A day to remember - Malachi 3:13 - 4:6

This is a sermon by Malcolm Peters from the Riverside Church service on 16th March 2008.

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‘It’s a waste of time serving God or even coming to church’. That’s what many people would say today. It’s not that most people are openly hostile to God like Richard Dawkins and the rest of the militant atheists that are currently doing the rounds. No, most people don’t consciously reject God; why? Because He’s so insignificant to their lives that they’ve never really given him enough thought to actually reject Him. Coming to church, for most people in [Dunswell/ Hull] simply isn’t on the menu. What possible reason could there be for going to church? Life ticks on very well without God and church and for some people, they would even go as far as to say we’d be better off without the church.

The wicked say it’s a waste of time serving the Lord. (v13-15)

Maybe you’ve heard people saying things like that. But they were exactly the kind of things people were saying in Malachi’s day nearly 2,500 years ago. Malachi, remember, was a prophet who’d been sent to the OT people of God who’s returned from exile in Babylon. Indeed, it’s now about 100 years after that return from exile. And about 100 years after some amazing promises had been made about the restoration of God’s people as a nation; the restoration of the nation of Israel like in the glory days of King David and Solomon further back in the OT.

But we’ve discovered that the reality in Malachi’s day was very different. The political situation was a mess. The chancellor had just given a very gloomy budget where he’s tried to gloss over the economic mess they were in. And partly as a result of all that, the church of Malachi’s day was in a mess.

The people of Malachi’s’ day looked at the promises of blessing and restoration further back in the OT and then looked around at the world they lived in and saw a massive gap. God’s promises appeared to be empty. God’s Word appeared to have failed. And so many of them had concluded that God has lost the plot.

And that’s exactly what they were saying in Mal 3:14:

Mal 3:14: "'It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the LORD Almighty?

It’s futile or empty to serve God. A complete waste of time. What’s in it for us? What’s the cash value of coming to church? The word ‘gain’ there in v14 has the sense of gain through violence or dishonesty and is linked to the armed robbery word we look at last week in v9. The attitude of the people of Malachi’s day was: what’s in it for me? If there’s no immediate cash value in sticking with God’s requirements, then I’m off.

What did we gain by going around like mourners before the Lord, they were saying. In other words, sticking with God’s laws and requirement is a bore; it’s restrictive on my lifestyle, because after all, God's kill joy, we’ve known that ever since Satan told Eve to take no notice of God because he was keeping something good from her. In short, sticking with God’s law is sad: it’s as sad a going around like a perpetual mourner: and who wants to spend their entire life going to a funeral? ‘What did we gain by going around like mourners before the Lord’

But it gets worse: Look with me a v15:

15 But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evildoers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.' "

It’s not just that they thought sticking with God’s commands was a sad bore for themselves. They looked around their world and saw others who were totally ignoring the one true God and living the life of riley. The Persians Empire was more enlightened than the Babylonians they’d replaced as the World superpower of the day. But the Persians’ approach to Human Rights was still way behind the ideals of the OT. In the ancient world, amputations, blindings, child sacrifice, the abuse of women and ritual prostitution were all completely normal. And God’s people living in Israel looked around at the injustice in their world and said: where is God in all this mess? And if he’s there, why isn’t he doing something about it?

From their perspective in v15, the evildoers were prospering; certainly prospering economically, a bit like the slave traders in Hull before Wilberforce sorted that one out. Evildoers were prospering; evildoers who were challenging God, ignoring and deliberately ongoing against the basics standards of human rights laid down in the OT: it seemed to the people of Malachi’s day that these evildoers were getting away with it; literally getting away with murder. And so if you can’t beat them join them; that’s what they were basically saying at the beginning of v15: maybe God’s not looking; maybe God’s lost the plot; or maybe God’s not really there after all. And if the God thing is a delusion after all, then as Dawkins himself puts it: then there’s no ultimate justice; not ultimate right or wrong; just DNA and the survival of the fittest. And so the arrogant, the strongest, economically and socially strong that is, well they’re the ones who are blessed. Because might is right and even if they’re trampled on people to get where they are, then there’s no ultimate accountability; they’re getting away with it, so the arrogant are blessed; blessed in this world; because this world is all there is right?

So what does God have to say about all that then? Well look aback with me to v13:

Mal 3:13 "You have said harsh things against me," says the LORD.

And the word translated harsh here is arrogant. Literally it reads: ‘arrogant against me have been your words’. You’ve called the arrogant evildoers blessed. You’ve challenged the very heart of my character. By definition, I am just; by definition, I am loving, because I am God. I’ve told you what I’m like all through the OT.

And I’ve demonstrated my character by what I’ve done for you as my people. I’m not asleep; I haven’t lost the plot. I see everything and where I see evil and injustice; where I see my perfect laws of justice being flouted, then it makes me more cross and angry than you can ever imagine. I’m not ignoring pain and injustice. I’ve just got a very good reason for delaying my plan of action to sort out the mess. But by accusing me of injustice, well you’ve become like the arrogant evildoers. If you’ve given up on me and my laws and call the evildoers blessed, then you’ve become one of them. You’ve become the wicked. Because only a wicked person will accuse God of injustice and evil.

And so we’ve seen in v13-15, that the Wicked say it’s a waste of time serving the Lord.

  • The Lord’s true children fear His name and remember His word (v16)
  • But not everyone in Malachi’s day had descended into wickedness; not everyone had accused God of injustice. Look with me at v16:

     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 honored his name.

    And so we see in this verse that the Lord’s true children fear His name and remembered His word. The Lord’s true children fear His name and remembered His word. So what does it mean to fear the Lord? Well the word fear is a correct translation and it does have the sense of trembling, but not in the sense of fearing being abused or mistreated; fearing the Lord means to be in a state of reverence and awe before the Lord. A bit like the feeling you might have if you were invited to a personal audience with the Queen, although on a much greater scale, because the Lord is the King of the whole universe.

    And notice that there was a group of those in Malachi’s day who feared the Lord. Not everyone had given up on God, not then or now. And so those who feared the Lord got together; we’re not told were they met, you don’t have to meet in a church building to worship the Lord corporately and study His word. But that’s the implication of what they were doing. They weren’t just talking about the weather or Hull City’s disappointing performance against Cardiff this week. No they were talking about the Lord; about what He’s like; about what He’d revealed about himself and about His plans and promises for the future. In short, those who feared the Lord were meditating on His Word and building each other up in their faith. They recognised that they were sinners deserving of God’s judgement, but they were all trusting in His promises of rescue and salvation from that judgement. Which for us would mean we’d be trusting in J's death on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins. Call it a church service if you like, but it doesn’t have to be that formal. I have meetings like that in my house all the time.

    And the Lord was listening to them and heard them. Now that’s a tautology you might be thinking. How can the Lord listen and not hear what they were saying. Well if you’ve got children then you’ll know exactly what this means. You when you talk to children it’s perfectly possible for them to be listening to you, but not be hearing a single word you’re saying. It happens in our household all the time. Kate and I call it the ‘living in a dream world syndrome’. But God’s not living in a dream world: no – He sees and hears everything that’s going on; he even knows the deepest thoughts and secrets of our heart, because He’s God and He knows everything. And so when the Bible says God listened and heard something, it means that He’s about to do something about it. He’s going to do something abut the injustice he sees in His world and to save and protect His people.

    And that’s the definition of a true child of God. God’s true people aren’t those who are born into an ethnically Jewish or nominally Christian household or country. No the true children of God are those who fear the Lord and remember His word: remember in the sense of reflecting on what God is saying so they can grow in their understanding of the God who made them and has a plan to save them from his coming judgment. Because it’s that protection from God’s justice that the scroll of remembrance is all about in the second half of v16.

    In the ancient world, kings used to write scrolls of remembrance to record what had happened in their kingdoms, and especially to remember the deeds of anyone who had done something special; like protecting the king from assignation or something. And if your names was on the King’s scroll of remembrance because you’d done something particularly heroic, then the chances are the state would be highly inclined to protect you if you ever got into any difficulties.

    And God’s using this well known feature of the ancient world to illustrate this point: those who feared the Lord, well they’re safe in the Lord’s hands. He’ll protect them. Their names are written on a scroll of remembrance that is like the Lamb’s book of life we read about in the book of revelation in the NT. And so in v16, we’ve seen that the Lord’s true children fear the Lord and remember His word. A word which will save them from the coming judgement.

  • The Lord is coming in Judgement and Salvation (3:17-4:6)
  • And it’s that future judgment and salvation that the rest of the passage is about in 3:17 to the end of the book. The Lord is coming in judgment and salvation.

    Look with me at 4:1

    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 a branch will be left to them.

    We’re no longer talking about the refiner’s fire was saw back in 3:2. No that was a fire of purification: a picture of the Lord cleaning and purifying His people like a launder cleans clothes or a silversmith purifies molten silver. But here in 4:1 this fire isn’t constructively purifying; no it’s destructive. The word furnace is referring to a kind of clay oven that was built it the ground with a fire underneath it. It was the ancient equivalent of our kitchen ovens as opposed to the open BBQ-type fires that had much less heat. And the point is that this oven was hot. Hot enough to consume in an instant the stubble; indeed, not a root or branch will be left to them; a root and branch reform as we might say. So who are the stubble that will be consumed by this intense fire: well the verse tells us that it’s the arrogant evildoers. Those we’ve learnt who don’t fear the Lord; those who doubt God’s existence and question His character; those who accuse God of injustice.

    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 a branch will be left to them.

    And of course, this is talking about hell. The place of retributive punishment. Yes it’s a metaphor. A picture of hell that is. People aren’t literally like stubble. And we don't know if hell will actually be a hot place with fire. But the point is that hell is serious. And it’s a place of painful punishment. And we know from J’s parable in our second reading, that hell is never-ending. The picture of total destruction in Mal 4 doesn’t mean that those in hell will be so destroyed that it will be like it was before they were born. Unconsciousness nothingness. No, Jesus makes it clear that hell is a place of eternal, conscious punishment from which there is no escape.

    That’s the fate of the wicked. But what about those who feared the Lord? Well look back to 3:17:

     17 "They will be mine," says the LORD Almighty, "in the day when I make up my treasured possession. [a] I will spare them, just as in compassion a man 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.

    And onto 4:2:

    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.

    The metaphorical language here is picking up on prophecies of the heavenly New Creation. Of the New Heavens and the New Earth we read about at the end of the book of Revelation. A world just like this one, but with no more death, or mourning or crying or pain, because the old order of things will have passed away by then. A world with no more injustice or rebellion against the God who made it all in the first place.

    So when will all this happen. Well we’ve got 3 time references in this passage. In 3:17 God says they will be mine, on the day. And 4:1 picks up that idea when it warns us that the ‘day is coming’. And on that day, v2 tells is that the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in His wings. And those words might remind you of some v famous words we sing at Christmas:

    Hail the heaven-born Prince of peace, hail the Sun of righteousness; light and life to all he brings,

    risen with healing in His wings.

    It’s a prophesy about Jesus. The second coming of Jesus that is. We’ve already had a prophesy about J's first coming back in chapter 3. But here in those closing verses of the book, we’re talking about J’s second coming; the Day of the Lord as other OT prophets put it. The day when Jesus returns to wind up Human history and right all wrongs. And that date is still future for us just as it was for the people of Malachi’s day. We’re still waiting, and Jesus especially told us not to speculate about when it will be. For the Lord, a day is like a 1000 years and a 1000 years are like a day. He’s got v good reasons for waiting; he wants an many people as possible to respond to the Gospel of forgiveness and salvation. Because when Jesus returns, that’s it. There’ll be no more opportunity to repent. Because the door of repentance and salvation will have been shut When Jesus returns it will be time for the final judgement for those who don’t fear the Lord and salvation for those who do. The Lord is coming in judgment and salvation then.

    And so let’s return to the issue we started with. Is it a waste of time to serve the Lord? To fear the Lord and seek to remember the law of my servant Moses as 4:3 puts it? Well in the short term, and maybe for the whole of their earthly lives, the arrogant evildoers, those who don’t fear the Lord can and often do get away with it. But not for eternity. Because the Lord knows those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. And the Lord is coming in judgment and salvation. So from the perspective of eternity, to reject the Lord and dishonour His name is a very bad bargain. Is it really worth spending eternity in hell as the price for doing it our way for the short period of our lives in this world? From the perspective of eternity, it’s not futile to serve the Lord. It’s the most rational and sensible thing to do. But it’s not just a good bargain for eternity. It’s also brings a sense of deep joy and peace in this world. The Lord’s true people don’t go around like perpetual mourners. Yes sad things happen to us like they do to everyone else. But those who are secure in the Lord’s salvation, have a deep anchor for the soul that gets them through the storms of this life as well as entry into the next.

    So fearing and serving the Lord isn’t futile. It’s the best thing you can ever do. Both in this world, but most importantly for the next. So let me ask you: are you one of the Lord’s true children? I’m not asking if you come to church regularly or regard yourself as religious.

    No the issue is: do you fear the Lord and honour Him name with your life. Because if you do, then praise the Lord and remember the Law of my servant Moses, God says to you in 4:4. Live a life of thankful obedience; and we were looking at one specific area of obedience last week; the obedience of our giving.

    But if you’re not yet one of the Lord’s true children, or if you’re not sure, then let me encourage you to think deeply about these things. If you’re not sure, then you need to check it out. Fill in one of the Welcome cards and sign up to CE next term. Or just come and have a chat with me. Because this isn’t a game or just a religious philosophy. We’re talking about our eternal futures. We’re talking about heaven and hell. A day to remember then. A day when the Lord will come in judgement and salvation. As Christians, Jesus encourages us to pray for that day: come Lord Jesus come. But are you ready? Dare you pray that prayer? Let’s pray.

    Closing Prayer

    Dear Heavenly, Father, thank you that you are a God of perfect justice, and that one day, every wrong will be righted. A day to remember for all eternity. We pray that everyone here this morning would heed your warning and honour your name with reverence and awe. And as your true children, we ask for your help to live lives of thankful obedience, in submission to your Word, seeking your forgiveness when we continue to mess up again and again. In Jesus name we pray. Amen.

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