, brother of John and son of Zebedee, and arrested Peter with the intent of executing him (Acts 12).
Of course, not everyone hated Roman rule. In that part of the world especially, many people welcomed Rome’s leadership with open arms. They believed that the peace and prosperity brought by the empire were gifts from the gods. In fact, Luke even lists the Jewish high priests, Annas and Caiaphas, in the same breath as these kings and governors, suggesting that they are organs of the Empire as surely as Pilate or Herod; creatures of Tiberius who are less interested in God’s will than in supporting the emperor for their own gain. In the name of God, they secure the power of the emperor.
Just as those 1st century Judeans hoped for a better future, so do we. Like them, we make the same wearying complaints. There are many even now claiming that certain politicians or leaders are doing God’s work, in spite of their decidedly ungodly goals and methods; and many more who look around and say, “If God exists, why does he allow terrible things like this to happen?”
God’s response to such “wearying” accusations, according to both Malachi and Luke, is to roll up God’s sleeves and get to work setting things right. This is exactly what we want, exactly what we hope for, especially during Advent. We pray, “Stir up your power and come!” We long for the refining fire of God’s justice to burn away the violence, the hatred and the oppression of the world and leave a people who are pure and peaceful like God intends for us to be. We may even take delight in the idea of the Herods and Pilates and Tiberiuses of the world burning in the purifying fires of God’s wrath, a fitting treatment to those who mistreat and disregard the vulnerable.
That message is a powerful one, and one that has lodged in our imaginations for thousands of years. If God is just, then God will surely mete out justice upon the oppressors. That justice has taken the form in our imaginations of a place called Hell, a place of eternal, conscious torment for the wicked. The trouble is that, when we begin to consider who belongs in hell—that is, who is guilty of injustice—we begin to see that the line is fuzzy. While few of us have ever directly “oppressed the hired workers in their wages,” we all benefit from the cheap labor of workers overseas. None of us would ever “thrust aside the alien,” but how many of us have actively sought to give up our nice houses and safe neighborhoods to go live among the immigrants and the oppressed? Turns out, as Paul notes, “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Even as we wish to see the salvation of our God, Malachi and Luke warn us to be careful what we ask for: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” The implication is that if God is going to come down and address the problem of evil and injustice in the world, God is going to address all of it, including the evil and the injustice that we ourselves perpetrate. When God appears to save us from our enemies, God will also save our enemies from us. The message they bring is one of repentance: turn away from evil and injustice now so that when God does come—as God will at any moment—we will be rejoicing rather than writhing in the refiner’s fire along with Herod and Philip and Pilate. The prophets remind us that God is not on our side, but that we should make sure we are on God’s side.
That is why during Advent we not only focus on waiting for the LORD, but also on preparing for the LORD’s arrival. The prophecies of Malachi and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and John the Baptist invite us to live as though God has already come, to orient our hearts, our minds and our lives towards God and God’s way of justice and peace so that when it comes in its fullness, we will “escape all these things that will take place and stand before the Son of Man,” as we read last week.
Our purification can only come from God; we cannot save ourselves. As frightening or unpleasant as it may seem, we need God’s refining fire to purify us so that we may “present offerings to the LORD in righteousness.” We sinful people cannot teach ourselves not to sin. God and God alone has the ability to make us into the people—into the society—that God intends us to be. The refining fire with which God purifies us is Christ.
Like I said earlier, we sometimes take a certain gleeful schadenfreude in the thought of the painful purification of our enemies, but that same violent justice causes us to blanch in fear when we consider our own unworthiness before God. Who can abide the day of God’s coming? If God were to act decisively to wipe sin from the face of the earth, we would all be swept away.
Thankfully, God’s purification is far gentler, if no less decisive. Instead of destroying evil with a flood or burning away sin with an all-consuming fire, instead of tearing through the veil of heaven to rule as an omnipotent king, God enters our world as a peasant laborer, an itinerant rabbi, a tiny baby laid in feed trough. Rather than expecting us sinful creatures to stumble upon righteousness by ourselves, God comes to show us what justice is, to “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
Where is the God of justice? He is there, on the cross, leading us into a life of service to the world that is stronger than death. He is here in the bread and the wine, continually at work to turn our hearts toward the widow and the orphan and the alien. He is in, with, and under us as we try, and fail, and try again to be a community proclaiming the good news of God in Christ in word and deed and striving for peace and justice in all the earth. Where is the God of justice? He is already here—and he is about to arrive.
Now is his advent; now, here, in this place, at this time. Now, in the 2nd year of the presidency of Donald Trump, when Angela Merkel is Chancellor of Germany and Vladimir Putin is president of Russia and Xi Jinping is Premier of China, when Jay Inslee is Governor of Washington and Kit Kuhn is mayor of Gig Harbor. In these days, the word of the LORD is coming to us and saying: “Prepare the way of the LORD, and make his paths straight.”
The return of Christ is good news—for us and for all humanity; but that does not mean it will not come without change, without challenge and difficulty, without suffering and perhaps even death, but certainly also with resurrection and the renewal of all creation. In Christ, we are being purified, whether or not we want to be purified, for he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. Who can endure the day of his coming? He will purify the hearts of all humankind, blotting out sin and wiping away the tears it creates, so that all flesh shall see the salvation of God.