Turning the Page

For behold, the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave neither root nor branch.  But as for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.  (Malachi 4:1-2)

The book of the prophet Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament.  The fourth chapter (the last chapter) has only six verses, most of which we read this morning.  And the last line – which means the last line of the Old Testament, as it's arranged in our Bibles – is a threat: “he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse.”

The prophet has already told of the coming of the messenger of God (“he is like a refiner’s fire”), and fine-tuned the image – the day that comes shall burn them up!  And he leaves his listeners with a cliff-hanger.  Will the hearts of fathers be turned?  Will the hearts of their children be turned?  Or will God smite the land with a curse?  Coming, as this does, at the very end of the Old Testament, it’s enough to make you ask: Is this how it’s all going to end?  It might even be enough to make you want to turn the page and read on!

Generally speaking, I don’t like the passages we read from Scripture today – and I’m guessing you don’t either.  They tend toward fire and brimstone, which is not really my stock in trade.  I prefer the warm and fuzzy gospel of the Good Shepherd who goes after the lost sheep to the Jesus who warns that wars, insurrections, earthquake, famine, and plague are part of the story of salvation.  I prefer the prophetic vision of the great feast of fat things on the holy mountain of God to the vision of the day that comes, burning like an oven.

And since I am an Episcopalian, it is often assumed that I can choose the parts of Scripture I like and ignore the parts I don’t.  But that is a characterization made by people who don’t go to church every Sunday – which is to say, other Episcopalians.

Today we heard it – “Behold the day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up.”  And I don’t want to hear it.  I don’t want to think about a God who stokes the fires of an oven for anyone – the allusion is too cruel.  I don’t want to think about sheep being separated from goats, about doors being locked, about weeping and gnashing of teeth, about betrayal and persecution.  This is not the message of love that has won my heart!

Is it true that I am prone to pick and choose those parts of the Christian message that I want to hear?  Do I live in a kind of bubble of privilege that gives me the freedom to do so?  If I’m honest, I suppose that both of these things are true in some measure.  And I know that it is unrealistic.  Because I know, of course, that in this city there are kids being pressured to get involved with gangs who don’t feel they have much choice.  I know there are families ruined by drugs who can’t imagine they have much choice.  I know there are children whose lives are shaped by violence who can’t even find a safe corner, let alone a protective bubble.  I know there are schools in this city where a child can’t even learn to read let alone explore the meaning of justice, truth, or beauty.  I know that there is some cruel power here in Philadelphia that has recruited gun-toting goons to take close to 350 lives so far this year.

And it would be easy for many of us to want to retreat into safety.  But the Scriptures – certainly the prophet Malachi – compel us to read on, as it were, to turn the page, rather than close the book and reach for something else.

Whether we like it or not, there seem to be what the prophet called  “evildoers” in the world around us.  Some of them are packing explosives into vests; some are industriously at work in crystal meth labs; some wreak havoc in their homes and others do so across entire nations; some sit at government desks; and some stand waiting on streetcorners; some open fire in a Dunkin Donuts in the city of brotherly love.

And the question that the Scriptures pose again and again is this: is this how it’s all going to end: a marketplace of injustice and a cruel imbalance of power?  Has God smitten the world with a curse?  Is there hope?

In the Bible, as in life, it is important to remember to turn the page.  And the clever editors who once decided to put Malachi’s threat at the end of the Old Testament did so for a reason – to get you to turn the page and begin the story of Jesus.

If we turn the page we find that as Malachi predicts, God’s messenger (in the person of John the Baptist) does come.  And if he is not quite a refiner’s fire, he has at least a measure of urgency in his call to repent.  And his urgency does not point to an impending storm of fire and brimstone, but, it turns out, to the birth of a child.  It’s enough to make you glad you turned the page.

And isn’t this how the story so often goes?  The threat of God’s awful righteousness tempered by his mercy?  The destruction of the flood tempered by the promise of the rainbow.  The offensive sacrifice of Isaac stayed by the hand of an angel and the provision of a ram.  Hunger in the desert assuaged by bread from heaven.  An angry God shown to be more godly in his mercy.  It’s important to turn the page.

We live in an age when it seems entirely plausible to me that God has fires to stoke.  There are people – let’s call them evildoers – who are inflicting great harm on other people in our neighborhoods, our city, our nation, our world.  Where are the refining fires of God?  Will he not smite those who have presume to usurp his power – the power of life and death – into their own hands?  “Evildoers not only prosper but when they put God to the test they escape!”

Will God ever turn this page?

In answer to this question, the prophet is given a vision that is so confusing to him that the best he can do to express it is a lyrical melee of mixed metaphors:  For you who fear my name, God says, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.

Amidst the fear that the world slips ever more deeply into darkness, we are told that the sun will rise!

Amidst our fears that justice has been perverted, equity is a dream, truth doesn’t exist, and holiness is a vapor, we are told of righteousness!

Amidst a disease-ridden world that cannot summon the will to battle malaria, tuberculosis, or AIDS with all its might, we are told that healing comes!

Amidst the hobbling ballast of self-indulgent consumerism in which the marketplace reduces all things to their lowest common denominator, we are promised wings!

This is what comes of turning the page.  And even Malachi, for all his dark foreboding, cannot fail to proclaim it.  Does he see what’s coming?  Has he any inkling of the truth?  Does he know that he is close but not quite right?  Did he think that the burning fires were really the stoked flames of an angry God?  Turn the page and see!  

The crucible of God’s justice is a manger.  The furnace of God’s love is a mother’s womb.  This is how God turns the page!

My brothers and sisters, we live in dangerous times.  I have said it before and I will say it again.  It is easy to find a story of gloom written in the pages of our newspapers and in the book of history that we are writing for ourselves.  It is easy to see the end of all things and the judgment of an angry God handed down from the bench.  And who could blame him!?

But turn the page and see.  See that babe in the lowly manger.  He is the sun of righteousness, risen with healing in his wings.  He has, it would seem, more pages still to turn before he draws the world more tightly to himself, before the whole story is told.  But thanks be to God that he has already written the ending.  He alone knows it.  But he urges us to keep turning the pages, and looking for the sun of righteousness to rise and to rise and to rise, with healing in his wings!

Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
18 November 2007
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on November 19, 2007 .