Prepare the Way Worship Series, week 2: REFINE
December 9, 2018 — Second Sunday of Advent
Rev. Dr. Irving Cotto is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church. A former district superintendent and director of congregational development in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference, he is currently the pastor of St. Paul's United Methodist Church in Warrington, Pa. Dr. Cotto is the author of Fiesta en la Casa de Dios, a book on pastoral reflections regarding worship. He has led training workshops for lay missionaries and has written training modules for the National Hispanic Latino Plan.
Key words: injustice, change, covenant
The second Sunday in Advent focuses on John the Baptizer. Since he is the forerunner of Jesus’ coming, his ministry reminds the Christian community that they also are to prepare the way for the good news of the gospel to be received by others as well as to live it out in its particular social location.
The focus of the Malachi text is the coming of a messenger, which “at least one stream of Jewish tradition” identifies with the prophet Elijah, and in the synoptic gospels with John the Baptizer (Matt, 11:10; Lk. 7:27; Mk. 1:2; Lk 1:76). Although there seems to be in the text a reference to a hunger for this messenger and the messenger’s message to reach the ears and hearts of a people longing for God, the truth is that the content is a message of judgment. What is the judgment about, and what is expected of both the people to whom the message is addressed and the carrier of the message?
First of all, the judgment has to do with justice. The whole book, consisting of four chapters and developed in the post-exilic period, addresses the soul of the covenant people. The name of the book, “Malachi” means, “my messenger.” And the main concern of his message is the internal life of the community. Living as a small post-exilic people most likely with weak economic resources, under Persian domination, with marked neglect in their liturgical and moral responsibilities, they were also awaiting a timely word from God. Malachi brings the same concerns that other prophets have had, namely, “a passion for justice, a concern for the widow and orphan and laborer.”1
Brought to our present time, the preacher may approach his or her congregation as a community connected to a covenant. The congregation’s covenant is based on Jesus Christ, to whom they have confessed allegiance and devotion. However, this covenant is quite often jeopardized whenever other loyalties get in the way of the congregation’s relationship to God. Whenever the church keeps silent before policies, practices, and projects enacted by government or church judicatories that are in direct opposition to God’s vision for humanity and the whole of creation, there is an urgent need for a prophetic voice like the messenger alluded to in this Sunday’s texts — particularly Malachi.
Unfortunately, there are places where prophetic preaching is understood as a message of destruction, condemnation with little emphasis on the redeeming and restorative aspect of such preaching. Thus, the preacher does well to heighten the audience’s appreciation for the transforming hope that the Advent season brings as it sees its continuation of the baptizer’s ministry and the Hebrew Scripture’s use of the words “refiner” and purifier.” These last two words related to the messenger’s mission offer a promise of change and new beginnings. Rather than things, structures, or objects, it is actually people, “the descendants of Levi,” who will undergo transformation.
While Advent, like Lent, calls for a time of reflection and even repentance and mourning, it also invites people to a joyful celebration in anticipation of a radical divine intervention with the coming of the Messiah. The preacher should proclaim with confidence that along with an invitation to recognize one’s participation in injustice and moral decay, there is also a word of grace capable of aligning us with God’s reign of justice.
The word “refine” is the primary focus this week. It stems from the effects of the coming messenger’s work. It is a call to renewal on the part of God’s people. It is not so much the idea of punishment as it is the idea of being convicted in light of the Great Day of the Lord and a time of a new beginning. The prophet concludes with a promise of hope, “...I will not come and strike the land with a curse” (Malachi 4:5).
Malachi and the Gospel of Luke, although containing imagery and language that may seem unattractive to some, nevertheless offer a word for our present times filled with a language of division and inhospitality particularly toward foreigners. The fact that the coming of the Son of Man is draped with a prelude of cosmic signs calls for listeners in the pew to pay attention to their surroundings, not in a frantic or desperate way, but with the joyful expectation that God will break through the myriad situations happening in opposition to God’s purposes.
Given both Malachi and Luke, on the one hand, the preacher is before an imperative of judgment; and on the other hand, the preacher is before the promise of a future of hope.
For personal reflection and sermon preparation:
- Given the abuses of power, the message of terror, and inhuman policies affecting the most vulnerable members of society (children), how can this week’s message bring a sense of hope and joyful anticipation to the congregation?
- How does a message based on this text speak to the undocumented? How does it speak to those in positions of power and leadership?
- How does one follow in the footsteps of the coming messenger of Malachi and the baptizer is the gospel?
- Consider assigning brief statements expressed by different people throughout the congregation as part of the sermon. These statements could voice lamentations of people who have been victims of unjust and abusive maneuvers in the church, government, business, and so on.
- Conclude by exalting the refining effects of our eschatological hope now and in the future.