Sermon for 12-06-09: “The Grace of God’s Judgment”

Sermon Text: Malachi 3:1-4

Very soon, we’re going to be celebrating Christmas, when the Word, who was in the beginning with God and who is God, was made flesh and came to dwell with us—Emmanuel, “Our God is with us.” And if you’re like me, there’s a big part of you that’s looking forward to it… But not so fast: When you consider all that you have to do between now and Christmas Day in order to be ready, you might be feeling some stress. I have a friend in seminary, and she wants nothing more than to celebrate this joyous season that is fast approaching, and she has two papers due, and a final exam. I remember those days! Ugh! I’m sure some of you in high school are feeling that same stress as you think of the end of another semester. We want to celebrate the coming of the Lord, but we’re not ready!

In today’s scripture the prophet Malachi describes a somewhat similar problem. God’s people are looking forward to the coming of the Lord. And for good reason: For too long the poor and oppressed in their land have been mistreated at the hands of the powerful; for too long the wicked have gotten away with their sins and have prospered—so much so that some people are beginning to wonder if God isn’t really on the side of those who are doing wrong. The prophet loudly says “no.” In fact he announces really good news: “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.”

The Lord is coming, the prophet says, and, on the one hand, this really should be something to celebrate—butlook out! Be careful what you ask for! When the Lord comes, that means stuff has to change: traumatic, painful, radical change. Because when the Lord comes, that means judgment for our sin: “But who can endure, and who can stand when he appears?” That’s a rhetorical question: the answer is “no one.” “For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap.” Fuller’s soap is a very strong, caustic, lye-based soap that was used to remove dirt and gunk from wool. It also softened the wool so that it could be made into fabric for clothing. A very powerful soap for removing the worst stains.

Last week, my daughter, Elisa, turned 10 years old. When she was born on December 3, 1999, she came a month early. We weren’t expecting her so soon. In fact, when Lisa’s water broke in the middle of the night I was awake anyway: I was a student at Tech, and I was studying for a radio-frequency engineering exam that I had the next day. So I sent Lisa to the hospital while I went and took the exam. I said, “I’ll see you later.” Just kidding! I didn’t do that! But we were literally walking out the door to go to the hospital, and I said, “Wait! I need to email my professor and let him know that I can’t take the test today!” I had a good excuse.

But Elisa came early, and she was this little thing. She was what my grandma would call tee-nine-sy. She seemed so fragile, so vulnerable, so thoroughly defenseless. She certainly seemed unable to withstand the assault of germs. So we had to wash our hands with a strong anti-bacterial soap each time we visited her in the intermediate care unit. This strict cleanliness continued when we brought her home. Our hands became raw, sore, cracked, and peeling from all the hand-washing. This was the very small price we paid to be able to hold this tiny, beautiful baby in our hands: so it is with the cleansing soap of God. If we want to hold God’s gift of his Son Jesus in our hearts at Christmastime, we need God’s judgment: we need the cleansing and purifying grace of God’s judgment.

Do we believe we really need that? Recently, a friend of mine reminded me of the old Seinfeld holiday of Festivus. Do you remember Festivus? “A Festivus for the rest of us”? In an episode of Seinfeld we learn that Festivus is a holiday that George Costanza’s dad, Frank, created as a response to the commercialization of Christmas. Frank describes one of the traditions associated with Festivus: “And at the Festivus dinner, you gather your family around, and tell them all the ways they have disappointed you over the past year!” My friend said that oftentimes Christmas dinners with her parents and siblings seem a lot like Festivus! Maybe some of you can relate? The point is, many of us would probably like to air our grievances concerning what other people have done to disappoint us or hurt us. We probably wouldn’t like it so much if people we know aired their grievances against us! We probably don’t want to be judged ourselves.

Years ago, when Prince Charles got remarried to Camilla, this was very controversial. Remember? We know some of the unpleasant history there. Charles, we know, was unfaithful to Diana. When the archbishop of Canterbury married Charles and Camilla, there was a place in the liturgy for confession and pardon of sin. And some of the journalists covering the wedding were intrigued by this: I heard at least one reporter say that this was the Archbishop’s way of taking Charles to the woodshed for all his very public sins, including his adulterous affair. As if to say, “That Prince Charles… He really needs to repent! He really needs to get right with God.” What these reporters didn’t understand was that this confession of sin was not just for Charles. It’s for all of us who claim the name of Jesus Christ as our savior and Lord. In a moment, we’re going to pray a similar prayer before we come to the Lord’s table for Communion. All of us are in need of the cleansing and purifying grace of God—the grace to identify sin in our lives, to feel genuine remorse, and by God’s Spirit to change. This is the meaning of repentance.

My daughter, Elisa, is on the robotics team at her school. The team is responsible for building and programming a robot out of Legos, and competing with other schools to have their robot perform different tasks. Yesterday was the big competition. For the past several weeks, Elisa and many of her classmates have been working on programming the robot and guiding it through this maze of different tasks. When you’re programming the robot, it goes like this: you set up the robot; run it; watch it fail; make small adjustments; set up the robot; run it; watch it fail; make more adjustments. It’s a long, grinding process. Each time you make adjustments, the robot goes a little bit farther toward meeting its goal—incrementally, inch by inch. This robot was helpless without constant intervention from above—meaning the students on the robotics team.

I’m not trying to say that we’re a lot like these robots, but, like the robot, we fail, time and again, to be what God wants us to be and do what God wants us to do. We call this failure sin. Sin hurts us; it hurts people we care about. Sin turns Christmas dinners into Festivus dinners. Sin robs our lives of joy and prevents us from experiencing the fullness of God’s love and the fullness of this abundant, eternal life that God wants us to have. Sin prevents us from being fully human, fully the people God created us to be. The good news is that we’re not stuck there. God wants us to change, and, to prove it, God entered history 2,000 years ago in Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, becoming fully human and fully God; living the life of perfect obedience to the Father that we ourselves were unable to live; and completing the course that we were unable to complete on our own—and God did so, even though it meant the cross. That’s love! Going back to the robotics analogy: it’s as if the winning robotics team, whose robot completed its course flawlessly, said to all the other teams, “You can join our team and share in our victory. And not only that, we’ll teach you how you can complete the course successfully, too.”

We usually think of judgment in terms of final judgment—at the end of history. And there will be a time when that occurs—and the stain of sin will be done away with forever. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait until then for God to help us overcome it. Like the students on the robotics team, the Holy Spirit is always making course corrections—if we would just say “yes” and let the Spirit work. Are there sins in your life that God needs to help you overcome? Will you let yourself be cleansed and purified by the grace of God’s judgment.

Let’s respond to this message by praying together this prayer of confession:

Merciful God,

we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.

We have failed to be an obedient church.

We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rebelled against your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.

Forgive us, we pray.

Free us for joyful obedience,

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Leave a Reply