09. December 2012
Malachi 4:1-6 [3:19-25]
“I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have you loved us?” Thus the prophet Malachi begins the final prophecy before four and half centuries of silence. “I have loved you,” says the LORD. What was true in Malachi’s day is true now. Our LORD has devastated all enemies. They are dust and ashes. The sin slate is wiped clean. Death is swallowed up in victory. The devil is whipped to roam this decaying world like a dying animal. You are Jacob whom God has loved. Even when your enemies rebuild their ruinous shelters, He tears them down with a mere Word: it is finished.
This eternal truth is easy to forget: through neglect, through ignorance, through avoidance, or even through good intentions. Thus it was in the days after Malachi. In the four hundred and thirty years until the last prophet comes, the people of God were marked by complacency. Under Persian emperor Cyrus, they had a cushy religious life. This pagan emperor helped rebuild all Jerusalem including the temple. Then the land was conquered again from the Greek Alexander the Great. Again, the government allowed the people to live religiously as they had while also being introduced to Greek culture. When Alexander died, his successor Ptolemy continued the tolerance policy.
During this time of relative ease, it was business as usual for the temple and synagogue. Even after the Seleucid’s took over—beginning an era of oppression, outlawing of circumcision, erecting of a statue of Zeus in the temple, and offering pagan sacrifices on the altar of the temple—it only lasted a few generations and Mattathias and his son Judas Maccabeus led a revolt to rid Jerusalem of these idolators and then the Roman conquest just 66 years before Christ’s birth.
We might be tempted to look back at this history and assume that the truth and faithful practice were maintained because they were tolerated. Since no one was bothering them, we might think they remained faithful. Especially when the temple was recovered by the Hasmoneans, surely right sacrifices and right believing was re-established? Yet, the people of God did not take such a critical view of their religious life. Rather than consider their practices according to God’s Word, they instead took what they received and added to it as they saw fit.
Being a proper Jew was thought to be about Jerusalem, the temple, regular sacrifices, and daily prayers. These were all good things if done in faith and not out of obligation. Where did they get such an idea that being faithful is about doing the right things? The religious types, say Malachi. It wasn’t always this way. Remember the priest Levi? God gave him a covenant of love and peace. Levi feared the Lord’s Word. In reverent awe, he spoke as the LORD gave him to say. The lips of a true priest holds onto knowledge and the people seek instruction from his mouth (Malachi 2:7).
But Levi’s sons turned aside from the way. They spoke in error, led the people to stumble. They corrupted the Word. They added laws where God had not spoken. They made promises where God had not. They picked and chose what Word fit their wants and ignored the Word that struck their hearts. Thus lost the promise of the covenant all the while looking perfectly religious.
The blame falls not just on the priests. They are at fault for teaching us in error, to be sure. But Malachi would have us remember Judah, our spiritual father. Our fathers inherited the covenant of love and peace. Then, over the generations they also abandoned it. They are considered by God faithlessness. They assimilated the ways of their world into their faith through the mixture of truth and error. Malachi foresaw the lawmaker Pharisaical cult of Jesus’ day. He saw the foresaw the lawyer Sadduccees who sought to put Christ to the test. He foresaw all those who said faithfulness was about religiosity.
What was true in Malachi’s day is also true today. Both pastors and fathers have become negligent. We’ve been led to think that being a faithful Christian is about being religious: doing the right things, knowing the right maxims, having the right attitude, or giving the right token of obedience. As with our fathers do we do these things out of tradition, obligation, or getting along? Or do we do them out of faith for faith?
He also foresaw the empty religiosity of American Christianity. Consider our own family and friends: once they were baptized. Once they communed with the LORD in love and peace. Once they were married to Christ as the holy bride, now they have divorced Him and take instead another wife. They walked from the faith of their baptism and took a new bride. They sought as wives instead the daughters of the gods of patriotism—loving their country about their LORD—or tradition—loving the the ways of man more than the ways of God—or wealth—hoarding money as if it were theirs to keep.
Our congregations have stopped listening to the Word, failed to take it to heart, and do not give honor to God’s holy name. We’ve listened selectively, mixing the Word of God with sour grapes, polluting the sweet wine of our Lord’s favor. We give the second hand of our last fruits. Our sacrifices are lame and blind, suitable for a beggar not an offering to God. Our practices are a reflection of what we think God wants and not a reflection of what God has said and made us. We continue with false and empty piety—going through the motions—because we think that in them we have life. But that’s what Pastor-so-in-so said! That’s what my parents’ did! That’s what I had to go through!
Don’t hear me wrong. Practices can be edifying if done in faith and for faith. Our religion (how we act out our faith) can also be distracting. Take Holy Baptism, for example, an institution of Jesus himself. Even weak Christians often uphold this gift and seek baptism for their child or grandchild. How long do they wait? Often its about getting all the family here, mom is suitably through her post-partum recovery, lining up what’s needed for the party, even waiting until the kid fits in the baptismal “dress.” That’s weird. If Baptism is what Jesus says it is—a saving flood—why would we wait for our child to receive salvation? Foolish. Our traditions and practices have gotten in the way of the truth.
Baptism and confirmation make a pair. The man-made tradition of Confirmation can be both edifying and useful. In Confirmation, each of you confirmed the faith given in Holy Baptism. Public confession of faith is helpful. In confirmation you announced to the congregation that you have remained in the faith granted at your baptism. It is a suitable rite of passage from childhood into adulthood in the congregation. In my case, my baptismal sponsors rightly declared their duty to watch over my faith done.
This tradition of man has also accrued error. Some parents think that confirmation is the end of their spiritual duties for their child. Wrong. You are your child’s spiritual guardian until you or they die. Some confirmands think this is graduation from the church, the end of their obligation to attend to God’s Word regularly. Wrong again. Our attentiveness to the Word of God continues until Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.
Most think that the man-made rite of Confirmation is examination to receive the Lord’s Supper. Wrong. Confirmation is about affirming your Baptism. Admission to the Lord’s Supper is both a matter of confession of common faith according to the Small Catechism and also pastoral examination. People today think that confirmation is a free ticket to the Lord’s Supper. Wrong. How many of you can say the Ten Commandments? How many of you know the chief texts of Holy Baptism, Holy Communion, and Holy Absolution? Go look at the memory board in the narthex and tell me if you can confess those things from memory?
You see what has happened. We act as if the traditions are justified in themselves and have ignored the truth behind them. We took God’s Word seriously for a time and now hide behind a confirmation years ago. There are no good reasons to continue in falsehood. The Christian church is not traditional. She is faithful. She does as her LORD would have her do. She hears His voice and lives according to His promise. Even when false teachers or errant practices arise in our midst, we do well to consider them carefully and never assume they have authority of themselves.
Malachi saw the empty religion of the coming generations and now even ours. Today it seems everything opposes us. It seems all is well for the wicked. False religious types speak faithless words. Even our family who should know better would have us believe a different Gospel, to forsake the truth of the Word, and look to idols for comfort and peace. They forsake the means of the Holy Spirit for other comforts. Ironically those idols seem to give exactly what their wearied souls need but their comfort only lasts for a short time. For now we must live in hope, suffering while it is night until this day comes.
Our religion is not about traditions and practices but faithfulness to God. Because we hold to faith for hope, it seems Christians are to be pitied most above all men. To those without faith God’s work here is seen as oppression, hatred, and unjust anger. We are being killed all the day long, regarded as lambs to the slaughter. We are persecuted, mocked, sorrowful, and grieving. We see the darkness with eyes of faith. We call a thing what it is. Sin—sin. Suffering—suffering. Pain—pain. Grief—grief. There’s no covering up reality for Christians. We know what it is, cross bearing all. The faithful life is life under the cross.
The cross is a purifying fire that devastates all. No sinful flesh is left but all are dust and ashes. We weep over sin, suffer all the day, know pain, and grieve with tears. We don’t make pretense to avoid the reality. We embrace the truth exposed. It is the light of the Gospel that devastates the old religion of works and man-made righteousness. That light exposes how rotten and corrupt the world truly is. In face of the Light, the old synagogue of the Law is burned to the root. The temple has no stone left standing. All the empty religion is chaff, separated and consumed.
But “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come into his temple.” (Malachi 3:1) The prophet sees the day of the Lord. On that day the tables are turned. The LORD will accomplish a great reversal. The day is coming when we will no longer need to live by trust in God’s word but will see this reversal come to pass. The wicked will be brought to an end and the just raised to life immortal. This day will come with fire that burns. Consuming fire. Fire that burns the dross, the chaff. The old will be destroyed and life and immortality brought to light.
This day comes with fire that heals: Christ, the sun of righteousness. His rays make men justified, cast out the works of darkness. His voice is the Word of the Gospel, seen only by the eyes of faith. The time of the Gospel is the day. All the rest is night and darkness. You see, Christ Himself is the Sun. He is faithful and in him is faithful religion. The traditions of men are laid aside for the Word of God.
All empty rites that keep the faithful busy will finally cease. “For His merciful kindness is great toward us, And the truth of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 117:2) The fire of Christ will in the end reduce all the wicked to ashes. All error will be brought to and end. All sorrow will end. Vacant religious practices exposed. The day is coming. The Sun of Righteousness is shining. To those who believe, who fear the name of the Lord, this Day is one to look forward to and rejoice in: “. . . straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).
Christ our Redeemer is coming; the Sun of Righteousness will bring healing in His wings. Blood and water from His pierced side washes you clean. He feeds you with holy food. He comforts you with His abiding presence in the midst of horrible things. These are no empty religious rites. They are the gifts of the Spirit acting through means of spoken Word, holy washing, and heavenly food. Faithful because they are not of men, of tradition, or even of good intentions. Faithful because they are of Christ and give Christ. Cast aside all false piety and hold to the faith once received. Fathers speak this to your children. Children listen to your fathers. Behold, the LORD is coming and indeed has come—Christ Jesus.
In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church