“Waiting for the God of Justice”

Chatswood Baptist Church https://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Malachi 2:17—3:5, 16–18

 In the time of Malachi…

We are living in strange times, aren’t we. I’ve lost count of the number of times when people have said that to me this year. This year has been for us, so far, a year of fires and droughts, panics and pandemics, protests and riots and mad, erratic behaviour from leader after leader of the great powers of the world. And all of that filtered, with a strange sort of unreality, through the endless, weary tedium of the lockdown and the Zoom meetings and the internet news sources. It has been a strange and wearing time.

And I want to speak this morning about time like these, and about what it means to fear God and to wait for him in times of this sort. But my plan is to begin, and to remain for most of the sermon, not in our own time but back in the time of Malachi. Back in the time of the Persian empire, in the days after the return of God’s people to the land of Judah after their years of exile. Back in the last few pages of the Old Testament, if we follow the way in which the books of the Bible are ordered in our English versions. That’s where I want to take us this morning.

We’re a long way from home. We’re back in a time of priests and Levites, tithes and sacrifices, scrolls and sorcerers and refiners of silver.

And yet we’re not that far from the world that we know. We don’t know for sure when exactly Malachi was ministering and the book of Malachi was composed—maybe in the fifth century; maybe in the last few years of the sixth; maybe in the early decades of the fourth. But we do know that it was composed for a time in which the stories of Esau and Jacob, and the priesthood of Levi, and the law that God gave to Moses at Horeb were already long distant memories, from centuries and centuries back in the history of God’s people—about the same distance back in time for them as the days of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are for us.

And we know that it was composed for a time in which the promises that the God who had brought his people back into the land would return to them in judgement and in glory were beginning to feel like they had been a long time in coming to fulfilment.

And we know that the ministry of Malachi was to a people who were not outwardly, flagrantly renouncing the covenant between God and the nation, but were, nonetheless, showing all the signs of being jaded and half-hearted and weary, going through the motions of worship but not really much more than that—offering up the sacrifices that the law of Moses called for, but giving to God the injured and the lame and the diseased.

That’s the kind of time that Malachi was ministering in. And if we’re honest, I suspect, we’d have to say that it’s not that different from our time; it’s a Malachi kind of season in the culture as a whole, as we stare at the screens of our phones and our laptops with jaded and despairing eyes, and we shake our heads and shrug our shoulders and say, “What can you do?”

So we’re in the book of Malachi, and it’s a timely book for us to turn to. And our focus this morning is on the fourth of Malachi’s disputation speeches, that begins in chapter 2 verse 17.

“You have weared the LORD”

It begins on a slightly surprising note. Addressing a weary and jaded people, going through the motions of religious observance, Malachi focuses not on their weariness but on God’s. “You have wearied the LORD with your words,” he says to them, verse 17. It’s not, I take it, that God is running out of energy. He is, after all, the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He does not grow tired or weary. He’s not like human parents, who get worn down and worn down until they snap. In fact, that’s the very thing that God, the LORD, goes on to say in in chapter 3 verse 6, and it’s the reason Israel is not destroyed.

But it’s just as well that is the case, because the words that the people of Judah keep recycling before him are a wearying recitation. They say, verse 17b, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the LORD, and he his pleased with them,” and “Where is the God of justice?”

There is, of course, a right way to say things like that. Over and over in the psalms, God himself gives his people words that they can use to bring their lament and the protest before him. When the wicked prosper, when prayers go unanswered, when crimes go uninvestigated, there is a right way to write your question on a placard, to put it up on a billboard on the road into town and say to God, “How long, O LORD?”

But that’s not this. There’s a difference between lament and grumbling. It’s one thing to take your petition and your protest before God, calling on him to do the things that he has promised. It’s another thing to just disengage, to talk about God in the third person as if he’s not listening, to let that turn into the default setting of your thinking about God and justice, and to use that sort of disillusionment as a justification for acting as if God doesn’t see and doesn’t care. There’s a difference between saying these sorts of things in anguish, as a victim, and saying them in apathy, as a perpetrator or a bystander.

Malachi says to the people of Judah: “You have wearied the LORD with your words.”

“The LORD you are seeking will come”

It’s against that backdrop, in that context, that Malachi preaches the gospel; that he promises the coming of the LORD. Chapter 3 verse 1: “‘I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. 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.”

The gospel is always about the coming of God. It says, Isaiah 40:9, “Here is your God. See the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm.” That is always the announcement at the heart of the gospel. But that one, consistent message of the gospel comes with a whole array of different resonances, depending on the context into which it is spoken. And here in Malachi 3, spoken into a context of cynicism and half-heartedness and religious insincerity, the gospel comes with a jarring and sarcastic edge. “The Lord whom you seek,” if you really are seeking him, the way you say you are. “The messenger of the covenant, whom you desire,” if you really do desire what you say you do.

But be careful what you wish for. When you say, “Where is the God of justice?” do you really want to have your question answered? Because the answer, when it comes, may not be as comfortable and as self-affirming as the cynicism of the question was.

“But who can endure the day of his coming?”

And so, chapter 3 verse 2, Malachi goes on to paint a confronting picture of the coming of God that the people say they are looking for. Verse 2: “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.”

The smelting and refining processes that got you from a lead sulphide ore to a lead/silver alloy to the kind of silver that could be used to make something were involved and hot and dangerous. To picture the judgement of God—or as Malachi does here—to picture God himself as being like that was not a beautiful image. We used to sing a song back in the eighties called “Refiner’s Fire” that made it all sound a little bit lovely. But the reality was not a sweet and beautiful thing at all—not the process, at any rate, even if the product was something beautiful.

And the same thing goes for the laundry image. The launderers of the ancient world were usually located outside the town, partly because they needed to spread their stuff out in the sun, and partly because of the stench of the processes that they used. Sometimes it was putrified urine; sometimes it was caustic ashes, with a strongly alkaline chemical content. The image you’re meant to have in mind is not a little squirt of Omo into the tray at the front of the washing machine. The images that Malachi wants you to have in mind in verse 2 as you think about the coming of God are seriously traumatic images.

And then a few verses down, in verse 5, we move from the silver refinery and the launderer’s shop to the courtroom. God says through his prophet to the people of Judah: “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud labourers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,’ says the LORD Almighty.”

Once again, this is not the kind of judgement day that the audience Malachi was addressing would have looked forward to. Because God is coming to bring justice, comprehensively. He’s not coming simply to bring relief for the people who have been complaining from the things that they have been compaining about. He’s also coming to put them on trial. He is coming to testify against the sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers. And not just against them, but also against those who short-change labourers of their wages, and those who take advantage of widows and orphans and foreigners, because they don’t fear the God who is their defender.

The long list in verse 5 does a couple of things in the rhetoric of the prophecy. On the one hand it stresses the comprehensiveness of the judgement. This is not just one kind of sin, but all sorts. And on the other hand, it leans in a particular direction, toward the sins that take advantage of the powerless, the sins that the hypocritically religious are prone to. Not many of Malachi’s audience may have been sorcerers. But they may well have found themselves somewhere in the categories at the back end of the list. And the assumption of the prophecy, in fact, is that they probably will, because it is “you,” verse 5, that God will be putting on trial.

“He will purify the Levites”

The judgement that Malachi describes is undoubtedly a destructive one. The implication of verse 2 is that there are many who will not stand and survive it. But the destruction that he pictures in verse 2 is not the end of the story. There is a difference between purifying silver and burning rubbish. On the other side of his coming is a purified people, who are able to stand and serve him, in integrity and righteousness and holiness. So Malachi says, verse 3: “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 in righteousness, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.”

Sometimes we preach the gospel as if it was all about the forgiveness of sins, the cancelling of punishment. And there is a good deal of the gospel that is about that. But the story doesn’t stop there. Because the purifying work of God is directed toward a goal—toward the creation of a people who worship him rightly, and whose worship is acceptable to him. Worshipping God is the thing that we were created for—not just Israel but all of us. That is what the goal of human existence is. So when God comes to us in judgement and salvation he not only redeems us out of the trouble that we were in; he also reconstitutes and recomissions us as worshippers, and gives us something to do with our lives that honours and glorifies him.

“As it is written…”

It’s no accident that these words from Malachi that we have been looking at today turn up again in the New Testament, and it’s no accident where they appear. At the very beginning of Mark’s gospel, in the opening verses of the first chapter, Mark writes: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: ‘I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way’—3 ‘a voice of one calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.”’” The quotation in verse 2 and 3 is a composition quotation—the first half, verse 2, is from Malachi; the second half, verse 3, is the bit that is from Isaiah.

The Malachi bit almost passes you by unless you’re paying attention. But it can hardly have been anything but deliberate. Mark brings together two verses from the prophets, both of them about the coming of the LORD, and both about preparing the way for him. The verse from Isaiah is a promise given to Israel in exile; the coming of God in that context is a coming that means salvation and homecoming and deliverance. And the verse from Malachi is a promise given to a people on the other side of exile, back in the land and growing jaded and weary; the coming of God in that context means confrontation and judgement and painful purification. And Mark brings them both together and says that both of them point forward to Jesus. John the Baptist prepares the way for him, and Jesus comes; and in the coming of Jesus the Messiah God himself comes. And he comes both in salvation and in judgement; both to seek and save the lost, and to turn up in the temple and chase out the money-changers.

And he comes, as Malachi says, suddenly. He comes suddenly in the middle of history, turning up in Jerusalem and forcing a crisis of decision on the leaders of Israel. And he will come again, suddenly, at the time God has appointed, and that will be moment of judgement for us and for all the world.

We live between those two sudden comings. For us, as for the people of Malachi’s day, there will be times when the days we live in seem to stretch out endlessly, without God seeming to do anything visible, that we can attribute directly and unambiguously to him. And we can feel the temptation to live as if God did not see and did not care, and to join in with the talk of those who see the world that way. We will go through seasons where the main temptation that we fight against is not the temptation to flagrant disobedience or apostasy, but to the quiet, half-hearted insincerity that goes through the motions of religion but denies the power of it—that lives as if the presence of God were not real and consequential in our lives.

And in seasons like that, the message of Malachi points us toward the coming of Christ—we look back to it, he looked forward to it—and points us forward to the day when he will come again, and summons us to join together and commit to living purposefully in the days that God has given us.

So the third chapter of Malachi concludes: “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 honoured his name. 17 ‘On the day when I act,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘they will be my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as a father has compassion and 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.”

It’s a beautiful, simple, stripped-down picture, isn’t it, of what church is. We gather together—or at least we Zoom together— we gather together as those who fear the LORD; and we talk with each other; we speak the truth to one another, and remind each other of the gospel, and of the ways that God calls us to walk in; and the LORD listens and hears and remembers. We help each other to remember that there is a God of justice, and there will be one day a distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between the upright in heart and the greedy and the violent and the godless. And we encourage each other to keep living in light of that reality—we spur one another on toward love and good deeds; not losing heart; not losing conviction, not giving way to apathy or despair; living our lives on the side of justice and mercy and integrity, and waiting for the day when justice and righteousness will be vindicated.