Who Can Stand?

Sermon on Malachi 3:1-4

The Song of Zechariah Luke 1:78-79 In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Introduction

Judgment. We love to hate it, and we love to do it. When we are judged or when we judge other people, we are experiencing a moment where either we are being evaluated by someone else or we are doing the evaluating. In being judged and judging, we are failing to measure up or someone else is. In positioning oneself as judge or being caught in that eye of judgment creates an imbalance of power: someone in the equation is holding more of the power. It makes sense why Christians are exhorted—by Jesus!—not to judge other people by the externals, because there’s more to a person than what meets our eye. This is why we don’t like being judged because, hey, maybe I’m just having a bad day, don’t judge! Like being an exhausted parent with two toddlers and a screaming infant in a store and expressing frustration; I’m not a bad mom, don’t look at me like that because I was snappy with them…and no, I’m not going to miss this phase…stop.

We judge others (and others judge us) to self-validate, and this desire for self-validation exposes that our judgmentalism is less about the other person and more about us: we are found lacking when we find lack in others. And the way we judge others reveals our hypocrisy. Our judgment of others, our eagerness to remove the speck from their eye while ignoring the log in our own, is the action that exposes the fundamental problem of a hardened heart caught in a desperate fight to be worthy, to be loved, to be thought good. And we will do whatever it takes to be worthy, to be loved, to be thought good, so we thrust ourselves on that hamster wheel of performance and find anything to self-validate even if it is by the failures of others… at least I’m not like her…

But I am; I am very much her. I’ve been in the shoes of so many people I’ve judged in my feeble attempts to make myself feel better about myself. I’ve been that “bad” driver, that “bad” mom, that “bad” teacher, that biased and stuck thinker, that arrogant and pedantic scholar…the one who was too angry to forgive, to hurt to admit it, too comfortable to fight for peace and justice… And if we can feel safe here and are willing to be honest, I bet I’m not alone. We all have similar confessions.

I know, it’s not Lent. And yet, I know I’m heading down a lent-like train of thought but stay with me. What if part of this stark realization is part of the good news of Advent? What if coming to terms with who and what I am in all my robust humany glory, makes the expectation of Advent more spectacular?

Malachi 3:1-4

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight– indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

Malachi 3:1-2b

The message of Malachi is as follows: God knows those who fear him and those who do not, and He desires his people to repent and turn to Him and Torah (3:7). Malachi, in prophetic tones, asks the people to consider themselves, to take a deep look at who they are in their daily life and as worshippers of God—are they helping or hindering the relationship between God and God’s people? [1] The warning that Malachi ends with in his short prophetic disputation[2] is a word of judgment: utter destruction hangs in the balance if the people do not realign with God and with neighbor. For all intents and purposes, Malachi cries out: Pay attention! He pleads with his audience, Take heed; this is serious! Judgment comes! And this minor prophet closes with a question: on whom will judgment fall?

The God of Israel is the God who heard the cries of Israel from the bowls of suffering in Egypt and is the same God who then came and rescued Israel from that captivity and ushered them into freedom. If this is the same God of whom both the major and minor prophets speak of and speak for, then we can be certain this is the same God who will also deal with people who abuse God’s people, who hinder them from God, who steal their livelihood, who judge them as inferior, failures, maybe even inhuman. In being unloving toward their neighbor, they do not love God and “profane the covenant.”[3] God will come, and God may be angry when God does.

But here’s the complex thing about God, the God worshipped in Judah and Israel is not bound to our mythic conceptions of the small and petty angry god who never stops being angry.[4] Our strict either/or interpretation of emotionality is exceptionally problematic. Emotional states are not ontological definitions. Even here in Malachi, as he leaves his people with a question about the coming judgment of God, God’s love is eternal; God’s anger isn’t.[5] God’s anger is momentary and happens, but it doesn’t abide forever; God’s love does.[6] It abides, because love is an ontological definition: divine love—the love that has been since the very beginning of the cosmos—isn’t a fleeting emotion or feeling but a permanent presence, an eternal reality forever moving into infinity, always in pursuit of the beloved. It’s this love that exposes the beloved not unto death for death’s sake but unto life.

Conclusion

Malachi closes his proclamation and disputation with the twin questions “On whom will judgment fall?” and “Who can stand?” And when our eyes meet with these words, our heart races and things get warm under the collar, looking around—with panic and fear—we are speechless. We fear the answer. We fear this divine judgment, this divine anger, will fall on us and crush us. We know who we are deep down; we know we are guilty: guilty of infractions, disobedience, not-love, of desperately trying to make our selves better than others, of unfaithfulness, ignoring, pretending, and judging.

But, what if in this profound and visceral exposure is our life? What if in our bold grasp of what is and who we are we find actual life? This isn’t to say you are rotten or horrible or an object made for destruction; none of that. Rather, it’s to turn that inner judge on oneself in the light of truth, and it’s in this light of truth where we find life.

God’s judgment does come, and it will fall on us, and under it we will not be able to stand. God will come to earth, born to an unwed woman of color. And this baby whom this woman will nurse, we will curse; the one whom Mary will birth, we will sentence to death. In that wrong judgment of an innocent other, we will be encountered by the right judgment of God. We will be exposed, fully. Face to face with God, we will be illuminated—from head to toe, from the core of our being to edge of our skin—by the essence of divine presence: Love.

Don’t get me wrong: you do not escape the rendering unto death of divine judgment; in being fully exposed in the light of love made known to us in the Word of Christ—the proclamation of God’s love in the world—you will collapse under the weight of what you see. But, in that collapse you fall into God, and that means falling farther into the source of love and life. It’s this love and life you receive back because God does not leave the beloved in the depth of the abyss of death but calls her out and onto the solid ground of life.

Where we expect destruction and death (death unto death), there is new creation and new life (death unto life). We expect that in God’s coming judgment we will be destroyed by wrath, but we are met with the consuming love of God who renders the beloved new by bringing her through death into new life in God, fueled by the Spirit of God.

Divine Love comes, born vulnerable and placed in a manger wrapped in meager swaddling rags. This one, Jesus the Christ, the son of Mary, will bear the burden of the full weight of God’s Love. It’s this babe who will bear the burden of bringing God’s love to everyone even if it means going outside the city limits. It’s this child of parents fleeing oppression who will bear the burden of standing in love and solidarity with human beings suffering in pain and sorrow, in toil and strain, stuck in captivity even if it means his life for theirs.

Beloved, in the expectation of Advent, Love comes… on whom will it fall? Who can stand?


[1] Ehud Ben Zvi “Malachi” The Jewish Study Bible JPS (Oxford: OUP, 2004). 1268. “The readers of the book of Malachi are asked to look at some pitfalls in everyday life and in the cult at the Temple, and particular at how they affect the relationship between the Lord and Israel, resulting in a lack of prosperity. Issues concerning proper offerings, marriage practices, and tithes are especially prominent in the book.”

[2] Zvi “Malachi” 1269, “The use of a disputation format … allows the readers some limited form of self-identification with the actions of the evildoers, and as such serves as a call for them to examine themselves and repent.”

[3] Abraham J. Heschel The Prophets “Jeremiah” New York: JPS, 1962. 170. “In the words of a later prophet [after Jeremiah], ‘Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers?’ (Mal. 2:10).”

[4] Heschel, Prophets, 289. “The ancient conception that the gods are spiteful seems to linger on in the mind of modern man, and inevitably the words of the Hebrew Bible are seen in the image of this conception. In gods who are spiteful, anger is a habit or a disposition. The prophets never speak of an angry God as if anger were His disposition. Even those who dwell more on His anger than on His mercy explicitly or implicitly accentuate the contrast”

[5] Heschel, Prophets, 289. “Again and again we are told that God’s love or kindness (hesed) goes on forever…we are never told that His anger goes on forever.”

[6] Heschel, Prophets, 290. “Anger is always described as a moment, something that happens rather than something that abides. The feeling expressed by the rabbis that even divine anger must not last beyond a minute seems to be implied in the words of the prophets…”