Summary: Like Job they complain about howe God is treating them, but they get more than they bargained for. Their behaviour doesn’t stand up before the gaze of God’s righteousness.
I love courtroom dramas especially the ones written by John Grisham: The Pelican Brief, The Rainmaker, Runaway Jury. Then there are the TV shows like Perry Mason, JAG, Judging Amy, Law and Order and so forth. It’s great to see these great legal minds in a battle of wits trying to prove their case. Well, one of the things I’ve picked up in watching these sorts of shows is the first rule of questioning a witness: "Never ask a question to which you don’t know the answer."
Well it’s a shame the Israelites in the 5th century BC hadn’t watched Perry Mason. Because that’s exactly the mistake they make. At the end of ch2 they ask "Where is the God of justice?" As we saw last week they’re upset because it doesn’t look like God’s keeping his promise to bless them. If you look down to v11 you get a hint of what’s been happening to their crops: locusts have been eating them, their vines have failed to bear fruit, the fertile land has become barren. So they think they have something to complain about.
But they should have thought about their question a bit longer before asking it because look at the answer God gives: "You want the God of justice? Well you’re going to get him!"
"See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple." Do you remember I said Malachi means "My messenger"? God has sent his messenger to warn them, but now he promises to send another messenger, not just to warn them but to prepare the way for his coming. There’s an echo here of the parable of the tenants that we read in our first reading, with God sending a series of messengers until he finally sends his son. There’s also a hint of Isaiah 40 isn’t there? That’s certainly the way Mark understands it because he combines this verse with Is 40:3 at the very beginning of his gospel. "A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain." He sees this as a prophecy of John the Baptist coming to prepare the way for Jesus. This messenger God is sending will come to clear away the obstacles that lie in God’s way; only, in this case the obstacles are the Israelites themselves and their leaders.
God is coming to his temple, not to be worshipped but to judge. They want someone to come and judge between them and God, a "messenger of the covenant" is how God puts it, but will they like what they get? Well, no. In fact the opposite will be the case: "Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?"
"He is like a refiner’s fire." [We sing it often enough, but have you ever thought what it is you’re asking when you call on God, as a refiners fire, to make you holy?] What’s a refiners fire like? Well, it’s very hot. That’s obvious. But it’s also slow in the way it works and probably quite painful. The refiner sits there, heating the gold or silver until the impurities rise to the surface, then he scrapes them off. Then he waits a bit longer for the more stubborn impurities to be separated out and he scrapes them off. Then he waits a bit longer and a bit more scum rises to the surface. Have you ever thought about that in your own life? Have you ever wondered in those times when life was particularly difficult whether God was refining you?
I guess everyone has seen the "Footsteps in the Sand" poster or email. You know, where you look back at the footsteps in the sand and most of the time there are two sets of footprints - yours and those of God walking alongside you. And it seems as though at the hardest times in your life there was only one set of footprints, as though God had left you. But God says, no, those are the times I was carrying you on my shoulders.
It’s a nice picture isn’t it? But at the risk of losing a lot of friends can I say that that very sentimental view of life derives much more from Hollywood and Mills and Boon than it does from a real life understanding of what true love is about. Let me read you something of what true love may be like: ’"My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; 6for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts." 7Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? 8If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children.’ (Heb 12:5-8 NRSV)