Subject to Change

Conquered by an invading army and carried off into exile, God’s people find themselves living hundreds of miles from home in the confusing loneliness and hopelessness of a strange land – among the Babylonians and their ruthless ruler, King Nebuchadnezzar.

That’s where the story of God with us left off in last Sunday’s Scripture lesson.

And amid the misery of God’s people, the voice crying out with a buoyant message of new possibility belongs to the Old Testament prophet Daniel, whose dreams of better days ahead foretell the Lord’s destruction of the beastly Babylonians and heaven’s restoration of the faithful’s fortunes.

Daniel’s dreams of eventual freedom at long last become reality, and God’s people return to their cherished city of Jerusalem. But even though they’re once again standing on the holy ground of their ancestors, God’s people still wonder if the God of justice really is still on their side and working unto good. So many times have the Jews asked the question “Where is God’s justice?” that the Lord wearies of their forlorn wondering.

In their defense, God’s people repeat the question ad nauseum, because it really does seem like God still favors the wicked while the righteous still suffer. And that perception produces a prolonged period of religious malaise.

A little historical background helps explain why Israel feels so down in the dumps and is in such a deep, dark funk.

Though they return from exile, rebuild the destroyed Jerusalem Temple, and experience a kind of religious revival, Israel has not returned to her former national glory as the prophets of old had long promised.

No longer trusting God’s justice and doubting God’s covenant love, the after-exile Jews begin to lose hope – and their faith, and its regular practice. Their worship degenerates into dull, listless, mind-numbing litanies of rote routine, and they no longer take seriously God’s Law: Tithing is ignored; Sabbath holiness is broken routinely; aliens are unwelcome, and widows and orphans are ignored; intermarriage with pagans is common, and the priests are corrupt. Worst of all, the Lord had not returned to his Temple with the kind of power and majesty that exalts his Kingdom in the sight of other nations.

In a nutshell, because of their anemic, lackluster faith, the Lord no longer is front and center in the lives of his people, who don’t even make the feeblest of attempts to try and make God No. 1 in their hearts and minds. And because of that fickle choice, God sadly fades more than a bit into the background of daily living – much to the Lord’s chagrin.

Into all that brokenness steps the prophet Malachi, whose voice provides our Scripture lesson this morning.

Malachi brings God back into focus by, among other things, reminding God’s people of our sin and the crushing weight it bears upon our lives and our world. To the nagging question of “Where is the God of justice,” Malachi responds with an answer more bracing than expected. It is an answer that stunned then as much or more as it stuns now.

Like much of the Old Testament’s overarching message, Malachi offers a word of encouragement: the Lord still loves his people and still plans to send them a Savior. But in the meantime, Malachi warns God’s people that they’d better straighten up their lives and shape up their spirituality. Because if they don’t, the Lord’s bottom line boils down to this: “Remember how bad it was when the Babylonians came and hauled you off kicking and screaming into exile? If you don’t straighten up and fly right, well then you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!”

As heaven asks of all its prophets, God charges Malachi with the seemingly impossible task of getting people’s attention with a message that no one really wants to hear. Malachi is called to return God to the center of people’s lives. If, with the Spirit’s help, people can achieve that kind of God-consciousness in their daily lives, then the Lord will shine down upon them like a sun of righteousness with healing in his wings. If the people realize once again that following God’s Law is not restrictive but liberating, then they’ll discover a kind of freedom and joy like none they’ve ever known.

Listen, then, for that stunning word of hope and assurance – along with a life-changing call to repentance and change – in Malachi chapter 3.

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight – indeed, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For 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. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years.

Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.

For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?” (Malachi 3:1-7)

Jarvis Masters entered California’s notorious San Quentin prison in 1981 as an angry teenager guilty of numerous counts of armed robbery. But then, with help from a friend on the outside, a radically different set of ideas, values, and beliefs came his way.

Over time, Jarvis Masters found his faith.

Jarvis Masters

Mr. Masters has been in San Quentin for 41 years, most of that time on death row for an in-prison crime that many believe he didn’t commit. In the years since his faith-based metamorphosis, Mr. Masters now routinely defuses potential violence, lends a trustworthy ear to those around him, and applies the balm of verbal comfort upon the wounded souls and spirits of his friends and neighbors – prison guards and fellow inmates alike!

But, as with others falsely accused, wrongly convicted, and sadly languishing in U.S. prisons, our legal system shows little interest in the strong case for Mr. Masters’s innocence and still sees him as the gruff, young black man it locked up all those many years ago. Jailers and the prison system they uphold seem more than willing and quite eager to throw away the key when shackled people like Mr. Masters shuffle through their doors. And the prison industry is poorly equipped to recognize when personal transformations have taken place – unless it’s in a parole hearing, and people on death row like Mr. Masters don’t get parole hearings.

In 2016, when Mr. Masters’s case came up for review by the California Supreme Court, the justices refused to take seriously the evidence for his exoneration and paid even less notice of the person whom he’d become. Instead, their written decision brought up numerous allegations of things he had done as a child in California’s foster care and juvenile justice systems. The judges apparently assumed that his behavior of old strengthened the case for the guilty verdict in his stunningly shoddy trial – and that his just desserts should come at the hands of an executioner.

But, in addition to the delinquency he’d exhibited as a juvenile, Mr. Masters also had, by the time he was 6, suffered chronic hunger, extreme neglect, and ruthless violence. He’d seen his mother almost beaten to death. After his first good foster-care placement, he entered a series of homes and institutions where foster parents and authorities subjected him to intense physical and psychological violence.

Early on, he seems to have been a product of those circumstances, but Mr. Masters built back better.

These days, he’s a miracle of cheerfulness through the discipline of faith, a person who’s found some kind of interior tranquility and hope in a life locked up among the most violent of Californians. His gang tattoos have faded, as has the young man he used to be. But the system seems uninterested in whom he has become.

In a recent New York Times essay, opinion writer Rebecca Solnit argues that we as a society seem ill-equipped to recognize transformations, just as we lack formal processes – other than monetary settlements – for those who have harmed others to make reparations as part of their repentance or transformation.

Ms. Solnit is right: Most of us have changed with the times, often in increments too slow or too small to recognize, until people or events bring us face-to-face with something we once did, believed, or accepted but now no longer do.

But society’s belief in the fixity rather than the fluidity of human nature, and in guilt without redemption, shows up everywhere – not just in the formal legal system that decides questions of guilt and innocence but also in the social sphere, where, as Ms. Solnit points out, we routinely and mercilessly render verdicts overly ripe with both unexamined assumption about human nature and prejudice for and against particular kinds of people and acts.

Are you who you used to be?

Specifically, are you the person who made that mistake? Committed that harm years or decades ago? Held that view now regarded as reprehensible, or ignorant, or on the wrong side of history?

Many of us who came of age in the last century have, over time, changed our worldviews around race, gender, sexuality, and other important questions of our times. Still, we often speak and treat one another as though each of us is the sum of all our past beliefs and actions – nothing added, nothing subtracted, nothing changed.

Among liberals, prison abolitionists and advocates lobby for readmitting back into society those who’ve committed crimes. But that generosity is not always extended to people who’ve said something that may have been considered acceptable at one time but no longer is. Think in terms of anyone who years ago posted candid photos on social media from the smokey, drunken haze of a college frat party and now lives to regret it.

Among conservatives, falling short of grace is thus to fall forever, too. When New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan gave a homily last year about Dorothy Day, the social justice advocate and convert who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, his eminence saw fit to declare from the pulpit, “She’d be the first to admit her promiscuity.” Which seems to deem Ms. Day’s choices in her early life as a condemning drag on any consideration of her selfless heroism later in life.

Perhaps some of the problem is our passion for categorical thinking – or rather for categories as alternatives to thinking.

As Ms. Solnit points out in her Times essay, some people evolve and change as dramatically as caterpillars turning into butterflies, while still others might as well be carved from granite, clinging white-knuckled tight in adulthood to less-than-faithful beliefs and values instilled by warped nurturing of childhood. Some people get better, some worse, some stay the same. Some shift as a result of societal changes, some for individual reasons and through individual effort. Recognizing this means having to think about each case and realizing that sometimes we possess insufficient facts to render fair judgment. And who of us really wants to think that hard, right?!

Jewish culture has clear processes for redemption and repair, in stark contrast to the mainstream of our society. Christianity pays more attention to forgiveness from victims, and our traditions of penance and confession tend to focus on making things right with God rather than righting the wrongs we’ve inflicted upon others.

There are some new models, restorative justice chief among them, as Ms. Solnit highlights. But for any of them to work, we first have to believe in the possibility of redemption and transformation – and to embrace the uncertainty it brings: People can change! Some have; some insincerely profess to having changed; and some won’t, or can’t, or relapse. Asserting that someone has not changed may be as untrue, but perhaps it feels more like certainty. And the miserly among us certainly revel in hoarding selfish measures of the increasingly rare commodity of trust.

All these cases highlight our need for inquiry and flexibility.

Surely the first criterion for whether something is forgivable is whether it’s over: The person has stopped whatever harmful thing he or she was doing, renounced the principles that led to that harm, made reparations or amends, and become a different person.

The second is whether there’s enough hard data to decide the thorny question of forgiveness and who sits in the place of decision over that forgiveness. The idea that it’s all up to the people directly harmed seems all well and good on its face but leads to the erasing of the line that separates justice and revenge.

Furthermore, as Ms. Solnit notes, those who are unharmed also must decide how to respond to those who have done wrong and inflicted harm: Whether to hire them, or vote for them, or befriend them, or live as neighbors near them. Or to read their books, or watch their movies, or listen to their music – or even just believe them and believe IN them!

But beyond the individual cases comes a hunger and thirst for something broader: Recognition that people change and that most of us have and will again. And that much of that is because, in this transformative era, we are all being carried along on a river of personal and spiritual change that flows from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

“I am the LORD, and I do not change,” the voice of the prophet Malachi affirms in God’s sted. “That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed.”

Malachi offers the final words of the Old Testament, and he paves the way for the arrival of Christ in the New Testament with an Old Testament message of life-changing hope and assurance: God is gracious and wants to shine down life on us. But sin is serious, and we cannot wish it away with the wave of a hand. You and I are going to need some help in getting done the job of cleaning up our acts, refining our minds, and purifying our hearts.

All of a sudden, the centuries of waiting that separate the Old and New testaments evaporate into a seamless, streamlined story of salvation, which is at the beating heart of the long and fractured story of God with us and our transformation into disciples of Jesus Christ. And those long stretches of time are important, because they are full of God’s grace, and God’s grace is what initiates change.

“How shall we return to the fold of God and the grace of heaven?” the people wonder loudly.

Malachi answers their dire-but-honest question with this: Grace abounds, with the blazing purification of a refiner’s fire. And bathed in the heated passion of God, all of us are subject to change, and we are living in a grace period.

Jarvis Masters found his faith and became a changed man. May you and I rediscover our faith and, with the powerful winds of the Holy Spirit filling our sails, find our minds renewed, our courses changed, and the exile of our long, national nightmare finally ended.

Ancient words, ever true, changing me and changing you. Amen, and amen!

Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, May 15, 2022. It is part of his current sermon series, “Becoming Disciples: The Story of God with Us.” Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Scott Hoezee, Stan Mast, Danya Ruttenberg, Eileen M. Schuller, and Rebecca Solnit inform the message.

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