It seems like ages ago, but it was between Christmas and New Year that I decided to go to a sports footwear store to buy some new sneakers and maybe to get a good deal. I went into the store, was greeted by a clerk, and I explained what I was looking for. He looked at me with incredulity and said, “Sir, we haven’t sold that sneaker here for years.”
I said, “Yes, but I like them. Can you go into your stock room and see if you can find the Brooks Beast 2017?”
He said, “Oh, I can’t promise anything, but I will go and have a look.”
I waited, and I waited, and I waited. Finally, a man and his teen-aged son came and sat next to me. So I eavesdropped on their conversation. They were discussing which sneakers his son was going to buy. The son had his mind set on what he wanted. He took his father along the wall, past all the cheap ones, the middle expensive ones, the more expensive ones, to the extremely expensive ones, and said, “I’d like a pair of those. All my friends have them. This is what I want.”
His father looked at the price, nearly had a coronary, moved back to another section and picked out a couple of very sensible sneakers.
The boy said, “No, I am not having those. I won’t be caught dead wearing those!” He was offered another paid, and he said, “No, no, no. I couldn’t show my face in public if I wore those. I am not going to wear those. No, I want the ones that I want.”
His father was exasperated, and he said, “I am sorry, I am not laying out that amount of money for a pair of sneakers. I don’t care what you want. This is the one that I think you should have.”
The boy said again, “I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing something like that!”
The father chose a different tack. He said, “Why do you need them so urgently? Perhaps we could wait a while?”
The boy said, “No, no, no, I need them for the dance on New Year’s Eve.”
The father said, “So you need them in the next two days?”
The son said, “Yes, absolutely!”
The father was a clever man – I liked the father – and he asked, “What sort of dance is it? It is going to be in a hall, right? Will the hall be dark or will it be well lit?’
The son said, “It will be dark.”
The father said, “Well, nobody will be able to see what you have on your feet anyway! No one will care what you are wearing.”
Then the boy, sounding Shakespearian, said, “Father, I will know what I am wearing.”
I don’t know what they bought in the end, because the clerk helping me came out and told me that the sneakers I wanted had disappeared with the Ark of the Covenant! So I left. But I thought that the young boy sounded like Polonius in Hamlet and that wonderful line from a wise legal counsel: “This above all, to thine own self be true.” In other words, the boy was more concerned about his own self image and what he looked like in front of his peers.
I want to go back 2,500 years, and it is a leap, I know. I want to go back to the time of Malachi. In today’s incredible passage from Malachi, the people of Israel are dealing with their own self-image. It is an image that to a large extent had been crushed: they had been forced to live in foreign lands. They were of a low ebb and were feeling crushed in exile, but now the exile was over, and they were returning to their homeland. They had high expectations that they would be a great nation again. They would build a great Temple and all the other nations in the world would admire and respect them.
When you really think about it, we are not that far from the people of Israel in our thoughts and expectations, are we? We live our lives often as if we are actors on a stage. We are concerned about what other people think about us, about how we project our image, and protect it. We have a concept of ourselves that we then try to reflect in the things that we do or the people that know or how we dress. We spend a lot of our lives being concerned about our image and how it is projected to others. It is often absurd, mind you. It is a facile thing, for who really, honestly, except those who are close to us, care one dot or tittle what we look like or how we present ourselves? It was a great debate within my family when everyone would plan their vacations, and part of the planning, (and this reflects the age) was what wardrobe you would have, and how every day you would look a certain way, and dress to impress. Some of our family members had immense amounts of luggage, but I will always remember what my uncle said, “Honestly people, do you think it really matters whether you are dressed for success when you go to a foreign country? These people don’t know who you are. They will never see you ever again, and they are not going to be saying, “Oh, I notice her sweater does not match her dress” or “This tie does not go with that jacket.” You are living in a fool’s world when you think that everyone is worried about everything you project.” That didn’t go down very well with some members of my family, but my uncle was right.
When you really think about it, we live as if we are on the stage. Israel was living as if it was on a stage. They thought that they needed to impress all the other nations, especially those who had formerly conquered them, and that by building a great Temple, erecting a great city in Jerusalem, and putting on a big show in their worship that they would impress other nations. The only problem was the reality did not meet the expectation. On the contrary, their world was not what they thought. When they all came home — and there were two groups of people, those who stayed in Israel during the exile, many of who became serfs and slaves for their masters and those who had been forced to live in another country and work, sometimes as skilled labourers — they thought that both those who had been foreigners and those who had stayed home would create a great nation. But it took them ninety years just to build a wall around the city, never mind building the Temple in the middle! Now, I am not getting into current politics, as I know that a wall can take some time to build, right? But ninety years to build a wall around a city! Why? Because they couldn’t agree about where the wall should go and get the labourers to do the work. They believed it was the land of milk and honey and that everything would be wonderful. They found out there were droughts and that the land wasn’t as prosperous as they thought it was.
They then started to question God, saying, “God, things are not as good as we thought they were going to be when we came back home and we all came together” but they didn’t help themselves. The Levites, the priests, who were supposed to be responsible for the rebuilding of the Temple, were more interested in their own image, more interested in themselves than they were in the worship of God, they had become corrupt and complacent. The people had turned inwardly, had become immoral, unjust, and were not treating each other with equity. There was conflict between those who had lived outside and those who had remained at home. It was a mess! Yet, they had this image that they wanted to project to the world that they were now a great nation doing great things.
Along comes Malachi, which literally means “the messenger” to tell the people of Israel how they should act. It was he who told them what the image they should project. He did so by doing two things. First, he reminded them that it is God who creates the new image for Israel, not themselves. There was confusion about this. Many of those who had lived in exile had lived in a pagan world, which believed in metamorphosis (when you change spiritually and personally, not physically). You change personally and emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. Then, as you grow you transform into another state, take your god with you, and if you don’t like the god that you take with you, then you change the god. Those who had lived in exile believed that they could create their own gods to make up their own minds about what is right and wrong, what they should do, how they should worship, WHO they should worship, and how they should worship.
Malachi is saying, “No, no, no!” The God of the Jewish people, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Sarah, no! This God does not change! His statutes remain forever. His law, his justice, his truth remain forever. It is the people who change, not God. It is the people who need to be changed in conformity with the will and the purpose of God. Malachi uses imagery and an analogy that they would understand: God treats us like a refining fire or like a fuller’s soap, a launderer’s soap to cleanse, or like gold and metal that is purified by the removal – I love the old English word the dross, the impurities in metals – of the dross, so only the good, the beautiful, and the shiny remain. He said, “This is how God is going to treat us. He is going to be like a refining fire, changing, and making us better. The injustice, the immorality, the lack of faith in God, will be burnt away. Hence, the tough language at the end of the Book of Malachi about it all burning up. It doesn’t mean literally burning; it means burning away the impurities in order that they might be made in the image of God.
Is this not an image for all time? Is that not what happens to us when we are disappointed by ourselves and the things that we have done wrong in life, and the inconsistencies and the immoralities, and the lack of grace and care for others? When we haven’t lived up to what really should be God’s image, but we have been more concerned with our image, even if it means at the expense of others? Is it not in moments like that God’s refining fire removes the dross and remoulds us? Or, in life itself when we find ourselves in a position where we are suffering from injustice, have been falsely accused, or have an issue with our own situation because others are wanting to crush us. Is it not comforting that there is a God who burns away the old and brings in the new. For the people of Israel, this was necessary. They had to change. They couldn’t just say, “We want a great image and a big Temple and be really important” and have all of these things if their hearts are not changed by God’s power. The good news is – and this is what Malachi was saying – this isn’t a process just of judgement, this is God caring, this is God doing something good. But for the people, they needed to come face-to-face with their politics and their injustices, and they needed to be changed by the refiner’s fire.
Precisely what does that change look like? Here we really get to the lesson. It is no coincidence that the Book of Malachi is the last book in The Old Testament. In fact, Chapter 4 is the very last chapter in The Old Testament. It sounds tough, doesn’t it? It talks about stamping on flames and yet being able to come out like a calf jumping out of a stable and leaping for joy with freedom. It is both of these things. But in The New Testament, particularly John the Baptist believed that the messenger, the Malachi the other messenger was talking about, had come in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Malachi believed that someone would come who was like Elijah. John the Baptist said, “I am not Elijah, he is not Elijah (pointing to Jesus), but greater than Elijah is the One who has come – Jesus of Nazareth!” In other words, the messenger is going to fulfill the hopes of Israel. It is Christ who is going to remake and reshape the people. It is he who is the refiner.
I have noticed something, when I look at the issues that Malachi was dealing with. It seems as if almost every one of them correlates with something that Jesus addressed in his ministry. Let me give you three examples, and these are examples that could apply today, never mind in biblical times. First, there were those who were sorcerers, soothsayers, and corrupt business people who exploited the working person and the poor. These sorcerers would take money from people and tell them what their future would hold. Then, there were the moneychangers, who would exchange foreign currency at a ridiculous rate, taking way more than they should. This was particularly the case for those who had previously lived in exile and had currency from Babylon coming back to Israel. Then, there were those who realized that there were people who had been living in a foreign land and didn’t know the customs of Israel, and they made them pay even to go into the Temple and worship. It was corrupt! Jesus was in fact the messenger when he went into the Temple and said to those who were changing money, selling things so people could go into the Temple, “You have made the House of God into a den of thieves”? That was what Malachi was encountering! When Jesus saw the tax collectors, he didn’t say to the tax collectors, “Continue to be corrupt and to exploit people.” No! He invited them to follow him and to change their ways, so that the likes of Matthew became followers, or Zacchaeus, who paid back those he owed. Jesus was just in keeping with Malachi.
There were also those, and I think this is even worse in terms of a problem, who dealt with people as if they were aliens. I don’t mean aliens from Mars, I mean those who had lived in Babylon, and those who had stayed at home felt superior to those who had returned. This is often a problem for people who have lived in exile and return to a land. There is often conflict after many years of the relationship, like the Prodigal Son who went away and the brother who stayed at home, and the one who stayed at home thinks he is better. There was this tremendous conflict. What do we do with these people? Many of them had been born in captivity in a foreign land. Many of them had Gentile parents. Many of them had not known one scintilla of Hebrew, and yet here they are coming back into Israel with no concept of how to live as traditionally they had done. In fairness to those who had stayed home; they had also suffered at the hands of the oppressor. They had lived a torturous life. So together, they were really unsure who belongs in Israel, who has the right to citizenship. It became a major issue. Malachi is concerned that those outward appearances of whether you are from away or stayed matters not once you are in Israel. Once you are in Israel, you are in Israel, like Jesus, who spent a lot of his time talking about Samaritans, remember? He embraces Samaritans, and heals Samaritans. He wanted to show that God’s kingdom is not divided by where you were born or which nation you come from; it is about living in a just and a right way with your neighbours.
There was also the issue of women and how they were being treated, which was a major problem for Malachi. Women who had married Gentile men and came back into Israel were asked to divorce their husbands, but they weren’t allowed under the law to divorce, so the husbands were forced to divorce their wives. Similarly, Jewish men who had married Gentile women were forced to divorce their wives. It was a mess! In those days, only a man could divorce a woman; a woman could not divorce a man. Only a man could hand the chattel or chit and say “Here, you are gone!” The abuse of women was terrible. Many ended up in gutters, or on the streets with nowhere to live. It was an appalling situation. Malachi says, “This is unjust! The law is the law, and this is not the way to treat one another.” Jesus did the same thing with the woman at the well. He reached out to her, and gave her a second chance. The woman who was being stoned for adultery, and of course she committed adultery, because she might have been divorced many times over. She finds herself in this terrible situation, and Jesus says, “Go, and sin no more.” Jesus tries to address this, tries to lift women up in his ministry. Well, Malachi was saying all of these things are contributing to the suppression of the people and to the immorality of the land. This is not in the image of God! Just in our nation when every two-and-a-half days a woman is murdered in this country, you realize the problems, the issues that every society has to deal with. For those who were the perpetrators of the injustice, it is going to be like they were walking on hot coals. Tough words from Malachi!
The last part is about the worship of God. You see, the Levites were worried about what they wear, about the Temple, and all of the formalities. They were more concerned with the outward image than what was going on in the heart and soul. People had become complacent. They had lived in exile for all those years, came home, and for a while there was an upsurge in worship under Ezra and Nehemiah, but now it had got to the point that people didn’t care anymore, worship wasn’t important any more. They were just living their own lives, and worship was an inconvenience. That is what it was! Meeting with their fellow believers, coming before God in prayer, making a sacrifice, singing hymns and the psalms, glorifying God at his altar, these things had no importance. Malachi says to the Levites, “Never mind all your outward appearances and all your false images, you are not impressing anybody!” For those who were complacent about worship and thinking “Well, we’ll go for the High Days and holidays and have a big party with all the great music”, he says to them, “You are not impressing anybody! It is where your heart is. It is where God is in your life. It is what God has at the centre of your being. It is not a matter of image; it is about whether or not the refiner is re-imaging you. Worship does that.”
At the Children’s Moment this morning, Nupur said to the children, “It is hard to get up for 9:15 in the morning in the cold, isn’t it? They all said “Yeah!”
She said, “We are here to worship God. Isn’t it worth making a sacrifice to do it?”
And they said “Yeah, yeah!” I thought, “That is what Malachi is saying!” Never mind the image; it is our recognition of God that counts. The single most important part of our life, the thing that makes worship so important is that we honour God. Never mind what we look like. Never mind appearances. It is coming humbly before our Lord. Malachi was an incredible messenger, wasn’t he? Jesus took it to a whole new level! Amen.