Relating, Creating, Transforming

Based on Malachi 3:1-4 and Luke 1:68-79

The world isn’t just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no?
And in understanding something, we bring something to it, no?
Doesn’t that make life a story?[1]

LifeofPiBookThe words of the character Pi in Yann Martel’s novel, Life of Pi. I am moved by this novel and the movie’s ability to push us to ask important questions about life, story, and their connections to each other. During this time of Advent, we often make the mistake of believing that the story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is all too familiar, and therefore, not a story that can challenge, move, and change us. And yet, in spite of the commercial animal of Christmas, here we are as people of faith, reading these stories and hoping that they will help us understand our own stories. How we understand the world greatly affects how we live in it. How we read sacred stories greatly affects how we apply them to our lives. So once again, I invite and challenge you to journey through these stories with me, but to take special care as to not infer what we think we know about them. Let’s open our minds and hearts to hearing them again, seeking new understandings.

Malachi is a book of the Bible that we don’t really read much, but there are definitely recognizable parts in it. Many people in Western Europe and in this country only recognize Malachi because of George Frederic Handel’s Messiah of 1741.

But before the hallelujah chorus gets stuck in your head [too late], you should know that the text for Messiah was put together by a wealthy English landowner named Charles Jennens. He took bits and pieces of scripture from both the New Testament and the Hebrew Scriptures, at times editing the text to fit the libretto he compiled in three parts. Jennens used the King James Version of the Bible and sought to tell the story of Jesus’ birth, death, resurrection, focusing on the Divine mystery of God’s presence in humanity.[2]

handelMessiah, through song, tells a story that directly connects prophetic books like Malachi to the story of Jesus of Nazareth.

Certainly, if you grew up with Messiah, then you most likely see Malachi through this lens. But I told you that we were going to attempt to hear the stories as they are—not inferring or even reading into them, as much as possible. So let’s give Malachi its due. First of all, Malachi is not the name of a prophet. This book was written by an anonymous author or group of authors. Malachi is Hebrew for messenger of God.[3] This prophetic book has a unique tone to it—much different than the familiar prophetic voices of Isaiah or Jeremiah. Malachi announces a messenger who will bring purification. Israel needs to be cleaned, but from what? According to Malachi, the religious leaders [the priests] had desecrated the temple with inappropriate sacrifices. There were false prophets and selfish leaders who looked out for themselves but not for the poor, or for the forgotten, or the marginalized. They had broken their covenant promises with God.

In essence, Malachi calls out so-called “religious” people who worshiped falsely because they did not act justly. They were supposed to do good in the world; their lives preached a message contrary to that. Their worship was adoration of material things, comfort, and the plans of people. This did not please Yahweh, according to Malachi.

I have to say, though most think that Malachi was written in the time period of 515-445 B.C.E.[4] when the Jerusalem temple was rebuilt, I think the message is for us today, too. We most certainly have plenty of religious temples all around, but what are we preaching and what are we doing? Especially in a season of consumerism and shopping, what are we worshiping? Are we keeping our promises? There are people without adequate food and shelter; there are injustices done to those without the “proper” paperwork; there is discrimination and bullying against people from other countries, those who speak languages other than English, those with little money, and those who practice a different faith. Malachi is a call to repentance, to turning around. Humanity’s intentions and humanity’s actions contradict the Holy One’s expectations.

Perhaps some of us hear this prophetic book as merely background noise for Handel’s Messiah, as merely another reference to the coming of Jesus Christ. But let’s stay with Malachi’s story. In this story, Yahweh is the refining fire—the One who will restore Israel to its blessed relationship with its God, but also the one who judges humanity for injustices. Malachi’s story is a prophetic voice that speaks a message not about prediction or foretelling, but a message of truth-telling.

Are we caring for people, or does our religion prevent us from doing so? In other words, yes, Malachi is concerned with how people worship God, but this worship is worthless unless it leads to merciful and just action on the streets. That wasn’t happening way back in the day. And…I think we have the same problem now. What does religious practice lead to? After worship, do we just go back to shopping, buying, stressing out, ignoring the world’s problems, and neglecting to help our neighbors?

Pi, in his story and journey of faith, observes this disconnect. As a boy, he notices this about many religious people:

There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless. These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging…walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, “Business as usual.”

 LifeOfPi

But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.

 Meanwhile, the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defense, not God’s, that the self-righteous should rush.”[5] 

From Malachi’s prophetic voice and story to Luke’s Gospel. Something to keep in mind here. We’re reading the Bible as a great big story. Malachi was a chapter in that story. Luke’s Gospel does not follow Malachi in the story, though it does in this version of the Bible. Let’s do this. Take the Bible and read Malachi’s ending, and then, like in many great stories, imagine that there is a fast-forward moment. Malachi ends and there are centuries that pass—ages. Generations of people come and go. Jerusalem becomes Greek in language and culture. Then the Romans bring the Latin language and their empire. People play taxes to Caesar. Jerusalem is occupied by Roman military. And now we’re into Luke’s story. We’re about to hear about another prophetic voice. We may think it is Jesus, but we would be wrong.

Luke’s story invites us to sit awhile with Zechariah and Elizabeth.

heqiElizThe Visitation, He Qi

These two characters are shared by the sacred stories of Jews, Muslims, Christians, and those of the Baha’i faith. Zechariah worked in the temple, serving a priestly role. Elizabeth, due to the restrictions and taboos of her time, lived under a cloud of sorrow and longing. She and Zechariah could not have children. Being infertile was considered a shameful condition in this era. Many considered childbearing as a blessing of God and infertility as a curse. So Luke tells us a story of grief. Zechariah and Elizabeth longed to be part of the community. They hungered for connection. Even so, they remained faithful to their God, in spite of the many around them who whispered and gossiped. We’re tempted to skip over this story, but we cannot. We must stay a moment in this place of doubt, silence, and waiting. How do we expect to truly journey to Bethlehem unless we sit with Zechariah and Elizabeth? Advent is about waiting. It is about hearing the lesser-known stories and not going for the overplayed, mainstream, dominant stories. For how will we get the bigger message of God unless we hear the smaller stories?

Notice that Zechariah and Elizabeth, both advanced in age, were resigned to the fact that they would not have a child. But then, one day, while serving in the temple, Zechariah is visited by an angel and promised a son. This news is so unbelievable to him that he is literally speechless—unable to talk. What follows is a muted celebration [pun intended] of a child who will be called John. Of course, this John [often called the Baptist], in his story, will be another prophetic voice, preaching on the banks of the Jordan River, echoing Malachi: repent—turn around!  But well before Zechariah’s song of praise over John’s birth, there was great sorrow and doubt. Where was God? Did God forget about Zechariah and Elizabeth? Of course, the common mistake we make with this story is to say “whew” when Elizabeth gets pregnant and forget about the rest of the story. A happy ending that leads us to Jesus, right?

But throughout the Bible’s great-big story, we find numerous female characters in their struggle to have a child. We cannot overlook the feelings of isolation, sadness, and the terrible rejection of the community. Monica A. Coleman, Professor of Constructive Theology and African-American Religions at Claremont School of Theology, provides this insight:

 In real life, God’s “fix” [of barrenness leading to pregnancy] is not always a boy-prophet. Sometimes it’s adoption. Sometimes it’s a birthed child. Sometimes it’s nieces and nephews. Sometimes it’s finding peace with childlessness.

 If women wrote the Bible, it might mention how messy the enterprise of not having children really is. It might mention the girl children the women loved. It might talk about how the men were in the temple, while the bleeding women gathered somewhere else. If women wrote the Bible, we would have more than these solitary scenes where a woman pours out her heart to God, and God fixes it by “opening her womb.”

 If this woman wrote the Bible, I’d write about barren women … and the women who support them. Those stories would be my love letter to them.[6]

This is the story Luke asks us to hear. All of us who struggle with doubt, isolation, unfulfilled hopes—these stories matter. And they matter to God. Our seemingly small stories are part of a great-big one. Even in our pain, God is present. So when Zachariah is able to open his mouth and speak again, he spouts out a poem, thanking God for faithfulness. It reads like a Psalm. His poem remembers what God has done in the past and how God’s fulfillment of promises does not usually occur on our time—God acts in unexpected ways and the path to blessing is often paved with discomfort and doubt. I am especially moved by the last part of Zechariah’s poem:

By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.

The tender mercy of God brings about the coming of dawn, bringing light into our darkest moments, guiding us into the way of peace. Luke’s story uses the word peace more than the other three Gospels combined. This word peace is prophetic. It does not mean the absence of conflict. Peace is not serenity, calmness, or lack of trouble. Peace originates from the Hebrew noun shalom, which means a state of wholeness. Living shalom does not mean that we don’t doubt; living shalom doesn’t wipe away our problems; living peace is more than just a happy ending. Like always, we ought to hear the voice of the story. Luke’s characters, Zechariah and Elizabeth, carry a story, even in their names. Zechariah means Yahweh remembers and Elizabeth means Elisheva, my God has promised.[7] So this story tells us that God has promised to remember us. Even when we don’t believe in anything, much less God; even when life is pain and we’re isolated from community; when we’re burned out and hopeless; when we’re lost; when it seems that our story doesn’t matter.

God promises to remember us.

And if we hear that story loud and clear, during this season and every day of our lives, we will hear Malachi, too. For God is with all people in their pain—regardless of their faith or lack thereof; no matter where they live or where they are from; God is with those who suffer, who are pushed down and forgotten; God loves the stranger, the bullied, and the left out. The story pushes us to different levels of thinking and doing. The serene scene of a manger, cute animals, shepherds, and magi in a barn is transformed into something much, much bigger. If we seek wholeness-shalom-peace for ourselves, we should offer it to others. If we hope that God will remember us in our pain and suffering, we ought to sit, stand, and wait with others in theirs. In all of our smaller stories, the big story can be told.

God remembers you.
Now remember the hurting people all around you.

Don’t ignore their stories.

May we all be guided in the path of Wholeness. Amen.

 


[1] Martel, Yann, Life of Pi, Seal Books, 2001.

[2] Handel’s Messiah, Rex Levang and Arthur Hoehn, December 1999, Minnesota Public Radio, http://music.minnesota.publicradio.org/features/9912_messiah/#part1

[3] Malachi, Jewish Encyclopedia.

[4] John C. Holbert, Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics, Perkins School of Theology, Dallas, TX

[5] Martel, Yann, Life of Pi, Seal Books, 2001.

[6] The Barren Woman Bible, Monica A. Coleman.

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