December 20 | Advent Devotional

From Peter Wall
First Congregational Church
Malachi 3:16–4:6

Advent is a season of expectant waiting. But for what? What should I expect? What momentous event is supposed to occur when the time is full and the waiting is done? The Christmas reversal, when our image of God changes from parent to child, is certainly astounding (and deserves more consideration in this age of “helicopter parents”). So too that aspect of the story that we call “incarnation”.

But nobody really hopes on these moments just for the spiritual challenge or the intellectual pleasure of the poetic paradox. The Nativity has always been loaded with a moral and political warhead: the arrival of the Messiah, and the enfleshment of that mysterious “I Am that I Am,” is supposed to change the face of the human world.

“Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,” says the famous messenger. And exhortations of peace and goodwill echo across the land. The crooked shall be made straight, every valley filled, and every mountain brought low. Radical justice will prevail!

But Malachi in the reading for today makes a different kind of proclamation. It’s one that bothers me, especially in our politically polarized age. After long and patient suffering, Malachi’s “righteous” are claimed and remembered, but the “arrogant” and the “evildoers” are incinerated, reduced to ashes, tread underfoot by the “righteous.” What Malachi expects and hopes for is vindication. And he does it with language that some of us today might condemn as “eliminationist”: not reconciling or understanding, but simply eliminating those others, who are irredeemably evil.

So vindication reveals the dark side of hope and expectation. Filling valleys and leveling mountains is violent, destructive work. An incarnation that packs a moral and political wallop is dangerous. In the words of Jesus, “I did not come to bring peace, but to bring a sword!” Is that what Advent is about? Hoping for vindication? The destruction of enemies, so that good people like me can finally thrive? Something seems wrong about that. Is there a different way to hope?

Fortunately, Malachi describes a path to reprieve from the fire: return to lawfulness, heed the criticism of the prophet, and restore relationships. That sounds to me like a different way to hope. Like maybe the “arrogant” category includes people who just assume without examination that they are not among the lawless, oblivious, individualistic “evildoers.” (And I think of the words of Paul to the Romans: “None is righteous, no, not one.”)
Even the “bad guys” think they are the “good guys.” Malachi’s uncomfortable proclamation tells me to remember that. The sword-work of Jesus does the same thing. This persistent hope for the leveling justice of vindication is dangerous. If I want evil people to be flattened, it should prompt me to ask whether I am one of them, too. I might not like what I find.

Advent is not about the passive hope for vindication, but the participatory hope of reconciliation.

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