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God is great - Malachi 1:1-5

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 11th October 2015.

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The medievals called it ‘the noonday demon’. As one of the seven deadly sins it is simply referred to as ‘sloth’. And this is more than the after Sunday lunch feeling of drowsiness, it is something deeply spiritual. One writer describes it as that ‘spiritual dejection that has given up on the pursuit of God, the true, the good and the beautiful. Sloth is inner despair at the worthwhileness of the worthwhile that finally slumps into an attitude of “Who cares?”[1] Or as the writer Dorothy L Sayers put it, it is ‘the sin which believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, loves nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and only remains alive because there is nothing to die for.”  So whether you call it sloth, apathy, or disenchantment, it is something which simply rots the soul.

 

But it is also something which can rot the church- the people of God. As the Christian youthful idealism of student days gives way to a more settled sedentary Christianity, other things gradually begin to crowd into our lives with the result that God is gradually crowded out. The ‘who cares about God’ feeling which may lie just beneath the surface can lead to the unspoken doubt as to whether God cares about us. I would suggest to you that the ‘noonday demon’ is the bane of the Western church today.

 

But it was also the bane of God’s people around 450 years before Christ when the prophet Malachi appeared on the scene to correct it. And he does so not primarily by giving the people a good tongue lashing on how bad they are, although he does have some pretty hard things to say- especially to the clergy- but by giving the people a good sermon on how great God is.

 

And so we have the prophet’s concern v1’ An oracle: the word of the LORD to Israel through Malachi.’

 

The name Malachi means ‘my messenger’. Who is the ‘my? It is God- Yahweh. This means that when Malachi speaks, God speaks, which also means we should listen.

 

And what he is about to deliver is an ‘oracle’ or as it is translated here ‘prophecy’. But this is not just a message about what is going to happen, but a message to address what is already happening. In fact the word oracle is from a Hebrew root which means ‘burden’. So Malachi feels weighed down by something, for there is something going on amongst God’s people which is of concern to God and so of concern God’s man- Malachi. And what that something is, is the problem of spiritual apathy-sloth.

 

Now feelings of apathy don’t just appear out of thin air, there is usually a context. So it is here. You see, around 80-100 years or so earlier, God’s people had come back from their period of enslavement in Babylon- the area which is now modern day Iraq. It was quite remarkable really. Normally enslaved people remained just that- enslaved- even after a new regime had taken over as in this case with Persia replacing Babylon as the new world super-power. But under the mighty, providential hand of God, as prophesied through prophets such as Isaiah, God had moved the hearts of the pagan Kings not only to set the Jews free, but to ensure that they were given a safe passage back to their homeland. And not only that, but to give them help in rebuilding the country starting with Jerusalem. And so under the leadership of men like Ezra and Nehemiah, the temple had been rebuilt and the city walls restructured. And so on the surface there was a sense of normality being re-established. The people had homes to live in, a temple to worship in, and a city to securely dwell in. Sure, the Persians still ruled, but at least they weren’t giving the Jews all that much grief.

 

But that is when the rot began. As we shall see over the next few weeks, the recommitment of these people’s parents; and grandparents to God 50 years earlier, started to lose some of its lustre in the following generation. And sadly that is so often the case. It was Martin Luther who said that we are always one generation away from unbelief. We must understand that God does not have grandchildren, only children, therefore we cannot rely upon the faith of our parents or forbears, thinking, ‘Well, they were keen, they were Christians and so that means I must be alright.’ A kind of ‘faith by proxy’. That doesn’t follow at all. The danger is that the children take faith for granted so that it becomes second hand faith and so not true faith. And Malachi’s burden is to challenge that so that these people will have the same zeal and commitment as their forefathers and not settle down to a routine ‘oh so nice’ middle class religious mediocrity which demands nothing and expects nothing. Now, could I ask whether this is becoming a danger for you? Maybe you are from a Christian family but if the truth be known while there may be some head knowledge of God there is very little heart knowledge. Perhaps you have started to become lulled into a form of complacent Christianity so that the faith which at one time burned so brightly is now no more than a flicker. If so, then let me say God is burdened for you.

 

Which brings us to the people’s complaint v2 “I have loved you,” says the LORD. “But you ask, “How have you loved us?” 

 

Believers very rarely wake up one morning with the question, ‘Does God exist?’ But it can happen that the believer does raise the question: ‘Does God care?’ Of course there may be a number of reasons why such a doubting of God’s love happens. It may be due to a faulty view of what that love actually entails. It is not necessarily counter evidence that someone who loves us allows us to undergo difficulty from time to time, after all, which loving parent will always be molly coddling their child and will not welcome some kind of hardship for them so they learn to cope with life?

 

Or it may be due to the fact that the love relationship has not been nurtured. We shouldn’t particularly blame God if he feels increasingly distant from us if we ourselves have done precious little to keep that love fresh and alive. This is the way marriages can often go, they die slowly from within. Imperceptibly, by degrees husband and wife drift apart, affection cools, communication dries up, when suddenly to their horror they discover they have become strangers living in the same house. That can happen when a Christian fails to take advantage of the means of grace God has given to keep their ‘spiritual marriage’ with him vibrant.

 

Or it may be that we find ourselves in circumstances which, to be frank, make it difficult to square the belief that God is Almighty and that God is all love, perhaps when we are faced with a seriously sick child, a major disability, a catastrophe and so we ask: ‘Where is God?’.

 

Clearly, for whatever reason, this was the way the Jews in Jerusalem were feeling in Malachi’s time. Perhaps it was their circumstances; after all, the temple wasn’t as great as it was in the time of Solomon and it would have appeared to be a bit of a laughing stock to other nations. Sure, the city walls were built but it was a real cowboy job which wouldn’t have stopped a troop of girl guides let alone an army. And the economy wasn’t exactly thriving. Why, they were supposed to be God’s chosen people for goodness sake, that surely should bring some advantages? Of course the thought never occurred to them that any of this was their fault! May it not have been that in this special relationship it wasn’t God who had shifted, but his people- they had started to drift further and further away from him until their religion became more of a routine than a relationship. And so God reminds them of some basic, heart-warming truths which they need to hear if they are going to enter into the joy of being his people. And the same is true for us.

 

And so we come to the Lord’s compassion vv2-5, “I have loved you,” says the Lord. “But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’ “Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.” Edom may say, “Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins.” But this is what the Lord Almighty says: “They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called the Wicked Land, a people always under the wrath of the Lord. You will see it with your own eyes and say, ‘Great is the Lord—even beyond the borders of Israel!”

 

What’s that all about?

 

First, God corrects their faulty notion about love. He says, ‘I have loved you’. This is not God’s general love; it is specific covenant love language he is using. It is the language of the marriage service, a ‘for better or for worse’ kind of love. Someone who is married may have love for other people of course- parents, friends, neighbours, but they have an exclusive, unshared love for their spouse- a love which sticks with each other through thick and thin- it is love with Velcro attached. That is the love God is saying he has for his people and no one else.

 

What is more, it is an undeserved love. It is a love for the unlovely. That is partly what lies behind the reference to Jacob and Esau, ‘I have loved Jacob but Esau I hated.’ The story goes back to Genesis 25 and the birth of twins to Rebekah and Isaac. The elder twin was Esau and the younger was Jacob, who became the ancestor of Israel. Even before they had done anything God chose to bless Jacob and not Esau. He did so out of shear grace. It certainly wasn’t because Jacob was going to turn out to be a role model of faith; he was a crook and a cheat. Admittedly Esau, who, as the older brother, should have received the inheritance, wasn’t up to all that much either, but the point stands- it is God’s free choice as to who he will bless- desert doesn’t come into it. And don’t be thrown by the language used about God ‘hating’- it is a typical Hebrew way of speaking, what is called hyperbole- to make a point, it isn’t meant to be taken literally. Think of it like this. Bill is accused by his girlfriend Sarah that he has a crush on Jennifer Jones. He doesn’t actually and so he says, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I can’t stand the sight of her’. He doesn’t mean that either, what he does mean is that compared to his devotion to Sarah, any feelings he may have for anyone else appears to be ‘hate’ in comparison. And that is what God is saying here: ‘Believer, I really do love you and my love for you is not dependent upon your religious or moral performance; it doesn’t fluctuate like an emotional barometer according to how you are doing, for just like my love for your ancestor Jacob the cheat, I choose to love you and it is as fixed as the north star.’ And that is meant to bring us comfort. To think for a moment that the intensity of God’s love for us is dependent upon the intensity of our love for him would bring nothing but uncertainty and despair. Human love might be like that, but not Divine love- it is inexhaustible and unchanging.

 

‘But’ the Israelites object, ‘what about Esau’s descendants, the Edomites, they have always been a pretty bad lot. They tried to mess things up for us when we were coming into the Promised Land in the first place, they joined in the plundering of Jerusalem when the Babylonians ransacked the place and threw a party when we were taken off into captivity. How does them getting off scot-free tie in with your love for us, are we really that special. What happened to the covenant?’ And God says, ‘But you are special, I have not reneged on my covenant, even though you have time and time again’.  The problem was that the Jews were not operating to God’s time scale which is much bigger than ours. It was true that the Edomites weren’t taken off into captivity as was Israel. But then again Israel returned when they were not expected to. What is more, the Edomites had just been attacked by a nasty group of people- and God’s hand was to be seen in this. And although the Edomites may claim in verse 4, that they will recover; God will make sure that they won’t. And you know what? They never did.

 

And, you know, as Christians we may wonder about the strength of God’s love for us when we see wicked people prosper and Christians suffer. But that is when we have to think long term- after all, there is a heaven to be gained and a hell to be avoided. There may be short term gain now for folk who reject God and give his people grief, but there is an eternal loss which makes the language used by Malachi in speaking of a ‘haunt for jackals’- ‘utter wasteland’- look mild by comparison, for was it not the Lord Jesus Christ who spoke of hell as the place of ‘unquenchable fire’? That is when we will see the full measure of God’s love when we see just what he has saved us from and what he has saved us for- everlasting joy.

 

This links in with what the prophet says in verse 5, ‘You will see with your own eyes and say, ‘Great is the LORD- even beyond the borders of Israel.’ God is not some tiny tin pot deity confined to this postage stamp of land in the Persian Empire- he is the Sovereign over the entire world. He causes nations to rise and fall, he chooses the unlovely upon which  to lavish his love, he picks up those who are at the end of the tether and says, ‘I have loved you’.

 

And notice who this God is who will achieve all his plans for his people - ‘The LORD Almighty’ or ‘the Lord of Hosts’. Did you know that term to describe God appears more often in the book of Malachi than in any other place in the Bible? It is the idea that God has a heavenly army and so not only cannot be defeated but will most certainly be victorious. When the Northern Kingdom of Israel was eventually smashed in 722 BC, the Assyrian King Sennacherib could mockingly challenge King Hezekiah with the offer of a gift of 2,000 horses if Hezekiah could find enough soldiers to ride them. The same happened when the King of Babylon attacked- these kings, as far as any onlooker was concerned, were Lords of hosts- they had vast armies. And now at the time of Malachi Israel doesn’t have an army at all! So, who is going to protect them? Who is going to guarantee their safety against any potential attackers? Does God’s love provide such a protection? Yes it does, because the God who loves is the Lord of hosts and if we could but see his army, the armada of D day June 6th 1944 would look like a collection of children’s boats in a paddling pool in comparison. You see, the love of God is backed up by the entire strength of God and therefore it is a love which will not and cannot let us go.

 

‘I have loved you’ says the Lord. ‘But how have you loved us?’ We now know the answer to that question better than Malachi’s contemporaries ever could, because now God can point us to a lonely, desolate hill and three wooden crosses and to the one who occupies the middle cross and say, ‘There, I have loved you that much. And it is by kneeling there that you will find the only antidote to any apathy which might be plaguing you and any doubts which might be haunting you- there at the cross.’

 

 

[1] Os Guinness ‘The Call’ p 147

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