The Strokes of God’s Artistry
1. I do this…
2. I commanded…
3. I will send…
4. I come and strike…
Malachi 4:1-6 "For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, and all the proud, yes, all who do wickedly will be stubble. And the day which is coming shall burn them up," says the LORD of hosts, "That will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings; And you shall go out and grow fat like stall-fed calves. 3 You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day that I do this," says the LORD of hosts. 4 "Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. 5 Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD. 6 And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse."
Recently I was at the airport, waiting near baggage claim to pick Gretchen up. As I walked around the airport I noticed several works of art. Perhaps they are there to class up the place a bit, or to give some of the local artistic flavor to visitors, or just to give people waiting like me something to look at. One piece I noticed looked magnificent and beautiful from a distance, almost like a stained-glass display. Brightly colored pieces shimmered before a backlit frame with a dazzling array of sparkles that changed from each angle you gazed upon it. I had to investigate further – what was this stunning artwork made from?
As I approached, the sublime thoughts in my head fell back to earth, for the artwork was nothing more than a bunch of warning light covers, the same you’d find on a construction cone or on the back of a bicycle. From far away, it gleamed with beauty. Close up – it didn’t look so spectacular – but rather quite ordinary. Perhaps that is part of the ingenuity of the artwork – using common and everyday items to make something that is beautiful.
That piece of artwork reminded me of the way our God can take and shape the common, ordinary, and sometimes even broken aspects of lives into a beautiful tapestry of glory. Glory for the individual believer who inherits eternal life in His name and also glory to that saving name – the only one under heaven given among men by which we can be saved (Acts 4:12).
Today, we see that truth in action in the final verses of the Old Testament. In the last official prophetical account given before Christ’s birth, the LORD reminds the hearer of the many things He accomplishes – acts that are like the individual strokes that make up a grand artistic masterpiece. Each singular thing seems common in and of itself, but when taken together it shows God’s amazing grace. God works in many and mysterious ways, and oftentimes His grand plan is already complete by the time we catch on to its beauty and wisdom. That certainly was the case for many people upon the birth of God incarnate into the world. The Old Testament prophesied that the Messiah would come unexpectedly, almost as if He appeared out of nowhere. But not because He was truly mysterious or that He wanted to catch people off-guard. It was simply that we have a hard time perceiving the Lord’s plan.
To help our study today, I want to start from the end. When looking at the actions that God states in this text, the final one is that He would come and strike the world with a curse. This action is offered not as a guarantee but as a warning. To the initial reader it is still a matter of question about whether God would have to follow through on this warning. This seems like kind of a low spot on which to end the Old Testament and upon which to begin our study. But there’s a reason God gave this final warning and a reason why we begin with it today.
It was never God’s desire or will to strike the earth with a curse but it did happen. Most people confuse those two options by thinking that the simple fact that something happens means that God intended it to happen. But the Lord tells us all over His Word that many things happen in the world that are not His intended will. The key concept here is freedom – the freedom which God created humans with and the freedom by which He leads us in our lives. There are many areas of life that are beyond the scope of our power or intellect and therefore solely in the hands of God. However, no action of God occurs outside of freedom. Though we lack control sometimes, He still does not force anything upon us. We always have the ability to opt out, if you will, from what God intends and desires.
However, we can’t mention freedom without also mentioning the effect sin has had on it. Freedom is really an aspect of God’s love for us, but sadly it’s often misused. We misuse freedom whenever we stray from the law of God. We misuse that freedom when we blame God for the consequences of the decisions, we, or some other person in the world, made. And so, even when it comes to truth and justice, God warns, instructs, guides, and even pleads, but He doesn’t force. There is always freedom. So God says, consider and take to heart the things I say, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.
Has this curse been given? We do live in a sinful world. We are sinful people. We do sinful things. In that way we are cursed. But our text seems to be talking of something more here – a divine punishment rendered in the future. As God warns us throughout His Word, we are aware that an even more devastating punishment than the problems of the world exists for those who reject Christ. This is the eternal curse of hell. God tells us two things about that curse. He doesn’t want to have to give it and yet if the situation He describes does not change, He will give it.
This is the plaguing struggle each sinner feels in their heart. They know God is merciful and loving. They know He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked. Yet, He remains just and we have no leg to stand on in defense for sinners. It’s nice to know that God doesn’t want to render the divine curse of punishment, but fair is fair, and fair is right. We deserve nothing. Think about that. We say it all the time but sometimes we don’t actually believe it. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. We have no right to complain to God or to act like we’re just good enough to get out of the curse. We deserve nothing and though we confess that all the time, sometimes we don’t believe it.
This is where the Old Testament ends. This is the final warning – the final message. There is no comfort here, until you look at the bigger picture. It seems like an impossible situation. God does not want to punish, yet He must or He’s not God. What hope is there? Here’s where I venture to declare that this is not a sad scene or a hopeless picture. This last act of God is not only a warning, but a promise. For through His Son, God accomplished the impossible. Upon Jesus, the curse of the earth was placed. God fulfilled His word of warning and thereby also accomplished His promise of hope. He did not desire it, but He gave it – upon the body of His only begotten. Here we see the importance of Jesus as human – as us. He came down into earth – to be cursed with the earth’s punishment. This was the only way that God could render divine justice and also save all of mankind.
So we start today at the end, which for our faith is also the beginning. God has cursed the earth, the punishment that He so desperately wanted to avoid, that He pleaded with centuries and generations of people about, happened all the same. It’s just that Jesus took it all upon Himself and buried that curse in the depths of the earth.
If you hone in on only one part of God’s artistry, that He judges sin and condemns unbelief, you fail to see the beauty of how it all works together. On its own, divine punishment is a harsh, unloving premise. Yet, within God’s eternal plan of salvation it is the believer’s greatest hope.
This is why we start at the end. The curse leveled against Jesus, for our sins, opens up understanding to the rest of what God tells us about His actions. It gives a value and a quality to the other things of which God speaks. It shapes the very being of our faith, like giving purpose to a bunch of random colors and angles.
So, when God tells me that I will conquer in the end, the sacrifice of Jesus gives me a reason to believe it. Just a moment ago I felt no hope because I am firmly in the camp of the condemned. Many more moments will come like that in my life, yet God promises “But to you who fear My name the Sun of Righteousness shall arise with healing in His wings; And you shall go out and grow fat like stall-fed calves. 3 You shall trample the wicked, for they shall be ashes under the soles of your feet…” God says, I will do it. Jesus gives meaning to my victory.
When God tells me about His commands – how they are important for my life, how they are the lamp to my way, the sacrifice of Jesus gives shows me what those commands are all about. It’s significant that here at the end of the Old Testament revelation of God’s Word, God takes time to remind people about how important His law and commandments are. He says, "Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, with the statutes and judgments. Like the other parts of Scripture that address God’s law, it’s abundantly clear. Yet, don’t we look for each opportunity we can do deflect and detract from God’s law? Aren’t we constantly scanning our hearts and minds to find short-cuts and ways out of our divine mandates from the Lord? Does the law really apply? Hasn’t Jesus done away with it? Who’s to say what to believe today? We are constantly attacked, either from outside or from within, to ignore God’s commandments. But He clearly says – “Remember them.” Jesus gives meaning to my understanding of God’s law.
And when God says that He will send Elijah, who we know to be John the Baptist, the sacrifice of Jesus allows me to trust and believe – even if I didn’t see it with my eyes. For us, this may be an easy one. We can read in the New Testament where Jesus quotes this very verse and tells us that it was speaking of the coming of John the Baptist, the Forerunner of the Savior’s’ birth. From our perspective, it seems to be little more than a temporary Biblical exercise of examining cross-references. But, don’t miss the bigger lesson here. It’s more than an academic exercise, it’s a reminder of the lifeblood of our faith in Jesus. Who this Elijah is may not be a question anymore, but there are still plenty of things that God promises to us that we must wait for by faith. The same exercise and the same process at play with different details.
In fact, most moments of prayer model this very thing. Remember when Jesus taught the parable of the persistent widow? The lesson was, God’s answer in prayer may not always be immediate or what you expect. Prepare to wait upon Him by faith. The sacrifice of Jesus gives meaning to the practice of my faith today – either being led closer and closer to Jesus by trusting His Word, or drifting further by charting my own path of feeling and expectation.
Sometimes you have to take a few steps back and see the big picture, in order to appreciate the beauty of God’s work. That’s what we do in Advent, as we study the texts of God’s Word that foretold the birth of our Savior and the many accomplishments that God won through His work and name. These texts are more than mere history lessons. In a much greater way they are the enduring manner by which the Holy Spirit prepares and equips us to receive Jesus. On the surface, simplistically, we may have plenty of reasons to resist God’s Word. Take individually, the areas of our faith may seem common. But, take them as a whole, and in view of the curse of sin upon Jesus for us, and the Lord’s beauty shines forth. Let that be the Holy Spirit’s work among us today and always through His Word. Amen.