What Came First? God.
You ever find yourself reading along in the Bible and suddenly you notice—HEY, I KNOW THOSE WORDS. THOSE ARE SONG LYRICS. This happened with me one time when I was reading Proverbs and came across the words “haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood.” And I was like, WAIT A MINUTE, THAT’S FROM A SONG BY THE INDIGO GIRLS! That chain of particular descriptions appears in a verse of their song “Strange Fire.”
It took me a minute to remember that it was actually the Bible which was written first: the words of the Proverbs were recorded thousands of years before the Indigo Girls ever picked up a guitar.
Sometimes you find Scripture hidden in some surprising places, including songs. And if you were paying attention when Malachi was read a few minutes ago, perhaps your ear perked up at the words “sun of righteousness” and “healing in his wings”…where have you heard that before?
Hail the heav’nborn Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings, ris’n with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die,
Born to raise each child of earth, born to give us second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn king!”
It’s a favorite Christmas carol, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” And which one do you think came first—the words from the book of Malachi in the Hebrew Bible, written some 500 years before Jesus was even born…OR the Christmas hymn written by Charles Wesley that first appeared in 1739?
Yes, of course Malachi came first. Malachi was the prophet speaking to the people of God in the time after the temple has been destroyed and then rebuilt and rededicated. Malachi wants the people to learn and appreciate the sacrifices they make in the temple, to be diligent in learning and to take their faith seriously.
Malachi is not a long book—you can read the entire thing in five minutes, try it! But his point in speaking to the people of God is to remind them to line up their actions with their devotion to God. Apparently there was a problem with people giving inappropriate sacrifices, but also Malachi warns against those who swear falsely, who oppress the hired workers in their wages, and who oppress the widows and orphans and thrust aside the immigrants. “Will anyone rob God?” Malachi asks, on behalf of God. “Yet,” he says, “you are robbing me!”
In other words, it’s not enough to build a terrific temple and offer sacrifices—as it turns out, God cares more about relationships. That includes keeping a relationship of respect with God but also having relationships of respect among humans too. Malachi doesn’t have a whole lot to say about the temple itself, even though it was a big deal that the temple was rebuilt and rededicated.
Some five hundred years later, along comes Jesus, strolling through that very temple with his disciples. And the temple is gorgeous—it’s a pilgrimage site in Jerusalem. Neither Jesus nor his disciples lived there or were born or raised in Jerusalem; they had to travel to get to the temple, and wow, was it spectacular. Worth the long journey.
But Jesus still has to remind his disciples what came first: God, and being in relationship with God. The temple is not permanent. And in fact, by the time Luke’s Gospel is written, that very temple in Jerusalem was indeed destroyed by the Romans.
Perhaps you have experienced something similar, the destruction of a place that was special to you. Maybe it was special because of the significant time you spent there or because that place was sacred to you? To see a place destroyed—it disrupts your psyche. If you’ve seen a sanctuary damaged by fire, or a church fellowship hall blown apart by a tornado, or a Sunday School room moldy from flood waters, or not far from here: a school with windows shattered by bullets—your sense of peace has been disrupted. If the safe place has become unsafe, if the sacred place has been torn down, does that mean God is gone?
Did the destruction of the temple mean the end of Judaism? No. What about Christianity? Did it die before it ever got started? Of course not. Here we are, two thousand years later, retelling the same story, confessing faith in the same God, bearing witness to God’s ongoing work in the world. So yeah, the building itself is not the point. The relationship with God is the important part.
God was here first. And God will be here long after we’re gone. And the Word of God, which we know in Jesus Christ, will continue moving and the story will continue being told.
As Christians, it’s important to pay attention to the story we’re telling. We must acknowledge where we come from, and that is Judaism. Jesus was a Jew! When we read the books of the Hebrew Bible, these are the same words that are Holy Scripture to our Jewish siblings. So even while we may look in what we call the Old Testament and see evidence of Jesus, that doesn’t mean we possess the only meaning of the text. We call it the Old Testament because it’s foundational, not because it’s outdated. There’s truly a lot we can learn from our Jewish siblings about the Hebrew Scriptures, and that helps us better understand Jesus.
For some of us, this is obvious. To disregard Jewish people in the interpretation of the Scriptures we share—this doesn’t make sense to me. I think it’s theologically sloppy and intellectually lazy.
But more than that, it’s also dangerous. We live in a world where anti-Semitism is on the rise, so it needs to be said that we respect Jews and the Jewish faith. We want to be the kind of faithful Christians who can work together with Jewish communities in relationships of mutuality to care for our neighbors and communities.
These relationships are important enough to our church that the ELCA has a Consultative Panel on Lutheran-Jewish Relations, and this year they put together a teaching guide so that preachers and teachers can take care with their lessons and sermons, so that we don’t perpetuate anti-Jewish stereotypes. You can look it up online here: https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Preaching_And_Teaching_With_Love_And_Respect_For_The_Jewish_People.pdfor I printed out a copy in the narthex.
Lutherans are always about learning and growing in relationship with God through Holy Scriptures—God is always at the center of this, because God came first, and God is eternal and will endure long after us. There’s always more we can learn, and we always approach God with a heart of humility.
God will always have a word for us—we hear that Word in Jesus, who said, “I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will able to withstand or contradict.” Even when there are wars and insurrections, even when terrible events bring us fear and break down our structures, God remains steadfast. And we continue putting our trust in Jesus, singing the words in whatever way we know:
Jesus Christ has died, Jesus Christ is risen, Jesus Christ will come again.
Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe that Jesus Christ will come again.
 “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” text by Charles Wesley https://download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Preaching_And_Teaching_With_Love_And_Respect_For_The_Jewish_People.pdf  Sung to the tune of “We Shall Overcome.”