In a Nutshell…
Read the passage here.
Last week we began our advent reflections by considering how desperately the world needs Jesus. It’s hard to miss when we take a look around, pay attention to the news, or pay attention to those in our own circle who are struggling and suffering. Many of us today are struggling or suffering as well, in both small and big ways. Some days, there’s an overwhelming sense that this is simply not the way it’s supposed to be.
But this is not to say that everything in the world is completely as bad as it could possibly be. Even within this broken and sinful world, God’s revelation is still everywhere. Now that’s not to say that God is in everything. That is, God is not in every rock and flower and lake and mountain. But if we pay attention, God’s revelation can be seen in all of creation. This is what we call general revelation. Typically, we refer to Romans 1:20 as an example of what is meant:
20For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
Special revelation is the term we use when God reveals Himself to us. When we talk about special revelation, we’re talking about scripture, primarily, and we’re also talking about the conversations that God has with human beings – those recorded in scripture such as his revelations to Noah, Abraham, and Jacob – prophecies, again which are recorded in scripture. And primarily, we are talking about Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ – God, the second person in the Trinity, becoming human – is the fullest revelation of God.
Now, today is not the day to get into the distinctions between general and special revelation, but it’s because of special revelation that we have a promise. It’s because of Jesus Christ, and because of God’s purposes for a fallen creation which are fulfilled in Jesus Christ, that we are a people of promise. In other words, as we talked about last week, that sinfulness and that brokenness that we find in the world and in our lives, is not the end of the story. Because we are a people of promise.
Our passage today is from Malachi, the last book of the Old Testament. Malachi is a short book and, like most of the prophets, the main message of the book has to do with calling the people of Israel back to God. The passage opens with the promise that the Lord will return to his temple. However, the thematic center of this verse is the Lord returning to His temple. That the kingdom will be restored as the King takes His rightful place on the throne of creation. In other words, this passage reminds us of the promise that we talked about last week. It’s a reminder to the people of Israel that, even though things are not yet as they are supposed to be, God’s promise will be fulfilled. God’s intentions to redeem and restore creation will not fail.
However, that’s not all that this passage says. It also contains a warning, of sorts. It tells Israel, and it tells us, that the coming of the Lord is not just all roses and sunshine (so to speak). Rather, the passage tells us quite starkly that involves purification and cleansing. It tells us that, in the face of a holy God, sin and a sinful people simply cannot stand.
And in particular, it tells us that this purification and cleansing are for Israel herself. “He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.” The Levites, you will remember from reading Exodus and Leviticus, are the priestly class in Israel. They had the responsibility for taking care of the temple and the sacrifices. They were priests. And remember, priests mediated on behalf of the people to God. And also remember that, though Levites served a particular function in Israel, the entire nation was called to be a kingdom of priests – as we are today as the people of God through Jesus Christ.
So when God says that the Levites will be refined like gold and silver, He is in some way speaking of all of Israel, not just the priesthood. When the Lord comes to His kingdom, the people of Israel, the people of God will be restored from their brokenness, their sinfulness, and be the people that they were meant to be.
Now the reason that I highlight this is because in the last several years, I think that the notion of Christmas being a Christian holiday has come under attack. And let me say, first of all, that I think that’s okay. Because the reality is that, for a lot of people, Christmas has very little to do with Christ. So even though we’re using the same word, “Christmas,” we’re not always talking about the same thing. In other words, In my personal opinion, I don’t think it should be a big deal whether people say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.”
What should be a big deal is whether or not we know Jesus. And what should be a big deal for Christians is whether or not we are pointing people to Jesus and living the way that Jesus intended for us to live. I think that the problem is that, oftentimes, we Christians are (or at least are perceived as) more interested in pointing people to “Christianity” than we are in pointing people to Jesus.
When I was in university, there was a group on campus called the Church of Christ. There’s a lot of groups and churches that go by this name – this one was distinguished by being part of what was called the Boston Movement. I had been attending my church at the time for a few years (I don’t remember the exact timing) and I had been heavily involved with the youth ministry and the college and career ministry. While I was at UBC, I met a fellow from the Church of Christ who wanted me to visit his church. He was really insistent on it. We talked a lot about his church. We talked a little about my church also, but we mostly talked about his church. Eventually, I asked him why he was so insistent that I attend his church as opposed to my church. And after a fair amount of arm twisting, he admitted that he thought anyone who didn’t go to his church wasn’t a true Christian. I told him that I had no intention of leaving my church and I never heard from him again.
Now I’m not suggesting that this is a normal thing for Christians (of any stripe or denomination) to do – in fact, some Christian groups labeled the Church of Christ/Boston Movement as a cult. What I am suggesting is that sometimes it appears – and sometimes it is true – that we are more interested in getting people to join a group, to join a club, or to join a religion (that is defined by adherence to rules, guidelines, dress codes, codes of conduct or whatever) than we are in introducing people to Jesus. I think this is what Jesus so frequently talked about in the gospels when he was speaking to the religious leaders and to the Pharisees. And I think this is what is being pointed out in Malachi when it talks about the Levites needing to be purified.
Now I’m also not saying that Christianity is not true. And I’m not saying that Jesus is not the way, the truth, and the life, and that no person can come to the Father except through him. What I am saying is that it’s really easy for us to lose sight of Jesus. And it’s really easy for us to lose sight of the fact that Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life. And if people want to find a way out of the brokenness, if we want to find hope in the midst of our sinfulness, we need to help them, not to join Grace Community Church, for example, but we need to help them know Jesus.
I tend to think that this is where the Israelites mostly went wrong. It’s a lot more complicated than that, and there’s a lot more involved. But the Israelites found their identity in being the people of God – the nation of God. And when they settled in Canaan and conquered all their enemies, I think they got pretty comfortable in that. They saw their neighbours all around them and decided they wanted a king, just like everyone else, because they wanted to establish their position in the world. They didn’t want to be looked down upon; they wanted to be taken seriously. And I think they got caught up in the nation part and forgot, mostly, about the of God
And because they were so focussed on the nation part, they did all the things that they thought nations were supposed to do and tried to accumulate all the things that they were supposed to have. And pretty soon, they were more concerned about the doing and the having that they forgot what it was all supposed to be for. They forgot who they were supposed to be and who they were supposed to live for.
I think what I’m trying to say is that we can get so caught up in trying to be a “church’ and trying to be “Christians,” with all the things we’re supposed to do and all the things we’re supposed to get, that pretty soon there’s not much room left for God. And to be perfectly honest, this is perfectly normal. It’s normal because, though Jesus has come to establish His kingdom, and though our sins are forgiven, until He comes again, we are still sinners. Until He comes to fully restore and fully redeem us, we are still broken.
The good news is, and this is what Malachi tells us, is that this too will be restored. That all of our broken and selfish attempts to “do Christianity,” all of the hypocrisy that the world rightfully points out, all of the times we have pushed people further away instead of drawing them closer in, all this too will be redeemed. So when Malachi tells us,
2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.
It is judgment, but it’s also promise. It’s hope realized. Because when Christ comes, and when He comes again, it’s not to ratify our religion; it’s not to prove that “we were right along.” When Jesus comes, it is to make right, to make perfect all that is wrong with the world and restore to the world love, joy, peace on earth, and goodwill towards all humankind.
So What Now…?
So Christmas is about the kingdom of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. And it’s about His kingdom come on this earth; the kingdom that is coming and the kingdom that is here. It’s this kingdom that we proclaim and this king that we worship. Advent is about the celebration of and anticipation of His coming.
And this is the hope that we proclaim, the reason that we look forward to Christmas. Without it, Christmas is just another day on the calendar. Without Him, it’s just one more thing that we have to do and one more reason to fight about “the right way to do Christmas.” Without Jesus, it’s just one more set of expectations and responsibilities. But it shouldn’t be any of these things. The reason we celebrate Christmas is because, in Jesus, there is a hope and a promise. The reason we celebrate is because Jesus is coming.