Malachi 3:19-20; Psalm 98:5-6,7-8,9; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12; Luke 21:5-19
For most of us Americans the biblical allusions to earthquakes, wars, insurrections and the destruction of our world order which appear at the end of the liturgical year, always seemed remote and so medieval and “primitive” sounding. Since September 11th and recent terrorist bombings, these dreadful images, the kind we have in the Malachi and the gospel readings, don’t seem as other-worldly as they once did. These description of “wars and insurrections” and the destruction of the seeming indomitable Temple of Jesus’ day, sound too much like the scenes that horrify us on live television news. What a fright! The seeming indestructible has been an illusion, life is more vulnerable than we have been willing to admit – until now.
Both the Malachi and Luke narratives warn of dire endings. The world as we know it, we are told, is going to come crashing down, suddenly and violently. The gospel scene sounds all too contemporary. People are admiring what seemed like a permanent edifice, the Temple. By the time Luke wrote this passage the Temple had already been destroyed – “there will not be left a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” Jesus, a devout Jew, found the established religion of his day woefully inadequate and unresponsive to people’s real needs. The Temple building might be worthy of awe; the worship within it was not.
Malachi also addressed the degradation of Temple worship of his time. On most of the Sundays of this liturgical year we have had readings from Luke’s gospel. (When Advent begins we will start a new cycle and Matthew will be the featured Sunday gospel.) But the appearance of Malachi is rare in the lectionary cycle and so I thought we would focus these reflections on this little known prophet and his dire vision.
The Book of Malachi is the last of the prophetic writings and was written around the beginning of the 5th century B.C.E. He was outraged by the loss of religious fervor among the people, symbolized by the degradation of worship in the Temple (1:7). The priesthood was lax (1:6-8) and massive injustices existed in the land (3:5). In addition, people were losing faith in God’s governing power and questioned the seeming absence of the God of justice. They could complain, as we are tempted to do today, that being a just person and serving God have no rewards, since the unjust flourish and seem to go unpunished for the iniquities against God’s people. Malachi promises a day of renewal when Temple worship will again praise God and a holy priesthood will lead the people back to God. A purging will happen, a day when evil will be finally destroyed and the world cleansed of injustice, for the “sun of justice” will arise….something people needed and longed to happen.
Malachi warns us, “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven….” The “proud and all evildoers will be stubble and the day that is coming will set them on fire, leaving them neither root nor branch.” We will hear this in church Sunday. I don’t know how many real-life evildoers will be there in church, but the oracle is serious enough to stir us all out of a sense of security. Who can feel secure in the face of such a searing judgment? When it is time to plant a new crop the farmer goes into the field to burn the stubble from the last harvest to clear the earth for a new planting. God is going to act decisively and do a whole new thing, finally clearing the world of the injustice that beats down the God-fearers. The oppressed, who have put their faith in God, have waited long for this day of judgment and renewal. Yet, all of us must ponder our own fate in the light of this decisive day. Is this passage just meant to be more discouraging news of gloom and destruction?
Lord knows we have a lot to be discouraged about these days. Believers in Jesus’ church community can ask serious and disturbing questions as we struggle to set the world and even our own church aright. How long must we keep at it? Why aren’t things getting better? Will we have to wait till the end of the world to finally see vindication of justice? Will we ever see things right in our own life times? We can’t answer these questions. What the believer must do is continue at whatever task is at hand, knowing whatever is left undone on our part, will not be left undone permanently. Things will be set right, Malachi tells us; God’s ways will prevail and be triumphant. Meanwhile, we continue to do our best to counter terror with courage; to work for peace even now at a time of war and a threat of war; to trust in God when so many good people have suffered and died. God is not asleep, nor indifferent to our world. Things are not right within our temple and without. But they are not hidden from God, even if God seems to be delaying in rescuing us. Malachi is a reassurance to the believer that injustice will not prevail, for God’s day is coming when justice will, after all, be the victor.
What are we to do with Malachi and Jesus’ somber predictions, that the current order will be dismantled and a new one established in which God is supreme and good prevails? The predictions are not meant to frighten the God-fearing, but are a wake up call, a reminder to review our priorities and tend to what is permanent. We don’t have to be prominent evildoers to take these predictions seriously. We can be lulled into the routine of our daily life that requires lots of attention. We may lose our perspective and live as if all that matters is what is before our face, whatever requires attention now. Some may even lose sight of God while focusing on self interest, as if that were all that mattered. But Malachi is a helpful warning that stubble will be burnt away.
For those who have feared God, kept faith and even endured hardship, Malachi brings good news for the “sun of justice” will arise “with its healing rays.” If one sees Jesus as this just “sun/Son” then his rays will bring renewal of heart, spirit and mind. He will also be the one to renew the Temple by announcing God’s Word of reconciliation. He will teach us true worship and praise for he will be the truly holy high priest. Indeed, he himself will be the renewed temple, the holy place in whose presence we meet and worship God.
Jude Siciliano, OP