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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Malachi's People - 11/17/2019

“See, the day is coming, 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, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. (Malachi 4:1)

I wonder if words like those we read today from the prophet Malachi infiltrated the thoughts and dreams of the Jewish people during the siege and destruction of the temple in Jerusalem? The Roman conqueror Titus sacked the entire city in the year 70. It is the event Jesus foretells in our Gospel reading today.

When the Temple was destroyed, it had been 70 years since the birth of Jesus.  It had about 40 years since the news of the empty tomb forever changed the balance of power in this world.

Jerusalem is a walled city and it had been taken over by the Jewish people in an uprising against the Roman Empire at this time. The temple was more than just the center of religious life. As Lon reminded us last week, it was also central to government and the economy. The Jewish people, who had had it with being marginalized by the powerful and widespread Roman Empire, had squeezed the foreign rulers out and holed themselves up behind the walls of Jerusalem. The walls enclosed neighborhoods, storefronts, thousands of people and, at its heart, the Temple Mount, where people came for Passover, for making sacrifices to God, where the Ark of the Covenant had once been housed and therefore, where God had once lived. The Temple Mount remains the geographic center of faith for many of God's children today  – Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

The Jewish uprising in the 1st century was led, in large part, by a group called the Zealots. As outside forces worked to get through the walls of the city for months, inside, the Jewish people were divided – they were fighting and killing each other. At one point, it was reported, someone even burned up all the food stores in hopes that the desperate situation would force God to enter into the battle to help them.

In the end, the larger and more highly trained and outfitted Roman-led armies outside the walls prevailed. The untrained and divided people inside the walls had no chance against the armies. When the Romans finally breached the city's wall at several places, they began to close in on the Zealots who had tried to barricade themselves inside the Temple Mount.

A Jewish historian of the time named Josephus said this about the destruction of the temple:

“As the legions charged in, neither persuasion nor threat could check their (impulsiveness): passion alone was in command. Crowded together around the entrances many were trampled by their friends, many fell among the still hot and smoking ruins of the colonnades and died as miserably as the defeated (Jewish people died). As they neared the Sanctuary they pretended not even to hear Caesar's commands and urged the men in front to throw in more firebrands. ... Most of the victims were peaceful citizens, weak and unarmed … down the Sanctuary steps poured a river of blood ...” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Jerusalem_(AD_70))

Josephus reported that most of the city and the walls around it were so utterly destroyed that anyone who came to Jerusalem after the siege would never even know to ask about the city and people who had once been there.

He also said more than a million people were killed in the destruction of the temple and about 100,000 others were enslaved. Scholars think the historian inflated those numbers, but we can certainly know that there were many, many people, mostly Jewish, who were killed or enslaved in the siege.

They must have felt like it was the end of the world. Josephus and others thought this had happened to the temple and the people because of their sins – that it was an experience of the wrath of an angry God. And perhaps many of the people looked around saw Malachi's words taking shape. Burning ovens, charred landscapes, death and destruction.

But … they were also a people of the next line we read from Malachi this week. “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” (Malachi 4:2a)

They were a people with generation after generation of story about this God who freely made a covenant with them. A covenant that said this would be their one and only God, that the 10 commandments would be their law and they would be God's favored people – forever. The legacy of these conquered people was story after story about how they had broken this covenant, but God hadn't. Even when angered by the people's continued folly, God never broke the covenant.

Still, it’s hard to find comfort and courage in the second half of Malachi’s message when the first is so in your face.

“See, the day is coming, 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, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. (Malachi 4:1)

***

Like this picture of the Jewish people holed up in Jerusalem, we are a nation divided and I don’t doubt there are many of us today who look around and wonder if the something like the prophetic words of Malachi are taking shape right before us too.

We are a divided people, holed up within the walls of our democracy along with those we disagree with, with the the centers of our religious, governmental and economic lives. We are besieged by outside forces in some places and in our effort to sort out all that divides us, we have inflicted or ignored great harm on some of our own people.

But … we also – like the completely sacked and utterly destroyed Jewish people of Jerusalem in the year 70 – are people of the next line of Malachi too. “But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” (Malachi 4:2a)

 

We are also people of God with generation after generation of story about this God who freely made a covenant with us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, a God who, even when angered by our folly, never breaks that covenant.

We gather here, around this impossibly nutritious bread and wine, despite our divisions and disagreements and brokenness … us along with so many others in this nation, who are also followers of Jesus … so many others who have been adopted into this Jesus-following identity we promise to keep at the very center of the way we conduct ourselves in this world. And that commitment points us to pretty specific ways of discerning how we are called to respond to our divisiveness – how we are called to be a healing and unifying presence in this world.

We start with a love of God that rises above our love for all other sources of power and privilege … riches, status, flags, politics. And from there, we love neighbor. All of them. Regardless of whether we ever meet them or understand them; regardless of whether we are connected to them directly, as we are connected here, or indirectly, as we are to every other creature of the kosmos that bears the spark of God.

The things that divide us are in our face right now. It’s hard to get away from the heaviness of that first line from Malachi. But I am reminded of something ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton said following our last presidential election, which I think still rings true and bears repeating. She said following the election, “Many of us woke up with a sense of joy. Many of us woke up … with a sense of sorrow. After this long and divisive campaign, many of us woke up feeling weary. But,” she added, “we all woke up in the same country. No human candidate can guarantee our life or our future. That is work that God has done through the death and resurrection of Jesus.”

This work is done – already and forever – by God through Jesus, Bishop Eaton reminds us.

And so, even though our divided nation and our broken lives get in our faces, our faith, our Jesus-following identities, pulls us to turn instead to the path set before us by our Savior, like in our gospel story today.

Use these divisive times as a way to testify to the truth and hope of the Reign of God, Jesus urges us. The truth that though God’s people divide and nations rage, God does not abandon the covenant. The hope that despite our stubbornness and folly, we are not slave to any earthly power, including sin – that of others and our own.

Testimony like that in any divisive time is probably more powerful and necessary than ever.

Jesus also tells us to trust that God will give us the words of hope, forgiveness, healing and salvation that we all need to hear, each and every one of us.

And finally, remember, do not forget … in the face of everything, when we come among one another, and gather around that font and around this altar to revere God's name, we do so in a world where the Son of Righteousness has risen – with healing in his wings for a weary and divided nation. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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