At the heart of the church community is truth-telling, and it must be so because our God is a God who tells the truth, even when the truth is not good news. The problem with humanity is that we can bristle at the difficult words, the unpopular words, even when such words are true. We don't like being told that we have missed the truth, that our ways are not true. We must not think truth-telling is always easy. Those called to speak the truth experience a torture in their souls. In his book, Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Reinhold Niebuhr says that it can be difficult for pastors to speak the truth to their congregations, not because they are afraid to speak, but because it can be difficult to speak the difficult and truthful word to people they have come to love.
Malachi envisages the coming of a truth-teller before the arrival of the Messiah. In biblical verbiage we would call him a prophet. Prophets are truth-tellers; and the truths they speak are often not pleasant, which means that all too often they are not well received. Of this prophetic truth-teller, Malachi states.
For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.Lori Cornell writes,
It's hardly the "deck-the-halls" kind of message that we expect to hear at "the most wonderful time of the year." But for those with the faithful ears to hear, it is the message that we Advent people anticipate: God has work to do on us, refining, cleansing, preparing us for his purposes. For we, like our Judean faith ancestors, know two things about ourselves: We have forgotten to listen, and we stopped listening because we thought God wasn't talking. But now that God has caught our attention and our imaginations with Jesus, "the messenger of the covenant," we are eager to hear. And knowing full well what Jesus has been willing to endure for us (incarnation and death), we figure that we need all the refining and scrubbing that God has to give. And, while we are certain that we will not be able to endure the day of the Lord's coming alone (v. 2), we know that Jesus has endured the ultimate judgment, and joins himself to us so that, held by him, we will stand on that final day.All too often the temptation of the church is to get too quickly to Christmas passing too lightly over Advent. Preachers neglect to preach on Advent themes and instead focus on Christmas. We pass over the Advent hymns of longing and repentance and grab too early for "Joy to the World." The problem with this is that when the church celebrates Advent-lite, it all too often ends up celebrating Christmas-lite. Christmas becomes a celebration of sentimental babyhood instead of the welcoming of a cosmic divine Savior that has come to rescue a broken and rebellious creation.
We must constantly remind ourselves of the Scripture texts read each Advent--texts about sin and repentance, cosmic apocalyptic signs, desperate longing, and the reversal of the conventional ways of humanity. This is all serious business. That makes Advent serious business; and because it is so serious, in the four weeks leading up to Christmas we must tell the truth--the truth about ourselves and all of humanity-- that the world is in need of redemption that can only happen through a divine Savior who has taken on human flesh. In Jesus Christ, God and humanity meet because only God has the power to save humanity, and God can only save that which he has become.
So, to prepare for that salvation, God sends us a prophet, a truth-teller to prepare the way. Why must the way be prepared? Because the truth is not always easy to hear and to embrace. And so the prophetic truth-tellers are necessary in order to prepare for, as best as is possible, the shock of the Truth when it appears in embodied form.
Telling the truth points the way to the Truth... and to our salvation.