The Bottom Of The Night

The Story Lesson 21



Malachi 3:2-3; 4:1-3 

The Old Testament comes to a close in The Story this week. It has been a good journey and brings us to a prophecy that leads us to the coming Messiah. Prophets were the truth-tellers of the past.

Poets, at their best, are our truth-tellers. W.H. Auden and W.B. Yeats were two of the greatest. Auden wrote a poem in memory of Yeats. Here are two lines of it:

          Follow, poet, follow right

          To the bottom of the night.

The main character in Albert Camus’s novel The Fall says, “Above all, the question is to elude judgment. . . Each of us insists on being innocent at all costs, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself. . . The essential thing is that [we] should be innocent. . . (It’s both ironic and significant that his name is Jean-Baptiste Clamence – John the Baptist crying out.)

The book of Malachi is the last book of the Christian Old Testament. The Hebrew Scriptures are arranged differently, they end with the Wisdom writings, whereas our Old Testament ends with the Prophets. That’s important. The Bible of the Christian church looks forward to a consummation yet to come. The last section of Malachi is appointed to be read at the end of the church year. Malachi 3 begins by announcing that all the arrogant and all the evildoers will be burned on Judgment Day.

Ah, but we don’t believe that, do we? That’s too primitive for us in our higher stage of enlightenment. Mind you, it’s all right for our drones and missiles and Special Forces to eliminate evildoers, but we don’t believe that God is going to burn anybody up. How barbaric would that be! The only people who believe that are out there somewhere on the fundamentalist right wing!

Now it’s quite true that there is a metaphorical element in the Bible. The Jews had the Midrash, a rabbinical interpretation where the words/story were not taken literally but emphasized the truth of the story. “Burned up” is an image – an exceptionally powerful image – conveying the power of God to destroy. In the Last Day, God will judge and finally destroy evil. That’s the promise of the Second Coming of Christ.

In Luke, Jesus says:

“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and upon the earth distress of nations. . . men fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Luke 21:25-26).

This doesn’t exclude anybody. All human beings will be filled “with foreboding of what is coming on the world.” There isn’t anyone who will be unaffected by the judgment of God. The scene of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25:32 tells us: “Before the Judge will be gathered all the peoples.” This refers not only to all the national and ethnic groups, but to all kinds of people within those groups. The CEO’s of the biggest corporations and the lowest workers cutting up chickens will be there. The captains and the kings and the nameless Mexicans scrambling illegally across the border deserts will be there. The educated and the illiterate, the oppressed and the oppressors, the judges and those whom they judge – all will be there. You will be there, and I will be there. And then, as the parable continues, “{The Lord] will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32).

Now it’s very interesting that although we are told that modern Christians don’t believe in the Last Judgment anymore, no one objects when a judge in a courtroom hands down a judgment. We believe in that kind of judgment – as long as it’s a judgment on someone else, someone who deserves it. So in our minds we are already dividing the righteous from the unrighteous, with ourselves – of course – on the side of the righteous.

But isn’t that a rather perilous place to be? How much effort does it take to remain on the right side of that balance sheet? And by what criteria, and by whom, will this determination be made?

When we observe or read verdicts of court cases we have a strong sense that human justice is never adequate. The jury reached agreement, but the foreman of the jury says, “No one is happy. Nothing is better. Nothing is solved.” That’s why there is another judgment beyond human judgment.

We face several problems here. First, are we to believe in the divine judgment, or not? A second problem is the inadequacy of human justice. But the most radical problem of all is raised by the reading from the prophet Malachi. “The day comes, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts.” Where does this business about being burnt up begin and where does it end? Who exactly are the arrogant and the evildoers? Malachi goes on:

“But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. . . And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts” (4:1-3).

Hey, that sounds pretty good. Isn’t that what we want? Don’t we want the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and the suicide bombers to be ashes under the feet of our troops? Don’t we want child rapists and murders to be wiped off the face of the earth? That would serve the cause of judgment.

But what about the ordinary garden-variety sinner, the man who cheats on his income tax, the woman who employs and underpays the illegal immigrant, the people who give only a pittance to charity and never give a thought to the poor? What about the unfaithful wife, the neglectful father, the cheating student, the doping ballplayer, the lying politician? What about all the rest of us who by our mere existence are polluting the environment and supporting the exploitation of the planet?

Whenever we are sure that we are among the righteous, we immediately find ourselves among the arrogant. The signs of Advent are humility and repentance in the face of pervasive and indiscriminate sin. Repentance, however, does not come easily to human beings. It’s not human nature. As Jean-Baptiste says, “Each of us insists on being innocent at all costs, even if he has to accuse the whole human race and heaven itself. . . Above all, the question is to elude judgment.” The distinctive thing about the Advent season is that it thrusts the subject of judgment in our faces.

There are two common ways of dealing with the idea of judgment within the church. One is to say there won’t be a divine judgment because God loves, forgives, includes, welcomes, and embraces everybody. The other is to assume only the underserving bad guys will be judged, while the deserving rest of us will get a pass. But there is the great truth of the matter: Only God knows who deserves what.

Not that is truly scary. Only God knows the hit-and-run driver. Only God knows the extent of financial misconduct. Only God knows the secrets of a marriage. Only God knows the times that we have turned away from someone who needed us. Only God knows who has “rebelled against his holy laws.” We are very good at covering up these things even from ourselves because “the essential thing is that [we] should be innocent. . . [and] escape judgment.”

If we are all in it together, then what is our hope? How can we live without being continually at work to prove to ourselves that we are among the righteous, not among those who are going to be trampled underfoot? Our hope is expressed by Paul in the last two verses of I Thessalonians:

“May the Lord make you increase and abound in love to one another and to all human beings. . . .so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (3:12-13).

Everything depends on how we read this. If we read it as an exhortation to abound in love and to be blameless in holiness, then your goose and my goose are cooked. The Scripture never says, “Just do your best.” It never says, “Try to do it within reason.” It never says, “Do it up to a point.” It says, “Be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). Doesn’t that leave us without a place to stand?

In an earlier passage, Malachi states it flatly: “Who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appears?” (3:2). The astounding answer to that question is that we are already being prepared to stand before the Judge at the last day by the action of God himself, working in us by the power of the Holy Spirit. Paul is able to express confidence in his Thessalonian congregation – in all their manifold imperfection – not because they are innocent, not because they have never done anything deserving judgment, but because the Lord is at work in them. The Lord is at work establishing their hearts “blameless in holiness” at the coming of the Lord Jesus with all the saints. And so the righteous Judge is the one who is preparing us to stand before himself. Malachi again: the Lord will “purify the sons of Eli.” The sons of Eli – that is, the priests of Israel – had become corrupt that they fully deserved to be trampled underfoot. But that’s not going to be their destiny. Remember this the next time you hear Handel’s Messiah:

He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering of righteousness” (3:3).

Human beings do not have the power to undo evil. Only God has that power. The promise of the divine judgment is that evil and death will be undone by the only power greater than they – the power of Almighty God. And that means that all the evil within our own hearts, our own guilty hearts, will be undone.

The Old Testament ends with the astonishing words of the Lord through the prophet Malachi:

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, lest I come and smite the land with a curse” (4:5-6).

The prophet Elijah will, you see, come again in the person of John the Baptist. He will announce the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord, the day that could have been a curse upon every single one of us but, instead, will be a new day of reconciliation that cannot be achieved by human means. Malachi’s image of the Day of God is that of broken families brought together, a thing impossible for human beings – but all things are possible with God. May he establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.