Sermon - Sunday, 9 December 2018

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 9 December 2018.

Scripture:  Malachi 3: 1-6 / Luke 3: 1-6

Text: See, I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before me            (Malachi 3: 1)


Malachi: the final book of the Old Testament.

Malachi: the last of the twelve minor prophets of ancient Israel.

Malachi: and if this is the first time you have heard a passage read or a sermon preached from a text in Malachi let me tell you it is a first for me too.

The word Malachi has been a source of some debate – is it a man’s name or a title?

Translated into English, it means my messenger and so some Biblical scholars imagine Malachi to be a title given to an otherwise anonymous prophet.

It is also quite possible Malachi is a name, albeit a rare one, and that the use of the same Hebrew word in the text is a play on the prophet’s name giving the message greater force.

Whatever, living around 460 BC, the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s temple which so dominated the ministry of Malachi’s prophetic predecessors Haggai and Zechariah now a thing of the past, although the people of Israel were still under the rule of the Persian empire, the rule was relatively benign and life for God’s people was calm and orderly.

Paradoxically it was the relative tranquillity which brought its own problems.

Whereas times of crisis and threat can focus the mind, clarify the priorities and bring with it its own stimulus to action, periods of calm can dull the senses leading to drift and inaction.

And this is what troubled Malachi.

God’s people Israel were drifting with little sense of purpose and little expectation in the continuing presence and promise of God.

The high hopes of the preceding generation had been dashed, the restoration of Jerusalem’s temple had not brought about a dramatic change in Israel’s fortunes, and for several decades the prophetic voice had not been heard reminding people they were God’s people, a chosen nation, and calling them to honour and uphold the fundamentals of their faith.

It was in such a world and at such a time and to such a people Malachi ministered, a world characterised by spiritual apathy and moral indifference.

Does it sound familiar?

Malachi spoke to a people for whom religion no longer appeared to matter so much with the rituals of their faith, its festivals and ceremonies, its claims and promises no longer thought to be so important.

Sadly it sounds all too familiar.

As the narrative of the book of Malachi unfolds the sense of drift is all pervasive.

When Israel had first returned from exile in Babylon and rebuilt the temple, God’s people were committed to their traditions and rigorously guarded against the worship of pagan idols.

They also sought to preserve the purity of their blood-line.

However, intermarriage had become common and with it came the mixing of both religious and social customs.

As evidenced by corruption in public life and a diminishing interest in spiritual life, Malachi lived among a people who had lost faith in God’s presence, a people who had lost sight of God’s purpose, a people who doubted if there really was justice in God’s world, a people who no longer had any great sense of right and wrong and wondered if it really mattered anyway; these were among the issues Malachi faced.

You have wearied the Lord with your words, said Malachi.

How have we wearied him? God’s people asked.

By saying all who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord and he is pleased with them – or – where is the God of justice was the prophet’s reply.

So what was Malachi the messenger’s message to the people of God?

First and foremost it was a message of reassurance - but of reassurance mixed with warning.

The reassurance was that God still loved the people of Israel and would continue to honour the covenant once made with them.

Furthermore, as a sign of God’s continuing commitment, a messenger would be sent to prepare for God’s coming among them.

The warning was, that far from being indifferent to Israel’s apathy, the loss of her faith and moral compass, God’s coming would be like a purifying soap and a refining fire.

Justice, integrity, faithfulness, obedience: these were among the qualities and virtues God expected in God’s people, these were the foundations on which life and faith should be built, and these were the things God’s coming would restore.

See, I will send my messenger who will prepare the way before me

It is always important when reading the ancient prophets – Amos, Micah, Malachi – to remember they were men of their time whose message was addressed to the people of their day and into the context of that day.

However it is not difficult to envisage the ways in which this final book of the Old Testament provides a bridge into the New Testament.

As he addresses the people of his day, Malachi, the messenger, looks to the future and intimates the coming of another messenger who would prepare the way for the Messiah.

It is this dimension of the prophet’s work which enables the Christian reader to see his book as a bridge, linking the great bulk of the Old Testament with the gospel narratives concerning John the Baptist, the voice crying out in the desert, preparing the way for the Lord and making a straight path for him.

And as the bridge is created, one of the strong themes which emerges is a pervading sense of divine purpose.

Evidently the Bible’s God is a God with a purpose, a purpose worked out through the covenant God made with the people of Israel and their ancient ancestor Abraham, a purpose evident in God’s rescuing Israel from slavery in Egypt and leading them to a Promised Land, a purpose seen in the history of Israel’s kings and prophets and a purpose soon to be worked out in the lives of two women, Elizabeth and her young cousin Mary, whose lives are about to be transformed with the birth of their respective children.

Furthermore, it is a purpose which is still unfolding in your life and mine.

Susan Brown, the current Moderator of the General Assembly, put it well in her prayer for the Church of Scotland’s recent National Day of Prayer, when she wrote:

Remind us that You are a living God, still at work, still planning and promising.

Do you believe that?

Do you believe God is still at work, still planning and promising?

Do you believe you are as much part of God’s purpose in creation as Abraham or Moses or Malachi or John the Baptist?

Yes, in all the duties and demands of home and family and working life, attending to the task of each day and each week can be challenging enough.

And how often do I hear people in retirement tell me their lives are so full they wonder how they ever found the time to work?

So is it any wonder, given the business of life, we lose sight of the bigger picture.

What we should not doubt however is that there is a bigger picture – and at its best, coming to church and the experience of worship when we step aside from all the pressing concerns of the week allows us to glimpse that bigger picture, God’s picture, and invites us to see our part in it.

Providence is the theological term which describes something of what I am talking about.

Providence is the conviction that any account of human history is about much more than simply the sum of what people do, good, bad or indifferent.

Providence is quite beautifully expressed where the Bible speaks about God watching over us[1], with the eternal God being our refuge and strength and that underneath are God’s everlasting arms.[2]

As Malachi would confirm however, all of this comes with a health warning, for God’s coming is never to leave people as they are but always to call them back to the fundamentals of their faith.

Malachi, the last book in the Bible, the last prophet, the messenger, a man of his time whose message addressed the people and issues of his time yet because he was concerned about questions of justice and faithfulness and honesty, his message resonates down the centuries.

And in this season of Advent, as we look forward to celebrating the birth of the Christ child, God’s coming among us in all the humility and vulnerability of a new born child, we would do well to pause, to glimpse the bigger picture and to remind ourselves God is still at work, still planning and promising.

And in calling us back to the fundamentals of our faith, we would also do well to pay heed to Malachi’s warning that whatever else God looks for, God looks for integrity of faith and life, that is, the faith we profess on a Sunday being evident in the way we live each day of the week.

Now unto him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end, Amen


[1] Psalm 121

[2] Deuteronomy 33: 27