Sunday, November 13, 2016

God's Future--Malachi 4:1-6

So much has happened this week. Only seven days ago, we were looking ahead with certain expectations. Now, we look back, and the news and social media highlight the divisiveness still pervading our country. Today, we look ahead to the future. Malachi is about the future; Malachi also is about the present. Malachi is an indictment of people who hold back from God; it addresses people who lose sight of the divine in the present. It says, “those who revere God’s name, the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings.” A promise of healing and comfort is always welcome.
This morning, we will look at Malachi, continue processing the election, and explore C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. If you want to remember these three parts, use the mnemonic MEG: Malachi, election, and grief.
In many ways, the world is a different place today than it was seven days ago. One era is ending, and another one is starting. Some people celebrate a new era, and others are fearful. On Wednesday, after the election, I spent a fair amount of time counseling people who were upset by Tuesday’s results. When I told someone about how upset people were, he said, “Really?” Yes, really. The truth is, people would have sought counseling and comfort regardless of Tuesday’s outcome. If the results were different, there would have been different people who wanted comfort.
To those who feel pain or a sense of loss after the election, C. S. Lewis writes a helpful word in A Grief Observed,
We were promised sufferings. They were part of the programme. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accepted it… Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination.[1]
Pain is real when it is your pain. Whether an election, a doctor calling with a positive test result, fractured relationships with friends or family, loneliness, isolation, boredom, job insecurity, food insecurity, no money for rent—when it is yours, it is real.
Malachi is the final book of the Hebrew Bible. It is the last of the Book of Twelve, the minor prophets. The minor prophets are not minor because we flat the third; they are minor because, unlike the major prophets, the minor prophets are short. Malachi was probably not the chronologically last among the prophets, and it might have been part of another writing, although that assertion is speculative. The details of when, where, and who in Malachi are sketchy. It fits as the last of the twelve minor prophets.
Malachi is about the relationship between God and humanity. For us, we tarnish and profane that relationship when we put things ahead of God. At this point, I have been planning to preach today from Malachi for about a year. The Holy Spirit moves and, I believe, is active in our worship planning. Malachi’s message of putting God first is appropriate for us today. On all sides of the political spectrum, during this past year, many people put many things ahead of God. Doing so stains our relationship with God.
Sometimes we get good news, like in the game Monopoly when you draw a card from the stack labelled “Community Chest” and the card says, “The bank made an error. Collect $50.” Other times, we get bad news. In the same game, we can find ourselves with the card, “Go directly to jail. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.” On Wednesday morning, some people awoke to good news. Others did not. In either case, our calling is to put God first, build relationships with one another, and reach out, sharing the good news of God’s grace, love, and mercy.
In Malachi, we find a strange word for today, “Surely the day is coming…” The prophet looks ahead to God’s judgment. Elizabeth Achtemeier writes, “Behold! the Day comes! And whether it brings the fire of destruction or the sweet balm of healing depends on the character of those upon whom the light falls.”[2] Character matters. Actions account. We know from James that faith and actions are inextricably connected.
C. S. Lewis wrote A Grief Observed after his wife’s tragic death. He wrote it as a way of surviving the loss. The book is an honest reflection of fundamental issues surrounding life and death, and keeping faith in the middle of loss. Each one of us makes decisions. Sometimes, those decisions lead to pain, like making irresponsible personal choices. Other times, we experience pain through no fault of our own, like when a loved one gets sick and no one can explain why. For the prophet, the judgment day is not here yet. The story is not finished.
God holds the past. God holds the present. And, God holds the future. We do not need to worry about the past because it is gone. If we have fallen short of God’s perfection, we can ask for forgiveness and be certain of its arrival. If we have sinned and wronged another person, we can seek that person’s forgiveness, in addition to God’s forgiveness.
In the epilogue, (verses 4-6), the prophet reminds people to follow the teachings of Moses. For us, we can see a reminder to follow biblical ethics, realize God’s love of each person, share this love with one another. Malachi is a message of hope, because just after the reminder to follow, there is a promise for the future. “Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah.” When we hear Elijah’s name, we know God is in control. Malachi presents a “rich and creative reworking and integration of the major covenant themes that inspired the earlier prophets.”[3]
For this moment, the present, we do not need to worry because God is in control. Trusting God with the future is where C. S. Lewis ends his journey in A Grief Observed. He writes, “I need Christ, not something that resembles Him.”[4] Worry does nothing to solve our problems or make the world a better place.

[1] C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed  (New York: HarperCollins, 1961), 36.
[2] Elizabeth Achtemeier, Nahum-Malachi, ed. James L. Mays, Patrick D. Miller, and Paul J. Actemeier, Interpretation (Atlanta: John Knox, 1986), 196.
[3] Eileen Schuller, "Malachi," in New Interpreter's Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 846.
[4] Lewis, A Grief Observed, 65.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

What Next?

After a long, divisive election season, the results surprised many pundits. The polls predicted a different outcome. Yet, the 45th President will be someone who has never held political office before. He has never served in the military before. Regardless of one’s political leanings, this is a new era. 
Now, we can stop comparing candidates. Instead, we can look ahead. 
First, uncertainty seems to be the theme of news stories. The winner of the presidency has made many contradictory statements. He has no track record to show what kind of policy decisions he will make. Many of his campaign promises are racist (e.g. deportation squads, building a wall, banning Muslims, etc.). Will he follow through with those promises? No one knows. 
Second, we can wait and see. With one candidate, there was a general expectation of status quo. With the winner, expectations roam all over. Speculation about the future gains nothing. Ecclesiastes 5:2 says, “Never be rash with your mouth, nor let your heart be quick to utter a word before God. God is in heaven, and you are on earth. Thus, let your words be few.” Let us be patient. Let us wait and see what happens next. This might be the most fruitful action today.
Third, let us treat one another with kindness and respect. “Love is patient. Love is kind.” Tillich says, “True love listens.” As we move beyond a hate-filled election year, Christians can model reconciliation. Instead of clinging to division, we can seek to build bridges. 
When people come together, they are stronger. Multiculturalism is not the enemy. Diversity is nothing to fear. People with different approaches and lifestyles can enrich one another’s life experience. 
History holds many lessons. These lessons hold true for both political winners and losers. Winners can learn contrition, humility, and openness. Without it, they are unlikely to remain victorious for long. Losers can learn from Richard Nixon. He proclaimed, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” He said this in 1962, six years before becoming president. 
The future is always uncertain. Part of the adventure of living is getting up each day and not knowing what will happen. 
What will a President Trump be like? We do not know. Let us pray for him. Let us mend fences and celebrate diversity. And, let us be good neighbors at home and around the world.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Despite the Election, All Is Well

This election year is full of vitriol and divisiveness. People might conclude that the apocalypse is upon us. Yet, the sun keeps rising each morning. People still work together. Families and friends find ways to communicate, despite opposing political views. Our Canadian neighbors even made a video to remind us that everything will be okay. The title is “Tell America It’s Great” (with the hashtag #tellamericaitsgreat).
The three presidential debates are over. Most people know how they feel about Clinton and Trump. And, after November 8th, the election will be over. Two people no longer dominate the news cycle. Other stories, important stories, can return to the headlines. Will life return to normal?
In many ways, life is already normal, even if it does not seem like it. People struggle with everyday questions and concerns. People celebrate joys and share struggles. They go to work, attend church, raise children, and support their favorite sports teams. They relax and recreate. They argue and make-up. And, when they argue, they argue about normal things, not policies or politics.
By focusing on political divisions, reporters generate more interest in their stories. Their business is, in fact, based on subscriptions and clicks. Violence at rallies, hatred between candidates, or shocking revelations might be good for business. But, it is bad for life.
The truth is, the average person is not violent at rallies. Usually violence is the work of a few disruptive people. The police arrest them. And, they enter the due process of the criminal justice system. Outlandish behavior and sexism aside, most people work together and behave in a civil manner. This is the point.
We do not need to look to our leaders to show us how to behave. They will always fail. They are human. Throughout history, leaders have failed. They can be immoral, unethical, unintellectual, and nonstrategic—they all fail. If you find one who has not, chances are almost certain that no one has discovered their failures yet. Though, the failures do exist. Recognizing leaders' failures does not excuse it. This is especially true when the failure is particularly egregious.
The Garden Collective started the social media movement “Tell America It’s Great.” The campaign harkens to the idea of paying it forward. In other words, when someone does something nice for you, do something nice for someone else. There are stories of people paying for the next person at a toll booth or fast food drive through. The kindness can go on for hours in an unbroken string. This kindness equates to the kind of love God has for all creation.
Christians who seek to reclaim civility in a such a partisan year can act where they are. In this election, we have learned about each other. We have learned that we are complex individuals. Many people find it shocking to discover a family member or friend supporting Trump or Clinton. Yet, the person has not changed. They are still our family members and friends. They have just decided that one candidate meets their hopes for the future.
The beauty of the American experiment is this: they can make that decision. The system allows it. Each person can make up his or her mind about who they support in an election. When the votes are cast and counted, we the people find out who won. We must continue being friends, neighbors, coworkers, and family.
Working together has to start with us.