Preached by Canon Roland Riem, using Malachi 4 and Matt 11.2-19, at Mattins on Sunday 24th June 2012, the third Sunday after Trinity.
One of the most important, missionary tasks of the Church is to be honest about its beliefs. Many consider religion to be the cause of untold harm to the world, and many more simply fear extremity of any kind. And again being honest, do not those critical voices lie in us, too?
So when we come to a passage such as we heard from Malachi, where violence and salvation are knit together so intimately, as if we were watching some sort of Hollywood blockbuster – where the hero mows down the villains, saves the world and gets the girl, all in 90 minutes – we stand at a distance from saying Amen to what we are being offered.
As we shall see, we do this not just because of woolly, liberal scruples, but because of Jesus Christ, the full revelation of the salvation of God.
The terrible words from Malachi which we heard are the final words of the Old Testament. The theme is the coming Day of the Lord, a time of judgment and liberation. It is a time when the wicked shall be uprooted from their niches in the moral ecology of creation. Conditions will change and they will not be able to survive them.
Now as then, we know how the wicked use their wealth and power cleverly, to establish themselves and feather their own nests. It is a perennial complaint that the wicked are not judged by God, not knocked off their perches, not caused to suffer with, or instead of, others, their victims.
If God were just, he would right wrong and exact retribution – in perfectly just ways of course, but in ways where we, the poor, needy and deserving of the earth, would benefit. Micah envisages that the righteous, having been freed from their captives, will have the pleasure of putting paid to them.
Last week saw the end of the trail for mass killer Anders Breivik. No-one disputes that Breivik killed 77 people and injured 242 others in Norway in July last year; what is at issue is whether he was sane at the time. His defence is saying that he was, because he acted out of his beliefs – his vision of how the world to come should be ordered.
This is why we have to be careful about imagining ourselves as God’s own agent for liberation – the ones who can set injustice straight. Perhaps we might be those agents, but not in a way that makes us violent towards others who we decide are wicked, unclean or ungodly.
Another headline is the trial by media of Jimmy Carr and others who use tax avoidance schemes. Not for a moment am I saying that these schemes are morally right – we all have a Christian duty to pay our dues to society – but the story shows the glee we experience in branding others as among the wicked.
To be fair to Malachi, he warns those who revere God’s name to be obedient to God’s Law and to remember that they themselves have been rescued from destruction; these words could save the righteous from acting in place of God. And yet not always, I fear.
The NT is not exempt from this danger, either. The Gospel of Matthew, the source of our second lesson, is a gospel of judgement, even condemnation: ‘His blood be on us and on our children!’ bay the crowd at the Christ’s Passion.
The NT continues to wrestle with the question of what exactly God’s deliverance looks like. You hear it in the question asked by the disciples of John the Baptist, ‘Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another’ – for another who will really deliver?
Jesus says: tell John what you see and hear people are being freed of their burdens, and blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me. Why are people likely to take offence? Because it’s the wrong kind of deliverance.
You’ve heard of the wrong kind of snow. This is the wrong kind of deliverance, the non-violent kind. There is violence, boiling and bloody rage, but it is the rage of the ones who refuse deliverance. It is a violence that Jesus seeks to convert and redeem, as had his cousin John the Baptist.
‘From the days of John the Baptist until now,’ says Jesus, ‘the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force.’ Well, they try and fail to establish God’s kingdom by violence. Jesus stands for another way.
Why should we be Christians when religion causes so much harm in the world, when our own tradition is bathed in blood. There is only one cogent reason – the way of Jesus Christ, his sort of deliverance. We may not be able to follow in it ourselves very well – we stumble and fall on the way – but we see him delivering us, the wicked, who have violence in our hearts.
Jesus Christ does many things to save us, but one of the best is the way he purifies our imagination and our hope in the face of the world’s violence. Just think of Egypt, Afghanistan and Iraq. We find it hard to believe that deliverance can come without violence and counter-violence. But think again: it is only when the violence stops that there is any chance of justice and peace.
Think of Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi, leaders who have gained huge moral authority because they did not meet violence with violence; rather they were prepared to suffer violence and wait decades for their time, and then to be agents of reconciliation.
The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them; but we do not crush the wicked.
Jesus Christ is not an inspiring example for those with the courage to follow it; his Spirit is with us. The life of Jesus can be formed in us, in the depths of our hearts where the violence is. Violence is not a rational response to the world; it is a reaction which betrays the state of our hearts, and our lack of creative imagination.
As for me, it may be impossible for you to imagine what it would be like to live with forgiveness of those who have wronged us, who have done better than us, who are different from us as the primary mandate – to have a heart of flesh rather than of stone – but Jesus shows us that that sort of Spirit-filled life is a reality. Maybe the courage to do it is given
Many of us will have enjoyed the moment in Westminster Hall when Aung San Suu Kyi said that she hoped that one day the Burmese Parliament would be as lively as ours, and that they would have the equivalent of Prime Minister’s Question time. The Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition chucked together, united for a moment in a common awareness that what felt at times to be adversarial and bruising was in fact a safe and even playful ritual. Passionate feelings and views can be converted and put at the service of justice.
Malachi’s vision of the great and terrible day turns out to be right in so many ways – God will act, the conditions for the wicked will change, their grip on wealth and power will destroyed; but, as Matthew reminds us, this will happen in Jesus’ way and we who follow, will not be trampling down our enemies, rather striving to bring to them healing, forgiveness and peace – without violence; in fact, with love.