Malachi 3:16-4:6 – Turning Hearts

Then those revering the Lord,
    each and every one, spoke among themselves.
        The Lord paid attention and listened to them.
Then a scroll of remembrance was written before the Lord
        about those revering the Lord,
            the ones meditating on his name.
On the day that I am preparing,
says the Lord of heavenly forces,
        they will be my special possession.
        I will spare them just as parents spare a child who serves them.
You will again distinguish between the righteous and the wicked,
        between those serving God and those not serving him.

Look, the day is coming,
        burning like an oven.
All the arrogant ones and all those doing evil will become straw.
    The coming day will burn them,
says the Lord of heavenly forces,
        leaving them neither root nor branch.
But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name;
        healing will be in its wings
            so that you will go forth and jump about like calves in the stall.
You will crush the wicked;
        they will be like dust beneath the soles of your feet
            on the day that I am preparing,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
Remember the Instruction from Moses, my servant,
        to whom I gave Instruction and rules for all Israel at Horeb.
Look, I am sending Elijah the prophet to you,
        before the great and terrifying day of the Lord arrives.
Turn the hearts of the parents to the children
    and the hearts of the children to their parents.
            Otherwise, I will come and strike the land with a curse. (CEB)

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, twenty-five million children in America — one out of every three — live in biological father-absent homes. The National Fatherhood Initiative reports that nine in ten American parents agree this is a “crisis.”  Consequently, there is a “father factor” in many social issues today. Children with involved fathers do better across every measure of child well-being than their peers in father-absent homes.

From a biblical perspective, the relationship between fathers and children is hugely important not only for the well-being of family and society, but for God’s people.  Fathers in ancient Israel were the primary instructors of God’s covenant to their children.  This responsibility was critical to ensuring success in Israel and obeying their God. 

The fact of the matter in the prophet Malachi’s day was this: The fathers blew it.  The last verse of the Old Testament ends on a note of coming judgment. However, that is not the end of the story because the prophet Elijah will come to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and vice versa.

John the Baptist, Jesus said, was the Elijah to come:

From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subjected to violence, and violent people have been raiding it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matthew 11:12-15, NIV)

In the Christian tradition, Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to the people. Therefore, fathers who follow Jesus have a sacred responsibility to gently guide their kids to Christ. It is important for Christian dads to take up the mantle of teaching children the ways of God especially as expressed by Jesus.  

God is on a mission of restoration, and a good place to begin is with restoring relationships between fathers and children. In fact, it behooves all fathers to step back and slow down enough to consider what the nature of their family relationships are really like – taking action to instruct kids in both word and deed.

The word catechism derives from the Greek language and means “instruction.” Ever since the start of the Protestant Reformation, learning about God has often taken the form of catechetical teaching. Catechisms vary in length with a pedagogical question and answer format. Typically included are explanations on the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Question and answer 104 of the Reformed Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, says this:

Q. What is God’s will for you in the fifth commandment?

A. That I honor, love, and be loyal to my father and mother and all those in authority over me; that I submit myself with proper obedience to all their good teaching and discipline; and also that I be patient with their failings – for through them God chooses to rule us.

Here is a simple observation: Children cannot obey what they have not been taught. Underpinning all submission and obedience of both divine and human authority is the basic assumption that parents will instruct their children in the way of sound theology, biblical ethics, and religious piety.

What is more, we are all spiritual fathers and mothers to a host of children in our sphere of influence. This is a foundational way of relating to one another, and so, deliberate intention and effort needs to be placed here. Otherwise, there is religious decline with neither social nor familial cohesion.

So, let us love one another through careful training, effective teaching, and gracious tutoring so that righteousness will shine like a cloudless dawn and rise to warm the world with the love of God.

Gracious God, thank you for the gift of children.  Teach me your ways of grace so that I might pass them on to children in the merciful name of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

1 Kings 18:1-18 – Faith at Work

Obadiah Takes the Prophets to a Cave by Dutch engraver, Caspar Luyken (1672-1708)

For three years no rain fell in Samaria, and there was almost nothing to eat anywhere. The Lord said to Elijah, “Go and meet with King Ahab. I will soon make it rain.” So, Elijah went to see Ahab.

At that time Obadiah oversaw Ahab’s palace, but he faithfully worshiped the Lord. In fact, when Jezebel was trying to kill the Lord’s prophets, Obadiah hid one hundred of them in two caves and gave them food and water.

Ahab sent for Obadiah and said, “We have to find something for our horses and mules to eat. If we don’t, we will have to kill them. Let’s look around every creek and spring in the country for some grass. You go one way, and I’ll go the other.” Then they left in separate directions.

As Obadiah was walking along, he met Elijah. Obadiah recognized him, bowed down, and asked, “Elijah, is it really you?”

“Yes. Go tell Ahab I’m here.”

Obadiah replied:King Ahab would kill me if I told him that. And I haven’t even done anything wrong. I swear to you in the name of the living Lord your God that the king has looked everywhere for you. He sent people to look in every country, and when they couldn’t find you, he made the leader of each country swear that you were not in that country. Do you really want me to tell him you’re here?

What if the Lord’s Spirit takes you away as soon as I leave? When Ahab comes to get you, he won’t find you. Then he will surely kill me.

I have worshiped the Lord since I was a boy. I even hid one hundred of the Lord’s prophets in caves when Jezebel was trying to kill them. I also gave them food and water. Do you really want me to tell Ahab you’re here? He will kill me!

Elijah said, “I’m a servant of the living Lord All-Powerful, and I swear in his name that I will meet with Ahab today.”

Obadiah left and told Ahab where to find Elijah.

Ahab went to meet Elijah, and when he saw him, Ahab shouted, “There you are, the biggest troublemaker in Israel!”

Elijah answered:You’re the troublemaker—not me! You and your family have disobeyed the Lord’s commands by worshiping Baal.” (CEV)

Obadiah was the overseer in charge of King Ahab’s palace in Samaria of ancient Israel. To put it mildly, Ahab was a rascal. Old Testament stories frequently and purposefully contrast characters so that we will easily discern ethical differences between good and evil. Here we have a clear contrast between the godly and faithful Obadiah and the downright wicked royal couple of Ahab and Jezebel.

Whereas Obadiah was trying to preserve life and went to great lengths to do so, Ahab and Jezebel were doing everything in their sinister power to destroy life. The entire drama plays out like an episode of House of Cards. Ahab and Jezebel were a real king and queen who were thoroughly selfish and evil in all their dealings. Ahab, enabled and emboldened by his pagan wife, did away with the true worship of God and established the worship of Baal in the land of Israel. 

This did not mean, however, that God was absent or inactive. Rather, the Lord was working behind the scenes to undermine the systemic evil in the kingdom through his servant, Obadiah, who was devoted to God. Obadiah was neither a prophet nor a priest. He was simply a man working in an ungodly kingdom, doing the best he could to serve the Lord. 

Elijah may have had the prophetic voice and power, but Obadiah was the backstage administrator, daily cobbling together a living for hundreds of people without any support from the royal pain-in-the-butts.

Our ordinary everyday vocations and jobs have been ordained by God to use us where we are. Instead of lamenting our limitations or wishing the situation were different, we all have an opportunity for God to work through us in our current positions and stations in life. 

Every one of us has the daily opportunity to integrate our faith and our work through connecting biblical ethics to concrete applications at our jobs; seeing our workplaces as mission fields; interpreting our work through a Christian worldview; discerning our vocation as a calling from God; and, knowing our work is a means for God to transform and sanctify us.

So, how do you view your job?  How might you connect your faith and your work?  How does what you do reflect the nature and character of God?  In what ways do you think God wants to use you in your workplace?

Sovereign God, you cause nations and institutions to rise and fall; you set up leaders to rule and put them down.  Take my life and my work and use it in redemptive ways that glorify the name of Jesus and exemplify the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Matthew 21:28-32 – The Parable of the Two Sons

The Lord of the Parables by Argentine artist Jorge Cocco Santangelo

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly, I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. (NIV)

I once cheated on a college exam. It was a required class for which I was not much interested, so my grade was rather tenuous going into the final exam of the semester. When the professor stepped out of the classroom for a few minutes during the final, my fellow students began sharing answers. I gave in and went with the others.

I got an “A” on the exam and passed the class easily. However, I royally flunked God’s test. After a few days of misery, I went to the professor’s office and confessed what I had done. I was prepared to take a failing grade for both the exam and the class, yet I think the professor was so shocked that I would come and admit such a thing that he worked up my grade right there in front of me… I passed, but just barely.

I originally said “no” to what was right, but then said “yes” and made it right.  For those who practice repentance, there is a God of grace waiting for them. God also has no tolerance for those who profess truth with a big “yes” on the outside but are passive-aggressive on the inside and say “no,” undermining the truth by how they live. 

Today’s Gospel lesson highlights entrance into the kingdom of God – and the people entering might surprise us. Turns out, there are spiritual insiders on the outside of the kingdom, and spiritual outsiders end up as the ones who really inherit the kingdom.

Christ’s parable is a warning to all the spiritually serious: Beware, lest our insider energies be spent in correctness, conformity of belief, and cockiness rather than following Jesus.  At the same time, the parable encourages outsiders with the wonderful possibilities of a changed life. 

Christ was warning those who arrogantly assume they have the inside track by what they believe, and not by doing God’s will. It may be challenging for us to imagine how truly offensive this story was to the original hearers of the parable, so I restate it in a more contemporary form:

There was a man who was well respected in the community and had two sons. One son grew up and became a respectable member of the community, too. He was a successful businessman and gave lots of money to causes in his community, including new lights for the school football field – which was no small cost.  He only asked that appropriate and prominent recognition be given him with a plaque bearing his name on each of the light poles. 

The other son was not so successful.  He was the one in school who the teachers said, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”  There was nothing spectacular about this son.  In fact, he lived an ‘alternate lifestyle’ and people murmured behind his back. 

One day the father said to this son: “Son, go and work at my place of business today; I am going away and need you to do some of the tedious paperwork I have gotten behind on.” “No way!” he answered, but later felt heartsick about the way he spoke to his father and decided to go and do all the grunt work his father needed done.

The father went to the well-respected son and said the same thing about needing him to do all the thankless paperwork that was piled up. That son answered, “Yes, sir, I will; anything you need I will do.”  But that son did not go. Instead, he chose to go golfing with some people whom he was trying to coy favor with.

After telling the story, Jesus asked all the upstanding faith leaders and the people listening: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, folks with different sexual orientations, unemployed persons on the low rung of society, and the religiously different with esoteric beliefs are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For you have had heard thousands of sermons about grace and the way of righteousness, yet you did not believe by putting God’s Word into practice; but the others did.  And even after you saw how God can change a person’s life from the inside-out, you yourselves did not repent and believe.

For Jesus to tell such a story was so incredibly scandalous that, frankly, it got him killed. Specifically, the scandal is this: Merely believing rightly and living as an upstanding citizen is not the way of salvation. Tax collectors and prostitutes were some of the most despised people in Christ’s time.  It was assumed they were outside of God.

Affirmation of Faith by Indian painter Jyoti Sahi, 1986

However, the proof of genuine belief is not lip service but actively obeying God when no one is looking:

My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don’t do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you? If you know someone who doesn’t have any clothes or food, you shouldn’t just say, “I hope all goes well for you. I hope you will be warm and have plenty to eat.” What good is it to say this, unless you do something to help? Faith that doesn’t lead us to do good deeds is all alone and dead! Suppose someone disagrees and says, “It is possible to have faith without doing kind deeds.” I would answer, “Prove that you have faith without doing kind deeds, and I will prove that I have faith by doing them.” You surely believe there is only one God. That’s fine. Even demons believe this, and it makes them shake with fear. (James 2:14-19, CEV)

The Christian life comes down to obedience, not cheap talk. Jesus wants to bless a lost world in need of God’s love and grace.

If we have ears to listen, we can hear numerous lost souls crying in the dark. If we have eyes to see, there are people caught in addictions standing in front of us. If we have hands willing to labor, needy folks surround us who can neither help themselves nor ask for it.

Honestly, I am heartsick over the grinding loneliness of so many people; the boatloads of shame which thousands secretly carry; and the silent pain experienced by individuals everywhere. I feel this way because I genuinely believe my Lord feels the same. Jesus is looking to activate grace through his people to a world sinking in the depths of incredible human need.

Christ’s parable, however, is more than a warning; it is a story that opens the door of mercy for unlikely people seemingly far from God – people who ruined their lives by saying “no” to God. The parable is an invitation for all the screw-ups and those with little faith to come to Jesus.

There is a rather obscure Scripture reference, tucked away in the Old Testament. David was on the outside looking in. King Saul was on the inside trying to capture and kill him, even though David had done nothing wrong. Here is what happened:

David got away and escaped to the Cave of Adullam. When his brothers and others associated with his family heard where he was, they came down and joined him. Not only that, but all who were down on their luck came around—losers and vagrants and misfits of all sorts. David became their leader. There were about four hundred in all. (1 Samuel 22:1-2, MSG)

This rag-tag group of outsiders in Israel became Israel’s insiders as David eventually became king and these were the “mighty men,” the ones who helped bring Israel into prominence. 

Jesus Christ came into this world and identified himself as the Savior to the outsider when he quoted the prophet Isaiah:

Jesus went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21, NRSV)

In Christ, there are no lost causes and no persons too far on the outside to be redeemed. Therefore, now is the time to act on what we believe – to not only affirm right doctrine, but to live out that doctrine in obedience to God’s call.

Malachi 2:10-3:1 – Remain Faithful

An Eastern Orthodox icon of the prophet Malachi

Don’t we all come from one Father? Aren’t we all created by the same God? So why can’t we get along? Why do we desecrate the covenant of our ancestors that binds us together?

Judah has cheated on God—a sickening violation of trust in Israel and Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the holiness of God by falling in love and running off with foreign women, women who worship alien gods. God’s curse on those who do this! Drive them out of house and home! They’re no longer fit to be part of the community no matter how many offerings they bring to God-of-the-Angel-Armies.

And here’s a second offense: You fill the place of worship with your whining and sniveling because you don’t get what you want from God. Do you know why? Simple. Because God was there as a witness when you spoke your marriage vows to your young bride, and now you’ve broken those vows, broken the faith-bond with your vowed companion, your covenant wife. God, not you, made marriage. His Spirit inhabits even the smallest details of marriage. And what does he want from marriage? Children of God, that’s what. So, guard the spirit of marriage within you. Don’t cheat on your spouse.

“I hate divorce,” says the God of Israel. God-of-the-Angel-Armies says, “I hate the violent dismembering of the ‘one flesh’ of marriage.” So, watch yourselves. Don’t let your guard down. Don’t cheat.

You make God tired with all your talk.

“How do we tire him out?” you ask.

By saying, “God loves sinners and sin alike. God loves all.” And, by saying, “Judgment? God’s too nice to judge.”

“Look! I’m sending my messenger on ahead to clear the way for me. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Leader you’ve been looking for will enter his Temple—yes, the Messenger of the Covenant, the one you’ve been waiting for. Look! He’s on his way!” A Message from the mouth of God-of-the-Angel-Armies. (MSG)

Any reader of Holy Scripture must come to grips with sections of it which are difficult, harsh, and scathing. Since the Bible covers a complete range of the human condition, not all we find within it are bunnies and butterflies. The prophets of the Lord held back no punches when it came to delivering their message.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Malachi squarely addressed the people’s issue of unfaithfulness. They were faithless to one another; faithless to their spouses; and, faithless to God.  God is described by the prophet as weary and exasperated with a lot of talk with no faithful presence and action. 

God hates divorce simply because it is so damaging for those involved. This is not a divine decree that divorce should never exist any more than God’s hatred for the people’s worship means that worship should never exist.

Both marriage and worship are to be meaningful experiences of devotion and dedication to the significant human and divine relationships in our lives.

God has no tolerance for half-hearted commitments which either opens another to violence or having verbal or physical violence perpetrated outright by the one who ought to be protecting and loving.

The solution to the two-faced problem of the people with their milquetoast obedience is that a messenger will be sent to prepare the way of the Lord.  He is coming, and it will be soon.

Keeping the end of our lives and of history in mind helps bring greater clarity and purpose to the present. The season of Advent reminds the faithful that since Jesus is coming soon, we must hold fast to our Christian allegiance. 

Faithfulness toward God also means having a faithful presence (albeit perhaps virtually) to the people close to us and near us.

Malachi exhorted the people to guard their spirits because a lack of personal awareness within causes a dearth of awareness without in simply seeing others but not really seeing them. Spousal abuse is not okay, and the God who sees all will rouse and act on behalf of the one stuck in a situation and pattern of neglect and/or exploitation.

It is necessary to monitor the condition of our souls and be in touch with the state of our spirits so that we remain faithful. We are to nurture our inner selves so that outward actions reflect faithful commitment without harming those closest to us.

Vulnerability with oneself and submission to basic accountability structures are important so that we are aware to strengthen the inner person.  Rather than embrace a rabid individualism, communal dedication is a primary way of pleasing God, serving others, and realizing divine blessing. It also is a necessary preventative to domestic abuse.

Everyone deserves healthy relationships.

If you or someone you know is the victim of spousal abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit their website at https://www.thehotline.org/

Sovereign God, the One who sees and knows all, help me guard my spirit so that I will be faithful in all I do and in all my relationships with others, especially my own family and spouse.  Strengthen my soul to remain dedicated to seeing the coming of Jesus in all his glory.  Amen.