It was the summer between my Freshmen and Sophomore years in High School when I “answered the call” to ministry. It was 1981. I was 15 years old. Eight years late, in August of 1989, I started pastoring. This November I will turn 53. Next August will be my 30th year in pastoral ministry. I’ve been at this a long time. Conservatively speaking, I have preached over 3,500 sermons (not including lessons and Bible studies). That’s at least 2,000 hours of talk, or almost 3 solid months of non-stop speaking. Some of you have probably heard half of those sermons, which means 1,000 hours, or 45 solid days of listening to me. God bless you. There will be a special place in heaven for your endurance. I hope I have not wasted your time. More importantly, I hope I have not wasted God’s time.
The Prophet Malachi
We are in our sixth week of studying Malachi. His prophecies are really a series of seven short sermons. Thus far we have looked at four of those sermons. Three of those sermons have been directed to the priests of Judah. They have not been taking their ministry seriously. As a result, the people’s worship had become “contemptable” to God, and their sacrifices were meaningless. God’s advice to them was to either repent, or shut the doors to the Temple (or church).
These have been harsh words. Malachi’s fifth sermon begins in a similar tone, and gets quite personal. Through His prophet, God says to the priests, “You have wearied the LORD with your words” (Malachi 2:17a). Wow! That hurts! God is saying to the priests, “I can’t listen to any more of your sermons.” There is a prayer that most every pastor knows. It goes like this: “Lord, fill my mouth with worthwhile stuff, and nudge me when I’ve said enough.” In this verse God is saying, “Enough is enough!”
Over the years I have had people get up in the middle of my sermons and leave because they didn’t like what I was saying. Over the last thirty years, I have had church members tell me they were leaving the church because they didn’t like my preaching, or I wasn’t feeding them spiritually. On one occasion I was preaching a funeral. Half-way through my sermon, a family member of the deceased said out loud, “I don’t like you!” Another family member elbowed them and told them to be quiet. The person then replied, out loud, “Well I don’t. I don’t like him at all.”
I’ve gotten harsh emails from people about my preaching. I have received my fair share of criticisms. They all hurt. You don’t survive as long as I have without developing thick skin. But one thing I don’t think I could ever overcome would be to hear God say, “I am tired of listening to you preach.”
I can imagine how the priests, who heard Malachi’s words, must have felt. And so they asked Malachi, “How have we wearied him?” (Malachi 2:17b). God gives two reasons, and both are incredibly relevant. First, in their speaking they had compromised God’s Word. Malachi writes, “By saying, ‘All who do evil are good in the eyes of the LORD, and he is pleased with them…’” (Malachi 2:17c). Listen, no matter how large a church is, or how popular a pastor is, if all their preaching is designed to make you feel better, something is wrong. If a church, or preacher, never talks about repentance, that church’s worship is “contemptable” to God. The Apostle Paul warned Timothy, saying, “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Timothy 4:3).
A second reason God was “weary from their words” was because they questioned the very character of God. Malachi continues, “…or, ‘Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17d). Another way to ask this question is, “If God exist, where is He?” This is a rhetorical question. They weren’t concerned with the exact location of God. In context they were asking something like this, “With all the violence, and everything going on in the world, is God really upset with us, and our little sins? Is God really upset that our worship is not authentic when children are being abused and dying from hunger and when innocent people die from bombs every day? What kind of God is that? These type of questions get at the very heart of who God is, because God is very much a God of justice. (At the end of this sermon, Malachi returns to the subject of justice.
Malachi 3:1 is extremely important. In this one verse, Malachi prophesies the coming of two messengers. (Remember, “Malachi” means “messenger.”) “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me…” (Malachi 3:1a). The first messenger God will send to “prepare the way” for the more important Messenger. Does that sound familiar? Some, four-hundred years later, quoting from a similar prophecy made by Isaiah, Matthew writes, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.’ This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him’’” (Matthew 3:1-3). Thus, Malachi’s prophecy is about John the Baptist, the first messenger.
Malachi then continues, “‘Then 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” (Malachi 3:1b). The first messenger, John the Baptist, prepares the way for the second Messenger. The second Messenger will appear quickly and is “the messenger of the covenant.” Obviously, this is a prophecy about the coming of Jesus. Malachi says the people are “seeking” and “desiring” this Messenger, the Messiah. The people asked, “Where is the God of justice?” God answers, “He is coming soon!”
But Malachi’s prophecy about the coming of Jesus is a little different than other prophets. His prophecy is best understood as a double prophecy, predicting both the First Advent and the Second Coming. First, Jesus comes “to his temple,” for dedication and later to overturn the tables. Jesus’ first coming is marked by grace. But His second coming will be marked by judgment. However, even His judgment is marked by grace. Malachi writes, “But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For 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. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings of Judah and Jerusalem, as in the days gone by, as in former years” (Malachi 3:2-4).
The judgment of Christ will be severe, “who can endure…who can stand?” However, a “refiner’s fire” is not an all-consuming fire. A “refiner’s fire” removes impurities and makes the metal stronger. After the metal goes through the “refiner’s fire,” “launderer’s soap” is used to clean and polish the metal. Thus, God’s judgment is redemptive, not punitive. God’s judgment is for your betterment. God’s judgment is just and full of grace. You see this redemption and grace when Malachi says, “…he will purify the Levites (the target of His harsh criticism) and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings to Judah and Jerusalem, as in the days gone by, as in former years.”
What Does Justice Look Like?
The people’s worship of God had become meaningless. As a result, their work in the community was wanting. God has called His people to fight for justice. Through His prophet, Isaiah, God tells His people to “Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice…” (Isaiah 1:16-17). Through Amos, God proclaims, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24). And through His prophet Micah, God says, “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Justice is at the heart of who God is and what He wants His people to be and do. It should come as no surprise that Malachi describes what justice looks like. He writes, “So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers…” (Malachi 3:5a). Sorcery includes things like witchcraft and casting spells, but it also includes things like horoscopes, palm readings, and astrology. Basically, “sorcerers” look to something else besides God to guide their steps. But sorcery also involves trying to control and manipulate other people. “Adulterers” not only break their covenant with their marriage partners, but also break their covenants with God by engaging in all types of sexual promiscuity. “Perjurers” are liars, especially liars who lie under oath in the courts. What all three of these people have in common is that they are liars and cheats. They abuse themselves and others. What they do is unjust, and God says they will be judged.
Malachi continues, “…against those who defraud laborers of their wages (this includes not paying people a livable wage), who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice…” (Malachi 3:5b). While “sorcerers, adulterers, and perjurers” are representative of people who lie and cheat, the three categories of people mentioned next represent people who carry out injustice by oppressing the most vulnerable people in society. Employers who pocket more and more profit while refusing to pay their employees a fair, livable wage, are unjust and will answer to God for their injustice. Furthermore, God is telling us that His people need to be the first to stand up and protest the sinfulness of the wage gap widening in our society. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer when the church refuses to speak out about injustice.
All through the Old Testament are verses about our responsibility to take care of “widows and the fatherless.” The Hebrew idea of widows denotes not just a woman whose husband had died but also a once-married and now divorced or abandoned woman who is need of financial and legal support. By all most always pairing “widows” with the “fatherless” or “orphans,” God is telling us the importance of walking beside single-mothers. James writes, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). It’s interesting, is it not, that Malachi discusses “widows and the fatherless” after he stated that God “hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16). Often, divorce leaves women and children destitute. Maybe this is why God hates it.
The next phrase is extremely relevant to our present-day situation. Malachi says not to “deprive aliens of justice.” “Aliens,” of course, are immigrants. Pew Research Center recently released a study where they found that “white evangelicals are the most rabidly anti-immigration group in America. I wonder what Bible they are reading. My Bible makes it clear I am to take care of the immigrant. Jesus clearly states that we are to welcome the immigrant, not separate immigrant parents from their children.
We need to heed God’s warning here. We need to listen to its seriousness. God will judge His people, and countries, based on how they treat the most vulnerable among them. Don’t believe me? Through His prophet Ezekiel, God tells us that the primary reason He judged Sodom and Gomorrah, was not because of their sexual sins, but because the neglected to take care of the poor. Ezekiel writes, “Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy…” (Ezekiel 16:49-50).
This is a heavy sermon. If you remember, we started our journey through Malachi with a sermon called, “Don’t Shoot the Messenger.” I warned you this would be a tough study. But it is much needed.
The people asked, “Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17). God answers that He will send a messenger to prepare the way for the Messenger, who is the God of justice. He then calls the people to repentance for not fighting for justice. So, the outline of this sermon is John, Jesus, and Justice. But before all that, God says, “You have wearied the LORD with your words” (Malachi 2:17). What God is really saying in this sermon is, less talk, more action.
How do we apply this sermon to our lives? Two things. First, don’t fear God. Malachi writes, “‘…but do not fear me,’ says the LORD Almighty” (Malachi 3:5d). This is odd, is it not? Over and over again the Bible tells us to fear God. But here, God says, “do not fear me.” Malachi’s words have been harsh. He has talked about curses and judgment. He has been critical of most everything the people were doing. But by saying, “do not fear me,” God is reminding us that He is a God of love, mercy, and grace. His “judgment” is never meant to punish us but to refine us and redeem us. He is lovingly telling us what we need to do and asking us to trust Him and return to Him.
Second, do justice. I think God’s plan for His people is clear. Speak with, and stand with, the most vulnerable in our society. Be advocates for justice. Be vocal about injustices. Be the conscience of the community. Be bold. Be courageous. Stand up for righteousness. It is the time the church goes public with her faith, not just in our words, but more importantly, in our actions.
What does justice look like? Well, it looks like Jesus, and He defined justice perfectly when He said, “do to others what you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).