Beckett: Sermon – God Spares His Servants

Date: November 24, 2019
Festival: Proper 29, Last Sunday of the Church Year (Stewardship Sunday)
Text: Malachi 3:13-18
Preaching Occasion: St. Paul Lutheran Church, Union, MO

Exegetical Statement: In this text, Malachi challenges the people of Israel. The prophet relays to them that they have spoken harshly against Yahweh. The people are not convinced they have spoken against Yahweh and ask for evidence. which Malachi obliges to give them. They have said it is vain to serve God. They have questioned the profit, or benefit, of keeping God’s charge since doing so often leads to grief. They claim the prideful are blessed and that evildoers test God and get away with it. Those who feared Yahweh and esteemed His name gathered together to speak about these things. Yahweh heard their discussions and they wrote a book of remembrance before Yahweh not for Him to remember, but for their own remembrance. Yahweh then promises that these people who fear Him and esteem His name shall be His—He will make them His treasured possession and spare these ones who serve Him. They will be palpably distinguished from those who do not serve Him.

Focus Statement: God promises to those who fear, love, and trust Him (and thus serve Him) that He will make them His treasured possession.

Function Statement: That my hearers will serve God as they trust in His promise that they are spared from God’s wrath as His treasured possession.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Trouble in the Text

One of my sergeants in the Army always said, “There’s a difference between an excuse and a reason.” If you couldn’t fulfil one of your duties, you’d better have a reason, not an excuse. A reason would be some sort of emergency or an appointment; an excuse would be sleeping in or watching a sports game instead of tending to your duties.

In our sermon text for today, the Israelites had all sorts of excuses not to serve God—not to do their duty. At first, they didn’t even admit it! Malachi comes to them and accuses them of speaking harshly against Yahweh. Yet they don’t admit it. Even more, they ask Malachi to prove his case—or rather, God’s case—against them.

Malachi is all too happy to give the evidence from God. “Well,” he says, “you have said it is vain to serve God. You say things like, ‘What good is there in serving God when doing so only brings us grief? After all, the prideful are blessed! Look at them! They test God and get away with it! So, what good can there be in serving Him?'”

These are excuses, of course, not reasons. They might seem like good reasons when you say them, but ultimately they’re poor excuses. Just before this, God says through Malachi beginning at verse 6, “For I, Yahweh, do not change.” Why are these excuses and not reasons? Because God does not change. God has promised to destroy the wicked and bless His people since the days of old; this has not changed. So, they are without excuse not to serve God.

Trouble in the World

It is easy for us to read a text like this and say, “Oh, you silly Jews. How can you say such things against God? How can you not serve Him?” But are we any different? We are not. We speak harshly against God all the time!

We say things like, “Oh, God didn’t really mean it when He said homosexuality is a sin, or taking His name in vain is a sin, or premarital sex is a sin. Oh, God doesn’t care that we kill babies in the womb. Oh, it’s okay to gossip; I’m not hurting anybody.” Name your favourite sin, and it stops being sinful.

There are even Christians who lie with God’s name and say, “God hates gays. God hates soldiers.” Name your group of people you hate and apparently God hates them too. So, you see, we are not any different.

We not only speak harshly against Him in these ways, but we also make up excuses not to serve God. There is a spiritual apathy in Christian America. We make up excuses like, “I only need to spend my 1 hour at church once a week and I’ve done my Christian duty… Church better not go over an hour because I gotta’ watch that football game later, and I’ll let Pastor know about it if it does! …What’s the point of serving God when bad things happen anyway? What’s the point of serving God when I’m freed by the Gospel? …Why should I participate in that church activity? I’d rather do something I actually want to do. Oh, and I’m freed by the Gospel, so I don’t really have to do anything.”

We want the church to grow but we don’t want to put in the hours or trust God with His Church.

Oh, you silly Jews? More like: Oh, you silly Christians! How can we sit there in apathy, graciously forgiven by a holy God who sacrificed His only Son to die for us, and say something as absurd like, “What point is there in serving God or spending over 1 hour at church?” What point is there? The point is Jesus who bled and died for you! The point is not you; the point is Jesus!

Martin Luther said an idle faith is a worthless faith. (The word idle he used, by the way, was the one meaning lazy or inert, not idolatry.) He was commenting on Galatians 5:6 where St. Paul says the only thing that counts is “faith working through love.” You have faith, which saves you as a free gift; this is most certainly true! But as Luther and the apostles said, what good is that faith if you don’t love your neighbour with the love of Christ who has justified you by faith? It is worthless.

A person justified by faith in Christ leaps forth with joy to his neighbour; he doesn’t sit idly by. Faith without action is like a well-oiled car sitting in a garage without a transmission. Like the prodigal son who squandered his father’s inheritance, we squander our inheritance given to us in Baptism.

We might ask ourselves, “What point is there in serving God” for various excuses, but what point is there in God sparing us if we don’t leap from our Baptism like newborn calves by serving our neighbour with joy in the body of Christ, which is called the Church? God is not served in vain since His Word does not return to Him void [Isaiah 55:11]; rather, we live our lives in vain with such spiritual apathy.

This Word of God through Malachi, then, is speaking to us much as it spoke to the people of Israel.

Grace in the Text

Fortunately, there were Jews who genuinely feared God and took to heart this Word of the Lord through Malachi. The Law worked in their hearts. They gathered together and discussed these things. What is this other than repentance?

And God heard and saw what they were discussing. He saw within them not only their fear of Him but also their faith, because they esteemed His name. To “esteem” is to “think highly” of something; they exalted His name over all matters, something only faith can do.

Seeing this faith work in them, God then makes a promise to these ones who fear Him. As Lutherans, we would say those who fear, love, and trust in God above all things. God’s promise is that those who fear, love, and trust Him will become His treasured possession. He will spare them from His wrath, and these ones who serve Him will be palpably distinguished from those who do not.

We must read ahead in order to fully appreciate this promise. This text is placed within the context of the Day of the Lord in chapter 4, which Pastor Mat preached on last week. The Israelites might think the prideful are blessed and the evildoers will prosper forever, but to paraphrase from Pastor Mat, when the sun of righteousness dawns you will leap forth from the grave like a newborn calf joyously leaping from the womb.

It is as if God were saying, “Forget their appearances. Forget that it appears to you that the prideful are blessed and the evildoers prosper. It will not last. I will destroy them. Until then, I will make you My treasured possession and I shall spare you when the sun of righteousness dawns.”

First, they received a harsh rebuke from God; then they received a gentle promise completely undeserved—hope that they shall be God’s treasured possession and thus spared from His wrath.

Grace in the World

God’s promise to spare those who fear, love and trust in Him occurred on the cross. When Jesus was crucified, God spared His people who fear Him from His wrath—He spared you.

We read about this in our Gospel reading for today. One of the criminals hanging on a cross beside Jesus mocked Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!” But the other criminal beside Jesus rebukes him, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong” [Luke 23:39-40].

This other man on the cross feared God, but he also trusted in Jesus, and he received Jesus’ promise that he would be transferred into His kingdom that same day.

Fear God, for He has wrath; but also trust in Jesus, because God spares His servants from His wrath. Paul described this in our epistle reading for today, “[God the Father] has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” [Colossians 1:13-14].

As Paul likewise said in Romans 8:32, God did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all. [short pause] God did not spare His Son from His wrath in order that He would spare you from His wrath. Therefore, right now, you are spared from God’s wrath through Jesus Christ, and He assures you of this promised by having already made you His treasured possession in your Baptism.

Therefore, let us imitate that prodigal son who ran back to his father in repentance, and his father graciously spared him from his well-deserved wrath. Let us imitate those faithful Jews who feared God, repented, and trusted in Him and His promise to treasure us and spare us as they continued to serve Him faithfully, marked in their book of remembrance.

The sun of righteousness dawned on the cross in Jesus Christ, who took upon God’s wrath for your sake. So, right now, we live in service to God in the various ways He calls us, even though it may seem to us in our limited perspective that we are serving God in vain. Yet God’s Word does not return to Him void; His Word accomplishes what He sends it out to do.

Stop worrying about all those prideful, wicked people out there. Trust in God. He created the whole universe; certainly, He knows what He’s doing with your service to Him.

We need not make any excuses, but only the reason that Christ was crucified for you, having spared you His servant from God’s wrath that you might live to joyfully serve and love your neighbour with the fruits He has given you in the life of Christ.

May this peace of God, which surpasses all understanding as you serve God in your vocations, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, the Sun of Righteousness. Amen.

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