The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Malachi 3:1 “‘Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, 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 smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the Lord offerings 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; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,’ says the Lord of hosts. 6 ‘For I, the Lord, do not change; therefore you, O sons of Jacob, are not consumed. 7 From the days of your fathers 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?’” (NASB)
The prophet Malachi was preaching and prophesying between 445 and 425 B.C. It was not a good time for Israel. They had grown cynical about God. Malachi 3:1-7 was the Lord God’s response to questions and complaints that had arisen in Israel at the time. They are questions and complaints that many Christians and struggling faithful little congregations today also have.
Mal 3:1–7 is God’s response to the complaints, questions, and accusations of the cynics who were asking in 2:17: “Where is the God of justice?” Why be faithful if the unfaithful and the wicked prosper and prevail while the faithful struggle in defeat?
By 450 B.C. the Israelites had returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. They had expected the Davidic kingdom of faithfulness, justice, and prosperity. B By their own fault that was not how things turned out.
Jerusalem and the Israelites were mired in internal political, religious, and economic divisions. The leaders lined their own pockets, while everyone else fought and bickered with each other. Discord, ranker, and poverty were everywhere.
While Israel struggled for her existence, Persia had grown mighty and was the dominate geopolitical power. Persia and the pagan countries that surrounded Israel were prospering and growing stronger with the passing of each day. That seemed backwards and wrong to the Israelites. They were the chosen people. They had been given promises by God. They have been given the land and promises of prosperity and peace. But that was not the reality on the ground. The fact that that reality was the result of their attitude and behavior didn’t seem to enter into their equations.
So the Israelites complained. Their complaint is summed up in Malachi 2:17 – the “everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them. Where is the God of justice? ” God’s own children were beginning to think that God wasn’t who and what He represented Himself to be.
The church of the Old Testament, Israel had fallen prey yet again to a theology of glory. Power and prosperity equaled righteousness in the sight of God. They increase while we decrease. God must really like what they are doing.
The book of Malachi is a running conversation/debate between God’s critics and God Himself. Over and over again throughout the book of Malachi the words of God’s critics are quoted and God replies. Here’s an example. “‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord. But you [you critics] say, ‘How have You loved us?’” (1:2) Here is the opening line in 2:17. “You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied Him?” . . . In that you say. . .’Where is the God of justice?’”
The assigned Old Testament reading this morning is God’s answer to these wearying accusations and excuses. God will act, but His coming will not be as the people expect and want.
First, He will not come as a mighty avenger, but as a humble servant. Second, His target won’t be all those sinners out there in the world. In His first advent, He will be about calling His own people to repentance for the purpose of purifying them. The call of repentance went to the very people that Malachi was writing about. The people of the church who had lost their way. “Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.” (3:7)
That was the call from God to His children in 400 B.C. That was also the ministry of John the Baptist. By the way it was also the call of Jesus Himself. It was the message He sent His disciples into the church and the world to preach. It is suppose to be the call of every pastor of a Christian congregation. Here the call is summarized in two short statements. “Return to me and I will return to you.”
That call today should lead all people who claim to be Christian to ask a simply question of personal reflection.
“Return to Me!” “How have we left You?” You have heard the line from the poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. “How do I love thee, let me count the ways.”
This is the opposite of that. How have we left Thee? Let us count the ways. An honest answer will yield scores of specific examples. For all too many they have forsaken regular Church worship. For too many of us, we take don’t make church attendance the biggest priority in our week.
How have we left Thee? Most Christians and Christian congregations, like the Israelites in Malachi’s day have allow pagan beliefs to shape our own and our own church services. We have followed the cultural norms, or should I say the lack thereof to reshape our moral and theological convictions.
How have we left Thee? In Malachi’s day the people didn’t sacrifice the best and purest lamb to be sacrificed for the atoning of their sins. They brought the sick, lame, weak, and blemished to the altar of God. They didn’t bring the first fruits, they brought the left overs, as people do today. They throw their spare coins in the plate.
How have we left Thee? We have replaced the Word which is the “lamp unto our feet and a light to our path” with emotions and a philosophies of pragmatism and post-modernism. We do what makes us feel good, what we think is a good deed, not what God’s Word instructs us to do. We call bad things good and good things bad.
How have we left Thee? We have treated our vocations as something less than a God pleasing and God given privilege and duty. We have been faithless in the execution of our duties toward family and neighbor, electing to do what is comfortable and in our own best interest rather than doing what is best for our neighbors. We have given our duty to help our neighbor over to the government and made much of what the church is suppose to do irrelevant.
How have we left Thee? We have been arrogant, thinking more of human achievement than we ought. Setting up modern towers of Babel by putting the words, ideas, philosophies, and technologies of mankind as equal to God’s words and deeds. Natural sciences and social science have become our gods. They speak and people inside and outside the church bow the knee.
How have we left Thee? We wonder if you have forsaken the faithful and the small, while blessing and taking pleasure in the seemingly big, successful, and popular.
How have we left Thee? The list could go on and on. Take your Small Catechism and consider each of your stations in life in light of the Ten Commandments and their meanings. You will see that none of us, not you, not me, and not our neighbor escapes this call to repent.
The children of Israel were far away from the Lord their God. But He remained near. He was in the words that He gave to Malachi and the prophets to preach. He was in the words of the Psalms in the Old Testament liturgy.
God rebuked the people for their faithlessness. He warned them that judgment would come. He promised those who repented of their sins, those who were contrite and who trusted in the Lord God for salvation that He would restore them and they would once again (verse 4) be “pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old.”
When John the Baptist appeared on the banks of the River Jordan, he, like Malachi of old stood opposite of people and religious leaders who had lost their way. They too had forsaken the Word of God. They turned their land from a people of faith and grace alone in the promised Messiah to a land of works righteousness.
2 “The word of God came to John, the son of Zacharias, in the wilderness. 3 And he came into all the district around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins; 4 as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight.’”
God was near. He was in the message of John the Baptist. He rebuked those had forsaken His doctrine. He warned the people of God’s imminent coming. He gave them a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He gave them the only way to prepare for the coming of the Christ. He promised that man would see God (Lk 3:6) and would share in His righteousness (Lk 3:10–14).
In Holy Baptism and faith we are united with Christ in His life, death, and resurrection. We are taught in the Epistle lesson “that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.” As God the Father’s very own children, members of the kingdom of heaven we are in the world, but we are not of the world.
John the Baptist was the last Old Testament prophet. His life and message are recorded in the New Testament, but his mission was to prepare for the Advent of the Savior. That is the function of every prophet. That was the mission of Malachi 400 years before the birth John and Jesus.
In the Word and Sacrament ministry God has re-created us as a new people, shining brightly with the very righteousness of Christ. The dross gone, the image of God made clear. The habits and morality hold no power overf the new man or woman in us.
“Return to Me, and I will return to you, God has said. But is God far so off that we can’t return to Him? The Lord is always near, as near as the speaking of His word. He never left His faithful congregation. “I the Lord do not change; therefore,” for that reason—yes, that’s the reason—“you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (v 6).
This is why God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit have brought you here. You have come here because He has drawn you to this place to receive what you can’t get out there in the world, namely His truth, His grace, and His forgiveness. He has returned you to Himself.
May the Peace that passes all understanding keep your heart and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.