December 6, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
Malachi’s prophecy concludes some 400 years before the Gospel begins, but the Spirit who provides the words for both prophecy and Gospel alike doesn’t skip a beat. The last words of the Old Testament are: “I am going to send you the prophet Elijah before the LORD’s great and terrible day comes. He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers. Otherwise I will have to come and destroy the whole country with a curse” (vv 5-6). Elijah doesn’t come in person, but Jesus’ cousin John comes in the spirit of Elijah, which is to say that John, who baptizes at the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is the final prophet of the Old Testament who has come to set the hearts of children to their fathers with his preaching of repentance.
John baptizes with water to prepare God’s people for a different king of baptism. “I am baptizing you with water,” said John, “but One is coming who is stronger than me—I am not worthy to loosen the strap of His sandal—He will baptize in the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand to clean out His threshing floor and gather His grain into His storehouse, and the chaff He will burn up with unquenchable fire (Lk 3:16-17).
So the prophet Malachi proclaims, You see, the day will come, burning like a furnace, and all who defy God and all who do wrong will be straw. The coming day will burn them,” says the LORD of armies, “leaving no root or branch of them (vv 1-2). Both Old Testament and New describe God’s judgment as a burning fire. Unquenchable.
Fire is all-consuming. When it does its job, nothing is left but ash. It dismantles things at the molecular level. This is why God does not show Himself unmasked. His holy presence is like putting a blowtorch to a pile of dead, dry leaves. Not that He Himself is evil and capricious and wishes to destroy things because it gives Him pleasure to destroy, but that He is by nature holy. And wickedness exist in His presence no more than paper can exist in the fire.
Good! This world needs a little fire and brimstone. Like Sodom and Gomorrah of old, this decadent world should get what’s coming to it. Perhaps it’s time for the nuclear option.
But fire is not something that should be messed with. It burns indiscriminately. It shows no respect for race, creed, sexual orientation, gender identification, or any other personal qualities we use to divide, separate, and ultimately use to self-justify. Everything burns.
If God’s righteous wrath were set to the earth, it’s not just ISIS and Planned Parenthood and the women’s studies department of the local university that would be reduced to ashes. Fire burns indiscriminately, and God’s wrath is poured out on all wickedness. This includes you. Your sin is like being doused in kerosene before God.
It’s for this reason that God builds a furnace. Fire burns indiscriminately, unless it’s contained. In a furnace, the incredible power of fire is directed in such a way as to turn it into a powerful benefit. It can warm a house, cook a meal, bend iron, power a train, or burn the chaff from wheat. A furnace shields you from harm and directs the fire in a beneficial direction.
Jesus is the furnace of God’s wrath. The Son of God clothes Himself in flesh so that His holiness would not consume your sinful flesh and dismantle you at the molecular level. But even more than shielding you from danger—a burning furnace can still cause quite a bit of damage if you touch it—Jesus directs the fire of judgment in a beneficial direction.
The great and terrible day of the Lord came first to Jesus. As He hung on the cross, He suffered the pains of the fires of hell. Like the sacrifices of the old covenant that were burned on the altar as a sweet aroma to God, Jesus focuses the heat of God’s judgment on Himself by taking the sins of the world into Himself. On the cross hung the furnace of God, and the unquenchable fire was put out when He breathed His last breath.
Even the most destructive fires will eventually burn themselves out. When there is nothing left to consume, the fire will end. And if a furnace is left untended, it will finally cool in time. But there’s a difference with Jesus when He directs the flames of God’s judgment upon Himself. The fire doesn’t burn itself out when He’s buried in the earth. He’s the One who baptizes not only with fire, but also with the Holy Spirit, who is the Lord and giver of life.
After suffering the fire of God’s wrath for your sin, and putting it to bed in the earth, a new fire begins. But for you who respect My name there will rise the Sun of Righteousness with healing in His wings. You will go out and frolic like calves let out of their barn. You will trample on the wicked because they will be ashes under your feet on the day when I act,” says the LORD of armies (vv 3-4).
After being buried in the earth, the Son of God rises again as the sun rises in the morning. That wonderful furnace in the sky does not go out each night, but is only hidden for a time until it rises again to begin each new day. It hasn’t failed yet. Jesus Christ is your Sun of Righteousness, who is risen from the dead for your justification. You are no longer defined by your old nature, but by the name that is put on you.
That’s the line of separation between wicked and righteous. It’s not about your deeds, but about the name that you bear. The ones who respect the name of the Lord are the ones who bear His name by virtue of Holy Baptism. You are baptized into that name, and because you have that name, you also have His suffering and His death to count as your very own. When the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, your strength to endure is the name of Jesus and the gift of His righteousness.
There is something in science known as the Goldilocks principle, which states that if a planet is either too close or too far away from its sun, it cannot support life. God placed us right in the sweet spot here on earth; a little bit closer and we’d burn up, a little bit farther and we’d freeze. That giant nuclear oven in the sky is just the right distance away that it’s heat and light give healing and life. And so it is with Christ. He is now ascended to God’s right hand in heaven and He puts us in the sweet spot where He distributes His righteousness in the ministry of the Church. Word, Baptism, Sacrament, these are the healing rays of our Sun of Righteousness, without which true Life would be impossible. As the days get colder, Christ is your warmth, your heat, your light.
But there will also come a time when the Sun of Righteousness will rise a bit closer when He returns to judge the living and the dead. And when He comes with fire, for you it will not be the fire of wrath, but the fire of life. Therefore they are before the throne of God, and worship Him day and night in His temple. And He who is seated on the throne will dwell with them. They will no longer hunger, they will no longer thirst, neither will the sun fall on them, neither any heat (Rev 7:15-16). And they will see His face, and His name upon their foreheads. And night will be no more, and they will not need the light of a lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord will shine upon them, and they will reign forever and ever.
Christ Is the Risen Sun of Righteousness
In the name of + Jesus.
Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come. Amen.
Jacob W Ehrhard