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You’ve all heard the expression, “be careful what you ask for.” Some say be careful when you ask God for patience because God often teaches you patience through trials. There’s an old country song that says that some of the best prayers are unanswered prayers. Looking back on your life, you might see God’s wisdom in not giving you what you had asked for at the time. Maybe you can think of a time when you did get what you asked for and wished you hadn’t.
Malachi says that God’s people should be careful what they ask for. The one they desired, the one they were begging God to send them, would come; but it wasn’t going to turn out the way they expected.
What they were asking for was that the Messiah would come and bring some justice. It seemed to them that the bad people were prospering, and the good people were suffering. They were saying, “It seems to us that all who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them. They disobey God and nothing bad happens to them. We are trying our best to serve God and bad things happen to us.” They wondered, “Where is the God of justice?” They wanted the Messiah to come because they thought that when he did, he would make things right. He would give all those bad people the punishment they deserved and they, the good people, would finally get all the good things that they thought they deserved.
God told them through Malachi, Look, I am sending my messenger! He will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple! The messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, will come,” says the LORD of Armies.
God is going to do what he promised. He is going to send his Messiah. You are going to get what you are asking for. There will be someone who will prepare the way before him and then suddenly, unexpectedly, the Messiah will come to his temple. But, when he does, things aren’t going to be as you expect.
Who is the fulfillment of the first part of this prophecy—I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before me? John the Baptist. And how exactly did he prepare the way? What was his message? Repent! John called people to repentance. He called the Pharisees a brood of vipers. He called out Herod for committing adultery with his brother’s wife. He called on the tax collectors and the soldiers and anyone who came out to hear him, to confess their sins and be baptized, and then to continue to produce fruit in keeping with repentance in their lives. He prepared the way for the Messiah through a message of repentance.
How do you like it when someone, maybe a teacher or your parent, catches you doing something wrong and calls on you to repent? Not very comfortable, is it? We don’t like having our sins pointed out to us. Our natural reaction is to get angry at the person who is pointing out our sin. Maybe we are tempted to lie to try to cover up our sin, or to deny it claiming that we haven’t done anything wrong. Maybe we are tempted admit what we did, but then try to explain how it was all someone else’s fault—we’re really not the ones to blame. Remember, that’s what Adam and Eve did when God confronted them with their sin. Adam blamed Eve, and God; and Eve blamed the serpent. It didn’t work for them, and it won’t work for us either.
The people of Israel wanted God to send his Messiah because they thought he would bring justice and judgment on all those bad people. What they didn’t think about was that they weren’t perfect either. That the way of the Messiah would be prepared by someone who would call everyone, especially those who thought they were “the good people” to repentance too.
John the Baptist still prepares the way for the Messiah today. He prepares the way for us to truly celebrate Christmas by calling us to repentance, by reminding us that, although we might be “good” people, although we may not be criminals in the eyes of the world, and maybe we hardly ever get in trouble with our teachers or our parents, or maybe we’ve never even had so much as a parking ticket, we still sin. We are not perfect. In fact, John reminds us that if we claim we have not sinned, we make God out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives. We sin daily, not just in actions, but in thoughts and words. We need repentance. We need a savior because we cannot save ourselves. Only when we realize and admit that we are sinners in need of a savior will we be prepared for our Lord to come near. Only when we are humbled so that we confess our sins will we be prepared to celebrate his coming to earth to be our savior, to receive him into our hearts by faith, and to look for his coming again in glory
Malachi told God’s people that they would get what they were asking for. Someone would come to prepare the way for the Messiah, we know him as John the Baptist. Then, suddenly, the one they desired, the Messiah himself would come. But who can endure the day when he comes? Who will remain standing when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire, like launderer’s bleach.
Do you remember what happened when Jesus did come to the temple? He made a whip and drove out the money changers and those who were selling animals in the temple courts. He told those who brought the woman caught in adultery, that anyone who was without sin could cast the first stone. He too called on everyone he met to repent. He told people that they had to be as perfect as his heavenly father. He told them that their righteousness had to exceed that of the Pharisees if they expected to get to heaven by their own righteousness. He reminded them that no one is “good”, only God is good. Everyone needs to be refined, to have the impurities of sin removed from them. Everyone needs to be cleaned up if they hope to stand before God and live with him in heaven.
Maybe you remember a time when you got into something you weren’t supposed to. Maybe it was your mother’s makeup. Maybe it was some paint. Maybe you remember one of your parents taking soap and a washcloth and just scrubbing away on that paint or makeup to get you cleaned up. It wasn’t much fun, was it? It hurt. Your skin turned red from the scrubbing. But sooner or later, you were clean again.
That’s the picture God gives us here. We have gotten into all kinds of things we shouldn’t have. We’ve been caught in our sins because nothing is hidden from God’s sight. But our loving Father doesn’t reject us, he graciously cleans us up. The process of cleansing wasn’t easy or cheap. The only thing that is powerful enough to remove the stains of our sins is blood, not just any blood, but the blood of God’s perfect son shed on the cross. Choosing to clean us up cost God dearly
The process of cleansing isn’t pleasant for us. It requires that we recognize that we need cleansing. It hurts to admit that we have sinned. It’s terrifying to realize that we deserve God’s wrath and punishment, to feel the flames of the eternal fires of hell licking at our feet. The path to cleansing is through repentance and that’s painful. But the end result is wonderful. It’s a wonderful thing to be cleansed by the blood of Jesus, to know that every sin has been forgiven and that you can stand before God without fear.
As Malachi foretold, the messenger of the covenant, Jesus, came to his temple suddenly, unexpectedly, in a way different than most people expected or hoped he would. He didn’t come to get rid of the bad people; he came to humble his people, to call everyone to repentance.
When he comes again, his coming will be even more sudden and unexpected. And if we are looking forward to that day thinking as the people of Israel did, “I can’t wait until he comes and gets rid of all these bad people and gives them the punishment they deserve and gives the good people like me what we deserve,” watch out. The way of the Lord is still prepared by a call to repentance.
In the first of his 95 theses, Luther reminds us that repentance is not a one-time thing. He reminds us that our lives are to be lived each day in repentance. Each day we need to recognize and humbly confess our sins. Each day we need to humbly thank God for cleansing us in the blood of Jesus.
Jesus comes near to humble us. He points out our sins and calls us to repentance. He reminds us that that only reason we have not come to an end, the only reason we have not gotten what our sins deserve, is because he kept his promise. When we rejoice each day that we have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus shed on the cross for our sins, then the LORD will have people who bring an offering in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem, God’s people, will be pleasing to the LORD.
Be careful what you ask for. Like the Jews of Malachi’s day, we too want Jesus to come near. We want him to come into our hearts each day. We want him to come again in glory and take us to be with him forever. But remember that the way of the Lord is prepared by repentance. Repentance is painful. It means being humbled, admitting that we deserve God’s eternal wrath and punishment. It means that we accept whatever consequences may come on this earth because of our sins. But it also means that we see that God did send the Messiah as he promised. The Lord did come to his temple. He did shed his blood for us on the cross. His holy precious blood is God’s soap which has cleansed us from every spot and stain of sin.