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February 2, 2003

The True Worship of Justice and Peace

(Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 2:22-40)

Today is the feast of the Presentation of the Lord, and we hear the same readings we heard one month ago on the feast of the Holy family. Since I already spoke about Simeon and Anna, I thought we could look for a moment at the first reading from the prophet Malachi.

Malachi is the last of the minor prophets and he preached around 450 years before Christ after the people of Israel had returned from exile and built an enormous Temple to worship God. But they were scattered, unfaithful, grumbling and disappointed with God. They were not really worshipping God with their hearts. They were just going through the motions, practicing religion as an obligation. They were mean to one another. They didn't take care of one other. They were violent and wouldn't forgive one another. And so, their hearts were far from God when they came to the Temple.

So the prophet Malachi appears and starts chastising them and says God is disappointed with them, that God has blessed them, brought them back, called them to be a community of faith, love and justice, and yet the Temple hasn't helped them become more merciful and worship God with all their hearts, as God wants. In the Temple, they slaughter animals by the thousands for worship, but Malachi says God wants us first to be holy, to live the spiritual life, to practice the authentic worship that comes from a prayerful heart and a community of justice.

The prophets always teach that our liturgical, communal worship does not come in a vacuum, that it comes within a social context, that it is an extension of our lives, that we can't be unjust and mean and not care for the widow and the orphan and practice idolatry and support war and then come into the sanctuary on the Sabbath and piously worship God. God does not like that. Our whole lives have to be an act of worship. Our community has to practice love and kindness and compassion and justice and peace toward everyone. Then, when we come into the sanctuary, the prophets say, our worship will flow from our shared life and be authentic. Jesus picks up the teachings of the prophets and says in the Sermon on the Mount that when you come to the altar, and remember that someone has something against you, go and first be reconciled, then come to the altar and worship.

So our worship is one piece of our entire life together, of taking care of each other, creating social justice, being at peace with everyone and being people of daily prayer. When these conditions are met, we will truly worship God in the holy sanctuary the way God wants to be worshipped.

Some day, Malachi says, God will suddenly enter the Temple and purify the community's worship, beginning with the religious leaders, using "refiners fire" and the "fuller's lye." The fullers were the people who bleached cloth with strong chemicals and Malachi says God is going to enter the Temple, bleach the Temple, pour the fire of the Holy Spirit over us, purify us all and teach us how to pray and worship in spirit and truth and love.

As we know, all of this came true.

Today we remember how Jesus first entered the Temple, how Mary and Joseph brought him into the sanctuary, how the holy prophets Simeon and Anna welcomed him, how they lived a life of true worship through fasting and prayer, giving their whole hearts to God.

And we remember how Jesus entered the Temple later on, how he turned over the tables of the moneychangers and the chairs of the people selling the pigeons, and blocked the entrance in an act of peaceful civil disobedience, and announced that the sanctuary is to be a house of prayer, not a den of thieves, and for this cleansing of the Temple, Jesus was arrested and executed. That's how seriously Jesus takes this word from Malachi.

Today the holy prophets Malachi, Simeon and Anna ask us to practice authentic worship of God, to be people of prayer seven days a week, to create a community of love, peace, service and justice, and to set our hearts on God.

We're invited to be like Malachi, Simeon, Anna, Joseph and Mary, to welcome Jesus in the sanctuary, to serve God by taking care of one another and becoming the community of love and service and faith and prayer that Jesus is looking for.

As we turn now to the altar, Jesus is once again entering the holy sanctuary. Through this Eucharist, he is purifying us, loving us, healing us, forgiving us, reconciling us, leading us back to our loving God, and summoning us to be his community of disciples and friends. Like Malachi, Simeon, Anna, Joseph and Mary, we welcome Jesus and his Gospel with all our hearts.

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