Homily: Wednesday, December 9, 2009: Advent Vespers

Text: Malachi 3:1-4


handel7 Almost two-hundred and seventy years ago the world was treated to the debut performance of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, a masterpiece that set words from scripture to music so profoundly that centuries later we are barely able to read the scriptures without hearing the music – so that this past Sunday, as I stood in the central aisle and read the gospel text from Luke, “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low,” it was all I could do to not break into song, singing “ev – ery vaaalee…shall be exalted.”

So it seems fitting that on this second Wednesday in our Advent vespers series titled, “Promissory Notes,” in which we are exploring the Hebrew scriptures that Christians have used during the season of Advent to connect our joy at the birth of Christ with the ancient expectation of our Jewish brothers and sisters that God will indeed come to save us, that we would acknowledge the musical notes that have carried the promises of the prophets forward in time, to deliver them to us.

Last week we heard again the words of the prophet Jeremiah, who delivered God’s assurance that “the days are surely coming” when God will fulfill the promises made to God’s people to inaugurate an era of justice and righteousness. I used the image of bearer bonds as promissory notes, legal tender, that are more than an investment in the future, but that have value for whoever holds them. That God’s promissory notes are valid here and now for those who bear them, which is us.

Tonight we return to the words of the prophet Micah that we heard this past Sunday. He also was a messenger of God’s promises – in fact his name, Malachi, means “my messenger.” Malachi, however, complicates our response to the news that God will come to deliver the world from its sin. He says,

The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…indeed, he is coming… 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 fuller’s soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify…and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.

Handel’s Messiah incorporates these words into the bass solo, “But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appeareth? For he is like a refiner’s fire.” Then the entire chorus comes in on “And he shall purify the sons of Levi.” It is a turbulent movement, full of descending arpeggios fired off in rapid succession. It carries a promise forward in time, but it sounds more like the kind of promise your mother might have made when she told you, “wait ‘til your father gets home.”

When Messiah was first presented in London in 1741 Handel wrote to a friend, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.” That, I suppose, is the tone behind both Handel’s score and the prophet’s words. I can imagine Malachi’s partner saying to him after he delivered his oracle, “you came off a little harsh,” and Malachi replying, “I sought not only to comfort the afflicted, but to afflict the comfortable.”

Malachi was speaking to the nation of Israel after their return from exile to their homeland, Judah. In the interval of their oppression some had been left behind to labor under the occupier, some had moved to the land from other places and had intermarried into the nation of Israel, and some were returning with the desire that everything should return to normal. Each feels like the chaos of their lives is a result of the tainting influence of the other.

At first pass, it sounds as though Malachi is siding with those who simply want to return to how things used to be. He condemns the kinds of offerings that the Levitical priests are making, and says that after their purification the relationship between Judah and Jerusalem will be “as in the days of old and as in former years.”

We understand this impulse. We all long, from time to time, for a return to the way things were. A simpler time. We resent those who have complicated our comfortable traditions. It can sometimes feel as though strangers have set up camp in our own homes, our sanctuaries, our neighborhoods, our nations. The struggles of Israel are our struggles as well.

But the opening words of this promissory note make it clear that God is not coming to confirm our prejudices or conform to our comfort zones. “The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?”

We imagine that we delight in God’s intentions for the world, but the familiar words of one prayer of confession make it clear that we ourselves have departed from that path. Do you remember the prayer, “for the sake of your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways.” Malachi speaks to us, one and all, to remind us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We may delight in the promise of the covenant, but we do not delight in the will of God that calls us to make peace with those who threaten our sense of self, our boundaries and our desires to walk in our own ways.

Not more than a decade after Handel’s Messiah was first performed, he had become blind. Yet George Frideric Handel continued to conduct Messiah annually to raise funds for the Foundling Hospital in London, a hospital served widows and orphans of the clergy. He did not simply make beautiful music to bring praise upon himself, or glory to God; he made beautiful music in order to produce offerings that would be pleasing to the Lord.

Handel’s promissory notes do more than entertain, and Malachi’s prophetic words do more than comfort, they are a refining fire. They convict us. They purify us. They make us better – better able to welcome the coming of the one who promises to inaugurate a new world order of peace and justice. Promises that should bring us joy, even as they make us wonder what in our own lives must give way for this new world to emerge.


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