Lethargic leadership - Malachi 2:1-9

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 16th March 2003.

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One of the most moving series of programmes I have seen in recent years is the series Band of Brothers. It tells the story of one Company of soldiers in the Second World War, following their exploits on D Day in June 1944 all the way through to the end of the war in May 1945. And one of the issues the book deals with is leadership, the sort of officers who were good leaders and the sort of officers who were bad. This Company had one outstanding leader, Captain Richard Winters, who led the Company through some of the toughest assignments American troops had to face in the Second World War. On their very first day in France, Winters led an attack on a German heavy artillery position which was firing on Allied Troops on the beaches of Normandy. Winters and his men took out the position and in the process saved hundreds of lives. Time and again Winters would show his courage and determination, leading his men by example with wisdom and confidence. Years afterwards, one of the soldiers from the Company wrote to Winters and said this about him: 'You were blessed, some would say rewarded, with the uniform respect and admiration of 120 soldiers who would have followed you to certain death. I've only met a handful of great soldiers in my time and you were one of them.' Those men respected their leader so much that they were willing to follow him to their deaths. And in war, it is often agreed that good leadership saves lives, and bad leadership costs lives.

One of the prophet Malachi's biggest concerns was the whole question of leadership in Israel. And it is the leadership of the nation that come under the searching scrutiny of the prophet in our passage for today, Malachi 2 vv 1-9. Malachi you remember was addressing the people of Israel in about 450BC, about 80 years after they'd returned from exile in Babylon. And on the surface all seemed to be going quite well. The Temple had been rebuilt, the sacrifices were being performed, the people were back in the land. Everything seemed OK. But as we saw last week, that was not how the prophet Malachi saw things. With his prophetic X ray vision, Malachi had pointed out a serious problem which threatened the very existence of the people of Israel. Whilst the patient seemed well on the outside, yet he had detected a serious cancer that was working its way through the whole nation. What was it? It was the cancer of spiritual complacency, cynical apathy for the things of God. And we saw the root of this problem was that they had lost their first love of God, they had lost and forgotten their passion for God. And so God sent his messenger, Malachi, who came with a burden from the Lord, which we saw summed up in Malachi 3 vv 6-7: 'I, the Lord, do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord Almighty.' God is the true living God who offers forgiveness if only we will come back to him.

But Malachi saw that one of the reasons the people were going down this track of cold complacency in forgetting God was because their leaders were leading them that way. Instead of the leaders leading the people in the ways of truth and justice, they were leading them in the ways of apathy and error. And God holds them accountable. So Malachi gives us two portraits in this passage. The portrait of an ungodly leader and the portrait of a godly leader. But before we think 'Well I'm not a leader, this is irrelevant to me.' Think again. How many of us are on PCC or committees, or are Homegroup leaders, or are student Bible study leaders? How many take turns to lead Tuesday group or Prime Time, or help with TNT or children's work. Many in the church are in leadership positions, not just the clergy. And even if you are not in one of those categories, the sorts of things Malachi teaches us are applicable across the board. And at the very least, Malachi gives us food for thought as to the sorts of leaders we should pray for and appoint in our church family. So once again, as we come before God's word today, we'll see we're all under the prophet's searching gaze. And once again it is for our spiritual benefit that he speaks so frankly. So let's turn to our first portrait.

1) The Portrait of an Ungodly Leader (Vv 1-4; 8-9)

And Malachi's first portrait is of an ungodly leader. And that was the quality of leadership in Israel in Malachi's time. And Malachi addresses four areas where they were falling down:

a) Their Attitude- First, there was their attitude. Verses 1-2: 'And now this admonition is for you, O priests. If you do not listen, and if you do not set your heart to honour my name, says the Lord Almighty, I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes I have already cursed them, because you have not set your heart to honour me.' And what was their attitude? Malachi tells us that they have not set their hearts to honour God. They were suffering from the same disease as the people. They were failing to honour God. Malachi has already berated their painless and contemptuous worship in chapter 1. The people brought diseased and second rate sacrifices, the fag ends of their devotion, and what did the priests do to stop it? Nothing. They just accepted them. It was the priests job to reject any sacrifices which wouldn't do, but they just went along with it. They were co-conspirators in this public spiritual cancer which had taken hold of the nation. They were probably rather proud of how things were going. They would no doubt chat in the vestry afterwards and complement themselves on what a fine job they were doing. 'Good crowd today, they would say. Yes, lots of sacrifices, lots of titbits for us too. Good wage this week, brother. We're doing rather well, aren't we? We should get on the High Priest's advisory committee with attendances like this!' So the last thing the priests would do is rock the boat. They don't want to upset the congregation. They don't want to upset the establishment. No, live and let live, they would say. But such an attitude is dishonouring to the Lord. Theirs was an attitude of bored professionalism, of apathetic cynicism, of conceited self gain, rather than zealous devotion to the Lord and a passion for his glory. You have not set your heart to honour me, says the Lord.

b) Their Teaching- And that attitude was seen secondly in their teaching, verse 9: 'So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.' These priests taught what suited them. They picked and chose what they thought mattered. They showed partiality in the matters of the law. They would certainly not have preached about judgement, like Malachi. They would certainly have not preached about whole hearted devotion to God, or anything that was too costly. We don't want to put people off do we, they would think. We don't want to get too keen, otherwise it'll take up too much time and energy. And we certainly don't want to offend anyone, do we? After all, religion is there to make people comfortable isn't it?

c) Their Lifestyle- And like all false teachers, their ungodly teaching bred an ungodly lifestyle. Verse 8: 'You have turned from the way..' In other words you have turned from God's ways. In your teaching and in the way you live you have shown yourselves to be false priests, more interested in popularity than in preaching, more concerned for gratification than godliness, more zealous for pomp than true piety. And it was all a far cry from what they were supposed to do. You see God had made a covenant with Levi, the family head of the priests, to teach the people the law and model to them godly lives. He'd given them a job to do, with many privileges attached. But according to God in verse 8, they had violated the covenant. So if the priests are breaking God's covenant then is it any surprise that the people are breaking theirs too, as we'll see next time? The priests were supposed by their teaching and lifestyle to lead the people, but they failed dismally. And the people followed suit.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was the man who orchestrated the Allied invasion of France on the beaches of Normandy, and who later became President of the USA, once said this: 'In order to be a leader a man must have followers. And to have followers, a man must have their confidence. Hence the supreme quality of a leader is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is [in work], on a football field, in an army, or in an office. If a man's associates find him guilty of phoniness, if they find that he lacks forthright integrity, he will fail. His teachings and actions must square with each other. The first great need, therefore, is integrity and high purpose.' And that was precisely what these priests lacked. So what were the results?

d) Their Results- Well the results of such leadership are devastating. Verse 8: 'But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble.' The most tragic thing of all is that these priests have caused many to stumble. You see like leadership in war time, Christian leadership has very serious effects. In war, leadership either saves life or loses them. In the Christian faith, leadership can under God either be the means of saving lives or losing them. And the stakes are that much higher, because the gains and losses are eternal. It is that serious. The fact is poor leadership is not just a shame. It is a damnable tragedy. For in Israel, by their blasphemous attitudes, their toothless teaching and their ungodly lifestyles these men were actually leading people to hell. They were causing many to stumble. And that is what false leadership does. It doesn't save people, it simply makes the way to hell more comfortable. It is that serious.

e) What God thinks- So what does God think? Malachi's words are chilling, verse 2: 'I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes I have already cursed them, because you have not set your heart to honour me. Because of you, I will rebuke your descendants; I will spread on your faces the offal from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it.' God was prepared to curse his own priests. Even their priestly blessings would be cursed, and their descendants would be rebuked. Their faces would be spread with the dung of their sacrifices and they'd be carried off with it. It was Malachi's way of saying that these priests would be shamed and removed from office. Animal dung was considered unclean so to be smeared with dung would render the priests unable to minister at the altar. It was the ultimate insult. And so in verse 9: 'I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.' God deals justly with ungodly leaders. He curses them, if they do not repent, he humiliates them, and he removes them from office. And that is what happened on the leadership of the people of Israel. Eventually the Temple was destroyed, the priesthood rendered useless. And Jesus himself made it clear that one of the reasons was because of ungodly leadership.

And it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that the same ungodly leadership is around in churches today. Certainly it's true in the higher echelons of our denomination. That's why we as a church need to stand firm together and oppose the false teaching even of an archbishop. It doesn't matter how important they may be. False teaching is false teaching. And that is one of the marks of ungodly leadership. But ungodly leadership is rife too in ordinary parish churches and congregations across the land. I was reminded of this on a number of occasions when I was training for ministry. Every week we would have small groups where we'd give a small talk to help us get better at preaching. One time I'd been asked to preach from a passage on Jeremiah and it was clearly a passage about judgement. So I preached what I felt was a sermon that was faithful to Jeremiah, only to be told afterwards by fellow students at the college that it was inappropriate to talk to a congregation about judgement. And these are people who are now in ministry in churches across Britain.

These are ministers who cut out the hard bits, who make life comfortable for their congregations, who would never dare to challenge people in their thinking, who would say that Jesus is just one of a number of options. And sadly Malachi's message is clear. 'You have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble.' And that is why the Bible is always so hard on leaders. Because their position carries with it such responsibility. And that is why Jesus warns in Matthew 18 of the dangers of leading other Christians into sin. If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung round his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.' I'm still relatively wet behind the ears in ministry, but one of the things I have become more aware of is the immense responsibility of being a minister of God's word, of being a Christian leader. Sometimes the responsibility before God keeps me awake at night. So pray for those who lead. Pray we'd stand firm in the truth and not be moved.

But before we get too comfortable thinking that none of this applies to us, it's worth noting how all these things Malachi says about ungodly leaders can be applied to the Christian. We saw last week how our attitudes to God can sometimes be ones of cold complacency and dishonouring to God. It's not just the leaders who are in danger is it? Or how about our teaching? Are you not tempted to shy away from saying Jesus is the only way with friends and family. Have you the courage to talk about a hell to be shunned as well as a heaven to be gained? And what about our lifestyles? Does your life match your beliefs, or is there a phoniness there, as Eisenhower put it, that everyone else can see? It's not just the leaders who are in danger of going off beam. It's everyone. Each one of us needs to examine ourselves against this first portrait to make sure we're not going the same way. The portrait of an ungodly leader.

2) The Portrait of a Godly Leader (Vv 5-7)

But in the second place Malachi shows us his portrait of a godly leader in verses 5-7. Malachi explains that God's covenant with Levi, the founding father of the priesthood, had some very important commands. If a priest wanted to be a godly priest and a good leader of God's people, then he had to display these qualities. There was a time, says Malachi when this happened, and he longs for leaders to display these same qualities in his time. For they are fundamentally different to the portrait of an ungodly leader. Again there are the same four characteristics:

a)Their Attitude- First there is the godly leader's attitude in verse 5. God says: 'My covenant was with him, a covenant of life and peace, and I gave them to him; this called for reverence and he revered me and stood in awe of my name.' How different this is from the ungodly leaders of Malachi's day. What was God's criticism of them? 'You have not set your heart to honour me.' But the godly leader reveres God and stands in awe of God's name. This is platform on which a person's ministry stands. If there is no reverence for God, if there is no desire to honour God's name, then there can be no godly ministry. This is the person who fears God more then men, who is not afraid to take tough decisions been though they may be unpopular, because he believes them to be right. It is so easy for a minister to pander to his congregation's expectations and wishes at the expense of gospel integrity. These priests of Malachi's day certainly did that. They were putty in the people's hands. They did what the people wanted, even though it was blatantly sinful. But the godly minister does what is right and good, even if people vote with their feet. And it takes a courageous man to stand under that pressure. And only a man whose attitude is right, who reveres the Lord and honours him can stand in such a situation.

b) Their Teaching- But secondly there is the godly leader's teaching. Verse 6: 'True instruction was on his mouth and nothing false was on his lips.' God had always said that the priest's duty was to teach the word of God to the people, and so Malachi reminds the leaders of his day of their responsibility. The priests in the past sought to teach God's word to the people and said nothing false to the people. There was no watering down the message to suit what people wanted to hear, no avoiding the hard bits of the Bible, no messages which simply made the congregation feel good about themselves. No, it was simple clear Bible teaching from the law of God. Verse 7: 'For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, and from his mouth men should seek instruction- because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty.' And that was what God wanted. Men with a message who would take their task seriously.

c) Their Lifestyle- And unlike the leaders of Malachi's day, these past priests lived lives which backed up their message. They taught the truth and lived it out. Verse 6: 'He walked with me in peace and uprightness,' says the Lord. To walk with the Lord is to speak of an intimate relationship. That was what these leaders of the past had. They walked with God in peace and righteousness. They lived lives of righteousness and godliness. And it's that practical, lived out godliness that is such a powerful testimony to the world around. Of course, sometimes it goads people the wrong way.

Billy Graham was once playing golf with a professional golfer. Now Billy is quite good at golf and the professional was having a bit of a bad day. And the professional was getting more and more heated as they went round the course. At the end of the game, the pro's friends came up to him and asked: 'So what was it like playing golf with Billy Graham?' And the golfer, red with rage said: 'I don't need Billy Graham stuffing religion down my throat all day long.' And he stormed off. Well a little later, one of the pros friends asked him again: 'So was Billy a little rough on you then?' 'No, he replied with an embarrassed sigh, 'He didn't even mention religion. I just had a bad round.' But whatever people's reaction to a person's evident holiness in their manner, their language, their actions, the leader of God's people is to conduct himself in a manner that pleases God.

d) Their Results- And what's the result of all this? For the ungodly leaders it was causing people to stumble. But for the godly leader, verse 6: 'He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.' How different can you get? One leads people into sin, the other leads people away from sin. One leader has such a poor attitude to God, such a hopeless teaching ministry, such an ungodly a life, that all he can do is lead people away from the Saviour, whether consciously or unconsciously. And God's curse is upon him.

But Malachi points us to another style of leadership, one which reveres God, one which puts God's word at the centre of his life, one which seeks to live out what he teaches, one which turns people away from sin. Two ministries, and, under God, two results. And do you notice who it is that fulfils Malachi's criteria to perfection? Who is the priest who completely honours God's name? Who is the priest of whom it was said nothing false came from his mouth? Who is the priest whose way is blameless before God? Who is the priest who saves people from death and brings them to life. The fulfilment is Jesus, the one in whose footsteps we walk. His style of leadership is the one we must walk in. And when we model his ways and his priorities, then truly there is great blessing.

Henry Venn was a minister in Huddersfield from 1759 until 1771. His life provides a great example of someone who sought to model himself on Christ and lead a godly ministry. One time he was being opposed by a society which preached false doctrine, and the members of this society were keen to discredit Henry Venn and make him a laughing stock. So they sent two men to Venn's church so that they could mock his sermon. But when the men came into the church they were immediately taken by the fervency and desire of the congregation to worship God and hear from his Word. When they heard Venn preach they were staggered by his earnestness and devastating appeals to his congregation to live godly lives. Well the two men left deeply impressed by what they had seen and heard, saying 'Truly God is in this place.' One of those men, a man called James Kershaw, came back to Venn the next day to seek his forgiveness. He gave his life to Christ and became Venn's best friend until the end of his life. That's the fruit of godly leadership, leadership which is modelled on the Lord Jesus Christ himself.

And it's worth us pausing to think which type of leadership we would want to sit under and which type we ourselves would want to conduct? Because I guess the choice is not that hard. Surely no-one would want to exercise or sit under ungodly leadership. Malachi has shown us clearly which is the right way. There is no choice. We either do God's work God's way, or not at all. And yet godly leadership always comes at a price. If you are a leader in the church in whatever capacity, are you willing to put time into your relationship with God? These godly leaders stood in awe of God's name. Such godly attitudes cannot be acquired over night. We will need to work hard at getting to know God through his word and spending time with him in prayer. Or how about our teaching and lifestyle? If we are to teach and live the truth, then it will mean going against the tide, even perhaps within the church, and with those we lead. It will mean fearing God rather than men. If you want to exercise such leadership, and I trust you do, then it comes with a price.

But maybe you are not a leader, and yet want to sit under such ministry. You recognise that godly leadership will, under God, bring men and women to repentance. Then will you be committed to praying for your leaders? Will you be willing to listen humbly to the life changing message of God's word each week, to apply it to your life, to long to revere God yourself? The sad fact is the people of Malachi's day only got the leaders they deserved. The people were so riddled with spiritual complacency and had lost their passion for God, that their own complacency was reflected in their leaders and vice versa. So if you want it, then live with the same godly priorities.

So Malachi has taught us two styles of leadership today. One false the other true. One dishonours God, the other reveres him. One upholds God's word, the other denies it. One lives out God's word, the other ignores it. One leads to death, the other to life. One follows the ways of man, but only one follows the way of Jesus.


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