Lethargic leadership - Malachi 2:1-9

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 10th February 2008.

Click here to read the bible passage. Click here to use larger text.

If you’ve been in Hull for more than 10 years, then you might remember our previous Bishop of Hull:  the Rt Revd James Jones who left in 1998 to become the Bishop of Liverpool.   James Jones is known as a evangelical bishop;  some would even say he’s a conservative evangelical.  He was a visiting speaker at my Bible college back in London.  And when Jeffrey John was being proposed as the next Bishop of Reading back in 2005, James Jones was one of nine bishops who signed a public letter criticising the appointment.  And in case you can’t remember, the reason many of us were opposed to Jeffrey John’s appointment, was because he was openly straying from the Bible’s clear teaching on human sexual relationship, both in his own teaching and practice. 

However, as you may have seen in the press this week, James Jones has recently published a book in which he apologies for objecting to Jeffrey John’s appointment.   He is quoted as having said:

“I deeply regret this episode in our common life. [and]…. I am sorry for the way I opposed it and I am sorry too for adding to the pain and distress of Dr John and his partner."

Indeed, James Jones is now calling for Anglicans to "acknowledge the authoritative biblical examples of love between two people of the same gender most notably in the relationship of Jesus and his beloved [John] and David and Jonathan".

The Bible is crystal clear the issues of human sexuality, but we’re not covering them in today’s sermon;  so if you want to explore those issues, then please speak to me after the service and I’d be delighted to help you. 

So the reason I mentioned the issue is because here we have an example of someone who appears to have turned his back on clear Bible teaching, and is now teaching error.  Error that will almost certainly prevent some people from repenting of actions which God regards as sinful and almost certainly lead others astray from the path of truth and righteousness.   

And it’s this kind of lethargic leadership that was going on in today’s passage.  So, if you’re not already there, please can you turn back to Mal 2 on p [891/     ]  and look with me at v1:

Mal 2:1 "And now this admonition is for you, O priests. 2 If you do not listen, and if you do not set your heart to honor 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 honor me.

Something had gone drastically wrong with the priesthood back in Malachi’s day.    And we already knew that from last time’s passage.  Flip back to the middle of v6:

Mal 1:6c:  “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name.  

So last time we saw that the priests had lead God’s people into corrupt worship.  Because the main point of 1:6-14 was that the church’s worship had become corrupt.  The priests and the people were going through the motions of worshipping God but their hearts weren’t in it.  They were giving God the fag end of their lives.  Dodgy half-dead maggot-ridden animal sacrifices, when God has asked for the best; the first-fruits.    And the priests had turned a blind eye.  They’d even encouraged the people’s corrupt worship.   Even worse the priests’ themselves led corrupt lives and engaged in unworthy worship. 

And what was God’s response?   Well look onto v10:

10 "Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you," says the LORD Almighty, "and I will accept no offering from your hands.

God would rather they didn’t bother.  God would rather shut the church’s doors that have corrupt worship.  Better to have no worship at all than worship that does more harm than good. 

And chapter 2 continues God’s rebuke of the priests’ lethargic leadership.  But in chapter 2 the focus is slightly different.     In chapter 1 we’ve seen the results of lethargic leadership.  The church’s worship had become corrupt.    But here in chapter 2 God’s focusing on the underlying causes.  And that root cause of unworthy worship is false teaching;  false and wrong teaching that results from a mishandling of the Bible.  Or as the end of v9 puts it:  when church leaders show ‘partiality in matters of the law’;  when they have a pick and mix approach to the Bible: I like that bit, but not that bit.  So I’ll either ignore the bits I don't like, or find some clever way of explaining them away so that I can tell people it means the exact opposite of what it’s clearly says.  [It’s the kind of Bible handling that ends up suggesting that Jesus and the Apostle John or King David and his friend Jonathan in the OT were both in gay sexual relationships.  Ridiculous suggestions to any serious Bible scholar.  But more importantly, pastorally disastrous for anyone taken in by such false teaching.  ]

And so in these first 10 verses of chapter 2, we’ve got a contrast between leadership that God’s blesses in v5-7; with leadership that God curses in v1-2 & 8.    And in the remaining verses tell us what God’s going to do about such lethargic leadership. 

Leadership that God blesses (v5-7)

So first of all then in v5-7, leadership that God blesses.   Let’s look at v5 again:

5 "My covenant was with [Levi], 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. 6 True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.

The covenant with Levi;  so what’s all that about you might be thinking?  Well it’s another example of where a basic grounding of the story of the whole Bible and especially the OT is really helpful.  So can I endorse Tina’s book review again of our Book of the Term:  God’s Big Picture by Vaughan Roberts.  Because Levi was one of the 12 sons of Jacob.  And the 12 sons of Jacob went onto be the leaders or the heads of the 12 tribes;  the 12 tribes of Israel. 

And when God brought the nation of Israel out of Egypt as he’d promised Abraham, when He brought them through the Red sea, through the desert and into the Promised Land;  once they were in the promised Land, each of the 12 tribes were allocated a portion of the land to live in.  Each of the tribes that is except Levi.  Because the tribe of Levi was different.  God had  special plans for the tribe of Levi.  Plans that were laid down in a sort of covenant.  And covenant is an important Bible word.  And there’s a summer of what it means and the Bible’ main covenants on p51 of that Book Tina was plugging.   A covenant is simply an agreement between 2 sides.  A bit like a modern day legal contract.    And unlike the unconditional promises made to Abraham backing Gen 12, the covenant with Levi was conditional.  The convent agreement, just like a modern legal contract, laid down what was expected of both sides.    

And guts of that covenant is summarised for us in v5-7, which lay out 3 main conditions that the Levites were expected to follow: 

1.  First at the end of v5, the Levites were to be in reverence and awe of God’s name;  of the Lord’s character and all he stands for that is.  And as we saw back in 1:6, the word reverence is sometimes translated fear.    They were to fear the Lord, and literally to tremble with awe in His presence.  You see the covenant between God and the Levites wasn’t totally like a modern day contract.  If you buy and sell a house, both sides of the contract are equal in terms of the law.    But not when it comes to God.  The Lord is the mighty Creator and Sustainer of the universe.  He’s the one who created the Nation of Israel in the first place by making those unconditional promises to Abraham.  He’s the one who’d redeemed His people from slavery back in Egypt.  He's the Lord Almighty as we discovered last time, not some dodgy second hand car dealer that you happen to be signing a contract with.  And so when you’re dealing with the Lord Almighty, you treat him with reverence and awe.  You fear the Lord.

2.      That was the first condition.  Reverence and Awe.  And the next is in v 6:

6 True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips. 

The Levites’ principal job was teaching;  Bible teaching;  even more important than sorting out all the sacrifices back in chapter 1, was Bible teaching.  They were to be messengers of the Lord Almighty.   They were to study the Bible they’d been given and explain and apply it to God’s people in their generation.  God’s word never changes, but of course how it applies to modern people needs careful study, thought and prayer. 

Let’s just think of an example:  the Bible is clear that human life begins at conception.  But how does that apply to specific forms of contraception or IVF?   The leaders of God people today just as in Malachi’s day are called to a lifetime of study;  study of God’s word and the study of God’s world, so they can teach and apply God unchanging Word to every new generation of God’s people. 

But there’s an implicit warning in v7. 

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.

Whatever changes there are in society and in the application of God’s word, a priest’s main job is to preserve or guard knowledge;  knowledge of the Bible that is.    Because what tends to happen is that the needs and values of a changing world end up putting pressure on church leaders to change what God’s word says.  Or even worse, church leaders simply stop teaching the Bible altogether and go in for entertainment or psychology.   And the result over time is that people become ignorant of even the basic facts of the Bible let alone their meaning.    Ask most undergraduates at Hull University what they think the Prodigal Son is all about and most of them will look at you blankly.  They’ve never heard of the story, let alone have an opinion on it.    But the irony is that church leaders whose teaching simply reflects the world usually end up emptying their churches.    What’s the point of going to church if the vicar simply says the same stuff that everyone else is saying?  You might as well read the paper or listen to the radio! 

And v7 is saying the reverse is true.  If church leaders are teaching the Bible properly, then normally people will come and seek their instruction.    It’s what happened in the OT with Priests like Ezra who preached sermons that went on all day in some cases.  And thousands flocked to hear him.  It was happened in the NT when Jesus and the apostles taught the people.  It’s what happened during the reformation, as the Bible was translated into English and then explained to people in ways they could understand.  And it’s been happening ever since.  Churches that teach the Bible tend to grow;  grow in depth, but also grow numerically.  Yes there are always anomalies and exceptions to the rule.  But, normally, Bible-teaching churches grow.  And others stagnate and decline. 

The covenant with Levi then.  Firstly, the priests were to fear the Lord.  To treat him with reverence and awe.  And they were to teach the Bible properly.    And the third main part of the covenant with Levi is in the second part of v6:

Mal 2:6b:  “He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin.”

J had the strongest condemnation for those who taught one thing and did something else.  For those who taught the Bible for a job, but forgot all about it for the rest of their lives.  Does he practice what he preaches?  That’s the main question.    Does he live out the Bible’s teaching in his own life?  Or is it just a job?    Because when people see a church leader actively living out what they teach others, well that’s powerful isn’t it.  Especially when it goes against the wisdom of the day;    if the vicar preaches no sex before marriage;  is he sleeping with his girlfriend?  If the vicar preaches sacrificial giving, is He giving and living a sacrificial life?    Because when people see a unity of what he teaches and how he lives, then they’ll sit up and take notice and under God, he’ll turn many from their sin. 

The 3 aspects of the covenant with Levi then.  Treating the Lord with reverence and awe.  Teaching the Bible properly.  And living it out in practice.  Walking with the Lord in peace and uprightness as v6b puts it.      And that’s the kind of leadership that God blesses.  Because that was the other side of the Covenant.  If the Levites obeyed and kept the covenant, then God would bless them with life and peace in v5.   And under Old Covenant, that meant material blessings in this life.  The blessing of their crops and wombs so that, as a nation they would increase in number and wealth.  But ultimately what the covenant of life and peace was about eternal life and internal peace with God.  Eternal life in the heavenly and peaceful new creation.  Eden restored as we sometimes sing. 

Leadership that God blesses then. 

2.      Leadership that God curses (v1-2 & 8)

And of course the whole point of Malachi’s message is that the priests were indeed breaking the covenant.  And that’s the second main point of the passage in v1&2 and v8:  Leadership that God curses.  Leadership that God curses.  Come back with me to v1:

Mal 2:1 "And now this admonition is for you, O priests. 2 If you do not listen, and if you do not set your heart to honor 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 honor me.

The phrase ‘if you do not listen’ and do not set your heart to honour my name’ is reminisant of Haggai's command 100 years earlier for the people to “consider carefully [their] ways”.  You’re going through the religious motions, but not taking me seriously, says the Lord.   

Remember back to the days of Haggai when I started to curse the economy;  when the crops failed and inflation let rip.  Remember how I pointed these things out and the people repented and got on with the job;  the job of rebuilding the temple.   Remember back to the exile 80 years before that.    Just like in the days of Haggai, I’ve started to curse you already;  look at what’s going on in your world and see my hand in it.  Because if you carry on breaking my covenant, then I will curse you big time.  I’ll take away all your blessings.  

Why?    Because in v8:   “But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi," says the LORD Almighty.

The leaders themselves had turned away from God’s way.  The Hebrew word for way is ‘derek’ as in ‘direction’.    And the point is the priest had done the opposite of repentance;  repentance is turning from our own way and going God’s way;  following God’s direction.  But these priests had unrepented; they’d turned from God’s way or direction and started going their own way again.  And to justify themselves, they’d started teaching the people to do the same things.  False teaching is dangerous.  Lethargic leadership is dangerous.  Why?  Because it leads people astray.  And ultimately it leads people to hell.    We’re not talking about a few mistakes counting widgets.  Not we’re talking about matter of life and death;  eternal life and death;  heaven and hell.    And that’s why it matters so much to God. 

3.      What’s God going to do about Lethargic Leadership (v3-4 & 9)

So what’s God going to do about such Lethargic leadership then?  And that’s what the remaining verse 3&4 and v9 are about.  What’s God going to do about lethargic leadership? 

Look back to v3:

3 "Because of you I will rebuke [a] your descendants [b] ; I will spread on your faces the offal from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it.

Offal is a polite translation.  We talking about the dung from animal sacrifices.  And in the original the word dung is used twice.  More literally v3 reads: 

“Behold I will rebuke your offspring and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings and you will be carried away with it”

They’re going to be covered in excrement, carried out and dumped in a giant cesspit.    Even for us it’s a disgusting picture isn’t it?  But it would have been far worse for an Israelite.  Because, for a Jew, touching excrement meant being ceremonially unclean.  So a priest covered in dung:  well they’d be beyond the pale;  totally unfit for purpose;  the purpose of serving at the Temple that is. 

And that’s the point that v4 is ramming home.    If you priests continue to break my covenant, even when I’ve warned you and disciplined you, then I’ll get rid of you and find someone else who can do the job properly.   God prunes off branches who aren’t bearing fruit as Jesus puts it in John 15. 

And in v9, we see that this pruning process has already begun:

9 " I[the Lord] have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people,

Near where I used to live back in Essex, there was a vicar in a nearby parish who was known to be living with his unmarried partner.  He chain-smoked and had a reputation for getting widely drunk, even at parish events like baptism parties.  Not surprisingly, the congregation dwindled to a handful.  But even in the wider non-Christian community, he was a laughing stock.  Not that he was living much differently to most other people around.  But even completely untaught non-Christians can tell when a church leader is a farce.    And that’s the point of v9:

9 "So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people  [why? ], because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law."

You’ve developed a pick and mix approach to the law that is.  In v2, God says that he is already cursing the priests.  V9 tells us how.  They were loosing respect among the people.  And given the way many church leaders in our nation are going on, is it any surprise that respect of the clergy is at an all-time low?

Application

But all this applies to other church leaders such as [DCC/ Steering] committee members, HG leaders, Sunday School teachers and so on.   And in some respects, it applies to every single persona who regards themselves as a Christian.  Because in the NT, we come across the concept of the priesthood of all believers. 

And so how do we match up to God’s covenantal requirements then?  How do I match up as a church leader?  As I wrote this sermon I felt a deep sense of inadequacy.    Yes I’ve got as theology degree and I know lots of the Bible, just like the priests of Malachi’s day did - but how well do I live it out?    We can all put our holier than thou faces on when we come to church on Sunday, but sadly I can think of times when I’ve led my wife and possibly my children in sin by my bad example.  I am not a perfect church leader, and so if I’ve not kept the terms of the covenant with Levi;  and so the conclusion must be that I am in breech of the covenant.  SO will God carry me off to the cesspit and replace me with a better leader? 

And in some ways the answer is yes.  I can’t live up to God’s perfect standards.  And neither can any of you.  That tension is at the heart of the OT.    The problem with the OT is that none of us can live up to God’s perfect standards in the Law;  the covenant with Levi, the 10 commandments and so on.   And so we all deserve to be cut off from God.  We all deserve the covenant curses laid out in the book of Deuteronomy;  the curse of the exile; the curse of hell. 

So is there any hope then?  And how does all that sit with God’s profession of never-ending love back in 1:1-5;  His promise that he has loved his people;  always has and always will. 

Well the answer’s back in v4:

4 And you will know that I have sent you this admonition so that my covenant with Levi may continue," says the LORD Almighty.

If we can’t live up to the terms of the Old Covenant, then God will provide someone who can. Someone who’s coming is promised in chapter s 3 & 4.  And as New Covenant believers, we know that person was Jesus.  The only perfect person who’s ever lived.  And the only perfect Priest.  The one who scarified himself for the sins of his people.  The one who was carried outside the City to the dung heap and crucified in the place of sinners like you and me.  Dumped in the cesspit for me. 

And so under the terms of the New Covenant, God’s people can have absolute assurance of forgiveness.  We have a complete guarantee of our place in heaven.  Not because any of us can meet the terms of the Old Covenant;  we can’t. Our assurance is because Jesus died for His people. 

Yes as New Covenant believers, the moral standards of the Old Covenant still stand;  God is still holy and he wants us to learn His word and obey its teaching.  But under the New Covenant, we have the Holy Spirit to help us obey His teaching along with assurance of complete forgives when we mess up  -  again. 

And so the only issue is:  are you one of God’s NC people.  Has God promised to love you for ever and ever.  And the simply answer is this;  do you accept that you are a sinner; a covenant breaker;  do you accept that you deserve the cesspit of hell;  and do you depend on Christ alone for the forgiveness of your sins.  Because if you do, then you’re a member of the NC - you are a Christian;  and if that’s you, then no scheme of man, no power of hell can ever pluck you from God’s hand.  Because God’s promised to love you forever, and to work within you to make you more obedient to His word.  It’s a promise. 

And so as we close, let me ask you:  do you have that assurance?  And is the Spirit working in you to make you more like J?  Or are you still trying to be good enough for God on your own.  Trying but failing to live up to the terms of the Old Covenant.  And so still facing the prospect of a covenant curse.  Well let’s reflect on that as we close.  Let’s pray.

 
 

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