It sounds like wonderfully good news. The Lord, whom we seek, will suddenly come to his temple. What a wonderful dream! How wonderful it would be if the Lord came suddenly to his temple. How excited we would be! This is what we have long been hoping for. This is the day that we have eagerly awaited. This is our redemption, this is the solution to all of our problems. How could we not be excited and joyful about something like this? And a messenger of the covenant in whom we delight? How good is that? A messenger of God’s covenant is coming, and a delightful one at that! How grand! A message from God! This will be great!
Or would it? How about if I let on that verse one is just dripping with sacred sarcasm? OK, not just dripping, it is running wild with sarcasm. The verses in our passage this morning were written just about 400 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, and the people of God living at that time were hopelessly corrupt, and thoroughly evil. The last thing in the world that they wanted was a sudden appearance from God. They were getting along quite nicely without any pesky interference from God, thank you very much, and if God showed up suddenly, without any notice, it would certainly complicate their lives significantly. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We’re surrounded by people who don’t want anything to do with God. God wasn’t even a passing thought in the minds of most of the people living in Malachi’s day. And a messenger from God in whom they found any delight? Not hardly. That fella can just stay home. Living according to the covenant that God had established with his people had become a thing of the long forgotten past. Nobody could wast time living according to that stuff anymore, it was not only archaic, but also ridiculous and silly. We don’t need anybody showing up here to tell us about our covenant obligations. Don’t be telling us that we’re delighting in any messenger from God. We’re not interested. And if a person were to spend some time reading the book of Malachi, one would discover just how uninterested his readers were in hearing from God. Malachi is pouring his heart out, pleading with the people to repent and to consider reforming their lives. But it was all to no avail. Everything that Malachi said fell on deaf and uncaring ears.
It turns out that God is able to get a sense when he is not welcome. And when people decide to shut him out of their lives, God isn’t terribly pushy. And so God decided to grant the wishes of his people. God went quiet. God went silent. And for four hundred years, there were no messages from God, and no messengers from God. The people got exactly what they wanted. They were able to go their own way without any interference from God. And they thought they were doing just fine.
And then, finally, after those long and silent four hundred years, a messenger did show up. He appeared out in the wilderness in the environs of the Jordan River. He was what we would call a hell-fire and brimstone preacher, and in spite of his strange physical appearance and his uncompromising preaching, people responded to him; first out of curiosity, and then out of need. They repented of their sins, they were baptized in the River Jordan, and most importantly, they asked questions about how they should live, and how they should reform their lives in response to the words from God that they had heard from this fiery preacher. After four hundred long years God’s people were finally ready to hear what God had to say to them. And they responded to that word with enthusiasm and sincerity, and their lives were transformed.
That’s the first half of Malachi’s prophecy in our passage this morning. Malachi announced that a messenger of the covenant would come, and that messenger came, and amazingly, the people were ready to take delight in this messenger and in the covenant obligations that he proclaimed. We know him, of course, as John the Baptist. John functions simultaneously as the last prophet of the Old Testament and as the first prophet of the New Testament. He prepared the way for the sudden coming of the Lord to his Temple in the person of Jesus Christ.
The second half of Malachi’s prophecy is much more complicated and quite troublesome. Malachi envisioned a day when the religious leaders would be transformed. It seemed right to Malachi that a reform among God’s people would begin first in the hearts of the religious leaders. This seems quite reasonable and quite proper. It is what we would expect. If the religious leaders are refined and purified first, then they are in good stead to lead a reform among the people. And so Malachi speaks of a refiner’s fire that would burn all of the dross and impurities out of the religious leaders, calling them to affirm and proclaim their own ancient covenant obligations, so that all that they did in ministry to the people and in service to God would be done in an atmosphere of righteousness and holiness.
But when John the Baptist arrived on the scene, the religious leaders didn’t have a whole lot of interest in what he had to say. They pretty much ignored him. They were too busy doing their religious leader things. John’s preaching didn’t have much impact on them at all. It certainly didn’t lead to any reform or transformation in their lives. Most of the influence that John the Baptist had was in the lives of common, ordinary people.
And the same was true throughout Jesus’ entire ministry. Mostly, only common, ordinary people responded to his teachings. Mostly, only common, ordinary people had their lives transformed. The only impact Jesus had on the religious leaders was that he steeled their determination to do away with him. And in that they were ultimately successful. They won. There was no reform, no return to covenant obligations, no transformation and no purification of the religious leaders during Jesus’ ministry.
So…was Malachi wrong? Did he see something that God didn’t have in mind? Did he see something that God didn’t show him? Was it just wishful thinking on Malachi’s part that the renovation of God’s people would begin with ministers whose lives had been transformed?
I don’t know. But this I do know. Malachi’s words stand as a powerful warning to anyone like me who dares to stand in a pulpit like this on a Sunday morning, purporting to share the word of God with the people of God. It is an awesome task, far beyond my ability to perform it. For I am first of all a sinner, and then, secondly, a messenger. Is my heart sufficiently pure? Has God’s refining fire removed enough dross and enough impurity so that my messages and my offerings are offerings and messages of righteousness? Am I willing enough to listen to God, to hear not only with my ears, but also with my heart? Can I speak the words of God, without adulterating them with my own?
These are hard questions, but if I am to be honest, they are questions that I must constantly be asking myself. In Malachi’s day, the people had no interest in hearing from God, and the religious leaders were only too happy to comply. God grant that I will never give in to that temptation, for the temptation is great, and it is powerful. May I always be receptive to the refiner’s fire. Feel free to join me.