Malachi is the last of the prophets. The exact date of some prophets we don’t know. But Malachi is the last one. About 400 years before the birth of Jesus. After that – silence. 400 years of no prophets writing books, 400 years of waiting for the Messiah. To give you a sense of the amount of time we’re talking about – 400 years ago from today was 4 years before the pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock. There’s a lot that happens in Israel during those 400 years. Lot’s of political intrigue. But prophets speaking God’s Word directly to the people? Not so much. The great kings are all dead. The prophets silenced. The people waiting expectantly. But nothing really happening. The last words we hear from the mouth of God, are in our Old Testament reading.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of the 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.”
400 years of silence. Not the most encouraging sign. Kind of gives you the impression you might want to watch for Elijah. You might want to make sure that you don’t miss him. Sort of a last chance – watch for Elijah, and live according to the Law of God, or… pretty much fire and brimstone.
You can almost see why the people of Jesus day would have been so focused – not on the promise of the Savior – but the conduct of their own lives. We’re already tempted to works righteousness by our sinful nature – we want to be like God. We want our works to mean something – to earn us something before God. He’d better accept us, because that’s the best we can do. And our works better get us somewhere – otherwise what’s the point of working at all?
Add to our sinful human nature – our own tendency toward idolatry – add to that the words of our Old Testament reading, and it’s pretty easy to see how the people strayed from the Word of the Old Testament that said Jesus would be the Son of God come in flesh to save us from our sins – and he would be doing the saving. He would be doing the redeeming, the suffering and dying so that you would be given forgiveness.
Those last words – a decree of utter destruction – are a word of Law. And the Law tends to focus us on ourselves, threats mean we want to work hard to avoid that fate. The problem is that our own sinful nature can’t avoid that fate. We can’t reform or rehabilitate our sinful nature. Threats make it rebel. Promises of reward make it greedy. Free gift makes it lazy and entitled. The only thing we can do is drown it. “The old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance – be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires…” That’s it. Put to death the old Adam, with his sinful desires. Crucified with Jesus, we make no provision for the sinful flesh to fulfill those desires.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus talks about what’s coming – and it doesn’t sound too far off of what we heard in Malachi – signs in the sun, moon starts, people fainting, the earth shaking, and then Jesus returning. We don’t call it “Cupcakes and butterflies Day”. We call it “Judgment Day.” That doesn’t sound super fun. And yet, Jesus says that, when the signs show that Judgment day is here, we should “life up our heads, because our redemption is drawing near.” Lift up your heads – doesn’t just mean look up. It means rejoice! When we are oppressed we are bowed down – our posture reflects our mood. To look up is to be strong, confident, excited for the future.
Judgment day as a happy day? That’s not how it’s portrayed. The world hears the word judgment and knows that something bad is happening. We hear the word judgment, and are told that things are finally going our way. When things are at their worst, that’s when we should rejoice. Then we know that Jesus is returning. The judgment is coming. And, if we are careful, if we stay awake, if we are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness, if we are watchful, we might actually be able to stand on judgment day. That’s it. standing. That’s the payoff. “If we do everything that Jesus commands, “we will have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the son of Man.” Being able to stand – that’s the reward? All of this happens, and that’s all we can expect?
But that is all we need. You see, when the great judge returns, when the trumpets sound, the clouds part, and the Lord of Glory is heralded by the angelic hosts, when the earth melts away, the seas dry up, the sun turns to darkness, the moon to blood, if on that day when Christ appears, you are standing – that’s doing really well. Because there will be many fainting for fear. Many who will be utterly consumed. For all those who try to stand on their own, they will stand on their own merits. Which means they will not stand at all. It’s going to be a day of wrath for all those who stand on their own – all those who deny the word of God, who reject that word and want to just do things their way. For those it will be a day of wrath. All those who reject God’s Word, who continue in their sin, who do not repent, will be judged. And that judgment will be a judgment of condemnation.
But for all those who hear and learn the Word, who rejoice in the gift which Jesus gives – forgiveness of sins, who continue to hear that word, to abide in the spirit, those who have been given a new heart by the Spirit of God, who have been not only redeemed, but made holy by the blood of Jesus – for those people then the day of judgment will not be a day of wrath, a day of condemnation. it will be a day of judgment, a day of justification in Jesus Christ. It will be a day when Jesus and his merits will be applied. That’s why Jesus says “look up” lift up your face. Because we know that, when things are their worst on earth, when things get so bad that the earth itself can no longer endure the wickedness, when our Lord returns on a cloud in glory – that is the day of redemption. The day when all that is wrong will be set at right. When the Lord himself will avenge, when the last will be first and the first last. When we will all be brought into the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.
You see, it isn’t that there are two separate days. It’s that for those who rejoice in the word of God, who consider it a joy to sing praises to the Lamb that was slain, then that day will be a day of great joy, for the angels themselves will join us in that song of praise. Those who hate the word of God, who reject God’s word of law, who refuse to acknowledge the salvation which Jesus gives – they will also have their wish granted. They will not receive the salvation that they themselves have rejected.
That’s why the word in Malachi is a warning. A warning against rejecting the gift given in the coming Savior. But it is also a promise. The hearts of the fathers turned to their children, and the hearts of children to their fathers. Rather than having our sinful nature turned inward on itself so that we consider ourselves god – the first and greatest idolatry – we will have our heart turned toward God, and our fellow men. We will live the life God would have us live, as his dear child. That image of God is restored in us, insofar as our Spirit is renewed and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. And we can live according to the love and mercy of God, as we show love and mercy to others, rather than living according to our sinful nature, grasping and grabbing for the desires of our fleshly heart with no regard for God or our neighbor, and receiving the due reward for our idolatries.
But thanks be to God that in Jesus name, we are not given what we deserve. We are shown mercy, through Jesus Christ and his death. God in his mercy gives us forgiveness of sins, life and salvation. That’s why we spend our lives in this world waiting, watching. Always being careful not to fall into the trap of Satan who would lead us astray from the word of God. Who would lead us away from the gift of forgiveness given in his Holy Church. So that, when the day of judgment comes, we would stand with all the faithful, and sing the song of praise to Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.