400 Years of Silence

By Michelle Clifton-Soderstrom

If I were to place my current “worship-self” in the trajectory of Scripture, I would be in the book of Malachi—embarking on the intertestimental “silent” period where the end of the story is unknown and the beginning of the story has worn out. I have experienced disappointment, and I’m not sure where the church is going. On top of that, I often feel as though God is silent in worship.

Malachi relates. Malachi is the last in a line of prophets, writing in the 5th century BCE, and there are 400 years between his writing and John the Baptist. He writes to a disgruntled audience. The Jews had become lazy, they weren’t engaging with God, and, moreover, they doubted God’s justice. The wicked AND the good prosper (3:14, 15). How can this be? There was an expectation of God’s promise and blessings to be fulfilled in the immediate but when that doesn’t happen, the Israelites become cynical and lack perspective.

The book of Malachi is one in which the prophet asks, what is going on? With the people? The priests? Yahweh?

We find some insights as Malachi chronicles Israel’s abuses of the Covenant: Priests are misusing power. People have no passion for justice, little concern for widow and orphan. They have violated the trust of their fellow brothers and sisters, lots of self-pity, and no empathy.

This seems to be the answer: people are disconnected from God and from each other. Geila writes about this in her journey, describing standing in the back, feeling isolated from God, and only remotely connected to the community. Cathy entitles her piece “Confessions of a Wannabe Church Shopper,” which she fleshes out as looking for what she can get out of the experience. In the end, she is ok with worship because it brings together broken and flawed people.

This is true. Of all churches. But I wonder if an underlying gap in both Geila’s and Cathy’s worship experiences is justice? Malachi and the other Old Testament prophets deeply connect justice with worship. You don’t care about justice, the prophet says! You show up to worship Yahweh, but you are simply go through the motions of worship (2:10-3:6). You make sacrifices but they are disrespectful – they’re spoils! Your priests are not ministering justly!

Often we think about justice as advocacy, restoration, and reconciling less privileged groups with the majority population. All of this is true, and Micah names these groups (widows, orphans). The Jews have little empathy for them. He also names the perversion of the priestly office which also has to do with relationships.

But another aspect of justice is honesty, and I wonder if that dimension is missing in these confessions about worship. Cathy rightly admits worshiping with broken people. Is there honesty about the brokenness? And not simply, “I am broken, I fall short…etc.” But rather, how does my brokenness preclude the participation and flourishing of those who have less access than I? Who does my sin keep out? Surely it is not private? Or acceptable because we all sin?

Justice and worship must connect. If Malachi is our cue, worship is calling us to honest work on Sunday mornings. It is slow going, silent at times, but nonetheless, may we hear the oracle’s reminder that participation is more than me and God.

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  5 comments for “400 Years of Silence

  1. Cathy Norman Peterson
    November 16, 2015 at 4:31 pm

    I’m curious if you have ideas what this could look like. I totally appreciate the suggestion to consider who our sin excludes…and the reminder that sin is hardly “just” personal. So what do you think this kind of honesty would look like—in practical ways?

  2. November 17, 2015 at 8:26 pm

    I think it would mean spending a fair bit of time with people outside worship. Do you have thoughts Cathy? I think you are one of the most authentic people I know….which translates into honesty.

  3. Cathy Norman Peterson
    November 21, 2015 at 11:43 am

    I think I’m stuck on the “who does my sin keep out?” question. I honestly don’t know how I would answer that.

    • Michelle
      November 24, 2015 at 5:11 pm

      The “who does my sin keep out” is a point about being ok with my brokenness and being able to ignore it. Generally it is connected with my privilege and feels like a confession without real change.

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