Where's the justice? - Malachi 2:17 - 3:12

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 6th April 2003.

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A few weeks ago I came across the story of a man who had been living in Spain and had decided to move back to England for his retirement. As a present to himself, retired Merchant Navy captain Craig Alexander had bought an Hyundai Accent GTI, a car for those who don't know, brand new and state of the art with all the mod cons. Because he'd bought it in Spain and because it only had two thousand miles on the clock, Mr. Alexander had to have it shipped to Britain at a cost of a further for it to be changed to British requirements, and then a further to have it brought to his new home in the North East. So all in all, he'd spent almost on this new car. Well one morning, the very morning that Mr. Alexander had received the paper work to say that his car was OK, he had parked his car next to a public toilet at the bottom of a hill. But as he was enjoying his breakfast there was a knock at the door, and a neighbour said: 'I think you better come outside.' Well when he got outside, what greeted Mr. Alexander was a sight which almost made him collapse. His car was still there, but it had been crushed by a three-ton boulder which had slid down the hill and flattened his brand new car. When asked for a comment, all Mr. Alexander could say was: 'If I get a new car, I'll park it the other side of the street.' Whereas all the Insurance Company could say was: 'We are glad Mr. Alexander was not in the car at the time.' I think if I was Mr Alexander I'd be tempted to say: 'Life just isn't fair!

Well the complaint 'life's not fair' is certainly something we find ourselves saying on a regular basis. We hear of criminals getting short sentences, we hear of men and women treating their families appallingly yet living wealthy and successful lives, we see evil dictators like Saddam Hussein earning billions at the cost of his country. And we cry out that's not fair. And often the complaint is levelled against God. Where is the God of justice? God, why don't you do something?

And that was the question on the lips of the Israelites of Malachi's day. They were God's people living in God's land, and yet their enemies seemed to be fairing better than them. They were prosperous and wealthy whilst Israel suffered blighted crops and disease. And so the people cry out to God in 2 v 17: 'All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and he is pleased with them.' They were effectively saying 'why is it that evil men prosper? God seems to be siding with them.' God, it's not fair. Why don't you do something? That was their complaint.

But in this passage, Malachi's answer is very surprising. He says that it is not God who has the problem. It's actually the people. Their problem is that they have not understood the big picture. They had forgotten just who God is and how great and awesome he is. And such forgetfulness led to a sloppy, half hearted attitude in their worship and their relationships, and it led to their questioning God over his running of the world and doubting whether he was really in control.

And a moment's reflection of our own devotion to the Lord will reveal that this is our problem as well. Our questioning of God, our half hearted devotion all spring from the same problem. Not knowing God as we should. Here are some words of the Christian writer David Wells. 'It is one of the defining marks of our time that God is weightless. I do not mean by this that he is ethereal but rather that he has become unimportant. He rests upon the world so inconsequentially as not to be noticeablewho assure the pollsters of their belief in God's existence may nonetheless consider him less interesting than television, his commands less authoritative than their appetites for affluence and influence, his judgements no more awe inspiring than the evening news, and his truth less compelling than the advertisers' sweet fog of flattery and lies. That is weightlessness.'

And Malachi would agree. We treat God as though he were weightless and it leads to half hearted devotion, just like the people of Malachi's day. And Malachi's antidote for half heartedness is to see God as he truly is, to get the big picture of the true and living God. God through his prophet teaches his people that God is in control of his world and will bring justice on the earth, and the response of God's people to such an awesome God is not apathetic half heartedness, but devoted zeal. For the God that Malachi sets before us will not put up with his people doubting him and dishonouring him. So let's see what the prophet has to teach us about God this week. And we'll find that his message contains both great encouragement, but also much challenge.

1) Be Warned: The Lord is Coming Personally (2 v 17- 3 v 5)

2) Repent: The Lord is Always Faithful (3 vv 6-7)

3) Be Generous: The Lord is Promising Blessing (3 vv 8-12)

1) Be Warned: The Lord is Coming Personally (2 v 17- 3 v 5)

So God's first lesson is: 'Be warned: The Lord is coming personally.' Now before we see what Malachi says, I want to invite you to come with me on a walk. I want you to imagine that we are on a church weekend away in the Lake District. And on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in the summer we decide to scale one of the big peaks in the Lake District, let's say Hellvellyn. So we set off, and we can see a peak at the top of the hill and we think 'Great it's not too far to the top.' But when we get there, we find that actually it's not the top, it's just a mini peak and there is a bigger summit ahead. So after a corned beef sandwich and a cup of tea, we set off again, confident we're getting to the top, only to find when we get there that we have reached another mini summit, but not the top. So after another corned beef sandwich and more tea, we set off again, and at last we reach the summit. And from the top we can see for miles around, and see that the other two peaks were just small mini peaks on the way to the top. Now our walk serves as an illustration as to how to understand OT prophecy, and especially these final chapters of Malachi. Looking back from the perspective of the NT, we can see that Malachi's prophecies have three levels of fulfilment. There is first the way in which the prophecies come true in his own day, second how the prophecies come true with the coming of Jesus, and the thirdly, the final peak, how the prophecies come true with the second coming of Jesus and the end of the world. Now of course, Malachi himself did not see things this way. He simply spoke the word of the Lord. But from the NT we can see how the prophecies are fulfilled in these ways. And as we study Malachi 3-4 over these two weeks we'll see that some things are fulfilled in Malachi's own day, some are fulfilled with the first coming of Jesus, and some are yet to be fulfilled, especially in chapter 4. And it's only as we go in through God's plan of salvation that we can see these different levels of fulfilment. And the way we understand these different fulfilments is through the lens of the NT.

So let's turn back to Malachi and look at this first lesson, that the Lord is coming personally in 2 v 17 3 v 5. Back in 2 v 17 God had declared that he was wearied by the people's questioning. Now that is a very serious situation to find yourself in. What was it about their complaint that made God so weary? Well in verse 17 it was that they were saying God is pleased with evil men. It wasn't as if they were honestly seeking justice for an unjust world. Sometimes we cry out from the depths of our hearts, Lord please act in justice. That's not necessarily wrong in itself. But for these people their questioning sprang from a wrong view of God. They were thinking that God was delighting in evil, something that God was deeply offended by. It amounted to doubting that God was doing his job. And that is a very serious charge. So their constant ungodly complaints to God about his lack of justice leads him to speak in 3 v 1. And what does he say? He says I am coming. You want justice, he says. Then you'll get justice. You want to see the God of justice? Well then let me tell you, I am coming personally, says the Lord. You have been warned!

Verse 1: 'See, I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his Temple, the messenger of the covenant whom you desire, says the Lord Almighty.' First, says God, I will send my messenger to prepare the way, like a servant preparing the way for the king, then the king will come personally. So how did these verses come to fulfilment? Well the NT tells us that the messenger who would prepare the way for the Lord was John the Baptist. He had the task of preparing the hearts of the people of Israel. And then what happened? Jesus of Nazareth came to his Temple, quite literally. Do you see the implication? Jesus is the Lord himself. He is the one who spoke these words to Malachi and then came and fulfilled those words. The Lord, the God of justice, has come to the earth. The king has come personally. Jesus is God in the flesh. And what has he come to do? Well two things:

a) He's come to purify- Verses 2-4: 'But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.' The fact is that the Lord has come to purify. Malachi sees the Lord as someone that none of us can stand before. No-one is perfect, not one person can stand before God and not be condemned. But the wonderful news is that God has come to purify his people. Malachi couches it in terms of the Levites who were the leaders of the people, the priests. But there is another peak when we see the prophecy fulfilled in Jesus. Because in Jesus all God's people are made pure, cleaned up, forgiven of their sin. All God's people are priests able to bring sacrifices before God. All God's people have a role to play because God has purified them all. And how has he done it? By the cross of Christ. Like a silversmith refining his precious metal, purging it of all dross and impurity, so Jesus' blood shed for us on the cross cleanses us of all our impurities and dross. And one day, when Jesus returns, when we get to the final peak, we will be completely perfect, not just free from the penalty of sin, but also free from the very presence of sin in our lives. We will be purified in the fullest sense possible. Made perfect forever.

Now it's worth us pausing to think how incredibly gracious God is in allowing us to be purified instead of being burnt off like a silversmith's dross. The very fact that God is willing to give us a fresh start with him, that he should be willing to clean us up, when quite frankly we deserve the scrap heap, is simply amazing. And yet that is the kind of God our God is. He is patient and compassionate, loving and gracious. And as Easter time approaches one of the best things we can do is to reflect again on the love of God shown to us in Christ's death on the cross. Are you feeling half hearted and apathetic? Are you feeling hard pressed and crushed? Well look at the cross. See again the love of God for you there. One writer put it like this: 'Dead is the soul who has ceased to be amazed by the love of God shown to us on the cross.' The Lord has come to purify.

b) He's come to judge- But the Lord is also coming to judge. Verses 5-6: 'So I will come near to you for judgement. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those how defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me, says the Lord Almighty.' And what is so galling about this judgement for the people of Malachi's day is that the Lord says it is coming to 'you'. These people were crying out for justice to be shown on 'them out there'. They were saying 'where is the God of justice?' But they never thought God would judge them. But he would. And as we get to the next fulfilment peak of the prophecy in Jesus' first coming, we see that Jesus exercised judgement on many who thought they were in the kingdom, but by the way they lived their lives showed that they were not followers of God. And there's a third peak, as we'll see especially next week in chapter 4. And this applies to us all. For one day Jesus will return to judge the world. Everyone will stand before his judgement seat and given an account. And unless we are people who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways, who have accepted his purifying work on the cross, then we will meet the God of justice face to face, a thought more terrifying that death itself. So be warned, says Malachi, for the Lord is coming personally, not just to purify, but also to judge. This is no weightless God. Hear the lesson and take it to heart.

2) Repent: The Lord is Always Faithful (3 vv 6-7)

So how do we get ready for this coming King? What must we do? Well so far Malachi has shown us that the Lord is coming, that God is a God of grace and judgement. But knowing these things about God is not enough. Action is required. So he goes on secondly to say: Repent: The Lord is always faithful. Verse 6: '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.' The second truth about God that Malachi shows us is that God is always faithful. He is unchanging. Now sometimes a person's unwillingness or inability to change is a bad thing. I came across an article in the paper recently which reported that many university and college lecturers are unwilling to change their appearance to move with the times. Many university lecturers, it was reported, were still guilty of wearing beer stained ties, collarless granddad shirts, sandals, elbow pads, crumpled corduroys, and having unwashed long hair. What was needed, the report said, was a more healthy and professional outlook which would inspire the students. Lecturers should go to the gym, shave, wear smart but casual clothes and generally tidy up their appearance. In response, one spokesman for lecturers commented: 'I am sure lecturers are aware of the impression they are making on students, but it's the quality of the lessons they give that is important. It would be difficult for lecturers to keep up with the trends, particularly among their younger students.' College lecturers among us take note!

But with God, his unchanging character is a reason for us to rejoice in and find security in. 'I the Lord do not change,' says the Lord. God never breaks his promises and is always faithful, despite the unfaithfulness of his people. God says that his people constantly broke his laws, and yet God has not destroyed them. He would never fully wipe them form the earth. God is unchanging and ever faithful to his promises. Can you think of any better news than that in a world of constant change. In an ever changing world which breeds much uncertainty, in a world where promises are broken every day with devastating consequences, one thing is sure: God's unchanging character. He is always faithful.

So what should we do? Verse 7: 'Return to me, says the Lord, and I will return to you.' Come back, says the Lord. Repent. Turn around and come back to the Lord who always keeps his promises and is always faithful. You see the problem with the people of Malachi's day was not God but them. God hadn't moved one inch. But they had moved a mile. They had forgotten who their God was. They had forgotten how he'd rescued them and saved them. They had grown complacent and half hearted. And now God was saying: 'Come back to me. I've not moved an inch. I'm still here, waiting for you to come back to me.' And that offer is still open to each and every one of us. Though we have wandered all over the place, though we have ignored and rejected this great God, yet he is willing to have us back. Let me ask you: Have you come back to the only true and unchanging God? Have you returned to the God who sent his Son to die on the cross for you? It may be you have never come back to him. If not, why not today? What holds you back? Come back to him. Or maybe you know deep down that you have been wandering in your Christian life. You've not been as keen as you know you should be. You've strayed from the path. Well come back this morning. Resolve to start afresh with the unchanging faithful God. He will never turn away a sinner who comes back to him. And you will find no rest until you find your rest in him. Repent: The Lord is always faithful.

3) Be Generous: The Lord is Promising Blessing (3 vv 8-12)

But what does repentance look like? What does it mean to follow God wholeheartedly? Well Malachi puts his finger on one issue that was important in the church of his day, and this brings us to our final point that God has to teach us this morning. Be generous: The Lord is promising blessing. The people of Malachi's days had forgotten that their God was promising to come to purify and to judge; they had forgotten that God was faithful and that they must repent. And they were forgetting that God was promising to bless them greatly if they were generous in their giving. All in all, they were treating God shamelessly. They were acting as if he were weightless. And it is at this final point that God is perhaps his bluntest. Verse 8: 'Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me.' The plain fact is that they are robbing God. So how were they robbing God? Verse 8: 'In tithes and offerings.' The fact was the people were not giving to God and his work what God hold told them to give. The tithes and offerings were financial and other gifts which went to the work of the Temple and the upkeep of the priests. It was therefore going directly to God's work. And in his law, God had said that he wanted 10% of the people's income to go to his work. But they were failing to do so. They were selfishly holding back what was rightfully God's. So they were robbing God. And it was all part of this cancer that was gripping the nation. A half hearted attitude to the worship of God which meant he got only the fag ends of their devotion. And in this case, the fag ends of their money. Just a few small coins in the collection plate, instead of 10% of their income.

And so, verse 9, they are under a curse. Deuteronomy 28 spelt out the curses that would come upon the people if they disobeyed God. Among the curses were blighting of crops, diseases and decline in the general wellbeing of the nation. And so it had happened. But also in that chapter, God had spelt out the blessings of obedience, which for the people of Israel were seen in largely material terms. So what does God want them to do? Verse 10: 'Test me in this and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.' God asks the people to trust him. See whether God's promises of blessing were true. He longs to bless his people. And there is great blessing to be found in obedience. Literally God was saying: 'Listen, I'm going to open whole barn-loads of blessing on you, if only you stop being so selfish and give generously to my work.'

So how might we apply this passage to ourselves? Well often such a passage is used on Gift Days and the like. And certainly one application is to our wealth. Indeed, in the context the lesson has even more power. Because the people's lack of generosity sprang from a poor attitude to God. Certainly our attitude to our giving reveals where our hearts lie with God. A biographer of Wellington, the man who pioneered the British victory at Waterloo, when he was looking through some of Wellington's cheque stubs said of him: 'When I saw how he spent his money, I knew the man.' In many senses we are what we spend. But once an ungodly attitude is repented of and we come back to the awesome holy God, then giving is a true delight. The danger is we often feel terribly guilty over this issue of giving. Are we giving enough? Should we give more than 10%? Interestingly in the NT there is no tithe mentioned. It simply says be generous. A tithe may be a useful guide, but we can be extremely unsacrifical and grumpy givers even if we give 10%. Rather giving is to be a great joy, because in obeying God there is great blessing. For the people of Israel blessing was seen in material terms. But in the NT the blessing is seen more in terms of the gospel, as more and more people come to know Jesus. All the nations will come to know the true and living God. And whilst God does promise many more blessings in heaven, yet the greatest blessing is to be involved in his work and to seek first his kingdom. And that's what our money and possessions can be used for. There is nothing more thrilling than using our money, our possessions, our talents, our time for the work of the gospel. For in that way, as Jesus said, we are storing up for ourselves, not treasures on earth, but treasures in heaven. You see, it is still possible to rob God, even for Christians. It's possible to withhold not just our money, but our time, our talents, our gifts, our very lives. And if we are failing to give generously in all these ways, then we are robbing God. For we are withholding things which can be used for the spread of the gospel. And for the Christian there is no excuse for that. So we must examine ourselves again. Return to me, says the Lord and I will return to you. Be generous, Malachi tells us, for God is promising blessing.

So as Malachi comes to the end of another of his disturbing messages, he has shown us again what kind of God it is that we serve. Malachi has challenged us pointedly on our view of God. Do we treat God as a weightless deity, half-heartedly giving him second best and the fag ends? Hear again Malachi's charge. Be warned, the Lord is coming. Repent, the Lord is always faithful. And be generous, for the Lord is promising blessing.

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