Fallen Gods – 07.04.2021
[Malachi 2 and 3]
I don’t normally like to play video clips in my sermons, but this went viral a few weeks ago and I just can’t stop thinking about it. There’s a pastor in Ohio, his name is Alistair Beggs, and even though he’s been in ministry in Ohio for decades, he’s from Scotland, so he’s got this heavy accent that you could just listen to all day. And I know if we watch this clip you all are going to be so disappointed for the rest of the sermon because I don’t talk like that – but it’s worth it. He’s talking about the thief on the cross. For those who don’t know, when Jesus was hanging on the cross there was a guy on the cross next to him and he said, “Jesus, please remember me when you come into your kingdom” and Jesus said “today you will be with me in paradise.” Talking about the thief on the cross, who gets to go to heaven – and he talks about that, well let’s just – Check this out…[show clip: the man on the middle cross]. The man on the middle cross said I can come.
Today is the final sermon in the series on the old testament minor prophets. For the last month we have been diving into some of the most obscure and unknown books of the bible. But to close us out, we are going to dive into the book of Malachi. Now Malachi is a little different, because Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament. For the Jewish people, this is their finale – it is the final prophetic text they get. For us it’s the final word before Jesus shows up. This sermon is called fallen gods, and Malachi, as you will see, is not for the faint of heart. This morning I have one goal. I want show you the difference between the rituals of an institution and the love of a savior.
One of my favorite things about the prophets is that they have a habit of using, uh… colorful, language. Strange, even shocking metaphors to get our attention. For example, right before our scripture lesson – Malachi opens up chapter two with these words, [v.1-4]. He’s talking to the priests, the church leaders, the church folk. And he’s trying to get our attention. I will splatter your face with manure. Which, I don’t know if you’re catching the translation – but this is basically like Malachi is shouting to the people “hey… MANURE-head!” But there’s another word… are we understanding? Yes? Manure-head! Pay attention. So whatever he’s about to lay down – we should really be paying attention.
Then down in verse 13, he puts it out there, [read v.13-14]. So we open up on this heartbreaking situation. A man is grabbing the altar of the lord, crying out desperately, weeping loudly, covering the altar with his tears. “God, why don’t you listen to me!” And it breaks our heart, to see this fella like this – but then Malachi fills us in on a few details. The Lord isn’t listening because this guy was unfaithful to his wife. These tears that he’s crying – these are crocodile tears. Are we familiar with that phrase? You walk in the room, and the kids are covered in marker from head to toe. And they see it in your eyes, because you got the crazy parent eyes – they know the storm is coming – so they just turn on the waterworks so they won’t get in trouble. And if you’ve been a parent of a toddler for more than thirty seconds, you’re not fooled by that. Because you know, crocodile tears will not change behavior. You punched your brother, turned on the waterworks so you don’t get in trouble, and as soon as dad leaves you’re gonna punch your brother again. We’re not fooled by crocodile tears, and neither is God! God is not fooled by crocodile tears. Malachi tells the people of Israel, God will not accept your worship, your offering, your prayers – because you have been unfaithful. Now they use the example of adultery, but I don’t want you to limit it to just that. The message here is that sin is the thing that gets in-between us and God. Whatever it is in your life, in pulls us away from God. Worship brings us closer to God, sin pulls us farther away.
See, what you’ve got to understand is that back in the day – with Old Testament sacrifices – if you did something wrong, you put in an offering, perform a sacrifice, and then you’re golden. They had this ritual, this institution, just go through the motions and you’re good with God. But what we see this morning in Malachi is that even in the Old Testament, God wanted more. God doesn’t want empty rituals, just going through the religious motions. God wants faithfulness. It keeps going, [read v.15a]. Ope, I gotta stop there. We’re talking about marriage, between a husband and a wife obviously, but then he says, “body and spirit you are HIS.” So very clearly Malachi is using the metaphor of marriage to talk about our relationship to God. This is not just Malachi getting mad at some “manure-head” adulterer – he’s talking to you, he’s definitely talking to me. As Christians we have made a commitment to God and we have been unfaithful. And he doesn’t want crocodile tears and rituals, God wants faithfulness. Let’s see how that plays out.
[read v.15-16]. Now anytime we look at this scripture I have to be careful. God says, “I hate divorce” but it does NOT say I hate people who have been divorced. Of course marriage was designed as a life-long commitment between two people, and even if divorce is for the best, especially in cases of abuse or unfaithfulness – it’s still painful. It’s still a terrible thing for people to have to go through, and I think it’s actually very reasonable to say God hates it. He hates a lot of things that hurt his people. I don’t think there’s anybody out there claiming that divorce is.. fun. I don’t think there’s judgment or hatred for those who have been through it – I do think God hates the pain we go through. And you can see that in the end of the verse. “I hate divorce” it says, and then [read v.16b]. It’s not the people God is hating, it’s the cruelty, the pain that can come.
And if you expand it beyond marriage, so that Malachi is talking to all of us, using marriage as a metaphor. If God is the groom, and the church is the bride – God hates the things that pull us away from him. God hates the stuff that gets in-between us and him. Sin, whatever that looks like in our life – unfaithfulness, whatever that looks like in your life – that’s what God hates. Separation from his people. Here’s what I need you to understand. There is a God out there, something we can’t even really wrap our minds around. A divine creator. And he made you. And he said, “you are good.” That gives you a value that nobody can take away. You are a strong man of God, you are a faithful woman of God – you were made in his image, to reflect his goodness and his glory. You are not a random collection of cells, pushed and pulled at the whims of an oblivious universe. You are a mirror of the divine. You were designed with a purpose. Your life is not aimless. You might be sitting there this morning thinking, “It doesn’t really matter what I do, it doesn’t really matter how I live” but you’re wrong. God made you to live a certain way, to follow a specific path that he calls righteousness. You were created to live and love and change the world is some small, significant way so that it would reflect HIS glory. You were created to reflect God into the broken world. Like a mirror reflecting light into a dark room. But when the mirror goes dark, because we cover it – something gets in between us and the light – and we lose our purpose, and God hates that. God made you. God loves you. And he wants His light to reflect in your life into the entire world. When bad stuff happens, God doesn’t want crocodile tears and rituals, he wants the real you.
We move over to chapter 3 and Malachi has got some more choice words for the “manure heads.” [read v.13-14]. What have we gained from following God? Isn’t that such a gross perspective? Follow God, only because of what we gain. What’s the point of serving God if I don’t personally benefit? It keeps going, [read v.15]. The people Malachi is talking to are redefining the categories. Let’s take the arrogant people, and start calling them “blessed.” Doing evil gets you rich, and if you dare God to punish you – nothing bad happens. If you get into this “faith thing” because of personal benefits, instead of because God is glorious and deserves our worship…if you get into faith for the wrong reason, when you don’t get what you want – you’ll start to change the categories, abandon the faith – become unfaithful.
Quick story – Once upon a time, there were three men. And they all had their names on their t-shirts. The first man had a shirt that said “Christian” and he told everyone he knew “I am definitely a Christian.” The second man had a shirt that says “non-Christian” and he told everyone he knew “I am definitely NOT a Christian.” The third fella had a shirt that said, “meh.” Now, fifty years ago that guy could be found sitting next to the Christian in church. And the “meh” guy would go around and say, “It’s culturally advantageous for me to tell people I’m a Christian. It helps me in my job, my social life, my education – the world likes Christians, so I’ll be a “Christian.” I don’t really care about God or Jesus, but I’ll go into the fancy building, figure out when to stand up, sit down, what to say, how to blend in.” And that was church seventy-five years ago. Buildings packed with people, full of Christians and the “meh” guy. Going to church because that makes me a “good person”, and helps me raise good kids. Fast forward to the present. The Christian Guy still telling everybody “I’m definitely a Christian,” the non-Christian guy still telling everybody “I’m definitely not a Christian,” and the meh guy? He’s not hanging out in the pews anymore. And he’s out there saying “It’s no longer culturally advantageous. If it’s not helping me with my job, my social life, my education or whatever – so I won’t bother.” I can get away with the world considering I’m a good person, without that “Christian” label. And the headlines said, “Panic and Horror! Churches are declining!” It’s a familiar story, we’ve seen it in America in the last 50 to 75 years, but it’s the same thing Malachi was calling out four hundred years before Jesus. They say, “what is the use of serving God? What have we gained by obeying his commands?” As if this faith thing had nothing to do with the glory of God, but was all about us.
But here’s the thing. God wants more than that. The good news this morning is that God wants more. When I was a kid I went to church because I was the pastor’s kid. I believed what told me to believe and did what they told me to do. I had my minor rebellions, but I was pretty much a straight-laced goody-two shoes kid if there ever was one. Then I went off to college, and I knew I wanted to go to a Christian school – so I chose Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Fantastic school. My grades went UP when I got to grad school because the workload was easier. (and because I married this cute girl who helped me focus on my studies better). Anyways, Calvin is Christan, but it’s not Methodist. I was trained by Reformed folks – and for the first time in my life I asked the question: Do I believe what I believe, because it’s what I grew up with? because my parents told me to? Or Do I believe because it is the truth? I went on a journey, pulling apart the beliefs of my childhood and after falling down the rabbit’s hole I found something unexpected. Authenticity. I found that my faith is not sitting on a foundation of nostalgia and legalism. I believe because it is what makes the most sense of the information that I have in front of me. It is the only way I can make sense of the experience I have had of God working in my life. I have seen it done.
Friends I need to level with you on something. Today marks the beginning of my fourth year in ministry in this church. And I have a conviction in my heart that there is something happening in this church. Revival is coming. But I have to warn you, I don’t think it’s going to be a return to what used to be. If you are sitting there hoping that I’m going to be the guy to bring back success to this church – I think I will be a great disappointment to you all. There is a new thing happening in this church – and the only way I can explain it is that is a movement of the Holy Spirit. We will not fill these walls with the “meh” guy. I would rather worship with just a handful of people who live and love like Jesus’ loved on a foundation of authenticity than have an overflowing sanctuary full of selfish people wondering how this worship thing we do can benefit them the most. I’m a lot less interested in filling every seat, than I am interested in making sure every seat that is filled, has a transformed life sitting in it. No, if revival is coming in the modern world it can only come built on a foundation of the glory of God and the movement of the Holy Spirit.
God wants more. God wants more than nostalgia. God wants more than going through the motions and institutional rituals. You have to dive deeper. You have to invest more. You don’t need the church. You are the church. You need the savior. The work we do in this place has no higher purpose than to show you the love of Jesus. Covid stripped a lot away from us, but we remained steadfast – last week we didn’t even use the building and that was some of the best fellowship we’ve had in years, and I believe that is because we are learning the difference between the rituals of an institution and love of a savior. Malachi shows us, God doesn’t want your crocodile tears and rituals. He wants more. God wants you. He wants your faithfulness.
To close out I want to give you a sneak peek at my fool-proof plan for revival. This is how we are going to rebuild our church, this is how we are going to change the world. Are you ready for this? It’s right – I’ll give you the whole plan: the man on the middle cross. That’s all I’ve got so far, but I think it’s a pretty good start. Some of you have been in this church, or some other church your entire life. Church is your favorite hobby, a nice, weekly air-conditioned performance that makes you feel good. But when we stand in front of God at the end of all things – it is only the man on the middle cross, and our connection to him that matters. Revival starts with the man on the middle cross, and what he can do for your life.
Some of you have never been in a church. You’re super weirded out by this tattooed kid who talks to much, and you’re grateful he makes jokes because it’s not too boring, but you’re not sure what this whole “church” thing is supposed to look like. And honestly, this is all I’ve got, we are here and literally every single thing we do in this place is somehow tied back to our desire to tell you about the man on the middle cross. Maybe you don’t know all the special doctrines or scriptures. You don’t know all the answers to all the questions and you’re not sure what to do – but the man on the middle cross said you could come. Revival begins with Jesus. Faithfulness begins with Jesus. Authenticity begins with Jesus. With knowing him. With following him. With sharing Jesus with others. If we do that, and nothing else – the Holy Spirit will do a powerful thing through each of us.
So let me leave you with this. May you find authenticity in your faith, by building it on the foundation of the glory of God and movement of the Holy Spirit. Like pulling the cover off the mirror, may you remove anything that stands between you and the God who made you – and may you reflect His light into the world. We ARE the church. Revival starts with Jesus. Revival starts with you. Amen.