“Look. I’m sending advance notice by courier, to make it clear:
You’ve been looking for God, and suddenly God will arrive in the Temple.
You’re going to love this new deal my messenger will bring you,” says God.
Not! You won’t be able to stand it when God comes! God is like a smelter. God is like astringent. God will be a smelt operator, a silver smelter, and God will purify the priestly caste like gold and silver, until they have something good to offer God again. Then God will receive gifts from the people again, like it used to be.
“Then I’ll come to your sentencing,” God says. “I’ll be the witness against those who practice slight of hand, the cheaters, the liars, the people who refuse to pay fair wages, who force women and children into slave labor, who turn away foreigners, and who have no regard for me. I don’t change. I’m God. So you’re not too far gone, my children.
Ever since your parents turned away from what I said, you’ve been asking, “How do we get back?” Coming back is for the asking, and I’ll be there.
In Malachi’s day and ours, the people who cry “God” the loudest seem to be the most in violation of God’s commandments. They cry for a “return to the good old days when people went to church,” but if God were to show up and witness the lies, the cheats, the slight of hand, the refusal to pay fair wages, the 16 million women and children enslaved around the globe – well, it wouldn’t be pretty. Because it’s not pretty.
The return to “the way it used to be” isn’t so much about a return to tradition, or to nostalgic “good old days.” It’s about a return to justice, which is at the heart of the commandments. How do we get back? By starting with our own lives. Living justly. Doing what is right. Not doing the lying, cheating, withholding, and enslaving. By welcoming those who are different. That’s how, if we really believe in God, we might show the world (and God) that we do.
Why do nations plot? Why do people scheme? Why do kings and presidents Connive amongst themselves Against God’s chosen one, Saying, “Let’s break them, And do whatever we please”?
God laughs at them. God scorns them. Then, enraged, God speaks, And God will terrify them, “I will coronate my king. I will designate the capitol.”
I announce God’s executive order. God told me, “You are my child, Today, you are my child. The nations are yours for the asking, The whole world is yours. Break them with an iron bar! Smash them like so many old jars!”
So, kings and presidents, You’ve been warned. Take heed! Your commission is to serve God’s purpose. The magnitude of that task should make you tremble, For if you fail, you will suddenly be thrown down, And God’s wrath will consume you.
You who take refuge in God, rise up!
Most of us are not kings or presidents. We might be tempted to think that this is not about us. If it weren’t for the last line. For an explanation of the rendition (traditionally, something like, “Happy are those who take refuge in God”), see this explanation.
The point is not just to sit and wait for God to take down those in power who abuse their people. The point is to incite an uprising. The “wrath of God” isn’t a lightning bolt out of the blue. The wrath of God is expressed by the people of God, who refuse to remain enslaved, who rise up. The responsibility of kings and presidents is not to perpetuate their power. It’s to administer justice. This is a theme that is confirmed over and over throughout the Torah and the prophets. Rising up in protest against the abuse of rulers, foreign and domestic, religious and secular, is the whole aim of Jesus’ movement.
To take refuge in God is to rise up, wherever and whenever those who’ve been entrusted with justice betray that trust.
This is why I want so much to tell the Jesus story to you Romans. I’m not bashful about the Jesus story. It’s God’s restoring power given to everyone who embodies it. It came first to the Jews, and now also to everyone else. When people embody the Jesus story God’s justice happens, and still more embody the story. The sacred writings say: “One who is just lives by embodying.”
Let’s dispense with the traditional translation that renders the Greek, pistis with this over-used word, “faith.” Faith, by now, is too bland a rendering. It’s too easily relegated to propositions, pie in the sky, and namby-pamby sentimentality. Paul believed in pie in the sky, of course, but even Paul wanted his new Christians to do something about Jesus. Faith goes beyond thinking in the abstract or working up the proper emotional adjustment.
Let’s recognize that to live by faith means, in essence, to embody the Jesus story in oneself. In other places, Paul talks about “putting on Christ.” This is what he means. Embody it. Live it. Do it in the way those who spoke the truth did it when they said, “Do justice. Love kindness. Walk humbly with God.”
In this sense, Jesus (and maybe even Paul) isn’t really a religion. Jesus is a way of living well. It’s a way of living that demands justice be done, not just in theory, or on paper, or eventually, but in reality, here and now. Live and do like Jesus, bring his story to life in your own life, and you may soon find the religious people are all against you. Live and do like Jesus, and even if you don’t believe in God, you’ll be closer to living the life you know deep down is yours alone to live.
Don’t let faith be just an idea or a belief. Make it a life. Embody the Jesus story. Do it.
I’ll rejoice, by God! My heart thrills because of God! Because God has clothed me With a winner’s sash, Wrapped me in the robes of justice. I’m like the groom putting on his corsage, Or a bride donning her tiara.
As shoots grow up out of the earth, And as a garden grows from planted seeds, God will grow justice and acclaim out of people everywhere.
For Zion’s sake I won’t shut up, And for Jerusalem’s sake, I won’t sit still Until justice shines from her like the sunrise And until her reputation becomes a beacon.
People everywhere will see your justice, Leaders will see your triumph, And you will be renamed With a name chosen by God. You’ll be a God’s magnificent scepter, God’s crowning achievement.
Let’s name this passage for what it is: an ode to the triumphant restoration of a nation that has seen better days.
And yet, for all it’s nationalistic narrowness and gloating, there are at least three hugely important and positive take-aways here:
The central character of the nation to be re-established is justice. Here is a key understanding of politics worth underscoring, that a nation can never be truly great unless it is just.
Justice is not peculiar to certain people in certain places. It’s as natural to have a sense of and to long for justice as it is for seeds to grow when planted in soil. What little kid doesn’t have a sense that something is fair or fair?
A nation that aspires to be great needs citizens who won’t shut up and won’t sit still until justice shines. It’s not enough to lament that injustice is carrying the day. People, if they long to be a part of a great nation, need to speak up and make a ruckus.
Nations come and go. But the power to dominate and influence splotches on a world map by force only gets you so far. To have real clout, to have a reputation like a beacon, you need to get in touch with your inner kid, whose still wanting to get up and yell, “It’s not fair!”