It has been repeated so often by so many people that we cannot be sure to whom we should attribute this definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.
Today’s Advent readings come from Malachi (3:5-12), Philippians (1:12-18), and Luke (1:68-79). The prophet Malachi speaks the words of promise which define Advent: “I will come near to you.” But he does not stop there. The sentence continues: “. . . for judgment.” Singled out as subjects of that judgment are sorcerers, adulterers, perjurers, and those who unfairly deprive workers of their wages, widows, orphans, and aliens of justice. Not only that (or perhaps as an indication that these sinful ways are rampant), God is being robbed by the people receiving Malachi’s words. Yet there is hope for better things ahead—if they will change their ways. Just to be clear, God reminds them that nothing in this prophecy is new information; it has been this way from the beginning of His relationship with His people. The manner in which other people, particularly the more vulnerable, are treated cannot be separated from devotion to God or true blessing from God.
The ensuing history, however, demonstrates that the words were only faintly heeded—at times, partially so; most of the time, not so much. And by the time of Zechariah’s song (the Lukan text), things had not much changed. Oppression was reality, through the hand of Rome but due to the Israel’s own sin. In seeing his newborn son as the forerunner of the Messiah, Zechariah declared that John would give people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. And this salvation was due to the mercy of God.
A generation later, the news of Christ’s fulfillment of all that was needed for this salvation to occur caused Paul great joy; his only concern was that Christ be preached. And he wrote this while imprisoned, declaring it his guards, some of whom would be reassigned to other locations and take the news with them. As with all of his epistles, Paul called for his readers to live differently because of the gospel. It was in sure and certain hope that Christ would come again that he commended these renewed, Spirit-inspired, godly ways of life.
For them, as for us, this meant change. And let’s face it: we don’t do change well. Perhaps it is because we don’t really wish to change; or maybe it is because we are trying to change in the wrong areas. We easily reduce the call of the gospel on our lives to “spiritual” practices, so that we commit ourselves to pray more, read the Bible more, and witness more. While these might be worthy changes, they can only be preparatory for the real changes to which God is calling His people. Malachi’s prophecy reminded his hearers that God does not change, an announcement which has not and cannot be nullified. The things which He judges do not change; when He comes, His expectations will not have been altered, His desires for how we deal with injustice will remain intact.
If this is so, we have a great many churches and Christians practicing insanity. Is that too harsh? Consider what God disliked in Malachi 3. Has He changed His tastes in 2012? Consider also what He will bless. Let us not think that we can appease Him by giving our ten per cent, while continuing to oppress or deprive other people; let us not for a moment believe that He has no desire to free the captive, the widow, the orphan, the victim of sexual abuse, the stranger, and the forgotten. Yet so many of us continue as we have been and wonder why God has seemingly been quite unimpressed with our devotion. We say the same things in our services of worship, over and over, and expect that things will change. We engage in the same “spiritual practices” and expect to be blessed someday, maybe even tomorrow.
The good news is that Christ has come and has broken the power of sin; it remains for us to truly repent, to do things differently, so that the power of God may be revealed, that the way of the Lord will be made straight, so that the world will see Him as He is.
To stay the same would be insane.