(Malachi 1)

      One day in the fall of 1951, Lydia McGuire decided to sue her husband. She and her husband, Charles, had been married for 32 years. When they married she was a young widow in her early thirties with two daughters. He was a frugal bachelor farmer in northeastern Nebraska.
      Lydia was a dutiful and obedient wife. Like many other Nebraska farmwives she treated her husband as the boss and didn’t argue with his rules. As was typical of her time, she raised her own money to pay for household goods with her farm chores. When Charles drove her to the town of Wayne to visit her mother she paid for the trip with money she earned selling eggs. It wasn’t a comfortable or enjoyable trip. Charles owned a 1929 Model A Ford with a broken heater.
      Life for the McGuires was rather ordinary and routine. Though they didn’t talk about finances or their feelings they weren’t worried about them either. In 1951, Charles owned 398 acres of land, had nearly $13,000 in the local bank, and owned government bonds worth $104,000. Perhaps Lydia decided to sue her husband because, despite their wealth, they lived in house without indoor plumbing, her kitchen had no sink and the furnace in the house did not work very well. On Charles’ insistence, they never participated in community organizations and he only allowed Lydia to make local telephone calls.
      Lydia decided to sue her husband, but she didn’t want a divorce. It wasn’t that she was unhappy or didn’t love her husband. That wasn’t the issue. She simply wanted the court to make Charles do his duty as husband as she had faithfully done her duty as a wife. Lydia didn’t want a divorce, she just thought that their situation could be better and she knew Charles had the means – she just wanted Charles to provide decent furniture, a few more visits to relatives, a heated automobile, and flush toilet. She was just asking for her husband to meet his obligations in their relationship.

About 450 B.C., the people of Jerusalem decided to sue God. These weren’t particularly bad times for the people in Jerusalem. They had returned to the land and the holy city nearly 100 years earlier. They had reconstructed the temple and the priests were re-established in the kingdom. But Israel was disappointed thinking that things could be much better. It was a time of malaise, boredom, and stagnation. Life was rather ordinary and routine: they paid tithes to support the priests, they went to temple worship, they offered their sacrifices; they practiced all the ancient acts of worship just as they had been taught – but why? The years of their exile in Babylon still stung them and the Edomites, the descendants of Esau, still seemed to be profiting from Israel’s losses in those days. This didn’t seem to be the sort of conditions that "chosen people of God" should have to endure. They felt that they should be the mighty nation they were before the exile and they knew that God had the means. So, they took God to court and intended to ask the court to make God do his duty as God and meet his obligation in their relationship.

The setting for the court is a sort of Israelite version of the Supreme Court. God is on trial. The Law of Moses allowed for judicial matters to be tried by the leaders of the city at the city gates. But situations that were difficult were taken to the priests:
"If a judicial decision is too difficult for you to make between one kind of bloodshed and another, one kind of legal right and another, or one kind of assault and another—any such matters of dispute in your towns—then you shall immediately go up to the place that the Lord your God will choose, where you shall consult with the levitical priests and the judge who is in office in those days; they shall announce to you the decision in the case." (Deut. 17:8-9)
This is the setting of Malachi 1. We enter into a courtroom drama in which God has just taken the stand. Israel, like Lydia McGuire, doesn’t want a divorce, they just want God to fulfill his covenant obligation and they have sued God in court to get him to pay up and start acting like God. And so God speaks from the stand ...
Read Malachi 1

God begins his defense by affirming his love for his people. He addresses their question which asks, "How have you loved us? What have you done for us lately, God?" God says, "You might not be able to see it right now but you will! I have loved you and I always will." And as for the accusation that God doesn’t seem concerned about the Edomites and the way they profited from Israel’s exile: God reminds them that Edom was punished and they will never be the great nation Israel will be. Which is true; they had been ransacked by invaders and relocated to the south of Edom. 300 years after this courtroom drama, Edom was absorbed into the Jewish commonwealth.

The rest of the drama unfolds with God making his case that he has loved the people and along the way they are the ones who find themselves on trial. He turns the tables on them. They are questioning God, but he cross-examines them. This isn’t because God is a crafty old fellow or because he can yell louder and smokes and fumes. It is because out of the dark clouds of Israel’s conflict with God comes a beam of light: Israel gets a glimpse into the heart of God.

Have you ever noticed how a good honest argument might actually lead us to be more genuine with the people we love than going thru the motions and playing nice? God makes a claim of his own, a counter-suit: "You’ve despised me." The people are shocked, "How have we despised you?" Israel had been going through the motions when it came to worship. They were mailing it in. They didn’t expect much to happen in worship, so they didn’t put much effort into it. They didn’t expect to live as chosen people, so they weren’t really devoted to it. They went to worship, but it was so half-hearted and weak that God says, "I wish you would just cancel it and close the doors!" They were offering crippled, diseased lambs and calves as tributes to the lord. They gave the first fruits of the harvest – the ones that had gotten sort of fuzzy with mold and pinpricked with wormholes. "Try paying your taxes and honoring your officials with that sort of effort!" says God. See how it is received! God’s people didn’t expect much to happen – they didn’t really think God was at worship, so they didn’t invest a lot into worship.

This sort of worship despises God and it despises his name because it is weak and there is no change in the lives of the people. No wonder their lives are so uninspired and routine. Furthermore, if Israel is so bland and lifeless (just like their worship) then how can they bee the light to the nations that God wants them to be? One of the glimpses we get into the heart of God on trial is that God has visions for the people: He longs for the day when people in all nations "from the rising to the setting of the sun" will call upon God as a great king. He desires that people everywhere know him and give pure and sincere offerings. That was Israel’s purpose in being chosen. To model for the world what it means to be God’s people. The temple in Jerusalem wasn’t just a worship machine so Jerusalem could crank out a few blessings – it was to be God’s lighthouse to the world and everyone would come to it. But instead, the people of God are going through the motions and giving God leftovers and the food that is stale or has been in the pantry since they bought they house, and though that is bad enough they have the audacity to say to God, "So what have you really done for us lately, God?"

Lydia McGuire’s case went fairly well and lower courts ordered her cheap husband to pay for plumbing and buy a car with a heater. Eventually, Charles appealed the case to the Nebraska Supreme Court. They ruled that there was no basis for the law to get involved in the private marriage of the McGuires. But Justice Frederick Messmore, stated the court’s opinion on the matter. Although they may have seemed to legally side with Charles, they really didn’t have much respect for either party or for their vision of the marriage relationship. They admitted that the court was being asked to define marriage and thought they said that Charles attitude toward his wife said little about his character, they also said that marriage certainly wasn’t the quid pro quo relationship that Lydia and her lawyers made it out to be. To reduce marriage to nothing more than instrumental calculation would deny its true significance.

How often do we reduce our relationship with God to nothing more than instrumental calculation? How often do we reduce it to mechanical obligation? Dear God, we’ve have followed the five steps and we keep the five acts of worship on the first day of the week – and Wednesday – now what have you done for us? Do we gather to take care of church business and make certain we have a little worship for God’s sake, but in our collective heart we really don’t expect anything to happen in worship (or we don’t want anything to happen) and as a result we don’t invest much into worship. Like Lydia McGuire, do we stay in an uninspired relationship just so we can inherit the wealth?

Once I heard a good man tell me that he didn’t intend to miss Sunday’s worship but he felt as if he could worship God in the beauty of nature on the lake or in the woods. I confess to you that at the time I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t feel compelled to say to him, "Well the Bible says you better show up or you are in trouble." How inspiring is that? How is that love? Looking back I now realize why I didn’t have an answer for him (other than obligation and rule-keeping): I confess that I didn’t really expect much from worship myself. So why should I ask anyone else to be a part of it. If I could go back I know what I would say! I would say, "But God has invited us to his house to enjoy a meal with him. Yes, he has given us the beauty of nature and yes we can worship him there. But he has invited us to the family reunion and I believe that something even greater will happen when we get there – something even greater than the awe we feel at the sunset and the serenity in nature. You will see ordinary, imperfect people shaped into the children of God and even more you will be awed by a glimpse into the heart of God."

God has opened his heart to us. Dare we listen to what he has to say? Can we stand to be inspired by his imagination? I warn you that God’s vision for us is not simply to make us happy or to fulfill our fondest dreams. God has something much greater than that in mind for us. Nor is his intent to damn us to hell if we don’t get it right. God has something more hopeful and adventurous in store for us. He has a vision that involves the whole world and his rule over all the earth. God envisions a time when all of his children from far and near, the good ones and bad ones, the rich and poor, the clean and dirty, all give honor to him as the Great King. We can mail this song in and go on our way being routine, but ask yourself if that sort of calculating relationship is really what God intends for his covenant people. I invite you to lift up your voices in to honor your Father, the Almighty King who deserves our praise and let this be your way of presenting "your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship." (Romans 12:1)

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 1 May 2005

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