Sometimes, you have to smile at God’s providence during the course of church work. First, I managed to have way too many conversations on the idea that shame was nailed to the cross and left in that tomb during the week, that there is no way I should have been able to finish the administrative work of the parish AND still get my first day off so I could surprise Robbie and watch him in a play at college. Then, on a week we are reading about the eschaton or end times, we get our wonderful Collect for the second time this church year AND I get a sign of the end times. I mean, Robbie played a middle aged Jamaican bartender. If you have never met my second oldest son, he is as Scandinavian as they come. Blond hair, pale skin—the very picture of a Jamaican bartender in your minds, right? Of course, the Collect is way more important because it inoculates us against a temptation we have when we speak of the eschaton.
There is always the danger to try and figure out the “when,” when it comes to end times discussions, right? Some of the most crazy conversations I have had with people over the years that I have been a priest have been over their interpretation, and insistence of their correctness, regarding the date of the eschaton. You’d think, given what Jesus says in red letters about not knowing the mind of the Father and in teachings like today from Luke. “Don’t follow the people who say they know!” But what happens? Somebody, usually a guy because we are more stupid, comes up with a date. And when that date passes and Jesus has not returned, they mine the Scriptures again looking for the error of their calculations, as if they forgot to carry the one or dropped the negative sign by accident. Then they have a new date and are just as certain as they were about the last one, and they are single-minded unable to understand why I won’t support their math or scare my people with their prediction.
Apparently, our spiritual forebears, and Anglican ones especially, understood our tendency to place ourselves above Scripture rather than below it. Twice a year we have the Collect of learning and inwardly digesting Scripture, reminding us that we sit UNDER Scripture and are in no way wise or powerful enough to cherry pick. God caused it to be written; God caused it to be edited; God caused it to be collected. The collection we call Scripture, then, is the Church acknowledging what God wanted us to know about Him, about life, about Truth, and about His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. So it is good when we talk about end times today that, before we begin, you and I sit under God’s teaching. He is authoritative to us, not the other way around. And, please, don’t come in next week telling me you’ve figured out the date after this sermon. If that’s your takeaway from this sermon, you were not listening to me, let alone God. In fact, you were doing the very opposite of what I said and He constantly says. Yes, you have a puncher’s chance of getting the right date in the future by picking one. But I sure would not bet money on it.
The book of Malachi is an interesting book. For those of you who like to pretend to be holy, it’s a great book to read for Lent and impress your friends and family who are not in church here today. What are you doing for Lent? I’m reading the book of the prophet Malachi. Whoa! I’ve never even heard of that book! You must be serious about your faith. You can strike your most impressive pose and assure them you are. Why the laughter? Tell me none of you ever tried to impress friends or clergy like that? Ouch! Too sharp? It’s going to get worse.
Malachi, whose name means “My messenger,” wrote sometime around 500 years before the birth of Jesus in Nazareth. Experts argue about the dating. For our purposes, it is enough to know he wrote sometime after the return from Exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple by Ezra and Nehemiah, but four centuries before the Advent of John the Baptist. His book, which is only four chapters long, deals a lot with justice.
You’d think, given the peoples’ recent return from the Exile, that folks would be serious about their faith, right? After all, the foreign king has decided to pay for the rebuilding of the Temple and for the wall of the city. It is, to put it mildly, odd. Babylon and Assyria showed their gods’ power was superior to the God of Israel by conquering both Israel and Judah and carrying the survivors off into Exile. The Jews heard another story. Earlier prophets reminded them that they caused their Exile. God promised if they kept His torah, He would bless them; if they failed to keep His torah, He would cause the Land to disgorge them. Their Exile, according to the prophets, was the outward and visible sign of their covenant disloyalty.
Now they are back! Things are as they should be! Except the Temple is a pale imitation of the one built by Solomon, and some of the luster is off the newly re-founded city of Jerusalem. Those who rebuilt them mourn over the glory that has been lost. Surely their kids and grandkids would keep the torah to make sure no Exile is ever experienced again, right? Wrong! Injustice reigns again. The rich are grinding up the poor. Widows and orphans are neglected. In short, nothing has changed for the people . . . or for the professional clergy. In fact, for the latter, things may be even worse. God accuses the clergy of sacrificing blind animals and animals with skin diseases and other blemishes and selling the unblemished animals out the back door! Are they behaving as if they understand the reason behind the Exile and the grace behind the return? Of course, not, they are just like their ancestors who crossed the Red Sea, witnessed God destroying Egypt, and decided to hold an orgy and make a molten calf, as a result. And they are just like their descendants, you and me, who, although we live on this side of the Passion, Crucifixion, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord Jesus, still sin, who still practice injustice, even though our Lord is justice.
Speaking of which, that sure served as a spiritual wedgie for some folks last week. Apparently, during the sermon, I made the comment that God was just, holy, and other adjectives every bit as much as was love. That unsettled a few folks, as it probably should. We would not know that God was that had He not chosen to reveal it to us. Be He did, so we do. We just forget. Heck, we don’t even know what the terms mean anymore.
What is justice? That’s not a rhetorical question. What is it? Most of us, if we were awake, would come up with a definition that was more in line with fairness rather than justice, truth be told. To move things along this morning, somebody pull it up on a dictionary site. Administering or judging between right and wrong or good and evil. Great. How do we know what is right or wrong or good or evil? That’s right! God! God instructs us what is good and evil or right and wrong. It makes sense. He’s the Creator; He knows. He knows what’s best for us. To put it in the terms of Wrestling with Faith, there is no way that you or I could reason to the ideas of good and evil. Oh, we might think we can. We might align with God’s teaching sometimes accidentally, but it would only be at those times when our interests happened to align with His. No, He is the arbiter of what is just and what is unjust because He has revealed to us that He is just. He can no more act unjustly than you and I can cease to breathe or we can cease to blink or we can cause our hearts not to beat. Anthropomorphically speaking, that is, speaking about God as if He was a human being, by nature, He destroys sin and evil and unjustness, what we call sin, whenever He comes into contact with it. Part of the problem our sin creates for us is how we can come into His presence without Him destroying us. The sacrificial system allowed human beings to be righteous . . . for a short time. If you or I lived in the days of the OT, we could make appropriate sacrifices and be righteous, until we sinned again. The problem, of course, was that we sinned again and again and again. Our hearts, to use the language of Scripture, were turned away from those things He loves and, often, toward those sinful things He hates.
Malachi gives several examples, chief among them are the perversions of justice. But Malachi also recognizes that there is still unjust suffering present in the world. Those doing Psalm 44 on Monday’s can really speak to this, but there is this problem where God’s faithful suffer through no fault of their own. Does God see? Does God know? Does God care?
Our reading today carries the resounding answer of “YES!” from God. Better still, Malachi is teaching God’s people that one day, one glorious day in the future, God will act definitively to judge the earth. Those who rejected God will be burned away like chaff; those who claimed God’s mercy will feel that heat as a healing, restoring, wind. Put more simply, God cannot let evil stand forever. At some point, He will act to judge. Those who reject Christ as Savior will be cast from His presence; those who accept Christ as Lord will be completely, totally restored or redeemed. It’s His nature, to use that anthropomorphic language. He will not allow injustice to exist forever.
I was watching one of those geeky science shows about space I like to watch—it always makes for great conversations at Wrestling with Faith when we begin to consider the transcendent claims of God. Anyway, scientists were going on and on about how relatively few, given the numbers of planets now discovered, that live in the so-called “Goldilocks Zone,” the range where they think life might be possible. That scarcity had caused the scientists to ponder whether life would be possible in other worlds and moons—the real point of the show. Suns are tough because they are basically big, bright nuclear reactions. Too close and not enough atmosphere and magnetic field, and life is burned away or irradiated. Too far and there’s not enough warmth.
As they droned on about other places that might support life, I was, as you might imagine, drawn to the prominence of the image of the sun in the ANE. In many cultures it was a god. In some cultures, the rulers were viewed as descendants or favored of the sun. Not unsurprisingly, the Scriptures use the sun to describe God. God’s glory is brighter than the sun, but the image helps us understand. Too close and lacking the proper protection, we get burned. But clothed in the righteousness of Christ, we can see God face to face. It’s an appropriate image in light of God’s consistent revelation to His people, especially as described by Malachi today.
The question left hanging of Malachi’s audience and us is how? How will this be accomplished? Malachi, as you should but probably do not know, ends his book with the promise that the Lord will send Elijah! Malachi’s prophesy ends with this warning and promise: “Be mindful of the Teaching of My servant Moses, whom I charged at Horeb with laws and rules for all Israel. Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole Land with utter destruction. Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord.” What is the answer to the problem of justice and sin? Jesus! How is God able to bring us back into His presence, back into full communion with Him as we were in the Garden without utterly destroying us because of our sin? Jesus! God can no more overlook our sin than you and I can overlook our need to breathe or blink.
So, to solve that problem, He sent His Son, who lived an unblemished life and who chose to die in our place, willingly chose. I don’t think we truly understand that Jesus had to will to hang there and die for us, that His blood might cleanse us from our sins. Had He, at any moment, changed His mind, we would have been utterly and irredeemably lost! But He did not. And so we give thanks and glory for what He did for us. He made it possible for our hearts to be transformed.
And we understand, of course, that He was the Elijah of whom God spoke in Malachi. For God’s people, Elijah became the source of hope that would precede God’s Day of Judgment. Now you know why the Elijah seat is empty at seders. Now you know why, when Jesus asked the Apostles who people said He was, some said Elijah. Now you understand the appearance of Elijah and Moses at our Lord’s Transfiguration a bit better. He was and is the promised Figure; He was and is the perfect sacrifice for the whole world, not just for our own sins, as our Prayer Book reminds us!
So, why did I spend so much time and energy explaining a couple short verses from a book nobody reads or knows? We are Adventers. It is our calling to proclaim Christ’s first coming, the Incarnation, and His Second Coming, the Day of the Lord or the Day of Judgement. You and I are called to have an eye to the past and an eye to the future. Our message is not unlike that given to Malachi. In fact, we are His messengers, His heralds, every bit as much as Malachi was in his day.
One tidbit of history I left out was the fact that Malachi was the last voice of God in the Old Testament. Once Malachi speaks, God seems to go silent. Israel will wonder as the years drag on whether the Covenant is still in place. Are they still God’s chosen people? Will salvation be made possible for the rest of the nations through them? As the years turn to decades and the decades turn to centuries, those fears will grow. That’s part of the reason when John the Baptist comes on the scene, to proclaim a baptism of repentance, that people flock to him. The messenger who prepares the way for the Lord is the first prophet since Malachi! John’s preaching and teaching gives hope to a people who fear God has forgotten them, who fear that God has abandoned them because of their stiff-necked, willful ways.
You and I live in a world that bears all the signs of that coming day. We see and hear of wars constantly. Our leaders serve their own interests and not those of those who voted for them. Disease runs amok. Natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, and whatever else ravage us and the earth. The poor are chewed up and spit out by a bunch of our systems. We live in the wealthiest land the world has ever known, and yet people hunger among us, struggle for health care among us, get a less than acceptable education, have no hope among us. Even among the new Israel, the Church, things are run amok. Theologians can confess publicly that their teaching is heretical, be called out by a faithful priest, go to a bishop and complain their feelings were hurt when they were chastised for teaching heresy, and have the bishop spend the first few minutes of the conversation with the priest chewing the priest out for denouncing heresy, until the priest got through to the bishop that such is ours and the jobs of bishops. And, even after the bishop recognizes the truth of those words, still admonish the priest that we don’t want to make too big a deal about heresy, that it does not lead away from God and to eternal death, as if sin is not a big deal to God.
Newsflash, folks: God takes sin so seriously that He sent His Son to deal with it! And lucky for us, because only His Son could deal with it for our sakes.
All that, of course, brings us back to the call of our patronal season. We are Adventers. We proclaim that the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, has come into the world. How do we know this to be true? All the Scriptures teach us about Him. All of His disciples and Apostles testified to His Resurrection from the dead. And those in His closest circle witnessed His Ascension into heaven after His promise to return again. Our choice, like that of Israel, is simple. Do we believe what God has taught and promised, or do we reject Him in lieu of whatever bauble catches our eye or whatever melodious song catches our ear? That decision has consequences, eternal consequences.
If you find yourself arguing with my words in the back of your mind, ask yourself if you are sitting under God’s Word or placing yourself above His Word. What has He taught? What has He revealed? I know it’s unpopular. I know the world is put off by the “exclusivity” of the Cross. The world is full of good people is a popular lie. No one, no one save Jesus of Nazareth, was good. The rest of us sin. And that sin has a consequence. That sin separates us from the Creator of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen. That He sent His Son to make it possible for us to get back is the greatest summary of His grace. Guess what? The world has always been put off by the Gospel, yet here we are! You and I gathered here this day are a testimony to the power of God’s grace in the world! His Gospel has survived emperors and despots and all sorts of anti-Christian rulers. His Gospel has survived the indifference or outright rejection of the world. His Gospel has survived even the death of countless martyrs. So here we stand!
And as a result, it falls to us, to Adventers and all Christians, but especially to Adventers, to remind ourselves and to teach the world that He will, one glorious day, return! One day, He will come with healing and redemption and vindication for His people consequences for those who, in every generation, have rejected Him. We live in an age that sees wars, sees natural disasters, sees and hears of martyrs for the faith daily, sees plagues, sees famines, and all the other signs of those things that will take place before His return. Those signs, that so leave the world clucking their tongues about suffering and pain and death, ought to inspire in us a real passion to share the Gospel because, one day, time will be up! Like the thief in the night He will return to claim what is and who are rightfully His. Our work is of that kind of salvific importance.
Is it a hard teaching to remind ourselves that God is love and just and righteous and holy and patient and whatever other adjective we most want or need Him to be? Sure. Is it fair that those who reject Him are burned away, leaving no root or branch? Think of it like this: Is it fair that we get to dwell with Him eternally because Jesus died for my and your sins? I know it was not for Jesus. But that’s why it’s good news of great joy! That’s why it’s Gospel! God loves us! God wants us to return to Him because one day He will return to us! The question for us and for those whom we know and love is whether His presence will be the healing warmth of His love or the destructive fire of His wrath! It really is that simple. It really is that offensive. It really is that wonderful!
The people during Malachi’s time and certainly after wondered whether God cared, whether God would act, whether they would be vindicated for choosing Him, and whether evil would be punished. Just as the people of our time, just as you and I do today. Our Lord’s answer is far more glorious than we could ever have hoped or dreamed on our own. Malachi prophesied, and so we proclaim, Elijah (Jesus) will come. And on that day when He returns, those who reject God will no longer prosper; more important to us, though, those who claim His Son as Lord will receive healing and blessing and life beyond imagining! And that promise, brothers and sisters, is why we, we who call ourselves Adventers, exist. It falls to us to remind the world that love and mercy of God is every bit as real as He has promised, as is His promise to return and dwell with us, driving away all the consequences and servants of sin! Christ has come! Christ WILL come again!
In His peace,