Malachi iv. 5, 6. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
These words are especially solemn words. They stand in an especially solemn and important part of the Bible. They are the last words of the Old Testament. I cannot but think that it was God's will that they should stand where they are, and nowhere else. Malachi, the prophet who wrote them, did not know perhaps that he was the last of the Old Testament prophets. He did not know that no prophet would arise among the Jews for 400 years, till the time when John the Baptist came preaching repentance. But God knew. And by God's ordinance these words stand at the end of the Old Testament, to make us understand the beginning of the New Testament. For the Old Testament ends by saying that God would send to the Jews Elijah the prophet. And the New Testament begins by telling us of John the Baptist's coming as a prophet, in the spirit and power of Elias; and how the Lord Jesus himself declared plainly that John the Baptist was Elijah who was to come; that is, the Elijah of whom Malachi prophesies in my text.
Therefore, we may be certain that this text tells us what John the Baptist's work was; that John the Baptist came to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers; lest the Lord should come and smite the land with a curse.
Some may be ready to answer to this, 'Of course John the Baptist came to warn parents of behaving wrongly to their children, if they were careless or cruel; and children to their parents, if they were disobedient or ungrateful. Of course he would tell bad parents and children to repent, just as he came to tell all other kinds of sinners to repent. But that was only a part of John the Baptist's work. He came to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the Saviour, the Redeemer.'
Be it so, my friends. I only hope that you really do believe that John the Baptist did come to proclaim that a Saviour was born into the world--provided only that you remember all the while who that Saviour was. John the Baptist tells you who He was. If you will only remember that, and get the thought of it into your hearts, you will not be inclined to put any words of your own in place of the prophet Malachi's, or to fancy that you can describe better than Malachi what John the Baptist's work was to be; and that turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, was only a small part of John the Baptist's work, instead of being, as Malachi says it was, his principal work, his very work, the work which must be done, lest the Lord, instead of saving the land, should come and smite it with a curse.
Yes--you must remember who it was that John the Baptist came to bear record of, and to manifest or show to the Jews. The Angels on the first Christmas Eve told us--they said it was The Lord, 'Unto you,' they said, 'is born a Saviour, who is Christ, The Lord.'
John the Baptist told you and all mankind who it was--that it was The Lord. 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord!'
The Lord. What Lord--Which Lord? John the Baptist knew. Simeon, Anna, Nathaniel, all righteous and faithful hearts who waited for the salvation of the Lord, knew. The Pharisees and Sadducees did not know. The men who wrote our Creeds, our Prayer Book, our Church Catechism, knew. The Pharisees and the Sadducees in our day, who fancy themselves wiser than the Creeds, and the Prayer Book, and the Church Catechism, do not know. May God grant that we may all know, not only with our lips, but with our hearts, our faith, our love, our lives, who The Lord is.
Jesus Christ, the babe of Bethlehem, is The Lord. But who is He? The Bible tells us; when we have heard what the Bible tells us we shall be able better to understand the text. The Lord is He of whom it is written, 'And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.' And who is God's image and God's likeness? The New Testament tells us--Jesus Christ. In Him man was made. He is the Son of Man, who is in heaven--the true perfect pattern of man: but He is also the image and likeness of God, the brightness of His Father's glory, and the express image of His person. He is The Lord. He is the Lord who instituted marriage, and said, 'It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help-meet for him.' He is the Lord who said to man, 'Be fruitful and multiply: fill the earth and subdue it.' He is the Lord who said to the first murderer, 'Thy brother's blood crieth against thee from the ground.' He is the Lord who talked with Abraham face to face as a man talks with his friend; who blest him by giving him a son in his old age, that he might be the father of many nations. He is the Lord who, on Mount Sinai, gave those Ten Commandments, the foundation of all law and right order between man and God, between man and man:--'Thou shalt honour thy father and thy mother. Thou shalt do no murder. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness in courts of law or elsewhere. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's property.'
This is The Lord. Not a God far away from men; who does not feel for them, nor feel with them; not a God who despises men, or has an ill-will to men, and must be won over to change his mind, and have mercy on them, by many supplications and tears, and fear and trembling, and superstitious ceremonies. But this is The Lord, this is the babe of Bethlehem, this is He whose way John the Baptist came to prepare--even He of whom it is written, that He possessed wisdom, the simple, practical human wisdom, useful for this everyday earthly life of ours, which Solomon sets forth in his Proverbs, in the beginning before His works of old; and that when He appointed the foundations of the earth, that Wisdom was by Him, as one brought up with Him, and she was daily His delight; rejoicing alway before Him; rejoicing in the habitable parts of the earth; and her delights were with the sons of men.
In one word, He is the Lord, in whose likeness man is made. Man's justice is a pattern of His; man's love is a pattern of His; man's industry a pattern of His; man's Sabbath-rest, in some unspeakable and eternal way, a pattern of His. Man's family ties are patterns of His. God the Father is He, said St. Paul, from whom every fathership in heaven and earth is named, that we may be such fathers to our children as God is to us. God The Son is He who is not ashamed to call us brethren, and to declare to us the glorious news, that in Him we, too, are the sons of God, that we may be such sons to our heavenly Father--ay, and to our earthly fathers also, as the Lord Jesus was to His Father.
Yes--and even more wonderful still, and more blessed still, the Lord is not ashamed to call himself a husband. Our human wedlock and married love is a pattern of some divine mystery. 'Husbands love your wives, as Christ also loved the Church, and gave Himself for it, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, but that it should be holy and without blemish.' Blessed words, which we cannot pretend to explain or understand, but can only believe and adore, and find, as we shall find, in proportion as we are loving and faithful in wedlock, that God's Spirit bears witness with our spirit, that they are reasonable, blessed, true; true for ever.
This, then, was the Lord who was coming to judge these Jews; not merely a god, but The God. The Lord, in whose likeness man was made; who had appointed men to be fathers, sons, husbands, citizens of a nation, owners of property, subject to laws, and yet makers of laws; because all these things, in some wonderful way, are parts of His likeness. He was coming to this nation of the Jews first, and then to all the nations of the earth, to judge them, Malachi said, with a great and terrible day. To lay the axe to the root of the tree; to cut down from the very root the evil principles which were working in society. His fan was in His hand; and He would thoroughly purge His floor; and gather His wheat into the garner, for the use of future generations: but the chaff, all that was empty, light, and useless, He would burn up and destroy utterly out of the way, with unquenchable fire. He would inquire of every man, How have you kept my image; my likeness, in which I made you? What sort of husbands, fathers, sons, neighbours, subjects, and governors, have you been? And above all, Malachi says, the root question of all would be, what sort of fathers have you been to your children? What sort of children to your fathers? Does that seem to you a small question, my friends? Would you have rather expected to hear John the Baptist ask, what sort of saints they had been? What sort of doctrines they were professing?
A small question? Look at these two little words, Father and Son. Father and Son! Are they not the most deep and awful, as well as the most blessed and hopeful words on earth? Do they not tell us the very mystery of God's being? Are they not the very name of God, God The Father and God The Son, knit together by one Holy Spirit of Love to each other and to all, who proceeds alike from The Father and from The Son? And then, will you think it a light matter to ask fallen creatures made in the likeness of that perfect Father and that perfect Son, what sort of fathers and sons they have been? God help us all, and give us grace to ask ourselves that question morning and night, before the great and terrible day of the Lord come, lest He come and smite this land with a curse.
I have been led to think deeply and to speak openly upon this solemn matter, my friends, by seeing, as who can help seeing, the great division and estrangement between the old and the young which is growing up in our days. I do not, alas! I cannot, deny the complaints which old people commonly make. Old people complain that young people are grown too independent, disobedient, saucy, and what not. It is too true, frightfully, miserably true, that there is not the same reverence for parents as there was a generation back;--that the children break loose from their parents, spend their parents' money, choose their own road in life, their own politics, their own religion, alas! too often, for themselves;--that young people now presume to do and say a hundred things which they would not have dreamed in old times. And they are ready enough to cry out that all this is a sign of the last days, of which, they say, St. Paul speaks in 2 Tim. iii. 4--when men 'shall be disobedient to parents, unthankful, boasters, heady, high-minded, despisers of those who are good, lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God.' My friends, my friends, it is far better for us who have children, instead of prying into the times and seasons which God has kept in His own hand, to read our Bibles faithfully, and when we quote a text, quote the whole of it, and not just those bits of it which help us to throw blame on other people. What St. Paul really says, is that 'in the last days evil times will come;' just as they had come, he shows, when he wrote; and what he means I will try and show you presently. And, moreover, remember that Malachi says, that the hearts of the parents in Judea needed turning to their children, as well as the hearts of the children to their parents. Take care lest it be not so in England now. Remember that St. Paul, in that same solemn passage, gives other marks of 'last days,' which have to do with parents as well as with children, and some which can only have to do with parents--for they are the sins of grown-up and elderly people, and not of young ones. He says, that in those days men shall also be 'covetous, proud, without natural affection, breakers of their word, blasphemers; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof.' Will none of these hard words hit some grown people in our day? Will not they fill some of us with dread, lest the parents now-a-days should be as much in fault as the children of whom they complain; lest the parents' sins should be but too often the cause of the children's sins? Read through St. Paul's sad list of sins, and see how every young man's sin in it has some old man's sin corresponding to it. St. Paul does not part his list, and I dare not, and cannot. St. Paul mixes the parents' and the children's sins together in his words, and I fear that we do the same in our actions.
Oh! beware, beware, you who complain of the behaviour of children now-a-days, lest your children have as much cause to complain of you. Are your children selfish, lovers of themselves?--See that you have not set them the example by your own covetousness or laziness. Are they boastful?--See that your pride has not taught them. Incontinent and profligate?--See that your own fierceness has not taught them. If they see you unable to master your own temper, they will not care to try to master their appetites. Are they disobedient and unthankful?--See, well, then that your want of natural affection to them, your neglect, and harshness, and want of feeling and tenderness, has not made the balance of unkindness fearfully even between you. Are your children disobedient to you?-- See that you have not taught them to be so, by breaking your word to them, by letting them see you deceitful to others, till they have lost all trust in you, all reverence for you. Above all, are your children lovers of pleasure more than lovers of God?--Oh! beware, beware, lest you have made them so,--lest you have been blasphemers against God, even when you have been fancying that you talked religion. Beware lest you have been teaching them dark, cruel, superstitious thoughts about God,--making them look up to Him not as their heavenly Father, but as a stern taskmaster whom they must obey, not from gratitude, but from fear of hell, and so have made God look so unlovely in their eyes that 'there is no beauty in Him that they should desire Him.' Can you wonder at their loving pleasure rather than loving God, when you show them nothing in God's character to love, but everything to dread and shrink from? And last of all, are your children despisers of those who are good, inclined to laugh at religion, to suspect and sneer at pious people, and call them hypocrites? Oh! beware, beware, lest your lip- religion, your dead faith, your inconsistent practice, has not been the cause of it. If you, as St. Paul says, have a form of godliness, and yet in your life and actions deny the power of it, by living without God in the world, and following the lowest maxims of the world in everything but what you call the salvation of your souls, what wonder if your children grow up despisers of those who are good? If they see you preaching one thing, and practising another, they will learn to fancy that all godly people do the same. If they see your religion a sham, they will learn to fancy all religion false also. Oh! woe, woe, most terrible, to those who thus harden their own children's hearts, and destroy in them, as too many do, all faith in God and man, all hope, all charity! Woe to them! for the Lord Himself, who came to lay the axe to the root of the tree, said of such, 'If any man cause one of these little ones to offend, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depths of the sea.'
So it is too often now-a-days, and so it will be, until people condescend to learn over again that simple old Church Catechism which they were taught when they were little, and to teach it to their children, not only with their lips but in their lives.
'The Church Catechism!' some here will say to themselves with a smile, 'that is but a paltry medicine for so great a disease--a pitiful ending, forsooth, to such a severe sermon as this, to recommend just the Church Catechism!' Let those laugh who will, my friends. If you think you can bring up your children to be blessings to you,--if you think you can live so as to be blessings to your children, without the Church Catechism, you can but try. I think that you will fail. More and more, year by year, I find that those who try do fail. More and more, year by year, I find that even religious people's education of their children fails, and that pious men's sons now-a-days are becoming more and more apt to be scandals to their parents and to religion. If any choose to say that the reason is, that the pious men's sons were not of the number of the elect, though their fathers were, I can only answer, that God is no respecter of persons, and that they say that He is; that God is not the author of the evil, and that they say that He is. If a child of mine turns out ill, I am bound to lay the fault first on myself, and certainly never on God,--and so is every man, unless the inspired Scripture is wrong where it says, 'Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.' And the fault is in ourselves. Very few people really teach their children now-a-days the Church Catechism; very few really believe the Church Catechism; very few really believe that God is such an one as the Church Catechism declares to us; very few believe in the Lord, in whose image and likeness man is made, whose way John the Baptist prepared by turning the hearts of the fathers to the children. They put, perhaps, religious books into their children's hands, and talk to them a great deal about their souls: but they do not tell their children what the Church Catechism tells them, because they do not believe what the Church Catechism tells them.
What that is; what the Church Catechism does tell us, which the favourite religious books now-a-days do not tell us; and what that has to do with turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, I must tell you hereafter. God grant that my words may sink into all hearts, as far as they are right and true; if sooner or later we are not all brought to understand the meaning of those two simple words, Father and Son, neither Baptism, nor Confirmation, nor Schools, nor this Church, nor the very body and blood of Him who died for us, to share which you are all called this day, will be of avail for the well-being of this parish, or of this country, or any other country upon earth. For where the root is corrupt, the fruit will be also; and where family life and family ties, which are the root and foundation of society, are out of joint, there the Nation and the Church will decay also; as it is written, 'If the foundations be cast down, what can the righteous do?'
And whensoever, in any family, or nation and church, the root of the tree (which is the conduct of parents to children, and of children to parents) grows corrupt and rotten, then 'last days,' as St. Paul calls them, are indeed come to it, and evil times therewith; for the Lord will surely lay the axe to the root of it, and cut it down and cast it into the fire: neither will the days of that family, or that people, or that Church, be long in the land which the Lord their God has given them. So it has been as yet, in all ages and in all countries on the face of God's earth, and so it will be until the end. Wheresoever the hearts of the fathers are not turned to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, there will a great and terrible day of the Lord come; and that nation, like Judaea of old, like many a fair country in Europe at this moment, will be smitten with a curse.