“But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?“ Malachi 3:2
Malachi describes an encounter with the divine; an encounter with something awe-inspiring and terrifying; an encounter where one’s sense of self is secondary to an overwhelming sense of the other. Malachi’s experience is altogether different from the experiences of our own times, where self comes before everything else.
If we are searching for a religious story to describe our own times, it is not to be found in the experiences of an Old Testament prophet, but in a story from Greek mythology.
Narcissus was a handsome young man who arrogantly shunned all the girls who approached him. One girl in particular tried to attract his attention, but, try as she might, he ignored her. She prayed to a goddess that Narcissus would return her love, but her prayers did not work, so, in desperation, she prayed Narcissus would learn what it was like to love someone without the return of that love. The goddess heard her prayers and granted her wish.
In the forest where he lived, there was a quiet fountain and one day Narcissus went there to drink. He was surprised by a lovely sight, a beautiful image in the clear pool. It was his own reflection, but Narcissus thought it was some handsome spirit peering from the fountain.
Narcissus had never seen such a lovely creature; he immediately fell in love with himself. He moved closer to try to embrace the image, yet every time he tried to grab it, it fled away. Narcissus was so captivated that he could not bring himself to leave the pool, and he lost all desire for food and drink.
Narcissus began to talk to the image. Why did it try to escape him? Everyone else in the forest thought he was very beautiful. He remained at the pool, pining away over the image and his health and beauty faded away. Finally, he died staring at the image in the fountain, striving to embrace his one object of desire: himself.
As we think of Malachi’s encounter with the divine, and Narcissus’ encounter with himself, isn’t it the story of Narcissus that most accurately reflects 21st Century life? Our sense of the transcendent, of the spiritual, is insignificant compared with our sense of self.
Go to any newsagent and look at some of the magazines on sale. Look at the subjects they feature: they are about relationships, centred on oneself; they are about experiences centred on oneself; they are about buying things for oneself. Of course, there is no sense that we are being preoccupied with ourselves, any more than Narcissus sensed he was staring at himself. Self fulfilment is for the good of everyone; ‘because I’m worth it’, says the advertisement.
Far from having an overwhelming sense of something infinitely greater than ourselves, we think that nothing can be more important than the individual. We focus upon individual rights, upon individual expression; upon individual identity. Things like family and community are relegated to lesser places and concepts such as God have no place at all.
The church runs entirely contrary to the culture of putting oneself first, it says that you cannot have everything you want and people have turned away from it—haven’t we the right to everything we want? Who is to say what we can and what we cannot have?
As people have turned away, the church has toned down its teaching on consumerism and materialism in the hope of not alienating anyone further, and, in becoming bland, the church has been taken with less and less seriousness.
There is no biblical foundation for being bland. Read the book of Malachi, and there is no blandness to be found; no defensiveness, no apologetic tone, no attempt at couching things in such a way that no-one could possibly take offence.
God is not a god of private morality, he is a God of very public spirituality. The words of Malachi warn, “So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty”.
This public God is one who arrives in overwhelming force: “who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears?” The God Malachi experiences is a God who commands attention. He is a God who strikes fear into the hearts of those who encounter him.
In an age of individualism and individualistic experience, there has been a loss of a collective sense of God as an overwhelming force. Our spirituality has been private and personal: we might have our own sense of God, but because it is our own, it has no community dimension, it is not an experience for a whole people. Were Malachi to be alive today we would probably say that we were pleased for him, and if that sense of God worked for him, then that was good, but we would not share his sense of awe.
Perhaps God has become privatised because we have made little of him. The church wanted nothing to do with the sort of society spelt out in Scripture so made God into a God of personal things; when coming to Malachi’s demand for justice, there was much teaching on sexual morality and barely a mention of the oppression of workers, widows, orphans and foreigners.
“But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears”. Meeting with such a God, our society has no response. But what about those of us who say they believe in such a God, those who welcome his Advent? Are we like Malachi, delighting in the arrival of the Lord, or are we like Narcissus, so preoccupied with ourselves that we are unable to recognize the reality that has overtaken us?