Proper 28 • Malachi 4:1–6 • November 14, 2010
by Joel D. Biermann
Thoughts from the Text
The end is in sight. Another year is drawing to a close—the church year anticipating the calendar year by a good month. Fittingly, the last words of the Old Testament point to the last “great and terrible day of the Lord” that marks the end of time and the world as we know it. In this brief text, Malachi provides a remark- able series of dualities, some contrasting positive versus negative items, others pairing together complementary thoughts. On one hand, we have the consuming inferno of the furnace that sets ablaze all the arrogant and evildoers; and on the other, the rising sun of righteousness shedding its warm healing on those who fear God. Thus, judgment and blessing, death and new life, are again brought into sharp juxtaposition. Then we have the twofold instruction: remember Moses’s law and watch for Elijah’s restoration. Interspersed through these themes are more pairs: arrogant and evildoers, root and branch, statutes and ordinances, great and terrible, fathers and children. Lutheran read- ers should immediately resonate to a text flush with dualities. Yet the same readers are perilously prone to fall prey to yet another set of dualities implicit in the interpretive moves typically made on such a text. There is, on one side, the temptation to dismiss this as “just an Old Testament text” fully accomplished in the work of the baptizer— John (Elijah) and John’s greater cousin—and thus, other than its significance as a com- pleted messianic prophecy, it has little meaning besides, “John fulfilled it, and isn’t it great that we get Jesus instead of Moses!” But the other interpretive move results in a similar marginalization of the text: with its strong “end-times” flavor, it is easy to label the text, “eschatological,” and push its importance into a “pie-in-the-sky, in the sweet bye and bye” irrelevance for today.
One way to fight the tug toward predictable (and painfully boring) interpreta- tions that gut the impact of the text is to take hold of the “arrogant and evildoers” duality. It is fascinating—and more than a bit disconcerting—that Malachi would lump the two together. While no one readily accepts the arrogant moniker, the self- reliance, self-absorption, self-promotion, and general self-centeredness that lie at the heart of humanity have no better description than arrogance. Arrogant is man in rebel- lion against God. Arrogant is man making his own way. Arrogant is man determining that he can force God into his own cherished views of what God should be and do. Arrogant is the antithesis of faith and gospel. We are all arrogant—which means we are all evildoers; we are all chaff; we are all fuel for the furnace; we are nothing … but ashes. The duality is not between others and us. It is a duality that cleaves each believer. And as arrogant evildoers we foment division in our homes and discord in our rela- tionships. The restorative work of Elijah seems to have been ineffective. We look at our lives and the lives of those around us and wonder what ever happened to Elijah. Yet, from the ashes—all vestiges of arrogance thoroughly purged—we see the Sun of Righteousness rise and we delight that the ultimate father/son relationship was restored in his work, and so we also are restored. Phoenix-like, we are raised from the ashes and restored with the Father and his creation—a reality that begins now and waits with certain confidence for the full and final consummation when the dance that animates creation (and so is known instinctively by the calf newly sprung from the stall) climaxes according to the creator’s choreography and is joined in earnest by every creature.
“Dancing in the Ashes”
- The furnace.
- We are the arrogant and evildoers.
- We (and our relationships) end in ashes.
- The dance.
- Christ restores what we destroy—all relationships are healed.
- We dance (live in harmony) now, with the creator and with creatures.