In his salad days, Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf served as a draftee in the Yugoslavian army. But his hitch brought him no honor.
Mr. Volf mustered in with two strikes against him already on the board: He was married to American; worse yet, he was a Christian. Thus, the communist army suspected him a traitor, and Mr. Volf endured endless torment under the soul-crushing weight of false accusation. His time in the military was marked by brutal interrogations that left lasting impressions.
If the idea of evil and the desire for justice were merely vague, theoretical concepts before Mr. Volf served in the army, they became concrete reality by the time he mustered out and returned to civilian life. His book The End of Memory chronicles his efforts to practice and extend forgiveness whenever traumatic memories bubbled to the surface to stir recollection of being intentionally victimized – simply for being who he was: The husband of an American, and a disciple of Jesus Christ.
Extending forgiveness of another’s trespasses many times requires no heavy lifting. Your day isn’t ruined if someone accidentally steps on your foot in a crowded elevator and apologizes in typical Midwestern fashion with an “Ope, sorry.” Your response, “No worries,” feels less like merciful forgiveness and more so merely overlooking a literal misstep. Certain offenses are easily excused when the transgression is a mistake or a misunderstanding, or the result of poor judgment.
But other times, the wrongdoings you suffer are more sinister and cannot be brushed off so easily. Defrauding the elderly or trafficking in women and children is not a mistake. The casual disregard for human life on display during the days of slavery in the United States – or the second-class status that we for centuries have given to women and minorities – is not dismissible as a misunderstanding. The internment of Japanese-Americans and the reservation corralling of Native Americans cannot be written off to poor judgment.
Our timid and tame labels for sin – mistake, error, mishap, accident, and the like – all-too-often whitewash evil and injustice. And our Old Testament lesson from the prophet Malachi intends to reassure people facing malicious unfairness and hateful discrimination that better times lie ahead.
Malachi’s words might seem harsh to those who take justice for granted, but they are reassuring to those who are feeling the pain of injustice. The passage’s prediction of purifying fire turning evildoers into ashes generates fear for some, even as it reassures those who’ve long been crying out for the righting of chronic wrongs. God promises to deliver, and those suffering devastating unfairness will, one day, see their circumstances set right.
I now share with you the Word of the Lord. Listen as if your life depends on it – because it does.
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble.
The day that comes shall burn them up, says the LORD of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.
But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts.
Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse. (Malachi 4:1-6)
Life experience greatly affects your reaction to Malachi’s forecast.
If you’ve experienced the prompt administration of justice, and if you believe that people in positions of power and influence will behave well, then you likely have a bone to pick with Malachi. Because you bear no expectation of unfair treatment, no fear of persecution, and always assume that communication and compromise will triumph over disagreement and indifference.
Thus, in your heart and mind, God’s work of reclaiming Creation should be more like a “fine tuning” – a little nip and tuck here and there, rather than a drastic overhaul of the current world order. The comfort of your current situation leaves little room for anxious anticipation that the fullness of God’s Kingdom is on its way!
If that’s you, please remember that oppression and injustice are more common than many of us want to admit. Even if you’ve been treated fairly and justly most of your life, large segments of the community experience the complete opposite: Oppression and injustice as daily rule rather than exception. And if you’re among those who experience oppression and injustice firsthand, day in and day out, then Malachi’s indictment of wrongdoers is a breath of fresh air.
If you’ve endured mistreatment like that which Miroslav Volf experienced as a Yugoslavian soldier, then the image of a drastic overhaul brings the relief of vindication. If you’ve been the victim of oppression – or struggled with chronic illness, depression, poverty, bullying, or exploitation, then it surely seems like the world that allows such cruelty and harshness needs the kind of heavy overhaul that Malachi describes. To those who have been hurt, Malachi’s are words of mercy and hope that the Day of the Lord will set all things right.
The dawning of that Day of the Lord – the Dayspring of such new life – is close at hand. And in the miraculous birth of his son, who matures to become John the Baptist, Zechariah sees the first rays of Dayspring’s grace and mercy brilliantly lighting a path to repentance and the eventual flourishing of justice.
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
“Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel. (Luke 1:67-80)
Someone once said that visits always bring pleasure, because, even if the arrival of a certain visitor doesn’t make you happy, his or her departure will!
Maybe Santa Claus has the right idea: You should visit people only once a year.
Regarding a visit as welcome or unwelcome sometimes depends on who the visitor is. There are those whom you always enjoy seeing, and others whose visits you frankly could do without. But other times, your attitude of a given visit is colored not by the visitor but by your situation.
For instance, let’s suppose that we’re all in school. And one day, after school, your mother announces that the principal just called and will be stopping by after supper. What do you think about that?
Well, if you’re facing double-naught secret probation, because you did something you weren’t supposed to do at school that day, then Ms. Garin’s impending visit makes you very nervous very fast. But if you knew that you recently entered a national scholastic competition on behalf of your school, you might become very excited at the thought of perhaps you had won, and the principal is coming over to make the big announcement in person.
In both scenarios, the visitor is the same person, but your situation determines whether her visit will be lovely or ugly, bane or blessing.
Zechariah is singing about a divine visit of momentous proportion: A visit his son, John, the future fiery Baptist, will prepare the world to receive properly. The impending visit that the adult John will one day announce is packed tightly with grace – in the way that you might extend grace by visiting a shut-in or help a widow or orphan in distress. Yours is a healing kind of visit, motivated by an awareness that someone is hurting and God is calling you to help.
God in Jesus Christ visits this broken and fearful world with a deep-seated desire to help.
Problem is, you and I aren’t entirely ready to receive his visit properly and correctly. Because no matter how well-motivated a given visit might be, the person on the receiving end must be in the right frame of mind.
Now on one level, perhaps that’s a real yawner. But think about it: Of all the pre-holiday time that you spend preparing to pay visits to others or receive visits when guests ring your doorbell, when was the last time you thought of Jesus himself as a kind of visitor from the outside?
We devote long hours during Advent preparing for the visits of others: baking cookies, washing the sheets on the guest bed, purchasing presents for those out-of-town friends and relatives who’ll be dropping by. But how much thought, time, or energy do you devote to that one Visitor, without whom there would be no reason to deck the halls in the first place?
Maybe that still seems off-the-mark, because Jesus is no visitor. He resides and abides in your heart all the time. When your spouse comes home from work each evening, or the kids get off the school bus, you don’t see them as visitors, because they live in that house. So also with our Lord: For those of us who believe in him all the time anyway, it’s difficult to regard Jesus on a par with Aunt Maude from North Carolina who visits just once a year.
Fair enough, there is something to that line of thought. Nevertheless, let me suggest that seeing Jesus as a kind of holy Visitor just might help you cut through the layers of familiar holiday routine and thus return yourself to the core of Advent. Because too often we forget that the incarnation of God’s only Son is a kind of invasion of this world.
And when Jesus pays his ultimate return visit to this world – to those experiencing iniquity and to those inflicting iniquity, that dual meaning of “visit” is self-evident: Depending on who a given person is, and how he or she receives Jesus, the Lord’s visit could result in either great joy or intense sorrow.
Yet, over the centuries, even the Church has allowed the message of Advent to become mostly about joy at the expense of any talk of divine judgment and justice.
Indeed, talk of salvation fills Zechariah’s song, but the Good News nestles gently alongside muscular talk of punishment for God’s enemies – the ones who stand to lose their death grip on power and control and rather enjoy living on the dark side.
That’s why all four Gospels include John the Baptist and his blistering message of repentance. Two of the four Gospels make no mention of Jesus’s birth. But Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all recognize that no Gospel is complete without John the Baptist. You can skip Bethlehem, but you cannot bypass John. Because as Zechariah already realized when John was just 8 days old, God taps John as the necessary advance man to prepare the world to receive Jesus.
Jesus plants the mustard seed of the Kingdom into the soil of this world, as another preacher suggests, and John the Baptist is the one who’ll do the hard work of plowing the soil to prepare for planting. John is the one whose plow blade cuts deep into human hearts – the spiritual equivalent of a parched field where dirt had long ago hardened into something resembling concrete. Jesus is God’s divine Visitor to this world, and John is the one sent to prepare the way.
As with a visit from the school principal, so also with the visit of God’s Son: How you receive the visit depends heavily on your circumstances.
If you’re eager to hear the Good News that God’s tender mercies are available to forgive your sins, then you’ll be overjoyed at the Dayspring that arises from the lips of Christ. But if you don’t think you have a problem with sin, then the visit by the Son of God becomes merely an annoying waste of time.
What the world, and sadly also the Church, too often tries to celebrate is the arrival of God’s Son in our world but without letting John the Baptist come first and giving him his full due. None of us wants Christmas guests showing up at our homes before we’ve prepared for the visit by cleaning, baking, and decorating. Yet we seem quite willing at times to let Jesus visit us without first letting John the Baptist clean house for us as God sent him to do.
We know Jesus as Immanuel, God with Us.
We know him as Son of God, backed by the power and authority of heaven.
And we know him as Dayspring, the dawn of a new day – if we welcome his visit in the spirit of the Old Testament’s Malachi and allow him to cast out our sin, enter in, and be born again in us today.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, November 27, 2022, the third Sunday of Advent at First Presbyterian Church. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by R. Alan Culpepper, Scott Hoezee, Luke Timothy Johnson, Eileen M. Schuller, and Bill Sytsma inform the message.