What the prophet Malachi might say about praying in the wake of another mass shooting
Along with everyone in the country, I was heartbroken this week by yet another mass shooting. And, like many Christians I first considered the New York Daily News’ headline the next day to be somewhat offensive: “GOD IS NOT FIXING THIS,” it said. As a person of Advent faith, I simply couldn’t agree with that statement. This is precisely the sort of mess that God aims to fix in and through Jesus and his church. And, when I turned to the lectionary reading from the prophet Malachi for the Second Sunday of Advent, chapter 3, verses 1-4, I heard God promising to come and fix it.
Of course, the Daily News headline was not a denial of God; it was rather a jab at politicians who were “sending thoughts and prayers,” calling for moments of silence, and calling for justice, rather than owning (and doing something about!) their own complicity in the problem. Imagine my surprise when I looked at chapter 2, verse 17, which really sets the context for the lectionary pericope. The prophet looked squarely at pious pray-ers of his own day and said, “The Lord is weary of your words.”
This shaped my sermon for this Sunday. I don’t typically post the manuscript of my sermons, but I do so today to contribute to the discernment of our congregation about what it means to be Advent people waiting for the salvation of the Lord. Download PDF Version
Download PDF Version
A Sign That You’re Ready
Sermon 2 of 5 in the Series “#TheRealChristmasCup”
Dr. R. Brandon Harris
Preached on the Second Sunday of Advent 2015
“You have wearied the Lord with your words” (Mal 2:17). When I was preparing this week it was the morning after the tragic shooting in California, and I read that arresting headline from cover of the New York Daily News: “God isn’t fixing this.” If you haven’t seen the headline, the Daily News issued it as a sharp critique of our response to these tragedies.
In this nation this year we have averaged over one mass shooting per day. 462 people have been killed; 1,314 people have been injured; this according to NPR. Another news outlet has said those numbers are over-inflated. They point out that most of those are incidents where the killer has some sort of targeted motive and took out several people at once—just your run-of-the-mill murders (if there is such a thing). Only four incidents this year are the sort of indiscriminate killings that shock us so. These four claimed 70 victims. But, those figures only scratch the surface of gun violence in this nation. Over 11,000 people have been killed this year by gun violence. That would be as if my hometown, Sylacauga, suddenly disappeared. Twice that many—20,000—have committed suicide using a gun.[i] That’s the population of Mountain Brook. Imagine what we’d be doing if two cities in our state suddenly disappeared!
A Wearying Response
As the Daily News so provocatively notes, our only real response to these tragedies is prayer. Our news broadcasters say things like, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the people of San Bernadino.” Politicians hold moments of silence, spout platitudes about praying for justice for the victims, and call for divine action. And people of all faiths crowd into houses of worship week after week and name the violence of our world before the Lord of life. We’re constantly adding new cities that have essentially become synonyms of our collective despair, grief, and disbelief: Columbine, Fort Hood, Tucson, Aurora, Newtown, Charleston, Chattanooga, Roseburg, Santa Barbara, and now, San Bernadino.
In her book Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard writes of a devout minister who always led the pastoral prayer for his congregation. She says, “Once, in the middle of the long pastoral prayer of intercession for the whole world—for the gift of wisdom to its leaders, for hope and mercy to the grieving and pained, succor to the oppressed, and God’s grace to all—in the middle of this he stopped, and burst out, ‘Lord, we bring you these same petitions every week.’”[ii]
What Dillard writes in humor is really an indictment on us. When we say the same stuff week after week, name the same stuff day after day, but we do nothing about it, then the joke’s on us, for we’re fools for thinking that our prayer is going to do anything when we won’t!
We really should be kind of ashamed that it took a tabloid newspaper to say it, but they did, so I’ll quote the Daily News: “Prayers aren’t working.” Prayers aren’t working and they’re not going to work. Now, that sentiment has gotten a lot Christians riled up this week, but I’ll stand by the tabloid. They’re not going to work because we have wearied the Lord with our words.
We have wearied him by asking for justice.
We have wearied him by constantly reciting the names of victims.
We have wearied him by praying for one community after another and begging for God to fix this scourge on our nation and bring real peace to our lives while we simultaneously stock private arsenals (as if our own personal safety was our greatest moral priority).
We have wearied him by denouncing gun violence even as we also defend the firearms industry in the name of personal liberty (as if a constitutional amendment were more important than God’s commandment not to kill).
We have wearied him by demonizing those who do not agree with our political opinions (as if conforming to some secular political ideology is equivalent to discerning the heart of God).
We have wearied him with our talk of politically expedient solutions that seek a scapegoat for our sins (as if refugees, Muslims, African Americans, gangs, and the mentally ill are really to blame for our failure to act).
We have wearied him with platitudes that we say to soothe our guilty consciences (as if sanctioning the mass-production of instruments of death and making them widely available to the public is ok so long as we remind ourselves that guns don’t kill people, people kill people).
We have wearied him by singing our carols about the birth of his Son while standing idly by at the death of the least of these, his brethren (as if ignoring a culture of death is ever an option when we sing of a child that is “born that men no more may die.”[iii])
It’s not that I don’t think prayer works. It does. It’s not that I don’t think the people of God should be in prayer during a crisis. We should. I just think that the Lord grows tired of our pious sentimentalities when they are not accompanied by the true repentance and action that the prophets demand.
Prophetic Prayer and Advent Preparation
It was Malachi’s predecessor Micah who famously reminded us that we can stop trying to get the form of religion right if we continue to ignore the substance. “The Lord has shown you what is good,” says Micah. “Do justice. Love mercy. And walk humbly with your God” (6:8).
When you put prayer together with action that’s when your prayer has real power! When you open yourself up to being transformed and changed by the groanings of the Spirit within you, that’s when prayer becomes a force to be reckoned with. When you allow the God of love to soften your heart and direct your steps, that’s when prayer will start to work again.
But, we have wearied the Lord with our words that are bereft of action, of pieties that are absent of any real willingness to change, of faith that is absent of any real commitment to the Lord’s commandments. We have wearied him with our talking. So I think it’s time we shut up and hear what the Lord is saying to us. Thus saith the Lord:
“The Lord who we seek is coming into his temple.” He is coming to our side. He is coming to fix it. He is coming to save us! “But, before him he sends his messenger. And who shall abide the day of his coming?” (Mal 3:1-2a).
This rhetorical question takes us to the heart of Advent. The answer to the question, in case Malachi left you any room for doubt, is nobody. Nobody can abide the sharp judgment of the Lord’s forerunner. For, as the prophet declares, “He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness” (3:2b-4).
The image here is of purification. A refiner takes precious metals and melts them in a hot furnace until the dross is burned off. A fuller takes newly made woolen cloth and washes it with a strong alkaline solution until its fibers are clean and shrunken tightly together.
The Daily News got it wrong at least in this regard: the Lord is coming…God is going to fix it…but he first sends a messenger on a mission of purification because he first needs his loquacious people to realize they’re part of the problem—we’re part of the problem. The Lord who is coming sends this messenger to purify and convict, because the Lord who is coming is not in the business of blessing our failures and sanctioning our sins. The Lord is not interested in being a chaplain to our culture of death, a divine endorsement of selfishness and greed, a figurehead for a world given over to violence, oppression, and hatred. The scriptures declare that the Lord is coming for salvation from all of this.
The Lord is coming that we “might have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10).
The Lord is coming to accomplish in us and our world “abundantly far more than we can ever ask or imagine” (Eph 3:20).
The Lord is coming “to reconcile us to himself through Christ, and to give us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18).
The Lord is coming “to redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds” (Titus 2:14).
The Lord is coming to give “us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures” (Jas 1:18).
The Lord is coming to instill in us “wisdom from above” that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy”; to cultivate in us “a harvest of righteousness…sown in peace for those who make peace” (Jas 3:17-18).
He is coming that we might be made holy even as he is holy (Mt 5:48).
He is coming to make a fractured world one yet again (Jn 17:11).
Tell me again how guns and instruments of death fit into this picture of what the Lord intends to accomplish in and through us? Such a mission is not accomplished by blessing the status quo, by turning a blind eye to injustice and oppression, or by ignoring the calls for help coming from communities being torn apart with instruments of death. It is accomplished when a prophetic voice calls out to us in the wilderness of sin to repent of such foolishness, to turn from our wickedness, to die to ourselves that we might rise again to true life.
Baptism: A Sign That We’re Ready
In this Advent season, in light of an invitation from Starbucks, we’re considering what symbols we might use to tell the real story of Christmas. And every year we are reminded that before Jesus enters the Christmas story there is John the Baptist, who called for repentance, who spoke to Pharisees and Sadducees, royalty and commoners, the simple but convicting message that the Lord was weary of their words. The Lord needed action. He needed a people ready to get serious about the covenant demands for justice and love.
So, I think the Christmas story would not be complete without this symbol of baptism, which, rooted in the story of John the Baptist, has become a sign for Christians that we have been honest with ourselves about the impurities in our lives, the dross crusted over our souls, and that we are ready—ready to die to ourselves so that we might truly live in Christ. To invoke this sign indicates that we know words are not enough, that for us to receive God’s salvation we must truly yield to his grace—grace that convicts, even as it transforms and saves.
This symbol invites us to a difficult, uncomfortable place in the story of Christmas. It invites us to consider whether we will continue our tiresome, wearisome talk about peace on earth and goodwill toward men, about a baby that represents the vulnerable love of God, about people like Mary and Joseph who rebelled against the powers not with weapons of destruction but bold and courageous faithfulness to God’s call, about a baby king who showed us the way of humility and generosity even in the face of threats and violence—whether we will continue talking about such things, or whether we will finally shut our mouths, drop our weapons, and turn our hearts toward this one who comes to bring true and lasting peace?
[ii] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977).
[iii] Charles Wesley, “Hark! The Herald, Angels Sing.”
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