SJF • Proper 28c 2010 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSGThere appears to be a contradiction between two of the Scripture readings appointed for today. The prophet Malachi says that God will send the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, and that he will turn the hearts of children to their parents, and parents to children, so that he will not come and strike the land with a curse. But in the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus says that before the temple is destroyed, a time of testing for the disciples will take place, in which even parents, brothers, relatives and friends will betray the believers into the hands of kings and governors, and some will be put to death on account of their faithfulness to Christ. Both prophecies concern the people of one’s own household — parents and children — with Malachi prophesying what sounds like a happy meeting of minds and hearts, and Jesus speaking of betrayal and treachery. So which is it?
You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends...
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Well, my friends in Christ, that is not a trick question! Nor would I pose you such a puzzle if I didn’t think there was an answer. In fact, I want to use these passages as a warning against careless Scripture reading — and taking isolated texts out of their context. In short, what I want to help you to see for yourselves, is that the texts are not contradictory — although understanding their harmony involves knowing a bit more about the scriptures, and the broader context, with greater depth. As the poet Alexander Pope wrote in the early 18th century, “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” and we had best, as he suggested, “drink deep” if we are truly and well to understand. He was speaking of secular knowledge — but the advice goes double for Scripture! And I hope you will not mind this sermon taking the form of a bit of Bible study, in keeping with the collect for the day, with its mandate to read, mark learn, and inwardly digest the Scripture. And I hope we don’t end up with indigestion!
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Let us begin by taking a look at these texts in their historical context. Malachi is the last book of what we call the Old Testament. On the basis of the situation Malachi describes it likely comes from the time of the reconstruction of the nation after the Babylonian captivity, the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. So when Malachi refers to Elijah, and foretells his coming — he is harking back to a figure from the time when the kingdom was divided and the kings both north and south, were, as my grandmother used to say, no better than they should be. He is harking back to a heroic figure who spoke out against corruption in high places some hundreds of years before. This would be like an American referring to George Washington or a Haitian to Toussaint L’Ouverture.
The return of the prophet Elijah was to mark a new beginning for Israel. And Malachi prophesies that Elijah will come “before the great and terrible day of the Lord.” How long before, however, remains the question. But one thing the new Elijah will do is “turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.”
When we turn to the Gospel, we find the disciples asking Jesus when the temple will be destroyed. He tells them that the precise hour is not known, and further that they are to trust no one who tells them that they come in his name and proclaim that the time is near. He further warns them not to be terrified when they hear of wars and revolutions taking place — these are not signs of the imminent end. As he goes on to say, nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be earthquakes, and famines and plagues, and even portents and signs from heaven. But before all of that happens, Jesus promises that many among them will be arrested, persecuted, imprisoned and tried — in some cases betrayed by parents and brothers.
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Obviously Jesus is speaking before the destruction of the temple, as that is the topic of the disciples’ question. Some suggest that he is speaking generically — not of a specific destruction of the temple but of the general fact that whatever humans build will one day fall to dust. For instance, I can promise you — I prophesy! — that one day the Empire State Building will no longer stand, and I cannot tell you the day or hour of its fall; but I can tell you that some day it will not be there any more; and the same goes, might I suggest, for the Cathedral Church of St John the Divine, where we had our diocesan convention just yesterday; in fact, because it’s built directly over a major fault, I can guarantee you it is going to fall to ruin, some day. It reminds me of what the old hymn says,
Mortal pride and earthly glory,But that Jesus should be making such a general observation of the frailty of all human efforts seems unlikely to me — for Jesus surely would have clarified he meant that when his disciples asked, “When will this be.” It is much more likely that Jesus is referring to a much more violent destruction, as actually took place in the next generation. The temple was burned by the Romans in the year 70, which brought an end to its use for worship. And then the whole city was leveled in the next century, and a Roman temple, a pagan temple, was built on the site of the Jewish temple — a desolating sacrilege indeed.
sword and crown betray our trust;
though with care and toil we build them,
tower and temple fall to dust.
Now, this historical placement of the texts still leaves us with a bit of a puzzle — and conflicting “family values” so to speak. As is so often the case, it isn’t merely the historical, but the biblical, which will set us on the path to understanding.
One of the great gifts of Anglicanism to Bible study through Archbishop Cranmer, back in the days of the Reformation, was to advocate using one portion of Scripture to help understand other parts of Scripture. That turns out to be the case, right here. It isn’t just the historical, but the biblical itself that will set us on the path to understanding. The key is the figure of Elijah himself, whom Jesus affirmed had already come in the person of John the Baptist. Luke makes this explicit in the first chapter of his Gospel, right on the first column of text, where the angel appears to Zechariah and promises him a son who will act in the spirit of Elijah, and then the angel even quotes the very passage from Malachi we read this morning. It is also worth noting that in Hebrew Malachi means “angel.” And so the angel redelivers Malachi’s message about the one who is to come in the spirit of Elijah. So from Luke’s perspective, Malachi’s prophecy has been fulfilled. Elijah has come — in the person of John the Baptist.
This allows us to establish a kind of time-line: Elijah, that is, John the Baptist, comes — and he does indeed preach a baptism of repentance, to families, parents and children, and all of the society, to reconcile and embrace a life of service and obedience and fairness. Then Jesus takes up his ministry of preaching the Gospel of love, and telling us again and again that our true family is not the family of blood and guts, but the family of the Spirit, the family of God. Then Jesus is betrayed, crucified, and most importantly, raised from the dead. And after his ascension, but before the destruction of the temple, comes the beginning of the persecutions — which Luke will go on to record in the second half of his work, the Acts of the Apostles.
It is a hard time, a time of betrayal. It is a time when families once again forget John’s teaching and Jesus’ teaching, and start to turn on each other, and eager to save themselves, or divided over what is the true faith, betray children, parents, brothers and sisters to death. The apparent contradiction in the prophecies is resolved as a sequence of how people — people as individuals or as families — will act differently under different circumstances.
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Different times and different pressures can and do make people and families act in different ways — the same people who may act virtuously with kindness and love one day may the next turn vicious — as resources grow short, as different temptations arise. The moral point in all of this is that the family itself ought not be the focus of our virtues, of our values. Yes, you heard me right — the family itself is of no absolute moral value: there are good families and bad families, families who act well, and families who act poorly. There are families who will love and protect and turn their hearts to one another, and there are those who will harden their hearts and betray each other, depending on the circumstances — and sometimes, sadly, it can be the same family! Like the temple itself, like the church itself — if a family is not doing God’s will and providing a context for doing God’s work — it is of no intrinsic, absolute value. It is what we do, and how we do it, as members of a family or of a church, that is of value.
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As that hymn I quoted earlier continues, “But God’s power, hour by hour, is my temple and my tower.” Put not your trust in earthly things, temples or towers, or people, or families — but in things heavenly. If you want your family or your church to be a place of virtue and love, set your mind on God, and God’s will — whatever the pressures of the day. Hold fast, keep hold of that anchor line to God, who is steady and firm, and a sure foundation for your faith and your life. As Paul counsels the Thessalonians, addressing them as members of God’s new family, the church: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” Base all of your actions upon the love of God and the love of neighbor — including the closest neighbors: the members of your own household — and you will be expressing the family values of the family of God. And at the time of testing, because you have placed your trust in God first, and loved your neighbors as yourselves, you will be safely brought through the great ordeal, to rejoice forever in that temple not made by hands, the temple which is the Body of Christ himself; to whom we give eternal praise and glory, with the Father, through the Holy Spirit.+