Thursday, December 6, 2018

Who Can Abide the Day of His Coming?

Handel's Messiah is a gospel masterpiece. It tells the biblical story of redemption in a way that is theological sound and musically rich. (Incidentally, a very good sermon series on the biblical texts used in the Messiah can be found here.) One of my favorite sections from it is in the video above. At first it quotes from Haggai 2:6-7, then it quotes Malachi 3:1b-3. Here is that passage with its surrounding context (in the more modern ESV translation):

"[17] You have wearied the LORD with your words. But you say, 'How have we wearied him?' By saying, 'Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.' Or by asking, 'Where is the God of justice?'
[1] 'Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts. [2] But 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. [3] He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the LORD. [4] Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.
[5] Then I will draw near to you for judgment. I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired worker in his wages, the widow and the fatherless, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.'"
(Malachi 2:17-3:5)

This passage prophesied the coming of John the Baptist, who is "my messenger" who will "prepare the way," and Jesus, who is the "God of justice," "the Lord whom you seek," and "the messenger of the covenant." Jesus notes this prophetic fulfillment in Matthew 11:1-10. 

In the day when Malachi prophesied, as in the day when Jesus came, there were those who thought they desired the coming of the Lord, but in fact were unprepared. Their complaints in Malachi 2:17 follow two chapters which rebuke the people for their half-hearted worship, their lack of the fear of God, the poor instruction coming from the priests, their compromise with idolatry, and their unfaithfulness to their spouses. The people try to justify themselves - "What use it is to do good? God seems to bless the wicked. Where is the God of justice?" It is God's fault, they imply.

But Malachi replies, "Oh, you think you want the God of justice? Well, He will come, but who among you will endure that day? He will restore His people, but He will sift out those who do not take Him seriously."

When Jesus came, His main calling was that of salvation and blessing. But His coming caught many people unprepared. Those who did not fear God were exposed by their rejection of His Son (John 3:17-21). There were some like Simeon who were eagerly and faithfully waiting for God's salvation, but as Simeon declared, "Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel" (Luke 2:34). For the shepherds and wise men, the birth of Jesus was a day of joy. But there others who might have professed to desire His coming, but rejected Him when He came - King Herod and the Pharisees. The coming of John the Baptist, and then Jesus Himself, separated the wheat from the chaff by their response to Jesus. As John the Baptist said,
"Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (Luke 3:9, 16b-17). 
Those who rejected Jesus and persisted in their lawless ways would be judged by Jesus first by His teachings, and then in the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 (Matt. 23-24:35). Those who received Him with faith were blessed first by His teachings, and then in the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost (John 7:39).
"He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:11–13).

So as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord Jesus, may we be careful to not repeat the mistake of Malachi's audience. As we rejoice in the coming of the Lord and delight in Him, may we remember who we are dealing with. He came to change things. For those who trust in Him, this means purification and forgiveness so that our service to God is pleasing to the Lord. Faith that is genuine will also result in the fear of God, good works, and repentance from sins such as those mentioned in Malachi 3:5. For those who use the name of the Lord but treat Him without obedience or faith, this means judgement. This is the kind of intervention that our fallen world needs. We need a Savior who changes us and changes our world, who fulfills the hopes of the believing and who witnesses against those who oppress and do evil. And may we remember that the Lord will come again to finish the work He began.

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