Who Can Endure?
“But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Malachi 3:2a) It is this question of Malachi’s from which I preach today. I want us to reflect on the meaning of this text because I believe it is a key to not only the meaning of Advent and Christmas, but also the ambiguity Tripp highlighted through the U2 song “Peace on Earth”. A line in the song that stuck in my thoughts was “But hope and history won't rhyme.” Is saying what Malachi’s question there is something about God’s coming that does not quit fit with and in history. And here is the ambiguity for we are proclaiming in advent that God has come and is coming. There is tension in this there is something we can’t see, something graceful has happened and yet everything seems to have remained the same. This is perhaps something difficult for us to grasp when we want everything now, and not just frivolous things, but we hear phrases like “Justice Now” or “Peace now”. Another thing we must face in hearing Malachi’s question is that our culture long ago domesticated God’s coming. I believe in light of our text today we must face and question the ways we embrace a Christmas as a tranquil domestic scene with a beatific child and parents looking on in bliss. Because in this image there is no echo of the cataclysm of God’s coming. In our nativities not even the appearance of angels causes us to tremble, not even a little. How is this possible? We forget that the prophesied coming of God was prophesied with cataclysmic images of the mountains melting, earthquakes, and complete upsetting of those things we consider permanent. Christmas then is a day of judgment, we cannot forget that god coming was redemptive and salvation because it was also judgment. In the prophets salvation and judgment are one and the same thing. However, there is something else going on here, something unexpected something the prophets didn’t quite see: god as a baby. Judgment as a child, a birth a life lived like one of us. It is this juxtaposition that creates the ambiguity, of “Peace on Earth”, and leads us to lament and long. Judgment has come such that it is also deferred. God’s coming this cataclysm in a manger becomes good news indeed because salvation comes as present judgment deferred..
Are there places we could look for a more theologically robust image? I want to direct our attention to two icons one “Our Lady Emmanuel” and of the “Holy Nativity.” First Our Lady Emmanuel could be the quintessential icon of Advent. At the center is Jesus Christ shown not as child but as the preexistent Logos, always shown ichnographically as a young man or older boy. This is God the Son. Mary is in the position of prayer hands raised ready to receive the logos into her womb. Potentially significant is that we do not have a family. This is not Mary pregnant as any other woman is pregnant; this is the virgin bearing the Logos of God in her womb with out husband. We should see in this icon that there is in the very least a disruption that is inseparable from God’s coming. Who can endure this disruption, do we?
I struggled for years with the virgin birth of Jesus. I could see why there would be such a dogma why it would even emerge as an idea very early, but theoretically it seemed that god could have attached himself to the human with a normal birth, after all if we protestant accept that Mary had other children than Jesus with Joseph why keep the virgin birth. But I was missing one of the things this icon proclaims, God does not come and simply leave us to have the life we have always had. God does not come and provide us with a life and world simply improved and augmented like an upgrade for your computer. The virgin birth reminds us of this. It was while painting this icon that my doubts about the virgin birth disappeared as I saw that God’s coming is disruptive. God didn’t come as a child and Mary and Joseph continue on as just the same family as though Jesus were just a child like any other. No, first and foremost a woman Mary accepted freely to bear a child who was hers but not her husbands, she agreed to always be the mother of God, the theotokos, god bearer. Does this not disrupt the very relationship that could have been between Joseph and Mary? There was no going back to some ideal domesticity.
It is why I find the icon of the nativity so theologically rich, as opposed to most contemporary nativities. Joseph is in the corner in contemplation troubled, to emphasize the reality and recall the messiness of the birth of god as a human birth there are the midwives washing Jesus. Mary and Jesus are near the center, but Mary reclines alone. She has just given birth she is not standing, but she too is contemplative and troubled, and Jesus all wrapped peering out of a manger that looks like a sarcophagus in a dark cave. The magi are coming still on their way and the shepherds stand apart. The landscape is alien as it usually is in iconography to depict that the kingdom of God makes things strange. Unlike our tranquil images the icon teach us that we should tremble a little at this event, there is something unheimlich, uncanny, something un-homey, something that unsettles. Who can endure this?
Malachi in our reading asks the question who can endure the coming of the Lord precisely because Malachi understands why this coming has to happen in the first place. What Malachi prophecy’s has to happen is because our world and we are impure, mixed like precious metal before it is refined, and like wool cloth before it has been cleaned. In Advent one thing we proclaim is that there is only one thing that can melt away what is false and corrupting in the world, only one thing that can wash away all impurities from our world and that is God’s own presence. To make way, as John the Baptist does is to be prepared to be burned and scrubbed. . We in advent sit in anticipation of the continued revelation of the terrible day of the Lord that has come. This is so because the prophets saw clearly that when God comes it is salvation and redemption because it is also judgment. We need salvation because there is a deeply imbedded virus in the world that only God’s coming can remove, this statement is about judgment. What we long for as Zechariah saw was both rescue and judgment, John the Baptist preparing the way, proclaims this the only way to be ready for the coming of God is to even if you are the chosen people to admit your sin, to admit human failing. This is to admit our world needs God to come because there is no other way to remove the impurities that much up our world, and the mess we see both in our lives and the world around us everyday.
However, God’s coming occurs in a way that neither the prophets nor Zechariah anticipated precisely. The judgment and the salvation of the world come through the womb and a human birth. Who can endure this? Yet we do and have, we even attempt to go on as if nothing has happened; there is both grace and judgment in this. God has come and there is still history. And while hope and history don’t rhyme they reside together in the same line. This is possible because God has veiled himself in human flesh, God has come as his creation and so we endure and history and the created order continue on, and so we wait and we long.
This purifying and refining has become the process of God come to woo us to show us our true selves purified This waiting and longing than is part of the Gospel, because God seeks to refine his creation so that it may endure the day of God’s coming. The wait then is part of the salvation God has chosen to bring us, because God judges in such away that his creation that we can endure the refining process at which Malachi tremble. This means the Day of the Lord is long, and the world, even we who know the story can ignore what should lead us to tremble and rejoice at the same time. God has come,
God has come as a human being as a child. God forever is Jesus of Nazareth, god has forever bound God’s self to the created material world in being born as Jesus of Nazareth Son of Mary. The embrace of this is our purification, our world being washed of all that is filled with the impurities of death, sin: oppression, injustice selfishness, and hatred. The day of our purification has come and is here, and we endure, and it is by grace that history and hope don’t rhyme.
On this the day of the Lord we wait and celebrate God transforming the universe, by entering into it as a person part of God’s creation. And so we wait the final outcome of this slow burning purification. We wait and proclaim it because this day remains hidden like the Logos as a little infant in a manger. By God’s grace and love most of the world is oblivious to the terrible thing that quietly happened in a backwater part of the world. Any other way and nothing would have endured God’s coming. May we be roused from an oblivious domesticity that cannot receive the Christ child, because it cannot tremble at what should have been unendurable. By God’s love and grace the world continues on even after the day of the Lord has come. And so sing, and we long Come Lord Jesus come. May we celebrate this terrible day of the lord, with Zechariah, the day which we all endure because it came in a human child: God the refining fire now purifies from within God’s own creation slowly transforming and purifying us that we may see God face to face and live.