Malachi 2:17 – 3:7
3rd Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s; 25.06.2023
Rev Jeremy Bevan
God who purifies, is permanently ‘for us’, and is persistent
Week 2 of our sermon series on the Old Testament prophets – week 3 if you include Jonah,
a very confused prophet. Last week, we heard about the prophet Amos. God plucked him
from labouring in Judah’s fields and sent him up to Israel as he sought to turn that nation
back to faith. This week, we’ve heard a reading from the book of Malachi, the last of the Old
Testament prophets, from perhaps 350 years after Amos’s time.
Someone suggested to me last week that Amos and Jonah were quite similar. In some ways,
all the prophets are alike. All of them call people to turn away from the things that damage
their relationship with God, and turn back in love and obedience to a God who loves them.
Malachi does that. But in quite an unusual way. The book is a debate between God and the
people, an argument, full of controversy. And questions: 22 of them in all: that’s one every
2½ verses. And questions, by the way, are a very important and robust way of shaping faith.
What’s going on? The time is mid-late 5 th century BC, sometime between 460 and 420 BC. It
seems to have been a time of apathy and indifference, of wavering faith, grudging
generosity towards God and half-hearted worship. There’s a sense among the people that
‘things aren’t what they used to be’. Life in the now Persian-ruled province of Judah must
have chafed for a once proudly independent nation. Social and economic injustices that
marked the time of Amos are sadly still there in Malachi’s. The temple, now rebuilt after the
Babylonians tore down a century and more ago the one Solomon constructed, isn’t a patch
on that older one. God’s glory is all too clearly not there, as Ezekiel had claimed it would be.
For those few who now worship there, the priests (it seems) are not really taking their roles
very seriously. And as a result, neither are the people.
Into this dismal situation steps Malachi to try and stop this ‘imperceptible abrasion of faith’.
A last-ditch attempt to patch up a floundering relationship, an appeal to the people to
renew the covenant, their agreement with God. What do we learn about God from Malachi?
Three important things, I think (at least).
First thing: God purifies. In the opening verse of our passage, the people angrily ask, “Where
is the God of justice?” In response, it’s as if God walks up from behind, to tap the questioner
on the shoulder and say: “You want justice? It starts right here, with you.” The messenger of
that covenant, and the Lord himself have work to do, among the people. For those disposed
to return to God, there is refining, cleansing, no matter how badly impaired the relationship
has become through apathy and indifference. In my work as HM Inspector of Factories, I’ve
seen refining many times, especially in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter. It’s amazing. When
a worker skims the dross off the top of a furnace, leaving pure metal beneath, something
pure and valuable is in the process of emerging, no matter how fiery or messy it looks. In
seeking to refine and renew the people, God hasn’t somehow turned into the angry and
destructive God the Bible’s critics love to imagine. This is a loving craftworker in action, like
the refiners in the Jewellery Quarter. Our lives, our habits, our character are what God’s
working to craft and refine – if we’re willing to let God do that.
Second thing: God is permanently for God’s covenant people, unchanging – see Malachi 3:6.
But in this floundering relationship, the problem is that the people have not really changed
either. They have, God says, always been like their ancestor Jacob, half-hearted with God, or
seeking to wrestle things to their advantage. So after 350 years of trying to get the people to
respond, through prophets all the way from Amos to Malachi, why doesn’t God just give up?
Mercifully, and astonishingly, there seems to be something in God’s unchanging nature
that’s permanently on ‘transmit’ and the prophets are God’s relay stations, picking the
message up and beaming it on to God’s people: the ancient world’s TV transmitter masts
(so to speak), like the giant one at Crystal Palace, near our daughter’s flat. The prophets are
always there, always seeking to communicate God’s ever-reliable nature: God who is always
wanting to be known and found by those who seek.
Third thing: God is persistent. God never gives up trying to get through to the people, and is
open-handed (so to speak), generously willing, longing even, to bless the people if they will
return in faith and obedience. At the end of our passage, people ask, “How can we return to
God?” Chapter 3 of Malachi goes on to appeal to the people to be generous towards God in
every aspect of their lives – and promises they will see God be generous as a result. This
God reminds me of the father in Jesus’s story of the lost son. How often did he persist in
trudging up to a viewpoint, watching, waiting for his boy to return? When he finally does,
the father is of course overjoyed, and blesses him mightily. That’s how Malachi envisages
the restored relationship between God and people developing.
All these centuries on, can Malachi still speak to us? We might feel our times have much in
common with Malachi’s. Indifference, uncertainty about God’s ways, or whether God even
cares any more. Malachi tackles head-on the people’s doubts about this purifying, persistent
God, permanently and unchangeably on ‘transmit’. 400+ years after his time, Mark’s Gospel
picks up Malachi’s words about a messenger heralding the Lord’s arrival. For Jesus’
followers, Jesus was the Lord come to his people, and John the Baptist his messenger:
Malachi’s words come to fruition. In our times, may Malachi, the messenger of God,
continue to be both our comfort and our inspiration.