The Distinction of the Righteous

Text: Malachi 3:13-18
Date: Last Sunday of the Church Year + Proper 29 + 11/20/16

“Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.”

This is the last Sunday of the Church Year. What have you learned since Advent 2015, how have you changed,

because of the call to repentance of John the Baptist,
welcoming the incarnate Son of God in His birth at Christmas,
in the epiphany bright light of His earthly words and works,
in reaching His goal to be the sacrificial Lamb for your sins,
in the wonderful surprise of His resurrection from the dead,
His leaping to His enthronement at the right hand of God,
in His continued presence, leading, guiding, feeding you with the Truth,
and in His promised return? What have you learned? How have you changed and grown in your faith?

Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament, asked questions like these of God’s people. He could see that some of them were getting quite bored. And shall we ourselves enthusiastically enter yet another round, another year of telling of the Christian faith in Christ? To what purpose? “Your words have been hard against me, says the Lord. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God…. And now…evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’” They were beginning to sound like the recent bad losers who, though they thought they had the election in the bag, were offended and more that things didn’t go their way. It was the old familiar complaint of the prophet Jeremiah asking, “Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive?” (Jer 12:1). And what have you learned in the last Church Year? How have you changed? Is this annual round of divine services and preaching worth it? On the one hand we are still struggling with the same old problems and now some new ones, too, while those who give no mind to God or His Word or His Church seem to keep manipulating things so that they achieve earthly success and prosperity. To quote a recent saying, this system of living in this world is rigged! “Your words have been hard against me, says the Lord.”

This past summer my brother-in-law and I went to the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario to see the Shakespeare play “Macbeth.” Good grief! What a depressing play! Everyone is dead in the end. Is that what you call entertainment? And what do you expect to hear at the end of another Church Year but of course a cheerful festival of glad singing and the sound of triumph. Yet our hopes seem to be dashed as today we hear the words of Good Friday, “And there followed Jesus a great multitude of the people and of women who were mourning and lamenting for him…. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him…. ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’” Is it then at all good news to hear Him say as He is hanging on that cross, bleeding, dying, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise”? Does that scene look like the way to paradise? Yet we have the boldness to say, “This is the Gospel of the Lord.”

These words of promise remind us that we’re not there yet. Until then as the Apostle Paul said it, “we are his workmanship” (Eph 2:10), that is we continue to be so even now and each day. Our text says, “Then those who feared the Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed his name.” So it is with all who are “not there yet,” “still in process,” as your names nevertheless, even in contrast to the way things look now, your names are written in the Book of Life (Rev 21:27), that is, we are here to renew our trust in God’s promises in our baptism and His Word. Martin Luther had a particularly picturesque way of saying it.

To be sure, all sins have been remitted and covered, but they have not yet been completely cleansed away. Not only do the dregs of lust, pride, hatred, wrath, and other desires cling to us, but also inner evils and hidden stains, doubts about God, unbelief, impatience, and murmuring, which do not come out into the open until the conscience is troubled by the Law and by the terrors of sin. Although we pay no attention to these things and do not sob because of such a disgraceful fall, yet God sees them. Therefore He tries to purge our impure nature. This is what He thinks: “You have been enlightened and baptized; but you still stink, and your flesh is full of many great vices. Therefore I must cleanse it, for that which is unclean and polluted shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (AE 7:229)

So says Luther. Only then at our final deliverance shall you “see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.”

Jesus said to the malefactor on the cross, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” Do you want to see this paradise? Then this is the door through which you must pass, the door of the way of the cross. Though at the same time we have the sure baptismal promise that paradise awaits, still we have not yet been completely cleansed. Only through the death of the cross of Christ are we then completely free from sin.

For now our joy and praise is sung still in a minor key yet with a major note of triumph, through the agony of Good Friday to the glorious Easter faith:

Sing my tongue, the glorious battle;
Sing the ending of the fray.
Now above the cross, the trophy,
Sound the loud triumphant lay;
Tell how Christ, the world’s redeemer,
As a victim won the day.

Faithful cross, true sign of triumph,
Be for all the noblest tree;
None in foliage, none in blossom,
None in fruit thine equal be;
Symbol of the world’s redemption,
For the weight that hung on thee! (LSB 454:1, 4)

The last word of the entire Church Year: This is the Gospel of the Lord!