Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 6, 2015
Malachi 3:1-4 Commentary
A friend of mine who is an English professor once told me that he suggested to a friend that he might enjoy reading the great works of the author John Donne. So this man did so. Some while later the two met up again and the English professor asked him “What did you think of John Donne?” “Oh, I loved his work,” the man replied. “But I was surprised how many clichés he used.”
Well . . . not really. It’s just that Donne is himself the original source of a goodly number of lines that are known to lots of people who never heard the name of John Donne. “No man is an island” and “For whom the bell tolls” are two examples.
Every once in a while you run across a well-known line, a familiar piece of music, and discover for the first time where it came from to begin with. “I didn’t know that George Gershwin wrote that music United Airlines always uses!!”
The Book of Malachi can create a similar experience. This book is terra incognita to most people. But were you to read this book from start to finish, even if nothing else struck you as familiar, one line from Malachi 3 would: “But who can endure the day of his coming . . . for he will be like a refiner’s fire.” Suddenly the strains of Handel’s Messiah get kicked off in your head as you hear that fiery run of violins and the chorus stretching out the word “purify” into a dozen or more syllables (“For he shall purifyahaiahiahiahiy . . . .” Go ahead and give it a listen).
And you think, “So this is where that line came from!”
Other than that, however, we don’t know much about the Old Testament’s closing book. This is the last word of anyone in the Bible until, some 400 years later, a prophet named John cleared his throat to shout out, “Repent! Prepare the way of the Lord!” And that most assuredly ties in with Malachi’s third chapter and explains why it is paired with Luke 3 for the Second Sunday in Advent in the Year C Common Lectionary.
In the canonical order of biblical books, Malachi is about twenty-two books removed from Ezra and Nehemiah. In terms of actual history, however, Malachi was likely a contemporary of Nehemiah. Nehemiah is the one who re-built Jerusalem after the Israelites returned to Judah following their seventy years as prisoners in Babylon. In some ways, that was a rather happy time for the Israelites.
To borrow President Gerald R. Ford’s language of forty years ago, there was a sense for Israel that their long, national nightmare was over. The wretched Babylonians were no more, having themselves been conquered by the Persians, who had let the Israelites go free to re-build their shattered homeland. True, the Israelites were not politically independent yet and so had to live under the rule of the local Persian governor, but still life was better now than it had been in a long time.
Despite that, however, Malachi is not a happy book. Its overarching message is encouraging: God still loves his people and will still send the Messiah one day. But in the meantime, the people were told by Malachi that they had better shape up spiritually. Because if they didn’t, then Malachi’s message boiled down to this: “Remember how bad it was when the Babylonians came? If you don’t shape up, then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”
A main target of Malachi’s prophetic fire was the clergy. According to an old adage, “the fish stinks from the head down,” and in post-exilic Jerusalem, that appears to have been the case. The priests themselves were spiritually lax. They didn’t preach the Word of God but instead whatever they thought would keep them popular. When it came to animal sacrifices in the restored Temple, it seemed that their attitude was “Anything goes.”
God’s Law asked the people to bring their firstborn cattle and their first fruits, the best of what God had given to them. But that seemed a bit too much to ask, and so the people had gotten into the habit of bringing the worst they had so they could keep the best for themselves. According to Malachi, farmers were showing up at the temple with three-legged lambs and blind calves and cows suffering from hoof-and-mouth. When the priests would ask, “Is this the best that you have to offer up to your God,” with a wink and a smirk the people would reply, “Yup! Sure is!” and the priest would let them get away with it.
But with biting sarcasm, Malachi reminds the people that they would never treat anyone else in their lives the way they were treating Almighty God. If your boss came over for dinner one evening and asked for a porterhouse steak, would you dish up some of the beef suet you were saving for your bird feeder? If the Persian governor asked you to pay taxes in the form of some vegetables from your garden, would you dare to bring the governor only the wormy tomatoes and the stunted ears of corn?
Of course not! So Malachi’s burning question was “How come you treat other people more respectfully than God!?” The Israelites were holding back from God. They were feathering their own nests and padding their own bank accounts first, bringing to God whatever was leftover. But to Malachi’s way of thinking, that merely reflected the more distressing fact that God was not looming very large on the horizon of people’s imaginations.
So like his fellow prophets, Malachi was charged by God to get the people’s attention. He had to return God to the center of their lives. The good news is that if the people could achieve that kind of God-consciousness in their daily lives, God would shine down on them like a sun of righteousness with healing in his wings. If the people could come to realize once again that following God’s Law is not a restrictive way to live but a liberating one, then they would discover a freedom and a joy they had never before known.
Have you ever seen a calf get let out of its stall so it can go into the pasture? It’s a delight! If ever there were a spectacle in nature that you would recognize as pure, exuberant joy, then this would be it. We all chortle over the sight of a young calf or a young colt running through a pasture, kicking up its hooves and whipping its head around for the sheer pleasure of it. That’s one of the final images with which Malachi leaves the people: in following the way of the Lord, we get released into the unalloyed joy of existence.
God wants this to happen and God has promised that for many, many people exactly this will happen. The Lord is coming. But are we ready to receive him the right way? God would surely do his part to send one to prepare the way. We read of this in Malachi 3 but we get a reprise of this in the second-to-the-last verse of the Old Testament is Malachi 4:5 where the prophet says that a kind of Elijah would come to set the stage. As we now know, Jesus himself identified John the Baptist as that Elijah figure sent ahead of the Christ to prepare the way. So it is fitting that just before the canon of Scripture falls silent for around 400 years, one of the last words points ahead to that time when, in the person of John, things would get rolling again.
Four hundred years to get ready. Four hundred years to wait for the Elijah to whom Malachi pointed.
That’s a long time.
We measure our lives in decades and quarter-centuries. The United States of America seems to most of us like it’s always been here. It’s a well-established nation, we think, yet it’s been in formal existence for only about 239 years. But we can scarcely bend our minds back to the days of George Washington and John Adams who founded this land in 1776. That seems impossibly long ago to us.
Yet the Bible routinely deals with chunks of time that are measured in centuries and millennia. There was Malachi mustering all of the prophetic zeal and robust energy he could to tell the Israelites to get ready for the Advent of God’s Chosen One. Malachi’s message had an urgency to it, it had zing and zest, vim and vigor, fervor and fire. And then, nothing!
Four or more maybe five centuries elapsed during which world history marched on. Alexander the Great and his empire came and went. Various Jewish revolts, including the one commemorated last week in Hanukkah, came and went. The Roman Empire came along. Julius Caesar arose and was killed. Generations came and went. People were born and people died, including every last man, woman, and child who heard Malachi’s message the first time. Four hundred-plus years. We read such spans of time in the Bible and we don’t even shrug. But if we bring it home to our own lives, it staggers us. Four hundred years ago it was the year 1609. Four hundred years from now it will be, if the world is still here, the year 2412, one century beyond even the fictional future world of the original Star Trek.
When we hear again the majesty of Handel’s Messiah, we move from Malachi’s “He Shall Purify” to the angels’ song from Luke of “Glory to God” in the span of maybe a half hour. The centuries between the two passages evaporate for us into a seamless, streamlined story of salvation. But, of course, we don’t have much choice but to tell the holy story that way, so why am I making such a big deal out of it tonight? Because those long stretches of time are important in that they are full of the grace of God.
The conclusion of Malachi’s message and the beginning of John the Baptist’s message is this: God is gracious and wants to shine down life on us. But sin is serious, and we cannot wish it or wave it away. God can’t, either. Is it rather sad, even startling, to find that the last word of the Old Testament is “curse”? In a way, it is, yes. But does that open up some huge gulf between the Old Testament and the New? No. Because if you want to see something cursed, look above my head at that cross. There is finally not enough tinsel, glitter, ornaments, garland, holly, or pretty strings of lights in the world to cover up what happened to Jesus on that cross because of the curse of our sin.
For the people in Malachi’s day, God had faded a bit into the background. He wasn’t the center of their lives, and so they didn’t even try to give him their best. Malachi brought God back into focus by, among other things, reminding them of sin’s weightiness. He does that also tonight in this season when God can likewise get lost in the background behind the season’s outer trappings. Tonight Malachi has reminded us that if it weren’t for the curse God declared on sin–and the way that curse fell on the Christ–there would be no carols to sing. It is only when you recognize that truth that you can say, with the verve of a calf leaping in a meadow, “Let us sing for joy!”
As parents, maybe some of you utilize the “1-2-3” method of discipline (we even had a book that was titled 1-2-3 Magic when our kids were little). If a child talks back or does something wrong, you respond by saying, “That’s 1!” If it happens again within a few minutes, you say, “That’s 2!” And finally if the bad behavior persists, a minute or so later you say, “That’s 3! Into time-out you go for 5 minutes!” Boom, boom, boom, the chain of discipline proceeds. As parents, we can’t let misbehavior persist. (Despite that book’s title, however, I did not find this method to be quite “magical” but it was effective in keeping things under control, sometimes more for the parent than the child!!)
Throughout especially the Old Testament, God “counts” a lot and so threatens punishment. He is often telling Israel, “That’s 1! That’s 2!” And the boom is always on the verge of getting lowered. But sometimes it takes forever, centuries, for that boom to fall, if, in fact, it falls at all. Why? Because God has far more patience than any of us do. Why? Because in the final analysis, God is in no hurry to dole out punishment and is looking for any and every chance to bring grace and salvation instead.
So the Old Testament closes with Malachi shouting, “That’s 1!” Then some time passes. A lot of it. Four, maybe five centuries. Finally John the Baptist stands up to shout, “That’s 2!” Now that’s one long pause between warnings! But the miracle of the gospel is that before God says, “That’s 3!” he’ll send his only Son, who himself ends up being the one who gets quite literally nailed with all the full weight of every punishment God ever warned us about. It’s Jesus who bears the curse. It’s Jesus who ends up being put under the ban, who is the one marked for annihilation in a way no one could prevent.
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