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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 11/14

Tonight’s first lesson from Malachi represents the first verses of the last chapter of the last book of the Old Testament.  They’re important verses because in these and the three that follow, there is something of a summary reminder of what biblical faith is all about and that’s good to think about looking back from the end of a church year.  

As I talk about sometimes, there are many voices represented in the various books of the Bible and they don’t all say the same thing.  They range from being very comforting to being very harsh and judgmental and you can’t smooth it out.  You can ignore what you don’t like if you want, but you can’t make it all say the same thing.  Acknowledging the different voices, you can then look for themes or threads that seem to hold things together and while there are a number of ways you can do that, there are two major themes that run throughout, themes which crisscross in places and which sometimes create tension; they are the themes of obedience and hope. 

These themes occur and reoccur all over the Bible.  There are calls for people to obey, to act in certain ways and sometimes they do; but sometimes they fail to do so.  Failure may be followed by judgment, harsh judgment, but almost always, judgment is followed by another chance; hope in other words.  As this played out in Luther’s thinking, he didn’t call it obedience and hope, he talked about law and gospel but it’s pretty much the same thing and the tension between the two became a focus of his theological thinking.  So whether you call it law and gospel or obedience and hope these are important theological concepts and in these final words from Malachi we are reminded of that.

In the verses that are actually appointed for today, verses 1-3, we get what was probably the first ending of the book and by themselves these verses are a little scary.  A stark contrast is made between evildoers and the righteous and there is no hope for the arrogant and evildoers as they will be burned in an oven on the day of the Lord, leaving neither root nor branch.  For them it’s done; it’s final and it’s harsh. 

Now, that’s not so scary if you know yourself to be righteous; then you go leaping like a calf from the stall, trampling on the ashes of those burnt up evildoers and of course everyone wants to think of themselves as righteous but there are an awful lot of stories where the tables are turned on those who think they are the righteous ones.  That was one of Jesus’ favorite topics.  So verses like these are meant to get our attention, they are meant to caution us about feelings of self-righteousness, thinking that we’re better than those evildoers when we should be hearing that all of us are called us to obedience. 

That’s where the lectionary leaves us this morning, at the end of verse 3 with that call to obedience…but that’s not where the book of Malachi leaves us, at least not the final version of Malachi.  It’s thought that many of the prophetic books underwent editing and revision over a period of time before they got to the final version that we have so verse 4 here was probably added later and is either a later ending, or at least a footnote to the first ending.  Either way, it’s pretty consistent with the first three verses.  It’s another reminder of the law, the teaching of Moses.  “Remember the teaching of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.”  Remembering the teaching of Moses is consistent with the threat of a punishing fire which is what happens when you don’t remember the statutes and ordinances.  So this second ending stays the course and serves mostly to reinforce the obedience theme.

But that’s not the last word either.  There was still that other theme, the theme of hope, and the final editor of Malachi wouldn’t let the book end without bringing that to mind.  And so we get verses 5 and 6 as a third ending or a final footnote; “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.”  Those are the final verses of Malachi, the final verses of the Old Testament.  With this ending, the prophetic tradition is lifted up, a tradition which offered hope, hope for the return of a prophet like Elijah, a prophet who could counter the finality of the fiery oven of verse one.

So the Old Testament ends in hope.  In this six verse final chapter of Malachi you get the law and the prophets, you get obedience and hope, but you end with hope.  We’re not there yet at the end of Malachi, the full arrival and promise of hope is yet to come.  But with the reminder about Elijah there is anticipation and hope for something other than the threat of fiery judgment.

In Christian interpretation this ending becomes vitally important.  As the Jesus movement evolved it was easy to make connections between this hopeful ending and what went on with Jesus.  Malachi is placed at the end of the Christian Old Testament because it was seen as a natural link between the Old Testament prophecies and Jesus who represents our ultimate story of hope, the ultimate story of the fulfillment of God’s promises.  Advent starts in a couple of weeks and when it does we’ll hear about John the Baptist who is linked to Elijah; Jesus himself is questioned about his own connection to Elijah because…Malachi created that hope.  Some people remembered his words and were looking for Elijah in John the Baptist and in Jesus.    

We know though that we live in the in between times of the already but not yet of that promise.  In Jesus, the future of God has been revealed to us.  But the kingdom he announced is not yet here in fullness, so we still wait in anticipation concerning the end that Malachi announces.  We know how the story ends, but in between there are still dangers and challenges and that’s where texts like tonight’s gospel come in.

It sounds scary; wars and earthquakes and famine, great distress on earth and wrath against the people; people falling by the edge of the sword and being taken away as captives.  It sounds scary if you hear it as a literal end of the world doomsday scenario, but that’s not what it is. 

Among those who study first century Christianity and Judaism, the thinking is that these ominous sounding texts were never intended to be taken literally and were not about the end of the world as we might think about it, but instead they were a way to talk about a “this worldly” regime change, a way to talk about it without getting in trouble with those in power.  It was kind of code language about a new world order in which the existing power of Rome would be overturned and the kingdom of God would be fully established, a kingdom in which God’s people, the people of Israel, would play a prominent role.    

So it was Jesus getting his disciples attention, cautioning them not to be too comfortable and also reminding them not to be resigned to things as they are.  He was calling on them to look for change, to hope for change, to work for change in keeping with his teachings even if it meant the end of some of the things they liked about the way things were. 

Keep in mind that when Jesus created these frightening sounding images the disciples were admiring the beauty of the temple, one of the most impressive and revered structures in the ancient city of Jerusalem but Jesus said it was coming down which had to get their attention.  But again, the intent of this kind of scary sounding apocalyptic language was not primarily to frighten but to provide hope that something new, something better was possible.

We need both though.  We need the healthy fear of judgment that calls us to obedience; that’s part of being a disciple.  But like the final editor of Malachi, we remember that fear of judgment can’t be the last word.  The church year always brings us back around to Advent hope, and with that hope in mind we begin again.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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