An Advent sermon from Rev. Timothy Jones of Community Baptist Church of New Haven, CT–a look back at last week’s Hebrew Bible text Malachi 3:16-18:
There’s no question that the secular imagination of the Christmas Holiday has an influence on how we imagine this Advent season. There are many aspects of what I’m going to call “the Holiday Season” that overlap with Advent, but in some very real ways, we need to distinguish between “the Holidays” and Advent. There is, in the Holiday sense, a Happiness, a kind of jolliness that is associated with the season that is different from the very real and situated joy that should come from Advent. And sometimes I’m worried that the Jolly sensibility of the Holiday season makes it difficult for us to receive all that God has for us in this season.
Our understanding of Advent is often times so tied up to the secular notions of Christmas that we can miss what is actually going on. The same way that we instinctively see Santa and react with smiles, jolliness, and joy, we often too look at the manger, and think of the baby that has come in Christ with this same kind of Holiday sensibility. Surely, there is a kind of wonder that is created in this season thinking about presents, Santa, Frosty and Rudolph but I don’t know if we’re always able to maintain the kind of awe and wonder that God calls us to in this season.
There has to be more to our anticipation of God’s incarnation than being jolly. And it is this confusion about what exactly we’re supposed to be expecting in Advent that I believe God wants to address on today. This misunderstanding can have disastrous results for us. This misunderstanding between how we’re called to react to the coming of the Lord into the world and how we often prepare for the coming of God into this world is the reason why some may be feeling some tension in this Christmas season between the jolliness and happiness that we are “supposed” to feel, and that sense of unrest that has gripped our country.
Somebody might feel a little unrest going to buy Christmas gifts and decorating the tree right now with the uneasiness that seems to continue in the wake of the election. But my brothers and sisters, I want to suggest to you this morning that for us as believers, if we embrace what really was happening at the manger we will see that there really isn’t any tension between feelings of unrest and uneasiness about the world and this Advent Season. In fact, this is a season of anticipation, a season of awe and wonder, not simply of being happy or feeling good, but really being in awe of what God is about to be up to in this world. We need to recover our Advent Awe, in this season of anticipation. It is the Awe of Advent that will really get us in the Advent Spirit, instead of hearing THIS CHRISTMAS for the first time and getting in the Holiday Spirit.
As we advance further into December and further into the Advent Season, anticipation grows. But that anticipation can’t just be for Christmas day with its promise of presents and dinner, we have to anticipate much more and our passage for today reminds us that Advent Awe is about much more than what we get under a tree, or fun songs about Santa, we need to have Advent Awe because Christ is coming into the World, it is this inbreaking, this incarnation into the world that should elicit some Advent Awe.
Malachi is a book us preachers don’t go to often, unless we’re asking for money, but this is an important book, for it plays an important role in setting up the Messianic expectation of Jesus in the New Testament. Without the Messianic prophecies of Malachi Jesus’ arrival as recorded in the Gospels would feel abrupt, like somebody slamming on the brakes and switching courses without much warning, Malachi helps bridge the Old Testament prophecies with the incarnation of Jesus in that manger. Malachi is an important text both for Advent and for nurturing a sense of Advent Awe.
Nestled into the end of the Old Testament in an infrequently explored corner of our canon containing other rarely examined books like Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, and Zechariah, Malachi has never been as popular as other prophets like Jeremiah, Amos, Micah, and Isaiah. But in our passage for today, we get to see what happens, when God’s people get together and collectively express themselves to God. But friends, notice who exactly is speaking to God, Malachi says it is those who feared the Lord spoke to one another and the Lord listened to them. Not the religious folk, but those that fear the Lord. Not the folk that looked respectable but those that feared the Lord. God was not and is not looking for religious folk, but God wants those that Fear the Lord.
There, interestingly enough, no word in Hebrew for religion. If you want to describe a faithful follower of God, that person would be deemed someone who has “the fear of YHWH.” Fear in this case means two things. On the one hand there’s a kind of absolute awe. The sense that we might get when we get a taste of the majesty of God’s creation, and we’re overwhelmed with the beauty of God’s creative prowess. It’s the sense that you get when standing and watching thousands of God’s creation marching for justice, the feeling you get when you see the thousands of stars shining on a clear night, or the passion of people protesting for justice of different hues and colors. Fear, in this sense, is a kind of awe.
The other aspect to this notion of fear, was the ultimate dread that was natural to anyone who recognized that they were dealing with the one that was before there was a was. God is a being so powerful that with mere words things come into existence, and so faithful followers recognized this power and were, in my estimation, rightfully fearful of it. Jesus said it like this in Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” And so saints, the question for us is, Who are we getting ready for this advent season? A nice, gentle and jolly God, or a God worthy of fear? Are we getting ready for Santa coming to town or for the creator to take on flesh?
I have to wonder, if the jolliness of secular Christmas celebrations has helped detract from the fear of the Lord that we’re called to. But the more I think about it, the more I think that maybe, I’m putting too much on Santa Claus. It isn’t Santa that has made us lose fear of the Lord, it is our theologies that have transformed the awesome God of creation, maker of heaven and earth, the one true God of the ancient Hebrews, into an American, status-quo supporting, wish granting genie who wants us to prosper? And if that’s who we’re expecting to come in that manger, no wonder there is no fear! Is that who God has become to us? A God that rubber stamps what we do, gives us gifts, and tells us that everything is going to be ok? The devil is indeed a liar. For when we look in that manger its not Santa Claus that’s coming, it’s Jesus, its God incarnate, it’s the one who came to set the captives free, give good news to the poor and recovery of sight to the blind.
Don’t be fooled by those that still operate with the vestiges of name it and claim it, or blab it and grab it, theology. The God that is breaking into the world is one who should elicit some fear! A God that just gives us what we want, doesn’t elicit any far, but only jolly happiness. But the God who made the world and all that is in it, the God who rescued the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, the God who kept the Israelites through exile, the God who loved the world so much that God’s only son would be sacrificed to set the world free from its bondage to sin and death, this mighty God, YHWH, is the one that came in that manger. And if we can get a picture of THIS god, of our God, we will see that we serve a God that not only is to be loved but one that is to be feared. It’s this reminder, of who exactly is coming to town that should help us recover our Advent awe that we’ve been missing.
Every now and again, we need to call on what my granddaddy would call that old time religion. When the trappings of the prosperity gospel has convinced us that God just wants us to prosper financially, when the American conservative, “Evangelical” gospel has convinced us that God’s values are synonymous with American values it is that Old Time religion, that reminds us where to put our faith. Not in finances, not in the government, but in a God who thought it not robbery to get up off of the throne of Heaven and come to us in a manger!
It is this healthy fear of God, this Advent Awe that motivates the faithful in our passage for today. For a God we truly fear and respect is a God to whom we will be faithful. A God that you can manipulate at a moment’s notice is a God that you play with and follow when it is convenient. But a God who we truly fear and respect is a God to whom we will be faithful. And it is to our God, that we owe our faith.
We have to keep a better account of who it is that we are about to meet in that manger because that God in the manger is not hesitating on keeping account of us. Here’s another Advent Awe inspiration, God is making a list, and checking it twice. In verse 16 it says that God keeps a “book of remembrance” that records the names of those who fear the Lord and meditate on the Lord’s name. Malachi the Messenger says that God inscribes our names on this book. And lest we think that Grace means our deeds aren’t counted, Malachi reminds us that all we do, will not be forgotten. This reminds us it will be recorded if we sit on the sidelines of history, and aren’t involved in the movement for freedom, our names might not be in the book. God says I’m making a list, checking it twice, I know who’s been naughty or nice. God’s book of remembrance reminds us that all that we do is seen by a God who remembers. It holds us accountable, for our actions are not unseen, and what we do matters more than we may think. How we treat those we think no one cares for, what we do for or to others, the way we express the love God calls us to express for our brothers and sisters, will be remembered by our Lord. The “book of remembrance” can keep us mindful of the fact that what we do matters to our God. God wants to know if we’ve been righteous.
Righteousness has both social and personal sensibilities. To be righteous is not only to follow a certain set of actions and conduct as an individual but also a righteous person is one who fights for justice in this world. A “righteous person” was one who kept not only these two concepts in balance, it was also someone who, according to this passage “serves God.” A righteous one, is somebody who commits her life to living completely dedicated to the Lord. It could mean surrendering the comfortable to do the uncomfortable for the Lord. It could mean that our lives have to be inconvenienced to do God’s work. It might mean, standing outside in the cold at a march. It might mean, going to an organizing meeting, planning some action. It might mean, making a concerted effort to buy black for the Holiday season. God needs some righteous folk, who have enough of a healthy fear of God, to be willing to be inconvenienced, and to change routines for the sake of playing our part in the fight for justice in our time. The call to be righteous, to be one that fears the Lord that gets their deeds written down in the Book of remembrance may mean making some sacrifices. We each are called to be a righteous and it might cost us something. But in this Advent season, our Awe and Fear of God gives us all we need to go on with some righteous acts. If we Fear the Lord, if we are in awe of God, we’ll be able to perform the righteous acts that God calls us to, and have our deeds written down in the Book of Remembrance.
And I don’t know about you, but I want my deeds of righteous written down in the book of remembrance. When God is making that list, and checking it twice, I wanna be found righteous, because God said on that day, he’s gonna make those in the Book his jewels. He may not be riding on a sleigh with reindeer pulling the way, but he’ll be riding on a white horse, to bring victory in this land. He won’t be throwing our presents wrapped up but he will, be granting peace, and grace, and mercy, and love. He may not be fat, and white with a red suit on, but he’ll be dressed in white and full of Grace. And that’s a God I can fear, that’s a God that has power, that’s a God I can lean on to give me strength to fight, and a God I’ll work for and with to be righteous in a world that so desperately needs it! Amen.