It was a day like any other in the line to get into the south porch of the Temple in Jerusalem. To get there, Zecharias and Elizabeth climbed a high ridge from the valley of old vines and terraces at Ein Kerem, the spring of the vineyard (traditional home of the couple). The walk to the high hill took a bit more than an hour. From there, a ridge to the west of the ancient city was fairly flat, but the walk was still more than three hours – half a day total for the journey. Elizabeth walked slowly and carefully at Zecharias’ hand motions of urging. She was advanced in years, but the excitement replaced weariness, and joy made the steps lighter. In their hands, the two carried God’s promise.
We should mention that the journey may have been light on conversation. At least, Zech wasn’t answering anyone. It may be – and was very likely – that neighbors and friends joined for the walk, helping their old friends make the journey. Finally they arrived. They walked the plaza looking for the pigeon salesman with the perfect two birds for their shelmim – a delightful “thank you” offering to God for the baby that just a few years before they never thought they would see. They took the birds and gave them to the Levites for inspection and holding, and then stood in the line at the south porch to get a mikveh – a ritual bath. Elizabeth needed to finish the days of her purification (about a month), and Zecharias needed to complete his obedience to the angel’s words – to see to it that the boy was named JOHN. We saw before that (Yôḥānān) is a shortened form of יְהוֹחָנָן (Yəhôḥānān), meaning “Yahweh is merciful“, or perhaps “God is generous“. Elizabeth now knew very well that God was not without feeling toward her shame – He truly is merciful. By now, Zecharias learned that God was not holding back on him as One who is stingy – He is generous. Now they trusted God to keep His Word… but what EXACTLY had God promised in John?
Key Principle: God sent a messenger to prepare people for Jesus’ coming – because some preparation is truly essential to truly understanding Jesus’ message.
Listen to Zech’s words once God opened his mouth again: Everything about Zecharias’ prophecy in Luke 1 spoke out of God’s fulfillment of an old promise. It all pointed out how God was faithful – in spite of the fact that men are fickle. He cried out seven truths about John’s coming:
- God should be praised – He created this blessing. Luke 1:67 “And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: 68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel…”
- God has a purpose – our national redemption. Luke 1:68b “…For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people.”
- God gave provision – a child of unlikely parents. Luke 1:69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us —In the house of David His servant—
- God kept a promise – men were told long ago! Luke 1:70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old—
- God grasped their pain – He purposed to deliver them from the national shame and hatred. Luke 1:71 Salvation FROM OUR ENEMIES, And FROM THE HAND OF ALL WHO HATE US;
- God honored the past – He kept an oath to Abraham and his sons. Luke 1:72 To show mercy toward our fathers, And to remember His holy covenant, 73 The oath which He swore to Abraham our father,
- God expected a product – The redeemed are to revere Him and serve Him. Luke 1:74 To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, Might serve Him without fear, 75 In holiness and righteousness before Him all our days.
He followed up with some piercing words shot right at his baby son – all based on what God showed him about John:
Luke 1:76 “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; For you will go on BEFORE THE LORD – TO PREPARE HIS WAYS; 77 To give to His people the knowledge of salvation, By the forgiveness of their sins, 78 Because of the tender mercy of our God, With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us, 79 TO SHINE UPON THOSE WHO SIT IN DARKNESS AND THE SHADOW OF DEATH, To guide our feet into the way of peace.”
You can see it clearly – John would PREPARE HEARTS of people, PREACH HOLINESS by using convicting words to the people. He would PRESENT HOPE to the people surrounded by darkness and POINT HEARERS toward peace with God and each other.
You see, John’s coming wasn’t offered in a vacuum – there was a four hundred year old promise that a “forerunner” was going to come. God promised it, but then took His time fulfilling it. People WANTED IT TO COME TRUE, but after a time simply didn’t believe it would happen in their time – and SURELY WOULDN’T HAPPEN TO THEM. They became “unbelieving believers”. They toughed out a walk without the assurance of the goodness of the God they served. Some fell away, but most served God publicly, and wept quietly. They couldn’t figure out anything else to do. They kept hoping other people that sat near them in worship were experiencing more of God than they seemed to be.
Maybe some of them go to church with us.. even today.
You see, we are very much in danger of “raising a church of atheists” as one writer put it. He described them this way (I paraphrased his thoughts): “They believe in God, but not in any priority of knowing or believing the absolute authority of His Word. They believe in His power, yet worry incessantly and live prayerlessly. They believe in God’s goodness, yet in their daily ignoring of Him and their self-oriented life, they presume on His grace. They desire that He knows them, cares for them and loves them, but not enough to consider carefully what He wants from them. They want the benefits of a relationship without the effort.” They want a God that is part Santa, part Mr. Rodgers, part Gandhi and part genie in a bottle. In reality, many church goers want a SERVANT, not a MASTER. God’s story is great when He is giving salvation freely, or sponsoring a holiday where they GET STUFF – but when it comes to commitment to Him, sacrifice and obedience to Him… well, the ranks thin out.”
By now, we might need John to come back and get us ready for Jesus’ coming this Christmas. We might need a guys whose job description includes PREPARING HEARTS, PREACHING HOLINESS, PRESENTING HOPE and POINTING HEARERS to real peace with God and each other. Yes, it might be a good time for John’s return from retirement… but there is that strange CLOTHING – camel hair – that would make him stick out in our church. Oh, yes – and there is that DIETARY thing – that eating LOCUSTS and honey – we won’t be inviting him to carry ins. Oh, and one more thing… that REMOVED HEAD problem we will have to contend with!
Men and women, long before John was even conceived, God made a set of promises about him that set up the work of Messiah. Before we are ready for Messiah’s entry – that we will celebrate next week – maybe we should consider what God said about PREPARATION for the Holy One’s coming. The promise of a forerunner is found at the collection of the Hebrew Scriptures as we have them in English. The Hebrew edition ends with the books of Chronicles that summarize the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures from Adam to the return from the exile – like a “Reader’s Digest Condensed” Hebrew Bible. In our edition in English, the last words of God were about the forerunner – so that the opening of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John might make sense – with the story of John the Baptizer. Malachi 3 offers the prophecy of forerunner John and fulfiller Jesus – the Gospel writers pick up show the way God delivered on the promise.
Take a minute and skim the words of Malachi before you get to chapter four – because they set up the need and purpose God had for John, and later Jesus. Take a look at chapter one and note a few important words…
Malachi’s OPENING offered two major problems God’s people were fleshing out in chapter one:
First, they showed No Appreciation for all that God had done for them (1:1-5) – Their priority was on what made their lives seem better, not the incredible blessings God had showered on their people… (does anyone know someone who does that?).
Malachi 1:1 The oracle of the word of the LORD to Israel through Malachi. 2 “I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have You loved us?”
God used Malachi to speak up and point out the answer. God mentioned Esau and Jacob in verses two and three to show His preferential treatment of their ancestors (2b). By verses four and five, God mentioned a wicked neighboring kingdom called Edom and how God offered Israel exceptional prosperity over their neighbors, and even held down their enemies ability to grow stronger (4-5).
The people saw what they DIDN’T HAVE, not what they DID HAVE. They looked at the economy and complained that job growth was flat. They didn’t marvel anymore at how much they could buy in the local STUFFMART. They much on their “Humpty Meal” at the local “Camel Burger Queen” and complained they didn’t put enough pickles on their sandwich. They stopped noticing God’s daily goodness to them – and whining took over.
Second, in addition to whining, they became personally stingy. The offered Left Over Giving (1:6-14) to God instead of giving to Him their best. Their priority was on keeping for themselves the best, as though God didn’t deserve their best.
Malachi 1:6 “ ‘A son honors his father, and a servant his master. Then if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is My respect?’ says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests who despise My name. But you say, ‘How have we despised Your name?’ 7 “You are presenting defiled food upon My altar. But you say, ‘How have we defiled You?’ In that you say, ‘The table of the LORD is to be despised.’
God remarked they seemed “surprised” when He noticed they were treating Him badly by cheating Him (Malachi 1:6). He told them He saw when they presented inferior offerings to Him (1:7-8). He saw when they ignored their sin and sought His favor on their plans anyway (1:9). He saw when they kept on practicing a religious service while their heart was very far away from Him. (1:10), when their religious language on top of a self oriented life did nothing to offer a real testimony, but rather confused a real testimony of the Living God (1:11). He heard their JOYLESS words when they treated His standards as though they are too difficult and burdensome (1:12-13). He recognized when they cheated Him from the best of their flocks – holding back what God wanted them to give to Him (1:14).
In short, they had become a people dedicated to God when it was convenient. When their own advancement at work was set against faithful service to the Lord – the job won and God lost. When their commitment to serve Him was set against the desire to do something they wanted to do – entertainment won and the Lord lost. Their sons and daughters saw the reality of their faith – it was something you TALK, but not something that causes you to GIVE YOUR BEST.
When I admit that God has become too small in my life, and I have become too large in my eyes – my pleasures, my needs, my wants – what can I do?
God offered a series of simple directives to get the people back on track in the rest of Malachi 2-4. John’s promise is found in the middle of them:
Directive One: Turn and face the Problem (2:1-4). Acknowledge the real problem of compromised faith – all the others stem from it!
Malachi 2:2… “If you do not listen, and if you do not take it to heart to give honor to My name,” says the LORD of hosts, “then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings; and indeed, I have cursed them already, because you are not taking it to heart. 3 “Behold, I am going to rebuke your offspring….
Compromised faith leads to defection of our children. That doesn’t mean that every child that walks away is because of a parent’s failure – but it does mean that SOME are. Sadly, too often we know what they saw at home. We know if we acted selfishly and in an immature way at home – and we know if we gave God our best. Let me be clear: play at worship and give God only what is convenient – and your children will walk away disgusted at FALSE FAITH, because it didn’t come from a PASSION FOR GOD. Meet with believers at church only when “there is something for me”. Sit a lot and serve as little as possible. Fill your schedule with stuff you want to become and stuff you want to experience – and sandwich in ministry “where it will fit” in what is leftover – and your children will know it is not really essential to be a part of God’s ministry. God will rebuke our offspring.
Directive Two: Take God’s Word seriously (2:5-7). After all, Facebook and Email can wait until God has spoken into our hearts!
Malachi 2:5 “ My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him as an object of reverence; so he revered Me and stood in awe of My name. 6 “True instruction was in his mouth and unrighteousness was not found on his lips; he walked with Me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many back from iniquity. 7 “For the lips of a priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth; for he is the messenger of the LORD of hosts.
God gave His promises (covenant) so that we would treat it as MORE IMPORTANT than any other communication. It should lead us to revere God and stand in AWE of His love, grace and goodness. We cannot crack it open whenever it fits in, learn it if I have time between work and football games, and slip church in whenever I am not busy doing something else. I am not being self serving here. If I don’t do what God has called me to do – teach tirelessly the Word of God – from this pulpit, I have no right to expect that you will take valuable time and listen. Verse 7 presses hard on my soul –and drives my study. At the same time, if you don’t take the time to worship Jesus privately, you diminish all our worship corporately. If you want a convenient faith – you will learn the Bible as effectively as most Americans learn a second language in High School. You’ll take the course, but it will leave you with the ability to “count to ten” after two years. The Bible is content, and learning content takes real work. If your study of the Word is not serious, no amount of my preparation will leave you full in a message. We must learn His Word thoroughly, and use it to inform all of our decision making – He gave His promises as an object of reverence that we should bow in AWE before Him for His goodness.
Directive Three: Recognize the need to be a good example! (2:8-9). Connect the dots between the results and their root causes.
Malachi 2:8 “But as for you, you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by the instruction; you have corrupted the covenant of Levi,” says the LORD of hosts. 9 “So I also have made you despised and abased before all the people, just as you are not keeping My ways but are showing partiality in the instruction.
Remember, bad examples lead to bad copies! When we aren’t good models, those who follow us become even poorer representations of the pattern we aspire toward. We complain about the next generation as though someone else had raised them. If they did – we let them. We cannot change the world, but we can change our own yielded spirit to the Lord of Hosts. We cannot fix all the politics, but we can truly, really and deeply surrender ourselves to the Lord’s hand. We cannot protest people into the Kingdom, but we can pack a prayer meeting. We cannot stop godless pagans from seizing the airwaves, but we can draw the attention of our hurting neighbor away from their TV set while we pay for their dinner and laugh with them – showing them that we can converse with them even if they don’t vote for “our guy” (whoever that may be) and like our TV network (whichever one represents your belief system better).
Directive Four: Be honest about our Rebellion (2:10-17). Relationships aren’t the problem, but they point to it. They must be dealt with rightly to get to the root problem.
Issue One: Intermarriage (2:10-12). Making relationships that DON’T honor God.
Malachi 2:11… Judah has profaned the sanctuary of the LORD which He loves and has married the daughter of a foreign god.
I live in a time when many believers regularly and deeply align ourselves with non-believers. We draw lines around forbidden things and think God won’t notice. This isn’t only about marriage – it is about alliances – about committing to things God has forbidden. It is about ALLOWING what GOD DOES NOT ALLOW in my life.
Issue Two: Unfaithfulness in Marriage (2:12-16). Using people in relationships God gave us.
People felt God wasn’t listening to them… 14 “Yet you say, ‘For what reason?’ Because the LORD has been a witness between you and the wife of your youth, against whom you have dealt treacherously, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. …16 “For I hate divorce,” says the LORD, the God of Israel, “and him who covers his garment with wrong,” says the LORD of hosts. “So take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.”
God gave some men in this room a woman to protect and love – and your eye is roving. It may be roving on the net, or it may be roving at work. God gave some women in this room a man to love and cherish, but you are grinding your teeth every time you pick up his socks. You are allowing the enemy to form in your heart a reason to hold back your help – because he is every bit the imperfect man you chose. Look at verse 16 closely. Don’t just guard your tongue, don’t just protect your eye – watch you spirit… guard your heart. Don’t do less than your vows said you would. Don’t ask God to hear your words in prayer if you don’t mean the words you speak when you make promises.
Issue Three: When tolerance replaces truth – ascribing wrong as right (2:17). Perverting the truth and right values.
Malachi 2:17 You have wearied the LORD with your words. … In that you say, “Everyone who does evil is good in the sight of the LORD, and He delights in them,” …”
It is easy to agree with everyone and everything. It is easy to call the message of Jesus a message of love and forgiveness. It is easy to boil that message down to a “free for all” lifestyle that lets everyone’s opinion be equal. It is easy to play the COEXIST card. There is only one problem – the tolerance message is built on the notion that there is no ABSOLUTE KNOWABLE TRUTH. It is sweeping the halls of our schools and flying over the airways of a lost generation. It is both incompatible with the message of Jesus (“I AM THE WAY”) and devastating (“He that has not the Son has not life”) – but many are framing it as the Christian message! Shouldn’t the Christian message be the one that Jesus Christ Himself preached? When we call evil good… God withdraws from the room, because our words no longer make sense.
Directive Five: Remember He is coming and you will stand before Him (3:1-5). Recognize the holiness of God, and His call to your holiness.
Malachi 3:1 “Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts. 2 “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? …”
We must ask the frank and clear question: “Am I living in obedience to God’s Word and way?” Don’t try to cover the question by listing all the things you do – I go to church. I work for the church. I sing in the choir or play in the band. I teach a class. I serve God most of the time….Last time I checked that is not the standard. Partial obedience doesn’t cut it….I know this church. We try to extend grace to people and give them a chance to work out the issues in their lives. May I remind you again that our mission as a church is to lead people into a growing relationship with Christ? Our goal is not to hand out free passes to heaven that allow people to continue to live any old way they want. Growth comes from obedience. The Bible clearly states that if you know to do good and don’t do it you are sinning. You are disobeying God. …Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: “. . .it is only through obedience that you come to learn the truth.” In fact he strongly suggests that obedience itself is an act of faith. “Are you worried because you find it so hard to believe? No one should be surprised at the difficulty of faith, if there is some part of his life where he is consciously resisting or disobeying the commandment of Jesus.” (Pastor Wes Humble, sermon central illustrations).
Here was the preparing word of John to those who would hear the message of Jesus:
Face the reality of Compromised Faith: if no other reason than our children’s sake.
Get back into the Word of God: the rest of the stuff we read can’t make us what God wants us to become.
Get serious about or Example before others: they are reading the Bible they see in us.
Be honest about the relationships I am in – are they honoring God?
Get serious about what is going on inside us – that quiet rebellion we let go on in our hearts.
The time when it will be apparent what we have truly lived is coming. A TV news camera crew was on assignment in southern Florida filming the widespread destruction of Hurricane Andrew. In one scene, amid the devastation and debris stood on house on its foundation. The owner was cleaning up the yard when a reporter approached him. “Sir, why is your house the only one still standing?” asked the reporter. “How did you manage to escape the severe damage of the hurricane?” “I built this house myself.” the man replied. “I also built it according to the Florida state building code. When the code called for 2 x 6 roof trusses, I used 2 x 6 roof trusses. I was told that a house built according to code could withstand a hurricane. I did, and it did. I suppose no one else around here followed the code.”
When the sun is shining and the skies are blue, building our lives on something other than the guidelines in God’s Word can be tempting. But there’s only one way to be ready for a storm – or get ready to meet a Holy Savior…and we want to get ready because the day is approaching fast. God sent a messenger to prepare people for Jesus’ coming – because some preparation is truly essential.