HOLY (DIS) COMFORT –
Listening for God’s Word in the Minor Prophets
July 25, 2021
Today is our last Sunday with the Minor Prophets.
We have heard some comforting words along the way from the prophets
along with some rather discomforting words.
Each week, as we gather in this place to sing praises and offer prayers,
we listen carefully to God’s Word. We listen to the words that God spoke to people long ago
in order to catch a glimpse of what the Holy Spirit may be speaking to the Church today.
This summer, as we have explored the ancient contexts of historic Judah and Israel,
we have been reminded that God cares when humankind goes astray,
and that God will raise up messengers of challenge and hope in the midst of whatever complacency,
chaos, or fear God’s people face.
Today’s message comes from the prophet Malachi.
We know very little about Malachi as a person.
We know very little about the context from which he came.
We do know that Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament.
We know that the name Malachi means, “my messenger”.
Malachi was given a message to proclaim to the people, a message that the Lord would come dramatically,
suddenly, to bring about a reversal in the wayward direction of the people.
Malachi’s prophecy was given somewhere between 500 and 450 BCE, during the Persian period.
The Iranians were the current rulers of the Holy Land and Judea was just a small administrative unit
of the larger Persian Empire. There was religious tolerance under the Persians in that day,
and temple life in Jerusalem had continued to be an important part of the Hebrew community.
Even so, as happens over time, it seems as if religious life and religious practice was being taken for granted.
In the 55 verses in the prophecy of Malachi, there are 22 questions,
questions posed by the people or by God through the prophet.
Just before the text we read this morning comes the statement, “You are wearying the Lord”.
Then comes the question, “How have we wearied you, O God?”
The prophet’s answer is that the people have been lax in their religious observance.
Spouses have been unfaithful in their marriages.
Employers have been taking advantage of the poor.
There has been corruption in the marketplace.
Even the Levitical priests have become indifferent towards God.
Into the context of complacency and lax religious observance comes the prophecy of Malachi.
Hear the word of God from Read Malachi 3:1-4
See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek
will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming,
says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver,
and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver,
until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem
will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
A Bible study group came across the book of Malachi in their weekly discussions.
When they read the passage that the Lord would sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, it puzzled them.
They wondered what it meant. One of them decided that she would go find a silversmith
to and find out more about the process of refining silver.
As the story goes, she made an appointment to watch a silversmith at work.
She didn’t tell him why; she just told him that she was just curious about the process.
As the woman watched the silversmith, she noticed that he held the silver over the very hottest part
of the fire and so she asked, “Why do you hold it over the hottest part?“
He replied, “You need the hottest fire to burn away the dross.
You have to hold it right over the middle of the fire in order to burn away the impurities.”
Next, she noticed that the silversmith watched the silver the entire time.
He never took his eyes off of it. She inquired of him about that and he replied,
“Oh, it is very important that I watch the silver the entire time. You must keep your his eyes on it
so that it will not be held over the flame a moment too long.”
Finally, she asked him, “How do you know when the silver is ready, when it is refined,
when it is ready to be shaped and molded?”
And the silversmith replied, “Oh, that is very simple. The silver is ready to be shaped and molded
into my good intentions when I can see my own image reflected in it.”
The messenger of the covenant of God is like a careful silversmith,
who desires to burn away our impurities and refine us, at least until he can see his image within us.
One of our young adults, Gillum Owen, shared a meaningful devotional with the congregation
this past week. Gillum wrote about the “winter” seasons of our lives,
those seasons in life that are unplanned and can be challenging or lonely,
those seasons “when all you can cling to is your patience in God’s promise,” she wrote.
“I had a lot of these so-called ‘winters’ during my time in college,” Gillum claims.
“Looking back, they were some of the hardest times so far in my life,
being alone in a place away from my family facing circumstances often out of my control.
However, going through these winters helped me grow immensely in my relationship with God
and (helped me grow in) my strength and perspective as a human being.
If it weren’t for the seasons of doubt, confusion, indecision, and simply weakness,
I would not have had to endure challenges that would continuously remind me to trust
in God’s many promises… the (various) seasons of my life remind me
that regardless of my planning, seasons that I encounter along the way are there for me to grow,
so that I can fully live out God’s intentions for my life.”
Gillum seems to understand the refiner’s fire. She has experienced the fuller’s soap,
and she is a more mature and faithful person as a result.
Congratulations to Gillum Owen, who will begin her career teaching fifth grade this next week.
Her students are very fortunate.
If you know Gillum, you understand something about seeing the image of God reflected in a person’s life.
God’s good intention for all of us is to refine us, to purify us, to purge away impurities,
so that God can see God’s own image reflected in our lives.
As the prophet said, this process of refinement will continue until all the people
present offerings of righteousness.
God has always spoken to humankind through various messengers.
God’s messages of hope and comfort, of challenge and grace,
have been received through narrative and poetry,
through words of the law and through unique literary works called gospels.
God’s messages are offered through the voices of prophets,
or through the narratives of those who had an encounter with the Divine.
Do you remember the story of the burning bush, when the voice told Moses to “Go…
Set my people free…lead the Hebrews out of slavery”?
Do you remember the “man” in Jacob’s dream who wrestled with him by the River Jabbok,
who threw Jacob’s hip out of joint when Jacob refused to let go until he received a blessing,
the man/angel who gave Jacob a new name, Israel?
Do you remember the still, small voice that spoke to Elijah on the mountaintop after the storm,
which asked the fearful Elijah: “What are you doing here?” Why are you hiding out in this cave?”
Elijah, it is time for you to go back and face the evil queen Jezebel.
Though the form and content of the messages vary, one of the consistencies
that runs throughout Holy Scripture in when someone encounters God is the message:
“fear not, for I will be with you.”
The first words from the mouth of a messenger from God in Holy Scripture are almost always:
“Fear not; be not afraid.”
In the Christmas story, the angel Gabriel comes to the virgin Mary and proclaims:
“Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”
And the angel exclaims to Joseph: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as you wife
for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”
To the shepherds in the field that glorious night the messenger proclaimed:
“Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
When God speaks to us, God speaks as a loving parent who desires what is best for us,
who holds fast to good intentions for our lives.
Even when God speaks to us in judgment as was done through the Minor Prophets,
the words of judgment are almost always accompanied by words of salvation.
Jeremiah was called to speak unpopular words of judgment and warning to his people,
but he also spoke of a new covenant with God.
Nathan, whose name means “gift”, was the messenger sent to David, to hold David accountable
for his adultery with Bathsheba and his plot to kill her husband Uriah.
In the end, his message was viewed as a “gift”.
Nehemiah was sent as a messenger from Babylon to his home of origin, Jerusalem,
to rebuild the walls of the city and to rebuild the people’s faith in God.
Throughout the ages, God has born messages to his people through angels and priests,
through prophets and middle-of-the night dreams,
through still, small voices and even through the dramatic incarnation of a child born in a stable.
These messages have altered human life.
Malachi said that when the new messenger of the covenant would come,
perhaps referring to the coming Messiah, no one would be able to stand.
But for the grace of God, no one would be able to endure the judgment when he appears.
The messenger’s words will be like a refiner’s fire,
like hot, boiling words that cause the impure elements within us to bubble to the surface.
The messenger’s words will be like a fuller’s soap, like the soap of those who do the laundry,
focusing in and scrubbing away the dirt from our lives until only a faint reminder remains.
Malachi spoke his message because God revealed to him the need for refinement,
the need for a purifying among his people
Malachi saw bored priests who were abusing their office and despising the rituals.
They were offering God lame and blind animals, instead of the perfect, unblemished ones.
Malachi saw those who were “robbing God”, as he called it, by withholding a portion of their tithes.
People were just bringing a portion of the tithes, mere left overs.
Malachi saw husbands who were being unfaithful, and he told them to remember and hold fast
to the covenant with the wife of their youth. Chapter 2 of Malachi
talks about how unfaithful husbands were affecting the life of the whole community.
Malachi noticed that unfair wages were being paid, that the employers were taking advantage of the poor.
And Malachi got really upset when he saw people taking advantage of the widows,
withholding payments or fair wages simply because they could.
In Mark Labberton’s book The Dangerous Act of Loving Your Neighbor:
Seeing Others through the Eyes of Jesus,
Labberton argues that in a complicated world of profound injustice,
the key to social transformation is addressing the crisis of the human heart.
Transforming our world to be more acceptable and pleasing to God
will depend first and foremost on changing our hearts, he claims.
Specifically, Labberton claims that we must begin with how we see, how name, and how we act in the world.
“The ways of the heart are reflected in the world daily
in how we perceive (see and assess our neighbor),
how we name (frame and position one another),
and how we act (engage or distance” ourselves from those around us).”
These three movements are interrelated and are a “potent force”, he claims, for good or for ill.
The prophet Malachi claimed that, “just as silver is refined,
God will come to purify the descendants of Levi,”
to cleanse the people until they are fully prepared for the coming of the Messiah.
God will “hold us over the fire” until, as the prophet says, there is an attitude of reverence in our worship,
until there is a commitment to right living in our interpersonal relationships,
until there is an active concern for justice in society.
Over the course of the summer, we have been reminded of how contemporary are the messages
from the minor prophets:
Concern over the rich profiting off the backs of the poor.
Concern over infidelity in marriages.
Concern over complacent religious observance and lack of generosity.
The messenger of the covenant, Jesus Christ, has come, and he will come again.
His words will lead us into a process refinement and purification,
so that our whole community may present offerings of righteousness before God.
God has good intentions for humankind, upright lives, reverent worship, just economics…
but most of all, God intends that ultimately, God’s own image may be reflected, even in us.
To God be the glory, now and forever. Amen.
Rev. J. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church