Scripture: Malachi 3.1—4, 4:5—6; Luke 1:57—66
THE PROPHET MALACHI, chosen in church tradition to conclude the Hebrew Scriptures, has for us today both a blessing and a warning. Yes, the Lord we seek will come, suddenly, to his temple. "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?"
This passage is echoed in the Revelation to John, when the angel opens the sixth seal, and all who have trusted more in their own strength and wealth than in God—"the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free"—flee in terror to caves and hide among rocks. They call to the mountains, "Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?"
The infant Jesus who comes at Christmas is much easier to welcome than the one crucified at Calvary. And even less so, the one who will come at the end of time, the risen Lord returning, suddenly, and without warning. When this Jesus comes to find us, our first instinct is to hide. Who can endure his anger over what we have done to the creation, to each other, and to ourselves?
It helps to ask ourselves the question Jesus so often asks the disciples:
"Why are you afraid?" It helps to recall the burning bush God set before Moses, for God's fire did not destroy it. If we truly trust in God, we find more assurance than terror in the thought that God wants to purify us, so that everything evil in us turns to ash, and only the good remains.
God's just anger is a refiner's fire: to suffer it is not a gentle thing, but the end result is pure beauty.
Today's Gospel tells of Elizabeth giving birth, and Zechariah speaking again, his voice restored as quickly and mysteriously as it was silenced. Both mother and father stun their relatives by insisting, against the well-established custom of using names from within the family, that this child is to be called John. This seems a small thing today, when children are sometimes named after characters in soap operas, but at the time it was enough to be talked about throughout Judea. It was enough to induce fear. This child was named by God, and it does not go easy for those who are so touched by God's hand. "What, then," the people wondered, "will this child become?"
I hear, in that question, a restating of Malachi's truth. The Lord we desire may indeed be close at hand, but it will not be easy for us to accept his call. If we continue reading in the Gospel, we find the song that Zechariah sings in praise of God, called the "Benedictus" in church tradition, and commonly recited at Morning Prayer. In this song, we find that it is not merely John the Baptist, but we ourselves who are addressed: "And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins."
This was John's calling, and it is our own, a truth both consoling and terrifying. We are enslaved, by selfishness and addiction and all the wreckage that sin can wreak on the world, but are we willing to risk being freed? Do we dare to enter that dangerous new country, leaving sure comforts behind? Perhaps it is time to surrender, open our hearts, and accept the wonder of Christmas by saying, with Karl Rahner, "We have no choice. God is with us."
O Emmanuel, ruler and lawgiver
desire of the nations,
savior of all people:
Come and set us free, Lord our God