by Pastor Steve Schantz
Hello church family! In this message we will focus our attention on the last of the Minor Prophets, Malachi, the messenger of God. Malachi is called upon to energetically engage Israel with God’s admonition. This prophetic exchange between YHVH and Israel through the mouth of her last Old Testament prophet is preserved for us here in this, the last book of the Old Testament. Malachi’s message is only 4 chapters in length, with a grand total of only 55 verses… but what a whallop these verses carry! Please join me in your Bible for our key text:
Mal 3:1-7 See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2 But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3 he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. 6 For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. 7 Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?”
This is God’s word for you and for me– Thanks be to God!
Inscribed on a piece of Indiana Limestone chiseled into a sculpture that is 20 feet long, 8 feet deep, and 12 feet high and currently sitting on one corner of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C. are the words, “What is past is Prologue”. This sculpture, done by Robert Aitken in 1935 is entitled PAST. In the opposite corner of the National Archives Building is its’ sculpted counterpart – named “Present”, and also sometimes referred to as “Future”. “What’s Past is Prologue” comes to us originally from a play by Shakespeare, but the meaning is not lost on us this morning. The inscription suggests that history always sets the context for the present. I once learned from a wise professor of Biblical Interpretation that a Text without a Context is a Pretext. Nothing happens in a vacuum.
God’s people don’t live in a vacuum, and God’s plan for them and for us is not disconnected from our own daily life and the events all around us in our culture and our world. The world is changing, and at every crossroad God is working in history to finish what He has begun. Even through the struggle of a Pandemic, with all of its roadblocks, challenges, and very real hardships and losses. Our neighbors, and some of us, are still reeling- and still feeling -as if the path beneath our feet has been washed out from under us. Many struggle with a Post-Pandemic funk… a fog that won’t seem to lift and that is still affecting our daily decisions even as we hear reports of a new variant strain among us.
There won’t be another prophet to speak on behalf of God to His people for another 400 years. And even though the prophets speak of Christ’s Advent, God is preparing to show up and keep His promise in ways that most would not anticipate. God is going to bring about the perfect time and place in history for a savior to be born right in front of religious and political powers that sought to destroy him.
So let’s take a moment and look at the world Malachi lived in.
Cliff notes on the World’s empires and their timelines are readily available to us. The Persian Empire has been dominant on the scene since the 6th century B.C.E., but while Malachi is writing, the Greeks are beginning to rival the Persian foothold over the Middle East. Some of you may heard about or saw a movie from more than a decade ago entitled The 300.
The film is based on a 1998 graphic novel by the name, and it shouldn’t surprise us that the book as well the movie involve a gross fictionalization of the events. (There’s my pulpit Disclaimer!) And it was hard to find a graphic image from the movie that didn’t feature a bare chested Gerard Butler, and a whole lot of spears, blood, and gore. (Which of course is why it grossed over $456 million at the box office!) But there is some truth behind the fiction in that around 480 B.C. – just 30 years before Malachi is writing- Leonidas, King of Sparta, leads a band of outnumbered warriors against the massive Persian army. It’s basically a suicide mission against the forces of Xerxes, the god-king of Persia. This kind of bravery did serve to inspire all of Greece to unite against their common foe. But an even more influential battle was taking place at Sea at Salamis, where Greece successfully defended her city-states against the much larger Persian Navy.
(This story was also made into a movie as a sequel to The 300, entitled “300- Rise of an Empire”.)
I share this bit about what’s going on in the world around God’s people and her prophet because sometimes even in the church we tend to view the Biblical narratives as fairytale or myth more than an actual historical setting. As if these people didn’t live in the real world. Even during Old Testament times, Jesus words “My Kingdom is not of this world”, reflects how Israel all but disappears from the history books. They aren’t often recorded in the whose who of ancient cultures, societies, or kingdoms, much to the chagrin of believers attempting to validate God’s word to the skeptic. Israel is often just that occupied nation… the subdued stranger in the analogue of the “also rans”. So what was the rest of the world like for Malachi’s audience?
Well, for one thing they were contemporary with the completion of the Parthenon in Athens in 433 BC. after 40 years of work. Malachi also wrote during the time of a Greek philosopher named Democritus, who in 430 BC theorized that matter is composed of tiny grains that cannot be subdivided. He calls these grains “atomos”, and concludes that different shapes of atoms gave them different properties. He also proposed that the changes we see in visible matter are caused by the movement of these very tiny atoms. Definitely a man ahead of his time! He was known as “The Laughing Philosopher” because he was very cheerful when at work. (Perhaps he whistled while he worked?)
So in a world still dominated by the Persian empire, sixty years have passed since the LORD brought Israel back from exile, and they had anticipated great things! Where is the promise of all nations of the earth coming up to Jerusalem to worship? They still seem to be an insignificant speck in the vast Persian Empire, and still under the rule of a Persian governor. And though the temple has been rebuilt, worship is lethargic and pedantic. The walls of the city have been rebuilt, the exterior has been restored, worship has resumed, but something is missing. They are feeling burned out and leftover!
Imagine it’s rush hour in downtown Jerusalem, the date is 450 B.C. Chariots are backing up in the streets as business people and government authorities head for the suburbs. Shop owners are pulling in their tent flaps. A few women have gathered around a well to draw water for their families evening needs. Some hapless and homeless prepare for another night on the street. But through the din and the dust of foot traffic from people and donkeys, we hear raised voices above the clutter. Angry emotional outbursts come from the lips of people who know that something is wrong, and they want to blame God for it! They accuse God of not showing up to keep his promises…of not hearing their prayers. They accuse YHVH of not loving them! Notice how the book opens:
I have loved you, says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us? (1:2)
…Yet you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?” (2:17)
…Yet you say, “How have we spoken against you?” 14 You have said, “It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the Lord of hosts? (3:13)
In speaking for God, The Messenger deftly turns their queries around, and before they know it his audience is on the defensive. God reminds them that the problem lies at their end. That he has not moved away from them – but they have moved away from Him! They have grown complacent and lost their zeal for the Lord. And so in these fours chapters God’s messenger names some of the ways that they have moved away from Him. In Chapter 1 we read:
When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong? Try presenting that to your governor; will he be pleased with you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts. 9 And now implore the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. The fault is yours…13 “What a weariness this is,” you say, and you sniff at me, says the Lord of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! (1:8-9,13)
Rather than offering the best of their livestock in thanksgiving to God under the sacrificial system, they brought their leftovers to the temple as tithes and offerings. They were getting rid of animals that normally wouldn’t even make it to market! (In colloquial terms, they were bringing “Road kill”.) This is a generation of people comfortable living on “Good ‘nough Street!”
I took this picture last week while traveling through Adams Center, NY just after exiting I-81 an hour North of Syracuse. I was on my way over the Tug Hill Plateau to visit my parents who live just outside Lowville, NY in the foothills of the Adirondacks, and I was thinking about how I was going to find time to finish this sermon message (perhaps without a good internet signal), and still have quality time together with my folks… I was struck by the way this street sign summed up the attititude of the Israelites towards God. So I made a quick U-turn and snapped the picture. There are days when we all reside on Good ‘Nough street, but God has called us to more!
This section of Malachi dealing with tithes and offerings is probably most often quoted during Capital campaigns or when church budgets are in the red. But tithes and offerings are only one piece of the picture given to us here. Israel’s laxity not only shows up in stewardship and dishonoring God, they were also not being faithful in their relationships toward each other. In speaking for God Malachi takes up 6 notable disputes with his people. My particular focus today is the way God’s people were treating each other. They had become calloused to each other’s needs: Family needs, their neighbors need, the widow’s need, and the outsider’s need. Hired workers were oppressed in their wages by their fellow countrymen! The widow and the orphan and all those who end up thrust aside were being overlooked.
Just going through the motions of exterior worship was not changing their lives. As a Father calls out to his children, God reaches for their hearts and pleads for them to return to Him! It’s an interesting historical paradox here between Israel and YHVH… It seems that when things are going good for them physically, their spiritual condition is at its lowest ebb. How often they have forgotten God’s goodness in the way they treated each other!
In chapter 2 the priests of Israel weep and complain at the alter saying that God is no longer blessing them. He reminds them that the fault is theirs! They have not been faithful to their calling to serve God’s people. The prophet uses language from the marriage covenant to describe how they have forsaken their promises – “So look to yourselves, and do not let anyone be faithless to the wife of his youth.” (2:15) He even likens their callousness to violence because of the pain it causes others. Sins of omission where it was in their power to help others but instead, they held back selfishly.
For Malachi, the cure for moving through their spiritual burnout and recapturing God’s love is bound up in this willingness to give, to serve others, to offer themselves back up to him instead of hoarding for self… And isn’t the hardest sacrifice to make in the giving of ourselves? To change our very motivation and to join Jesus in His ministry of service and sacrificial love? The rending of our hearts and not our garments? God speaks to them in terms of a Father and his children. He wants their hearts in agreement with him again, in covenant with Him again!
In a similar manor to the way the Lord poses a question to Jonah the reluctant prophet at the end of his book, “Should I not have concern for that great city of Nineveh?”, Malachi also leaves his audience with an open-ended question:
But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? (3:2)
You and I as the present audience are given opportunity to answer for ourselves in this grand drama of the God who draws close to us both to save, and to sift, in preparing a people for Himself. The prophets will be silent for the next Four hundred years as God prepares the Roman Empire to rise up from the Greeks, and the Pax Romana, the Peace of Rome, will establish road systems, and aqueducts, and an army to protect her citizens and her interests. (Yes, heavy taxation in the occupied territory of Judea came along with these things). But a stable environment is made for the child who is God to come to His people suddenly. The fullness of time will arrive, and the God who comes as Emmanuel will dwell in our neighborhood, with us, as one of us. The God who desires not only to save, but also to sift, to refine, to polish and perfect His people by the work of His Spirit. The conversation between YHVH and Israel has gone back and forth: “You don’t love us” “Yes, I do, and I’ve proven it time and again in your history!” “You’ve forgotten your covenantal promises to us!” “No, you have forgotten what you promised and have wandered from my faithful love!” And then God’s final answer comes to us in the person and work of Christ.
John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
And the people He is preparing for himself, those who have been freed from sin to serve with joy, are now you and me! And what opportunities for this self-giving we have together! Serving the hungry through our food pantry donations… Helping children stay fed through the weekend through the Back Pack program, providing needed supplies to The Great Leaps Foundation as they help with the education and social development of children and parents who struggle with Autism syndrome in their families, and encouraging someone who is feeling down and out. As the Apostle Paul wrote to Titus and the churches under him:
#- He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds. (Titus 2:14)
Will we be that people at heart? Those who seek to be part the solution instead of just complaining and contributing to the problem? Malachi speaks for God. “I will come and turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and children to their fathers” When these prophecies begin their fulfillment in Jesus, we hear twice in the gospels the voice from heaven declaring “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!” The living Savior, the beloved and only begotten of the father, whose hearts through the miracle and mystery of the Triune God have always been turned toward each other as one: “I and my father are one”– He will be the ultimate solution to the generational pathology wreaking havoc in our lives due to sin. We have a Jesus who gave the ultimate sacrifice that we might be like the silver in the refiner’s fire. He is the living solution to burn out and spiritual lethargy.
See, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. 2 But for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. (4:1)
“Who will be able to stand His appearing?” The prophet asks rhetorically. Only through the one who is able to make us stand. The one who comes to love us completely as He has promised! Can you hear the faint echoes of a Hallelujah chorus? The song of Christmas in July this morning? Perhaps a refrain from one of those high tenor voices? “And he shall reign for ever and ever!” Reading from 2 Timothy, chpt 4, and verse 8:
From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:8)
The Sun of righteousness will return in full glory, with the fullness of healing in his wings… God Isn’t Done yet, and neither are you and me. We have work to do before we see the 2nd Advent.
Benediction: Jude 1:24 Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, 25 to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.