When will they learn?!
1 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and tall evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. 3 And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts. 4 “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. 5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 6 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.” (Malachi 4:1-6 ESV)
The phrase ‘when will they learn?’ is something said almost in despair when actions are repeated that are not beneficial or are harmful and no matter how much intervention has occurred for a different outcome the same thing happens again and again. There is a consistency, a pattern, but it isn’t one of good outcomes but of troubles – again and again. Such expressions are often said in a context of helping, teaching, encouraging but it seems there is no change in the behaviour … well, not really.
Today we come to the last book of the Old Testament. Malachi – means Messenger of the Lord – so is it a name or a title? – we’re not sure – but we do place him after the return of the people of Israel from exile – and the Temple is either being restored or is pretty well up and running (though there can always be work done on it) – and it seems that the last chapter of the last book – our first reading today – has an element to my ears of ‘when will they learn?’. God is doing now what he did from the beginning – calling out to people and wanting to rescue them so that they can live.
Remember the beginning – there’s creation – a perfect world – the man and the woman reflecting the image of God together – relating together in harmony, working together side by side, supporting each other, serving each other, and relating to God in a personal way we can’t really imagine – a paradise each day. Until we wanted more … until God’s Word wasn’t enough and humanity wanted to be like God and we denied death’s power over the disobedient (that’s not going to happen to me!) and rebelled against God with pride and arrogance. The consequences of what we call The Fall – were catastrophic for death and fear became as common as air and every relationship turned in on itself for its own needs and survival – we’re out for me first – and I’ll only help you if it’s in my interests – and God …? Well, he’s just too big and scary and so the man and the woman hid in the garden and behind puny attempts at clothing because shame was part of human existence.
And what did God do? He came searching for them – as if he didn’t know where they were?! – of course he knew but wanted them to see the predicament they were in but fear took control and it was worse than even thought possible – the man blamed the woman and God – it’s your fault! – not mine, never mine but through Adam, that one man, sin entered the world and with it death and destruction. And God didn’t destroy – not yet – but planned to rescue his beloved creation with the seed of the woman. And so was set in motion in those first chapters of Genesis two themes that don’t change throughout the Old Testament – throughout life itself – even our lives today – humanity sins, wrecks, and ruins everything and God comes to rescue, redeem, and help.
You can pick this up with any part of the Old Testament. There you’ll find people sinning – even the so-called bible heroes have feet (and more!) of clay and God is again merciful, gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. We can imagine Planet Earth groaning – the stars shaking their heads – and even the plants and animals looking at shocked amazement at each generation of people – when will they learn?! This God does so much for them!
By the time of Malachi, God had shown his punishment against idolatry and false worship countless times but most recently with the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah (we’re talking end of the 6th century BC) but also his restoration and rescue – the people were back in the land he had promised (now early in the 6th century BC).
God re-established worship among them – the temple was restored – but it seems that in Malachi’s life time, the old patterns were returning and so God, as he has always done, sends prophets to call the people back to him. It is a matter of life and death – arrogance or humility – a reckoning is coming – the time of the Messiah. God talks about fire – it can burn and destroy or purify and refine – he reminds them that our relationship with God is marked by obedience (because that is the best way for us to show our faith – because talk is cheap and actions speak louder than words) and that the Elijah figure will point us to the one whom God reveals as ushering a new and great day of the Lord.
Nothing has changed in the big scheme of things – humanity is remarkably stubborn and arrogant – and God for some inexplicable reason keeps reaching out to each generation with his grace and mercy. The ‘when will they learn?’ applies to us a species and to us as individuals!
What do we need to learn? Ah the answers the world gives! Enlightenment; wisdom; survival skills; the ability to control our destiny; and much more are offered. But God did something more remarkable – the Elijah figure whom we know as John the Baptist pointed God’s answer out clearly when he said of Jesus ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). This Jesus as King was enthroned on a throne called a cross and wore a crown – of thorns – and that moment – that day of the Lord – defines humanity for humanity needs to learn how to die. And as we have pushed death behind closed doors with our increasing medical skills so paradoxically society seems more fearful of it and death’s taboo status magnifies. We want to live – not die! But sin bought a lie when we believed ‘we shall not die by rebelling against God’. The truth is that sin is death! That is what we’re blind to as we’re so consumed by physical death and concentrate on pushing it back as far as possible but miss the truth that when we are dead in our sins, physical death is largely not an issue.
So God waves a cross before our eyes and says that we need to learn to die each day. Die to sin; die to self; die to the lie that we are gods. And that is what human arrogance and pride – the source of the deeds we call sinful – most struggles with. That is why repentance is a death to self and sin. That is why pride and stubbornness and claiming our rights is so dangerous. By all means defend the rights of others but be ever so cautious about stomping your feet and saying ‘I’m right – obey me – do as I say’ which are what we deep down think a god is allowed to say. So God wants us to learn death – and kills his Son on a cross – so that we truly get a picture of the seriousness of sin – that thing we’re always minimising in some way.
Jesus died. And yet Jesus comes to us each day – Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed!] – and teaches us to die each day – the hardest death of all – the death of our sinful self. ‘Take up your cross and follow me’ Jesus said. And his Law kills us by showing us that we’re not perfect and we cannot barge into eternal life holding enough good deeds. It is only when in despair and shame of our sins and failures that we hear the Gospel – there’s a new beginning possible – a new life with Christ – not of your own doing – it is a gift of God so you can’t boast – that we find hope and life again. In Baptism we are drowned before we’re raised with Christ. Each day Christians are called to return to their baptisms – daily repentance we call it – and face death. In Holy Communion – a meal celebrated on the Day of the Lord – we meet death by proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes as he enters our bodies of death to live with us so that we may live. Is that why the early church called Holy Communion the ‘antidote against death’? Words, water, bread and wine bring death and life to us – note the order – so that we might live each day with God. Seriously, if this is our lifestyle what does it matter if we physically die? And on that day, the world – who are not in Christ – that has been so desperate to avoid death will see their greatest fear realized that they were dead already!
When will they learn?! Malachi waited for the Day of the Lord. We look back and see that Day of the Lord and call it ‘good’ – a Good Friday even though it is all about death. But now that we see death clearly we work at learning how to live with this Jesus – repenting of our sins, living in his grace and forgiveness and sharing this good news with those around us – in the hope that one day, the world around us will also learn that to die with Jesus now is the only way to live!
- Malachi 4:1 - 6