People are waiting for God to return. He is coming, and he tells us it could be surprising. He doesn’t mean “surprising” in the sense of us not knowing the timing of his return. We learned in part 1 of this series on the Lectionary readings for the second Sunday of Advent that God’s arrival will be surprising and ominous. The first reading is Malachi 3:1-4, and the prophet goes on to describe God’s arrival in more detail. He says it will be like two things: a Refiner’s fire and Launderer’s soap.
Think about that. God’s arrival will be like fire that burns away impurity, and like scrubbing of soap that forcefully washes away dirt. In the ancient world Malachi lived in, people didn’t have soap that gently bubbles up and purifies. No foaming dispensers. Launderers in the ancient near east used substances like alkaline salts to scrub away dirt, and they would roughly scrub the clothing over rock, grinding the salts into the fabric to remove stains.
Is that what the people in Malachi’s day are seeking? Is that what God’s people desire? No way. They want the Lord to come and bless them, prosper them, and make life easy.
But they are hearing that the arrival of the Lord will be a rough process of cleansing! They are hearing that God wants to set them on fire!
We see this further described in verses 3-4. “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.” That’s the fire. “He will purify the Levites like this.” The Levites were the priests, and they needed to be cleansed of their sin. And then, finally, he says that “the Lord will have men who bring offerings in righteousness.”
There’s a word we’ve heard recently in our Deuteronomy series. Righteousness. This is a word that refers to justice, to what is right. To do what is right. God wants his people to be cleansed so they can do justice and do what is right!
He concludes our first reading at the end of verse 4, saying that after this cleansing process, then and only then, will “the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable.” That means they had been performing sacrifices at the new temple they had built, but those sacrifices were not acceptable because their hearts were not with the Lord.
They needed to go through a cleansing process, and turn their hearts to God, to do justice and righteousness. Then only after that cleansing process would God accept their sacrifices. See that? God doesn’t want us to go through religious rituals if our hearts aren’t right with him! Pursuing righteousness starts with a cleansing process.
So there will be two messengers one day in Israel’s future. One to prepare the way, and the other to usher in a new covenant which will bring justice and righteousness. From this Old Testament prophecy, we jump to the next reading in part 3.