(3rd c. North African theologian Origen of Alexandria)
Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent (Click link for audio)
Malachi 1 (Beginning of our sermon series on Malachi)
Calvary - St. George's Church, Manhattan
“‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord.
But you say, ‘How have you loved us?’
‘Is not Esau Jacob’s brother,’ says the Lord. ‘Yet I have loved Jacob but I have hated Esau.’
‘A son honors his father… If then I am a father, where is the honor due me’ says the Lord of hosts to you who despise my name.’
You say, ‘How have we despised your name?’
‘By offering polluted food on my altar,’
‘What a weariness this is,’ you say, and you sniff at me.
‘You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering.’”
What an exchange in our Old Testament reading. Did you notice the back and forth, the proximity, the intimacy? God and his people are having a conversation. They’re like a married couple arguing. People who don’t love each other don’t talk like this. People who don’t care for each other don’t have this conversation.
I recently read a Modern Love column in the New York Times about a tell for the end of a marriage. “The verbal sparrings were actually signs of hope for our relationship,” wrote the author of the piece, “but once the conflicts ceased, I knew it was over.” “You have tough conversations with those whom you love,” she commented. “You pull away from those you don’t.”
People who don’t love each other do not have this conversation.
During Advent we’re going to take a look at the book of Malachi. Malachi is the last book of the Hebrew Prophets. It’s the book you’ll find just before the New Testament in English Bibles. Tertullian, a second century North African theologian, was convinced that the placement of the book was significant. It’s transitional nature, evident. There was no doubt for Tertullian that it points backward to the calling of God’s people to live by the guidelines of their relationship with God, but he was also convinced that it points forward to a time when this dubious union would be made enduringly stable.
The book of Malachi was written sometime after the people of God had returned to Israel from their exile in Babylon. Just like after their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the people of God were once again given a land of their own to occupy and rule. Only the glory days of King David and King Solomon were long gone. They had been delivered and restored to their land, but they were no longer key players on the Ancient Near East scene. They were no longer impressive at all.
This is the historical setting of the opening question of chapter one. “I have loved you,” says the Lord. But you say, “How have you loved us?” In other words, the people of God have a bone to pick. A loose paraphrase might read, “The guidelines of our relationship, oh God, involve blessing us, but when we look around, it sure looks like Persia and the Greek city-states are a whole lot more blessed than us.”
God’s people feel slighted. They are envious of the nations around them... They are not so very different from you and me... jealous of the “blessed” upper-east side folk with their private chauffeurs and their black tie everything. The people of God live way out in Flushing. They’re just barely making rent.
God’s reply to Israel’s complaint is akin to a lover desperately trying to convince her suspicious spouse that he is the only one: You, “Jacob have I loved; Esau have I hated.” The language God uses is jarring. It’s as if in the midst of his desperation to show his love for his beloved he begins to swear for effect. He’s essentially telling Jacob (or Israel) that when it comes to her there is no one else. When it comes to holding a candle to the love of his life, it is as if he hates the rest. Here is a lover who is all in. Who will say and do anything to reassure his beloved of his affection.
But the text does not end here. In the verses that follow we find that the lover has been unable to convince his beloved. “You despise me,” God says. To which Israel responds “How, how have we despised your name?” “By offering polluted food on my altar.”
Now while this may seem a rather strange relational expectation, worthy sacrifices were a part of the rules and guidelines of their covenanted relationship. This may strike us as odd because it hasn’t been a respectable practice for close to two thousand years, but I’d like to counter your bewilderment with the assertion that the Old Testament sacrificial system points to the fact that every real relationship involves sacrifice. Marriages only stay healthy when both parties are committed to giving their best to the other, and to be willing to sacrifice their own desires for their partner’s sake. God’s beef with Israel’s unworthy sacrifices is one party’s complaint that the other isn’t really present. His grievance with his people is that he is a spouse that has been taken for granted: “You don’t respect me.” “You don’t give of me your best.” “I’m an afterthought to you.”
The validity of this charge is evident when we understand that the sacrifices Israel was offering were only that of which they they could not possibly sell. Offering blind, lame, and sick animals to show love and respect was essentially phoning it in. It was the people of God simply going through the motions. In light of this truth, God’s outburst “Would that you would just stop sacrificing altogether,” is not the roar of a fault-finding deity, but the cry of an overlooked lover.
...Israel’s response to her beloved’s cry: “What a weariness this is.”... It’s not looking good for the future of this relationship...
As I mentioned earlier, every relationship has rules and guidelines. Even with acquaintances here in the U.S. you don’t simply invite yourself over for dinner to someone you don’t know. The same is true with relationships closer to home. If you never treat your partner well, they will rightfully get upset and have every right to confront you. Here in the first chapter of Malachi we see God, not pulling away from, but moving toward the spouse whom he loves. He is face-to-face with his beloved who has taken him for granted. The people of God have not followed the rules and guidelines of their relationship. Instead, they have been obsessed with themselves. Instead, they continue to cheat. Instead, they have forsaken their beloved and are off in pursuit of lovers less wild.
By the end of the third chapter of Malachi, all hope for the longtime union appears to have dissolved. Not God, but the beloved is bent on pulling away. “It is futile to serve God,” the people cry out. “What do we gain by carrying out his requirements.”... At this, horror of horrors, it appears that even God has had enough. In chapter four he says as much. And according to the rules and guidelines of the covenant, He was completely within his rights. Here in the last book of the Old Testament prophets, it seems that God’s people are to be forever left to their own devices; to endlessly go at it alone...The classic definition of hell.
But thankfully, God, in his majesty, is a bit of a softy. Despite everything, our Lord just cannot leave us or forsake us to our undoing. And in what feels like a tacked on epilogue at the end of Malachi, God promises to continue to keep his end of the rules and guidelines of the relationship even as his beloved proves to be consistently unfaithful.
But, at the same time, God is also true to his character. He cannot simply overlook or pass on sin. Just as none of us would want our friends or loved ones to be trampled upon in a consistently abusive and unfaithful marriage, this infidelity has to be dealt with.
So what is the remedy? What’s the solution? Is the answer for the people of God to try harder? To get their act together? To make a worthy sacrifice this time? The third century church father Origen of Alexandria didn’t think so. He believed that the answer is found in the work of the One in whom the epilogue of Malachi foreshadows. The remedy is the Cross of Christ: The worthy sacrifice that would make up for his beloved’s unworthy ones. For Origen, God had to deal with the infidelity of his people, and the way for him to do this was to become one of them so that he might fulfill the rules and guidelines of the relationship for them.
And the good news in all of this for you and for me is that the effect of the worthy sacrifice that God made on behalf of His people fills up and spills out beyond the purview of Israel onto those of every tribe, tongue, and nation. Onto people of every race and ethnicity. Even onto ‘hated’ Esau and the Edomites: The foil God used at the beginning of the chapter to desperately express his love for his beloved. And this means that it has also spilled out and over onto you and me. For in Christ’s perfect sacrifice he not only fulfilled the rules and guidelines of the relationship for insiders, but also for the outsiders. Not just for those with some flaws, but also for his enemies.
Maybe you’re here this morning and you’re an insider who’s pulled away, but you’ve found the others to be less wild lovers. Or maybe you’re here every week, but right now, as you’re processing this love, you’re feeling like you only give Him what you cannot sell. Or maybe you’re an outsider and all of this is new for you, but the prospect of this Lover who will not let you go is pulling on your heartstrings.
“For God so loved the world,” the Gospel of John tells us, “that he gave his only Son” for people like you and me who so often either phone it in or pull away. This is the love that births goodness and fosters relationship. This is the kind of affection that makes following the rules and guidelines a joy. This is the kind of love that frees us to enter into relationship with Him without fear, because we’re no longer trying earn it or keep it. We simply want to love our beloved.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit...