Ordinary XII: The Longest Night
Sermon delivered by Dr Stephen Duckett, Vicar’s Warden, Choral evensong, 23 June 2019
Malachi 2:17 - 3:6
Luke 1:52-3; 3:10-11
Thanks to Handel's beautiful oratorio, the Messiah, the passage from Malachi we heard tonight is well known to us. But who can endure the day of his coming?
Malachi is part of the last book of the prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures. However, in the Christian ordering, it is the very last book in the so-called Old Testament. It is thus easy to adopt a supersessionist reading of this oracle (Malone 2006), as Handel encourages us to do, and that it is all about the foretelling of Jesus’ coming.
However, one can also read Malachi as having a direct message for us today, quite distinct from any reading of it as a prophecy of the events of a few centuries later.
Malachi, it means the messenger, is one of the minor prophets – the short books which cried out to Israel and Judah to adhere to the covenant. Prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures are not generally those who foretell, but their ‘eye is directed to the contemporary scene’ (Heschel 2001: 24). At least one objective of whoever wrote Malachi was to change the behaviour of his or her local audience.
Malachi was written in the post-exilic period, when people and priests were backsliding. The promises of an idyllic Second Temple period were not being fulfilled and 'Malachi confronts a population given to religious cynicism and political scepticism' (Bọlọjẹ and Groenewald 2014).
Malachi is divided into a number of oracles or disputations, in question-answer format. The excerpt we heard tonight inexplicably is only part of the fourth oracle; traditional exegesis (Collins 2014: 259) starts this oracle with the last verse of the previous chapter of Malachi:
You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17, NRSV)
Here we see people arguing that YHWH isn't immediately rectifying injustice, and that somehow people are being wicked but not getting their just desserts.
How often do we today reflect on the injustice that some people rip off others, trample on other people to get ahead in life, and that they seem to be rewarded for that behaviour? This is just what was happening back then.
But Malachi goes on in chapter 3, as we heard, that it is not God who is failing, it is not God who is the source of injustice. God is a constant, unfailingly concerned about God's people, a God who doesn’t hate (Stokes 2008). Rather, what Malachi is calling out here is that it is the people who are failing. Specifically, Malachi says that judgement will fall:
against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and (those who) do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. (Malachi 3:5, NRSV)
Aside from the sorcerers, swindlers and adulterers, the groups named by Malachi are three of the so-called quartet of the vulnerable that we hear a lot about in the Hebrew Scriptures, the fourth being the poor (Wolterstorff 2008).
If the major theme of the New Testament is one of love, and God's redeeming love in particular, then a major theme of the Hebrew Scriptures is justice and the importance of living a life of justice and righteousness, the two words often appearing together. Concern for this quartet of the vulnerable - widows, orphans, aliens and the poor - is a constant theme in the Hebrew Scriptures.
God had expectations then, as God does now, about our behaviour: we need to live our faith. The need to live the Covenant is a major theme of the Hebrew Scriptures.
We can trace a biblical concern with justice right back to the establishment of Israel, back to when God was contemplating Abraham's future
For I have chosen him, (this is God contemplating Abraham here) that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice (Genesis 18:19)
So we may well conclude that 'Israel's obligation is to do justice' (Brueggemann 1997: 421), that Israel was brought into existence to do justice. Importantly, Mosaic justice is redistributive, redistributing goods and power (Brueggemann 1997: 736). And this is Malachi's message to us: We have a part to play in God's justice, as doing justice is how we are to keep the way of God.
So what might the messenger of the covenant be looking to us to do today, or tonight in particular? Tonight is the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. It is very cold outside. It is a long, potentially damp, night. What are we doing to God tonight? Yes, remember the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew (25:31-46): truly I tell you, everything you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me (verse 40).
St Peter's has a fine tradition of standing with the quartet of the vulnerable, and indeed all in need, stretching back at least to when we hosted the Brotherhood of St Laurence when it moved here in the 1930s (Holden 1996). Today we see that concern in our partnership with Anglicare and the Lazarus breakfast program. That program brings with it tensions, of course. If it were always easy and there were no trade-offs, would we really be doing anything positive?
As parishioners we are asked to adapt, and make changes which are often uncomfortable for us, and often lead to debate and discussion in the parish. Absolutely our mission is to help the vulnerable, but we also need to say what are the boundaries of our relationships with the homeless. What I am saying here is we need to acknowledge and make clear that while all people are welcome at St Peter's, some behaviours are not. Once we have specified those behaviours and boundaries, though, we must be welcoming within those boundaries and seek to do justice.
We are just about to start our new coffee caravan, designed to provide an opportunity for some to move out of homelessness into employment. This builds on the coffee cart trial, led so ably by Adolf.
American theologian Laura Stivers has identified a ladder of four types of Christian responses to homelessness (Stivers 2011), with the easiest and least challenging to the status quo being the rescue and recovery model, and the Lazarus program fits into that mould. Evangelical churches often see these programs as all that is required, and unfortunately also see these programs as evangelising opportunities, rather than simply living our call.
Our coffee caravan is the start of a more systematic response, trying to help the homeless adjust into society, an example of the second step on Stivers' ladder. Our advocacy for additional social housing at the old Peter Mac site is another example of this.
But the Christian response to poverty and homelessness, and especially a response within the Anglo-Catholic tradition, must also be one which attacks the source of the problem, the societal conditions which create poverty. Justice in the Hebrew Scriptures, as I pointed out earlier, is redistributive, challenging the unequal power distribution which creates homelessness.
So we must be advocating for change in policies of state and federal governments - the third step in Stivers' ladder - advocating to improve Newstart, to pursue employment creation and education policies, and to address domestic violence. These policies will reduce the incidence of homelessness. Stivers further highlights that a further step is that our advocacy must also give a voice to the voiceless, that we should be acting to support the quartet of the vulnerable to speak out to power, speaking of their own life experience. Stivers refers to these latter types of responses as prophetic disruption. We saw something of a voice of the voiceless with Pete Burns’ comments at the Masses this morning.
St Peter's does not do so much prophetic disruption, although some of us do so in our professional and volunteer lives with organisations such as the Brotherhood of Saint Laurence, and also through our giving. Giving, incidentally, is the subject of the next few verses in Malachi, verses we didn't hear tonight.
I would challenge you tonight to think about whether your responses to homelessness are entirely at the rescue and recovery step on Stivers' ladder, and what you are doing, if anything, to change the circumstances of the vulnerable, to advocate for change in the policies that create poverty and homelessness, and to advocate, with the vulnerable, for fundamental change. You might already be volunteering, or giving to advocacy organisations such as the Brotherhood, or acting in letter-writing or some other form of campaigning, so thank you for this.
Tonight is not only the longest night, but it is also the Vigil of the feast of the Nativity of Saint John the Baptiser. As children we were taught many stories about him and his death. He is also linked, albeit while still in his mother's womb, to that great Hymn of Our Lady, the Magnificat in the first chapter of Luke. As we hear each Evensong, she sung that God lifts up the lonely and fills the hungry with good things (Luke: 1:52-3). Maybe John heard that while still in the womb, and responded in his later life when he preached about justice:
'What then should we do?' the crowds asked.
'Whoever has two coats,' answered John, 'must share with anyone who has none and whoever has food, must do likewise' (Luke 3:10-11).
So as we reflect on Malachi and John the Baptiser, we hear the same story. God's love is to be seen in our justice, in what we do for the vulnerable. God will rectify injustice, but God does so by working through us. God can only use us to do justice if we heed God's call and we share our coats and our food.
Let us pray.
Dear Lord, on this the longest night, open our eyes to the vulnerable in our midst, open our hearts and minds that our actions may be in accord with your commands so that we might do for and with the vulnerable as we would do for you.
Bọlọjẹ, B. Onoriode and Groenewald, Alphonso (2014), 'Hypocrisy in stewardship: An ethical reading of Malachi 3:6-12 in the context of Christian stewardship', HTS Theological Studies, 70 (1), 1-8.
Brueggemann, Walter (1997), Theology of the Old Testament: testimony, dispute, advocacy (Fortress Press).
Collins, John J. (2014), A short introduction to the Hebrew Bible and Deutero-Canonical books (Minneapolis: Fortress).
Heschel, Abraham Joshua (2001), The Prophets (New York: Perennial classics).
Holden, Colin (1996), From Tories at prayer to Socialists at Mass: St. Peter's, Eastern Hill, Melbourne, 1846-1990 (Victoria, Australia: Melbourne University Press).
Malone, Andrew S (2006), 'Is the Messiah announced in Malachi 3: 1?', Tyndale Bulletin, 57 (2), 215-28.
Stivers, Laura A. (2011), Disrupting homelessness: alternative Christian approaches (Minneapolis: Fortress Press).
Stokes, Ryan E. (2008), 'I, YHWH, Have Not "Changed"? Reconsidering the Translation of Malachi 3:6; Lamentations 4:1; and Proverbs 24:21-22', The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 70 (2), 264-76.
Wolterstorff, Nicholas (2008), Justice: rights and wrongs (Princeton: Princeton University Press).