Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Epiphany
Malachi 3:1-4 Psalm 84 Hebrews 2:14-18 Luke 2:22-40
When I was in my last quarter of college, I was living at home and doing my student teaching. One Saturday afternoon, my father asked me to drive him out to the farm. It was 11 miles out and 11 miles back. I don’t remember what I was doing, but I didn’t want to go. I did not follow immediately. So, mumbling to myself, I pick up my car keys and we head out. Just a few miles out of town, the State Patrol was stopping cars for a license check. It was then I realized I didn’t have my pocketbook or license. As I moved toward the officer, my dad handed me his license. I died laughing thinking that would help. So, I am laughing as I reach the checkpoint. As I rolled down my window, I realized a high school friend was manning the post. So, I started in, “Billy, I’m so sorry I don’t have my license. I was in a hurry to get daddy to the farm, I left home without it.” Billy said, “Now K- e-e-e-e- t, you should have your license.” I said, “I’m so sorry, it won’t happen again.” He let me go with a few stern words, but you know what – I’ve never done it again. On that day, God’s grace and Billy’s kindness outweighed by unkindness and self-centeredness. I could see the light of God’s love.
The book of Malachi originated in the postexilic period, between 520 BC, when the temple was rebuilt, and 400 BC, when the law was reinstituted by Ezra. Sacrifices and offerings in the temple had become a regular part of the life of worship. Judah would have been a province of the Persian Empire, with its own “governor.”
Nothing is known about the life of the prophet himself, not even his name. “Malachi” is not a proper name but the title “my messenger,” taken from the passage before us. The person responsible for the book continues the ancient prophetic tradition of speaking the name of the Lord concerning the immediate future, and he is willing to challenge current beliefs and practices. He is deeply interested in priestly matters and likely was identified with the Levites.
Malachi talks about two messengers. The first is usually seen as John the Baptist. The second one is seen as Jesus, the Messiah, for whom both Malachi and John the Baptist prepared the way. In the process of refining, the raw metal is heated with fire until it melts. The impurities separate from it and rise to the surface. They are skimmed off, leaving the pure metal. Without this healing and melting, there could be no purifying. Without the refiner’s fire nothing happens. As the impurities are skimmed off the top, the reflection of the worker appears in the smooth surface. As we are purified by God, his reflection in our lives will become more and more clear to those around us. God says that leaders (here the Levites) should be especially open to this purification process in their lives. Launderer’s soap was alkai used to whiten cloth. It is also used here as a symbol of the purifying process.
Malachi 3:1-4 is the prophetic response. The prophet hears the Lord announcing the arrival of a messenger, the messenger of the covenant, who will prepare for the appearance of the Lord himself in the temple. The day of arrival, elsewhere called the day of the Lord, will be a terrible time, for no one can stand before him. It will be a day of refining and purification, particularly of the Levites, who will then present offerings that “will be pleasing to the Lord.”
The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple is the rite of dedicating him to God. The temple is important in Luke’s story of Jesus and the early church, and there is no shortage of Old Testament texts to join him in that affirmation of the temple as central to the life of God’s people. Malachi pictures the day of the Lord’s coming to the temple to cleanse and purify. The psalmist sings not only of the Lord’s coming to the temple, but also of the beauty and attractiveness of the temple for all those who trust in God. The Hebrew text shifts the image, portraying Christ as the meeting place of the eternal and holy God and the people who are but flesh and blood. To be for us a place to meet God, Christ, who came from God to be one of us, was made in every way like his brothers and sisters.
The text for The Presentation of Jesus at the Temple only appears in Luke. In fact, Luke places three stories between Jesus’ birth and the beginning of his public ministry. The stories are- the circumcision and naming when the child is eight days old, the presentation in the Temple when he is about forty days old and the visit to the Temple when he is twelve. All this is to say that Jesus who began his ministry at age thirty was thoroughly grounded and rooted in his tradition, that observance of the law and attendance to temple duties were very important to him.
Although he was a Galilean, neither he nor his disciples scorned Jerusalem. In fact, says Luke alone, Jesus’ disciples were to stay in Jerusalem after the ascension and from Jerusalem they were to launch their mission. It is no wonder that Jesus, the true Israelite, went to the synagogue on the sabbath, “as was his custom” (4:16). Jesus and some of the religious leaders disputed over the tradition, but it was a tradition he knew and kept from childhood.
When we look at the presentation account itself, it is evident that there is the story line into which two substories have been inserted: that of Simeon and that of Anna. The principal story line seems to have as its basic purpose the demonstration that in the life of the Christ Child the law of Moses had been meticulously observed. In making that point, Luke has combined two requirements: a mother was to be ceremonially purified after childbirth and a firstborn male was to be dedicated to God. Of course, provision was made for parents to redeem their son from the Lord so they could keep him as their own. Luke says nothing about the redemption of Jesus; perhaps his silence serves to prepare the reader for the next story in which Jesus in the temple at age twelve said to his parents, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” That story makes it evident that Luke is echoing the story of the boy Samuel, who was dedicated to God and who lived in the temple.
In the persons of Simeon and Anna, Luke tells how the Israel that is true, believing, hoping, devout and temple attending responded to Jesus. Simeon’s acknowledgement of Jesus as “the Lord’s Messiah” was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Anna’s response was one of a true prophet who fasted and prayed continually. Simeon longed for the “consolation of Israel”, a phrase referring to the messianic age. The Nunc Dimittis may have been a part of a Christian hymn familiar to Luke and his readers. Simeon’s words make it clear that Israel’s consolation would not be a time of uninterrupted joy; hostility and death would be aroused by the appearance of the deliverer. Good news always has its enemies. Mary herself would pay a heavy price; “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Devout and obedient Israel, as portrayed in the old prophet Anna, also saw in Jesus “the redemption of Jerusalem.” Her thanks to God and her witness concerning Jesus provide a model of the Israel that accepted Jesus and saw in him the fulfillment of the ancient hopes. Luke will write later of that portion of Israel which rejected Jesus and turned a deaf ear to the preaching of the early church. But in Luke’s theology, they are rejecting their own tradition and their own prophets as it was interpreted to them by one who was a true Israelite, Jesus of Nazareth. He not only kept the law, held Jerusalem in great affection, and was faithful in the synagogue, but also his teaching was in keeping with all that was written in Moses, the prophets, and the writings. No prophet is so powerful and so disturbing as the one who arises out of one’s own tradition and presents to the people the claims of that tradition.
On the commemoration of Presentation, read in Luke 2:22-40, the ambiguities of verse 1 take on added significance. Is Jesus the messenger or the Lord himself, who “will suddenly come to his temple”? The somber apocalyptic tone of the passage from Malachi underscores the threatening aspects of the presentation of Jesus in the temple. Behind this serious note, however, the good news of Malachi is unmistakable. God will establish justice, and the arrival of his messenger will restore the means of communication with God.
No matter what political party is in power, no matter who our leaders are, there will always be a need for voices like Malachi’s that proclaim a vision of a world at peace. There will always be a need for prophetic voices to say clearly what is unacceptable, including the rod of oppression, the exploitation of the poor, the rule of fear. There will always be a need for prophetic voices to stand outside the places of power and lift up a vision of what our world and, we, can become, to call us to new and better ways of living and loving.
To discern whether the voice we are hearing is truly the voice of God, we have to examine the person behind the voice, to see if the person is consistent with the God who is revealed in Scripture. It is our responsibility, in the midst of the many voices calling us, to know the person of God so well that we are able to discern what voices are consistent with the God who created us in God’s own image, redeemed us through Jesus, and sustains us by God’s Spirit in and through the body of Christ. To be able to do this, we must continually work on our relationship with God. We need to know who we are in the eyes of God and who God is calling us to be – to become. The way to do that is through study – scripture, devotional books and prayer. God wants to be close to us. We must want that and to be willing to work to make it happen. Jesus seeks out followers. We must be willing to listen and to follow. God blesses our efforts. God will fill the space that we make for him. Amen.