Today we turn our attention to the Old Testament Reading from Malachi 4. Some of the last words of the Old Testament, in fact, the words that are in a sense “hanging in the air” as the people of God waited some 400 more years for the Messiah to arrive. But it's not like nothing happened until then. It was an action-packed time for Israel.
Alexander the Great came and conquered, bringing with him the Greek language and culture. And after his death, when rulership passed to his generals and their dynasties, the Jews experienced bitter persecutions. Antiochus Ephiphanes, one of the Greek rulers during that time, was a particularly nasty fellow. He went to war and almost defeated the Egyptians, and was the first king to put his own face on coinage (along with the words, “Manifest God”). But he is most notorious for his sack of Jerusalem and desecration of the temple.
We read from the inter-testamental literature of the time, that when Antiochus was defeated in Egypt, he returned to Jerusalem in rage:
When these happenings were reported to the king, he thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out f rom Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.
We learn that he then desecrated the temple, by setting up an altar to Zeus there and sacrificing a pig on the altar. This grievous offense became know as the “Abomination of desolation”.
I tell you all this, not just as a history lesson, but to give an idea of what kinds of wickedness the people of God had to endure in the times leading up to Christ's birth. These were days of great wickedness and evil men doing terrible things. They are days in which it must have seemed like all hope was lost, and that God had forgotten and forsaken his people.
But God would soon act. He promised, through the prophet Malachi, that the day was coming. “The day in which I act”, says the Lord.
And like so many Old Testament passages, we find the principle of “Bad news for my enemy is good news for me”. God will destroy the wicked, setting them ablaze. Like a tree that is not just singed on the leaves, but burned to a crisp all the way down to its roots. Total destruction of the wicked. But this terrible purging fire will be ONLY for the wicked, and not for God's own. His people will survive, on that day when he acts. The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And they'll jump for joy like calves leaping from the stall – overjoyed to be set free from captivity, free and at peace.
It is Advent, the season of hope and expectation, when we remember the first coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, the long-promised Savior. His forerunner Elijah did come, in the form of John the Baptist. And in Jesus Christ, God himself had come to act. But perhaps not how you might expect.
For he destroys his enemies, by being destroyed. Sin, death, and the power of the devil are destroyed when the Son of Man and Son of God meets his own death on the cross. And this bad news for our old enemies is good news for us. At the cross, Jesus crushes the head of the serpent so that we can trample on the ashes of our sins. He is judged who had no sins so you are not judged for your sins.
He sanctifies the world by being desecrated. The Holy One of God is spit on, stripped, struck, and condemned... publicly slaughtered on the cross. He, Jesus, is the true temple, the ultimate dwelling of God with man, in the flesh of his body – which was treated shamefully in the greatest abomination of desolation imaginable. But God's great and wonderful and surprising action is that through such horror as the cross, he brings his righteousness and salvation. As Jesus is lifted up on that tree, the sun of righteousness dawns on us, and with his stripes, we are healed.
At this we leap for joy. All the more that he himself conquered death and rose to life again. And even more that his promise of life beyond the grave is also for us. For the Lord of Hosts will come again, once more to act, once more for us.
Advent points us to Christ's first coming, and to his Second Coming. It reminds us that the one who came in humility will also come again in glory. It promises us that he who came to accomplish our salvation at the cross will come again in the clouds to bring an end to all wickedness, brokenness, and sorrow. And we will live and reign with him forever. On that day when he acts, all will be finally fulfilled.
But until then, it's not as if he is far off. He's with you always, even to the end of the age. Even in the wickedness of this world. Even in the abominations and desolations of your day to day struggles with sin and death. He's with you, so he promises. And he acts.
He acts to forgive your sins, through the daily renewal of your baptism, and the word of absolution you hear and believe. He acts, to strengthen your faith, reminding you of his promises, and feeding you with his own body and blood. He acts. Today, even here and now, our Advent Lord comes – through the means of grace, to deliver you the fruits of his cross.
Though your sins are an abomination to God, through Christ's desecration you are made holy. Rejoice, and leap for joy, you his people, as you celebrate his coming and look forward to his return. In Jesus Christ, Amen.