Text: Malachi 4:1-6
Date: Pentecost 26 + Proper 28 + 11/13/16
The day is coming. What day? The Day of Judgment.
You know there are only two eternal alternatives, heaven or hell. The problem is we forget that. We Christians tend to forget that mainly because, though we’ve heard and believe that there is a place called hell we don’t think about it much. And that for good reason. Because we have also heard and believed in our deliverance from hell. We never hear sermons totally about judgment and hell because the point of the Christian sermon is to proclaim the answer, God’s answer to the threat of the punishment of our sins, namely, that Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, has already endured God’s punishment of sin on behalf of the whole world, your sin, my sin, all the sins of others. He saved us from all that and has given the gift of eternal life through the forgiveness of our sins.
Still, there are only two eternal alternatives, heaven or hell. The problem is we forget that. Unbelievers forget that because they either have never heard it or, if they have, they suppress it. St. Paul said, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18). For when it comes to heaven or hell most people (people who do not know the truth of God from the scriptures) most people decide in their fallen wisdom that God either can’t be serious or, if He is, He’s also good enough to let some people off the hook, those that are good enough. Some even go all the way to complete denial believing that in the end God is going to let everyone into heaven anyway, hell only reserved for the devil and his angels. I actually heard that as a conclusion of an otherwise Christian sermon. The preacher called it “God’s big surprise.” The problem is some people will believe that false doctrine, that false teaching.
No. There are only two eternal alternatives, heaven or hell. These last days of the Church Year at least do not let us forget that. The Day is coming. What day? The Day of Judgment.
The prophet Malachi brings the last word we hear from God in the Old Testament. And that last word is, “Behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” The judgment of God against sin is like fire and burning. Hell is a place of “unquenchable fire” (Mt 3:23; Mk 9:43; Lk 3:17). It is “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41). That would be good news if that meant only the devil and his angels are there. But that actually makes hell an even worse threat as a place not even prepared for human beings in the first place.
In these last days of the Church Year we hear Jesus’ warning of the day of judgment. The signs of that last day are these. “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences.” Of course according to that these are the last days already. The days are coming, however. “days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written.” There will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. There will be signs in sun and moon and stars. Tomorrow, November 14 we will see the biggest super moon since the year 1948 when the moon is closest to the earth. The moon’s distance from the earth varies between 222 and 252 thousand miles. Super moons come as close as 221 thousand miles. There will be cosmic signs, the heavens will be shaken.
As of first importance, then, remember there are only two eternal alternatives, heaven or hell. Hell is spoken of in the Bible as a “place.” Besides the burning and anguish of deathless existence what makes hell “hell” is the complete separation from God, complete and final helplessness of any salvation. There is coming a day when it will be too late to wake up, to change your mind, or to “straighten up and raise your heads” as Jesus said today, because there will be no more opportunity for redemption, no salvation.
The fear of God and the fear of His wrath should wake us up to seek God’s deliverance now before it is too late. Now the good news. You may be tempted to think of judgment day as waiting and wondering what that final word of judgment will be for you. After all Jesus paints the picture of Himself coming in his glory and all the angels with him as in a courtroom, “then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” And then He will utter His judgment, either, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” or “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25). So which will it be for you? There are only two eternal alternatives.
Malachi says, “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall…on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.” In other words there is deliverance and salvation from hell now before the coming day. And where is that salvation? “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.” The child’s artful interpretation of these words on the cover of your service ordo this morning is precious. But Malachi does not have in mind the intimate relationship of father and child in the family. He means turning the hearts of the children of Israel, God’s people, to hear and believe the word that came through the hearts of their fathers of faith, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and all the prophets.
“I will send you Elijah.” The pious Jews at the Passover table every year would always have an extra place setting and leave the front door ajar in hope and expectation of Elijah’s return. But we are to recall today that God has sent Elijah already, three times! First God sent Elijah the Tishbite as the most heroic prophet to counter the evils of King Ahab around the year 870 bc. Then again He sent John the Baptist who Jesus said, “is Elijah who is to come” (Mt 11:14). And don’t forget on the mount of the Transfiguration both Moses and Elijah appeared before the inner group of disciples talking to Jesus about His coming “exodus” or crucifixion and death (Mt 17). So what is the significance of Elijah? Through the voice of the Baptist He calls us and the whole world to repent. At the Transfiguration he points us decidedly to Jesus who came as the sacrifice for the sin of the world. See how our hearts are now gathered to the unknown “father” and author of 1 Kings, to father John’s call to repentance and to “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:2).
As of the coming day of judgment we see in that scene that the judgment has already happened for Jesus to separate the faithful sheep and the unbelieving goats. That is, the judgment happens now, today, depending on whether you reject Jesus or receive Him in true repentance and faith as the apostle Paul said, “Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2).
There are only two eternal alternatives, heaven or hell. Elijah has come. He has come as the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth “in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Lk 1:17). By repentance today, and faith today in the One who came as your substitute, Jesus, who died for you and rose again from the dead, you can be assured that you will hear those blessed words on that day, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”