Through the last of his prophets, Malachi, the Lord puts Israel through the wringer. “I have loved you,” he says. “I have preserved you. Yet you have not treated me like a Father.”
“How have we not treated you like a Father?” they replied.
“Let me count the ways.
“You have put defiled food upon my altar. The poorest of your animals, the weakest, the broken, the worthless. Even then you have cried out about these offerings, ‘What a burden!’
“Your priests have not taught your well. They shoulder some of the blame for your ignorance, poor behavior, and bad theology.
“You have committed adultery against me, breaking faith with the wife of your youth in the worship of false gods.
“You have perverted God’s word by saying that all who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord.
“You have tolerated and participated in sorcery, adultery, perjury, fraud, cheating, and oppressing.
“You have withheld your gifts from me, despite my promise to bless you.
“You say, ‘It is futile to serve God. What did we gain?’
And Israel says, “Oh, that.”
And the Lord inquires, “Shall I go on?”
For such a short book it’s a long indictment. And the end results God makes dramatically clear in this final chapter:
“’Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the LORD Almighty. ‘Not a root or a branch will be left to them.’”
“’Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet.’”
“‘Or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.’”
In the end, fire will not only consume the heavens and the earth, but also sinners. Just as John the Baptist preaches: “The ax is at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”
“Beloved in the Lord.” If you’re paying attention, and I assume that you are, that’s what I call you in the opening words of our liturgy on Sunday mornings. Just as the Lord said through Malachi, “I have loved you.” Yet, you have not loved the Lord.
“How?” we cry.
It’s the same list. On the altar of the Lord too often sit defiled gifts. Given out of pride or arrogance, or given against our will. Too often it’s the least. The last line item of our budget, after we’ve satisfied ourselves. Or used as a weapon to exert control over the church, perhaps even over God. And we have called it, all along the way, a burden.
Your priests are guilty too. How well have we taught you? Throughout the world, thanks to priests and pastors, the Word stands in disrepute, often unheard, often not understood, often perverted. And here, where it is, we pray, faithfully proclaimed, is it the whole will of God, or just enough to get by, just enough to make sure no one gets really annoyed or angry?
Our faithfulness to the Lord can easily be questioned. How many apostasies from the church began at a wedding day, when lust or love or convenience or desire or whatever it was ended up trumping faithfulness to the Word? How many of our children and grandchildren have fallen from or left the church through marriage? And if not there, certainly we can find our love for our first love burning less brightly than it once did, as other things begin to compete with God for glory.
In our time situation ethics rules the day. The ends justify the means. We often call evil “good” and good “evil” in the name of – what? – convenience, economic security, or what have you. We can tolerate any number of things, keep our mouths shut, and by so doing imply consent, so long as the bottom line benefits us.
And sorcery? How about horoscopes? Adultery? Sex is everywhere and our eyes follow it. Perjury and fraud? Corners get cut continually from the truth throughout our lives. Cheats and oppressors? Well, it’s all about me first, isn’t it? Too bad for that guy if he wasn’t tough enough.
And we say, “Oh, that.”
And the Lord inquires, “Shall I go on?”
We said this Advent was about reality checks. God gives us one. Fire, death, and curse are our lot. We are not as good as we think we are. In fact, we’re not really good at all. We, like Israel, have not remembered “the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.” Or, at least, we have developed amnesia at convenient moments when it suits us.
So God sent Malachi. John. Your parents. Your pastors and teachers. Through them God sent someone greater: the Holy Spirit.
We so often think our preaching is so ineffective. Numbers don’t go up dramatically. Confirmands still drift away. Kids still do that ten-year hiatus from the Church. The world swirls deeper and deeper into the toilet. Struggles only increase. John and Malachi saw the same. And while God spoke of fire and curse, the cutting down of a tree, Zechariah and Malachi also spoke of a rising sun, of tender mercy, of giving and forgiving: “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.”
Sounds simple: revere God’s name. But I can’t. So, as Zechariah says, God gives it. God gives preachers to prepare the way, to give the knowledge of salvation, to give forgiveness, to deliver the rising sun from heaven, to guide our feet in peace, “to enable us to serve him without fear.” Or, in Malachi’s words, to trample the wicked into ashes for the Lord.
God gives and does what I can’t offer and do. He calls me by the gospel. He gives me the rising sun, His Son, Jesus, the promised healer, the one who bore the fire and curse of God. Paul says Jesus took upon himself the curse of the cross to be the curse for you. First he had to take on your flesh, step into your shoes, get as close to the curse as he could, make himself smell like burnt chaff.
He rose, this sun of righteousness, in the womb of Mary, loved by the Father and loving the Father, serving, so as to be a ransom for me. Winning the treasure that the Holy Spirit now daily and fully gives to me when I hear that preached word: “You are forgiven.” A word he repeats to turn my heart back to him, keep me in the Church, free me from God’s curse, and see, that in Christ, from God, I have gained everything, even if I lose the world. Because Jesus is the end of “or else.” Amen.