Malachi 4:1-6 "Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire," says the LORD Almighty. "Not a root or a branch will be left to them. 2 But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall. 3 Then you will trample down the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I do these things," says the LORD Almighty. 4 "Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. 5 "See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse."
Have you ever been burned? It is fairly common for us to get a minor burn from hot water or a curling iron or touching a hot stove. There are many different types of burns resulting from exposure to heat, chemicals, electricity, friction, radiation, and even cold. Burns can range from a minor first-degree sunburn that burns the first layer of skin all the way to a fourth-degree burn that injures muscle and bone. These types of burns can be so severe that you actually feel no pain at all.
The prophet Malachi, in the last words of the Old Testament, warns us about what we might call a fifth-degree burn. Something much more intense and painful than any sort of burning we could ever experience in this life: “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the LORD Almighty.
I know people who have burned their hands on hot engines or their legs with hot cooking oil or their faces and backs with severe sunburns. But the most severe burns we could ever experience in this life pale in comparison to the burning Day of the Lord. Malachi describes what it is like to be continually burned alive with no relief. He describes an eternal burning in the furnace of hell.
The burning of the body doesn’t even begin to compare to the burning the prophet Malachi describes. It is a day that burns like a furnace. But your Lord does not want you to find yourself trapped in that furnace.
This is what Advent is all about. Our world is very confused. They think this month of December is all about bright lights and happy thoughts preparing for Christmas. Rather, the season of Advent is about bright fires and thoughts of repentance preparing for Christ’s return. Advent is about getting rid of our sin because sin is like gasoline and our Lord is the fire. Fire and gasoline do not go very well together. … Neither can our Lord or our sin dwell in the same place together. Therefore, something must be done with our sin. It must be burned up. We are either burned alive now or we will be burned for all eternity.
Being burned now means to repent. Suffering a burn is painful. Repentance is also painful. Three of the most difficult words to say in our English language are “I was wrong.”
We would much rather live in denial. When we apologize to people, we would much rather hear them say, “Oh, that’s O.K.” than “I forgive you.” We would rather be excused than absolved. For if we need forgiveness and absolution that means we were guilty. We don’t like being guilty. We don’t like being told we did something wrong. We don’t like our mistakes being exposed. We would much rather be on the defensive, protecting our honor and our ego than admitting we were at fault.
As painful as confessing our guilt is, concealing it only turns up the heat. It’s like heartburn, but much worse. Guilt churns our stomach. It agitates our mind. It simmers in our soul. Sinners are like frogs in a boiling pot, being cooked alive by our own sin.
King David describes the burn of unconfessed guilt in Psalm 32 by saying, “When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long” (v. 3). Unconfessed sin causes burning of various degrees. Sometimes it’s acute. Other times it is the dull ache of scars from long ago. Other times it is so severe you can’t even feel the pain. If you remain in your unconfessed – and therefore – unforgiven – sins, then there is no relief. Then your skin, muscles and bones waste away in your sin. It is a fourth-degree burning of the soul that can leading to the fifth-degree burning in hell.
That is why John the Baptist is on the scene again today. He is the fulfillment of Malachi’s words: “See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.” John warned us to “flee from the coming wrath” (Luke 3:7). We flee from the coming wrath by approaching our coming Lord with humility and confession. God does not want your bones wasting away in your sin. He sent John the Baptist into the wilderness to call sinners to repentance. Today God sends pastors into the pulpits and before altars to call sinners to repentance.
Relief is found only in the confession of sin and the absolution of guilt. You heard that absolution this morning with these words: “Your sins have been forgiven on account of his name” (1 John 2:12).There is nothing like the relief of being able to name sin in the presence of another and hear the words, “You are forgiven.” Martin Luther called individual confession and absolution “a cure without equal for troubled consciences.” You can almost hear the relief in King David’s words: “Then I acknowledge my sin to you, [Lord,] and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’ – and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).
Pastors have been called to hear confession and declare absolution by the authority of Christ. One of the reasons Jesus has called me to Epiphany is to give you a safe place where you can name those things that cause you to feel guilt. Then you get to hear the voice of Jesus speaking through me absolving you of all of your sin.
Rather than having you burning in your sin now and then burning because of your sin for all eternity, Jesus wants you to know that He has taken all of your sin upon Himself. He suffered the full agony of hell’s fire on the cross in your place. He allowed Himself to be burnt up in the blazing furnace of God’s wrath, so that He might bring His salvation to you.
An orphaned boy was living with his grandmother when their house caught fire. The grandmother, trying to get upstairs to rescue the boy, perished in the flames. The boy’s cries for help were finally answered by a man who climbed an iron drainpipe and came back down with the boy hanging tightly to his neck. He gave the man to the crowd below who were waiting for the fire department and paramedics to arrive. Then the anonymous man left without anyone getting his name.
Several weeks later, a public hearing was held to determine who would receive custody of the child. A farmer, a teacher, and the town’s wealthiest citizen all gave reasons why they felt they should be chosen to give the boy a home. But as they talked, the boy’s eyes remained focused on the floor. Then a stranger walked to the front and slowly took his hand from his pockets, revealing severe burn scars on them. As the crowd gasped at the ugliness of his hands, the boy ran into the man’s arms, threw his arms around his neck, and cried with joy. This was the man who had saved his life. His hands had been burned when he climbed the hot pipe. The judge immediately gave custody of the boy to this man, the rescuer. Those scarred hands had settled the issue.
Jesus will never leave you in agony. He has rescued you from hell’s fires. He has poured His soothing Word and water over your wounds in Holy Baptism. He has given you His flesh to eat and His blood to drink in the Lord’s Supper. This is the medicine that provides the best relief for what ails you.
Your sins have burned you and possibly left some lasting scars. Jesus is the Great Physician. He has grafted His righteousness and holiness on you and made you whole again. If you ever doubt Jesus’ love for you, look at His scarred hands. They have settled the issue.
When being compared to hell, being burned alive is like being slightly uncomfortable on a hot summer day. When faced with the choice of being burned alive or denying his Lord and then burning eternally in hell, the early Christian martyr, Polycarp, chose bodily death. According to church historians, Polycarp, who was born in 69 A.D., had been instructed by the apostles and had also spoken with many others who had seen the Lord (Adversus Haereses: 3:3:4). It seems Polycarp had taken Jesus’ words to heart when He said: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
We are given an inside look at what Polycarp went through in the works of the Apostolic Fathers (The Martyrdom of Polycarp). Just prior to his death, the Romans official told Polycarp: “Reproach Christ, and I will set you free.” But Polycarp said, “86 years have I served Him and He has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior? … You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour, and is then extinguished, but you know nothing of the fire of the coming judgment and eternal punishment, reserved for the ungodly. Why are you waiting? Bring on whatever you want.”
When they went to nail Polycarp to the stake, he said, “Leave me as I am, for He who gives me strength to endure the fire will enable me not to struggle, without the help of your nails.” And then Polycarp prayed this prayer: “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of you, the God of angels, powers and every creature, and of all the righteous who live before you, I give you thanks that you count me worthy to be numbered among your martyrs, sharing the cup of Christ and the resurrection to eternal life, both of soul and body, through the immortality of the Holy Spirit. May I be received this day as an acceptable sacrifice, as you, the true God, have predestined, revealed to me, and now fulfilled. I praise you for all these things, I bless you and glorify you, along with the everlasting Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To you, with him, through the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and forever. Amen.”
O that God would grant us such faith as to be willing to suffer all, even burning and death, rather than deny our Lord!
We have all been burned by sin. Don’t shy away from the refining fire of God’s Word. Yes, it will hurt to admit your sin and confess your guilt. But then Jesus will bring you relief through His absolution, His Baptism, and His Supper. Rather than being burned alive for our sins, Jesus’ forgiveness will move us to be like Polycarp of old and be willing to be burned alive with faith. With faith in the One who burned under God’s wrath on the altar of the cross so that we might be healed and restored. Repent and be burned a little now so that you might escape the burning on that great and dreadful day of the Lord. Amen.