"Refined & Reverent - with Results"
Dec.10/06 Malachi 3:1-5
It's always fun to see the Christmas lights as you drive around town. There's a big variety of colours and styles. This year there's a new item out: big inflatable plastic snow-globes with actual blowers circulating fake snow inside.
Our decorations pretty up our houses and do mark the season to a degree, but they seldom convey the seriousness and awesome significance of Christ's coming. Some are quite irrelevant, such as politically correct civic signs saying "Happy Holidays" or miniature creations of Santa's workshop. Others are playful, like the snow globes. The illuminated plastic manger scenes are more religious in nature, but they remain innocuous and cute.
How would Malachi decorate HIS yard to herald the Coming One? If you were driving by and glanced casually over, you might be startled to see a huge 20-foot-tall blowtorch, complete with flame (like those stacks on the top of steel mills). Or a 6-foot-wide bonfire with flames leaping and roaring.
By our cute and playful decorations, we run the risk of trivializing Christmas. Malachi warned people that, for evil-doers, Messiah's coming would be terrifying. Vv 1&3 say, "Suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come," says the Lord Almighty..."He will be like a refiner's fire...He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver..." No sleighs and reindeer here, or even placid shepherds kneeling in front of a doll-like baby in a manger. When a lit blowtorch comes toward you, you back off! This guy is dangerous - he means business! V5, "I will come near to you for judgement." The New Testament says God's enemies will be consumed by raging fire; "It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God." (Heb 10:27,31) At the end of time, people will call on the mountains to fall on them to hide them from "the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?" (Rev 6:16f)
The prophet, were he to walk our streets today, would probably say our Advent decorations miss the point. The coming of the Messenger of the Covenant means big changes are required - in our attitude and in our behaviour.
Let's take a moment to locate the prophet Malachi in his historical context. The Jews were exiled to Babylon in 586 BC. They began returning in 538; the Temple was rebuilt by 516, but much less impressive than Solomon's. Ezra brought another group some 60 years later, and spurred some reform, but it was short-lived. By Malachi's time, about 435 BC, it was a century since they'd started returning. The sacrificial rituals were underway again, but without much enthusiasm: religion had given way to routine. People were just going through the motions, less than half-heartedly; to even the professionals it was but a rigamarole. The priests didn't treat their job seriously, or teach God's commands as if they mattered (1:12f; 2:8). The Levites, who were supposed to be full-time teachers supported by tithes, were forced to earn their own livelihood because people weren't tithing (3:8). The sacrifices brought to the altar were a joke - blemished and inferior; but the priests accepted the low-grade offerings anyway(1:13). People who had promised to give an acceptable offering broke their vows and substituted crippled animals instead (1:14). Men divorced their wives for no reason and married instead younger foreign women who didn't even worship Yahweh (2:11). There was a cynical attitude: people said of the Lord's table, "It is defiled," and of the sacrificial food, "It is contemptible." (1:12) 1:13, They sniffed at it contemptuously and said, "What a burden!" They were very sarcastic when it came to faith. 2:17, there was a saying, "All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and He is pleased with them"; or another complaint, "Where is the God of justice?" They showed a self-righteous attitude, 'ain't no flies on us': when the prophet called them to return to the Lord, they asked, "How are we to return?" as if to imply, "We haven't done anything wrong!" They perpetuated negative talk that eroded faith, as in 3:14f: "It is futile to serve God.What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the LORD Almighty? ...we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evildoers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape." Hardly heartening - instead, demoralizing.
So the overall atmosphere was very casual toward religious matters; cynical, uncaring, offering God the dregs not their best and breaking agreements right left & centre for their own selfish advantage. They were very - shall we say - 'creative' with the truth, and lax in their commitments. As a result, social pain abounded. How much is our culture like that today? Have you heard it said, "It doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you're sincere?" Often "God" is little more than a filler word to express strong feeling. Even among Christians there can be a very casual, almost sacrilegious, attitude toward the Almighty. At the Auburn Youth Group the other night they were discussing a T-shirt that said, "Jesus is my home boy" - He's my pal, my buddy. ("home boy" means - "A male friend or acquaintance from one's neighborhood or hometown; A fellow male gang member; friend" - answers.com) We can become too casual in our view of the Lord, even presuming upon His forgiveness. The dimension of wrath and judgment makes us uncomfortable; we downgrade His Majesty to a 'buddy-buddy' level that lacks respect.
Have you ever been on a tour of a steel mill? When I was a boy, our church's men's group (including my dad) took their sons on a tour of Stelco at Hamilton. Then a few years ago Keith & I were given a personal tour of Algoma Steel in Sault Ste Marie by a man in our congregation who worked there. Both times, it was awesome to see the huge coke ovens and steel smelter; mammoth ladles the size of large granaries full of glowing molten metal. Safety was paramount, of course - if you ever fell in that giant ladle, you'd be cooked alive! Those with relatives who've worked at the foundry in Wingham know how careful one must be around liquid iron: a bit of water in the wrong place can result in an explosive life-threatening accident. Another professional explained to me that the formula and cooling must be just right in making alloy ingots, or you'll end up with a whole batch that have a fine crack in them!
In a way, that's precisely what Jesus is doing in our lives - He takes the rough, impure, cruddy ore of our life and refines it into something shiny, precious, and beautiful. Malachi prophesies in vv2f, "...he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver." In Isaiah 1(25) God said, "I will thoroughly purge away your dross and remove all your impurities." In the New Testament, Peter explains that we may have to 'suffer grief in all kinds of trials' so that our faith may be proved genuine, of greater worth than gold refined by fire (1Peter 1:7). Elsewhere, we're told Jesus "gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good." (Tit 2:14) He wants to purify our motives, so we're EAGER to carry out good deeds! And Paul writes of the fire on the day of judgment that will test believers' accomplishments in 1Corinthians 3(13): "the Day...will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work."
But for those who refuse to acknowledge God, the fire of Jesus' furnace has a different purpose: not to purify and upgrade, but to consume. Malachi writes at the beginning of chapter 4, "'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.'" (Mal 4:1) John the Baptist echoes this in predicting Jesus' arrival: "His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire."" (Lu 3:17)
Jesus is the Master Refiner; He alone can safe us from the flames of judgment. The fire comes - when it does, the wise person prepares themself. In the days of the pioneers, when people saw that a prairie fire was coming, what would they do? Since not even the fastest of horses could outrun it, the pioneers took a match and burned the grass in a designated area around them. Then they would take their stand in the burned area and be safe from the threatening prairie fire. As the roar of the flames approached, they would not be afraid. Even as the ocean of fire surged around them there was no fear, because fire had already passed over the place where they stood.
When the judgment of God comes to sweep sinful people into hell for eternity, there is one spot that is safe. Nearly two thousand years ago the wrath of God was poured on Calvary. There the Son of God took the wrath that should have fallen on us. Now, if we take our stand by the cross, we are safe for time and eternity.
This isn't a very prominent note in modern portrayals of Jesus - rather than the One with Whom we have to do, He's minimized as a baby in a cradle; or feminized, with a clear complexion and long, flowing hair. Anything to relegate Him to the margins. If He really is "the Master of the Melt", how should we respond? Fear and reverence would be appropriate. Hebrews 12(28f) says, "Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our "God is a consuming fire.""
Fearing God with reverence is a major theme running through the book of Malachi. In chapter 1: ""A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?" says the LORD Almighty. "It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name."" (Mal 1:6) And, "My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations," says the LORD Almighty." (Mal 1:11)
Chapter 2 warns the priests that if they do not set their heart to honour God's name, He will send a curse (2:1). On the contrary, God says His 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." (2:5) In 3:16, "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 finally in 4:2 God promises "for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings." So, right through this short book, honouring God is emphasized over and over: revering Him, fearing Him, standing in awe of Him. His 'name' represents the sum of all His excellent qualities and characteristics, who God is in His person - His unfailing love and faithfulness, His righteousness and justice, mercy and compassion. Honour Him, keep Him foremost in your life - He deserves that recognition!
Besides reverence, we can respond to God's greatness by presenting acceptable offerings. In chapter 3(8) God accuses the people of robbing Him in their tithes and offerings. But those who are 'refined...like gold and silver' in vv3-4 "will bring offerings in righteousness", offerings that will be acceptable to the Lord.
What's that translate to for Christians who no longer are expected to bring sacrificial animals to be burned on an altar? In Romans 12(1) Paul urges us "to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God - this is your spiritual act of worship". In other words, let God be in control of your whole being, moment by moment. In Philippians 4(18) Paul says the gifts sent to him as a missionary by the church "are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God." Money and other practical assistance can be an offering. And Hebrews 13(15f) says we can "continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise - the fruit of lips that confess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased."
Our attitude toward God affects how we treat other people. If we fear and revere the Lord as we ought, that will impact our relationships on earth. So Malachi's prophecy doesn't just deal with remote religious matters; our text goes on to reveal how the Messenger's Coming has implications for those who take advantage of others. Listen carefully, there's a lot packed in here! V5: ""So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me," says the LORD Almighty."
Adulterers are near the beginning of the list. We already mentioned that men were divorcing their Jewish wives for no cause and marrying younger attractive pagan women. Chapter 2(10-16) in particular warns husbands against "breaking faith with the wife of your youth", because God acts as the witness when marriage promises are given. "I hate divorce," God says - "so guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith." (16) In the New Testament, Hebrews 13(4) adds, "Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral."
Traditional marriage took another hit in Parliament this past week. But heterosexual infidelity is really a greater threat to society's well-being than the same-sex issue. Even in such a popular comedy series as Seinfeld the fluidity of sexual liaisons is astounding. Marriage is hardly even considered!
"Perjurers" are those who swear falsely, who break oaths. What's your 'truthfulness' quotient? Can others trust you absolutely? In a small community, it's amazing how the news gets around. Sometimes it's actually true! But false rumours are common. When tempted to gossip - cap it. Even church prayer meetings can fall short here. Confidentiality is precious. Always ask yourself, "How might person X feel if they knew I was telling this to person Y?" And, does so-and-so have a 'need to know', or am I just sharing this because it helps me feel important?
Reverence for God who is perfectly righteous and just ought to result in special concern that our horizontal dealings are above reproach. God says He will be quick to testify against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, "and do not fear Me..." It doesn't work to go to church on Sunday and then short-change your employees on Monday. Deuteronomy 24(14f) warns, "Do not take advantage of a hired man who is poor and needy...Pay him his wages each day before sunset, because he is poor and is counting on it. Otherwise he may cry to the LORD against you, and you will be guilty of sin." God seems to have a special interest in protecting the poor - even stepping in to be their Advocate. Prov.22(22f) says, "Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court, for the LORD will take up their case and will plunder those who plunder them." In the New Testament, James 5(4) protests, "Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you.The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty."
Widows, orphans, and foreigners are also a litmus test for whether our religion is real. God says in the Bible, "Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry." (Ex 22:22-23)
If we fear God - revere Him with all the awe and honour due Him - that will increase also our level of concern for other people. Jesus shows us this in His life of selfless ministry, and teaches it in the Great Commandment to love God AND love our neighbour as ourself. When Nehemiah became governor of Judea following the return from exile, he refused to take advantage of the perks previous governors had been enjoying - at the settlers' expense. For the record he noted, "...the earlier governors...placed a heavy burden on the people and took forty shekels of silver from them in addition to food and wine. Their assistants also lorded it over the people. But out of reverence for God I did not act like that." (Ne 5:15)
ChristianWeek reports that recently 250 representatives from churches in the lower mainland showed up for a one-day seminar on how churches can help provide shelter and housing for growing number of homeless people. It's not just an inner-city problem: people in the suburbs are starting to realize they're the 'sending communities' for urban homelessness. A Baptist pastor and keynote speaker said, "We're in the midst of a crisis...housing prices and rents have gone up so rapidly, [but] income assistance has not been raised for 12 years...In the Lower Mainland, less than 1% of all livable suites...are available at welfare rates. So even if you get on welfare, the chances are one in 99 that you'll find a place that you can afford."
Surveys confirm that the ranks of the homeless are growing at an alarming pace. In one area, for example, 177 people had no place to live - almost five times more than in a survey done just in March 2005. Follow-up to the seminar will look at churches' interest in and financial capacity to support various types of housing projects. One way churches can help is to donate their parking lots as an incentive to get other partners involved: such as building underground parking for the church with affordable housing on top.
Prepare the way for the Messenger of the Covenant! As we fear God, may He show us creative adjustments to make in our personal and corporate lives. New patterns that flow from His refining and purifying of our hearts. Let's pray.