Pastor Kyle Bitter

Text: Malachi 3:1-4  

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The first time I saw one of the newer Christmas traditions was just a few years ago, at my grandma’s house. There was a strange little red-clad doll sitting high up on the shelf above the window – seemingly at odds with the rest of the Christmas décor. No matter where you went in the room, it seemed like it was staring at you. Kind of a stern expression on its face rather than the blissful happiness characteristic of most Christmas decorations. Some of you might recognize one of the newer Christmas traditions in American culture – the “elf on the shelf.” Based on a book released around Christmas time in 2004, this addition to the Santa Clause tradition features one of Santa’s little minions sent to your home to watch you and see if you are behaving well enough to deserve Christmas gifts from good old St. Nick. Some people say it’s harmless and cute. Others find it kind of disturbing. No matter what you think, like the Santa Clause tradition, the elf on the shelf is indicative of a general mindset that permeates American culture – and not just at Christmastime. We have an expectation of rewards earned based on good or bad behavior.

After all, that’s usually the way things work. While it doesn’t always work out as perfectly as we might like, we do expect grades at school and promotions at work would be accurate indications of how good our performance has been. While it doesn’t always happen perfectly, we do expect other people to treat us in the same way as we treat them. And so on. You expect to be rewarded in keeping with your behavior. Because we are so used to functioning in that way, it’s not surprising how easy it is for the same expectation to govern our relationship with our God.

While the circumstances were very different, that’s basically what was happening in the days of the prophet Malachi, the messenger of the Lord who wrote the words of today’s first lesson. So, let’s put ourselves into the shoes of the people Malachi served. Malachi was the prophet who wrote the final book of the Old Testament, serving about 400 years before Jesus arrived. The glorious reigns of kings David and Solomon and the powerful geopolitical influence of the nation of Israel in the middle east was now nothing more than a memory, languishing some 600 years in the past. In the tumultuous years since that time, the northern half of the Israelite nation had been wiped out by the powerful Assyrian Empire – a consequence God allowed when that half the nation forsook him as their God. The rest of the nation – the southern half – had been conquered some years later by another powerful Empire, the Babylonians. They had been carried off into slavery for 70 years. After all that tumult, a small group of faithful followers of God returned to the Promised Land under the leadership of a priest named Ezra and a politician named Nehemiah. Their quest? To revive Old Testament worship practices by rebuilding the temple and the city of Jerusalem – a task that was undertaken with no small amount of resistance from neighboring peoples who naturally wanted control of the region for themselves.

It was to people who had been through all of this, to say nothing of their own personal struggles, that God sent his prophet, Malachi. One can easily understand what people who had persevered through so much for their faith might expect from God’s and his promised Messiah when he finally arrived. Surely there would be some kind of reward for their faithfulness – they alone were the group who had continued to follow God’s Old Testament commands through all kids of trying circumstances. Surely the Messiah would bring the kinds of blessings they deserved. Surely the Messiah would punish their enemies and oppressors when he finally came. Surely he would use his faithful followers as the cornerstone of whatever his plans for the world were. Surely, like most other people, the Messiah would be willing to overlook some of the shortcomings – after all, no one is perfect but these people were the best around – the only ones still remaining faithful to the Old Testament laws! That had to count for something!

It’s not hard to imagine such a mindset, because we can see ourselves thinking similar things. When compared to the rest of modern society, it’s not hard to think of ourselves as the faithful remnant of bible-believing Christianity holding to the truth. We might not be perfect, but it's easy to tell ourselves that at least we’re doing better than most! Even if you are too steeped in Lutheran terminology to actually come out and say that, realize that the very same expectation might even show itself in much more subtle ways than that. Maybe when things are hard – when a relationship falls apart, when illness strikes, when you’re met with failure in something very important to you, you have found yourself thinking, “what did I do to deserve that?” or perhaps, “I know what I did to deserve that – God is just repaying me, and as much as it stinks, it’s fair.” Or, maybe it happens when things are going well, when grades are good, when family is running smoothly, when you get a promotion – you feel as though that is appropriate. Not surprising that God would shower down so many blessings on people who faithfully serve him! It just seems to make a lot of sense! But today, the prophet Malachi opens our eyes to the dangers of this kind of thinking by reminding us that dealing with God is Different than Expected.

Different Standards (v. 1-2)

It might be true that by human standards, the people of Malachi’s day were doing very well. They weren’t perfect, but perhaps they were trying their best. The same might be true for us today. But, Malachi wrote, “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure his coming? Who can stand when he appears?” (Malachi 3:1-2a – NIV84).

What would be the problem? We get very used to “good enough.” Even when things go exactly as planned, it’s not perfect, and so we find ourselves forced to be satisfied with “good enough.” But, God has Different Standards. Malachi’s illustration makes the point: “For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.” Gold it its natural form is usually mixed with other minerals – often quartz, sometimes lead, iron, or other elements. By itself, it’s kind of interesting looking, but not particularly useful for anything as long as those impurities remain. The same is true in Malachi’s other example – wool or cloth. As long as the wool is covered in grease and grime from the sheep it came from, it’s not good enough to be useful until the dirt and impurities have been purged – usually in those days with a highly corrosive soap of sorts called lye.  

The point of Malachi’s picture language is this: when it comes to God, there’s no such thing as good enough. Either you’re perfect and pure, or you’re not, and anything that’s not perfect can’t stand in God’s presence. It must be purged, refined, cleansed. Sin and impurity can’t be ignored by the perfectly holy God – he expects perfection. And so, if we expect God to treat us as our actions deserve, then there’s only one possible outcome – the fires of eternal punishment in hell because that’s what sin deserves. It’s a Different Standard, and any expectation we might have about being rewarded for our behavior only sets us up for failure, because nothing short of perfection will do. But, Jesus’ Standard isn’t the only thing that is different. His Actions are also Different than Expected.

Different Actions (v. 3-4)

People expected the Messiah to behave as a king – to come with might and power and authority, to right wrongs, to conqueror enemies and reward friends, but think about what fulfilling that expectation would have meant for people. Everyone would have to be punished! But, Jesus didn’t come to act as expected. Malachi described it with these words: “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver.” (Malachi 3:2-3a – NIV84). The disease of sin is so deeply embedded in humanity that even the spiritual leaders had become enemies of God. But, Jesus didn’t treat them as their behavior deserved. He didn’t destroy these spiritual leaders or the people following them. Instead, he refined them; he purified them. He didn’t come with the pomp and power of a king – he entered the world as a helpless little baby. He didn’t come to punish the sins of his enemies – he suffered for those sins himself. He didn’t come to test the faithfulness of his people and determine who was worthy to follow him – he freely offered pardon and forgiveness for everyone who believes. Jesus’ Actions are Different than Expected, and that changes everything.

Malachi described it like this: “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 3:4 – NIV84). And it wasn’t just the priests and Levites – the offerings of all Judah and Jerusalem, the offerings of all people – whether the offering of an animal sacrifice in the worship of their day or the offering of a repentant and trusting heart or the offering of a life lived in thanksgiving to God, with Jesus it was “acceptable to the Lord.” Holy and perfect and pleasing. The people of Judah looked back with nostalgia on the much larger temple, the much more powerful nation, the far greater kings of years past, but with Jesus their feeble imperfect efforts would be just as holy, pleasing, and acceptable before God. The same is true today.

Jesus is Different than Expected, and in this case different is Better than Expected. Think about it. Society tries to motivate good behavior with the mindset found in traditions like Santa and the Elf on the Shelf – don’t screw up or you might be punished! With Jesus things are different. There’s no pressure to measure up to someone else’s expectations, because Jesus already did all the measuring up that is necessary. He tells you and me the same thing Malachi told God’s people in years past. Because of Jesus, your life too is “acceptable to the LORD,” and knowing that changes all kinds of things. When something difficult happens in your life, it’s not a punishment from God. With Jesus, you are “acceptable to the LORD,” and so there’s no need to feel guilt or to wonder what you might have done to deserve this hardship. Jesus already suffered all the punishment sin deserved, and hard though it might be to see, even difficult things are intended to be beneficial for us in some way. When something good happens in your life, it’s not a reward you earned, and you don’t have to make attempts to earn more. You already are “acceptable to the LORD” because of Jesus, without you doing a thing! And the good things in life are simply gifts from a loving and gracious God, so enjoy them! AS you prepare for Christmas this year, and prepare to remember how our Savior entered the world and started acting on behalf of his people in a public way, may God fill your heart with awe at how Jesus is Different than Expected, but in this case different is Better than Expected. Amen.