“Great is Thy Faithfulness” – Book of Malachi
1st Sunday in Advent – December 3, 2017
Introduction to Malachi
Sometimes there are things or people or events that serve as a link or a bridge from one era to another. 500 years ago, when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, that event and person served as the catalyst, as the bridge from one Catholic church in Europe to the kaleidoscope of Christian denominations that we currently have. If we go back farther, the Roman Emperor Constantine was a bridge from an empire that persecuted and killed Christians to one that was tolerant of Christians. The Edict of Milan, proclaimed in 313 A.D., declared that religious tolerance, and 12 years later Constantine was responsible for calling the Church Council in Nicaea which crafted the Nicene Creed which is still today a summary of our Christian faith. In the Bible, Samuel was a judge, but he served as a bridge to the time of the kings – anointing both Saul and David as the first two kings of Israel.
What about Malachi? Who? Yeah, Malachi – the last prophet, the last book of the Old Testament. Malachi serves as a bridge, of sorts, between the Old Testament and the New Testament. But it was a long bridge over troubled waters. The people of Jerusalem and Judah had spent 70 years in exile in Babylon. Then, under a new world power – the Persians – they were returned to Israel, where they resettled, rebuilt, and renewed their life and worship. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah describe the return, and a couple of other prophets – Haggai and Zechariah – write about life after the return to Israel. Most of those writings were in the 500’s B.C. Malachi stretched into about 430 B.C. And then… there was prophetic silence from God… nothing documented and written for some 500 years. It was a tumultuous time in Israelite history, with world power after world power taking control of the travel and trading crossroads that was Israel. First, Alexander the Great of Greece came to power in 332 B.C., Hellenizing the empire with Greek language and culture. There was a time of Egyptian rule, then the Jewish revolt of the Maccabeans, and finally by 63 B.C. the Roman Empire began under Julius Caesar. Malachi’s message from God had to sustain the politically windswept people of Israel from that time after the return from Babylonian exile until the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Messiah. So, today we will look at God’s message through Malachi.
- Chapter 1 – You can’t fool God
The first message as Malachi’s book begins is that “You can’t fool God.” God starts with some accusations: “A son honours his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honour due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me? It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name.” God was here alluding to the Fourth Commandment to honour your father and mother, as they were authorities that God had placed over the people. But one’s father or one’s master was a representative of God, Himself. And the people weren’t even honouring God. God also points to the Second Commandment – accusing the priests of despising God’s name.
Then God gets explicit and explains: “You place defiled food on my altar. When you place blind animals for sacrifice, when you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Your governor wouldn’t accept them. Why should I?”
God adds that in their worship, their offerings, their sacrifices, they are just going through the motions. He concludes “I will accept no offering from your hands.” That’s very similar to one of my favourite verses from the psalms, Psalm 50:9 – “I will accept no bull from your house.” And you can understand that in either of two ways… and it’s probably not inaccurate. God wasn’t interested in disingenuous sacrifices, nor was He interested in nonsense and lies.
God is saying, “You can’t fool me. I can see through your insincerity, through your mockery of true worship.” Jesus had the same critique of the Pharisees and teachers of the law of His day. Quoting words from the prophet Isaiah, He said, “These people honour me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”
God can see through our insincerity, too. He knows whose heart is somewhere else this morning. He sees those who lip-synch the hymns/songs and the confession of sins and the proclamation of faith and the prayers, and He is not impressed. He perceives our thoughts from afar, as Psalm 139 says, and knows who is truly engaged in worship – as Psalm 19 says – “May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.”
In His conversation with the woman at the well of Sychar, Jesus would later say, “God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and in truth.” That’s what God desired from the people of Malachi’s day, and that’s what God desires from us – true, sincere, genuine worship in our heart and in our spirit.
- Chapter 2 – You can’t defy God
The second message from God through Malachi is “You can’t defy God.” Starting in chapter 2 and going on into chapter 3, God challenges the people of Judah for their unfaithfulness and blatant disregard for the standards and expectations God has set out for them. In a passage bookended by references to “breaking faith” Malachi rebukes the people, pointing to two specific sins – marrying pagan women, and divorce. He says that the people of Judah have desecrated the sanctuary of God’s temple by marrying the “daughter” of a foreign god, and He threatens that those who have broken faith, those who have broken the covenant God made with their fathers at Mt. Sinai, would be cut off from the people. Even in the Old Testament, the relationship with God and His people was often pictured as a marriage, with Israel being God’s bride. So, to marry a pagan woman, the “daughter” of a foreign false god, was truly like committing adultery, and bringing that unbelieving woman into God’s holy covenant place.
God speaks of human marriage as being a covenant, too, a solemn and holy promise of one person to another and He urges men to guard themselves, to avoid divorce, so as not to break faith, so as not to break the marriage covenant with the wife of their youth, the covenant in which God has made them one – in body and in spirit. God’s words are strong here, as He urges people not to defy Him, His will, His words, His ways. He goes on in chapter 3 to name some other reasons for His judgment on the people: sorcery, adultery, perjury, those who defraud labourers of their just wages, those who oppress widows and orphans, those who deprive strangers / immigrants of justice, yet in all these actions they do not fear God.
God’s cautions are pertinent to us, today, as we consider ways that we look God in the eyes and defy Him, breaking faith with Him, ignoring or abandoning the covenant He made with us, making us one with Him. We look God in the eye and we say,
“I’m not prepared to welcome any immigrants to my community.”
“I’m going to pay my workers as little as I can so that I can pocket as much as I can.”
“I prefer to hide some of the truth, to tell only half-truths if it is in my best interest.”
“It’s perfectly fine to flirt, to view pornography, to fantasize as long as I don’t actually commit adultery.”
Those are all spiritually dangerous attitudes, words and actions. You can’t defy God. He will find you out.
- Chapter 3 – You can’t rob God
The most in-your-face question in Chapter 3 is “Will a man rob God?”
It’s a question that God is asking the people who have returned to Jerusalem after the exile. It’s a rhetorical question that should be answered no. The question really acts as an accusation, and that becomes obvious when God answers His own question: “Yep, you are robbing me!”
The people innocently ask back: “How are we robbing you?”
God lays it on the line, “In tithes and offerings. You are not giving a full 10% and that means that you are robbing me, you are taking from my share and keeping it for yourself.”
We need to understand here that their tithes and offerings were not just financial. They also brought offerings of grain and food, which would be sacrificed on the altar, and the leftovers of which were set aside for consumption by the priests in service of the Lord’s house. But whether it was financial gifts or gifts in kind, the expectation was a tithe, a full 10%. Maybe the priests were not able to support themselves because the people didn’t give what they were supposed to, but God concluded that the people were, in fact, robbing Him, not the priests.
Then He turns the accusation around and offers a test, a challenge. He says, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse. Test me, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” This is the only example in Scripture of God giving humans permission to test Him. In other places He forbids it or condemns those who test Him. But here He promises to pour out blessing after blessing to those who faithfully and generously and willingly and thankfully bring their offerings into His sanctuary for the work of His kingdom among us.
Our church does not make a rule about giving a tithe. It is a principle that is also mentioned in the New Testament, but Paul also writes about proportional giving – determining in advance what percentage of your income you will give as God continues to bless you. We have just come through our Commitment Sunday a couple of weeks ago, where you had an opportunity to make a financial commitment to God’s work in and through Hope Lutheran. If you haven’t done that, I encourage you to still do it for 2018. Paul also wrote: “God loves a cheerful giver.” To me that means, give what you can give cheerfully – whether it’s $20 a month; $200 a month; $2,000 a month. If you committed to giving $500 a month but you’re doing it grudgingly, then maybe you ought to reduce your commitment. If you committed to giving $500 a month and you realize you could give $600 a month cheerfully, because God has truly blessed you, then maybe you ought to consider increasing your commitment. If you can smile a smile of joy when you place your offering in the plate, that’s the attitude that God wants. If, on the other hand you’re laughing (because you only threw in a loonie)… maybe you are robbing God, and it’s time for His question to be in YOUR face!
- Chapter 4 – You can’t escape God
The theme of chapter 4 is “You can’t escape God.” Malachi warns that a day of judgement on sin is surely coming. It calls it “that great and dreadful day of the Lord.” It says that “it will burn like a furnace.” It warns that “the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and that day… will set them on fire. Not a root or a branch will be left.” It’s talking about people who try to fool God with their insincere worship, people who try to defy God with their unfaithfulness, and people who try to rob God by neglecting the tithe. But the bottom line is that day is coming, and for those who refuse to repent and put their trust in God alone, it is not good news. You can’t escape that day, and you can’t escape God.
- You can’t outgive God
That message of the prophet is pretty harsh. But, remember Malachi is like a bridge… to the fulfillment of God’s promises in the Saviour. There are a few hidden gems stuck among the rebukes and the warnings, gems which reveal the truth that “you can’t outgive God” and recall the refrain, “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”
“You can’t outgive God” – remember in God’s accusation to those who rob Him by not giving the full tithe, He offered to throw open the floodgates of His blessing. So, picture a dam being opened up and letting the full force of a river or lake flow to a parched land downstream. In the same way, God wants to pour out His blessing, promising to provide, promising to bless the crops and vines of the fields of the Israelites. If you give 15% or 20% to God, God will still give more – providing for your daily needs, but especially pouring out the spiritual blessings of His mercy, His grace, His forgiveness, and hope and joy and peace. All of those blessings we receive through Jesus.
Another gem that Malachi sneaks in there is the promise of a messenger. “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me,” and “I will send you the prophet Elijah before that… day of the Lord comes.” The New Testament understands these words as pointing to John the Baptist, the one who would prepare the way for the Saviour to come. (Didn’t I tell you Malachi was a long bridge?) This messenger would come over 400 years later, and the Saviour would follow hard on his heels. The people had been waiting for centuries for God’s long-promised Messiah, and God was here reminding the people of His promise and assuring them that He would be faithful. This would be good news in the midst of the failures of the people. A saviour is on the way and a messenger will prepare the way. We’ll hear more about John next Sunday.
Then one more just wonderful, precious little gem nestled in among the day of the Lord judgment in chapter 4. Listen to this: “For you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings.” In contrast to the warnings directed to the arrogant and the evildoers, in contrast to the priests who, in chapter 1, showed contempt for God’s name, this good news is intended for those who revere, trust, honour the name of God. For those ones… well, let’s consider the words:
The sun… although it’s spelled with a ‘u’ here, in Isaiah 60 God and His glory are compared to the sun, and in Luke 1, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, gives honour to Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of the Most High God by referring to Him as the “rising sun” from heaven.
The sun of righteousness… in contrast to the burning fire of judgment for the evildoers, this sun will warm believers, those who revere His name, with the message of God’s righteousness which is given freely through His Son who died on the cross to accept God’s judgment over sin – a judgment that we deserved. In exchange, we receive the righteousness that is His alone because of His divinity and because of His holiness. He is the sun of righteousness!
The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in his wings… I would like to thank that none of these words is accidental or coincidental. “Will rise,” then, may intentionally foreshadow Jesus’ resurrection, His rising from the dead after His crucifixion. “Wings” are a reference to the sun’s rays… the wings of the dawn… but also remind us that, when thinking of an eagle or hen, they are symbols of security and shelter. “Healing” refers to the renewal and spiritual health that comes to us through the forgiveness offered to us by the cross, and the final healing / salvation that will be known fully on that great day of the Lord, a day that, for us who revere His name, is anticipated and longed-for.
A cute little song to help us remember… “With Healing in His Wings.” (Communion Song Book)