- Malachi 3.1-4
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
Advent, of course, is a time of looking forward to the coming of Christ, both his coming at Christmas and his coming again at the end of time. And today our focus is on the prophets who prepare us for his coming. It’s hard to modern eyes to understand that one of the things the Jewish people most longed for in prophecies of their coming Messiah was that it would be “the Day of the Lord” when God would shake the earth and judge the nations in fire and fury. To our ears that can sound terrible, but if you belong to a people whose history stretches from slavery in Egypt through Exile in Babylon to the Holocaust, treated with oppression and contempt throughout their generations, the idea that that order of things would one day be reversed, that they would be held up before those who had misjudged them and vindicated by God himself, was a great comfort to them.
But just as they got to grips with the belief that God would vindicate them, another, less comfortable strand of prophecy came through: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” “Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord – for you it will be darkness, not light.” It’s all very well to long for justice, but can you stand when justice comes? It’s all very well to be so sharply aware of how badly you are treated, but do you not see that you treat others just as badly? To desire judgment on others, is to desire judgment upon yourself.
Now all of this stands in sharp distinction to the society we live in which has largely dismissed any notion of divine judgment. The modern ethic is personal choice without Judgment. No-one has any right to question my choices, let alone to disapprove of them. And yet, I think that therein lies the root of our deep insecurity and anxiety which is evident at every level of our society. If we lose any sense of a reality beyond ourselves pronouncing judgment on our lives, how do we know if we’ve done well? How do we know if we’re worth anything? And how can we be loved? Because to be loved requires us to be judged by another, weighing of our values, our characters and the way we live.
And that judgment is something the prophets continually hold before our eyes. But, it is worth remembering that prophetic call to repentance in the Old Testament is fundamentally about the rejection of idols. The Jewish God is above and beyond anything in this world, the creator of it all. The Biblical faith is a continual call to stop worshipping things of our own creating and instead worship the creator. Over and over in the Old Testament the people of Israel fall prey to the temptation to worship idols (if you read Exodus it happens with almost comical regularity). But the trouble with idols is that they are merely creations of our own. They cannot say anything to us that we would not say to ourselves. That may be comforting in the short term, but it doesn’t address the lurking fear and anxiety we all have about whether we really are worth anything. Just because L’Oréal tells me I’m worth it, doesn’t mean I am.
And though we might not set up idols in quite the same way, the same temptation besets us too – the temptation to worship things of our own creating. The trend in spirituality is to fashion our own faith, to find our own way, to make gods of our own to worship. But that is simply a new way to create an idol, a god who will only say what we ourselves would say.
And secularism is particularly susceptible to the worship of idols, the worship of our own ideas. The shadow chancellor said last week that he could never be friends with a Tory. His own political philosophy, his own internal worldview, has become such an object of worship for him that he must judge and dismiss those who don’t agree with him. And in this he simply reflects our wider culture.
For many, public opinion is the only judgment to which they will submit. Whether it is obsessively seeking ‘likes’ on social media, or anxiously making sure we are politically correct, if we fall in with public opinion, we know we will be approved of. And (best of all) I can have the pleasure of unleashing my righteous indignation on anyone who steps out of line.
And yet chasing public opinion for our sense of self-worth is like chasing shadows, something ever shifting and impossible to pin down. We see that at the moment as our politicians try to make sense of Brexit. The referendum told us that public opinion was to leave, but now that we try to pin that down into a precise plan, we find that public opinion is so shadowy that no-one really knows what it is, let alone what it will be in five minutes’ time.
These things are all small symptoms of a greater problem: the closing of our ears to God’s voice, the unwillingness to be challenged by his prophetic call and the loss of our ability to hear anything beyond our own self-created worldview. It’s something I see rampant in our society today and it even affects the church – that tendency to take offence and condemn. But if we place our own need to be right above our God-given duty to love and care for our brother or sister, above the sanctity of each human soul, that is idolatry.
The call of the prophets is to see all that idolatry for what it is. Human opinion will never save us or absolve us because if we take God’s judgment out of the equation, we can only judge ourselves kindly by condemning those around us, by belittling others to distract attention from how small we feel. So if that is the judgment we look to for our value, we will only ever find ourselves condemned.
Only God can judge us, because only God can speak to us the absolute truth: that we are loved and valued, but also that we are sinful and need to repent. God can judge us without hint of condemnation because he alone does not need to belittle us to magnify himself, he alone does not need to condemn us to justify himself. Only God’s judgment comes to us as good news, confirming that despite our failures, we are loved, we are valued, that things will work out, and that we need not fear.
So this Advent, perhaps we can cast away the idols and listen afresh to God as we wait for his coming. Because then Judgment can be good news for us. It can be for us the assurance that God himself will show that we have been misjudged by the world and that the world’s judgment of us is null and void. And that in turn will release us truly to love God and our neighbour. Because God’s judgment sets us free from the addiction to our neighbour’s opinion of ourselves, the need to be well-thought and the need to take offence when they do judge us, because we know that they are not competent to judge us in the first place. They are just as lost as we are. And that in turn sets us free from our own self-righteous thoughts that tempt us to condemn our neighbour and instead allows us to be re-created by God’s Word, renewing our minds, changing the way we look at ourselves and each other, so that when God comes to judge us, we are found to be his children, and meet not as enemies, but as brothers and sisters.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Preached: – Clifton (joint) 9 December 2018, second Sunday of Advent