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A Season of Fear and Trembling

Thomas J Parlette

“A Season of Fear and Trembling”

Malachi 2:17-3:5

12/6/15, 2nd Advent


There are some words that we hear more often in the season of Advent. Words like repent, prepare, comfort, hope, expectation and anticipation.

Washington Post writer Hank Stuever once followed three Texas families between Thanksgiving and New Years in order to explore modern America’s holiday practices. He met a single mother with her kids stalking the midnight sales. He met a childless couple laboring over their extravagant yard light display. He met a woman decorating the homes of the wealthy as a side business. Everyone he met evidenced the enormous emotional investment that is poured into the holidays, with it’s high expectations for bliss and togetherness.

But throughout his investigations, Stuever found one word consistently reappearing – believe. Believe was scrolled across shopping bags, monogrammed onto t-shirts, and painted on signs hung over mantels. But what exactly does “believe” signify? What are we to believe? Who are we to believe in?(1) Believe in the Macy’s mighty marketing strategy? Believe in Santa Claus? What do we believe in this holiday season.

Well, this morning, the prophet Malachi introduces two more words into our Advent vocabulary. Unusual words. Uncomfortable words. Malachi lays out his case to approach this season of advent as a season of fear and trembling. The Lord is coming- quickly and unannounced. But who can endure the day of his coming and who can stand when he appears, says the prophet.

Very ominous words for a season well known for chocolate filled advent calendars and soft lights glowing in the windows. For Malachi, when we say “Believe” in this advent season, we ought to believe that the Lord is coming- coming to refine us and purify us.

Malachi is a short little piece of prophecy. Grouped with the minor prophets, it is the final book of the Old Testament. We only hear from Malachi twice in our lectionary cycle – this passage and one from the end of the book about Elijah returning on the great and terrible day of the Lord. Malachi always gets paired with John the Baptist because we believe that John was the messenger to whom Malachi was referring – coming to prepare the way of the Lord.

Malachi, if there was such a person – the name means “messenger” and might not actually refer to a person but might be an anonymously written warning of sorts – was written about 100 years after the Hebrews had returned from exile and about 50 years after they had rebuilt the Temple. Many of the faithful had assumed that this would signal their return to glory as a nation – but that didn’t happen. They were still being ruled by the Persian empire and it seemed that God had forgotten about them. In general, the people and the priests were pretty discouraged and had become careless in their spiritual lives. The priests had become lazy and sloppy in their Temple duties. They were wondering aloud whether God was even around anymore, “Where is the God of justice” they ask. Many of the faithful were wondering whether God now considered the evil to be good. As commentator Peter Craigie puts it, “the people Malachi addresses have become, by their attitudes and actions, functional atheists, not bothering to deny the existence of God, but destroying any link between God and justice, or between the Almighty and good and evil.”(2) This was the situation that Malachi, the messenger, was addressing.

So Malachi reminds the people that a messenger will be coming soon, and the Lord will come to the Temple, suddenly and out of the blue. And it will not be all peaches and cream. It will be a time of purifying and refining. It will be a time when you should be shaking in your boots. A season of fear and trembling, because no one can stand blameless in front of the Lord.

During Advent 1928, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon in Barcelona in which he spoke about the emotion for this season. He said, “It is very remarkable that we face the thought that God is coming so calmly, whereas previously, peoples trembled at the day of God… We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect – that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth, and lays claim to us…”(3)

To be ready for God’s arrival, we need to be make some preparations. That’s what the messenger will do – get us ready, by forcing us to look at ourselves. It’s never an easy thing to honest look at where we are mentally and spiritually. It can be uncomfortable to admit where we have fallen short, to look at the times when we have failed to live as God calls us to live. It can be painful to admit that we are not perfect and that we have some areas or attitudes or approaches to life that need to change. As Malachi says, this process is like refiner’s fire or like fuller’s soap. It’s a tough process, painful at times, but necessary in order to be ready for God’s arrival. It’s a scary proposition, thinking about the advent of God and the judgment that comes with it.

But perhaps the fear and trembling is something we need to feel during Advent.

As Bonhoeffer said in that sermon in Barcelona some 87 years ago, “Only when we have felt the terror of the matter, can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and death and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us and comes to us with grace…”(4)

The good news is that God takes the initiative in getting us ready for the judgment to come. God doesn’t want to catch us unaware and unprepared. God is the one sending the messenger to prepare us. In advent, God is the one sending help our way.

Many of you probably recognize Malachi’s words from Handel’s masterpiece “Messiah.” The libretto, compiled by Charles Jennens, includes Malachi’s ominous warning of coming judgment and then answers it with a powerful catena of scriptures, ending with the alto singing “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.”

After the first performance of Messiah in London in 1741, Handel wrote to a friend: “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.”(5)

That is the point of the refiner’s fire and the fuller’s soap. That is the point of Advent. To make us better. Although honest reflection and self evaluation can be painful, it is necessary to make us better, for us to have a healthy spiritual life. God never wastes the pain and suffering we go through, no mater what it is. I don’t believe that God sends pain and suffering to us on purpose. But it is a part of life. But when we go through painful times, God uses that to make us better.

On September 11th, 2001, Lieutenant Colonel Brian Birdwell was in the Pentagon, close to the area where the airliner crashed into the building. “There was just that nanosecond between hearing the sound and then the concussion, the blast, the fire,” said Birdwell. “I was tossed around like a rag doll. The next thing I know is I’m trying to get up. It’s black except for the ambient light of fires. I realized, I’m on fire. I got to my knees just once.”

After the blast, unable to stand and unsure of which direction to even go – Birdwell said he collapsed to the floor and waited for that feeling of the soul departing the body.

“It didn’t come. I was like, “Okay Lord, I’m still waiting. I’m ready.”

Instead, Birdwell said he started feeling cold water dripping on his face. It was coming from the sprinkler system and extinguished the fire on his body.

He was burned over 60 percent of his body. Later, during physical therapy, a pastor told him, “God never wastes our pain.”

Birdwell shrugged the remark off at the time, but later, after he had recovered and begun a ministry to burn victims, that pastor’s words came again to his mind, and he began sharing those words with others.

“An 80 ton 757 came through at 530 miles an hour with 3,000 pounds of jet fuel,” says Birdwell, “I’m still here and the plane isn’t. You don’t survive that because the Army made you tough. You survive it because the Lord’s got something else in mind for you.”(6)

God never wastes our pain. God uses it to prepare us, to make us better and stronger than we were before.

That is what is happening in this season of fear and trembling. God has sent a messenger to purify us, to refine us, to get us ready – for God is coming my friends. God is coming, to a little town called Bethlehem. We are one step closer to the Advent of God.

Come to the Table this morning and be nourished for the journey. May God be praised. Amen.

1.    Amy P. McCullough, Journal For Preachers, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, p. 5.

2.    Homiletics, Vol. 27, No. 6, p. 43.

3.    Ibid… p. 43.

4.    Ibid… p. 44.

5.    Deborah A. Block, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p. 30.

6.    Homiletics, Vol. 27, No. 6, p. 47.