Sermon for Advent 3 - Malachi 3.1-6 - December 14, 2014

1)         In the time of the prophet Malachi, things looked bleak for Judea and Jerusalem. They had returned from exile in Babylon. But they were not an autonomous people. They were self-governing, for the most part, but they existed at the pleasure of the Persian kings. The Jerusalem temple, having been razed by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, had been rebuilt during the days of Haggai and Zechariah. But this new temple was a disappointment compared to the former temple which had stood in that place. The Judeans had expected the rebuilding of the temple to usher in the age of the Messiah. The Lord had addressed the Davidic leader, Zerubbabel, as His servant and signet ring in Haggai 2:23, meaning that that man was a sign of God’s enduring promise to Judea. But those days were long gone by the time Malachi is called to preach. By Malachi’s time, none of Judea’s messianic hopes had come true and they could not see the covenantal blessings with their eyes. Disappointment in one generation grew into disdain in the next. They no longer believed the Lord loved them and cared for them over all the nations of the earth. So this disdain for the Lord’s Word led them to offer polluted sacrifices in the rebuilt temple. Malachi rebukes the Judeans for offering sacrifices that were blind, lame, and sickly. They Judean’s sacrifices were so wicked that the Lord would rather they shut the doors and board up the temple rather than offer such defiled sacrifices. The Lord says in Malachi 1:10, “Who is there even among you who would shut the doors, So that you would not kindle fire on My altar in vain? I have no pleasure in you," Says the LORD of hosts, "Nor will I accept an offering from your hands.” The blemished sacrifices were the external problem. Even more troubling was the reason for their offering blemished sacrifices. The Judeans no longer believed that God was gracious to them. Thus they murmured in their hearts, “Everyone who does evil Is good in the sight of the LORD, And He delights in them, Or, "Where is the God of justice?” (Malachi 2:17)

2)         Without faith it is impossible to please God. Sacrifice was first and foremost a matter of faith in the heart. Psalm 4:5 says, “Offer the sacrifices of righteousness, and put your trust in the LORD.” The true sacrifice offered to God was faith, for he says, “put your trust in the Lord.” Psalm 116:17 says, “I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving, And will call upon the name of the LORD.” And again in Psalm 50:14-15, “Offer to God thanksgiving, And pay your vows to the Most High. Call upon Me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify Me.” In Judea there was no faith, there was no calling upon the Lord, nor was there any true thanksgiving from the heart. Yet the external work of sacrificing continued as something that the Lord had commanded. It was not important to the Judeans that the heart be in it, as we would say today. The people were guilty as Cain was guilty. Both Cain and his brother Abel had offered sacrifices to the Lord in Genesis 4. The Lord accepted Abel’s sacrifice while Cain’s was rejected. The difference between the two? Hebrews 11:4 tells us, Hebrews 11:4, “By faith Abel offered to God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain, through which he obtained witness that he was righteous, God testifying of his gifts; and through it he being dead still speaks.” Cain in his day and the Judeans in Malachi’s day thought that their sacrifices pleased God just because they were done. They believed that just by doing the work, God would be pleased because they missed the point. The external sacrifices were to be pictures of their internal thanksgiving and calling upon the Lord, in short, their trust in the Lord.

3)         In response to the situation and the Judean’s accusations that the Lord did not love them and that He had broken His covenantal promises, Malachi preaches today’s lesson. “Behold, I send My messenger, And he will prepare the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, Will suddenly come to His temple, Even the Messenger of the covenant, In whom you delight. Behold, 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 launderer's soap. He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver; He will purify the sons of Levi, And purge them as gold and silver, That they may offer to the LORD An offering in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem Will be pleasant to the LORD, As in the days of old, As in former years.” (Malachi 3:1-4) The Judeans fell into complacency because they would not see things from the Lord’s perspective. The Lord had not broken His covenantal promises. The Lord still loved Judea with a particular love, for out of Judea would come the promised Messiah. So the Lord speaks His promise again. The Lord, whom they are supposedly seeking, will suddenly appear in His temple. They will know this to be true because the messenger of the Lord will prepare His way. And when the Lord does enter into the temple, He will come to purify the Levities, to purge away the blemish of unbelief, and to punish the obstinately unfaithful.

4)         Malachi’s prophesy finds it fulfillment in our Lord Jesus Christ and His forerunner, St. John the Baptist. John prepares the way for Christ by purifying the people of Judea by calling them to repentance for their unbelief and the mindless worship that flows from unbelief. John would baptize the penitent, washing away the sins they came confessing. Through the preaching of the Baptizer, the Holy Ghost would kindle faith in the hearts of many. But John was only the forerunner to prepare the way of the Messiah. When Christ, which is Greek for “Messiah” or “anointed one,” comes He will come into His own temple. He will cleanse it externally from robbers and thieves. He will cleanse its teaching by publically preaching the Gospel in its courts and through His teaching preach faith in the hearts of many. That faith purified sinners, cleansed them sin, and gave them new hearts with new movements, new love for God which would result in a new zeal for God and His Word. Since the root of the Judean’s polluted worship was their lack of faith, the Messiah and His forerunner would arrive suddenly to condemn sin and preach faith into their hearts. Then their worship would be restored since worship is first and foremost a matter of faith receiving the gifts and benefits of offered by God.

5)         This is where we find ourselves in relation to the Word of the Lord spoken by Malachi as well. We are not Levities who offer blemished sacrifices on the bronze altar. The Gospel prescribes nothing like the Levitical priesthood in the New Testament because Christ Jesus is our High Priest and has made, once and for all, THE atoning sacrifice for sin upon the cross. This is the point of the book of Hebrews. They sacrificial system is, as St. Paul says in Colossians 2:17, “a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.” So our pastors are not priests. They are, as St. Paul says in the epistle lesson, “stewards of the mysteries of God,” (1 Corinthians 4:1) for their are no more sacrifices for sin to be made. But atoning sacrifices, or propitiatory sacrifices, were not the only ones prescribed. The Levitical priests were also to make Eucharistic sacrifices, or sacrifices of thanksgiving and praise. It is this sense that the Apostles say Christ “has made us kings and priests.” (Revelation 1:6) And St. Peter calls believers a royal priesthood in 1 Peter 2:9. This is not a new doctrine, for the Lord also says this of all Israel in Exodus 19:6, “You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” All Israelites were priests, though not in the Levitical sense. Only Levities could offer sacrifices at the Temple. But all Israel was to be offering the sacrifice of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving to God, all of which could only flow from true faith.

6)         So it was for Israel. So it is for the new Israel: Christ’s church. There is no sacrifice for you to make for your sins. Christ has offered a perfect sacrifice to atone for not only your sins but the sins of the whole world. There is no ‘good work’ that must be placed upon the altar. Christ has accomplished it all for you. This is the Gospel of Christ, that He has earned for you the forgiveness of all of your sins, and that you receive that by faith in His incarnation, life, suffering, and death. Even the faith to believe the Gospel is worked by the Holy Ghost through the Gospel, so that it all things your salvation is 100% by the grace of God alone. But you are a priest to the Lord your God in that you are called upon to offer Eucharistic sacrifices, that is, sacrifices of prayer, praise, and thanksgiving. These sacrifices, like the Old Testament sacrifices, can be offered mechanically. The sinful flesh tempts you to believe that the repetitiveness of worship is boring and inconsequential. That’s because the sinful flesh does not want to learn the lessons of the Word of God spoken in the Liturgy. The temptation is ever-present to think that showing up is the same as truly worshipping the Triune God, and that simply by working the work of the liturgy, you have pleased God. For this neglect of true faith we must repent. For the times when we worship mechanically we must repent. For the times when the praises on our lips do not erupt from true faith but obligation, we must repent.

7)         For in repentance is forgiveness from the Lord Jesus. He promises to cleanse of every sin. He promises to remove each stain of guilt by giving us new hearts. He promises to purify us by faith in the Gospel so that in that faith we may rightly offer our sacrifices of praise, “that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name.” (Hebrews 13:15) With true faith in our hearts, rejoicing in the promises of Christ we “walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” (Ephesians 5:2) For prayer, praise, enduring temptation, and unfeigned love for neighbor, this is how we “present our bodies as living sacrifices, holy, acceptable to God, as our reasonable service.” (Romans 12:1) We are God’s priests to offer these sacrifices, not out of obligation, not in a mechanical thoughtlessness, but in true faith, confidence, and joy, that our sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake, when we believe that His sacrifice as our High Priest is for us and forgives us all our sins. Amen.

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