Malachi is kind of mysterious book. The prophet is unknown and the historical situation is not entirely clear. Most scholars place the prophecies of Malachi after the exile of Israel and Judah, during the reign of the Persians. While the Assyrians and the Babylonians destroyed and exiled conquered peoples, the Persians encouraged them to return to their lands and traditions, so long as they remembered who was the greatest power in the world, be that Xerxes, Darius or Cyrus.
Malachi, then, more than likely prophesied in a time when the Temple was rebuilt and all the children of Israel were back home in their land and could once again worship in the Temple in Jerusalem and read and study the Torah.
But, as is human nature, memory is short. The children of Israel forgot what got them exiled in the first place and returned to idolatry, abuse of the poor and laxity in following the Law. The priests were offering sick animals for sacrifice, and ignoring the careful study and reflection of the Torah, while the people were fudging on their tithing, practicing sorcery, lying and engaging in sexual immorality, (specifically adultery), and failing to care for widow, orphan and alien.
For the children of Israel, the more things changed, the more they stayed the same. They had seen their Temple rebuilt and the walls of Jerusalem restored, yet within a generation they were back to their old patterns. Worship was rote, and they became apathetic to the Law. In our text this morning, they say, ‘It is useless to serve the Lord, and what good does it do to follow the Law anyway?’
Malichi’s message is clear: the Day of the Lord is coming. The messenger of the Lord is coming to proclaim the end. Exile didn’t get the attention of the people of God, neither did restoration. The Temple was destroyed and rebuilt. Still it did not get their attention. The ‘Sun of Righteousness’ is coming with judgement, and healing in his wings. The Day comes.
While many of the Old Testament prophets preach about temporal punishment from God, Malachi delivers the final message. The Day of the Lord comes.
The ‘Day of the Lord’ is a mixed metaphor among the prophets. It is a time of judgement and fire, yet they also see it as a Day of righteousness, when all things are made right. It is a Day of fire, but also a Day of healing.
Christians understood Malachi’s prophecies as prophecy of Jesus. They also interpret the ‘coming of Elijah’ as the forerunner to Jesus, John the Baptist. Malachi is preparing us for Advent, which will emphasize Jesus’ first and second coming. Next week is Christ the King Sunday, which is the final day of the church year before the season of Advent.
There are many directions we could go this morning. There are many parallels between Israel’s situation and the people of God today. Idolatry continues, ours just happens to have an entertaining quality to it, and maybe its green with an American president on it. We don’t have to go far to see sexual immorality and even witchcraft and occultism among people who call themselves Christians. Of course, there are many sermons on the caring for the poor and the opportunity that our changing neighborhoods provide for ministry and evangelism.
We could talk about the end of the world and the coming messiah, but I’ll save those reflections for Advent. John Wesley of course used Malachi’s words for his hymn, ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing.’
There is a dynamic in Malachi that is more subtle yet probably of more concern than the big sins of the people of God. It is reflected in the words of the people that Malachi quotes. This is the English Standard Version’s rendition: “Your words have been hard against me, says the LORD. But you say, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ [the LORD answers] You have said, ‘it is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts.’
Malachi offers a series of mock questions from the people throughout his book that shows two important elements: their apathy and their complacency. The ask things like, ‘How have we robbed you?’ ‘How have we been unfaithful?’ ‘How have we wearied the Lord?’ and here, ‘How have we spoken against you?’ The actions of Israel were bad enough in the face of the Lord’s faithfulness, but it is their disposition that Malachi is the most concerned about. Their rhetorical questions are all answered in biting ways, because their questions show that they really don’t care. Even though they were offering incense to other Gods and consulting mediums, they ask, ‘how have we been unfaithful?’ Even though they were neglecting their families and divorcing their wives for no reason, and they were withholding their tithes, they ask, ‘how have we robbed you?’ Even though they were neglecting the poor among them and breaking the covenant, they continue to wonder what they are doing wrong. They are apathetic, oblivious, and complacent–they just don’t care about God or about their neighbors or about the other people of God.
And the statement in today’s reading is case in point. ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the LORD of hosts.’ Other translations say it is ‘useless’ to serve God-of no consequence. We’re back in the land we deserve, we have the things we want there are no enemies at our door, why bother with God? Serving him is like walking around in mourners clothes. Why offer the proper sacrifices or give a tithe? And what good does it do to be rightly related to the rest of the community?
Malachi opens with a rebuke that sets the tone for his whole book. The priests of the Lord were offering lame or sick animals on the altar. Why? So that they could keep the best flocks for themselves. The Law explicitly said that te first fruits, the firstborn and strongest of the flocks were to be offered to God. Why? Because he deserves the best and not the leftovers.
The opening rebuke reflects Israel’s disposition, and Malachi sums it up this way, ‘Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us? Why then are we faithless to one another, profaning the covenant of our fathers? Judah has been faithless, and abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem.’ They were complacent, oblivious and apathetic.
Malachi asks, ‘what if you behaved toward the governor the way you behave towards God? Would he not kick your proverbial behind?’
There is a danger among churchgoers to fall into the trap that Malachi describes. We are here for comfort and solace, and that is a good thing, but being rightly related to God and rightly related to each other may not even be something on our minds on an average Sunday. We might even say, ‘what good does it do to serve God, is it not useless and boring and irrelevant?’
The key question that all of us need to ask is, does God get our best or our leftovers? Does what we give reflect our best or our leftovers? Does the time we spend working for the Kingdom of Heaven reflect our best or our leftovers?
What if, instead of bread and wine, we decided to make it cheetos and Coke? Every brings their own cheetos and Coke and we have a little Eucharist that way? We would be offended, and rightly so. Why then is it different in our walk with God on a daily basis? Why is it different in anything that goes on in the work and ministry of Epiphany?
In the book of Matthew, Jesus says that we are the ‘salt of the earth,’ what does that mean? In the ancient world, salt was used for taste, but its primary purpose what that of preservation. It did what refrigeration does for us. It keeps food, meat in particular, from rotting.
What would happen if you left a steak on the counter to thaw, went on vacation, and forgot about it? When you got home, your house would smell like rotten meat. Now, would you say, hey, you stupid meat, why did you do that? Would you blame the meat for rotting?
We look at the world around us and we say, ‘look, we’ve got everything working against us, society marginalizes Christians, there are too many sinful and negative influences, etc. etc.’ But this is to deny our role in society. Of course the world around us will be like this, of course it will rot left to its own devices, but we are the salt of the world, we are preserving and protecting force, we are the salt of this neighborhood, therefore the onus is on us to be that salt and light.
If Malachi were to write us a letter, what would it say? What characterizes us? Faithfulness, fidelity, giving God our best or do we give God the leftovers?
Are we the salt of the earth and the light of the world, or are we something else? Serving God is risky, are you ready to live on the edge?