Sunday, 12 February 2012

At the end a new beginning - Malachi's story

Jesus was adamant.

There were no two ways about it.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfil.

There’s much more to Jesus than at first meets the eye.  Put to one side that very limiting view that prophecy amounts to prediction.  Not a bit of it the prophets of old were in the business of analysing the ills of the world around them, working out under God’s guidance, what had resulted in the mess their nation all too often found itself in … and setting out a route map to set things right.

The story of the prophets of old is told in the great books of the prophets of what we think of as the Old Testament – Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the wonderfully named, Book of the Twelve.

As the people settled in the Promised land early on they wanted to depart from the kingship of God and appoint a king over them – and one of the very first prophets emerges with a parable to tell – Jotham’s parable warns that the only one of the trees of the forest to be prepared to be king would be the bramble.

Samuel is very much a prophetic figure who looks at all that is wrong in the world of his day and is convinced the people’s desire for a king will not make matters better, but instead will result in things getting much worse.

As Saul became King how right he proved to be.

And so it was the least likely of all the sons of Jesse became King.  You might have though a wonderful hero figure.  But no, he shamed himself, his people and his God when he not only made the wife of one of his commanders pregnant, but when he realised what had happened, arranged for the commander to be killed in battle so that he could take the woman to be his wife.

He thought he had got away with it and then Nathan told another parable – about a poverty stricken man abused by a tyrant who stole the sheep of his flocks.  David was appalled at the story and even more devastated when Nathan the prophet turned on him and said, you are the man!

Then came the first of the great Prophets to have their story told at any length.  A good part of I Kings tells the story of Elijah and the stand he took against injustice in the land – the mantle of Elijah fell on Elisha and Elisha carried on where Elijah had left off.  In pointed teaching, in acted miracle too God’s sovereignty was their message and a powerful appeal for justice and faithfulness to the ways of God.

Then as the story of the betrayal of the nation by all but a handful of the kings of the Northern Kingdom and of the Southern Kingdom is told, we being to encounter prophets whose writings have helped to shape books that to this day bear their name.  The names of so many of those kings have been forgotten.  The names of the prophets are still household words.

The great 8th Century Prophets, Isaiah with  Amos, Hosea and Micah.

The great Prophet of Jersualem and its imminent collapse and destruction Jeremiah, with Nahum, favourite of mine, Habakkuk and Zephaniah .

And arguably one of the greatest prophets of old who prompted the great reforms of King Josiah that resulted in the preservation of the books of the Law, Huldah – whose story gives the lie to those who would claim women cannot speak the word of God.  With her husband looking after the wardrobe she spoke fiercely to all those in power.  And they listened.  And they changed their ways.

Though the fig tree fail and the flocks be scattered, yet I will trust in God my saviour.  What a wonderful poem of praise filed with passion in the face of destructive forces Habakkuk shares.

The great Prophet of the exile in Babylon Ezekiel with those prophets associated with the return, Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.

And then those three prophets who cannot be located in a specific time frame and yet whose words speak down the ages to every age facing calamity.  Joel, Obadiah and Jonah.

These prophets speak truth to power, hold kings to account.  There is in their writings a rhythm.  They confront people with the reality that consequences follow upon the abandonment of God’s ways.  Disobey God and take the consequences – ill will follow.

But there is also a hope and promise.  On the one hand the story of the nation suggests that obedience to God will lead to things going well – and ultimately the promise of God will hold.

Most significant of all the Prophets are not just negative about  those kings who were like the worst kind of shepherds neglecting their sheep.  So many of them spelled out what it would take to be a king worthy of God’s kingdom.  Occasionally kings heeded their vision.  But their vision was never fully fulfilled.

And following on from the return of the people to Jerusalem the kingdom was never fully established.

In subjection to Cyrus’s Persia, to Alexander the Great’s Greece, to the Ptolemies of Egypt and the Syrian kings, the people were in subjugation.  Momentarily they broke free under Judas Maccabaeus and a kingdom of sorts flourished built on violence.  But it too foundered with growing power of the Roman republic.  And with Caesar the subjugation of the peoples once more.  And as the Roman Empire dawned most cruel of all the kings King Herod reigned with an iron rod content to build temples to the Roman Son of God Augustus and rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem to monstrous proportions.

The injustices of his reign cried out for a voice.

And the voice of the prophets was reawakened.

And one emerged in the wilderness.

See I am sending my messenger before me to prepare the way before me.

You recognise it don’t you.  Out there in the wilderness.  Wearing such basic clothes.  Baptising.  And what a powerful message.

It’s John the Baptist.

Or is it?

The words I have just quoted come from the Book of the Prophet whose book stands as the last of the Book of the Twelve.

In our Bibles it is the Book of the Prophet who stands at the very end of the Old Testament.

It is as if we arrive at the end of the story of the Prophets only to find that we are at the beginning of something very much bigger.  And yet the end takes us back to the beginning and forward to a new beginning.

Malachi simply means messenger of the Lord.

As his book opens it is full of foreboding as he confronts people with the consequences of the wrong doing of the people and their rulers.

But the foreboding gives way to promise as he looks to the day when things will be restored.

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. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to theLord in righteousness. 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
What will this messenger be like?

As we reach the final chapter of Malachi it is as if we are taken back almost to the very beginning of the story of the prophets.  Malachi looks to the time when arguably the first of the great prophets will come once again.

 Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

That’s how the Old Testament ends.

On the threshold of the New.

What we call the beginning is often the end,
And to make an end is to make a beginning,
The end is where we start from…

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

And John the Baptist comes and he is a new Elijah.

He acts like an Elijah.  He speaks like an Elijah.

Something is on the move.

And he is arrested.  Silenced.

But not quite.

The last thing he does before he is arrested is to take Jesus down into the Jordan and then back up out of the Jordan.

It’s just like that moment when Elijah passes on the mantle to Elisha.

The mantle of the prophets speaking out God’s word and speaking truth to power has passed from Elijah to Elisha to Isaiah to Hulda to Jeremiah to Ezekiel to the twelve to Malachi to John the Baptist and now to Jesus.

He teaches challengingly just like the prophets of old.  He carries out healings just like Elijah and Elisha.  Parables and signs all have the feel of the ancient prophets about them.

And the crowds know it.

He is John the Baptist, they say, he is Elijah they say.  He is Jeremiah they say.  He is one of the prophets they say.

And he is pleased to be called such.  He calls himself prophet on no end of occasions.

But he is prophet and more than a prophet.

Because he also is bringing in the kingdom, the kingdom of God that has been looked to by all those prophets in the promise they sensed.  And more than that he has what it takes to be King in the Kingdom.  He models all he stands for and all he does on those great messianic prophecies of all.

You are the Christ – the anointed one, the Messiah – the Hebrew word for the king.

You are the Son of God – the Hebrew and the Roman title for the King.

But not an all-conquering king like the Maccabees and like the Zealots dreamed of.  A suffering servant messiah king who through suffering would open up a new way for his people to follow.

And there on the mountain top the closest of his inner circle of friends Peter, James and John see it.

There is the glow of the divine about Jesus – and they know the Kingdom of God has come.

And notice how Mark reports it.

And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. 

There in this wonderful symbolic moment it is as if all the law and the prophets find their fulfilment as Jesus is deep in conversation with Moses who stands for the law and Elijah who stands for the prophets.

The moment passes the cloud descends and overshadows them and from the cloud there came a voice.  This is my Son, the Beloved, listen to him.”

That’s it

That’s what been expected of all the prophets of old.  That people would listen to them and hear the word of God.

Now as we look to Jesus Prophet but so much more than a Prophet, Son of God we are to listen to him.  But listening is not enough.  We must listen and put his words into action.

Fanciful telling of the story.  No – Jesus confirms it.  These are the days of Elijah – these are the days of fulfilment.  It’s happening – the kingdom of God is upon us.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. Then they asked him, ‘Why do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?’ He said to them, ‘Elijah is indeed coming first to restore all things. How then is it written about the Son of Man, that he is to go through many sufferings and be treated with contempt? But I tell you that Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased, as it is written about him.’

As we come to the end of the Prophets of the Old Testament we have a big question to ask each one of us.

Are we going to listen.

And listening are we going to act on that word of God we hear.

For Christ calls us to be doers of the word and not hearers only!

I love those words from TS Eliot’s Four Quartets

What we call the beginning is often the end,
And to make an end is to make a beginning,
The end is where we start from…

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

He goes on to say one thing more …

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well.

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