When Those Who Fear The Lord Talk with One Another …

So I’ve been meaning to post this since last November but hesitated for several reasons but as I begin to inch closer to my time to preach again I figured I’d post my sermon for Preaching I. This was the sermon I gave in the preaching chapel at Truett Seminary last November.

When Those Who Fear The Lord Talk With One Another . . .

Malachi 3: 13 – 18

Have you ever walked in on a conversation that was so intense and compelling that you stayed listening but wished you had heard the beginning of the conversation so you knew the whole story? For me the most interesting conversations to walk in on were those between my parents and sister, when my parents were “graciously” reminding my sister of the agreement they had about the house rules. This was incredibly interesting to listen to because it was rare that my sister got into trouble but I always managed to come in on the conversation after my parents informed my sister of what she did wrong. This drove me nuts because I wanted to know what started the conversation. Those of us sitting here today have experienced this with the passage in Malachi that we are focusing on. We enter a conversation between God and Israel where God has just told Israel that He does not change and evidence of that is that they are still alive. This dialogue between God and Israel addresses the various aspects of how Israel has not remained faithful to God and God is responding to their lack of reverence for Him. God also reminds them of how He will respond to their faithful worship; it is here that our passage picks up.

When we hear this passage in Malachi isn’t it easy to cast off those God calls wicked? But I wonder if we can blame them for their response to their difficult times? Think about it, God wasn’t moving among them, the Temple had been rebuilt but no Messiah had come. Israel had not seen the fulfillment of the Golden Age that was prophesied by Haggai and Zechariah. These people wanted to maintain hope so badly that they even sought to see Zerubbabel as a possible Messiah but when he proved to not be the Messiah their hopes and faith began to dwindle. They did not see God’s fulfillment or active presence among them … so what were they supposed to do when all they had held out for had not come in to being?

Can’t we identify with the response of the wicked? Don’t moments of wondering about where God is creep into our thoughts? Wait, what am I saying? Sure you can, you’re in seminary. As the semesters bring stress and we discern our callings seminary can hold dark moments for us, and somehow in the midst of these stressed filled semesters life has the audacity to happen upon that … Certainly you can relate at one point or another with those emotions expressed by the Israelites in verses 14 and 15. I mean it wasn’t like Israel didn’t try to see God in things … they had tried to keep hope and maintain their faith in God but life continued to happen and build upon itself and faithfulness became too much.

I ask you today, is it that easy to write them off? Maybe that makes us feel better because we don’t want to find commonality with them but perhaps we should slow ourselves down and see that we may have more in common with the wicked than we would like to admit. Israel was going through difficult times financially, politically, even spiritually. They simply did not see God and struggled to maintain honest worship. But there’s more to the story. The words of Malachi remind Israel, and us, that when God responds to us with silence and seems absent we respond faithfully in our worship because it is what God calls us to do.

Life is going to present us with dark times and seasons when we feel the defining silence of God and in those times we respond to God with faithful reverence.

            The scene Malachi brought his message to was when Israel felt that nothing significant was happening for them and the waiting for the celebration of the Golden Age to come was building great angst. This time for Israel reminds me of the season the church is currently going through. We’re currently in Ordinary Time when the church counts the Sundays after Pentecost through the Sunday before Advent. There is no major celebration that takes place and the church focuses upon various aspects of faith. It’s a season when the church remembers the faithful and encourages each other to maintain their faith; sounds like what Malachi is talking about in verse 16 when he says “then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard.”

Within these 33 Sundays of Ordinary Time the church remembers All Saints Day. This Sunday remembers those who have made a significant impact to people’s faith. As I was preparing for this sermon All Saints Sunday was celebrated at my church and it got me thinking of various saints who have impacted my faith journey and I was reminded of Mother Teresa.

Several years ago I heard a news report that said in one of her letters Mother Teresa told Rev. Michael van der Peet, “Jesus has a very special love for you, as for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great, that I look and do not see, – Listen and do not hear – the tongue moves but does not speak.” Mother Teresa experienced the silence of God for more than 40 years. Now, she could have responded the way the Israelites had in Malachi 3:13 – 15 but instead of dishonoring God with her offerings and neglecting her neighbor she remained faithful in worshiping God through caring for His created. I don’t know about you but I would have understood if Mother Teresa had responded the way the Israelites had and not given God his dues.

Just as Mother Teresa waited for a response from God Israel waited for God during their Ordinary Time. Israel had been discouraged by their past efforts of keeping the faith that they began to doubt the purpose of it and wondered why those who were putting God to the test were not receiving punishment. It’s the ordinary times in our lives that can stir within us a great sense of anxiousness as we wait for God. As this waiting builds and God’s silence grows it can become quite difficult to hold tightly to our faith, remember the faithful, and encourage one another to keep honoring God.

You have chosen to enter into a covenant with God and in doing have been called to fear God and honor Him with steadfast reverence.

The hard part about Malachi’s message is that the wicked he refers to are not those outside of Israel but those whom have stopped fearing God and more than likely don’t realize it. Their question of defense in Malachi 3:13 give evidence to this. The wicked were still giving offerings and tithes but not because they wished to honor God but because they were seeking merit and hoped to receive fulfillment of the Golden Age for it. I can understand why we seek to cast off the wicked it’s because we wish to see them as people not like Israel, more importantly not like us. The tough truth in Malachi is that those who are called wicked were Israelites, they were those among the faithful who were performing the actions of the faith but only to have God in return respond as they want Him to. Sadly, this tough truth may be something that our churches or communities face as well. The wicked are a part of our faith communities … at times they may even be us.  

Looking at the words of Malachi in verse 15 the word arrogant can also be translated as stout and in Hebrew that word means stubborn or obstinate. These stubborn, inflexible words are the ones Israel has spoken against God. This word stout is also seen in Exodus 7:13 when describing Pharaoh’s hard heartedness. The wicked of Israel have begun to respond in adamant defiance towards God.  Their offerings had become vain as they were only for their selfish desires. They had stopped worshiping God out of thanks and honor for the Covenant and began to worship God with the purpose of receiving blessings from Him. This reminds me of when my parents told me to do the dishes or clean the house and I only did it because I wanted a reward or had something to gain not because I knew it would be a way of respecting all my parents had already done for me and a way I could serve them. This false service of the Israelites is what Malachi is bringing to light. That even though they are tithing and giving offerings they are not of honoring quality or the full amount they could give. For the wicked had begun to barter with their tithes and offerings. Malachi reminded Israel that when they feel as if God is not active or present and that God had actually begun to bless the evildoers their reverencing God Does. Not. Stop. Their sacrifices to God are done because it is what God deserves and is to be done whether or not they hear, feel, or see God’s movement among them. This too, class, applies to our worship of God.

Not only does our reverencing God not stop but also God knows our hearts and assures us that He is aware of those who have served Him and those who have not. The wicked are not all of Israel mind you, for verse 16 reveals that there were people who continued to fear God and have come together to encourage one another in authenticity. Malachi says that they are the people that have had their names written in the Book of Remembrance.

This communal encouragement and authentic response of worship reminds me of the story I heard last year about the small French town, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. During December 1940 to September 1944 this small town of 5000 provided refuge for an estimated 5000 people who were fleeing from the torment of the Holocaust. The people of this Le Chambon were led by Pastor Andre Trocme of the Reformed Church of France. These four years of hiding people were not easy for the French and definitely did not come without doubt of whether it was worth protecting those they were hiding when it meant they could be killed for it. In a documentary on Le Chambon Peter Feigel a Jew who had been hidden in that town recalled that the people of Le Chambon continued to hide him during those dark times because they encouraged one another to live out the instructions of caring for their neighbor that they were taught in the Bible.

It was because of Le Chambon’s communal encouragement and acts of serving God by caring for their neighbor that they continued to risk their lives to save the lives of 5000 refugees.

As Malachi continues with his warning to Israel he states that come the Day of Yahweh there will be no confusion about who are the righteous and the wicked. It is those who have continued to serve God that are God’s intimate possession and who will be shown compassion and be spared on that day.

This separating between the righteous and the wicked is also found in Matthew 25:31 – 46. You know the story. In Matthew 25 verses 34 through 40 Christ tells those at His right hand that they will inherit the Kingdom of God because they cared for the least of these and in doing so they had cared for Christ Himself. Then in verses 41 to 45 Christ tells those at His left hand that they did not care for Him as they did not care for the people of the least of these. The people who are identified as wicked in Matthew and in Malachi were not aware that they weren’t reverencing God. To them they had given God their offerings but what they had not given God was their hearts or loved God through bringing justice for all of God’s creation. An important part of Malachi’s message to Israel is that worshiping God is not about selfish gain but is about honoring God through caring for those around them. Malachi proclaims that Israel’s faith is not individualist and that it is not contingent upon God’s actions. Israel is to fear God faithfully without concern for what they will receive in return. This message is not just for the Israelites way back then but for those of us sitting here today as well.  

Class, we are no different than the Israelites. We are called to worship and fear God no matter how long it has been since we have heard from Him. Our fidelity to our covenant with God is not to be based on certain conditions God has to meet. Oh Class, if this is how we are basing our worship we are just as blind as those God calls into question in Malachi’s message. Our awestruck fidelity to God is based solely on the fact that God is the One True God and is worthy of our praise. Our response to God is not a mirroring of His response to us or how we perceive Him to be responding to others. This was the mistake the wicked had made. They had begun to respond to God as they felt He was responding to them and in doing so they began to question and doubt God’s faithfulness to them and the purpose and worth of worshiping Him altogether. Will we find ourselves responding to God as the wicked or as the righteous had?  It’s this type lifelong questions that we as a faith community need to be asking of ourselves.

We respond to God not out of our emotion but out of our knowledge that God is unchanging and claims us as His beloved.

Jesuit Priest, Henri Nouwen, discussed believers’ responses to God in a daily devotion titled What We Feel is Not Who We Are where he said “It is important to know that our emotional life is not the same as our spiritual life. Our spiritual life is the life of our Spirit of God within us. As we feel our emotions shift we must connect our spirits with the Spirit of God and remind ourselves that what we feel is not who we are. We are and remain, whatever our moods, God’s beloved children.”

As we read this message from Malachi we can’t blame Israel for their emotional reaction to God, we may even find ourselves, at one point or another, saying to God very similar things. However, even though we can’t blame the wicked for their response to their difficult situation it does not mean that we lean into their response as a model we are to follow. We are to honor God when God responds with silence, just as we see those who find their names in the Book of Remembrance had. It is easy to understand where the wicked were coming from … life is not easy and remaining faithful to God during the dark times is not simple.

But just as we find commonality with the wicked we also find commonality with those who remained earnest in their worship. In Malachi 3:16 we are given hope as we are shown that there were people who remained faithful and encouraged one another to keep loyal to their Covenant with God. This is the response we are to lean into, Class. The hope comes in that there is a choice in how we respond and are shown that during dark times in life we can respond the way the righteous did. If we stop reading Malachi at verse 15 we are given very little hope as we can find ourselves having more in common with the wicked than we would like. Thankfully Malachi gives us verses 16 and 17 which reveals to us that there is hope to respond to the difficulties of life by serving God in reverence.

During the dark times in life you are to respond to God in faithful reverence, as you have chosen to enter into the Covenant with God; and God will know who serves Him and who doesn’t and the service you offer God is not done out of emotions but out of your knowledge that God does not change and has called you His beloved. So knowing all of that can we blame the wicked? As sinful human beings ourselves I don’t think we can. Yet, we are to bear in mind that while there were Israelites who had become unfaithful to God there were also those among them who maintained their reverence to Him. Keep close to heart the fact that just as God offered Israel a reminder and warning to return to authentic worship we too are given the same reminder and warning through the book of Malachi. God’s love for us is so abundant that we are reminded to turn from our wicked worship and to keep faith, encourage one another to give God selfless praise, and to love God by caring for His creation because it is what God calls us to do, even when God is silent. Malachi’s prophecy also tells us that …

When those who fear the Lord talk with one another they find support in the darkness of life.

When those who fear the Lord talk with one another they encourage each other to respond in faithful reverence.

When those who fear the Lord talk with one another they are heard by God and find their names in the Book of Remembrance.

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