Leaping Like Calves: A guest sermon on Malachi 4:1-5, by Lauren Larkin

The message of Malachi is as follows: God knows those who fear him and those who do not, and He desires his people to repent and turn back to Him and Torah (Mal. 3:7). If the people do not do as God desires, God will come with judgment as destruction on the people and on the land.

Malachi ends his book with a word of Judgment: utter destruction hangs in the balance if the people do not turn. For all intents and purposes, Malachi cries out: “Pay attention!” He pleads with his audience: “Take heed; this is serious!” “Judgment is coming!” Malachi shouts. The question that Malachi leaves us with at the very end of the book is: on whom will judgment fall?

By EJ Fox (Flickr: Calves running) [CC BY-SA 2.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
"For 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. 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. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the LORD of hosts. ‘Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel. ‘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, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction." (Mal. 4:1-6)

The Israelites and their leaders have turned away from the Lord and His word, and they are guilty. Through the voice of Malachi, the last prophetic voice, God tries to call His people back to him: turn or else. Israel is guilty and judgment is coming. When God comes, on whom will judgment fall?

The theme of Malachi and the general tenor of the major and minor prophets is: the utter failure of God’s people to uphold God’s law. What I mean by failure to uphold God’s law is failure to live according to this:

“Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart.” (Deut. 6:4-6)

And, failure to uphold this:

“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18b)

To love your neighbor as yourself is of equal importance to loving the Lord God with your whole self (cf. Matt 22:34-40, “like unto it”); thus, to love God is to love your neighbor as well. But who is Israel’s neighbor?

The “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” of Leviticus 19:18b doesn’t exist in a vacuum. According to whole of Leviticus 19, to love your “neighbor” is to love other humans and not just in theory or in sentiment, but in practice:

  • Do not reap to the edges of your field during harvest or gather the gleanings; leave them for the poor and alien. (Lev. 19:9-10)
  • Do not steal from or deal falsely with one another. (Lev. 19:11)
  • Do not defraud or steal from your neighbor. (Lev. 19:13)
  • Care for those who are blind and deaf. (Lev. 19:14)
  • Be not unjust in your judgments; judge your neighbor justly without preferential treatment. (Lev. 19:15)
  • Do not slander and do not profit from another’s blood. (Lev. 19:16)
  • Do not hate your kin in your heart and do not seek vengeance or hold grudges. (Lev. 19:17-18a)

The neighbor is broadly defined in this portion of Leviticus (and elsewhere in the OT) as all other human beings. “Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” extends beyond the garden of Genesis 2 and envelopes all of humanity—not in a blanket of similarity but in unity with diversity. Love God and love (as yourself) those whom God loves: the poor, the lame, the sick, the oppressed, the refugee, the stranger.

According to the prophets (both major and minor), the Israelites repeatedly fail to do so. And this judgment of failure isn’t restricted to the leadership and authority of Israel (though, certainly, they are often in focus; as the leaders lead, the people follow suit). The burden of failure is also on the people of Israel (e.g., Mic. 7).

The end result of hearts that have hardened toward God is hearts that have also hardened toward the neighbor. The oracles of judgment nearly always incorporate both. Thus, turning away from God and his statutes and word is also a turning away from the neighbor; and turning away from the neighbor is also a turning away from God. This is no slight trespass.

The problem of turning from God and turning away from the neighbor is not an issue that is unique to the Israelites. We are implicated in this judgment, too. For our default posture is toward ourselves. We are, as Martin Luther says, incurvatus in se: curved in on ourselves. We do not love God, and we do not love our neighbor as ourselves. We simply love ourselves. This is a problem that needs to be acknowledged and corrected, not an explanation that gets us off the hook.

Before it seems as if I’m pointing and wagging my finger at you, let me confess that I am guilty. I am guilty of choosing myself and my comfort over and against that of my neighbor. I’ve remained silent when a voice was needed; I’ve slipped to the background when my presence in the front line would have made a difference. I have professed love of God and then turned a blind eye to the turmoil, oppression, and suffering of my neighbor. For this I am guilty and judgment comes.

But there’s hope.

The last part of Malachi 4:6 promises that a messenger will come. Apart from this messenger, all hope is lost. The messenger has to come because we’re impotent to change our hard hearts; the messenger has to come because we cannot fulfill our end of the covenant. We are in a desperate way and are lost apart from the One who can actually follow the requirements laid out for the people of God:

“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

On whom will fall the judgment? On Christ, in the event of cross and resurrection. For in this event we hear the proclamation that judgment has fallen not on us but on Christ on the cross. St. Paul writes, Christ “was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” (Rom. 4:25)

In this event of justification, we are reconciled to God. However, the event of justification is also the unifying event between our neighbor and us. We do not need to go back to Creation to develop a reason to love our neighbor as ourselves, for the ties that bind are in the event of re-creation, in justification by faith. For this event is true for our neighbor and thus true for us, and in this social event we are united to our neighbor in an intimate way. In the event of Christ’s death and resurrection we are not only oriented toward but joined and bound to our neighbor. Just as Jesus suffered as His people were being persecuted by Saul (Acts 9), so to do we suffer when our neighbor suffers.

It is at Easter that the Son rises with healing in His wings; it is at Easter that we go out leaping like calves from the stall in new and resurrected life. (Mal. 4:2) We go out leaping because “there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 8:1) We go out leaping because we have been reconciled to God by faith in Christ and we are free from the promised condemnation and judgment.

We go out leaping because resurrected life can’t be held back, because the power of the gospel is dynamic and not static. Resurrected life is marked by the fulfilment of the law spoken of above: love the lord God with all our power, might, strength, and soul. But we love not only vertically but also horizontally: in that we love the Lord God, we love our neighbor as ourselves. We are a voice for the voiceless and resist oppression; we create space for the alien and the refugee; we fight for freedom for all because if our neighbor isn’t free, then we aren’t free. Our neighbor’s pain is our pain; our neighbor’s plight is our plight; our neighbor’s suffering is our suffering. We go out leaping because love knows not how to do anything else but to go forth in to the world in an active and dynamic way.

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us…God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.” (1 Jn. 4:7-12, 16b-19)


[Ed. note: This is the redacted version of the second of two sermons that Larkin preached as part of the Lenten series at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. A recording is available for those who may be interested, and the entire Lenten series is also available. Larkin is a deacon in The Episcopal Church. She blogs at her own website and elsewhere, and is one half of the Ezer Uncaged podcast. She also tweets from @laurenrelarkin.]

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