Trying to Piece Together This Puzzle (Malachi)

So here we are the day after Christmas, and my title today includes the word “piece.”  I really, really dislike that word!  And it is Christmas that caused this disaffection, especially for the pluralized version: “pieces.”  All of this has to do with having had a large family of children with the celebration and giving of gifts at Christmastime.

It remains a traumatic memory, even though the years now are waning a bit. Everything about Christmas – from the setting up of decorations, to the construction of larger outdoor toys like the Little Tikes heavy-duty plastic stuff, to playing with puzzles and legos given as gifts – all of it involved “pieces.”  The directions would say something like “142 pieces for assembly.”

When God handed out the logical reasoning ability that enables a person to instinctively know how to put multi-piece things together, I was apparently standing elsewhere in some sort of academic geek-squad type of line.

And as proof that I never learned a lesson from this, yesterday Diana and I did it again!  Yesterday we gave as a gift to our eight grandchildren a gigantic outdoor trampoline that will be set up at our house and be always here to get them out of the adults’ hair by sending them outside to enjoy jumping and playing upon like their fathers did when growing up at the same house. However, the trampoline was shipped to us in two very large boxes, and there is “some assembly required.”  Ugh! Pieces!dsc_1012

The Christmas story (which is the beginning of the pinnacle scene of God’s Big Story) involves a lot of pieces over time. The actual end of the story is yet to be seen and fully realized, and it is confusing to know what is yet to come in the culmination of time and the return of Christ. We have Scriptural puzzle pieces for this, but Christians don’t always agree as to exactly how they fit together.

But if you think our situation is confusing, imagine what it must have been like for an Old Testament prophet. At least for us we have the story of the incarnation, the life of Christ, the cross and the resurrection as historical events. All of these things were puzzle pieces to God’s people before the coming of Jesus. How could they – even a spokesman for God like a prophet – put all of these pieces together? The answer is that they really couldn’t … not nearly completely at all.

So let’s pick one of these prophets – the last one, Malachi – and use him in a first-person way as an illustration of that frustrating conundrum for those who so, so, so wished to understand what it all meant.

(This is the rough text of a first-person sermon on Malachi from eight years ago… so picture an ancient prophet sitting at a rough-hewn table with scrolls all over the place, with others nailed to the wall of his cave in haphazard fashion.)  Malachi speaking …

“Look at this! This is incredible!”

(Reading from Exodus 12:21-28) – Then Moses summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Go at once and select the animals for your families and slaughter the Passover lamb. 22 Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it into the blood in the basin and put some of the blood on the top and on both sides of the doorframe” …  “Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. 25 When you enter the land that the LORD will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. 26 And when your children ask you, `What does this ceremony mean to you?’ 27 then tell them, `It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.'”  Then the people bowed down and worshiped. 28 The Israelites did just what the LORD commanded Moses and Aaron. 

“The people obeyed … imagine that! The people of Israel sure don’t obey like that anymore! They are in complete rebellion and far from God! They don’t listen to prophets like me anymore. They say to me, ‘Malachi, why should we listen to you? So what if you say you are the last of the prophets to Israel? What good have any of you prophets been to us? You tell of a coming Messiah, but we see nothing!’”

“Yes, a Messiah has been long prophesied by those who have gone before me! But I am the last! And I don’t know how this all goes together myself! You would think that the last of God’s prophets to Israel would understand these things a little bit better than I do!”

“Okay, Malachi …. Go over it all again …”

“Now… here is what the Lord has said to ME to say to Israel.”

MAL 3:1 “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.

MAL 3:2 But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. 3 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, 4 and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.

“So now, that means that a person is going to come in advance of the Messiah and announce his coming … and … the Messiah is going to clean things up, especially with the Levites (good – they sure need it!) … and then offerings will be restored in righteous ways and the good days of true worship will come to Israel.”

“Very good … but how does that fit with all the other prophetic words that have gone before me?  Like this one from the beginning … by Moses…”

GE 3:14 So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all the livestock  and all the wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.    GE 3:15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

“Now this is interesting about the tribe of Judah… Moses wrote this one too…”  (pointing to a manuscript pinned to the wall) …

GE 49:10 The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.

“Okay… and now this ONE! Wow… this is as old as Moses, and it is incredible!”

  JOB 19:25 I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth.  JOB 19:26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; JOB 19:27 I myself will see him with my own eyes–I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!

“And then here are some of my favorites … from Isaiah 300 years ago, when being a prophet meant something – not that they didn’t have problems with the people too!”

Isaiah 7:14 – Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

Isaiah 9:6-7 – For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.

Isaiah 49:6 – I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

“And then, what in the world can this prophecy of Micah mean about Bethlehem, that little sheep village out there in the middle of nowhere?”

Micah 5:2 – “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.

“And Zechariah adds this piece to the confusion, talking about coming on a DONKEY???”

Zechariah 9:9 – Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

“And this last one especially confuses me as to what it means … about suffering and death.”

Isaiah 53:5-6 – But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.

“WHAT does it all mean? How does it all go together? I have looked and searched and still do not understand it all. But it is not for me to understand.”  (Praying) “That is what You want me to understand, isn’t it my Lord? All of this is for generations to come to know and to see and to believe.”

(A voice reads from 1 Peter 1:10-12) Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things.

“OK…let me try one more time to piece this together:

  • there’s the serpent and the heel,
  • the king from Judah’s family,
  • the virgin giving birth to a ‘God with us’ child, and Isaiah’s thing about a king forever
  • Micah’s thing about Bethlehem,
  • Zechariah and a donkey ride of the king into Jerusalem,
  • something to do with Gentiles as part of it all,
  • suffering and death – but not seeing any decay!! Good night! How can any of this go together?”

“If I am a prophet from God and I can’t figure this all out, how will just any ordinary person ever understand it?”  (pause)

“Okay God, I guess I am not supposed to understand it all. I’m just supposed to add my piece to the puzzle.”  (Pinning his revelation and writing on the wall)  My piece is the last piece, but someone else in the future will have to put it all together. Oh how I would like to see that; it is going to be grand!”

“Even though the people have sinned and rebelled, God will make a final atonement, and His Messiah will come. I don’t understand it all, but I BELIEVE!”

(A voice reads …) 2PE 1:19 And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

Yes, here in 2016 we still have some assembly required. But we have enough of the pieces of the puzzle to know and see God’s Big Story with a great deal of clarity. And in this, we are very blessed, even as we look for the next coming of our Lord.

Trusting God – So Easy, But So Hard – Malachi 1

1:1  A prophecy: The word of the Lord to Israel through Malachi.

So here we are beginning the final book of the Old Testament in our “Uncharted” series. The name “Malachi” means “my messenger,” and he was indeed God’s messenger to Israel. He gave them the same basic message as all of the other Old Testament prophets: Covenant blessing requires covenant faithfulness … or in other words, if you want God to keep His end of His covenant promises, you’d better keep your side of the agreement. That’s easy, right? Actually, as sinners, that is difficult.

This writing is now somewhere about 65-85 years after the time of Haggai and Zechariah – or about 450-430 BC. The Temple (of Zerubbabel) had been rebuilt with a brief time of revival following it; but now after a period of decline, life was hard, harvests were poor, the Persians dominated, the hearts of the people were cold, the priests were corrupt, and skepticism was rampant.

Israel Doubts God’s Love

“I have loved you,” says the Lord.

“But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’

“Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the Lord. “Yet I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his hill country into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.”

Edom may say, “Though we have been crushed, we will rebuild the ruins.”

But this is what the Lord Almighty says: “They may build, but I will demolish. They will be called the Wicked Land, a people always under the wrath of the Lord. You will see it with your own eyes and say, ‘Great is the Lord—even beyond the borders of Israel!’

The love/hate comparison here should be understood as a chosen/not chosen contrast. Though Esau was the older brother, it was Jacob/Israel that God had chosen to be His blessed people. And even as Esau gave up his birthright willingly for the immediate satisfaction of a bowl of stew, so his descendents demonstrated a total lack of heart for God. Esau’s descendents were the Edomites – the people we began talking about in this series through the prophecy of Obediah – a nation judged by God with destruction at the hands of the Babylonians.

Israel also was conquered by the Babylonians. But unlike Edom, God preserved a remnant to bring them back to their land as an expression of His covenant love; and now here they are again in a position of not honoring God.

The tone of this prophecy is one of disputation, as in a courtroom scene. God proves His faithfulness, and proves also how Israel has not honored the terms of the covenant made together.

Breaking Covenant Through Blemished Sacrifices

“A son honors his father, and a slave his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me?” says the Lord Almighty.

“It is you priests who show contempt for my name.

“But you ask, ‘How have we shown contempt for your name?’

“By offering defiled food on my altar.

“But you ask, ‘How have we defiled you?’

“By saying that the Lord’s table is contemptible. When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the Lord Almighty.

“Now plead with God to be gracious to us. With such offerings from your hands, will he accept you?”—says the Lord Almighty.

10 “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord Almighty, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. 11 My name will be great among the nations, from where the sun rises to where it sets. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations,” says the Lord Almighty.

12 “But you profane it by saying, ‘The Lord’s table is defiled,’ and, ‘Its food is contemptible.’ 13 And you say, ‘What a burden!’ and you sniff at it contemptuously,” says the Lord Almighty.

“When you bring injured, lame or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” says the Lord. 14 “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the Lord Almighty, “and my name is to be feared among the nations.”

The message is directed to the priests, who were guilty for knowing proper sacrificial regulations, yet not enforcing them with the people. The spiritual hearts of them all were on display when they brought sick and otherwise blemished animals for sacrifice. They disregarded the law’s regulations to bring the best, but rather held onto the best males in the flocks and herds.

Why would they do this? Well, in agriculture, a full one-half of a herd of flock can be seen in that one, young, best, prized ram or bull – possessing genetics that will be passed down for generations. Why risk your visible future, your entire measurement of wealth, by sacrificing that one best animal? Why not take the cheap route and send to the altar a sick or crippled beast that is not going to live long anyhow?

So, you see what God is really doing in asking for the best? He is asking for the worshipper to place his future prosperity and sustenance into God’s hands. That is difficult to do. But, is it not more true that obeying God will secure the future? That should be easy to do to obey God … right?

Let’s put it into modern terms. You have a mortgage and other bills, and you have an income that struggles to meet those bills in a one-to-one fashion, most times. And then you read that God would like you to be generous in giving toward Him. It even sounds like maybe something in the area of 10 or 20 percent of income would be appropriate. But how can you do that? How does the math work that 90% next month will cover what 100% this month barely accomplished? So, you throw a few bucks at God and hope He is not angry, right?

Hey, I can’t explain how 90% with God is more than 100% without Him … all I can say is that I’ve never seen anyone who is rich toward God find total failure, poverty, and foreclosure and debt counseling to be any part of their lives. It is really so simple … or is it so hard?