I have to warn you about something. I’m going to try something risky today... So, those in the front row may want to move back a little.
I have 3 texts. Yes, 3! But only 1 of them actually got read out earlier! The others are from either side of our set readings, which either finish too early or start too late. Shocking stuff, isn't it?
Sorry, if you thought I was going to do something a little more dangerous – but if the Ecclesiastical Police Force rush through the main door in the next few seconds and cart me away then it’s been nice knowing you!
- Malachi 3:20b (or 4:2b) ‘You shall frolic like well-fed calves’ (NIV), which is the missing second half of the last verse from today’s OT passage.
- 2 Thessalonians 3:6 ‘withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly’ (KJV), which is the verse just before our NT reading.
- And from Luke 21:18, which was read, though it may already be too late for some, ‘Not a hair of your head shall perish’.
Frisky and frolicking
So, turning first to Malachi, when did you last frolic like a well-fed calf? I’d have paid good money to see it with some of you. With others I’d probably have demanded a refund. If you prefer horses to cows, the Message Bible says: ‘You will be bursting with energy, like colts frisky and frolicking’. Did you recognise the rest of the text though? It’s in the 3rd verse of ‘Hark the Herald the Angels Sing’:
Hail! the heaven-born Prince of peace! Hail! the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings, Risen with healing in his wings.
The original version of the carol was written by Charles Wesley but sung to a much slower and sober tune than what we have now. A bit disappointing that Wesley left out frolicking calves or frisky colts but that wouldn’t give quite the same sense of awe and majesty would it? And it was probably hard to rhyme.
Malachi is addressing the small group who have returned to Jerusalem from Babylon to rebuild the city and the temple. The book of Malachi is 6 short sermons. If you’re into classical music and read chapter 3 in full then you will also recognise words from Handel’s Messiah. Our passage today is from the very last chapter of Malachi and therefore the very last chapter of our OT, the Christian version of the Hebrew Scriptures (where the books are set out in a different order). So, it’s been deliberately sequenced so that it is the set-up, the prequel, to what follows: the Gospel of Matthew and our NT.
Leap for joy
And the people are complaining, again, that evil people prosper - so why should they bother with religion? Via Malachi, God says to them, and to us, that if you’re righteous then hang on in there. In the closing scene of our OT it says ‘It’ll all work out. There will be healing – then you get to frolic like calves’! Then you get to experience delight in your freedom. But it might be a tough ride before then.
Jesus says in Luke 6: "Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold your reward is great in heaven."
So, are you like a well-fed calf? In what circumstances might you leap for joy? I’ll be very interested to find out later! It is allowed you know. To be joyful. And we need to give each other enough room, enough space, to do some leaping and frolicking! Perhaps it happened at the Social here last night and I missed it!
Our verses from Thessalonians come in a section entitled ‘warning against idleness’ in the NRSV. And in the NRSV it rather less comically tells us to keep away from believers living in idleness. I rather prefer the KJV withdraw yourselves from brothers that walketh disorderly. It’s probably my age but I can’t help but think of Monty Python’s Ministry of Silly Walks.
The context here is that the new believers have put all their money into a community bank account to share their resources. But some of them think that by giving their cash that they’ve done enough and don’t need to do anymore. Whereas others have also contributed but continue to work and put in the effort. Perhaps the first group were really well-off and had put a lot of money in the pot - and therefore think they deserve to be looked after in some sense?
Light and life
But worse those same people are gossiping and being busybodies. So, not only are they not putting any effort in but they’re stirring up discontent too. And this is Paul’s real complaint here. Their idleness is being ‘walked around’, it’s on the move. I’m sure we all know people like that. We’re probably naming them silently in our heads right now! But perhaps we need to examine our own hearts too to see if we’re ever guilty of the same? Do we gossip or chatter about people? Do we sometimes think we’ve done our bit and it’s up to someone else now – and we’re overly vocal about that position?
If what we do is not characterised by bringing ‘light and life to all’, bringing God’s love to others, then we need to reassess what we’re doing. Paul is saying: be careful about the company that you keep, avoid disorderly walkers! And don’t be a disorderly walker yourself…
Then our Gospel reading is often taken as Jesus speaking apocalyptically, speaking of end-times. You need to read the whole of Luke chapter 21, not just the selected verses, to get the full effect.
With Brexit still seemingly being the only news, I was reminded that when I was a teenager the book doing the rounds was Hal Lindsey’s ‘The late great planet Earth’ which sought to string different parts of the Bible together to predict the end of the world. Amongst other things he saw the EEC, as it was then, as the ten horns and ten Kings prophesied in Revelation and that ultimately it will be ruled by the Antichrist. I always thought that Michel Barnier and Donald Tusk looked a little shifty… now we know why…
More immediately though Jesus was talking about the imminent destruction of the temple and the social upheaval that would follow. The world as they knew it would completely change. Jesus was saying that the people of God needed to be the calm in the centre of that storm. To keep calm and carry on. They needed to endure, hang on in there, just like they were told in Malachi. They needed to survive. Not a hair of your head will perish. That’s less of a grand promise for some of us than it is for others…but I cling on to that promise nonetheless!
But it’s worth remembering that the Gospel of Luke was written some years after the temple was destroyed. For those reading Luke, rather than listening to Jesus at the time, the shattering destruction of the Temple had already happened. It was a fact rather than a prophecy. Their known world was already in ruins.
And any congregation, such as this one, will also include people whose lives have already been shattered by some event or loss. The death of a loved one, sickness, the loss of a job. Being told to keep calm just doesn’t cut it... but God is saying that every Good Friday does lead to an Easter Sunday. Each loss to a resurrection.
Jesus words go beyond the physical though. He’s talking about eternity too. This passage in Luke is also about eternal life. Life in all its fulness. And not from when you bodily die. This eternal life starts now, today, if you choose it. Jesus said that he came that we might have life and have it more abundantly (1). That we might share in the creative force with which God brought all things into being.
Mild he lays his glory by, born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.
Hark! the herald angels sing, "Glory to the new-born King!"
But what does ‘eternal life’ look like? Well, I’m going to finish with a poem that many people think was written by Mother Teresa but was actually written by an American called Kent M Keith. He called it the Paradoxical Commandments (2). Mother Teresa called it the Anyway poem. I think it says something about eternal life. What it means to share in that creative force, to live life abundantly and joyfully.
People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centred; Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies; Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you; Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; Build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous; Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow; Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough; Give the world the best you've got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and your God; It was never between you and them anyway.
Kent M Keith