Gleanings from the Bible: Malachi

The last book of the Old Testament is an encouragement and a warning to the existing generation of that day to not allow their faith to slide or be lost. The present state of worship was in bad shape and a tumultuous 400 years would follow before the events of the New Testament saw God dramatically intervening, in the form of Jesus of Nazareth.

Even since the return from Exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple, expressions of worship had slidden into perfunctory patterns, devoid of real depth and meaning. Much of Malachi’s condemnation is therefore directed towards the priests and as such could be a warning to leaders of Christian worship everywhere.

I’ve noticed it often in Anglican worship (both high and low church) where the liturgy is said in a rapid monotone, without expression or any apparent reflection. Where the trappings associated with Holy Communion seem almost to be flung around without any thought of their significance. Like the rolling stone that gathers no moss engagement with God or the Spirit never seems to have a chance to stick. Surely we do a disservice to both God and his people when we fail to read or recite with expression and when we are offhand with symbols which are meant to remind us of the depth of God’s love for us.

The priests also seem to have lapsed when it came to preserving the teaching which had been entrusted to them. Instead of preserving knowledge their teaching was causing people to stumble. This morning I was reading the same sorts of warnings from Paul to Timothy (2 Timothy 3-4). Teachers who had become weary of sound doctrine, always learning but never coming to a knowledge of the truth, having a form of godliness but denying its power. I may have said it before, but I often wonder whether the powerlessness and sterility of some expressions of worship and doctrine have created a boredom, which has given rise to the searching and experimentations of so-called Progressive Christianity, a conglomeration of faith which in its more extreme forms has departed from Christianity altogether.

But Malachi’s complaint goes further. Worship, of course, involves us beyond Temple, Synagogue or Church walls. It is expressed in our day to day attitude. Malachi reminds us of what an insult it is to offer God the leftovers of our life. His example is sacrifice on the altar, but ours could be the loose change on the collection plate or the paltry time we give to God in prayer, or our reluctance to heed his calling for us to get involved in his work, all because we have just too many other things to occupy our wealth, time and talents. Only when we truly engage with God do we find the spiritual blessings that really satisfy. Only when God is at the centre of our lives can we know balance and fulfilment. Only when God is first can we realise the purpose of humankind to glorify him and enjoy his presence.

Malachi, like other prophets, speaks of the Day of the Lord. A day is coming when justice will prevail, where good and evil will be seen for what they are, where comprehensive healing will come with righteousness.

That day arrived with the incarnation of Jesus Christ. It will reach its fulfilment in the day that he returns, and in the meantime we must examine ourselves and heed the call, ‘Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the LORD Almighty (3:7).

And there it is. It is not just by going through the motions and it is not by creating new and innovative doctrines. It is by returning to Yahweh Almighty as revealed to us in the Scriptures and now, more particularly in Jesus Christ. For that is where the exciting  life-changing transformation really takes place!

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Gleanings from the Bible: Zechariah

Zechariah is about encouragement. Helping the Jews returning from Babylon to realise that God is in control and there is a bright future in his hands. The great nations, who have overcooked God’s punishment of the Exiles, would meet with their own demise, Jerusalem would flourish, Yahweh would live among them and there appears to be a Messianic promise to one of the leaders, Joshua, of one to come, who would “remove the sin of this land in a single day.” (3:9)

A verse that stood out for me was 4:6, “’Not by might nor by power but my Spirit,’ says the LORD Almighty.” It was oft quoted by the leaders in the holiness church I attended in my teens (a sort of Charismatic, second blessing independent fellowship of Believers). It expressed the longing we had for God to do something dramatic, while acknowledging our helplessness to bring it about. We were a small group having little impact on the surrounding community.

In some ways I think that Zechariah was trying to do what those church leaders were trying to achieve – encouraging a small people to think big, because they had a big God, in control of history, in control of the great nations of the earth. Yes, the Temple they were rebuilding might seem to be a shadow of the former one that was destroyed by Babylon but they were not to despise the day of small things 4:10. Evil would be carted off in a basket from Jerusalem to Babylon, where it belonged (5:5-11), while Jerusalem was to practise justice, mercy and compassion, whereby God’s blessings would come upon her (chap 8).

There are more indications of a Messiah – the king righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey (chap 9), the cornerstone from Judah (chap 10) and Jerusalem looking on the one they have pierced (chap 12), all picked up in the New Testament. And yet, with the promises of restoration, not all would be rosy. Chapters 13 and 14 talk of the nations fighting against Jerusalem. These events seem to be precipitated by the striking of the shepherd and the scattering of the sheep – a quotation that Matthew applies to the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane. Whether the ensuing disasters then apply to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD or to some culmination of events in our own future is open to speculation. I remember that the Six Day War, when the Arab nations united against reconstituted Israel, aroused much interest in end-time prophecies at the time.

However these events may eventually pan out, whether in the spiritual realm, the physical world or indeed both, we should understand from the prophecies that it is Yahweh who is God over the nations of this world and who controls the destiny of his people, whether it includes national Israel or those who have come to know God through Jesus, the Christ. That knowledge should fill the faithful with confidence and the desire to be the People of God, not just in name but also in the way we live, with justice, mercy and compassion, trusting God to bring about his victory over all things.

Gleanings from the Bible: Haggai

Evangelical Christians today will often downplay the importance of church buildings. We say, “The Church is the people. God does not live in bricks and mortar. Even the Old Testament (with its emphasis on the Temple) affirms that! God’s people are indwelt by the Holy Spirit. First Corinthians affirms that the individual and the gathered believers are the temple of the Spirit. Jesus was the dwelling place of God and all this understanding supersedes the notion of holy things and holy places. ‘Church’ buildings are a means to an end and not things to be venerated or attract unnecessary expense.”

Now there is some truth in all of that. There are too many times when buildings have been valued above people, before mission and in preference to Jesus’ affirmation that people would worship God, neither on the mountain nor in Jerusalem, but in Spirit and in truth (John 4). But there is another side to all of this.

Haggai, speaking to the 50,000 or so who had returned from Exile and were rebuilding Jerusalem, tells them that it’s high time they got around to rebuilding God’s house, the Temple. The problem was one of attitude. They were so busy fixing up their own houses that they had no time to dedicate to the place of prayer and sacrifice in deference to the One who had yet again delivered and re-established them in the Promised Land. Their priorities were inward-focussed rather than God-focussed. Haggai warned them that such an attitude was resulting in spiritual and material poverty of life. Put God first and they would experience his presence and the enrichment of their lives.

I remember some years ago visiting an Anglo-Catholic clergyman, who kept quite a regimented day, of almost the monastic kind. On one occasion he was about to preside at a Holy Communion service and realised with horror that his shoes were not quite clean. Although they looked all right to me, he had to go off and clean and polish them before leading in worship. I admit that I was somewhat bemused at the time by what I felt was an example of over-zealous legalism. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that cleaning his shoes and observing set times in his day were his way of honouring God and showing his respect for his Creator and Lord. “After all,” I thought, “I would make sure my shoes were clean if I was meeting say, the Queen. Why not then dress appropriately to lead people in worship before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?” Should we not also want to treat with respect the places and the objects that we have set aside and dedicated to the worship of Almighty God?

Now I know that there has to be some balance in all of this. We don’t want to forget that God is both our friend and Father and that Jesus is our brother as well as our Lord. But we do need to be careful, I think, not to become so familiar and off-hand with God that our worship spaces and holy tables become like the junk room in our house, with just another piece of battered old furniture pulled out when we need extra benchtop space – the same benchtop space we use to remember the enormous love of God expressed in  the agonising death of our Lord, Jesus Christ, in our place, for our sins.

So it comes back to our attitude and motivation. Does our lifestyle, our body language, our maintenance of ourselves and our buildings, how we present ourselves and the way we offer corporate worship — do these things reflect that we, in Paul’s words, have presented our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God? (Romans 12:1-2).

These are things to think about, not that we should fall into legalism, but that we should respect God and respect those who express their respect differently from us.