Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Proper 29 of Series C (preached 11-25-07)

Text: Malachi 3:13-18

“You shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and the one who does not serve Him.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Our text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from Malachi chapter three. Dear friends in Christ- If there is one thing that I have observed in all of my years in various schools, it is that students love to complain. This may surprise you, but even at the seminary, it is difficult to go one day without giving a complaint yourself or hearing one from someone else. We complain about cafeteria food, we complain about professors, we complain about assignments, we complain about other students. And I doubt that it is much different with you. You probably have even had a few complaints enter your mind this morning. “Why do I have to listen to this pastor-wannabe this morning?” “Why are we having another sermon on Malachi?- we have to be the only church in America who is having Malachi back to back!” There you are probably right, but yet it is only a minor example of something that is a major part of our lives.

The people of Malachi’s day thought that they had a lot to complain about. They had just been returned from exile in Babylon and had rebuilt their temple. They thought that they were on the up and up. But then things did not improve- God did not make Israel into a great nation as He promised, and even more important, He did not reward those who served Him. Malachi tells us that they cried out, “It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping His charge or of walking as of mourning before the Lord of hosts?” Does that sound familiar? We too often complain that serving God has not given us any profit- we have not received the rewards we deserve for going to church every week, volunteering our time on boards, committees, or choir, giving ‘everything we have’ to God. But still we get sick, we lose loved ones, our relationships with others crumble- to put it simply, we do not seem to receive any benefits from serving God.

But in fact, the situation is even more unfair, as the people of Malachi’s time realized and we echo. Not only do those who serve God have a rough time in life, those who defy God do great. The people complained, “And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers do not only prosper, but they put God to the test and they escape.” The people who arrogantly defy God do not get zapped by their creator, but instead prosper. They know God’s will and they go against it anyway, but receive no divine punishment. This is unjust, unfair, simply not right- so we raise a complaint to God. ‘Why do you bless my atheist/mormon/muslim/sometimes Christian neighbor and not me? What right do you have to not give me a good life? - I serve you, you should serve me!’

And that is where God stops us cold with the words of our text. You may have never said it exactly that way, but that is where your thoughts were heading. Our complaint eventually comes down to what we can get out of our relationship with God right now. But God has an accusation to bring against us- “Your words have been hard against me.” God points out our selfish pride and the sin that has brought us to this point. We have selfishly raised complaints against God, complaints that come down to what our relationship with God is giving us now.

So, like the people in our text, we are on a dangerous road. The people whom Malachi speaks to are not quite in rebellion against God, but they are so very close. They have seen the evil ones in their society, the ones who openly defy God and yet live to see even greater prosperity than before. The temptation is so strong, and we feel it yet today. If my world is still falling apart, why should I still put so much time toward the church? The other people around me seem to be doing just fine without God, what about me? The path to rebellion against God is an easy one, and like the people in Malachi’s day, we are tempted to take it- in fact, with our complaining we are well on our way. And so God today speaks as He once did through Malachi: Repent, o people of God and return to Him, because your sinful complaining can lead to only one place- the destruction and punishment of hell!

But then something happens- Malachi records that “those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard them.” Here in this place, with our brothers and sisters, have heard God’s stern words of accusation. We have seen our sin, our walk on the path of rebellion, and we have turned from our ways, we have heeded God’s call to repentance. But none of that really matters- with our sinful complaining we, along with the people of Malachi’s day, have sinned against God, and that sin deserves death, eternal death. But God chose not to leave us in a state of death. “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.” God chose to make us His own, to make us His treasured possession, by sending His Son to this earth to bear our sin, our complaining, our rebellion on His shoulders, bearing the burden we could not bear, and dying the death we deserved. Again we hear these words, “I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” Jesus Christ was that Son who truly served His Father, living a life on this earth without sin. But yet God did not spare His Son, but instead spared YOU. We are the disobedient ones, who complain to God about our lives in this world, but for our sake Christ went to the cross without complaining, bearing the brunt of all God’s wrath. You heard about the punishment Jesus endured from the lectern in our Gospel lesson today- know that He did this for YOU. But Christ did not only die for you, He rose for you- victoriously conquering the power of death for YOU. As Paul puts so beautifully in our Epistle lesson today, “for in Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through Him to reconcile to Himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of His cross.”

And because Jesus did that for you, God will not forget you. The people in Malachi’s day believed that God had forgotten them, that He had forgotten His promises to bless them. Today we complain for the same reasons- we cannot see any benefits to worshipping God, so we often believe that God has forgotten us. But for Christ’s sake, God will remember you. As He says through Malachi in our text today, “The Lord paid attention and heard them, and a book of remembrance was written before Him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed His name.” In your Baptism, God wrote your name in this book, bringing you the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection. Paul writes that in Baptism, “He has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” As water was poured on your head ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,’ you were made a child of God, and as God’s child He will remember you, granting to you final victory on the last day.

And as we arrive at final Sunday of the Church year, we look toward that Last Day, the time when Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. God speaks of this day in our text: “Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between the one who serves God and the one who does not serve Him.” We are often led to complain during our time on this earth because we cannot see any distinction between those who follow God and those who do not. Both face troubles, and in fact those who defy God seem to be blessed by Him. But on that final day, we will see those who do not believe in God for who they really are- those destined for eternal destruction. But that is not all- we will see who we truly are, those who for Christ’s sake are destined for eternal life. In this sinful world it is difficult to see that we are the people of God, those who have been spared by God because of Christ. But on that day, we shall be revealed as those wearing white robes, cleansed by Baptism to live before God forever.

Therefore, the last day is not a day of fear, but instead we look toward that final day with confidence because the end times came to this earth in the death of Christ. God spoke through Malachi, “They shall be mine in the day when I make up my treasured possession, and I will spare them.” That day was Good Friday, that day was Easter, that day is every day that the body and blood of Jesus comes close to your lips in Holy Communion, and because of those ‘days’ we can look forward to the Last Day with confidence and hope. The end times came with Christ’s death, and we continue to live in the end times whenever we gather in this place in eager expectation of the Last Day. Because Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead, then wrote your name in the book of remembrance through Baptism, we can stand with confidence when the Last Day comes. On that day, when we will “see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked,” Christ will speak to us as He did to the dying thief, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

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