Beyond the Lectionary Text: Malachi 4
by Bill Sytsma
In his book, The End of Memory, Miroslav Volf gives us a glimpse into the torment he endured while serving in the Yugoslavian army under the (erroneous) suspicion of being a traitor. Because he was a Christian who was married to an American, the communist army suspected him of treason. His time in the military was marked by “interrogations” that left lasting impressions. If the concept of evil and the desire for justice were merely intellectual propositions before he served in the army, they were concrete life experiences by the time he completed his military obligation. His book offers insights into practicing forgiveness when faced with the memories of being intentionally victimized.
Many times, the practice of forgiving another for offenses requires little more than saying, “I forgive you.” We wouldn’t give a second thought to someone who accidentally stepped on our foot in a crowded elevator, and said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” We might not even think of our response as forgiveness, as much as overlooking an accident. Some offenses can be simply overlooked when we understand that there was a mistake, a misunderstanding, or poor judgment.
There are other times, however, when the offenses we have suffered are much more sinister. We cannot overlook the intentional efforts to defraud elderly people as a mistake. The disregard for human life that was displayed during the days of slavery in the United States cannot be dismissed as poor judgment. There are moments when the words we use for sin do not seem so tame (mistake, error, mishap, accident, etc.). The offenses we have endured may need to be categorized as evil or unjust.
The final chapter of Micah contains reassurance for people who have faced evil and injustice. The words may seem harsh to those who take justice for granted, but they are reassuring to those who have felt the pain of being victimized.
While the text seems to induce fear as it speaks of a purifying fire turning evildoers into stubble, it is meant to be a word that reassures. God’s people have been crying out for justice, and God promises that He will deliver. Those who have suffered devastating injustice will see their circumstances set right.
Image of Fire – Micah anticipates a day that is coming, where the effects of fire will be prevalent. For those who are opposed to God’s ways (the arrogant and evildoers) this fire will be a consuming fire that overwhelms and consumes them. For the people who fear the Lord, however, that fire seems to awaken them and bring healing, much like a sunrise in the morning.
Mark had recently professed his faith in Christ and joined the church. When he was asked to explain the best reason he had for following Christ, he replied, “to know that God is always there.” He found great comfort in knowing that God always cared for him. He appreciated knowing that God listened to his prayers and understood his troubles. He believed that God would guide him through difficult times and reassure him when he struggled with doubts. He was thankful “to know that God is always there.”
Later in the same conversation, he was asked to describe the most difficult adjustment he faced as a new follower of Christ. Mark answered with the same words, “to know that God is always there.” Mark observed that God’s presence is a blessing that frightens. While it is comforting to know that He is always there to carry us through trials, it is also challenging to grasp that He calls us to live faithfully for Him. Throughout scripture, this mixture of joy and fear is evident when God’s presence surprises His people. Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jonah all felt the weight of God’s presence, as they understood the challenge of His directions. Moses and Elijah found His presence a source of comfort as God ministered to them while they were in the desert.
In Malachi 4, the Day of the Lord brings the challenge and comfort of God’s presence. For those who have opposed God, His presence is a consuming fire. For those who fear the Lord, His presence brings the warmth of healing and renewal.
Arrogant evildoers – The doctrine of total depravity teaches us that we are all sinners. Even our best intentions are marred by the corruption of sin that exists in our lives. The effects of sin can be witnessed in mistakes, missed opportunities, and misunderstandings.
When we think of sin in this manner, however, the concept of evil can seem rather weak. Corrupt human nature will mean that all are capable of succumbing to temptation. Even God’s faithful will find that their faith can be mixed with questions and doubts more than we would like to admit.
When Malachi 4 describes the consequences of sin as a consuming fire, the prophet is very clear about the nature of evil that is being addressed. In verse 1 we read that the arrogant and evildoers will be reduced to stubble by this consuming fire. The description of arrogant evildoers differs from the concept of a corrupt human nature. Corrupt human nature can offend God even when we are attempting to honor God. Arrogant evildoers have no interest in honoring God. Arrogant evildoers take delight in inflicting harm on others as a means to satisfying their own desires. Arrogant evildoers do not worry about fairness or justice. The image of “arrogant evildoers” portrays a depth of harm that goes far beyond tensions, misunderstandings and mistakes. These words present an image of fraud, deceptions, and intentionally victimizing others.
Moses and Elijah – Moses and Elijah are the Old Testament characters that represent the law and the prophets. This last chapter of the Old Testament reminds the reader of the commandments that God gave through Moses, as well as the prophets who were called to help God’s people understand how those commandments were to be applied in their settings.
Moses and Elijah were characters that played a significant role in the New Testament. John the Baptist is described by Jesus as the Elijah that was mentioned in Malachi 4. John’s ministry was intended to by the predecessor of the great and awesome day of the lord that is foretold. Furthermore, Jesus ministry is seen as a fulfillment of the law and the prophets. When Jesus experiences the transfiguration in the gospels, Moses and Elijah are present on the mountain.
When preaching on texts that unite the concepts of judgment and destructive force, it is helpful to realize that the experiences of your parishioners will greatly affect their initial reaction to the text.
Some parishioners believe that justice can be reasonably expected in our world, and that people who hold positions of power and influence will normally behave well. They do not expect to be treated unfairly, do not fear persecution, and assume that disagreements can be overcome with better communication.
If your church consists largely of people who believe that justice can be reasonably expected in their cultural context, then the words of Malachi 4 about fire that reduces the world to stubble will seem overly harsh. These parishioners may believe that God’s work to reclaim creation should be more like a “fine tuning” than a drastic overhauling of the current order.
If your parishioners are prone to believe that the judgment of Malachi 4 seems excessive, then you might consider the following strategies in your sermon:
1. Review the circumstances of the Old Testament exiles. Many of God’s people who lived after Israel was taken into exile lived their lives in foreign lands. Even people who were privileged such as Daniel and Esther lived with the threat of death in their lives, and they had little recourse to fight that threat.
2. Remind that oppression and injustice are probably more common than we would like to admit. Even if your parishioners believe they have been treated justly in their lives, it does not take a great deal of research or imagination to demonstrate contexts where oppression and injustice are the norm, rather than the exception. Many people fear persecution for their faith. Many have been victimized and mistreated by people in authority. Pointing out these kinds of examples can help our parishioners understand that there is a need for a drastic overhaul in our world.
3. Challenge them to assess whether their view of God’s Kingdom has been overly influenced by their own cultural context. We might need to ask whether we are really looking for God’s Kingdom, or if we are comfortable in our current situation.
If your parishioners, however, have experienced oppression and injustice, this text will not sound excessively harsh. For those who have received the kind of treatment that Miroslav Volf experienced as a Yugoslavian soldier, the image of a drastic overhaul brings the relief of vindication and justice. If you have been the victim of oppression, it can seem as though the world that allows such harshness is in need of the kind of renovation that Malachi 4 describes. To those who have been hurt, Malachi 4 is a word of mercy and hope that the Day of the Lord will set all things right.