Sunday, November 14, 2010
Sermon for the 25th Sunday after Pentecost (November 14, 2010)
“Preparing for the Day” (Malachi 4:1-6)
In the days ahead, you and I will be making some important preparations. The holiday season is fast approaching. There is shopping to do, menus to prepare, parties to plan.
Besides Thanksgiving and Christmas, there are many days in our lives that require important preparation. Some of these days we look forward to with joy. A graduation. A wedding. The birth of a child. Other days we await with dread. A surgery. A day in court. Taking the SAT.
The end of the Church Year is fast approaching. Next Sunday is the last Sunday of the Church Year. Advent begins the Sunday after Thanksgiving. As we approach the end of the Church Year this week and the next, we are reminded of the end of all time and all history that God has promised in his Word. The prophet Malachi, in today’s Old Testament reading, reminds us to prepare ourselves for that “great and awesome day of the Lord” when he will come to judge the living and the dead. Are you looking forward to that day with dread or with joy?
First, a little background on Malachi is in order. Malachi lived at the time after the people of Judah had returned from exile in Babylon, sent there because of their persistent disobedience to God. Now, the walls of Jerusalem and the temple had been rebuilt. But whereas the people should have shown their gratitude to God for restoring them, they remained sinfully stubborn and stiff-necked. The priests did not offer unblemished sacrifices as the law required, but brought blind, lame, and sick animals (Mal. 1:8). Divorce was rampant (Mal. 2:14). Men married idol-worshipping women from the surrounding nations (Mal. 2:11). Workers were cheated out of fair wages. Widows, orphans, and immigrants were neglected (Mal. 3:5). Offerings were withheld from the Lord (Mal. 3:8). The people complained that the wicked seemed to prosper and escape God’s judgment (Mal. 3:14-15). To this situation, Malachi was called to preach. His book is the last book of the Old Testament, and the words of today’s text are the very last words of the Old Testament. They tell the people of Judah to be ready for the Day of the Lord. As we listen to Malachi, these words remind us, too, to make important preparations for that “great and awesome day.”
Prepare by listening to God’s promises. He promises first that although it seems as if the wicked do prosper, in the end they will receive justice. Judgment will fall upon “all the arrogant and all evildoers.” Malachi pictures God’s judgment as a burning oven, setting ablaze those who proudly set their face against him, turning those who do evil to ashes which will be trampled upon. After Mount Saint Helens blew its top and leveled whole forests with the heat and force of its blast, it wasn’t long before plants started to sprout up again. Life was springing forth in the midst of death. But not in this case. As a fire consumes the whole tree, Malachi says “neither root nor branch” will be left after facing God’s fiery wrath over sin and disobedience. There will be no hope of life ever springing up again.
In the midst of this shines forth another promise from God … the promise of “healing” for those who fear God’s name, for those who trust in him as their Creator and Redeemer. “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.” (Mal. 4:2) This “sun of righteousness” is Jesus, the Son of God, who came to bring healing through the forgiveness of sins. He is the “root of Jesse” (Is. 11:10), a shoot from the remnant of the people of Israel, born to be the Messiah. He is the “branch” who came forth to bear the fruit of a holy and righteous life in our place (Is. 11:1-5), bringing peace between God and man through his saving death and eternal life through his resurrection. Isaiah 53:5 describes our Lord’s suffering for us at the cross in this way: “He was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” The “sun of righteousness” will be the light and life of God’s redeemed people forever. The Revelation to St. John pictures the end of all things and the restoration of paradise and says, “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 22:5)
Next, the Lord says through the prophet to prepare for the Day of the Lord by remembering the Law of Moses. The Law had been neglected and ignored in Malachi’s day. And so once again, God calls the people to turn from their disobedience, repent, and return to him in faith and trust.
But the Law doesn’t only condemn Malachi’s contemporaries. It condemns sinners like you and me today. Whenever we disobey any of God’s commandments, it shows that we are the ones who are “arrogant” and “evildoers.” When we sin, it shows that we think we know better than God about what is good for us. That’s arrogant. That’s evil.
For the people of Malachi’s day, the Law of Moses also included a way to cover over their arrogance and evil. Yahweh promised that he would graciously dwell with them in the tabernacle and later in the temple. The priests were to offer sacrifices there in God’s presence on behalf of the people, the shed blood of bulls and goats and lambs … perfect, unblemished ones, which would atone for their sins. But all these sacrifices were only temporary. The earthly rituals in the holy places pointed to a greater heavenly reality. They point us to the once-for-all sacrifice of the perfect, unblemished Lamb of God, Christ himself. Here’s how the author of the Letter to the Hebrews puts it: “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Heb. 9:11-14)
The shed blood of the Savior covers over every bit of our arrogance and evildoing. And just like the priests partook of a portion of the sacrifices on the altar, you and I get to eat and drink the body and blood of our Savior in the Lord’s Supper. That which Christ offered for us on the cross is given to us here and now for the forgiveness of our sins, the assurance of his merciful presence with us, and the strengthening of our faith in him as the one who has paid in full the price for our sins.
Malachi concludes his book … and the whole Old Testament, for that matter … by telling the people to prepare for the Day of the Lord by looking for the coming of Elijah. Through the mouth of the prophet, the Lord says, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” (Mal. 4:5-6)
We learn who this promised “Elijah” is in the New Testament. It’s not literally Elijah the prophet. Rather, it was John the Baptist. Jesus said “he is Elijah who is to come.” (Matt. 11:14) The angel Gabriel announced to John’s father Zechariah that John would go before the Lord “in the spirit and power of Elijah.” (Luke 1:17) John the Baptist was the bridge between the Old and New Testaments. He came as the last and greatest of the prophets who came to preach and prepare the way for the first coming of Jesus the Messiah. John’s call was “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Matt. 3:2) Fathers, be reconciled to your children. Children, be reconciled to your fathers. Your relationships can be restored through the restoration you will receive through the Savior.
Tragically, the nation of Israel refused to receive that restoration by believing in Jesus as the promised Messiah. As a result, God did indeed “strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” Jerusalem was overrun by the Romans in 70 AD. The temple was destroyed, never to be rebuilt even to this day. Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson warns the disciples of that coming destruction and uses it as a picture of the final judgment to come on the Last Day.
Today, you and I, too, can prepare for the Day of the Lord by heeding John the Baptist’s call to repentance. John pointed people to “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) John called people to receive “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3) Our Baptism in the name of the Triune God is also a baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Daily we repent of our sins. And as we do, we return to the promises God gave to us in our Baptism … forgiveness of sins, rescue from death and devil, and eternal salvation to all who trust in Christ.
You and I are ready for “the great and awesome day of the Lord” because of two other “great and awesome” days. On that great and awesome day of Good Friday, the Lamb of God shed his blood for you and received the judgment for your sins. On that great and awesome day of Easter, the sun of righteousness rose in victory from the grave and now shares his victory with you in Holy Baptism. The fear of the fire of the final day is extinguished in those precious waters. We can look forward to the Second Coming of Jesus with joy, not dread. And we go out like calves released from the stall, leaping for joy in freedom and liberation.