Monday, November 22, 2010

Proper 29 (Malachi 3:13-18)

“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this last Sunday of the Church Year comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the third chapter of the prophet Malachi. Dear friends in Christ: The accusation from God thunders forth from the heavens in the first verse of our text. “‘Your words have been hard against me,’ says the Lord.” The scene is the heavenly courtroom. You and I are sitting in the witness chair, face to face with our God who is at the same time the prosecutor and the judge. Doesn’t seem all that fair, but hey, He’s God. He is always the judge, because who else can the Creator of all things be, and in this case He is the accuser, because our sin is against Him. We stammer, our minds searching for an answer, an explanation, or an excuse that will satisfy our God, but all that comes out of our mouths is a question. “How have we spoken against you?” It’s a good strategy- make God prove His case. Unfortunately, God is ready to do so, and He has all the evidence He will ever need. He will quickly show us that we are on trial for putting Him on trial, for accusing Him of injustice. God wants us to wrestle with Him in prayer, but the prosecution plans to demonstrate that these words go far beyond the prayer of faith to the very edge of unbelief.

God reads the charges, quoting from our own words. “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping his charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.’” Wow, we really said all that? It doesn’t seem possible that we would be so bold, so rebellious, so disrespectful. We open our mouths to protest, but God is ready to press this point home. He shows us our thoughts and our words, the thoughts and words that come forth when we see how non-Christians live. Why do non-believers have all the fun? They get to do what they want, live how they want, enjoy life to the fullest. They seem to live such carefree lives, without being burdened with all the rules and responsibilities that come with being a Christian. Do you hear us, God? Your rules are dragging us down! Being a Christian is like going to a funeral each and every day. All we talk about is your rules and our sin, and to be quite frank, God, its ruining my life! There are so many things I want to do, but because I’m a ‘Christian,’ I can’t. And that wouldn’t be so bad if what you offered was exciting, but this Christian life is boring! That pastor stands up and talks about sin and Jesus, sin and Jesus each and every week, and I’m tired of it! Why can’t I have all the fun that my neighbors have, why can’t I live life to the fullest? I mean, look at all those other people- if they are truly breaking your Law each and every day, why do they prosper? Why don’t you just strike them down?

God pauses in His presentation, and the entire courtroom senses that the prosecution has reached a turning point in its argument. It is one thing to say that Christianity is a downer, but what follows is even worse. “And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and they escape.” This statement calls into question God’s justice. God, if you do not punish those who defy you, I’m going to go all in; I’m going to call those who disobey your commands blessed. That’s what they are, blessed because you have not executed your justice against them. Christians aren’t the blessed ones, because we just suffer, we just walk around in funeral clothes. We don’t prosper, but those who despise you do. They put you to the test and they escape. God, you just sit there and let them defy you, and therefore they are blessed. There is only one conclusion to this line of thought, and that is where the prosecution concludes its case. God calls our attention once again to Exhibit A: “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God.” He pulls out His Hebrew dictionary and looks up the word translated as ‘vain.’ “Let the court note that this word has the meaning of worthlessness or emptiness.” This is about as bad as it can get. God accuses us of saying that serving Him is pointless, it is worthless. It literally has no meaning at all, it has no benefit, and indeed those who do not serve God seem to have His blessing. This line of accusation toward God has taken us to the very verge of unbelief; now we see exactly what God means when He said to us, “Your words have been hard against me.”

The courtroom sits in stunned silence. What will God do? Will He destroy us, condemn us eternally as we deserve, or will He allow us to put Him on trial, will He provide the evidence that He is indeed a God of justice, that He has not forgotten about us? In the back another prosecutor, the one whose is called by Scripture the ‘accuser,’ Satan, sits with a smirk on his face. He wants us to be isolated complainers, he wants us to be alone, to face the sin of this world by ourselves. When we are Christians in isolation, we are so easily enticed to complain and accuse God, we are so vulnerable to unbelief. But God knows this, and so as the judge deliberates, He tells us, those on trial, to gather together. “Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another.” He calls on us to be the Church, a community of believers that support one another in good times and bad. In this community of faith, we call each other to repentance when we sin, we work to bring back those who have been isolated and come dangerously close to unbelief, we help each other through the difficulties and questions that come from living in a sinful world. But it is not all about us in the Church, it is about Him. God gives His promises in the context of the community, within the Church. And it is within the Church that He gives His verdict.

God’s answer to our complaint, to our hard words against Him is one word, one name, one person: Jesus. “Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. 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.” The Lord inclined His ear to you in your time of trouble and He sent His Son to deliver you. He heard your complaint, He knew your sin, and He sent Jesus to pay for that sin. Jesus is His answer to our sin, even our sin of complaining and accusing Him, He answers the charge by the prosecution: “Your words have been hard against me.” Jesus took that sin upon Himself and carried it to the cross, where He paid for it with His own blood. But Jesus does not only answer for our sins of hard words against our God, but through Him God in His grace provides an answer to our complaint. God has not forgotten us, He has not abandoned us, but instead He has written our names in the book of remembrance. This is a book written with the blood of Jesus. This is a book of those who have been claimed by our Lord Jesus Christ, who have been baptized into His Name, and therefore bear that Name into eternity. God has not forgotten you, and you know the truth of this because Jesus died and rose again for you, inscribing your name in the book of remembrance. His cross and empty tomb are the seal on God’s promises, the proof that despite all appearances to the contrary, you are loved by God and He has remembered you.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ means that God has vindicated Himself, He has shown Himself to be both a God of justice and a God of love. His just wrath was poured out upon Jesus on that cross so that you could be shown love. And on that basis of that sacrifice God will deliver us on the Last Day, He will show things as they truly are. “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.” Because Jesus shed His blood on our behalf, we will be God’s treasured possession on the Last Day, we will belong to Him. Listen again to what He says: “They shall be mine.” He looks at each of you today and says, “You will be mine!” Jesus died for you, to make you the Father’s own, to make you His child, to write your names in the book of remembrance. Being a Christian does not mean that we are condemned to a boring life of rules, but instead it is the proclamation each and every day that we have a God who loves us, and who proved it by sending Jesus Christ to die for us, delivering us from all our enemies and bringing us to the joyous halls of the new heavens and the new earth for all eternity, which will be anything but boring.

Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection means that the Last Day is not a day of terror or punishment for us, but is instead the great and glorious day when God makes us His own for the sake of His Son. God said, “I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” On these last two Sundays of the Church Year, we hear a lot about the fire and brimstone of the Last Day. Jesus is very graphic when describing the tribulations that will come upon the earth on Judgment Day, as well as the harsh punishment that those who have rejected Him will face. Hell is a reality that we cannot ignore. But as God declares to the court, on that Day you will be spared from eternal punishment for the sake of Jesus Christ. He endured that punishment, the very punishment of hell, for you so that He could spare you from it. On the Last Day, God will make all things clear, as He says in His closing statement: “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.” On that Day the Lord will spare you and me in His great compassion, His compassion for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. The case is closed, for the judge has satisfied His own accusation against us. He not only has provided forgiveness for whenever we speak hard words against Him, but He in His grace has provided an answer to our complaint. His answer is always Jesus, and it is an answer that is true, that is real, that is founded on the blood that He shed for you and for me. Thanks be to God that He will spare us for the sake of Jesus! In His life-giving name, Amen.

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