Last Sunday in the Church Year – C (Proper 29) LSB #’s 828, 850, 922
Text – Malachi 3:18
Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous & the wicked, between one who serves God & one who does not serve Him.
SERVING GOD, OR NOT!
There was a fire sweeping through the forest & because of the flames & thick smoke, a fire fighter got separated from his team. The flames grew more & more intense, & while he was assessing the danger, he came across the very campers who’d become trapped after starting the fire. By then it was becoming clear that the raging inferno would soon overtake them.
It meant certain death for everyone there, except for one possibility. The fire fighter was equipped with a special foil fire-shield under which he could lie & the flames would pass over him without serious harm. The problem was that the shield wasn’t large enough for all of them to fit underneath it, & time was running out.
Even though the campers didn’t understand all that was involved in making the shield work, & didn’t quite believe they could survive by simply lying underneath it, the fire fighter had them lie down & he covered them with it. Then, the flames overtook them all. Those under the shield were saved, but the fire fighter died.
He died while giving his own shield to the very people who caused the fire. Does that story move you? Does it move you emotionally only, or does the story propel you to action? Hopefully you notice some parallels to the history recorded in Holy Scripture. Yet, neither story is about what you or I do. Both stories are about the attitude of the heart.
Human beings do not act apart from the attitude of the heart. Another way to say it is this, “Your attitude determines how you act, & how you act reflects your attitude.” People point to stories like the firefighter who gave his life & say that we should do the same. Christians like to point to stories about Jesus & say that we should do the same. On the other hand, Malachi wrote about 430 years before Christ was born, & this is how he described what the people of his day were saying. It’s just the opposite of doing what Jesus would do:
“…It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping His charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? …Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test & they escape.” (3:14 & 15b ESV) As in our day, there was plenty of evil to go around, & it seemed as if living a virtuous life was pointless.
How many of our community think of coming to God’s house every Sunday as unnecessary? How many people do you know who pray before & after every meal? How many do you see picking up litter off the floor as they walk through a room? Many people you know see those virtuous activities as pointless. Does that thought run through your mind?
The news in our day is full of stories about corruption, greed & destruction. People are selfish, self-centered & self-glorifying, yet they are held up as the ones we should imitate. The rich & the famous are above the law but the little guy gets thrown into jail. God’s answer to these constant & age-old struggles points ahead to the last day of time:
“Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous & the wicked, between one who serves God & one who does not serve Him.” (Malachi 3:18 ESV) When the sermon is titled ‘Serving God, or Not!’ we can easily conclude that religion is all about what we do, or should be doing.
But that is a superficial understanding of what Malachi is saying – the same problem the Lord pointed out to the prophet Samuel 3000 years ago: “…Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 ESV) Our sinful nature has corrupted the way in which we see. We’re predisposed to look at things superficially, at the outward appearance alone. The heavenly Father sees much, much deeper than that. He looks on the heart of each one of us in this room. On the day that Jesus returns to set everything right:
“Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous & the wicked, between one who serves God & one who does not serve Him.” (Malachi 3:18 ESV) Because, for now, we can’t always tell if they are serving God or not; we cannot see another person’s heart. And because of our sinful nature it seems to us as if the wicked prosper & the righteous fail.
When Jesus returns, we’ll no longer be frustrated by the injustice that we now see going on all around us. That is the good news which Malachi is proclaiming to God’s people. It’s the reason why we look forward to & commemorate the end of the world by designating today as the Last Sunday in the Church Year. For those who trust in Jesus, Judgment Day will be a good one.
Our troubles occur as we wait to get there. When the wicked are not living rightly, & they appear to get away with it, it feels to us as if Jesus does not care. And as we dwell on those feelings, Satan is leading us away from Jesus into lives of indifference & skepticism. This doubting of Jesus is what Malachi is warning the Israelites of:
“You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping His charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test & they escape.’” (Malachi 3:14-15 ESV) Does it sound like the devil has been successful in leading them away from the source of life?
Our culture today is the same as that in Malachi’s day. We look & listen to our society & question why unbelievers live lives against God’s Word & nothing happens to them. They seem to be doing pretty well & many of them are prospering. Not only isn’t the Lord striking them dead, He seems to be blessing them more than He’s blessing me. Maybe God doesn’t really care if someone is serving Him or not! Grumbling against God was a constant problem for His people throughout the 40 years in the wilderness. And that is a picture of our lives. Until the Last Day, our circumstances are similar to those 40 years in the wilderness.
You & I are still waiting to enter the Promised Land, & along the way all of us are guilty of grumbling. We question if it’s worth serving God. We complain that God does not act justly. So we don’t bother picking up that piece of litter as we walk through a room. We stop bringing ourselves, & our family members, here, each week, to receive God’s blessings.
As we slack off on receiving our Lord’s blessings, our heart grows dull. Little by little, so slowly that you can’t possibly see it, your heart becomes cold & lifeless, & eventually dead – inexorably dead. You see, this house of God is a foreshadowing of heaven. If your heart does not long to be here, will it be any different on the day you face the pearly gates of heaven?
There, at the heart of the matter, is “…the distinction between the righteous & the wicked, between one who serves God & one who does not serve Him.” (Malachi 3:18 ESV) How you act does reflect your attitude. If you’re actions are disturbing you, you need to remember that even children of God are still sinners. Our heart consists of a sinful nature & a saintly one.
When your heart is turned towards your Lord, then you serve Him. When your heart is turned away, then you do not. Though the words of the text from Malachi begin with a strong rebuke, they are words of love meant to turn our hearts back to their Creator & Savior. In verse 14, he wrote what the people were saying:
“What is the profit of our keeping His charge or of walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts?” Do you realize what they’re complaining about in the 2nd half of that verse? They’re saying that it’s pointless to repent of their sins. That’s what “walking as in mourning before the Lord of hosts” is about. It comes from their tradition of wearing sack cloth & ashes to demonstrate their sorrow over their sins. If it seems to you that God just isn’t fair, that your life isn’t joy filled as you would have it, is there hope for you? If your heart has grown dull, listless & cold, if your spiritual life feels inexorably dead, is there hope for you?
“Two others, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with Him. And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified Him, & the criminals, one on His right & one on His left. …One of the criminals who were hanged railed at Him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself & us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘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.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And [Jesus] said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” (Luke 23:32-33 & 39-43 ESV)
You have three convicted criminals dying together. One of them is the very source of life. One of them rejects Jesus. The other allows the Holy Spirit to turn him back to Christ. He becomes repentant. That’s why Jesus died there to save any who would be turned back to Him. The death of God’s Son paid the price for all the sins of all human beings throughout history.
Now, we return to the story of the fire-shield & how those being saved by it did not understand how it worked. With the flames literally bearing down on them, they didn’t argue. They simply took their place on the ground & allowed the fire fighter to cover them.
In the same way, the blood of Jesus covers your sins & saves you from the fires of hell. As St. Paul wrote of Yahweh in Colossians 1: “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness & transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” (1:13-14 ESV) Amen.
Lo, the hosts of evil round us scorn the Christ, assail His ways! From the fears that long have bound us free our hearts to faith & praise. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage for the living of these days, for the living of these days. Cure Your children’s warring madness; bend our pride to Your control; shame our wanton, selfish gladness, rich in things & poor in soul. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage lest we miss Your kingdom’s goal, lest we miss Your kingdom’s goal. Amen. LSB 850:2-3.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet