A day to remember - Malachi 3:13 - 4:6
Some years ago, a student wrote home to his Mum and Dad, and his letter read like this: 'Dear Mum and Dad. I'm sorry you haven't heard from me for a while but things have been a bit chaotic here recently. A few months ago, there was a small fire in the flat and I lost everything. I myself only escaped by jumping out of the window but in doing so I broke both my legs. As a result I ended up in hospital, but by a wonderful coincidence, I met a lovely nurse who looked after me. What was amazing was that the language and cultural barriers did not really hinder our developing relationship too much. Well one thing led to another and to cut a long story short we ended up getting married, as it happens at the top of Blackpool Tower. My friends said I was being hasty, but there were pressing circumstances, not least the news that she was pregnant. Her parents are somewhat different to you, but I'm sure you'll get on, just as soon as her Dad gets out of the Colombian prison for drugs offences. In case you're getting worried, all the above is a complete lie. I just wanted you to get into perspective the news I am about to tell you. Last week I failed my final exams.
Well over the last few weeks in the mornings at St. John's we have been looking at this book in the OT called Malachi. Malachi was a prophet who lived some 2500 years ago in Israel. But although he wrote so long ago, we have found that his message has been bang up to date. It's almost as if he was writing it to us personally here at St. John's in 2003. And the reason that his message has been so timelessly relevant is because he is writing the very words of God. That was what Malachi claimed at the start of his message. He said that he was speaking the word of the Lord, and we have found that to be true, as God has pointed out things in our lives which needed changing. Malachi has challenged us on our half hearted devotion to God and our failure to put God as the No. 1 priority in our lives. And each lesson has been uncomfortable yet necessary. And yet at the same time, he has also reminded us of God's unfailing love for us and the fact that he is a God who never breaks his promises. That is the sort of God we worship. A God whose love is everlasting and whose promises are sure.
But now in this last passage, Malachi is bringing his message to a close. And like all he has had to say, here he speaks powerfully and directly. And in a nutshell his message to us this week is this: Unless you have the right perspective on your life, then you are in very serious danger. And what is that right perspective? It is that contrary to what many people think, one day every human being that has ever lived and ever will live, including everyone in this building will have to stand before Jesus Christ and give an account to him. One day Jesus will return and the end of time will come. And the question Malachi lays before us is this: Are you ready to meet him?
You see it is absolutely vital to have the right perspective on life. Because if you are simply living for this world, then God says to you that you are dangerously mistaken. Because the reality is that this life is not all there is. Malachi will remind us that we need to open our eyes to the truth, to see that one day we will stand before our creator and answer to him. So whether we claim to be Christians here or not, whether we claim to believe in God or not, then we all need to listen and take this message seriously. Because if we are not ready for Jesus' return, if we have the wrong perspective on our lives, then we are heading for disaster, not in this life, but in the next for all eternity. So Malachi's message is sobering, and yet it is very loving. Because he is giving us another chance to see that there is a way to be ready for that day. There is a way to be certain that when the end comes, whether in death or when Jesus returns, we are prepared to meet our maker. So let's turn to hear Malachi's message for us. And he'll tell us three things:
1) Two Responses (3 vv 13-18)
2) Two Destinies (4 vv 1-3)
3) Two Warnings (4 vv 4-6)
1) Two Responses (3 vv 13-18)
And the first thing Malachi tells us is that there are two responses to God in verses 13-18. In the Bible there are only ever two responses to God. To ignore him or to love him. Either you follow him or you don't. There can be no sitting on the fence with God. And the first response Malachi highlights is the response of ignoring God.
a) Ignoring God (vv 13-15)- Verse 13: ''You have said harsh things against me,' says the Lord. Yet you ask, 'What have we said against you?'' God is here bringing a charge against the people of Malachi's day. They are saying harsh things against God. And what is it in particular that this people is saying? First they are saying it is futile to serve God. Verse 14: 'It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty?' What's the point in serving God, they were saying. There's nothing in it for us. What do we gain in following his commandments?
It's certainly a very common attitude isn't it? What's in it for me? Why should I become a Christian? Surely it's all rules and rituals? There's nothing there for me. But actually we're asking the wrong question. The right question to ask is 'what does God want from me?' not 'what can I get from him.' The fact is that God is our creator and King, and what he requires is the honour due to his name from the people he has lovingly made. We are made for a relationship with God. But so often we turn around and say, 'no, I don't want anything to do with God.' And actually it shows we have completely misunderstood who God is. Because there is everything to be gained if we take a moment to investigate what God is holding out to us. Life begins to have real meaning and purpose only when we are a right relationship with the God who made us. And the danger for us is that we are ignoring our own loving creator.
But Malachi says there is another attitude that shows we're ignoring God, and that is saying that God doesn't care. Verse 15: 'But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evildoers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.' God is letting people get away with evil, they are saying. He just doesn't care. But actually we saw last week that though we might cry out 'where is the God of justice?' yet the answer God gave us last week was: 'I am coming. I am coming to judge, so get ready.' You see at the end of the day, both these comments, it's futile to serve God and God doesn't care, are excuses for ignoring God. We say, 'God's not for me. I'm fine without him.' Or we say 'I don't want to know a God who allows evil to happen.' But actually, deep down we are simply content to run our lives our way, without reference to the God who made us and loves us so much. We're ignoring God.
I came across a story in the paper the other week which told how a farmer tried to escape from the police in a tractor doing 15mph. The farmer, Anthony Boundy, 36, from Devon, refused to pull over after he had scratched a neighbour's back side with his tractor as he passed him. The police were called and so the chase began, with police tracking Mr Boundy down single track country lanes at 15mph, sirens blazing. Well when the case eventually came to court, Boundy appeared covered in manure from head to toe, with straggly hair and filthy clothes. The clerk at the court was so overwhelmed by the smell that he had to open the windows. Mr Boundy's defence was that he hadn't heard the police car because his cab was soundproofed and that he was anxious to get his breakfast, hence his speed. He was fined for careless driving and admitted common assault.
Now that illustration is a good picture of how we treat God. We shut ourselves into the little cabs of our world, and just aim to do what we want with no reference to the God who made us and cares for us. And it doesn't matter whether we are outwardly showing hostility to God, perhaps denying his existence, or inward hostility, perhaps just quietly ignoring him, it all boils down to the same thing. We're ignoring God. And as we'll see in a moment, it means rightly that God is deeply offended and we are in serious eternal danger.
b) Loving God (vv 16-18)- But the second response to God is that of loving him. Verse 16: 'Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honoured his name.' Now here when Malachi talks about fearing God he does not mean being afraid. To fear God in the Bible is to give him the respect and honour that is due his name. To love him and obey him as he rightly deserves. Fearing God is a heartfelt love for God which expresses itself in action. Being a Christian is not about being English, or about being nice and pretending you are better than everyone else, it's not even about turning up to church once in a while, or even every week, important though that is. Rather a Christian is someone who has a loving relationship with God who fears God, and whose life is lived with God as King, not self. That's what distinguishes the Christian from the non Christian.
And what is God's response to the Christian? Verse 16. He remembers who are his people: 'A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honoured his name.' And in verse 17 they are spared from the judgement to come. One of my favourite TV programmes when I was younger was Record Breakers with Roy Castle. It was the show where people would try and get into the Guinness Book of Records by doing all sorts of strange things. One of the show's highlights was the part when Norris McWhirter would be put on the spot and members of the audience would ask Norris random questions about record breakers. So one little boy would put up his hand and say to Norris: 'What is the largest panda ever to have existed? 'And off the top of his head, Norris would reply, 'There was a panda call ming ming in Mongolia who was eighteen foot tall etc.' And to my knowledge he would never forget a record. He would always be able to answer the question because he had a brilliant memory. Now if you think Norris McWhirter's memory is good, then you should see God's. Because Malachi tells us here that God never forgets who his people are. Maybe you are a Christian who is worried about whether God loves you and cares for you. Well take to heart God's word to you through Malachi. God never forgets those who are his. Maybe you are worn out and battered by life's storms. Well remember this if you are fearing God this morning. God never forgets you and will have compassion upon you. That's the enormous privilege of being one of God's people. We are his treasured possession. He loves us and cherishes us and will never let us go.
So there are only two responses to God. Either ignoring him, however nicely and politely you do it, or loving him. And the hardest thing is that it's not simply a distinction in this life. For how we respond to God affects our destiny in the next. Do you see what Malachi says in verse 18: 'And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.' And that brings us on to our second lesson from Malachi this morning.
2) Two Destinies (4 vv 1-3)
Not just two responses, but two destinies in chapter 4 vv 1-3. And the first destiny that Malachi mentions is destruction.
a) Destruction (v 1)- Verse 1: 'Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day that is coming will set them on fire, says the Lord Almighty. Not a root or branch will be left of them.' In the NT it becomes clear that this Day that Malachi talks about is the day when Jesus Christ returns to judge the world. Malachi is getting us to look at the end of time and he's getting us to see that there will be a final day of judgement. There will be a balancing of the books. And I take it that everyone here will think that this is a good thing. When we hear of Saddam slipping through the net and getting off scot free, aren't you glad to hear that one day he will face justice, not at the UN, nor in London or Washington, but before the awesome God of the universe, whose judgements are perfect. When you hear of criminals in our own city getting away with serious crime, making many people's lives misery, aren't you glad that there will be a day when they will get their come uppance before God.
But let me tell you the problem with wanting God to act in justice. The problem is that all of us here too will have to face that same judgement seat. No we're not Saddams, nor may we be criminals, but the Bible's verdict on us is that we are all rebels against God, and not one of us is innocent. Verse 1 is actually a description of me. I am arrogant and an evil doer because I am naturally rebellious towards God. I don't want him ruling my life. And everyone here is in the same boat. We're all guilty. So what do we face? Verse 1. Destruction. Malachi paints an horrific picture of a furnace which will burn us up. Whilst it may be picture language, yet it is here to show us just how awful such a place is. It's what the Bible calls hell. It may be painful for us to hear it, but it's what we all deserve, and it's God's truth.
But maybe you're thinking it's all just scare tactics, designed to get us to believe in God. Well it may surprise you to learn that the person who spoke most about hell in the Bible was not some fiery OT prophet, but Jesus himself, gentle Jesus meek and mild. Why was he so blunt? Because he loves us and wants none of us to end up there. He warns us about the reality of hell so we will take action to avoid it. You see it's completely unloving to fail to warn someone of an impending disaster. If you saw your next door neighbour's house on fire, you wouldn't stand there and say: 'Actually I don't want to scare them.' Now you'd be hammering on the door trying to get them out.
A few years ago, the sharks in Sydney harbour bay were becoming a real problem. There had been an increased number of shark attacks. So some notices were put up on the beaches which depicted a large shark with huge teeth and the word 'Danger' underneath. Well one mother complained that the signs were too scary and were frightening her children. But of course she had missed the point. The point of the signs was to show people the real danger. It was a loving thing to do. And God's judgement is a just thing. And we are warned about it because God loves us and wants none of us to fall into that peril. But the verdict is clear. We are all guilty and we will all rightly be condemned before God's judgement seat. And our present destiny is destruction.
b) Salvation- And that would be the certain destiny for all of us had not God stepped in and done something about it. Because he has provided a way for us to have a another destiny, salvation. Verse 2: 'But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.' That is the destiny that awaits those who fear the Lord who love him and serve him. But if we all face judgement, if we all deserve to be cut off from God forever, how is that some seem to get out of it? How can God allow some to be saved? Does he just sweep human rebellion under the carpet? Does he just forget it ever happened? No. God enables sinful human beings like us to be right with him and again and be spared judgement because of something amazing that God himself has done. He has allowed someone else to take the punishment we deserve. He has allowed someone else to step before the judgement seat and receive what we deserve. And who is that someone? God's own Son, Jesus Christ. You see when Jesus died on the cross, he bore the penalty we deserved, he took all our guilt and shame on himself and he died our death. He actually experienced hell so that we need not taste it himself. That is how much God loves us. He is willing to do all that, to allow his own Son to die, so that we need not face our just deserts.
One of the problems that the American pioneers faced as they sought new lands in America was bush fires. The prairie grass could grow so high that it would be higher than a man, and during the summer the grass was very dry. Another problem was dry storms, when there would be no rain, but plenty of thunder and lightening. And all it would take to set those prairies alight was one strike of lightening from one of the dry storms. The fires would streak across the prairies faster than a man could run and much faster than the heavy wagons of the pioneers. And yet the pioneers faced this danger with confidence. For when a fire was spotted they would stand with their backs to the wind and light a series of smaller fires which would take off in front of them. In a few minutes they had burnt an area big enough to put all their wagons and people into, and they would confidently await the oncoming fire. For the place where the fire had already burnt could not be burnt again. Our problem is that God's judgment is coming, and none of us can outpace it by the goodness of our lives. We cannot save ourselves. And yet when Jesus died on the cross, he took the judgement we deserve so that we need not face it ourselves. He bore God's judgement on himself so that we need not have to.
And that is how we can move from being people who ignore God to being people who fear God. By trusting in what Jesus did for us on the cross. It doesn't work automatically. Just because Jesus died on the cross does not mean that everyone automatically is forgiven. Rather we need to accept God's gift to us ourselves and begin to live life as forgiven, free people, in a loving and living relationship with the God of the universe. That is how we can move from one terrible destiny of judgement and hell, to another wonderful destiny of life with God forever. See how Malachi describes it in verse 2: 'But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.' We'll be like calves released from the stalls in the beautiful sunshine. Heaven will be wonderful for those who trust in Christ. But for those who stubbornly refuse to come to God for forgiveness, then they will have to face God's judgement on their own two feet. There will be no miscarriages of justice. And there will be no second chances.
So let me ask, where are you? Are you someone who has received the rescue, who has accepted Jesus' wonderful offer of forgiveness, whose record has been wiped clean. Or are you still ignoring God. I urge you not to keep God at arms length, for if you persist, then on judgement day he will banish you for all eternity. Instead come to him and receive the rescue he's provided for you. Begin to live life with him as King and Saviour. For that is what we were made to do. Two responses with two destinies.
3) Two Warnings (4 vv 4-6)
And then finally and briefly, two warnings in verses 4-6. As Malachi concludes his message, he gives us two final warnings that we need to take heed to if we are to be ready for when Jesus returns.
a) Remember (v 4)- First, remember, verse 4: 'Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.' Malachi is saying look back to the law I gave the people of Israel through Moses. Practice it and keep it as God's people. He's not saying be as good as you can so I'll let you into heaven. We've seen we cannot do that. Rather live as God's people are meant to live. As you wait for Jesus to come back, don't idle around. Live as God's people and remember who you are!
b) Be Prepared (vv 5-6)- And secondly be prepared. 'See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.' Malachi is saying that God will send a messenger to warn of Jesus' coming, that great and dreadful day. Great for those who trust in Jesus. Dreadful for those who don't. And the messenger is Elijah. And we saw last week that actually that prophet has already come. The NT makes it clear that the Elijah figure whose job was to prepare people for Jesus' coming was John the Baptist. And he has already come. His job was to turn people back to God's ways, and here Malachi gives the example of family unity. So if Elijah has come, then what are we waiting for? Well only for Jesus' return. It's the only promise left to keep, and I take it that if he kept all the others, as he did, then he'll keep that one too! So be prepared.
You may be able to remember some years ago those Yellow Pages adverts which featured a young man whose parents had gone away for the weekend and who had left him in charge of the house. Well this of course was the perfect opportunity for a party. So he invites all his friends round and has a wild time. But the next morning he awakes in a blurry haze to discover carnage in the house. The very precious family portraits are now wearing glasses, the vanilla carpet is now a deep shade of red, and the prize mahogany table is decorated with a huge scratch. And to cap it all his parents are only hours away. They are coming back. And he will have to face their wrath. How can he be saved? Yellow Pages. So round come the French Polishers and the picture restorers and the carpet cleaners and all is pretty much OK. The near return of his parents makes him get ready. You see the point is that Jesus' return is the next major event in human history. All the prophecies have been fulfilled. He could come back at any time. The fact he hasn't for two thousand years is not an indication that he's forgotten or isn't coming. It's rather that he is patient wanting as many to come back to him as possible. So are you ready? Heed the warnings. Remember and be prepared.
Well Malachi has lovingly pointed out much in our lives over these past weeks which has needed change. We know we're often half hearted in our devotion, that we are unfaithful in our relationships, that we forget how great God is. And yet each week Malachi's message has been the same. Come back to God. For he is willing to have you back if only you will return to him. And this morning we have seen that we must have the right perspective on our lives. For there are only two types of response to God in the world, ignoring God and loving him; and there are only two destinies, hell and heaven. So what will you do with this message? Hear again God's loving cry from the heart to you this morning: 'Return to me, and I will return to you.'
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