1. Twenty-First Century
Has there ever been a time when you’d been told that something was going to happen, and you waited and waited, and nothing happened? Has there ever been a time when you’d been told that after a specific event, something special was going to happen, and yet when the event was over, you waited and waited and waited, and nothing came?
Life can be pretty hard sometimes. And when things like that happen, it can very easy to become a bit sceptical, a little despondent, and in the end just give up waiting.
2. Fifth Century BC
Sound familiar? Well, something like that happened to God’s people in the fifth Century BC and is the subject of this reading from Malachi.
Because the people had spent years in enforced exile, and they had finally been allowed to return home. And what they expected was to experience a supernatural event of God returning to his Temple. After such a long time, this was the moment to which they had been looking forward. It was a time that was supposed to be of great joy. But when they got there, all they saw was ruins. Jerusalem was flattened, the Temple destroyed and all the protective walls around the city were in ruins. And of course, the supernatural event didn’t happen. And after all that waiting, it could easily have been enough for them to give up waiting.
And yet, at this point, they didn’t give up. Instead, with a few good leaders, and despite much opposition, they began to restore the city. It took a lot of hard work, a bit of stopping and starting, but seventy-five years later the work was complete. But all the time the restoration work was continuing, there was one thing continually at the back of people’s minds. And that was that on completion they would witness that supernatural event. They would see God returning to his city and to his Temple. But, again, it didn’t happen.
Now of course, you can imagine what happened next. With their hopes and expectations dashed they became disillusioned; they became cynical and unbelieving. Some started to look at alternative religions (although most preferred to rely on themselves rather than another deity); the issues of right and wrong became increasingly blurred; and evil people prospered.
Now does that sound familiar too? Well it should do, because I could just as well be describing the world as we know it today. Because we live in a world where people are more cynical and unbelieving; we live in a world where the difference between right and wrong is very blurred; and we live in a world where evil seems to prosper.
Yet, I’m not describing today’s world. I’m describing the world that Malachi knew in the fifth Century BC. And what did Malachi do? Well he tried to pull the people out of their disillusionment; he tried to give them hope. And he did so by trying to restore his people to the faith that they once knew.
B. GOD’S RESPONSE
1. The Fact of His Coming (1)
Indeed, he gave them words from God himself. He told them that they’d got their timing all wrong, and he told them that they would be sent a messenger—someone who would herald the coming of a king. Someone, like a royal messenger, who would prepare the way for the Lord himself. And he advised that when all the necessary preparations had been completed, only then the Lord would come to his Temple.
The crux of Malachi’s message was … That yes, they’d got it right to expect a supernatural visit from God. That was part of the plan, and it still was part of the plan. However, they’d forgotten that God’s sense of timing was different to theirs. So, Malachi concluded, rather than give up, be disillusioned, or look for alternatives, they should return to God. They should stick with him, because what God had promised, he would do. But it would happen in his time not theirs.
2. The Reason for His Coming (2-5)
They’d got God’s timing wrong. But they also had missed the point. Because in all their waiting they hadn’t really prepared for what was to come.
And the reason for God’s timing being different to theirs… Well the delay was to allow time for God’s people to be refined and purified. God wanted his people to be restored to what they were created to be, with the refining process beginning with the leaders and then spreading out to the rest of the faithful.
And as Malachi pointed out, this would not be an easy process. It would take time and would involve much pain. After all, one couldn’t fix up the issues, overnight, of taking God for granted, not giving God his due, misconceptions about God, and all those bad habits. So only when the process was completed, would the faithful would be transformed and be ready for what lay ahead.
Now part of that refining process would be to remove all the base elements. So for those who refused correction, the Lord would be both witness and judge in the lawsuit against them, and they would be condemned on the ‘Day of the Lord’.
Now, it must be said here, that despite everything, despite his need to spell out the painful refining process, Malachi was the ever-faithful pastor. For he only wanted people to face the possibility of their ultimate rejection by God, in the hope that that would trigger the restoration of their relationship with God.
Malachi knew the hard toil and labour that the people had been through. He knew of their expectations. And he knew their bitter disappointment when those hopes had been dashed. But he didn’t want his people to be lost because they’d given up on God.
4. Our Response to his Coming (6-12)
Malachi was also concerned that the people hadn’t realised the hole they had dug for themselves either. As a consequence, he felt he also needed to deal with the basic truths around the depths to which they had plummeted. And they were:
a). God Never Changes (6)
Firstly . . . God never changes. God is consistent and can be relied upon. But he cannot be manipulated in to doing things in the ways that people might wish. He does things in his own time and in his own way.
God is patient, and his patience stretches to give people the opportunity to change their ways, particularly when it comes to choosing a restored relationship with him.
b). Man Doesn’t Change (7)
Secondly . . . mankind doesn’t change either. Indeed, the rebellious attitude is something to which people are very consistent.
Because despite God’s many calls for his people to repent and change their ways, God’s calls have met very little response. Indeed, people claim ignorance of their own short comings.
c). Man Robs God (8)
And revolving around those first two truths, thirdly . . . people actually rob God. And he used the issue of money and giving to illustrate his point.
Because, when the people had given up on God, they had stopped giving to God. As a consequence, the pool of money used to do God’s work, had become totally inadequate. And that meant that widows, the fatherless, and travellers were going without food, clothing and shelter; and those who relied on the income so they could teach others about God, had to give up their ministry to earn their own living elsewhere.
Lack of commitment, witnessed through a lack of giving, has a devastating effect on the life and work of the religious community.
d). Lack of Blessing (9-12)
And as a consequence of this turning away from God, and even stinginess in giving, Malachi’s fourth truth is that no matter how much God wants to bless his people, he just can’t. God cannot bless individuals, religious communities, or nations that spare him nothing or next to nothing. And the flow on from that, is that in being stingy the people actually deprive themselves of one of the joyful rights of being God’s servants—in sharing in his work.
5. The Need to Return to the Faith (13-14)
Then, with those four basic truths, Malachi effectively said to the people, “Despite the fact that you are like this now, don’t be disillusioned, don’t be discouraged. God may not always do what we want him to do at the time we want him to do it, but he’s not a puppet on a string. Have faith in God anyway. Have faith in a God that is true and a God who wants to bless. Go through the refining process and come out the other side strong in faith. Then God can walk with you and can bless you in your endeavours.”
Now I don’t know about you, but the message of Malachi, to me, seem to ring some very loud bells. Indeed the situation as described by Malachi seems to fit today’s world to a “T”. Because even though we are no longer waiting for either the messenger or for the Lord to return to his Temple (in the way that was expected in Malachi’s time), what we are waiting for is for the Messiah to return and for the judgement of the world to begin. A wait that has already lasted nearly twenty centuries.
It should be a time when we come to worship as a community. It should be a time when we participate fully in the life of God’s church. And it should be a time when we are actively involved in sharing our faith with others. But is that our experience?
Well, I don’t think so… And the reasons why not, could be described in exactly the same terms as described by Malachi.
1. God Never Changes
After all, God never changes . . .
2. Man Doesn’t Change
. . . And the reality is, that man doesn’t change either. Indeed we keep repeating the same old mistakes.
And that is strongly reflected in the fact that in the Western world, many people have taken up an interest in alternative religions, and many others, perhaps the majority, have given up on God and his church. Indeed, people generally are cynical and unbelieving. And there is a far greater emphasis on what people can do for themselves, rather than on the need to depend upon and nurture a relationship with God.
3. Robbing God
Consequently, we too rob God and we rob ourselves.
Now Malachi mentioned robbing God in terms of a lack of financial giving, where God is robbed of opportunities for both spiritual growth and effective ministry. However he could have equally included prayer—with the general lack of communication between people and God—robbing God of companionship. He could have included Bible reading—not reading his book and hence not learning about God and ourselves—robbing God of people who want to find out more of who he is, what he is like, and what he wants them to do. He could have included gifts and abilities—not using the gifts we have been given for the advancement of his work—robbing God of opportunities for building up his church and helping his church to grow. He could have included caring for others— where there is a concern for keeping strictly to the letter of the law, to what people are legally entitled to—robbing God of people who are meant to express compassion to one another. And he could have included morality—where the emphasis is on seeing what one can get away with, rather than doing what is right—robbing God of a people who know right from wrong.
And if that is true of the community at large, isn’t it also something we see reflected in the attitudes in our churches as well?
4. Lack of Blessing
And remember, if anyone withholds from God, and that includes churches, communities and nations, they can hardly expect to be rewarded for being good and faithful servants. Indeed, they may well end up being the dross that Malachi prophesied would be removed in the refining process.
Malachi’s message was to a people who’d worked hard, and who had an expectation of a supernatural visit from God. But when that event didn’t take place in the manner that they wanted—or they expected—their hopes were dashed. As a consequence, they gave up on God, and that had ongoing implications on the life of the community of faith.
Despite that, Malachi’s message was a message of hope. Yes, it was about God and the need to maintain a relationship with him; and yes, it was also about the need for his people to go through a refining process. But it was also about them coming out the other end with real hope, with the promise of his blessing, and being prepared for the Lord’s return.
Unfortunately, twenty-five centuries later, nothing has changed. Because, by and large we still live in a world, and even in a community, that has given up on God and given up on his church. And that, of course, has repercussions for the life of the community of faith.
As a consequence, we need to pay very careful attention to the message of Malachi. We need to make sure that our general community’s attitudes are not our attitudes. And that even if our society robs God, that we don’t do the same.
Indeed, each of us needs to actively play our part in the life of his church, eagerly expecting the second coming of Christ, and eagerly promoting a living faith in God both within and outside the church.
Posted 1st August 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis