Far too often the things happening in our lives, and in the world, do not seem to make sense. We try to do the right things, we go to church, and we try to put our trust in God. And yet, we see the good suffer and those who do evil prosper. We face hardships and setbacks and wonder at times whether God is even listening to our prayers.
I have come to think that one of the reasons we find life so confusing is that, despite our faith in Jesus, we think our story is a story primarily about, well, us. In truth, though, if we really have made the decision to follow Jesus our story has become a story about Him. As we strained this week to begin to bridge the gap between the greatest commandment – to love the Lord God with all of our heart, mind, soul and strength – and the second greatest commandment – to love our neighbor as ourselves – we needed to be reminded of this reality.
As we talked about last week, God could have through a spoken word moved the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. Instead, he hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not be moved either by the miracles Moses performed or by the plea to let his people go. The story was about God’s glory, and it would not end until the Egyptians and the Israelites feared the name Adonai.
The reason I raise all of this is because, at the end of the day, our obedience to both the greatest commandment and the second greatest commandment actually have the same ultimate purpose – to bring glory to God. In fact, we were created for God’s glory!!
“But now, thus says the Lord, your creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I have given Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in your place. Since you are precious in My sight, since you are honored and I love you, I will give other men in your place and other peoples in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, 'Give them up!' and to the south, 'Do not hold them back.' Bring My sons from afar, and My daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who is called by My name, and whom I have created for My glory, whom I have formed even whom I have made."
It’s funny, but one of the verses that in the Bible that people tend to cling to in difficult times is Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.” We look at this verse in times of hardship or trouble and think about God improving our circumstances – saving us or lifting us out of our broken relationships, financial setbacks or emotional or physical pain. The point of the verse, though, is that God is going to use any and every situation to make us more like Jesus. The very next sentence says: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Romans 8:29. Interestingly, to better understand the relationship between the two greatest commandments and to drive this point home God took us this week to the Book of Malachi.
We often think about Malachi in the context of tithing, but the book is far more important than that. In fact, Malachi uses tithing as one symptom of a much greater problem. Yes, the people had been bringing God a blemished sacrifice, but the reason was because they had turned away from him. The priests, for their part, were no longer teaching the truth and were causing people to stumble. Malachi 2:7-9. The people had broken the faith, and were engaged in detestable things. Malachi 2:11-16.
In the midst of this chaos, God delivered both a promise and a warning. The promise was this: “I will send a messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come ….” We are also told that “he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.” Malachi 3:1-4.
Of course, we now know that, just as Malachi foretold, a messenger did come to prepare the way for the Lord, and then Jesus came to earth himself. The Spirit of the Lord remains with us (and in us) now, refining us with his fire – working all things out for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.
Malachi 1:14 says, “For I am a great king,” says the Lord Almighty, “and my name is to be feared among the nations.” The name for God used here that we render in English as “Lord Almighty” is in Hebrew Adonai Tzva’ot. It means “Lord of Hosts” or “Lord of armies.” And while God is certainly assembling a heavenly army for the final days, he is also assembling an earthly one.
It is this earthly army that is even now being refined with fire. And, that fire is not only refining the gross sin out of our lives -- it is leaving pure hearts. Hearts that love holiness and righteousness. Hearts that love God. And, hearts that love people with the infinite love of Jesus.
Our love for others is not just obedience to a command, it is one of the principal means by which God is glorified on earth. His Spirit compels us to love not only our friends, but our enemies … and His enemies. It compels us to love those who hate Jesus and who hate the truth. We love for His glory. God's promise given in Malachi is that we are invited to be part of His story and His army.
I mentioned that, through Malachi, God gave us both a promise and a warning. The warning is this: we will all go through fire. And there are two types of fires. One is a refining fire – the fire that makes us more like Jesus. The other is a consuming fire. The choice is ours.
“Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.
“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”