Sunday’s Scripture ~ Malachi 3:1-4
The Rev. Dr. Thomas Long taught my homiletics course in seminary. Homiletics is a fancy word for preaching. One of his earliest lectures subjected how a preacher determines the biblical text that he or she will prayerfully discern, exegetically (from the word exegesis meaning critical interpretation of a text) explore, and theologically interpret for his or her congregation.
I thought to myself…wow…is he serious…an entire lecture on how to select a text?!
But it was a lesson that I needed to hear. Dr. Long spoke of the damage that we can inflict on a text when we lift it up out of its larger context to preach. He used the illustration of wallpaper (I know…do you remember that stuff?). When preachers lift up a portion of Scripture out of its larger context it’s like we are briefly removing a piece of wallpaper from the larger whole. We want the section that we take to preserve the integrity of the whole – we want it to still look like and identify with the whole – while we explore just a portion. This guards from reading in to the text, which is known as eisegesis.
Yet, we still do damage…once wallpaper is torn it can never be whole again. Yes, the pieces can fit back together, but the marred edges will remain.
The lasting lesson for me was this: if I am going to do damage to a text in lifting it up, then I want to make sure the marred edges are worth it.
When I consider this week’s Scripture passage, Malachi 3:1-4 looks like a neat little piece of wallpaper taken from the larger whole…but I wonder if the crafters of the Revised Standard Lectionary lifted up this section of Scripture a tad prematurely.
Malachi 3:1-4 speaks of the Coming Messenger of the Lord. This messenger will be like a “refiner’s fire and fuller’s soap,” purifying all God’s people (3:2). This messenger will be a physical manifestation – an incarnation – of God’s justice. This messenger will bring about a new day which will be like the “the days of old and as in former years”…perhaps even like the “first day” when creation was called “good” (3:4).
And the lection or Scripture lesson ends.
Readers are left with a general image that justice is coming…but for who specifically? Keep reading. Malachi 3:5 names them:
“Then I [the Lord] will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness 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 do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”
I question whether the marred edges of the Malachi 3:1-4 lection are worth it. Yes, these verses proclaim that justice is coming, but it isn’t specific enough for me…nor do I think it is specific enough for God’s people that I serve.
I can stand in my church week after week and proclaim to my congregation that God’s justice is coming, but I believe what they truly need to hear is the nearness of the justice. Justice is coming to the broken, the afflicted, the wanderer, the judged, the lonely, and the lowly. It some circumstances the justice has arrived and been embraced; in others arrived and deflected; and still others awaiting arrival. Whatever the circumstance, justice is coming and it is coming near.
This is a proclamation and reminder that they, me, we have not been forgotten. God draws near to us. God redeems. That is the healing that comes in the justice. That is the gift of the refiner’s fire and the fullers’ soap.
The justice was, the justice is, and the justice is to come.
So the lesson, my friends, is to keep reading. Don’t start or stop where I say or anyone else says. Explore the Scripture to the fullest. Question and discern the marred edges of Scripture passages. Bear in mind and keep in sight the integrity of the text. Draw near. Draw near and be refined.
Prayer: Holy God, Messenger of the new covenant, flaming Spirit, we confess that we are sinners and cannot worship you worthily except as we are purified and cleansed of our sins. Let your Holy Fire refine our characters, and not merely our appearance, so that our very natures can become true and rich, purged of the dross of our deepest faults and the evil that corrupts us. Fit both pastor and people to worship you in the purity appropriate to the house of God, through the fire of the Holy Spirit. Amen.*
(*from B. David Hostetter, Prayers for the Seasons of God’s People: Worship Aids for the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 13).