“It was a real wake-up call.” In my years as a priest, countless people have spoken that sentence to me. Sometimes it was in reference to a personal health scare, or the unexpected death of a loved one. In 2008 it was people watching their retirement accounts tumble during the financial crisis; in 2001 it was the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Whatever it was, it made people see things differently – they started to read the Bible, or began exercising regularly, or started learning how to pray, or called their friends more frequently – and they all referred to it the same way: a real wake-up call.
The prophet Malachi, whose words from the very end of the Old Testament we read this morning, is an example of a person who is living after a real wake-up call. Broadly speaking, the whole spiritual history of the people Israel falls into two parts, before everything fell apart and after everything fell apart. The crisis came in 587 BC, when the country they had thought God gave them forever was conquered and plundered by an army from Babylon. The Temple they had seen as a permanent guarantee of God’s approval was razed to the ground, the routines and values they had taken as God’s eternal instructions were robbed from them, and they were carted away as prisoners, leaving the ruins of their beloved holy city to be re-colonized by foreigners.
It was a real wake-up call. When you read the Old Testament, it’s worth asking yourself: is this passage from before, or after? Had the exile happened, or were the writers still able to be complacent? See, before the wake-up call, it was possible to just kind of go along day to day assuming that in this beautiful building God had given you, in the middle of a city established forever, part of this great, admirable nation and its Davidic King and system of government promised by God to continue world without end amen – with all of those aspects of your day to day life running smoothly and guaranteed (as you saw it) by God himself, it was possible to think that your religion meant enjoying basically what you already had – just better.
A few setbacks now and again, sure, a war or two, some hard times, but in general, it seemed possible that your dreams of the future could grow naturally our of the present. Being faithful to God would enhance your life; things would slowly improve for you and everyone else; the economy would pick up, conflicts would lessen, and within this building and this city and this society, in the context you already knew, God would slowly send along more of whatever blessings he had in mind so that it could all go on comfortably until it became the best it could be.
And that all sounded great until the city was sacked, until everything you had mistakenly identified as an eternal guarantee was in ashes and you were in chains and half your family had died in the siege. After a wake-up call like that, you have to start saying: Now wait. Did we misunderstand the message? Was the message God had for us just about blessing our building and our city and our way of life, or was something bigger going on? And that’s where most of the Old Testament prophets, Malachi among them, come in. Some of the prophetic writers actually bridge the gap before and after the wake-up call; they’re the ones that saw the crisis on the horizon and tried to issue warnings that things couldn’t go on like this forever.
But Malachi is after the crisis, after the exile, and what does God give him to say? What promise does he proclaim to the people? “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple!” Not: society is gradually getting better, so try try again. Not: the Lord whom you seek will incrementally enhance your life. No. “The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple!” That’s what he says! “Who can endure the day of his coming? He will purify the descendants of Levi until they present offerings in righteousness.” God will do it!
As the great Episcopal preacher Fleming Rutledge writes in her new book of sermons on Advent, “Before the exile and the destruction of all Israel’s hopes, there was no need for this kind of promise; the work of God would proceed in the land shown to Moses from afar and given to the descendants of Abraham, with Jerusalem and the temple as the constant sign of God’s presence and favor. [But] when the temple was destroyed and the people carried off to mighty ultra-pagan Babylon, ...a new note was sounded and a completely different basis for hope was proclaimed. It was no longer possible to project a future with God out of the experiences of the past. The… outlook that arose during the time of the exile was disjunctive in character; it looked not to Israel’s past glories and expectations, but to a completely new, unexpected, and most of all undeserved movement of God from the future.” (Advent p 16-17)
Virtually every Old Testament text the church gives us to meditate on during Advent and Christmas is disjunctive in character; not more of the same, but something different. Virtually all of them point us to what Fleming Rutledge calls this “completely new, unexpected, and most of all undeserved movement of God from the future.” Virtually every beloved Advent hymn (and every beloved Christmas carol too) is based on the premise, as she puts it, that “it is no longer possible to project a future with God out of the experiences of the past.” God has to come do what we need himself. And so we sing: O come O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here. Hark, a thrilling voice is sounding: Christ is nigh it seems to say. Awake and hearken for he brings glad tidings of the King of Kings… and many more!
Advent, with its clarion cry of Isaiah and Malachi and John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin, is the voice that arises after the wakeup call, chastened, sober, and ruthlessly realistic. Knowing full well that if salvation is to come, it has to come from God, not from improving the life we are already living. Advent has at last seen and accepted how little human beings can really achieve, and how often we fail to bring into being even the small hopes we invent for ourselves. The voice of Advent is the voice that has woken up and is looking no longer for little steps of self-help, but for a Savior, for an act of God from the outside.
Within Christianity, which of course descends from Judaism after the exile, there has never been anything to proclaim other than the kind of hope that comes after a great wake-up call. If you can watch or scroll through the news, especially these days, and not see an endless catalog of human projects of control and promotion and self-improvement that have failed spectacularly, I’m not sure what more I could say to convince you that the message of Advent is on the money now more than ever.
It’s particularly obvious now, but Christianity has been firmly convinced since day one that God’s promised intervention was needed, that the Lord whom we seek had to suddenly come to his temple because salvation is not to be had through quiet progression in what we’ve already got. I don’t mean to say that we Christians don’t, from time to time, also get lulled into the same kind of complacency our spiritual ancestors were in before the Babylonian exile. We do. But that happens when we lose track of the message we’ve always had: Only an act of God can accomplish what’s needed. And so God acts, with “a completely new, unexpected, and most of all undeserved movement of God from the future.”
Perhaps the most unexpected part of that new and undeserved movement is the way God chose to begin his promised future within the present when he came. The Lord whom we sought came, as Malachi told us he would, suddenly to his temple. Nobody was looking for him to come in person into this world. Everyone thought that was all for the end of the world, for the last days; nobody dreamed, not that God would launch his salvation among us here and now by coming in person.
But God surprised everyone, doing more than we imagined; he chose to enter time and space in the person of Jesus Christ and begin that promised future now, running right alongside the old tired world where our too-small hopes were once imprisoned. So that now the promised future has begun – not been totally fulfilled, but begun -- in our present, and we can taste it in the Eucharist, we can live from it in our daily choices, we can see what joy is in store. We can see the day when there will be no more pain or sorrow, no hunger, no lying leaders or abusive spouses, no boredom and no need for distraction, because of what God has begun, and will one day bring to perfect fulfillment, in Christ.
If you want to witness one sign of that fulfillment this morning, come pack sack lunches for the homeless with us after the service. We haven’t focused on outreach before in Advent, but it’s a great idea, because it keeps in front of us both the truth of the wakeup call – this world is not the way it’s supposed to be, this is not right, we cannot go on like this forever – and the truth of God’s promised future, that we will not go on like this forever. As disciples, we step into the future now, and we wait for the time when the surprising intervention God carried out in person 2000 years ago will come to its complete fulfillment. That’s Advent. That’s the Christian hope. Even so, come Lord Jesus.