Readings: Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple…For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s 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. Malachi 3:1, 2b-3, NRSV
Giving or receiving a gift should be a joyful experience for the one who gives and the one who gets. When the gift is freely given and gratefully received, it is. But that’s not always the case, and some would say it isn’t often the case. Sometimes invisible but powerful things are attached to the present. That car the parents bought for their daughter comes with new tires and the expectation that she will stay local and live at home after high school. The heirloom ornaments are handed down with the understanding that the grandchildren won’t be allowed to touch them. Those visits to aging relatives aren’t free – compensation is expected when Grandpa’s will is read. These unspoken conditions turn a gift into an obligation. What should be an offering of love freely given and happily received becomes the means for manipulation.
The messenger of the Lord will be sent to change just this situation, bringing to light the strings attached to the things we give. Laying bare the expectations shines a light on our mixed motives, removing the facade of selflessness and generosity that disguise self-interest and manipulation. But it’s only when we see what’s behind the gift that we can choose to change how we give and how we receive. Then we have the privilege of giving freely to God and each other – to present offerings to the Lord in righteousness, as Malachi puts it.
I think God sends a messenger to teach us how to give freely because until we learn this, we will never understand how God gives to us – why God joined our human world for the sheer joy of giving us unlimited love. We aren’t expected to earn this love, and it isn’t limited to a particular time and place. It’s offered to all of God’s beloved – and that’s everyone. The gift of a child who grew to love us so much that even death couldn’t take him away. No strings attached.