1. Please pray with me. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be pleasing in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our Redeemer. Amen. The message from God’s Word on this Last Sunday of the Church Year is taken from Malachi 3:13-18, and is entitled, “A Look Back,” dear brothers and sisters in Christ.
2. At this time of year, many churches conduct stewardship programs that dwell on God’s ownership of everything. Good stewardship education and proclamation doesn’t fail to note that God needs nothing from us. The prophet Malachi spoke to the people of his day about their offerings, but this wasn’t because almighty God stood in some position of want or lack. The Lord made everything, and here at the end of the Church Year we remember that the One who made everything we see can and will bring it all to an end.
3. Today’s text emphasizes that the really important thing isn’t what we “own.” It’s not what we have, or what we have to show. What’s really important, as we take one last look back in this Old Testament sermon series, is God’s ownership of us. Throughout the Book of Malachi, the people had been terribly arrogant and irreverent toward God. In this passage their arrogance reached its very height. In the first few verses of the Book they started off asking God in effect, “What have you done for us lately?”, and their questions went downhill from there.
4. Now they were at the point of speaking against the Lord. They spoke harsh words, God said. They answered, “Who, us?” God told them, “Yes, you.” They had said, “It is vain to serve God.” Vain means worthless, consisting of nothing and leading to nothing. To them serving God consisted of nothing that they thought was of any use, and it led to nothing in which they were interested. As you look back, is this what you think? As far as you are concerned, is it vain to serve God? Is it worth it?
5. Do you see what this attitude says? It stands the Second Commandment on its head. This commandment says we shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain. That is, we shouldn’t take it for nothing. We shouldn’t take it as if it were meaningless or worthless. But the people were saying, no, it’s precisely taking God’s name, calling upon it, using it, serving the God of that name—that is what they said is useless. None of it was worthwhile, as far as they were concerned. They were flying in the face of God’s most fundamental law, defying the Second Commandment and the First along with it.
6. Throughout the Old Testament, people asked this question: “What’s in it for us?” Or, in another way of putting the same thing, “Is it worth it to serve God?” Job posed this question when he was in the depths of his despair. It’s also found in the psalms. In Psalm 73, a man named Asaph went on at length about a time when he had been dejected and discouraged. He looked around and saw that it seemed like the righteous were getting nothing. The wicked were prospering. Yes, these were the very people who manipulated, lied, and cheated their way to the top. Maybe they prospered through threats of violence and bloodshed. These people seemed to be doing very well in positions of respect and authority of various sorts. Then Asaph took a look back at himself and asked what he was getting from God.
7. You would be quite rare if this question didn’t occur to you too. Our society’s general religious outlook has been characterized as “moralistic therapeutic deism.” It basically thinks that the central goal of life is to be happy, that God doesn’t really involve himself in human affairs unless he’s invited into the mix by those who need him, and that good people go to heaven when they die. Not one of these premises is Christian. But, we Christians are influenced by this kind of thought, often more than we realize. Under such influence, it’s easy to take a look back and wonder whether our Christian walk with God has been worth it. Even in the church it’s possible to see people working their hearts out on a project without receiving any thanks or recognition, while others who contributed nothing seem to fare far better.
8. I know a pastor who has told me more than once, in moments of disappointment, “The righteous must suffer.” He’s right, according to the Scriptures, but he doesn’t say this too lightly. Once he’d been given some sort of civic award by his community. His mother telephoned him about it. He thought she was calling to congratulate him. Instead she said, “What are you doing wrong that the world is honoring you?” We don’t like to hear things like that, because in so many ways we share basic assumptions with Asaph or the people to whom Malachi preached. Deep down, we think that there’s a certain something or other that we’re owed. God should be providing this to us, whatever it is. If he’s not coming through, that’s his fault. It’s not ours. We also assume that this is the important thing: what we have, what we can show, maybe what we can turn around and give to God. These two assumptions run completely contrary to the First Commandment. Neither recognizes that God is God. Malachi was saying, here and throughout his book of prophecy, that repentance isn’t only not unhelpful; it’s very helpful. More than helpful, it is absolutely essential. The Lord’s messenger called upon God’s people to repent, and this call extends to us too as we take a look back.
9. Have you ever driven through really thick fog? I’m talking about fog so dense that you can barely see anything outside of the car. When this kind of fog rolls in, you lose all perspective. Unable to see the long view, your attention becomes riveted on the things that are almost literally right in front of you. Similarly, sin ruins human perspective, even that of Christians. It gets us to take the short view and ask what God has done for us or what we have to show. Our sinful nature would have us forget all about God’s gifts of the past and his promises of the future, and especially about the coming Messiah. But God wants to impress all of this on us again.
10. As we heard from the Old Testament lesson last week, the next chapter of Malachi contains one of the most illuminating prophecies of the coming Christ, who he would be and what he would do. Malachi 4 calls Christ “the Sun of Righteousness,” S-U-N. When this Sun rises, the fog burns off. When the S-O-N Son of God appears in our hearts by his Word, like the S-U-N sun he burns off the fog that ruins our perspective, and so he enables us to take the long view. The essence of the long view is captured in our text when the Lord says, “They shall be mine . . . my treasured possession.” The word means “heirloom.” Such things are valued not so much for any worth they have in and of themselves, but rather for the value that is attached to them. See what I mean? The really important thing is not what we “own,” what we have, what we have to show, or what we have to give. What’s really important is God’s ownership of us.
11. You can find this kind of language about God’s people as you look back at the Old Testament. It is in the New Testament too. For example, St. Paul wrote Titus that we wait “for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:13–14). The apostle Peter wrote in the same vein, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
12. Christ made us his very own by giving his own self for us. As the Old Testament says again and again, God’s people are his not only by right of creation but also by right of redemption. Verse 17 of the text says, “I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him.” Israel hadn’t really served the Lord, as the entire Old Testament shows and the prophet Malachi affirmed. Likewise, we fail to serve God in so many ways. But, he spares us as he spares his Son who serves him. In Christ, we are God’s own possession, as valuable to him as his own obedient Son. “God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power” (1 Corinthians 6:14). He’s not ashamed to be called our God.
13. Asaph realized that. In Psalm 73 he finally got off his complaining when he went to church. In the sanctuary of God he took the long view, free of the fog cluttering his spiritual vision. There he realized two things. First, he understood that the wicked don’t prosper in the end. Everything that is not in Christ will be burned up. The other thing he understood was that when he had the Lord—better to say, when the Lord had him—what else could he possibly need or want? Toward the end of the psalm he wrote, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25–26).
14. How liberating it is to have that long view when we take a look forward as well as a look back. It frees us. You show me somebody who thinks what’s really important is whatever he has, and I will show you someone who is probably very envious over what others have and quite nervous about possibly losing what he has. He always walks on pins and needles. But we Christians appreciate better than anyone else the phrase you sometimes hear, “I hereby resign as boss of the universe.” We can give it all over to the Lord. It’s all his, anyway.
15. And so are we. We are his. That’s the most important thing of all—not what we have to show or give, but rather the Lord’s gracious ownership of us by right of creation and redemption. He has asserted this ownership in Baptism, where he makes us his own and keeps us his own. When we repent of our selfishness, this is nothing other than our returning to Baptism where the Lord placed his name and his claim on us in Christ. So, like the people mentioned in verse 16 of the text, we fear him. That means we revere him not so much for his sovereignty, but in love for his gracious salvation. For he remembers us. He forgets what we have done, and remembers what he has done.
16. What do you see when you take a look back? You see this same thing, whether you’re looking at the Old Testament or at your own Christian life. In the words of a hymn: ’Twas Thy grace in Christ that called me, Taught my darkened heart and mind; Else the world had yet enthralled me, To Thy heav’nly glories blind. Now my heart owns none above Thee; For Thy grace alone I thirst; Knowing well that, if I love Thee, Thou, O Lord, did love me first.” (TLH 37:2). Now the peace of God that passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus until life everlasting. Amen.