There is probably no place on earth where you can choose to live that does not have the possibility of a natural disaster. Tornadoes, hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, wildfires – you aren’t going to be able to escape the possibility of at least one of them. And if there is a place that fits this description, my guess is that it is not somewhere anybody wants to live.
So, as I live in Marion, IL I know that I am right next to the New Madrid fault and that I live in area that regularly experiences tornadoes. But I still think this is a little different than choosing to live on the side of a volcano that has been active since 1983 – a volcano that regularly pours forth lava.
During November news reports told about the plight of the Pahoa village on the slope of the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii. Since June 27 a lava flow had been moving towards the village. This is a 2000 degree wall of molten rock that is basically unstoppable. It incinerates everything in its path – it is a moving wall of fiery destruction. Naturally the village was evacuated when the threat appeared, and so no one has been hurt. But on November 11 it reached the first house of the village and set it ablaze. It turned it into ashes.
The Kilauea lava flow provides an illustration from the present day that helps to capture the sense of what our Old Testament lesson says about the Last Day. The prophet Malachi writes, “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all 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.” It is a frightening scene and certainly does not fit with the Christmas season – after all, nothing says, “Merry Christmas!” like burning furnace. But as we prepare to celebrate the first coming of Jesus Christ, our text helps us to keep our eyes fixed on the final outcome of our Lord’s work.
The prophet Malachi wrote during the fifth century B.C. – so think, ballpark, four hundred and fifty years before the birth of Jesus Christ. It was for many in Judah, a time of disappointment. In 538 BC the decree by the Persian king Cyrus allowed the people of Judah to return from exile in Babylonia.
Encouraged by the prophets Haggai and Zechariah the temple in Jerusalem had been rebuilt and dedicated around 516 BC. When the foundation for it was laid, those who remembered Solomon’s temple wept because the new one was far less grand – you build what you can afford.
The temple had been rebuilt just as Haggai and Zechariah had directed. And then … nothing happened. Judah continued on as a province of the Persian empire. The people tried to get by as they resumed life in a land from which they had been absent for seventy years.
It was discouraging. Where was Yahweh? Why wasn’t he doing something? People began to complain. They said there was no point in being faithful. Their actions began to reflect this view. They committed adultery. They lied. They oppressed and abused the helpless – the hired worker, the widow, the orphan, the foreigner living in the land. And they stopped bringing a full tithe to the Lord – they stopped bringing their offering to God.
God noticed – he always does. In chapter two he said, “You have wearied the LORD with your words. But you say, ‘How have we wearied him?’ By saying, ‘Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and he delights in them.’ Or by asking, ‘Where is the God of justice?’” And then just before our text God said, “Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’”
There are times when we feel this way. It doesn’t take long to recognize that being faithful to God brings difficulties to life. Saying what is true; acting in ways that are different from the world; serving others instead of yourself – these are all more difficult. They are the narrow way Jesus described, not the broad and easy way.
And let’s face it. It’s easier to keep as much money as you can. It can be hard to give an offering that reflects the blessings God has given to you. But God’s says it’s not yours. It’s his. That’s exactly what he said to Judah. Just before our text Yahweh says, “Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions.” And then God challenged the people by saying, “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.”
Those who feared God’s name listened. They spoke with one another about it. And in the verses right before the start of our text Malachi tells us, “Then those who feared the LORD spoke with one another. The LORD paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the LORD and esteemed his name. They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.’”
Those who feared God were written in his book of remembrance. They were his treasured possession. And this was important, because God was going to act with a finality that would sweep away all the complaints. Malachi writes, “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all 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.”
This day of the Lord would be a day of judgment and destruction for those who rejected God. Yet the prophet went on to say that it would be one of healing and joy for God’s people. He wrote, “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. 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.”
When was this going to happen? Yahweh gave one sign as he said, “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.” God had already said in the previous chapter: “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.”
God said he would do it. And he did. In the first century A.D. God sent John the Baptist to prepare the way. He prepared the way because God was doing something we would never expect. At Christmas we will rejoice in the fact that God himself entered into our world. Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh – that’s why the New Testament calls him “Lord,” the word used to translate Yahweh in the Greek Old Testament. And he did awesome things. He stilled storms. He healed diseases. He cast out demons. He raised the dead. He did things, as we will hear next Sunday, that Jews expected to occur in the last days. He did it because he was the beginning of the Last Day.
The Lord did come suddenly to his temple. He did it one final time during Holy Week. And then, the day of the Lord came – the day of judgment. It came as Jesus Christ hung on the cross and bore your sins – all of that stuff we talked about earlier – and God damned him in your place. Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath for you.
But if that was all there is to it, Jesus would be like the stubble consumed by the furnace in our text. He would be like the land scoured by fire of every root and branch. Yet, thanks to be God there is more! So much more! For on the third day he rose from the dead. The day of the Lord arrived when God the Father raised Jesus through the work of the Spirit and began the resurrection of the Last Day.
That’s right – the event described in our text has already started. Judgment has been exacted against your sin. Resurrection life has already begun in Jesus the second Adam. And because of this, you are different. Through the work of the same Spirit who raised Jesus you have been given new life in the waters of Holy Baptism. Because of baptism you are God’s treasured possession, a royal priesthood.
Yes, you still see the sin, suffering and hardships of this world. But Christ’s Spirit now supports you through the Means of Grace so that you can continue through life as those who fear God’s name – as those who believe and trust in God.
You do this now as people who have hope, because you know how it ends. You know that the end has already started. God sent his Elijah. The Lord came to his temple. These things that Malachi speaks about have happened. And something else has happened – Jesus Christ rose from the dead. His resurrection is the exclamation point that leaves no doubt that the final day of the Lord is coming.
So take comfort. Be encouraged. The day of the Lord has already started. And the consummation of the day of the Lord is coming. In our text it’s like Malachi can’t drive home the point enough. In the Hebrew he begins one line by saying “behold the day is coming” and he starts the very next line by talking about “the coming day.”
It is coming and it will bring vindication for God’s people. It’s a stark image, but that’s what Malachi means when he says, “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.”
But for God’s people – for you who have become his treasured possession through the water of baptism there will be no fire. There will be only the warming rays of the sun of righteousness which rises with healing in its wings as you rejoice in God’s presence forever.