Through the Bible in Just Over a Year – Malachi

Chill the champagne for when you’ve read this: we’ve done the OT! Sadly it’s downhill from here on as we tackle what my OT tutor at college used to call ‘The Appendix’. But first, what about Malachi? His name means ‘My messenger’ and it may be that 3:1, rather than being a prediction of John the Baptist, he sees himself in this role. He provides the final warning before the God whom the people say they want to meet actually turns up, but with judgement.

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The OT ends with a whimper, not a bang, as Malachi, who appears to have ministered after Haggai and Zechariah, paints a picture of a nation in the doldrums. The building work may have been completed, but the hearts of the people and their leaders alike are far from God. In a series of condemning paragraphs the prophet challenges the people because they are casting doubt on God’s love for them, offering blemished sacrifices, getting divorced, dealing unjustly, holding back tithes, and speaking arrogantly about God. The priests particularly are condemned for their slipshod ministry and lack of reverence. It is a hugely disappointing picture after the high hopes for renewal expressed by earlier prophets. Has the nation really come to this?

 

The purple passage, much loved by Diocesan Stewardship Advisors, is the bit about tithing in chapter 3, but this particular failing has to be set in the bigger context of a nation whose hearts are far from God and whose behaviour shows it clearly. It isn’t surprising that money, which Jesus clearly warned us about as a rival god, is just one symptom of a deeply sick society, as it often is of a deeply sick church.

 

And yet this book is not one of blanket condemnation with no hope: there are clear pointers to courses of action which will bring health and renewal. Fear God’s name (1:14), teach knowledge (2:7), stay faithful in marriage (2:16), tithe properly: all these are ways out of this mess the nation is in. Common sense really: God has identified exactly what you are doing wrong, so just stop it!

 

But human effort alone is not going to save things. The other famous passage is 3:1-4, seen as having been fulfilled in John the Baptist and Jesus. After a herald proclaiming his coming, the Messiah will come to purify the nation’s leaders in a process described in terms of metal refining, where impurities are burnt up leaving only the precious metal. Those who are faithful to God (3:16ff) will be loved and treasured by him, while those who are not are ripe for a good burning. A key, and very challenging verse, is 3:18: ‘You will see again the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.’ The OT ends with a reminder that there is a black and white distinction between God’s people and those who are not, a theme which continues through the teaching of Jesus but with which we are most uncomfortable nowadays. Our job meanwhile, like that of all the prophets, is to call people to a knowledge and a recognition of who God is, what he demands of us, and how we may be purified to live and worship in holiness.

Old Testament Lectionary 9th August Trinity 10 1 Kings 19:4-8

Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.

The study of the whole of 1 Kings 19, as an example of a nervous breakdown, burnout and depression, is a fruitful area for pastoral preaching. Today sadly we get a mere snippet, which has, I would argue, to be seen in the larger context of Elijah’s collapse and restoration.

First there is the request for the relief of death, a not uncommon motif in the Bible among leaders who find themselves facing opposition, conflict and personal attack. Who knows how many of the people in our churches week by week have prayed, or have been tempted to pray, like this? God’s response is to give him three precious gifts: sleep, food and drink, and a new purpose. When I used to be an avid fan of EastEnders, back in the days before I got a life, I used to be amused at the instinctive response to any problem, however small or large: ‘I’ll put the kettle on and we’ll have a nice cup of tea!’ God appears to understand Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as he cares first for Elijah’s physical state. Those who are deeply depressed can easily neglect the basics of life, and God knows that his gentle surgery is best done on a rested person with some food inside them. File:Delftware plaque with the Prophet Elijah fed by the Ravens.jpg

Then God calls him on a journey, which is to prove to be a journey of recovery. God is going to listen to him (repeatedly), help him put things in perspective, and recommission him for further service, whilst giving him an apprentice with whom to share the load. This mixture of the practical, the logical and the emotional is the stuff of great counselling, and there is much to learn from this text about helping friends in need.

At a deeper level, though, this is a passage which gives permission and reassurance as well as practical guidance. In a church and indeed a nation where the standard response to ‘How are you doing?’ is ‘I’m fine!’ or ‘I’m good!’ depending on your age, we are allowed to see the depths of Elijah’s despair, as he asks God to do Jezebel’s work for her. Whilst continual miseries can get a bit pastorally wearing, everyone is allowed a rough patch, and even an extremely rough patch. It has always been my desire to lead church communities where reality is the name of the game, and where it is OK to admit weakness as well as strength.

Secondly God reassures him that his life and ministry are not yet over. Those who have been chased out of jobs or places like bullies like Jezebel, who use intimidation and fear to wear us down, will know the joy of hearing that God still has a role for us somewhere else, and some new companions to strengthen us along the way. When we have taken a dive, for a variety of reasons, it is good to know that there can be a way back, and that we have a God who is more concerned to keep us alive than we sometimes are ourselves.

Read the whole chapter – It’s fantastic stuff!