Ready for the Sun

(Malachi 3:13-4:6; Luke 1:57-80)

These last sections of Malachi—the last block of God’s argument with his people, and then a few verses of epilogue—tie the book and its themes together, but they work a bit differently than we’ve seen in Malachi to this point. To understand what’s going on here, we need to take a look back. If you were here when we started this, you probably remember that the book begins with God declaring his love for his people in the face of their skepticism. He reasserts that he has chosen Israel, the descendants of Jacob; but they’re doubtful, and we see the expression and results of their doubt all through Malachi. We see their stinginess with God, both in their inadequate sacrifices and in their failure to tithe; we see as well their unwillingness to commit to following him faithfully, which is revealed and reflected in their faithlessness in marriage.

And perhaps most of all, we see their complaints that God is not demonstrating his love for them the way they think he should. A couple weeks ago, we saw the accusation that the God of justice was absent, or had maybe even converted to injustice and decided to favor those who do evil. Here we see the logical conclusion to that: “Why should we serve God? What’s the point? We don’t get anything out of it—he doesn’t give us what we want.” Some of the doubters probably want to believe, but they’re struggling; others are most likely ready to give up; and you can be sure that some aren’t the least bit sincere, just cynically looking for any excuse to ignore God. Whatever their motives, though, this is where they land.

There are a few things to note about this. First off, you can see their focus: “what is the profit?” They’re measuring the faithfulness of God purely in material terms, when (as we’ve seen) that’s not necessarily the main way he blesses us; in a sense, they’re trying to dictate terms to God, which is nothing God’s going to accept. Second, in that respect, there’s an irony here in verse 15; God has just said, “Test my faithfulness, and watch me bless you,” and they say in response, “Blessed are the faithless, blessed are the evildoers, because they test God’s patience and get away with it.” Their sense of their relationship to God is more than a little askew here.

Third, consider the first question in verse 14: “What is the profit of keeping his requirements?” How would they know? They haven’t tried. They haven’t been keeping his requirements in worship, in their giving, in marriage—what exactly do they imagine they’ve done to deserve blessing? If you connect this with the next clause—which asks, what is the profit in going around as mourners, probably referring to formal rituals of penitence and expressions of grief for sin—it seems to me they want to get credit for just doing the stuff. They’re offering sacrifices, they’re giving something, they’re going around in sackcloth and ashes or whatever, and they want that to be good enough to satisfy God, and they’re mad that God isn’t going along with it. The reality is, God is only going to bless us on his own terms, as he sees fit, not on the basis of how we think things ought to go or what we think we deserve.

Interestingly, though, this time God doesn’t argue with his people. Instead, we get something very different in verse 16: we get a response to the prophet’s message. “Those who feared the Lord talked with each other,” and though we’re not told anything more than that, the Lord’s response is telling: “a book of remembrance was written before him of those who feared the Lord and honored his name.” Clearly, these are people who have truly heard what God is saying through his prophet, and they’ve been moved to recognize and repent of their sin; Malachi’s message has gotten through to them, and they’ve been inspired to a proper fear of the Lord.

This is something worth stopping to consider for a minute, because we don’t tend to talk about the fear of the Lord much, and yet it’s one of the key things that’s supposed to mark and define his people; and quite frankly, it’s an entirely appropriate response to some of the things Malachi has said. This is not an unhealthy fear, as if we were afraid God wanted to hurt us or might fail us; fear that God will not be as good as he has always been is not what we’re talking about. This is, rather, the same sort of healthy fear that you might feel standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon: this is something great and glorious and beautiful and far, far bigger than you, and while it bears you no ill will, if you treat it with disrespect, you will probably die.

In the same way, God is so good and holy and beautiful that we in our sin cannot bear the sight of him; nothing unholy and no impurity can survive in his presence—it burns like a moth in a flame. To come into the presence of God is, of necessity, judgment, as everything flammable burns away, and everything impure is refined and purified by fire. We cannot evade our unrighteousness when we look at God, and we can’t control him—not at all. We can’t make him do what we want, or keep him from doing what we do not want, and we cannot ensure that he will only ask us to do what we want to do and feel comfortable doing. As Mr. Beaver says of Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, God is good, but he isn’t safe—he isn’t tame, and cannot be tamed. He is wild, unpredictable, utterly beyond us, and completely unrestricted by our sense of the possible; and while he has promised to provide all our needs, that doesn’t mean he’ll give us everything we think we need, nor does it mean he’ll let us keep those things we’re sure we can’t live without. As such, whoever commits to serve the Lord without being afraid of what they’re getting into clearly has no idea what they’re getting into.

And yet, those who fear the Lord are those who, in the end, have nothing to fear. Earlier, Malachi asked, “Who can endure the day of the Lord’s coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Here, he answers that question: those who fear the Lord and serve him, whom the Lord allows to stand. For them, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings—for in truth, the refining fire of God, our God who is a consuming fire, is his healing work in our lives; it’s painful, yes, but that pain is sin leaving the body. When at last he has fully purified us, when the light of his righteousness has fully risen upon us, we will finally be free from the blighting power of sin and death, and we will be released in his joy and his peace.

The Circle of Blessing

(Malachi 3:6-12; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15)

I spent some time last week talking about our need for mercy, and I know that puzzled a couple people, since there’s nothing at all about mercy in last week’s passage from Malachi; but it seems to me that while that passage, which is the pivot point of this book and the central element in the prophet’s message, does indeed deal with the justice of God and his judgment on sin, it isn’t merely about justice.

As we saw, the initial complaint God raises in the end of chapter 2 is against those who are accusing him of being unjust for not judging their enemies, failing to recognize that by that same standard he’s also unjust for not judging them. I talked about this in terms of mercy, but the biblical language is more often of the patience or forbearance of God—his withholding his anger and his judgment on sin in order to give sinners opportunity to repent. Before we complain about this, we should remember that we, too, are its beneficiaries.

That’s underscored in verse 6, which is something of a transitional verse from the previous round of argument into this one; and what’s particularly interesting is that this verse links the patience of God with his people to his faithfulness, his unchanging nature and commitment to his word. “You, O children of Jacob”—righteous and unrighteous alike—“are not destroyed”: why? Because “I the LORD do not change.” Because when God says a thing, he will do it, when he makes a commitment, he holds to it, when he gives a promise, he keeps it—and when he chooses a person or a people, he does not let go, and he does not go back on his choice. He declares to Israel, in effect, that the only reason they still exist is because he is trustworthy—and the same is true for us. If we couldn’t trust God, we wouldn’t be here. Some of us wouldn’t be anywhere at all.

And yet, though we can trust him with our very lives, and with every part of our lives, we don’t, not consistently; sometimes we do better, but distrust keeps creeping in, and the desire to put our trust in ourselves. This is the crux of God’s charge against his people here in Malachi: they’re robbing him because they don’t trust him. They are literally faithless—lacking in the necessary faith to obey God fully. Obedience is an expression of trust; they do not trust, and so they do not obey.

We talked about this earlier this year with respect to money, considering our tendency to put our trust in our money (and our ability to earn more of it) rather than in God; and we’ve talked about it more generally as well, looking at the various ways that we draw back from obeying our Lord and heeding his call in our lives because we don’t quite believe that what he commands us to do is really best—we think we have a better idea. What I think we really need to hear is God’s response to this, which we see clear as crystal in the prophet, because it isn’t the demand for obedience that we tend to imagine.

Consider: the people of Israel are struggling to survive, and so they’re holding back on their giving to God—as they were cheating him with their sacrifices, as we saw a few weeks ago—because they don’t think they can afford to give the full tithe, the full 10%. In response, God says, “Robbing me with your giving isn’t the solution to your financial problems—it’s the cause of your problems. You’re struggling because I’m not blessing you, because you’re not being faithful to me in your giving.”

And then we get this: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house”—why? “Or else I’ll continue to curse you?” “Because it’s your duty?” “Because I said so?” No; instead, God says this: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, and thereby put me to the test. See if I won’t throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there won’t be room to store it.” In a nutshell, God says, “Just trust me. Just trust me enough to obey me, that I will take care of you better than you can.”

Now, as we’ve noted before, this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone who gives faithfully will end up materially wealthy; God’s blessings go beyond just numbers in the bank account. But it is a promise that those who are faithful will be blessed in many ways, and that if the nation as a whole will give God what he requires, he will bless the nation and everybody will have enough, without having to fight so hard to survive. We will not have all we want, but he will never fail to give us all we need.

In 2 Corinthians, Paul takes this and develops it in a more individual direction. “You know how it works,” he says: “you reap what you sow. If you only sow a little seed, you only get a small harvest, but if you sow a great deal of seed, you reap a huge harvest.” This, Paul says, is how our giving works, too. We need to remember, first, that God owns everything, including all that is ours to use, and thus that he is ultimately the one who gives us success in our labors, not we ourselves; and second, that not only is he able to bless us with all good things, he wants to do so.

Thus Paul says in verse 8, “God is able to provide you with every kind of blessing in abundance, so that in every circumstance you may always have everything you need and still have ample resources for every kind of good work.” The word “blessing” here is the word kharis, the word “grace,” which underscores the point that the blessings in view here are spiritual, not just material; at the same time, the promise is clear that we don’t have to worry about money. If we give freely, generously and gladly to God, we will always have enough to live as he has given us to live, and to do what he has called us to do.

Note that “freely, generously and gladly” really does matter—how much we give matters, but so do why and how we give. Thus Paul tells the Corinthians, “If you really don’t want to give, or if you’re only giving under pressure or because you’re worried what others will think, then don’t; for it’s the cheerful and open-hearted giver that God loves.” The call is to give generously and gladly back to God from what he has given us, in gratitude for all the ways in which he has blessed us, believing that if we do so, he will continue to bless us and provide for all our needs. Again, the point is trust: are we willing to stake our lives on trust in God rather than trust in our own sweat and our own wits? That kind of trust, that kind of faith, is what God wants from us.

The fact that Paul describes the blessing of God in terms of grain, seed and bread, is telling, I think; because with grain, what you eat and what you sow are the same thing. As such, there’s always the tension—especially in poor areas—between how much of the crop you eat now and how much you sow back into the ground for next year. You can’t sow it all, obviously, or you’ll have nothing to eat this year; but if you eat too much of the harvest, then your harvest next year is guaranteed to be poor, because you can’t reap the benefits of seed you didn’t sow. That’s how it is with the blessings of God, because God hasn’t just blessed us for our own benefit: he’s blessed us so that we have things with which to bless others, and opportunities to do so. Like the grain, God’s gifts are partly for us to keep for ourselves and partly for us to sow in his service.

As such, there’s a feedback loop here; there’s a cycle, the circle of blessing. God provides for us, and out of his providence we give back to him, and that then becomes the basis for more of his blessings to us. This is how it works, how it’s designed to work; this is the nature of the blessings of God. It is God who gives the harvest, it isn’t our own doing, but he gives it out of what we have given back to him as our expression of humble faith in his provision; and then we give back to him again, and he returns again the harvest, and so it goes. Faith in action.

Justice like Fire

(Malachi 2:17-3:5; 1 Peter 4:12-19)

Some years ago I got an interesting comment on a blog post from a guy with whom I’d exchanged the odd e-mail; he was a prosecutor down Dallas way, and he noted that he’d spent a while in the traffic division, prosecuting tickets and the like. He wrote of his experience there that “when defendants would say in court that they were there seeking justice, one of the judges before whom I would appear would ask them if they wanted justice or mercy. Amazingly, most of them got the answer wrong.”

Tell truth, though, it’s really not all that amazing—especially if you have kids. Taking justice and fairness as roughly equivalent for our purposes here, one of the things I’ve learned in raising mine is that kids have a clear and strong innate concept of fairness: “fair” means “I get whatever I think I deserve.” Some are more strongly that way than others, of course, and growing up usually broadens our perspective, but that’s about where we all start—and many people never develop the humility or self-awareness to move past that way of thinking. After all, none of us has ever been inside another person’s head, or spent any time looking through anyone’s eyes but our own; we each have our own little peephole into the rest of the universe, and it’s the only one we ever get. Learning to think beyond that one point of reference to try to understand where other people are coming from is really not all that easy, either intellectually or emotionally.

In fact, let’s go a step further here and recognize that even those of us who try to do that only ever succeed in part. Inevitably, we must always begin from our own position and our own perspective, and seek to broaden our understanding out from there; equally inevitably, in any disagreement, we always start off on our own side. This is why, I think, though “judgment” is often received as a bad word—we don’t want to be judged, and we don’t like people who are judgmental—“justice” for most people is a good word, because we think of the justice we deserve as a good thing, as justice being done on our behalf against those who have done us wrong. After all, most of us don’t really think of ourselves as bad people—sure, we’re not perfect, but we aren’t the ones doing injustice; it’s those people out there. If there were any justice, they would learn their lesson and everyone would see that we were right all along.

Except, says Malachi—not so fast. This is an interesting passage, because while the prophet certainly promises judgment against the really bad people in Israel, as we see in verse 5, he’s not primarily talking to them. Rather, the people he’s addressing first and foremost are the righteous in Israel, the good people, who are frustrated that God’s not doing his job—which is to say, that he isn’t responding to things the way they in their infinite wisdom are sure he ought to respond to them. They know who the bad people are—and have probably been spending a lot of time in prayer giving God this information in considerable detail—but God hasn’t blasted them yet. In fact, looking around, the wicked in Israel seem to be doing just fine; and as for the other nations, well, Israel was still under foreign rule, so God obviously hadn’t judged them yet either. Hence their complaints that the God of justice seemed to have taken a holiday—or, worse, had thrown in his lot with the evildoers and decided to reward them instead.

Now, these sorts of comments, whether meant seriously or intended to be unfair, have two real problems. The first is that some folks are going to hear them, take them seriously, and act accordingly; such comments incite people to do what they please without regard to the will of God. They encourage people not to take God seriously, which is a very bad thing. And more than that, to accuse God of being unjust or of failing to do what is right is to slander him, and he will not tolerate that.

His response is eloquent, and sharply ironic. “You want the God of justice?” he says. “Fine, but understand this: you won’t be as pleased about it as you think.” Those who complained about the absence of divine judgment failed to realize their own unrighteousness; they complained that God was showing mercy to others, not recognizing their own need for mercy, and thus not understanding that the patience of God was for them, too, not just for everyone else. They assumed that God’s judgment would only fall on their enemies, but God says no: it will start with you. As Peter says, judgment begins with the household of God.

Of course, the judgment of God serves a different purpose with those who follow him than with those who do not. Malachi says the Lord is like a refiner’s fire and like fuller’s soap, and you may remember we talked about this during Advent: it isn’t that God arbitrarily decides to destroy certain things, it’s that he cannot endure sin, and that which is sinful cannot endure in his presence. His justice and his holiness are a consuming fire that burns away everything that is impure and unjust; only that which is pleasing to God remains. For those who do not fear the Lord, there is nothing that can survive that fire; for those who reject salvation, there will in the end be nothing beyond judgment. For those who follow him and seek to be faithful to him, on the other hand, God’s judgment is painful, but ultimately a blessing; thus Peter says, “Let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good,” knowing that the fire of the trial is an instrument of God’s good and purifying purpose in our lives.

Even so, we do well to be humble when we consider the justice of God, and still more when we ask for justice; this is not a prayer we should ever offer lightly, or with any sense that we ourselves are somehow above judgment. We cannot rightly call anyone to repent of their sin if we are not ourselves repentant of our own; we must humble ourselves before others if we would have any right to ask them to humble themselves; and we should not ask God to judge others if we do not also ask him to judge us, to purify our hearts and refine our lives.

Now, if we cannot talk about justice without also talking about humility and our need for mercy, this may remind you (as it reminded Sara this week) of Micah 6:8, where the prophet declares: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you?” Three things Micah names. One, to do justly, to treat others rightly in accordance with God’s will. Two, to love mercy; mercy here is hesed, the covenant love and faithfulness of God. Note the way this is put together. Micah doesn’t tell us to be lovers of justice; that’s an attitude which, all too often, makes people stern and merciless advocates of an increasingly narrow idea of justice. Rather, he tells us to put our hope and trust in the faithful love and grace of God, accepting God’s goodness not as our right but as his free gift; justice should be not what we demand from others but what we seek to do for others. And three, tying it all together, we are called to walk humbly with God—not asserting our independence, insisting on our own rights or demanding our own way, but accepting that we need his grace, and that we need to follow his way.

I didn’t think of this until later—which is too bad, it would have made a great sermon illustration—but behold the lover of justice in all his glory:


(Malachi 2:10-16; Mark 10:2-12)

This is one of those moments when any preacher with an ounce of wit stands in the pulpit with a sense of trepidation, because there are just so many ways to go wrong. On the one hand, it’s perilously easy to slide into judgment here, and wind up hurting and discouraging a lot of people. On the other, it’s equally easy—and at least as perilous—to let the desire to avoid doing so move us to misuse the word of God and misrepresent his will and his holiness. As Mark Driscoll put it last Sunday, this is one to thread the needle on; it’s critically important to say the right thing the right way with the right heart.

As such, there are a few things we need to say right off the bat. First, our passage in Malachi deals with divorce, but it isn’t actually about divorce—God has a broader concern here, which we will most definitely talk about. Second, neither Malachi nor Jesus are issuing blanket condemnations of everyone who has ever been divorced, nor does this mean that anyone who has ever been divorced is permanently unfit or disqualified or second-class. It’s important to remember here that Jesus is in the redemption business; the fact that we sin doesn’t disqualify us from being redeemed, it’s the reason we need to be redeemed in the first place—all of us. It’s also important to remember that all divorces, and all divorced people are not the same.

This is a particularly important point because it helps us focus on the central concern of the Scriptures here. I know there are those in the church who will always tell people never to get divorced, no matter what, but that’s not really the message here. On the other hand, when pastors and teachers talk about Scriptural justifications for divorce, there’s something wrong with that. I think they’ve rightly identified the sins which can truly destroy marriage—the four As, if you will, adultery, addiction, abuse, and abandonment, based either on the explicit teaching of Scripture or as logical extensions of that teaching—but when we start talking about justifications for divorce, we have the order all wrong. We justify what we have already decided to do: the desire comes first, the reasons afterward. That, too, is not what Scripture is on about.

Rather, if we look at the reasons that are adduced from Scripture for divorce, what is the common thread? They’re all about breaking faith. Marriage is a covenant, held by God; when you marry someone, you covenant with them that they will always come second in your life only to God, that you will love no one else more and have no other priorities ahead of them. None of us ever perfectly keeps that covenant—this is why grace and forgiveness are necessary—but we must hold to it in the essentials; any ongoing betrayal of the core of that covenant, such as adultery or abuse, destroys the covenant relationship. Divorce is merely a recognition and formalization of the covenant death which has already happened.

The key aspect here, the fundamental sin, is faithlessness—the willful failure to keep the faith one has promised. It is this that Malachi attacks, and on which his judgment falls; and it’s this that is the common thread between verses 13-16 and verses 11-12. In 11-12 the complaint is not divorce, but that Israelites are marrying people who worship false gods. It’s not a matter of ethnic purity here, but of purity of worship: their marriages are pulling them away from God and toward the gods of the nations. They may well be keeping faith in marriage, but they aren’t keeping faith with God in choosing to marry someone who does not worship him; they are choosing to honor their own desires rather than their commitment to God.
In doing this, they aren’t just affecting themselves, either. That may sound strange to some in our culture, which has an increasingly individualistic view of marriage—I marry the person who fulfills me, who meets my needs and satisfies my desires and makes me happy, and never mind what anyone else says about it—but the fact is, marriage is a community act, and the decisions we make regarding marriage ripple through the communities to which we belong.

If we marry someone who pulls us away from God, or if we betray our spouse and destroy our marriage, we aren’t the only ones that hurts—it hurts our family, our church, and everyone we might have helped if we had chosen to honor Christ instead. Most of all, it hurts our children, and makes it less likely that they will grow up to love and follow Jesus—which in turn hurts the community of faith for the next generation. I said some time ago that when we live by faith in Christ, we never know how many people we may bless; in the same way, when we break faith with him and with each other, we never know how many people we may hurt.

God created marriage—and all of a piece with it, he created sex—as a very particular thing, for very particular purposes. He is forming us to be a faithful people—faithful to him, to each other, to our commitments—and faithfulness to his call and commands in marriage is an important part of that. If we let our desires drive us to break faith—to marry someone who will turn our heart away from God, to betray a loving and faithful spouse in pursuit of new pleasures—then we undermine the work of God in our own life and in the life of the church. However anyone may justify them, such acts are wrong; and whatever anyone might think in the heat of the moment, they are not the path to real blessing. The world might bless them—or maybe not—but God won’t.

So what do we say from this? Two things, I think. First, where does Malachi end? “Guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.” He’s talking to a people who have already done this stuff, but obviously you can’t undo the past, and there’s only so much you can do to make it right; judgment will come as the Lord wills—as for example the prayer of Malachi in verse 12 that whoever marries outside the people of God should die childless—but how do you go forward? Answer: you set right what you can set right, and when the temptation comes to break faith, you guard your heart and don’t give in. To take the obvious example, if you’re divorced and remarried, be faithful to the person you’re married to now. You can’t unscramble the egg, and you can’t unweave the past; but you can keep the faith in the present time, and that’s what God asks of you.

Second, we need to stand up and bear witness to the biblical vision of marriage—which is a lot more than just saying “divorce is bad.” For that matter, it’s a lot more than just saying “marriage is between a man and a woman,” which is one reason the Christian Left likes to beat on evangelicals with an old axe handle; the claim that evangelicals divorce more often than the general population is actually false once you take church attendance into account, but still, we could do a better job on this point.

If we only tell people “God says ‘no,’” they’ll tend to come away thinking of God as someone who just says “no” for the fun of it—which is the exact backwards of the truth; God says “no” to some things because he’s said “yes” to something much, much better, and we need to communicate that. Our culture has an increasingly impoverished view of marriage, as it has an increasingly impoverished view of faith, because of its increasingly shallow individualism; we have a much richer alternative to offer, a better understanding, a more excellent way, and we need to bear witness to it. We have good news—about life, ourselves, marriage, everything; we need to understand it as good news, and we need to tell it, every chance we get.

The Table of the Lord

(Malachi 1:6-2:9; 1 Corinthians 10:14-22)

I think this is the first time I’ve ever introduced a sermon series with the second sermon; but while we started our journey through Malachi last week, the service last week was busy enough that there really wasn’t time for more than a homily, so the introductory stuff really had to wait. I didn’t want to just let it go, though, because Malachi’s a bit of a difficult book. On the surface, it looks like an angry book, full of judgment; it’s structured as a series of arguments, with the Lord making his case against Israel like a prosecutor, and crushing his people’s feeble attempts to justify their behavior. If you don’t read more closely, you could easily miss the fact that the core of the book is not God’s anger but his covenant faithfulness; his fundamental complaint is that his people have not been faithful to him because they don’t trust him to be faithful to them.

That’s where the first section, which we read last week, comes in, and that’s why it’s so important. God doesn’t begin with the indictment, he begins by telling his people that he loves them. Some of them, at least, doubt this—hence their response, “How have you loved us?”—and so he challenges their doubt. The most important thing for Israel to understand is that God does indeed love them, that his covenant love and faithfulness are unchanging and unchangeable, unmoving and unshakeable; everything else flows from that. In particular, everything else in this prophecy flows from that; the opening argument that we read last week is the context in which all the rest of the book must be read, and it is the answer to all the charges the Lord makes. Every word of judgment in Malachi must be understood as an expression of the frustrated love of God for a people who are unwilling to take him seriously enough to love him back.

At bottom, this is a problem of worship, and so as the Lord calls Israel to account, he begins with the priests. God has made it clear to his people what he requires from them—they aren’t supposed to sacrifice just any old animal; they are to give him their very best, the first and the fattest and the strongest of their herds. They’re supposed to give him their very best because in doing that, they are showing him true worship—putting him first in their lives, showing that they value him more than anyone or anything else, including their own comfort and the approval of their rulers. It’s the same thing we talked about a few weeks ago, that giving God our best before we give to anyone else reveals something profoundly important about our heart attitudes. In this case, however, the people of God aren’t doing that; in fact, they’re bringing him the least they possibly can, the blind, the lame and the sick. It’s the minimum necessary to be able to say they went to church, and the priests are letting them get away with it.

Now, to understand where the priests are coming from, you have to know that when sacrifices were offered, only a small part of the animal was actually burned on the altar; most of the meat went to the priests. Along with the tithe, this was how the Law provided for their support—which meant that they depended on the sacrifices to get enough to eat. If they figured that the blind, the lame and the sick were the best that they were likely to get, you can imagine them being afraid to challenge the people for fear of driving them to stop sacrificing altogether; better to let it go and have some food than to stand on principle and go without. But in letting that pass, they were forgetting that it wasn’t their table, but God’s—they ate there as his guests; they weren’t just making do with worse food for their own sake, they were compromising his holiness and allowing the people of Israel to lose respect for him. Who deserves more honor—the God of the universe, or the latest local politician? Israel was effectively saying, the local politician; the priests were letting them do it, and so making it worse. That had to change.

At this point, some might be wondering if this is really that big a deal; if we’re talking about the love of God, wouldn’t it be more loving for God to just let it slide? But the thing is, our worship is at the core of our being; if we worship him falsely and he were to just let it slide, that would let everything else in our lives slide along with it—into ruin, ultimately. For God to let that happen to his people would be an act not of love, but of indifference; as the Presbyterian scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier put it, “It is only when God leaves us alone that he no longer loves us.”

The fact of it is, God wants our worship—and wants us to live lives which are the fruit of true worship—not just because he likes it and fully deserves it (though he does), but because it’s what’s best for us. God has made his covenant with us so that he can give us his life and his peace, delivering us from the powers of strife and death that dominate this world; he has invited us to his table because he has a feast to offer us, and he wants us to share in it. When we don’t give him our best, when we shortchange God so that we can keep more of what we have for ourselves, we’re not really making him any poorer—who we’re really shortchanging is ourselves. This angers and grieves God, not because he’s losing out, but because we are.

Let us, then, this morning come to the table of the Lord to worship him with our whole heart and mind and soul and strength, because he is worthy of all honor and all praise; let us come to give him the best of what we have and are, because he has given us everything we are and everything we have. Let us come because he loves us, and deserves our love and gratitude in return; and let us come because it is the best thing we can possibly do. Let us come to the table of the Lord, for this is the table of life.

God’s Choice

(Genesis 25:19-26, Malachi 1:1-5; Romans 9:10-16)

The language in our passages this morning is jarring to our ears. What’s this talk about God hating? The Bible tells us that God is love; it tells us that his love for the world is so great that he came down in Jesus to die and rise again for us. So where does this statement come from, “Esau I have hated,” and how does that square?

This is one of those places where we run up against the fact that every age and culture uses words differently; this is actually treaty language. Back then, when kings made alliances with each other, they would declare, “I love you, and I hate your enemies.” It’s a statement of choice—I have chosen to be on your side, and to stand against those who attack you—but they wanted to make that statement as strong, as powerful, as permanent, and as absolute as possible; so they used the language of love and hate.

Here in Malachi, to be sure, there’s more going on; this goes all the way back to the birth of Jacob and Esau in Genesis 25. If you remember the story, God had made a promise to Abraham that he would use Abraham’s family to redeem the world. Jacob and Esau were his twin grandsons; Esau was the older, but God chose the younger one to be the greater, from whose descendants would come the people of Israel, and ultimately the Son of God.

That by itself didn’t necessarily mean that God had rejected Esau; as far as we know, Esau didn’t know anything about this, and if he’d chosen to follow God, he could have been blessed as well. But he didn’t. Instead, he rejected God, and went his own way, ending up rather a brute and a bully. To be sure, Jacob was no prize either—he was a charmer, a con man, a liar and a swindler; but for everything he did wrong, he did continue to honor and worship the one true God as his God.

As you can imagine, the sibling rivalry between these two was epic. In fact, it may have been the worst in history, because it didn’t die with them; it didn’t even die with their children or grandchildren. Instead, it continued for centuries. Jacob’s descendants became the nation of Israel; for hundreds and hundreds of years, their very worst and most consistent enemy was the nation of Edom—the descendants of Esau. They had other enemies, but with those other enemies, there were periods of peace, and even alliances against greater threats—but never with Edom; Edom was always implacably dedicated to the destruction, the annihilation of the people of God.

And so God declares, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated,” expressing his absolute unswerving faithfulness to the people of Israel whom he had chosen—and this despite the fact that they had not been faithful to him. There had been times they were no better than Edom. They’d been so bad, God had allowed them to be conquered and dragged off into exile. He could have washed his hands of them, let Edom destroy them as the kings of Edom wanted so badly to do, and started over. But he didn’t—because God had chosen Jacob, he had chosen his people Israel, and he had promised that he would use them to bless the whole world; and so he remained faithful to them despite everything.

When all was said and done, it would be Edom that would come to an end, not Israel—and so it was—and it would be Israel through whom God would complete his plan of redemption—and so it was. Because it wasn’t about Israel being good enough, as it isn’t about us being good enough; because in the end, what it’s all about is the unending, unbreakable, unstoppable love and mercy of God, which we have seen most fully in Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Lord.