Monday, November 22, 2010

Sermon on Malachi 3:13-18, for the Last Sunday of the Church Year, "God of Reversals"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today is the last Sunday in the Church Year, and as our readings again focus on Judgment Day, we listen to the Old Testament reading from Malachi. The situation was that the Jews were complaining against God how unfair it was that the wicked prospered. As we study this reading, we’ll consider how we’ve complained against God, what God’s response is to the injustice of this world, and how that sets a pattern for us as Christians to respond to it as well. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“But it’s not fair!” a child exclaims. “Life isn’t fair, kid; deal with it” the adult replies. It’s a pretty familiar exchange, and we’ve all been there. “When life deals you a bad hand, you do the best to play the hand you’re dealt,” goes a common proverb. Everyone has had times in their life when they grumbled or complained that things just seemed unfair. In the reading, the Israelites were complaining to God, accusing Him that it was vain or useless to serve Him. They claimed that there was no profit in keeping God’s commands or in showing signs of repentance before God. After all, the arrogant and proud were being blessed—and they weren’t. Evildoers were becoming rich and full, and even testing God and getting away with no consequences. It wasn’t fair! Shouldn’t God have been rewarding those who followed and obeyed Him with prosperity and success? They seemed to be saying, “What’s the point in serving God anyway?”

Ever felt the same? Ever thought that being a Christian “just isn’t paying off?” You wind up with more grief in the end? Sometimes you get mocked and ridiculed for doing what’s right or standing out from the crowd? Seems like the people who are dishonest and cheat in their work and in their private life become rich and prosperous—while the honest can’t get ahead. If these are some of your thoughts, you have something in common with the Jews in the book of Malachi—but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Do you expect an earthly payoff or an easy road for following God? Do you expect that since you follow God things should always go your way? Another one who thought like this was Asaph, who wrote Psalm 73. Read the Psalm several times and notice how similar the thoughts are to Malachi. Asaph experienced that same sense of unfairness, to the point that it nearly caused him to stumble from the straight path, because he’d become so envious of the wicked.

Asaph saw how the wicked grew rich and prosperous, how they had plenty to eat and didn’t seem to suffer the same misery or illness as others. They spoke arrogantly and maliciously, they weren’t even afraid to scoff at God, imagining that God didn’t see or know their sin. Asaph, marvels at their wealth, and how they were getting away with everything; while he earnestly strove to be clean in heart and actions, and suffered for it. He too began to feel the futility of following God and doing what was right, because it only seemed to get him misery. Being evil began to look more rewarding.

It’s important here to note that there is a big difference between suffering a real injustice and a perceived injustice. We first must know whether we’re suffering innocently, or because we actually did something wrong. St. Peter reminds us that it is a gracious thing to suffer for doing what is right—but there is no credit for suffering for what is wrong (1 Peter 2:19-20). For example, there’s no injustice in suffering for our disobedience or sin. As sinful humans, we’re experts at magnifying our sense of injustice, even when we’re the ones to blame. If we’ve sinned and brought hardship on ourselves, then we must repent of our wrong. But if we’ve suffered unjustly for doing what’s right, we take the advice of Peter: “Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing” (1 Pet. 3:8-9).

So how did Asaph resolve his feelings about injustice? He became tired and weary from trying to sort it all out, how the wicked seemed to escape God’s judgment, until he came to the Temple. There in God’s presence he realized the truth about the wicked, and he came around to the same conclusion that God spoke in Malachi. In the end, in the Final Judgment, the wicked will meet their downfall and be punished, but the righteous will belong to the Lord. The evildoers who prospered in this life will finally meet their downfall in the next—and some would even fall to ruin in the present life. However it might seem to us in the present, God isn’t blind or ignorant to injustice and evil, nor will evildoers endlessly escape.

Malachi wrote that God heard the prayer of the righteous—He wasn’t deaf to their outcries. God pledges to remember those who feared and honored Him. While in the present life, the righteous may endure injury, insult, and injustice, God says: “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” The great reward of the righteous is not prosperity or ease in this life. How sincere would our love and obedience be to God if we only did it because we expected a payoff from Him? But rather, on the day of judgment, God will finally set apart the righteous from the wicked, and those who serve Him from those who don’t. In Malachi chapter 4 it goes on to describe how the righteous and wicked will be separated on the Day of the Lord, and how the wicked will face God’s final judgment, while the righteous will rejoice at His coming.

So the realization we come to about the unfairness of life and how the wicked seem to go unpunished is that it will all be resolved on the last day. In Psalm 73, Asaph said that before he came to the Temple and realized this truth, his sense of injustice had filled him with bitterness, anger, and ignorance before God. We can probably sympathize somewhat with that sense of injustice sometimes, and how we demand an answer from God about why things have gone so miserably, or why one terrible thing or another has happened. And God has heard it all. The amazing thing that brought Asaph back to his senses and kept him from stumbling and losing faith over this issue, was the realization that everything he had—everything we have, is God. He is our great and eternal possession. He will receive us into heaven in His glory, and it is all the gain in the world to be near to God and have Him as our refuge.

God gives the same gracious conclusion in Malachi. God had heard the thankless complaining and grumbling about His unfairness from the people—but God bore those outcries with remarkable patience. He spoke of the same truth Asaph discovered, namely that those who fear the Lord, “They shall be mine.” To be God’s possession, to be His treasured possession, is a truth that outweighs all the injustice and unfairness of life. But there still remains the matter of how we deal with injustice and unfairness. How do we respond to the apparent success and prosperity of the wicked, while believers often seem to suffer difficulty?

Our response has much to do with how it is that we became God’s treasured possession. How we’re spared on God’s day of judgment. God says that He will spare us as a man spares his son who serves him. We’re spared because God forgives us. Forgiven through Jesus’ death on the cross for our sins. See if you recognize these words: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Rom. 8:31-32). God did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up to death on the cross, so that through Jesus He could graciously give us all things. Jesus’ precious blood and death on the cross and His rising from the dead makes us God’s treasured possession.

Moreover, it’s in the death of Jesus that we see how God responded to the gravest injustice the world has ever seen. In the reading from Luke, you heard how Jesus suffered a capital punishment reserved for the worst of criminals—though innocent of any wrongdoing. If anyone on earth had a right to grumble or complain about the injustice or unfairness of His life, it was Jesus Christ. He’d lived in perfect obedience to God’s law and had confirmed with miracle after miracle that He was truly God; and He spoke the truth. Yet here He was nailed to a cross, suffering the worst indignities and being mocked and laughed at and spit on. Here was a true injustice, no mistake. But Jesus’ response wasn’t to complain or cry out to God that evildoers were putting God to the test and escaping. He didn’t charge God with unfairness because it seemed unprofitable to serve Him. He didn’t envy the wealth or success of the wicked.

This is nothing short of incredible. When we suffer injustice or abuse, whether real or perceived, there is an incredible amount of energy and even anger that this can generate. It can make people capable of revenge or consuming hatred. But with pure divine love, Jesus mastered all the normal impulses to anger, hatred, or revenge, and reprocessed them into grace. Jesus took the energy created by injustice and turned it into humility and forgiveness. He looked upon His tormentors and those who laughed and mocked at His weak and dying body, and He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He turned what could’ve been anger into grace and love. Wounded by insults, He responded with forgiveness and understanding.

Several of Jesus’ parables show the same amazing grace, how longsuffering and patient God is with us. Unlike us, God has the authority and the power to instantly eliminate and consume all His enemies, all who are responsible for sin and injustice. Even our sinful grumbling and complaining against God, or our rebellion against Him. But the parable of the Prodigal Son, for example, shows the Father’s incredible and undeserved love to the lost son, even after the disgrace and insults he’d brought on the family. Or the Parable of the Great Banquet where God overcomes the anger of being snubbed by His invited guests, and instead opens the banqueting hall to a multitude of undeserving guests from everywhere in the town and the countryside. In these parables God turns His anger over sin into grace and undeserved mercy. He turns ungratefulness to Him into kindness and mercy for others. He gives the repentant and humble forgiveness. When met with scorn and contempt, He gives the undeserving a place of honor.

While many times in this life everything seems to be going in the favor of the wicked and unbelieving—while the arrogant and the proud seem to prosper and get away with despising God—this will only be until the day of the Lord. On the Day that Jesus returns, all those who raised themselves up in pride, will be brought low, and those who were humble will be exalted. Just as the Great Injustice of Jesus’ death on the cross became the Great Reversal that meant life and forgiveness for all who trust in Him, so at the Last Day, God will bring justice where there has been injustice. Those who have served Him will be spared, but those who did not serve Him will perish. God will set right what has been wrong.

So Christ equips Christians with His love, so that we have a Christ-like response to the unfairness or injustice of life. We can and should cry out to God against true injustice, and seek for Him to bring justice to His people, because He does hear our prayers and understand our grief, for He experienced it in far greater measure than us. But be patient for God’s timing, because He is longsuffering, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, for He desires that all would repent, even those who have caused injustice. But when we suffer for doing good, don’t accuse God of wrongdoing or think that it’s better for us to live as evildoers. But instead bear injustice with faith that God will finally right all wrongs and that the injustice of life is far outweighed by the fact that we’re His treasured possession in Christ. God will bring about justice in the end. And Finally we take comfort as Asaph did in the end of Psalm 73, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. For behold, those who are far from you shall perish; you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you. But for me it is good to be near God; I have made the Lord God my refuge, that I may tell of all your works.” In Jesus’ name we tell of God’s great works. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Read what some of the “complaints against God” were from the Jews, in Malachi 1:2; 2:17; 3:8; 3:14-15. Read Psalm 73. How did Asaph envy the wicked, and what brought him back to the truth?
2. What injustice or unfairness do you feel you face in life? If you suffer for doing wrong, this is no credit to you (see the whole book of 1 Peter, especially chs. 2-4; verse 2:19-20). But suffering for doing what is good is a “gracious thing.”
3. How did Asaph find peace and understanding about the plight of the righteous and the prosperity of the wicked? Psalm 73:16-28. How does this parallel what God says in Malachi 3?
4. In what way does the Day of Judgment show the “distinction between the righteous and the wicked?” How will God sort things out?
5. Does God hear our cries to Him about injustice? How do we, and how does God respond to injustice and the feelings it produces? How did we become God’s treasured possession? Cf. Malachi 3:16-18, Ps. 73, 1 Peter 1:18-19; Matt. 13:44-46; Rom. 8:31-32
6. How did Jesus respond to the injustice of His crucifixion? Luke 23:34, 43. See how God reacts to injustice in the following parables: Luke 14:12-24; 15:11-32; 19:9-18.
7. How does this set a pattern for us as Christians to follow? How do we respond to injustice in a Christ-like way? If we suffer injustice in this life, what far outweighs anything we experience?

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