Don’t you hate the politician’s answer? They don’t give you a straight answer to the question they’ve just been asked, because they worry about what you will think of them if they do.
When people who teach about God do this, it is tragic, because if there is a God nothing matters more than knowing what he’s like, than knowing what he requires of us, than knowing how we can get to be in his good books, than being able to be certain that we are in his good books and so we are secure for eternity.
Which means we need the truth about God, no matter how lovely it may be to hear what we want to hear, or to hear what we wish was true.
We’re looking together this autumn at the book of the prophet Malachi written about the year 400 b.c..
Just to remind you of the history: The people of Israel have been taken into exile to a country called Babylon; they had been allowed to return to their own land; they had rebuilt their temple and their city. But then a hundred years had elapsed; nothing much further had happened; life was decidedly not spectacular, and they began to grow tired and cynical.
In particular, they doubted God’s love; they doubted the truth that God loved them. From that, flowed all kinds of problems, that all traced back to the fact that if they didn’t believe God loved them, they no longer had awe and respect for God’s name (his character, his reputation, who he is). They were no longer fixated with God. And therefore everything else began to unravel.
As Malachi addresses the many problems they had, the first thing he does is he addresses the priests, he addresses the leadership. We saw in chapter 1 how he exposed the poor quality of the animals they were offering for sacrifice. And then in chapter 2, the same passage we’re looking at today, last week we saw how the priests themselves had no relationship with God. They didn’t have any kind of living, vibrant relationship with the God they were supposed to represent. It was just formal, lifeless and dead.
So today we’re going to look at the other side of the priest’s work. Part of their job was to offer sacrifice; the other part of their job was to teach the people about God.
Now you might be wondering as we come to that, “What on earth has this got to do with me?” “After all,” you could say, “I’m not a priest.” Well, some of what Malachi says to the priests of his day focused specifically onto the Lord Jesus, who is after all the only priest we need today. But in a secondary way what Malachi says to the priests does indeed apply to each and every one of us.
So I want to show us from these verses two things that God wants from the priests in the time of Malachi, that are also things that God wants from us.
Faithful to the Message
The first thing God wants is people who will be faithful to the message. Faithful to the message.
So, verse 7 says “The lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth.” The priests were messengers; they stood in the presence of God, and had been given a message to relay to the people, to pass on.
Or the beginning of verse 6, “True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips.” But the priests are not doing that; they are not being faithful to the message they’ve been given.
It’s a little bit like (now this would never happen in our house) but imagine Mum says to the kids — “You’re going to see your Dad later, or you’ll be in contact, text him, whatever. Let him know, on his way home, could he pick up some more apples, because we’ve run out of apples.” So out comes the phone, and in goes the message: “Mum says — on the way home, could you pick up some doughnuts and some cookies.”
That’s what the priests were doing. They have not been faithful to the message they were asked to pass on.
Now, what will God do, given that they are not being faithful in this way? What God will do is full of irony, because they’re going to lose their jobs.
This is where the awkward and unpleasant sounding verse, verse 3 comes in: “Because of you, I will rebuke your descendants. I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it.”
The dung here is not just the dung; it would include all the parts of the animal that were not ritually clean, and couldn’t actually be offered as part of the sacrifice. So it depends slightly on the purpose of the sacrifice as to which parts they included, but it might include for example the animal’s hide or its intestines, or whatever. Those parts of the animal would not be taken into the temple, the presence of God, for sacrifice; they would be carted off to a place outside the temple, outside the city. There, they would be burnt and destroyed.
God is saying to these priests: “You will not go into the temple with the sacrifices anymore. Instead, you will be taken out to the place where all the ritually unclean stuff ends up.” All their lives, these priests have been trained how to live meticulously carefully to make sure they remain ritually pure, that nothing contaminates them so they can’t go into the presence of God. Suddenly, God is saying that that something will happen to them that will mean that they are no longer fit to enter God’s presence, which means they can’t serve him, they can’t do their jobs, they can’t represent the people. And they can’t stand in God’s presence to receive the message that God has for his people.
If they won’t be faithful messengers, God will no longer give them the job of being messengers.
Now in our day, we want a faithful priest. Wonderfully, in the Lord Jesus we have that. He lived with his Father for all eternity, and he passed on faithfully what God the Father wanted passed on. So here’s John chapter 12 verse 49: “I do not speak on my own but the Father who sent me commanded me to say all that I have spoken.” If you remember the stuff we did on the Trinity back in about June time, this comes under that heading of “The Father comes first.” The Father wants to reveal himself to us, and God the Son only speaks the words the Father gives him to speak, with perfect faithfulness.
And so today, God wants Christian leaders and ordinary Christians who will not reinvent the message. We are trustees, entrusted with what God has made known. God wants Christian leaders and ordinary Christians who will faithfully pass on what Jesus has made known about God.
Faithful to the message.
How, in practice, were they failing to be faithful? Well, this comes to the second part of what God wants from them and from us.
Impartial to the People
He wants priests and people who will be impartial to the people. Impartial to the people.
So here’s what they did wrong, verse 9: “You have not followed my ways, but have shown partiality in matters of the law.” They tailor the message according to the person they’re speaking to.
So if somebody comes to the priest with, say, a neighbour dispute, or a property dispute, and they say, “What does the word of God have to say to help me solve the dispute I have with my neighbour?”… If the person bringing the request was a rich person, they might get an answer that ruled in their favour. But if the person was poorer, they might find that the ruling goes against them.
This is then back to politicians. Although, I would stress, politicians at their worst. I do not wish to breed cynicism in you. Lots of our politicians work extremely hard, and are men and women of great integrity. But at their worst, especially when being interviewed by the media, they are forever adjusting their message. We watch them trying to say what they believe to be true and right, but squirming and struggling, because they know that what they need to say will make them unpopular and unelectable.
Well if the priests have not been faithful in this way, what will God do? Again, it’s full of irony. They’re driven by the desire to be popular, to be liked. But their punishment comes in verse 9: “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people.” The people will despise them for the hypocrites that they are.
Again, we today need and want a priest who is impartial as he deals with us, and at this point you know where this is going, don’t you?
We have one. The Lord Jesus is once again the ultimate priest. He never favoured the rich; he spoke truth into every situation; and therefore it was that frequently the poor would find grace, and help, and acceptance with him that they did not find anywhere else in society.
This is one reason why I never want to know who in this church gives what. It’s just that danger that it skews the way I treat people. If I know who the generous donors are, perhaps I’d be tempted to treat them with kid gloves in some way, and try harder to avoid offending them than other people.
But this is not just for those in leadership; This is for all of us in more subtle ways.
Do you have a particular friend, perhaps, who might find particular bits of Jesus’s teaching offensive? Might you be worried that a particular friend would unfriend you, or spend less time with you, if you shared the good news of Jesus with them, if you told them that you were at church today? Might you be worried about the flood of abuse you would get on social media if you let it be known that you hold some of Jesus’ more controversial views on matters that concern people today?
How easy it is to stay quiet, or to leave out the difficult bits.
God wants priests who will be faithful to the message and impartial to the people.
When we get our news filtered by what will make the speaker popular, we are in trouble. That’s called propaganda.
The priests of Malachi’s day were doing that with God. They were not being faithful to the message entrusted to them, and as a result the people they taught could not know God reliably. They were being led astray.
Wonderfully, we have Jesus as our priest. He is faithful, and therefore we can know God. We are not in the position of the people of Malachi’s day.
But how about your friends? They need us to tell them about Jesus.
Will we faithfully pass on what God has shown us in the Lord Jesus? Or will we change the message or even stay silent altogether, because of what we think people will or will not want to hear?