You have said, 'it is vain to serve God'
–Malachi 3:14 +INPFSS+
Does it ever seem vain to serve God. Does it ever seem pointless to be a Christian?
Do you somethimes think things would be pretty much the same for you if you weren't a Christian?
Or even: better for you?
Does it ever seem like all that you give to God: Your time, on Sundays, your money in the plate, the things you could have been doing with those things instead. The struggles to resist temptation, when the tempting thing appears that it would just make life so much sweeter to the taste? – is it all for naught?
Perhaps you have been following God for years, and nothing but trouble has come your way. And perhaps you look over to your heathen neighbor, who seems to not have a care in the world.
“What's God done for me lately?”
And you wonder: Is it vain to serve God?
Ever think these things? The Israelites certainly thought them, as we have recorded in Malachi.
What are we to make of it? Are these thoughts true? Should we entertain them?
To answer that, I want to tell a story. A modern day parable, if you will:
I want to paint a portrait that is all too familiar to us in America today. Imagine a family that lives a very luxurious lifestyle. Big house, lots of cars, fancy vacations. Things look great on the outside, but inside, all is not well. They are spending far more than they make – taking out liens on their house, racking up mountains of credit card debt, financing all their large purchases.
Now I want you to imagine a different sort of family – living in a modest house, eating and living modestly, going on local vacations only once a year. Outside, not much to write home about, but inside, their books are balanced, they have only minimal debt, they're carefully saving for retirement and health emergencies, putting as much away as is wise, for the future.
Two families. In the present, the one's outward life looks amazing. The other looks a little dull.
But now think of those families ten years from now. The exploits of the first will have surely come to a catastrophic end. They will no doubt be trying to scrap a life together out of the shards that are left. While the second family is enjoying moderate prosperity, and mountains of peace.
All of us, in our right minds, would rather be more like the second family, right? I assume most of you, in the matters of this world, have lived by these principles for a long time, and will continue to do so.
But recall – I am speaking now in a parable:
If we're that careful with money, which is here today and tomorrow when we die, we can take none of it with us. How much more careful should we be with our eternal souls!?
And herein is the spiritual truth the Scripture Lessons are communicating to us this morning:
The true value of following God, will only be seen in the End.
The true value of following God, will only be seen in the End.
What do I mean by this?
Let's look at the Old Testament Lesson today to unpack it. Malachi chapter 3.
A bit of a terrifying passage really. Full of pictures of the future. Full of hell-fire and brimstone. Well, not really, because it's not hell-fire, but God-fire that the scriptures so often are speaking about. I'll never preach Hell-fire and brimstone, but I will preach God-fire and Christ the Corner-stone.
And in this passage in Malachi, the Holy Spirit has given a vision and a word to the prophet about what the End times will look like. It's a sobering picture: of the last judgment, when God will judge all things, and bring justice into every situation. It's the same End of the World scene that our Lord is talking about, in talking about in the Gospel reading this morning.
And it's a topic that will come into view several times over the next several weeks as we approach Advent and Christmas, when the lectionary keeps bringing us back to this specter of the End of the World as we know it.
Why this theme comes up at advent is something I'll explain when that season begins, but for now, let us take these readings as something of a trailer – a foretaste of this great biblical theme that will be playing for the next 6 weeks. The end of all things. The Last Day.
The Last Day is of central concern to us as Christians. It's something we need to never lose sight of.
Because if we lose sight of it, we will misunderstand what we are seeing in the present.
Like the first neighbors I introduced at the beginning, if we just look at the present, everything looks hunky dory – wonderful even. Only the final outcome reveals the true state of affairs. Only when we look at the ultimate End, can we rightly assess the value and worth of what is before us now.
This is what I mean when I say that the true value of our following God, will only be seen in the End.
See, if we look just at the present, being a Christian often doesn't seem like a great deal.
It may even seem like a bad deal, in the present. Paul even refers to his state now that he serves God as being counted among the “refuse of the earth”. In the immediate, it might not look like Christianity is worth it.
But this is why it is paramount that look beyond just the immediate – that we also look to the future, to the End. To the great judgment of God on the last Day.
Now, this is admittedly hard to do! More and more, as a society, we have come to expect INSTANT gratification, and this has led us into a perpetually entertained, perpetually pleasure-seeking state, that, frankly, has turned us more into robots and beasts than human beings. But Christianity offers us the antidote: A call to look past what's in front of our eyes RIGHT NOW, and to look at what is coming.
And the world will think we're mad, and will think we're like Noah. They tell us that Day is never coming, but we keep living as if it is. And when it comes, we will be vindicated.
For as God spoke to Malachi, and as he speaks to us through these words on the page: “For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evil doers will be stubble.”
The judgment at the end will expose the things now for what they really are.
And this is both a comfort and a warning, right?
It's a comfort because it means all the ungodly who are doing just fine right now, and seem to have not a care in the world, despite their faithlessness and despite their wicked deeds, they will soon be getting their come-upance. And this is a comfort. And that even if we weep now, we know that we will get rewarded on that day, and our weeping will be turned to laughing. Our hardship will be turned to rest.
But it's also a warning, because in some measure our lives are partly arrogant, partly evil-doing, and there's a judgment coming that we better be aware of.
Think about this. If you KNEW you were going to get audited on your taxes this year, you would be extra careful to make sure they were all in order, right?
Just so –
If we are properly focused on our future, to the great judgment, or, as we could say, the “Big Reveal” we would probably submit our lives in the present more profoundly to the will of God, and to his decrees about right and wrong.
I love the image the Lord gives us in this Malachi passage – that the last day will be like an oven.
Like an oven it will heat everything up, and see what it Is made of. The wicked, it says, will be like stubble. As in, they will be like dry grass, that will instantly burst into flame and be entirely consumed. It doesn't say in Malachi what will become of those who are in Christ Jesus on that day, but if we take the teaching of the New Testament, about yeast and what not, we could say the lives of those whose faith is in God, who follow and obey and love God, they are like bread dough, full of the yeast of the Holy Spirit and the water of baptism. When the stubble is put in the oven, it burns up. But when the dough is put in the oven, it rises and it bakes and it becomes a fragrant, beautiful thing. It becomes what it was made to be. It isn't destroyed by the firey heat of judgment, it is transformed! This is a figure for the immortal bodies we will receive on that day, and the restitution of all things.
And this is why we focus our faith on the future. Because of what that END will bring to us.
Now, as a footnote: At this point it is necessary to point out that as Christians we don't ONLY look to the future. There is of course plenty of God's grace in the present also: The consolation that comes from the forgiveness of sins, the great joy in knowing God and in learning about him from his word, the spiritual strength he supplies in times of trial. These are all good and true and real, and very much present benefits.
So, I'm not talking about the future, as if there was nothing for us also in the present. Not at all.
I'm just echoing St. Paul who wrote in 1 Corinthians 15: If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Our hope, is in the future. As the writer to the Hebrews says, who hopes for what he already has? Implying that what we are really excited about as Christians, is what is still to come. The final chapter of the story. The great oven-like judgment and the resolution of all things.
And when our eyes are fixed there, we are encouraged to hold the course. Even though things might be uncomfortable or painful for us right now, in the present. Even if it might not feel worth it to follow God. Even if it frankly is uncomfortable and bothersome most of the time. Even though there doesn't seem to be any tangible benefit to what we are going through, or for what we are struggling with, we know that we will be better off later on. In the End. That it WILL be worth it.
So, let us never be found joining the grumble of the Israelites in Malachi's day, saying “It is vain to follow the LORD”
It is not Vain. It is worth it to follow God. Not only to avoid the negative judgment, but to graciously receive the good judgment – the eternal reward that the Lord has stored up for those who follow him and who love him.