Monday, April 3, 2017

Malachi: Prepare Ye the Way

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Malachi 1:1, 3:1-3, 4:1-6:

Repent, for the Kingdom of God has come near. That is the message that begins Jesus’ ministry, it’s also the message proclaimed by John the Baptist, although how we normally hear it is repent for the end is near, or at least that’s how cartoonists like to picture it, and I think that’s appropriate for today’s message because we are coming to an end. Today is the end of life without real baseball. It’s the end of our normal Sunday’s of Lent as next Sunday is Palm and Passion Sunday. Malachi is the last book in the Hebrew Bible, and so his writings marks the end, or as Tertullian says, the boundary of the New Testament, and today also represents the end of our sermon series on the 12 Minor Prophets, and we end with the prophet Malachi and his message about the coming of the messenger who will make the way for the messiah.

Malachi is another one of the prophets that we are not given any genealogy about, as the book simply starts telling us that these are some oracles from God delivered by Malachi, of whom we know nothing. The word Malachi means “messenger of God” and so it’s possible that this is not even a proper name but instead that it is a title that this prophet held, much like is possible with the prophet Obadiah. There is no specific information given about events that are taking place during the time of his prophecy, but we do have some hints that give us possible dating points. The first is that he refers to governors of Judah, rather than kings, which would seem to indicate that the Jews are not in political control of the territory, and he also refers to sacrificial activities as if the Temple is built and functioning, which would mean that it has to be either before the destruction of the first temple, when there were kings not governors, or after the Temple has been rebuilt after their return from the Babylonian exile, which is certainly the most likely period. In addition, the linguistic style that is being used is from the Persian period, and so most scholars date the work around the mid 5th century, but there is no certainty on that dating.

That makes Malachi, more than likely, not just the last prophet in scripture, but possibly the last named prophet in the tradition, and what is intriguing about that is that the book of Malachi is different enough from the other prophets that some have speculated that he was forming a new prophetic tradition. There are six distinct units in the book that begin with the prophet making an accusation against the people, often in the form of a question, which is then followed by a rebuttal by the people to the initial charge, and then is completed when God or the prophet reaffirms the initial accusation. Some of these accusations are similar to what we have heard in the past about the people’s faithfulness to God, but some are also questions that have been asked throughout and that we also still ask, like, “why do evil people prosper?” and “where is the God of justice?” They are not denying that God is a God of justice, but wondering why injustice is prevailing, or seems to prevail, in the world.  That is the question the people ask just before the beginning of the verses from chapter 3 that we heard this morning, where, for the first time in Malachi we hear about the coming of a messenger who will bring the coming day of the Lord.

The coming of the Day of the Lord has also been a common theme in the minor prophets, a day in which judgment will be brought into the world, in which the righteous will be rewarded and the unjust will be punished. That is while justice might not be apparent, it is coming and those who appear to be getting away with things are not getting away with anything, that they will be punished for their behavior, and who are those who will bear judgment? God says it will be “against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, and against those who thrust aside the alien.” As important as this list is to consider, this is not exhaustive, and for us the bigger question that precedes this, which we also heard in the prophet Joel, is “who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” The answer to that question is not “oh, I know I’m fine, but others need to quake in their boots.” The answer to that question is we can only endure not because of our righteousness or our justice, but because of the righteousness and justice of God and to remember the claim that God makes as the first line of the first oracle of Malachi: “I have loved you, says the Lord.”

I believe that the judgment passages make much more sense, and also provides a much greater sense of hope when we begin with the love of God, because that is where a sense of wanting to correct incorrect behavior comes from. Because while there are strangers children that I would like to smack around sometimes, I don’t want to do it necessarily to make them better people, but simply because they are annoying me. But, when I discipline my children, it’s not done just to do it because I can. I do it because I love my daughters and I want to teach them a lesson and make them better people for it, and I never really believed it when my parents told me this when I was growing up, but as a parent I believe it now, that sometimes the punishment hurts me more than it does them. And yet, is there a point at which this punishment can go too far? Absolutely. In the very first prophet we looked at 12 weeks ago, Hosea gives a metaphor of God’s relationship with Israel being like that of a marriage, but in that Hosea gives imagery of an abusive relationship, a very dark side of that metaphor for God, which I roundly rejected. Malachi gives a more familiar metaphor of God’s relationship with Judah as a father to a son, but this too has a dark side, also with abusive elements, like God at one point saying that the people’s animal offerings will be rejected because they are not bringing their best offerings, and in fact are not even paying the full tithe at all, but instead are bringing lame and blemished animals, gifts they would not present to the governor if they needed to give a gift, but the things they don’t want for themselves, and as a result God is going to spread the dung of those offerings onto their faces. That is the dark, abusive side of the metaphor, and just like with Hosea, has been used to justify atrocious behavior throughout the ages. Shaming and abuse do not teach a lesson other than to fear the abuser, even if the person might say it is being done in love, it is not, and it does not recon with either the love of a parent or the love of God. That is behavior, I believe, that will be judged on the day of the Lord and found wanting.

The Day of the Lord is coming, Malachi says, but for those who revere God’s name “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” That’s a line with which most of us are familiar because Charles Wesley used it, and we sing it every Christmas, in Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. It is a line about ending and new beginnings, about the coming of the Messiah, the promised one, the one who will redeem the creation and restore God’s order to the world, about a new beginning being instituted by God. But before that happens, God says, a messenger will come to prepare the way, and in chapter 4 we are told that messenger is the prophet Elijah. The belief in the return of the prophet Elijah, who never dies but instead was said to have gone up to heaven in bodily form as the chariot swung low to pick him up, the belief in his return became a major belief in Judaism in the next few centuries, and Malachi is at the very beginning of that belief if he is not the originator of it, and this prophecy becomes a major piece of Christian understanding as the early church sought to understand the relationship between Jesus and John the Baptist. That John was seen as the one who prepared the way. More importantly for us as Christians, we hear this proclamation about the coming of this messenger, and then we turn the page to the gospel of Matthew and hear “an account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David the son of Abraham.” An ending a beginning. The end of the Old Testament and the beginning of a New Testament, as well as being the end not just of the prophets but also of the law, as before God says he will send the messenger, God tells us to remember the teaching of Moses. We like to treat these two as if they are different, after all as Christians we say we don’t follow the law, although we conveniently pick and choose those we do want to follow, or that we want others to follow is more often the case, while ignoring those that might make us change our behavior, but the law and the prophets go together.  In the story of the transfiguration when Jesus goes up on the mountaintop and is changed in appearance, who is it that appears before him? It’s Moses and Elijah. And since there was also a story that Moses would return, this story reminds us that he is neither of these figures, and is greater than either of them. And when Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment, he says it is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and the second is just like it, love your neighbor as yourself, and then in Matthew he adds, “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

We are all always in beginnings and endings. One day ends and another begins, one season ends and another begins, life ends and eternal life begins, baseball season begins and then nothing else matters, and God is constantly sending us messengers both big and small to prepare the way for us. Who are the messengers in our lives? Who are the ones who have gone before us and who are the ones who are calling to us right now? Are we paying attention, or are we looking the other way, either unintentionally or unintentionally? Are we ready for the coming of the day or the Lord, because at some point we will all meet God face to face. Are we prepared? Are we ready? And just as important for this day, where are we being a messenger for God? Where are we proclaiming the good news, and I’m not talking about asking people whether they are saved or not, I’m talking about living our lives as if they matter, as if our faith matters, as if the good news matters, not just for us but for the world. Are we preparing the way for the coming of the Lord? Are we working for the Kingdom of God? Are we living into the prayer that we pray that God’s kingdom will come and God’s will will be done, on earth as it is in heaven, not tomorrow, but today, because that too is calling for the coming of the day of the Lord. Are we ready and are we making the way? I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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