THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Rodney S. Sadler, Jr. Lectionary Team Commentator
Lection - Malachi 3:16-18 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v. 16) Then those who revered the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord took note and listened, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who revered the Lord and thought on his name. (v. 17) They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them. (v. 18) Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.
I. Description of Liturgical Moment
As we advance in the Advent Season anticipation grows. Though the anticipation is often for Christmas Day with its promise of presents and dinner, this passage reminds us that Advent is about much more than that. As has been said in our commentaries, cultural resource materials and worship units for the past two Sundays, Advent is a time of expectation that our Christ is to return.
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Malachi 3:16-18
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
This passage reflects many of my favorite themes in Scripture with its attention to the importance of the specificity of our God, its constant rehearsal of God’s name, and its concern that we as people are righteous in our service to YHWH. It sums up well in a few brief verses the concerns of much of the Old Testament. I have enjoyed spending time with this passage for it leads nicely into the continuing Advent season and encourages us to think about whom we worship and what our actions should be in response to the call of our God on our lives.
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
Most of us take it for granted that religion was a popular word in the Old Testament for we think of this as a “religious” book. The thing is, however, that there is not an equivalent word for “religion” in Hebrew. When people want to describe someone who is a faithful believer in the God of Scripture, they say that that person has “the fear of YHWH.” This notion of “fear” came with the sense of absolute “awe,” as in the song “Our God is an Awesome God.” This type of reverence centered the people’s affection and commitment on the one God who made the heaven and earth and dedicated them completely to YHWH’s service. There is, however, another aspect to this notion of “fear.” Fear was also the ultimate dread that human beings had for a being so powerful that this being held their whole world in hand. YHWH was empowered over all of creation and, as such, was worthy not only of reverence in an abstract spiritual sense, but of ultimate fear for, as Jesus said in Matthew 10:28, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
I wonder if Christians have “fear of the Lord” anymore. Have our theologies (belief systems) transformed the awesome God of creation, maker of heaven and earth, the one true God of the ancient Hebrews, into an Amero-friendly, status-quo supporting, wish granting genie who wants us to prosper (materially)? Have we mistaken God for a god we order about with our “name it and claim it,” “it’s your season” theologies? I am afraid that we hold this god of our machinations hostage to his word (as we misunderstand it), for if this god said he would do something for us, like a fairy from our fantasies, he must be faithful to fulfill his word. But the God who made the world and all that is in it, the God who rescued the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage, the God who loved humanity so much that he purified them with exile, the God who loved the world so much that His only son would be sacrificed to set the world free from its bondage to sin and death, this mighty God, YHWH, is all but forgotten in our popular theologies. We need to remember that, not only is our God a God to be loved, YHWH is also a God to be feared!
It is this type of fear of YHWH that motivates the faithful in our lectionary scripture (v.16), for a God we truly fear and respect is a God to whom we will be faithful. And it is to YHWH that our faith is due. Over and over again the name of the LORD, YHWH is mentioned in this verse. Though we see the term in our English Bibles as LORD, we should note that in almost all instances where the word LORD is written in all capital letters, it is translating YHWH’s name. This translation convention has had several effects: it has enabled the Christian community to lose sight of whom it worshipped. We have forgotten that we owe our allegiance not just to god, but to a specific God, YHWH of the Hosts. It has made us lose sight of the fact that hallelujah is not just a generic expression said to praise god in general; hallelu-Yah is a Hebrew command to praise YHWH, a specific God with whom we have a specific history. To lose sight of the name of our God has been to lose sight of the specificity of the God whom we worship.
In this regard, we should note the constant refrain of the word “Lord” in this passage, for it seems intent on reminding its community of the God to whom their allegiance was due. As the Church, we need a similar reminder that we do not just worship a generic god, we worship a specific God with whom we have a specific history. Our God has done great things for us. From this passage we also learn that, as the faithful, we are God’s own “special possession.” (v. 17) Further, we are God’s children, granted special favor because of our relationship to God. To remember who God is and what God has done for us, is a message that resonates from this text to our communities, which far too often forget to whom our allegiance and then our praise is due.
One of the biblical themes that made the strongest impression on me as a kid is derived, in part, from this passage. This scripture discusses the fact that God keeps a “book of remembrance” in which is recorded those who heed the name of YHWH. These faithful followers are not just loosely kept in mind, they are inscribed in this book that records their fidelity to our God. This was a powerful notion for me as a kid, because it reminded me that everything I did was recorded. This concept helped me to remember that what I did (good or bad) would not be forgotten.
Reflection on this motif does much good for the church for it reminds us that we do not act void of consequence…our God is watching. The book of remembrance reminds us that all that we do is seen by a God who remembers. It holds us accountable, for our actions are not unseen, and what we do matters more than we may think. How we treat those we think no one cares for, what we do for or to others, the way we express the love God calls us to express for our brothers and sisters, will be remembered by our Lord. Just as this motif made me, as a child, aware of the consequences of my actions, the “book of remembrance” can keep us mindful of the fact that what we do matters to our God.
What will be recorded in this book is whether we have been righteous. As I said in last Sunday’s commentary, righteousness is a term that means being both socially just and personally pious. A tsadiq or a “righteous person” was one who kept not only these two concepts in balance, it was also someone who, according to this passage “serves God.” A tsadiq is not a person who adheres to an abstract system of moral goodness or who does what appears to be just or kind by rote; a tsadiq is one who commits her life to living completely dedicated to YHWH, which could mean giving up her individual dreams and ambitions and putting all human desires behind the goal of total fidelity to YHWH. Some of the great tsadiqs (actually tsadiqim) in Scripture bear witness to this brand of obedient service: Abraham was a tsadiq who, despite the cost, left his home to live as an alien in a strange land; Moses was a tsadiq who, despite the cost, left the freedom of Midian to return to a land where he was a fugitive murderer to free a people too used to their oppression to know better (sound familiar?); Jeremiah was a tsadiq who, despite the cost, preached a treasonous message against the nation he loved (also sound familiar?); Jesus was a tsadiq who, despite the cost, willingly went to the Cross to reconcile us with God. We each are called to be a tsadiq despite the cost, and to live our lives completely dedicated to fulfilling the will of our God.
All of this sets us up for the Day of YHWH, the great and coming day when YHWH will come and set the world in order. Though we will deal with this more in our next lectionary reading, we should note the Advent expectation that is established by this reference, for the “day when I act” is near to coming. As we move closer to the awaited Advent moment, this expectation should be ever before us, exhorting us to strive to be more faithful tsadiqs as Christians who know that all that we do will be recorded in YHWH’s book of remembrance.
In this passage, we should attend to the powerful metaphor of the “book of remembrance.” However conceived, as an ancient parchment, as a dusty leather-bound book, as a modern computer, or a Black-Berry screen, this book is potent, holding us accountable to attend to our actions. Also, the notion of us as God’s “special possession” stands out and can be explored further with a reference to the things we held as special to us as children, such as a favorite Hank Aaron baseball card, a doll with soft hair, or a beloved threadbare stuffed animal that we slept with nightly, we are precious to our God. Finally, the correlation of righteousness and wickedness to service of YHWH is a compelling reminder of what is at stake when we act or fail to do so.