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Love and rejection

A sermon on Malachi 1.1-5


by Tim Gallant

Congregation of Christ,

The prophecy of Malachi is a challenge. It is a challenge to God's people Israel to live like what they are. It is filled with examples of the excuses and rationalizations which Israel offers up in their minds in order to sidestep that which God requires.

God says, "I have loved you" - Israel says - "Oh, yeah? How so?"

God says, "You are defiling My altar." Israel says, "Oh, yeah? How so?"

God says, "I am not receiving your offerings." Israel says, "Why not? We weep, we cry, we mourn - why are You picking on us?"

God says, "You have wearied Me with your words." Israel says, "How have we wearied You?"

God says, "You are stealing from Me." Israel says, "Oh, yeah? How so? How could we steal from God?"

And on it goes. The mirror which Israel holds up to her own face is a deceptive mirror. It is the mirror of self deception. A mirror on the wall that says, "You are beautiful. There are no flaws in your features" - when in fact the person standing before the mirror is slovenly and unkempt and filthy. Israel has learned to accept herself, to buy into the message of self-esteem. Those nine little dangerous words: "I am just fine just the way I am."

You see, the people of God addressed here are a people who have returned from exile in Babylon. They have been down in the dumps. They had come under the severest judgment for rank idolatry. They had worshipped the sticks and stones of Canaan and Assyria and Babylon and all the nations, and God had brought His heavy hand down upon them, and judged them by the agency of those idolatrous nations. But Israel is purified. She's much better now. "We don't worship idols anymore. We are all healed up from our faithlessness."

That's Israel's self-image, a self-image based on self-deceit. A self-image based on a wholly faulty notion about God and herself. "If only we don't worship idols," these people think, "we must be all right. God ought to be thoroughly pleased with us."

In this book of prophecy, God says: "No! Things are not all right. I am not thoroughly pleased with you. You are lying to yourselves."

And in these opening verses of the book, in Malachi 1:1-5, God sets His people on the road to understanding their own spiritual bankruptcy, not by pointing to themselves first of all - but by pointing to Himself, to His own activities. It is only when we understand who our God is and what He has done that we will be able to understand who we are. It is the measure of God's love that exposes our apathy and selfishness and treachery.

And so God wishes first of all to prove Himself to His people. Or better, He wishes to draw attention to redemptive history, to point out to His people that He has indeed already proven Himself to them. In Malachi 1:1-5, we learn that God proves Himself in the rejection of Esau. In this rejection of Esau (or Edom), we have proof of love: proof of God's love for Israel. We have proof of constancy, of God's settledness, His consistency and reliability with regard to His purposes. And we have proof of powerful greatness, that God not only sets His sights upon a purpose but carries it out. It takes effect, to the glory of His name.

1. God proves Himself in the rejection of Esau. This rejection is first of all a proof of love. Verses 1-3 read,

The burden of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi. "I have loved you," says the LORD. "Yet you say, 'In what way have You loved us?' Was not Esau Jacob's brother?" says the LORD. "Yet Jacob I have loved; but Esau I have hated, and laid waste his mountains and his heritage for the jackals of the wilderness."

God sends Israel a message, a word by the hand of Malachi. Malachi means, "my messenger." God sends His messenger to His people, and the first thing He says is a reminder of the gospel. "I have loved you," He says.

"Oh, yeah? How have you loved us?" That's the response from these people of God. "Remember us? We're serving you. We're worshipping you. We have abandoned the gods of the nations. And what have we got out of it? We're not getting rich. We're not getting powerful. How have you loved us?"

But God says, "Oh, but I have loved you! Remember who you are! You are Israel. You are the children of Jacob. Weren't Jacob and Esau brothers? Even more than brothers, were they not twins?" From every natural viewpoint, from every human consideration, didn't they stand at the same level? And yet who have I chosen? I have loved Jacob; I have loved you - but Esau... Esau I have hated. I have treated Esau with contempt. I have laid waste his mountains. I have made Myself an enemy to him from generation to generation.

You see, God doesn't give a list here of all the reasons why Jacob was worthy of being chosen over his brother. God doesn't say, "Now, listen up, here's the ten wonderful things about Jacob that made him My favourite." No, no. Jacob didn't qualify himself to be loved by Me, God says. He wasn't the beautiful baby. But I have loved Jacob, and that love is clearly illustrated, set in very sharp focus, by this: that I have hated Esau, that I laid him waste.

Congregation, isn't that God's first word to us, as the people of God? How many times do we read in the opening words of the epistles that the letter is addressed to the chosen saints of God, to the elect community in Christ? How often do we hear something to the effect that we are here, not because of works of righteousness that we have done, but by His mercy He chose us? How many times are we reminded in one way or another that we were by nature children of wrath - just like the rest?

When you see yourself surrounded by pagans, whose very lives in so many ways manifest the just judgment of God against themselves - who worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, so that God has turned them over to futility, to slavery to their own evil desires - what do you think to yourself? "Fools! At least I am wise enough to see that I can't live that way." "Pigs! Rotten to the core. At least I am decent and moral and upright and respectable."

Is that the way we are taught to think?

Congregation, you know the answer. When we look around us with the eyes given us by Scripture, we say: "Oh, Father, how You have loved us! How You have loved us! We didn't deserve it - no, more, we don't deserve it - and yet You have loved us! You have called us Your children, You have taken us as Your own, even while we are surrounded by so many whom You have rejected - who were no worse than us."

Doesn't the wonder of that love strike you just a little bit? How is it that God could love us? Just how loveable were we? What claims did we have upon Him? Come on, surely we know ourselves a bit. Not just ourselves apart from Christ, which we know well enough from redemptive history, from the witness of Scripture - and in the case of some of us, from our own experience of living without God before being graciously joined to His Church. Yes, we certainly know the horrible plight in that. We were, as the apostle says, without hope, without God in the world. We were children of disobedience, children of wrath, like everyone else. We were sold into the slavery of sin, enslaved to futility. We recognize that, we confess that. That's life without God.

But even now, what can we say for ourselves? Let's be honest. Oh, our lives are different. Unquestionably. God's grace is not so ineffective that all He can do is forgive our sins over and over, and our lives never improve in the slightest from what they were without Him. To be sure. He gives us His Holy Spirit. He changes us.

But nonetheless, we cannot kid ourselves, can we? When God says, "I have loved you," when He says that we are His precious children, can we look at ourselves and say, "Well, I'm sure living up to that; I'm sure deserving that sort of preferential treatment"? Can we say that?

Oh, my, not me. I know very well that I still stumble into the same old sins over and over, as much as I desire to do right. I know very well that the love in my heart is not an equal flame to the love that God has for me. To be blunt - I'm pretty pathetic. I don't deserve God's love. I don't have all those wonderful characteristics that makes the biased parent say, "Oh, this lovely child - he's just got to be my favourite."

But God assures me that He loves me. He assures you that He loves you. He places His name upon you, says that you have been incorporated into, brought into, the communion of love between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Pride? Can we be proud of that? Rather the opposite. It is humiliating in its own way. It shrinks us. We're loved when we don't deserve it. We're loved when others are not.

That's mind-boggling, but it's no source for pride.

"I have loved you," says the Lord. "Just look at how I have hated Esau, and know that I have loved you."

What a stunning opening. "I have loved you. Your history, the history of the world, is proof that I have loved you, Jacob, and hated Esau." I'm taking all the excuses out of your mouth, because I have loved you, and you did not deserve it. You have never deserved it, and you don't deserve it now. I have loved you.

2. God proves Himself in the rejection of Esau. And this is proof not merely of some passing love, a strange capricious whim. The rejection of Esau provides a proof of God's constancy.

We can see this in the first part of verse 4. "Even though Edom has said, 'We have been impoverished, but we will return and build the desolate places,' - thus says the LORD of hosts: 'They may build, but I will throw down.'"

What's going here? God has chosen Jacob, and hated Esau. We read in verse 3 that God has laid waste the mountains of Edom, and made his heritage a place for the jackals of the wilderness. God has thwarted the purposes of Edom.

And now, in verse 4, God is demonstrating His constancy. Even if Edom rises up and says, "Look at these ruins - but we will rebuild them. We will stand up. We will succeed" - even if Edom sets their faces with determination to overcome the Lord's judgments - yet God says, "I will oppose them."

You can see the contrast. Yes, God had banished Israel from the land of Canaan. Yes, He had sent them away in captivity to Babylon. But He brought them back. He chastened them, and He restored them. He turned the heart of Cyrus king of Persia, so that Israel indeed could say, "We have been destroyed, but we will rebuild, for our God is with us." God makes Israel's waste places fruitful.

So God says: You want to know My love for you, Israel? You want to know how settled My purposes are? My election of you is not some event from the distant past that no longer matters. It's not a dogmatic assertion from which to build theology to write down in neat little textbooks. It is an act that reveals My settled purpose.

You see, God is not wishy-washy. He doesn't choose Jacob for 15 minutes, and then it's Esau's turn for his 15 minutes in the sun. That's a point of confidence for us, congregation. We have been ingrafted into the elect people of God. And so we need not worry now: "What if God abandons the Church? What if He decided to do something else? After all, sometimes it really doesn't look like it's working. We're supposed to be His holy representatives, a people set apart unto God, a people that images Him in the world, a people that shows forth His perfect love, and boy, the Church sure doesn't look a whole lot like much of that to me!"

You see, we could have those sorts of doubts - if God was a different God than He has shown Himself to be. We might become prey for the cults or for new religions. "The Church was where it was at for a while, but God is doing something better now and He doesn't love us anymore."

But no, God says, "I have loved you and I have set My purpose. I have set My face against your enemies, because I have loved you. Edom has opposed Israel century after century, but I have set My face like flint against him. Why? Because I love you! I have loved you, and I love you still. I love you with constancy, with settled purpose. I love you."

3. And what is the effect of all this? God proves Himself in the rejection of Esau, and it is a proof of His powerful greatness. He doesn't just say, "I love Jacob and hate Esau." He doesn't just say, "My purpose is settled; I'm going to fight for Israel against Edom. I'm going to give it my best shot."

No, we see in the last part of verse 4 and on through verse 5 that God's Word, His promise, His purpose - takes effect to the glory of His name. God says that Edom "shall be called the Territory of Wickedness, and the people against whom the LORD will have indignation forever. Your eyes shall see, and you shall say, 'The LORD is magnified beyond the border of Israel.'"

God's steadfast Word stands strong. He will not only fight; He will cast down Edom. He will overcome His enemies. And when we see that in connection with His promise of love toward us, we are given great assurance. Our God is the Ruler of history. And He is governing it on our behalf, in our favour.

Edom will be identified as the mountain of wickedness, the people whom God has cursed. And when this happens, we look. We behold. And we say: The Lord will be magnified beyond the territory of Israel. The Lord's rule is throughout the nations. Everywhere He is victorious, He is magnificent, He is the exalted King. And He rules as the One who loves us.

God's works in Scripture, indeed, throughout history, are intended to lead us beyond ourselves, to lead us glorify Him. Not to glorify Him "as He is in Himself," without reference to us, as if such a thing were possible. But to glorify Him for the astonishing display of love which He has poured out upon us by placing us within this theatre of His glory, being a Man of War for the sake of His love for us.

Edom tried to overthrow the kingdom of God once again, many years after this text was written. Herod the Great slaughtered the infant boys of Bethlehem in order to destroy the promised King. But God set His purpose against Edom once again, and the promised King lived to become a Man.

And then once again, Edom set his face against the chosen of God, the Elect One, Israel come in the flesh. Herod Antipas made light of Jacob, he mocked him, made fun of Christ's royalty by dressing Him up in a purple robe, and then Herod sent Him back to Pilate. Oh, the irony Herod Antipas thought he was engaging in. Some King! Some son of glorious Jacob, come to deliver His people! Here He goes to die under a petty Roman governor.

But God destroys the purposes of Edom. He sits upon the heavens and laughs. "Yet I have set My King upon My holy hill of Zion," He says. And Israel dies and rises again, and is raised to sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, so that all men are drawn to Him.

And the Lord is magnified beyond the territory of Israel.

You see? Even in apparent victory, Edom cannot win. Even in apparent defeat, Israel is exalted. For in the Lord's rejection of Esau, there is a proof of God's powerful greatness which displays His love toward His people, and His name is honoured.

What are these few words doing in this book? How are they setting up what is to come? What is Israel meant to do with this declaration and proof of love?

They are, of course, meant to respond in kind: to return God's love. To become constant in their love for Him. To live in wholehearted gratitude and affection. That becomes the burden of this book.

But there is a warning that accompanies this requirement. And we can see it clearly when we compare the conclusion of this book to its beginning. God promises to send the prophet Elijah, and He says in Malachi 4:6 that Elijah "will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the earth with a curse." That could also be translated, "lest I come and strike the land with a curse."

From generation to generation, God had struck Edom's land with a curse, hadn't He? Didn't we just read that God had laid waste Edom's mountains and his heritage for the jackals of the wilderness? Didn't we read of desolate places? And that word "indignation" in verse 4 of our text - that indignation which God has against Edom forever, could also be translated cursed. Edom is an accursed people and an accursed land.

You see, the intention in the final verse of this book is that we remember God's opposition to Edom, and understand that election is not a removal of human responsibility. It is a motivation for gratitude, for faith, for obedience. And if we set ourselves against God, we are in danger of joining the ranks of Edom. That opposition which God has pronounced against our enemies will become the opposition in which He engages war against us.

And so He calls us to turn our hearts toward our fathers and our children - toward the covenant people. To affirm ourselves as Israelites by loving God's people Israel. This is one way in which we love God. To be elect is to be the Church, and to love the Church. If we despise the people of God, we despise God, and those who oppose Him will not stand, because He opposes the enemies of Israel with constancy and with powerful greatness.

Congregation, you are God's chosen saints. What a privilege to say, "You have chosen me and called me by Your name." What an awesome thought, that God says to us: "I have loved you."

God has proven Himself, and His gracious covenant calls upon us to be proven as well. He has proven Himself to be the One who has loved us.

Let us prove ourselves, let us respond to that love by loving Him back, by loving His Word, by loving His people.

Amen.

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