Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Approaching Flame

Due to commitments at the wedding of friends and a holiday in Spain, I've been off radar at Church for a while and not really done anything by way of preaching or leading a service.  This mini sabbatical came to an end this morning as I climbed back into the preaching saddle for what will be the last time before the interregnum at Alcester Minster ends. I very much felt a call to address the topic of transition from interregnum to leadership under the forthcoming new ministry of Adrian Guthrie.

When I saw what passages I had been given from the Lectionary, I jokingly suggested that I was being punished for my absence because all the passages seemed to be related to judgement and carried apocalyptic overtones.  In the end I decided to preach on the old testament passage in Malachi but expanded it to include the whole of the (brief) chapter:
"Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Not a root or a branch will be left to them.  But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves.  Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. ‘See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.  He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction."
Malachi 4:1-6
After reading that text, you may be forgiven for thinking that my talk this morning was going to be all doom and gloom and the stuff of apocalyptic nightmares.

But I promise my intention was in no way to get all fire and brimstone. There were a couple of reasons why I felt led to preach on the Malachi verse and in order to convey them, we need to take a look at the context in which the book was written.

Malachi was written after the Jews had returned from exile in Babylon & Persia and had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and the temple. God had brought them back at exactly the time had told them he would through the prophets.

Yet the rebuilt temple that they found themselves worshipping in was a shadow of its predecessor.  Solomon had taken great care to build the first temple with great splendour in accordance with the plans of his father, King David; the second temple was a much more modest affair that also lacked the Ark of the Covenant and the Shekinah - the glory cloud of God's presence.  In fact when older Israelites returned from exile and saw the foundations being laid, they wept openly because they could remember these things in the old temple.  On top of this, the land was still a vassal state and not a free power under their own rule.

Many of the freedoms and blessings they were anticipating following the end of exile and the predictions of Haggai and Zechariah had yet to come to pass and the people began to complain that God was unloving and unjust... allowing the wicked to prosper (and if we are honest, these are complaints that prick our hearts with dark thoughts in the modern world from time to time).

In this spiritual climate of deep doubt, the people had begun to waver in their commitments. The priests were being halfhearted in their duties (using sick or lame animals in sacrifice).  The people too were beginning to drift again as well. They were holding back from there own covenant commitments to God (especially with regards to tithing and marriage).

It's actually quite heartbreaking. They'd just spent 70 years in the captivity of foreign powers asking themselves "how can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?" and just when it seems they've begun to understand the gravity of the errors they made that led to their exile... they start to turn back to those errors and begin to forget their unique relationship with God again.

It's into this scenario that God motivates Malachi to write to the priests and to the people to answer their complaints and reveal to them his perspective about their situation.
Now it is s true that thee is a lot of heavy language with relation to judgement in chapter 4 and there are eschatological references in the passage... but let's remember where we are in the Bible and what God did next.

Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament and it points us towards the New Testament. Verse 5 talks about God sending the prophet Elijah to turn people's hearts to repentance... This would happen in the form of John the Baptist's ministry.

Verse 2 talks about the sun of righteousness rising with healing in his wings for those who turn to God and remember his ways.  We are familiar with this terminology, especially as we draw near to the festive season; Charles Wesley uses this same poetic language to describe Jesus in his Christmas carol "Hark the Herald Angels Sing":
Hail the Heaven Born Prince of Peace
Hail the Sun of Righteousness
Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die;
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.
So given that the next things God does in the Bible are acts of love and not judgement, what are we to make of Malachi's words on judgement?

Well Malachi twice strongly uses the metaphor of heat in his book.  The first time he uses the image, he describes a refiners fire, one that burns away all our spiritual frailties and impurities and makes us holy.  It is only towards the end of the book that the temperature increases and the refining fire becomes a furnace that consumes all.

As I was writing my talk, I was praying for a way to express what I thought God was saying about the nature of these fires... and in response to this, I was given a picture of a bonfire.

Now it is not that long ago that we celebrated Bonfire Night and many of us at one time or another will have stood around a large burning fire and felt the warmth radiating out from it. Now obviously, the nearer you stand to a fire, the warmer it gets. I don't know if you've ever tried the silly macho teenage thing (I say teenage but yes I admit I had a go two years ago and was temporarily left with half a red face and half a white face) and tried to stand as close as you can to a bonfire for as long as you can, but it is an incredibly hard thing to do... isn't it?

I want you to hold that that image... thought in you head for a minute.

You see I believe it a picture of God's movement and longing as he works hard to get close to us.
God is constantly drawing near to us and we need to respond to that.  As sinners we can feel the heat of God's presence - his holiness as he draws closer and closer and it makes us uncomfortable.  There are two ways we can respond to this growing warmth.  The first is to try and run into the cold and dark (but in the final analysis that will not avail us). The second response is to turn and face the warmth of God - to seek the Lord while he may be found... and to trust that the refiners fire is there as a prelude to his glory, to make us ready for his presence.

The holiness and awesomeness of the Father are why He sent His Son and His Holy Spirit ahead... to save us and to transform us - that we may be ready for his presence in our lives.

God draws nearer every day and he is holy. That holiness challenges us and it convicts us, and in the final analysis when We stand in God's presence, that holiness will test everything we have done and whether or not it is built on his values and person.

So firstly there is a personal reason as to why we need to respond to God's coming holiness... his approaching fire.

But I also wanted to look briefly at the situation of  the people in Malachi's day and draw some parallels with where Alcester Minster is at.

As the minster is now very near to the end of interregnum, it too has reached the end of a kind of exile. In the days that are to come we might see things change that we don't expect. Or we may not see things change at all and find our hopes frustrated.   Depending on who we are and where we are, this may leave us feeling similar to the Israelites who were complaining and falling short in the time of Malachi.
If we find ourselves in that place then we need trust our faith and not our feelings.

I believe Alcester Minster finds itself on the borders of a potentially exciting time where God may be seen vibrantly at work in new and exciting ways. But like the people of Israel, I think we need to heed God's words through Malachi if we are serious, committed and truly desire to take hold of it. We need to examine our hearts and get ourselves right with God id=f we are not to be disappointed.

These words are taken from Malachi 3:
"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it.  I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,’ says the Lord Almighty."
Malachi 3:10-12

So for each of us as individuals and for Alcester Minster as it prepares to leave interregnum, let none of us fear the consequences of the furnace fire and turn away from God. Rather, let us embrace the refiners fire. Let us bring to God all that he requires of us... Whether that is time, tithes, relationships or talents. Let us bring it all into His storehouse and let his Holy Spirit anoint us to proclaim good news to the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to bring his release to the prisoners... That they and we may know a year, a season of God's favour.

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