Feeling the pressure lately?
You’d have to live on a different planet if you didn’t notice in the people around you — in the malls, community centers, sports venues, wherever people gather — and perhaps in yourself, too: a heightened intensity, pace and anxiety.
There are people to please, stuff to buy, items to check off the list, more food to digest — and only a couple more weeks till Christmas! Traffic’s snarling, noise is rising, patience wearing thin in crowded places.
Feeling it yet?
But maybe the pressure you feel isn’t associated with the typical distractions of the season. Maybe you’ve simply refused to participate in all the hubbub. Good on you. But maybe the pressure you feel has more to do with a personal challenge you face at this time.
And discordant it can feel — especially when everyone’s supposed to be in a jolly mood. How can you feel happy when your health is failing, or you’re facing bankruptcy, or your marriage is on the rocks, or you’ve just lost your job, or anticipating the first Christmas without a loved one? The pressure to make things right weighs heavily. Maybe you’re not up to it. Maybe you just want to give up.
That last thing we want to hear this time of year is a word like the one from Malachi. But at least we can relate to the rhetorical question Malachi poses here in anticipating the coming of the Lord: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (3:2)
It certainly isn’t what we feel we need — a little more sweetness, softly falling snowflakes, quiet, rest, peace. We envy those who claim they ‘feel’ Christmas in the air, and chide ourselves for whatever circumstances sour our mood in any pressure-filled moment.
Indeed, trying to get the right feeling is part of our problem. Getting in the right mood may very well be causing us the undue pressure. Because we have to feel right before we can truly celebrate the Lord’s coming. And if we’re not feeling the right things, then how can we celebrate?
The text of Malachi 3:1-4 appears in one of the signature choral works of this season, Handel’s Messiah. Indeed, the music of the season can affect how we feel. Music can get us all emotional; music stirs the heart’s strings, makes us feel good and lifts us up. It can also — as it does with the Messiah — “sing the Word, and proclaim the good news” (Deborah A. Block and Seth Moland Kovash, Feasting on the Word, Year C Vol.1, p.30-31).
After the first presentation of Messiah in London, England, in 1741, Handel wrote to a friend: “I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.”
Handel’s confession suggests that the message of the season needs to go beyond feelings, beyond sentimentality. At some level, if we are to make it through (read, ‘survive’) this season so full of pressure, we will need to go beyond feeling good to doing good.
But wait a minute, now! By doing good, aren’t we just adding to the pressure?
Let’s take a closer look at the text from Malachi and see for what purpose we experience the “fullers’ soap” and “refiner’s fire” (v.2) — phrases often associated with God’s judgment.
But why did the people in the post-exilic, second temple period (circa 500 B.C.E) receive this word — this pressure-laden word — to be righteous in the first place? What is the underlying purpose of the pressure to present themselves as “acceptable” or “pleasing” offerings to God (v.4)?
Well, God is coming! And God is coming unexpectedly, “suddenly” (v.1).
Which can only mean God is coming despite us. Whether we perform or not. Whether we do all the right things or not. Whether we get everything done in time or not. Whether we feel like it or not.
You know, God desires to be in our presence. God wants to be with us because God loves us. God created each one of us, an image of God’s divinity in our being.
Whatever we do, then, it is not for our sake, but God’s. Whatever little act of compassion we give to another, whatever singular act of mercy we offer, whatever gift from the heart we render — these are not for our glory or benefit, but God’s glory, God’s purposes, God’s mission.
The purpose of the “refinement” that we endure in this life, is not punishment for any wrongs we have committed, any sins that we will continue to commit. The end game of any burden we carry through this life is restoration with God, union with God and one another.
That’s why we do the work. Because the end of history will be good, no matter what. The promise of Malachi is that our offerings “will be pleasing” to God. The promise of this restoration with God is sure. It will happen, and it will happen under God’s control and in God’s time. The refining is not waiting for us to feel good about it.
So, what do we have to lose in doing the right thing whether or not we feel like it yet, whether or not we feel we’re up to it? As Martin Luther once instructed: “Sin boldly, and trust in God even more.” I don’t think Luther was encouraging any one to sin. But he was emphasizing the need to take a risk for the sake of God. And not to worry about results, reputation or reaction. Just do it!
Although by 1751 Handel was blind, until his death he conducted Messiah as an annual benefit for the Foundling Hospital in London which served mostly widows and orphans of clergy. The intent was not just to entertain and make everyone feel good. Handel’s hope was to make people better and just. His ear was open to the prophetic word: “Present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (3:3).
Christ is coming. So, let’s prepare the way of the Lord. And do good.
(Hint: And after doing some good it will make us feel good, too!)