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Read Malachi 3:1-5.

There’s a great fire and brimstone text for ya! A severe word of rebuke for a world drenched in sin. God will show up and condemn all those adulterers and liars. All those cheaters and oppressors are going to be judged with fire! Doesn’t it remind you of those sandwich board prophets walking around shouting “Repent, the end is near!” Or maybe the bullhorn street preachers quoting snippets of Scripture about hell and fire and the penalty of sins. [Brother J. would draw a crowd at the University of Arkansas campus, he would point a finger and call sin a sin. On spectator said, “You know they also thought Jesus was offensive.”]

Maybe we ought to be more direct and shout it to the rooftops. Think of the state of the world around us. How often do we hear of another celebrity adulterer? Sports figures, politicians, even ministers who cheat and lie. And we look to Dr. Phil and the team at ET to explain to us why men cheat. Or O’Reilly and his body language expert can sort out the difference for us. Right here in our own town we have increased violence. Who are these people threatening to shoot law enforcement and killing one another in broad daylight. Something has gone wrong! What’s happened to our community and our nation? Maybe we need to be more like that bold street preacher and shout the truth from the rooftops. Let’s warn them once, maybe twice, that THOSE people need to change their ways. They need to turn or burn! Why don’t we do it? It’s right here in the text right?

Well, if we insist on using the bullhorn, let’s at least be clear about who Scripture points the bullhorn at.
Benjamin’s rule for reading the OT # 15 is this ... Israel = Church.

God is sending his messenger to refine and cleanse his own people. As far as THOSE people of the nations go, he actually has hope that he will be honored among them. God is bringing his people to trial because they say they seek God, but they aren’t really living like it. They dress up and keep the procedures, but they aren’t really living it out. They claim than they seek the Lord, but they really have no interest in following his ways. God would rather that they just shut the doors of their worship house than continue to cry out to him and offer half-hearted broken offerings.

Problem: God’s people (the nation of Judah) are going through the motions when it comes to their faith. They want the Lord to help them with all their needs, but they aren’t willing to devote themselves to Him. God accuses them of breaking faith with him.

God has a greater hope that his name will be revered and honored among the nations that do not know him than he does that his own people revere him. The Lord would rather that the doors of the temple be shut. No worship would be better than the dried out pitiful sham of worship led by the priests. Their worship has become a set of procedures and they put their faith in going through those procedures.

Solution: “I am going to send a messenger and he will prepare the way before me.” If they seek the Lord, then they are going to get the Lord. But God knows better than to simply “arrive” – his holiness would be too much for these people who claim to know everything about it and claim to be keeping the covenant. But God can see right through them and he knows that his holiness would shock their system.

Now here’s where the rule comes in. If the messenger in Malachi is going to refine and cleanse God’s people (Judah and Israel) and we are going to read this Scripture as if it were delivered to us, then is God sending his messenger with the refining fire and bleaching soap to the church or the world? The answer is ... the church.

The world is going to act like the world. In fact, what is surprising is the world (those outside the church) may not follow God’s ways, but they actually have a sense of awe and a desire to love God. That’s where we step in as evangelists and witnesses – but that’s for another sermon. Before we get there, God’s messenger calls us to ask if we are ready for his arrival.

After all, what good does it do for us to cluck our tongues when we hear of celebrity infidelities and wonder why men (or women) cheat, when we aren’t keeping our own hearts pure? There are all levels of suggestive magazines and programming. Pornography is available on the internet, or you can just get on the Victoria Secret catalog list. What good does it do to be angry about leaders who lie to us when we are quick to gossip or slander? What good does it do to be very precise and exact about our own investments or contributions to government and not apply that same standard to the generosity we share in Christ’s name? What good does it do to be outraged or terrified at murder and violence and yet we become angry with our family, neighbors, workers, even brothers and sisters?

We need to be purified by the refiner’s fire and bleached with the strong soap because we have the temptation to “play at church” and not get serious about holiness. Israel did this and the church can do it too. “But we are saved by grace!” That’s not a license to be slack about God’s way – that’s motivation to follow his way all the more, not to win a prize, but to honor the one who gave you life.

And when we put down our bullhorns and sandwich boards, let notice something about the refiner’s fire and the strong soap (fuller’s soap). They are not images of destruction. They are images of renewal – it’s not fire and brimstone, it’s fire and soap! The refiner used fire to burn out the impurities from metal – and he has left with a purer, better piece of metal or jewelry. What came out of the burning process was something beautiful and useful – not something scorched. The fuller, or launderer, used a soap made from lye and uric acid. It was made to clean out the bugs and mud that gets caught up in lamb’s wool. This isn’t gentle dove soap. It is an odorous, burning, rather messy process – but what comes out of it is white wool ... something beautiful and useful.

The hope of the church and the world, is for God to purify and cleanse his people. Salvation is not just a matter of justifying sinful people. It is also a rehabilitation of sinful people. (Vampire Christianity, by Dallas Willard. We just need Jesus for his blood). Jesus didn't save you so that you could go wallow in the dirt. He did not set you free so that you would return to slavery. The day you submitted your life to Christ was just the beginning. We are all in the process of being saved.

God doesn’t intend for us to become a bunch of prudes or delicate flowers who have to be sheltered from evil. He intends to make us stand. He intends to make us useful. He is calling us to be pure and clean – holy so that we may also be his messengers. A community of John the Baptists who are able to prepare the way for God.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 6 December 2009

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