Are you tired? Do you feel worn down? It’s understandable if you are. For starters, there is the obvious reality of this pandemic with which we have been living. It has changed so much of life as the response has imposed all kinds of restrictions and alterations to life.
You know what I miss? I miss that time after the announcements and before the processional hymn, when the congregation members greeted one another. It gave me such joy and satisfaction to see the warmth and care for one another expressed as members interacted. I was so pleased to see the way Good Shepherd members sought out new faces in order to greet them and welcome them to the congregation.
But its more than that. We look around a see a culture that is moving against us in every possible way. Things have changed, and you can’t ignore that fact. A piece I recently sent out to the congregation discussed the fact that today one third of people in our country are strongly committed to the Christian faith. One third of people are secular and have no use for religion. And one third have drifted away from the faith into a mushy middle that is no longer Christian in faith and practice. They may have some ideas about “spirituality,” but they are not Church anymore.
The one third that is secular may claim that they are not religious. But man was created to live in relationship to God, and so he will always have a god even if it is a false one. Their god is a vision of how they think the world should be. Not surprisingly, in this vision man is god. There is no natural law – no ordering of the world that has already been established and is to be followed. Instead, individuals can define who they are and what they do – even if it means rejecting the fact that they are male or female. The individual defines the self on the basis of sexuality, and can use sex however and with whomever they want. And make no mistake this is a religious view. It has a creed – I just described it. And it is fueled by a truly religious fervor to destroy anyone who holds a different view, because the existence of a belief that rejects and condemns their understanding of self can only be viewed as an existential threat.
These changes are new to us. But we are not the first to live in times when people just felt tired – when they lived in a culture that was opposed to God’s will for life. The prophet Malachi wrote in just such a time, around 450 B.C. The people of Judah has been allowed to return from exile in Babylon by the victorious Persians. The temple had been rebuilt – but it couldn’t begin to compare with Solomon’s temple that the Babylonians had destroyed. The people no longer lived as a nation. Instead, they were one small province in the massive Persian empire.
As you read through the book of Malachi you find a whole list of sins that demonstrate a basic apathy. People were going through the motions. They were offering sacrifices. But instead of animals without blemish, they were bringing blind, lame and sick animals – the ones they didn’t want. People weren’t bringing the tithe as an offering to God, so Yahweh says through Malachi, “you are robbing me.” These may be words written in the fifth century B.C., but they continue to address us as well and call us to consider whether we are being faithful in returning to God an offering that appropriately corresponds to the blessing he has given us.
The people were committing adultery – they were using sex as they wanted. The men were divorcing their wives, and Malachi writes, “So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. ‘For I hate divorce,’ says the LORD, the God of Israel.”
Malachi confronts us with the ways we think about and use sex. Do we look at pornography? Do we have sex outside of marriage? Do we accept it as normal when a man and a woman live together who aren’t married? Do we accept as normal when couples get divorced because “they have fallen out of love”? Do we accept it has normal when people live in homosexual relationships, and even get “married”? And this isn’t just an abstract intellectual exercise. How do we speak and act when this involves our own family members?
But the worst thing was that the people thought none of it mattered. Just before our text Malachi says, “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?’”
People ignored God’s will, and yet they prospered. And this made the Judahites think that God didn’t care – in fact he seemed to delight in them. After all, they were doing so well. Others looked at the sin and evil going on and questioned whether God mattered at all. They asked, “Where is the God of justice?”
This may sound very familiar. After all what areas of our country are the wealthiest and have the most influence? They are the large cities like Chicago, and those on the coasts that also are the most secular. The majority of the culture in those places has little use for God, and yet they sure seem to be having their best life now.
And on the other hand we see in our nation that millions of babies continue to be murdered every year through abortion. The murder of babies in abortion is called a “reproductive health care service” – an utterly obscene oxymoron. And one of the major political parties of our nation has stated in its official platform that it believes “every woman should be able to access high-quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion,” and has promised to defend and advance abortion in every way possible. This is evil. We see abortion continue and even defended in our nation, and we want to ask, “Where is the God of justice”?
During Advent we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, as the Son of God entered in our world in the incarnation. When we think of Christmas, the image that comes to mind is the sweet and tender scene of the little baby Jesus nestled in a manger, surrounded by the adoring the Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. And by the way, if your image has the wise men present, you get an “F” this morning because they have nothing to do with Christmas. But I digress….
Yet last Sunday’s Gospel lesson about Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday at the beginning of Holy Week prompts us to recall that the purpose of Jesus’ coming was to die. The helpless baby in the manger came to be the helpless man tortured and nailed to a cross. He came as the sinless sacrifice offered in our place to atone for our every sin. Jesus Christ was conceived and born to be the suffering Servant. He came to fulfill Isaiah’s words: “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.”
Dead and buried in a tomb, on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead. He vindicated Jesus as the Christ. Jesus passed through death in order to defeat it forever. Jesus lives! And he will never died again. God raised him with body transformed so that it is immortal and incorruptible. And then he exalted Jesus when he ascended and was seated at the right hand of God.
During Advent we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ coming when he was born in Bethlehem. During Jesus’ ministry we see him as a helpless baby in a manger and a helpless man nailed to a cross. But Advent also calls our attention to the fact that this will not be his only coming. And today’s Scripture lessons declare in absolute terms the Jesus will never appear helpless again.
Advent always points us also to Jesus Christ’ second coming on the Last Day. Our Lord says in the Gospel lesson this morning, “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” When the Lord Jesus returns on the Last Day, he will bring the Day of the Lord.
He will bring exactly what Malachi describes in our text this morning when he says, “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.” The arrogant and evildoers of our world reject Jesus now. They seem to be on top, confident that the “arc of history” is on their side and that everything is moving toward the outcome they envision. But their so called arc will be smashed by the return of Jesus.
And lest we lose heart and say “Where is the God of justice,” Advent announces the he will come. He came in the first century A.D. to win the forgiveness of sin. And the risen Lord will come on the Last Day to judge all who have rejected him and his forgiveness. He will annihilate them in the eternal judgment of hell.
Yet for us who believe and trust in him the outcome will be completely different. Malachi writes, “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.” God’s saving action to put all things right is described like the rising sun whose rays greet us at the start of a new day.
The Lord will bring the healing of the resurrection because as we learned recently in Revelation, he is the first born of the dead. Jesus Christ has begun the resurrection of the Last Day, and when he returns he will transform our bodies to be imperishable and immortal like his own.
And just as the resurrection of Jesus was God vindicating Jesus as the Christ, so the return of our Lord and the resurrection he will give will vindicate us for trusting and believing in him. At the Last Judgment every knee will bow before Jesus Christ – our Lord. Malachi 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.” Because of Jesus Christ, the risen and ascended Lord, God’s people get the last word. The appearances of the present change nothing. They don’t because Jesus Christ was born, died for us and rose from the dead. He is the risen and ascended Lord, and he will return.