A New Dawn - Malachi 3:13 - 4:6
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me begin by telling you a true story about two men who met on a plane. One was a Christian minister sitting in his allocated seat minding his own business when a rather large gentleman settled himself into the seat beside to him. The minister realising he wasn’t going to get much sleep took out his Bible and notes just to refresh his mind on the talk he was going to be giving later that evening. “What have you got there buddy?” asked his newly arrived neighbour (he was an American). The minister told him but he never heard, for straight away in came the grump launched like an Exocet missile, “The church is lost” he declared. “Hellbound and heartsick.” It turned out that this man was an evangelist who spoke at a different church each weekend. “I wake them up” he growled. “Christians are asleep. They don’t pray. They don’t love. They don’t care.” And with that pronouncement he took up his preaching tone reeling off on each of his fingers why the church was going to the dogs: “Too lazy-uh, too rich-uh, too spoilt uh…” And on and on he went. And as the people around began to listen with interest, the minister’s face began to redden with embarrassment. It seemed that the evangelist was more taken up with the bad news of the state of the church than the good news of the power of the Gospel. You see, this was a man who had fallen headlong into the trap of cynicism. No matter how well intentioned or apparently justified, the sin of cynicism is one to which religious people are especially prone.
It was no different in Malachi’s day. We have already seen how many of the folk were apathetic when it came to worship, and the step from being apathetic to being cynical is but a small one as we see in verses 13-15 of chapter 3 with an attitude which will not be overlooked: "You have said harsh things against me," says the LORD. "Yet you ask, 'What have we said against you?' "You have said, 'It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the LORD Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evildoers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.' "It is the same complaint which began in 2:17 with the question: ‘where is the God of justice?’
Have you ever been in a situation where you see a group of people you know, maybe work colleagues gathered around the coffee machine, or mothers in the school playground talking away and maybe casting the occasional glance in your direction, and when you approach them, they either stop talking altogether or quickly change the subject? Who do you think they have been talking about? It is obvious isn’t it? They have been talking about you- as if changing the subject will fool you into thinking otherwise. Why is it that we think that God is unaware of our conversations or thoughts about him? Did these Israelites honestly think that the look of incredulity and feigned hurt on their faces when God challenged them about some of the nasty things they had been saying about him would cause him to think he had somehow misheard them? No. God listens in to all our conversations and all our thoughts as is his right and duty for how else will he judge us properly without being privy to all the facts?
What is the charge being brought against God? Well, it is the same charge that many are bringing against him today- that he is unjust and not fit to run the world he has made. ‘There simply is no benefit in being religious or moral- the facts speak for themselves’ said God’s critics. ‘Just look around you’ they challenged, ‘The woman over there who has shown nothing but kindness and is a model of piety in her prayer life is crippled with arthritis, while the man over here is a loan shark who preys on the vulnerable is a picture of health-where is there justice in that?’ ‘Or the Christian couple who for years have been praying for a baby are given very little hope by the doctors that their prayers will ever be answered, while the woman over here whose promiscuity is legend is having her fourth termination. Where is the justice in that?’
But do you see the two basic flaws in our assumptions about God’s justice when we say such things? The first is thinking that judgement delayed is judgement denied. Just because there is a postponement of judgement doesn’t mean that it will never take place. As we shall see in a moment, there is going to come a day when God’s justice will be done and seen to be done by everyone.
The second thing which is overlooked is that it is a matter of mercy for us all that God does not act swiftly whenever something wrong is done. No one has put this better than the novelist and theologian Dorothy L Sayers: ‘Why doesn't God smite this dictator dead?" is a question a little remote from us. Why, madam did he not strike you dumb and imbecile before you uttered that baseless and unkind slander the day before yesterday? Or me, before I behaved with such a cruel lack of consideration to that well meaning friend? And why sir, did he not cause your hand to rot off at the wrist before you signed your name to that dirty bit of financial trickery? You did not quite mean that? But why not? Your misdeeds and mine are none the less repellent because our opportunities for doing damage are less spectacular than those of some other people. Do you suggest that your doings and mine are too trivial for God to bother about? That cuts both ways; for in that case, it would make precious little difference to his creation if he wiped us both out tomorrow.’
We have been seeing how of all the people who are ripe for judgement it is these professed believers who treat temple worship with contempt, their wives as disposable commodities, their children as if they don’t really matter and commit daylight robbery by taking money which properly belongs to God- and they complain that God is not acting swiftly in executing justice!? Thank God that he did not and still does not or we would all find ourselves up a creek without a paddle. And the irony, of course, is that in making these gripes against God they are putting themselves under further judgement, for God will not overlook such an attitude which has the effrontery to judge the Judge. The lesson? Be very, very careful before you accuse God of overlooking wrongdoing for he may be doing you a favour.
Secondly, there is an outlook which will be rewarded-vv16-18, ‘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. 17 “On the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him. 18 And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.’
This is a different group of talkers that God is listening into and they are of a different character entirely. These are people who are not judging God but fearing him- letting God be God. They may not always know why God does what he does, but they know why they trust the God who does know ‘why’ he does what he does. You see, they are mindful of his character, that he is the LORD- Yahweh, whose very name defines justice and righteousness, and so in believing this to be true of him, they are ‘honouring his name’, rather than besmirching it as some are doing as they whinge and whine to each other about how life has treated them so unfairly. In short, these are people who have listened to God’s Word, have understood God, his ways and purposes and they talk about these things with one another and so, not surprisingly strengthen and encourage one another on in the faith.
Let me tell you something: one sure way of committing spiritual suicide is not by reading heretical books, like ‘The Myth of God Incarnate, it is by joining in with those who throw spiritual ‘pity parties’. For them life is always a downer, they are always the victims, never the perpetrators and they are always seeking pity. And while it may not always be voiced out loud, there is the underlying thought that the one they hold responsible for it all is God. And as you get sucked into their gatherings, then as sure as ‘eggs is eggs’ the spiritual life will be getting sucked out of you. It is what the apostle Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 15: 33 that ‘bad company ruins good morals’, that is, bad character breeds bad characters. You know as well as I do this happens. So either avoid getting drawn in or challenge it when you come across it, because, as we shall see, the consequences are serious.
By the same token if you want to see your spiritual life flourish then mix with people who will help it flourish. These will be people who will be grateful people, who, having gone through some pretty tough times themselves, will still say with the apostle Paul, ‘I have learnt to be content in all things.’ They are ones who will be glad to speak about the things of God, what is in his Word, which books they have found helpful. There will be something about their very demeanour which will have the touch of Christ about it. Here, good company fosters good character. Those are the kind of folk you are to seek out and emulate.
You see, despite what the grumblers might say, God is discriminating, everything is taken into account by him and assessed- our thoughts, our words and our actions, and of course it is our words and actions which reveal what we really think and believe. The thing is, those who do honour the Lord won’t be bothered with thoughts about God being unjust- at least towards them; they will be for ever amazed that he looked upon in kindness them in the first place. They won’t be perplexed about why ‘bad things’ are happening to them, they are so humble they are amazed when good things happen to them. And so their outcome is secure and certain, verse 17, “On the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty, “they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and spares his son who serves him.’ But the irony is that for those who are griping at God, even while being part of the people of God, they are the ones who are going to experience first-hand the severity of the very judgement they deny God will execute, 18, ‘And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.’ Do we think God is served by us moaning about the situation he has placed us in and impugning his character to boot? He is not. What is the lesson? Be careful for what you ask for because you might get it.
And so we come to a day which will be certain 4:1-6.
People sometimes point to the existence of evil as an argument against the existence of God or, as in the case of people in Malachi’s time, the goodness of God. But strange though it may seem, this can be turned on its head such that the very fact of evil can be taken to point to the existence, or at least the need, for a God who will act justly. This is sometimes called ‘the argument from damnation.’ This is the way sociologist, Peter Berger, puts it: ‘It’s our experience in which our sense of what is humanly permissible is so fundamentally outraged that the only adequate response to the offence as to the offender seems to be a curse of supernatural dimensions.’ He goes on to say that, ‘deeds that cry out to heaven also cry out for hell.’ In other words, unless there is final and absolute justice, to which our deepest instincts testify should be the case, then all our actions are ultimately rendered meaningless- morally speaking. And so the argument goes, only an all -powerful, all knowing, all just God can ensure that this will happen. “The evidence that God exists”, Winston Churchill once said, “was the existence of Lenin and Trotsky, for whom hell was needed.”
Some people are complaining that God is allowing evil people to prosper and take this as a sign of his indifference towards justice, but that is the wrong way to read things. Think of it like this: if, after a number of warnings by his tutor, a student continues to fail to hand in his work, attend lectures, do the required reading and is not pulled up for it, that doesn’t mean that the tutor doesn’t care, it means that he has decided to allow such ill-discipline to run its proper course until it comes to ‘judgement day’, normally known as the final examinations. Then the student will get his just deserts. The fact that a tutor seems to be on the back of the diligent student, pushing him to do better, doesn’t mean that he is being unfair; on the contrary, it is because he sees the potential that he wants the student to enjoy the proper rewards of a good education. Well, to complain that God seems to be ignoring the wicked and being on the backs of the righteous in putting them through the mill from time to time, is like claiming that our imaginary tutor is soft of laziness and hard on good work. It all depends on the final day- that is when the wisdom and righteousness of God will be vindicated- vv 1-3, “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. 2 But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. 3 Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.’ The Day of the Lord prophesied at the beginning of chapter 3, was to be, as Scott explained, a time of purification- sorting out the true believers from the false in time; in chapter 4 the Day of the Lord is a day of retribution, judging and rewarding at the end of time- a ‘great and dreadful Day’ according to verse 5.
Here is the picture: think of the sun. The one same thing can have two opposite effects. In one area it beats down upon the land to scorch the earth, destroying plants and livestock; but the same sun, just several miles away, provides all that is necessary for life to flourish, with plants growing and livestock thriving. So it will be when Jesus, the one prophesied at the beginning of chapter 3- the Lord himself, will come as the ‘sun of righteousness’ a second time. His appearing will be the coming of death in judgement upon those who, for all their religiosity and right words, have by their actions shown that they were never really truly devoted, who will say, ‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name and do miracles in your name’ and he will say, ‘I never knew you- get away from me you workers of iniquity.’ And the same Lord at the same time will be like the coming of life, he will have ‘healing in his wings’ and for them their experience will be like new-born calves set free to enjoy, what C. S. Lewis called, the ‘Great Dance.’ It is the same Lord and the same event, but two very different outcomes for two very different people. And that is when everyone will say, ‘God is just.’
The book of Malachi forms the ‘bridge’ between the Old and New Testament, and the last three verses are the final rivets in the bridge. Two key Old Testament figures are mentioned- Moses and Elijah, and one key location- Horeb or Mount Sinai. It was at Sinai/Horeb that the covenant was made with Israel as a nation and it is in the Book of Deuteronomy that the call for the people to ‘remember’ is made over and over again. They are to remember the God who has made promises to them- promises of blessings if obedient and curses if they are not. Elijah was the prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel whose task was, like all prophets, to remind the people of their status as God’s people and their obligation to obey him and warn of the fatal consequences if they did not. And Elijah, like Moses, also met God in a remarkable way, on Mount Sinai/Horeb.
And so here we have the two key figures that represent the whole of the Old Testament- the ‘law and the prophets’, being mentioned at the end of the Old Testament, like the closing in of night and the waiting for the new dawn of the sun of righteousness to appear. And just as one of the clear evidences of rebellion against God’s laws, and so God himself, is the breakdown of relationships between parents and children- the failure of father’s to instruct their children about God’s promises and ways and for children to disobey their parents- as we see in Romans 1:30 and 2 Timothy 3:2- a sign of the ‘last days’ is a significant sign of human rebellion, so one of the most wonderful effects of the Gospel is reversing all of that, so that parents do love their children and show it in the best way possible by sharing and modelling the Gospel of God’s Word to them and children in turn showing their love of the Lord by lovingly obeying their parents- v6.
Remember it was Moses and Elijah who met with the Lord Jesus on another Mount- the Mount of Transfiguration as Jesus spoke to them of his ‘exodus’- his going to the cross to rescue God’s people and establish God’s kingdom (Luke 9:30). So by ending his prophecy in this way, Malachi is in effect saying, ‘All that has been hoped for and anticipated by God’s people for millennia- rescue and judgement, will take place. The Lord is coming to do a breath-taking restoration work in all who will put their trust in him. But then there will come a day when time will run out and the final judgement will be ushered in. Then there will be no more complaints, no more grievances and no more second chances.’ Friends, we still live between those two ‘Days of the Lord’, between the first and second coming. That means there is still time for people to repent and turn to Jesus, including those who would claim the name ‘Christian’ but who still hold back certain areas of their lives from his rule and so engaging in wasteful worship. The reality is that the revival and reformation needed in Malachi’s time, is still needed in ours. Let us pray.
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