"Testimony Through Tears," by Pastor Fred
“See, the day is coming, raging like a forest fire,” says the prophet Malachi. “All the arrogant people who do evil things will be burned up like stove wood, burned to a crisp, nothing left but scorched earth and ash – on that day,” according to The Message translation. “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament. And the last of what are called, the 12 Minor Prophets, much shorter books than Isaiah or Jeremiah, but familiar to us in other Minor Prophets, like Amos, Jonah and Micah at this time of year, as our lectionary readings lift up the end times and the season of Advent’s Second Coming of Christ.
Our reading today in not only from the last book of the Hebrew Scriptures, but is from the very last chapter of the Old Testament. And the concluding two verses of Malachi, right after our reading, promise that God will send Elijah, just before the end, who will restore parents and children and families, so that God will not have to “strike the land with a curse.” And as you turn the page to the New Testament and read from the gospel of Matthew, we find that Christians believe John the Baptist is Elijah returning.
Those of the Book Discussion group, who are currently reading, “Facing Decline, Finding Hope,” will understand the times that Malachi lived in – because it wasn’t long after Ezra and Nehemiah, having come back from the Babylonian captivity in the Exile, rebuilt the Temple that had been destroyed. Ezra and Nehemiah were the ones who, basically, wanted to return to the good ol’ days, insisting that rebuilding the Temple and restoring the office of the priests, would curry God’s favor. Unfortunately, it only led to the same old corruption and weakness in all their institutions, in the 4 centuries leading up to John, and the birth of Jesus.
So, the 12 Minor Prophets detail all the ways, that the path Ezra and Nehemiah laid out, were not pleasing to the Lord, ending with this zinger from our Malachi reading today: “See, the day is coming, raging like a forest fire. All the arrogant people who do evil things will be burned up like stove wood, burned to a crisp, nothing left but scorched earth and ash – on that day,” yet at the same time holding out hope that, “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”
It’s interesting that the New Testament ends with a similar sentiment in the last chapter of the book of Revelation: “For the time is near,” says John. “Let evildoers do their worst… but let the righteous maintain a straight course…” For “on either side of the river is the tree of life… and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
Jesus weighs in on this end time discussion, in our gospel reading today, with his own take on the apocalyptic signs in Luke 21, mapping out, not only our relationship to God, but what the people of faith and hope should do.
Jesus makes a startling prediction that the beautiful temple, which Ezra and Nehemiah had rebuilt – at least started to rebuild, for by Jesus’ time, it was the Herod family who had really taken on finishing the project and turning it into its shining #1 status, just as Jesus was being born. Take a good look at the Temple, says Jesus, “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” This was shocking news, not only for its violent overtones, but because of how central the temple was as a symbol of Judaism. Sure, there are corruptions by some of the priests, the disciples would have said, but let’s not go all extreme here, Jesus!
But, let’s say you’re right, Teacher, his disciples answer disbelieving. Then, when will this be? Of course, we know now that this is Luke’s take on what Jesus said, some 15 years after the temple had already been destroyed. Tired of Jewish Sicarii freedom fighters, the Romans decided to show their power and put an end to the terrorism, and Maccabee reign, in the year 70AD. Knowing this, I think, makes Jesus’ response to the disciples more understandable, because he doesn’t answer when the beautiful stones and golden gilded temple will come down. Jesus talks about, what not to trust in, as the sign of the end – that is, beware of pretenders to the throne! They will come with a dark and scary picture of what the world is turning into – “do not go after them!” People will point out things, like all the wars and insurrections, the earthquakes and famines, taking place, and try to scare you that this means the end – “do not be terrified,” says Jesus.
Here’s the thing. Even before all this occurs, according to Jesus, they will arrest you … and bring you before the authorities. But – this, he says – will give you an opportunity – an opportunity to testify!
This week I heard the testimony of many neighbors in our community. And many people are saying they are afraid. Maybe in 15 years they will be ready to hear Jesus’ words, “do not be terrified.” Hopefully sooner! But today, this week, in wake and shock of Tuesday’s news, their world became more fragile and targeted. Children in schools are afraid. Families who have been working hard, and love this country and pay their taxes like you and I, but don’t have the proper documents yet, are afraid. Women wearing the Hijab are naturally afraid, who have already been attacked and endure ugly slurs. Those who identify as Trans and Queer, are trembling in fear, just because of who they are. People of color have once again been targeted too.
President Obama’s noble and welcoming nature is a beautiful thing to behold. Of course, it’s part of his job, to ensure a peaceful transition of power, a hallmark of this, the oldest democracy in the world. But this cannot erase the fear for the apocalyptic promises that were made by the incoming administration.
Let us not forget we live in two America’s, two worlds. And this was true before Tuesday, just as it remains so after. And for the people of faith, who care about the country we are citizens of – the work of facing our decline and finding hope is the same today as it was before. The work of dismantling racism, sexism, classism and a culture of war, is still the same today as it was last week. We can hope for moral and sensible policies all of us can work on together, that is the nature of our faith. But we also must be wise as serpents, not to be led astray.
And so, we as the people of faith, have a responsibility. We are to be healers, and peacemakers, yes?! There is no way forward for us, except through the grace of God. There is no way forward, except for speaking the truth in love. There is no way forward, without reaching out, and standing together, resisting the division that causes the same injustices we are experiencing in our beloved country, today, as much as yesterday.
“Beware that you are not led astray,” said Jesus. The end, is not, a scary apocalyptic cataclysm, that false leaders will temp you towards. The end is ‘that day’ when we no longer have the courage to stand up and testify to our baptism in Christ Jesus, to our lord and savior. “So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance;” Jesus said, ”for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.”
“Our opponents,” are always the ones who try to divide us, giving us false choices, that somehow leave them in control of all the cards, and resources. If we’ve learned anything from the gospel of Luke this year, it’s that Jesus came to mark the reversal of this false kingdom, and to lift up the poor, restore sight to the blind, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the realm and kingdom of God that stands shoulder to shoulder with the downtrodden and oppressed ones, and empowers us all to follow in his footsteps.
When we testify to this, says Jesus – “not a hair of your head will perish.” And, “the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.”