The Hearts of the Fathers (Malachi 4:4-6; Luke 1:17)
We've been in a series the past few weeks called Far As the Curse is Found. We've been looking at the promises found in the Hebrew Scriptures of someone who would one day come, and as the hymn says, make his blessings known far as the curse is found.
So we've seen that Jesus' birth is:
- the promise of a descendent of Eve who would destroy all the works of Satan
- a sign that God is in control and has not abandoned this world
- the arrival of the king we've always longed for, the king who will reign over the entire world and will never let us down
Today we're going to look at one more prophecy, and it's a surprising one. At the time this was written, it really seemed that all the old prophecies were just a big pile of hurt. The Jews had now returned from exile. The prophets had encouraged them to rebuild the temple that had been destroyed. They promised God's blessing. God promised that the rebuilt temple would be greater than the former temple; that God himself would return in mercy; that entire nations would turn to the Lord and become his people; and that there would be a new day of peace and prosperity.
But eighty years had passed. The temple was rebuilt, and it wasn't anywhere near as good as the previous temple. God had given them glowing promises, but these predictions must have seemed like a mockery. The economy was tanked. The land wasn't fruitful; there was drought, pestilence, and crop failure. The kingdom was a fraction of what it had been under David and Solomon – maybe 20 miles by 30 miles. That's just about twice the land mass of Toronto – not exactly small, but not exactly a great kingdom either. And there was only a population of about 150,000 people. And instead of nations flowing to be taught at Jerusalem, the nations were in control of Israel. They were no longer an independent nation, and there was no longer a Davidic king. God really didn't seem to be present in Jerusalem, and instead of spiritual vitality things seemed, well, dead.
In other words, all the things that we've talked about – that Satan's works were going to be destroyed, that God was in control, and that a king would come to set things right – none of them had happened. There was every reason to be discouraged. They may not have been in exile anymore, but they might as well be. All the promises had not yet come true.
It's in this context that we receive another promise of how God will set things right. In the middle of this hopelessness, Malachi prophesies that the Day of the Lord will come. The Day of the Lord, by the way, means the day that God will settle accounts and will finally triumph. It will be the day that God finally settles things. But Malachi says that before this day will come, he will send Elijah the prophet (Malachi 4:5). This is why today, Jews still leave an empty chair at Passover in the hope that Elijah will come. They still pray that the prophet Elijah will return.
And read in verse 6 what Elijah will do when he comes. I think you'll find something surprising in what it says: "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" (NIV). Did you read that? He said that before God ultimately triumphs, he will send a messenger who will turn the hearts of fathers to their children.
Now let's pause here and fast-forward a few hundred years. Right before Jesus was born, an angel appeared to a priest named Zechariah. The angel explained that he and his wife would have a child named John. Listen to what the angel said:
Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (NIV)
So here's what the angel is saying. That messenger, Elijah – the one who is going to come before the Day of the Lord, before God's final triumph – is now being born, an d his name is John the Baptist. You see, it's not literally Elijah who comes back; it's somebody else just like Elijah. And before God triumphs, this prophet is going to do two things:
- turn the hearts of the fathers to their children
- and turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous
I kind of saw the second one coming. I don't have a hard time thinking that a prophet would have something to say to the disobedient. But I wasn't expecting anything about the relationship of fathers and children. So what I want to do today is to look at just two things: first, to look at the scope of what God is doing in sending his Son; and secondly, to look at how we live in response.
The Scope of Redemption
Why did Jesus come? We've already seen some of the answers. It's much bigger than we usually think. He came to save sinners from their sins. Jesus himself said, "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). This was very big news to the people who were drawn to Jesus, and it's still good news today. For two thousand years now, people's lives have been changed by Jesus. He lived the perfect life that we didn't. He bore our sins at the cross. He died the death that we should have died, and he rose again to give us new life. And in what's called the great exchange, he gave us all of his righteousness, and in exchange took all of our sin. He's made this available to anyone who comes to him and believes. This is why Jesus came.
I don't want to minimize this at all. I don't know how you could minimize something like that anyway. But I do want to say that there's more. It's much bigger than that. Jesus came to redeem and restore all of creation. Neil Plantinga puts it best:
At their best, Reformed Christians take a very big view of redemption because they take a very big view of fallenness. If all has been created good and all has been corrupted, then all must be redeemed. God isn't content to save souls; God wants to save bodies too. God isn't content to save human beings in their individual activities; God wants to save social systems and economic structures too…
Everything corrupt needs to be redeemed, and that includes the whole natural world, which both sings and groans…The whole world belongs to God, the whole world has fallen, the whole world needs to be redeemed – every last person, place, organization, and program; all "rocks and trees and skies and seas"; in fact, "every square inch," as Abraham Kuyper said. The whole creation is "a theater for the mighty works of God," first in creation and then in re-creation. (Engaging God's World)
That's why we've been doing this series. The Old Testament is full of the reasons Jesus came, and we've been looking at them. It's huge. He came to destroy the works of Satan, to be a sign that God hasn't abandoned the world, and to reign in power as the king who brings peace to this world. Everything that sin has wrecked, Jesus came to fix. As the carol says, "He comes to make His blessings flow, Far as the curse is found."
If that's how big it is, then Malachi and Luke help us remember how small it is. It's also about the hearts of fathers toward their children. Before Jesus came, God sent a messenger to begin to prepare people for what Jesus was going to do, and this messenger had such an influence on people that the very nature of relationships within the family was changed. When people are changed vertically (with God), it also changes their relationships horizontally, with each other. It would revolutionize the way people lived in their homes. Fathers would awaken to their parental responsibilities and re-prioritize their lives.
The message of John the Baptist was that God was intervening in history. The long-awaited dominion of God, a dominion of peace and justice, was breaking into time and space. God is on the move, and preparations are necessary. What God is doing is as big as setting the world right again, and as small as changing a father's heart so that he cares for his children again. It's as big as the whole world, and as small as an individual family.
How Should We Live?
I want to close by asking how this should change our lives. John the Baptist asked people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. We live on the other side of the cross, and we have an advantage: we know the grace of Jesus Christ. We've been enabled by the Spirit to obey. Through Christ we've learned about God as a Father who cares for his children, and we've received grace so that we can care for ours.
In Roman times, when Luke wrote this, fathers were much stricter than mothers. They were known to often be excessively harsh.
In our day, fathers tend to be absent more often than mothers. We can be so busy with our lives that we effectively ignore our children, giving them the leftovers. Even when we're home, we're not really home. Our minds are always on the next email or meeting.
Sometimes we can be too harsh. Paul talks about the danger of exasperating our children, making them feel like they can do nothing right. We can be emotionally distant, expressing nothing but disappointment and disapproval.
We serve a God who is restoring the entire world, defeating the works of Satan. He will one day banish all diseases and death. But even now he's changing father's hearts so that they really care for their children, and are no longer distant or harsh. This is exactly what can happen in your family, not just this Christmas but always.
So let me pray for you right now. Let me pray that you will know Jesus, and not just know him but everything that he has come to do. We look forward with anticipation and hope to all he will do. I pray that you will know him this Christmas. And as he changes us, I pray that he will turn our hearts (not just our actions) to our children. Let's pray.