(Malachi 2)

I want to continue the legal drama we started last week. It is 450 B.C. and Israel has decided to sue God. They have taken him to court before the priests and the officiating judge. They want to know why God hasn’t fulfilled his obligations in their covenant. Why haven’t they prospered as he promised? Why haven’t their fortunes been restored? Why do their enemies continue to mock them? By bringing God to trial, it is Israel that ends up on trial. God defends his case by stating and proving that he has always loved Israel. But they have lowered their expectations. Their worship is a sham and God deserves to be honored as a mighty king. Instead they go through the motions and offer half-hearted, routine worship. Even still, they have the audacity to hold God to his covenant promises. God addresses the charge that he has not been faithful to covenant, and in doing so God moves from defendant, to prosecutor, to judge ... Read Malachi 2:1-9.

God reads the verdict. Because the priests of Israel have made a mockery of the covenant God has put them out of his presence. In doing so he is the one who actually honors covenant. The covenant is that important. It is not a covenant of restrictive, rules. It is a covenant of life and well-being. It is good for everyone! The covenant is the social and spiritual structure that gives meaning and shape to the way God’s people live and order their lives. It determines not only how people worship God, but also how they should treat one another. It establishes how husbands should treat wives and how wives should treat husbands. It gives shape to the way one generation nurtures the next generations. By setting boundaries and lining out behavior it doesn’t seek to isolate Israel from the world, but it strives to order Israel’s life on display before the world.

The priests have a special place in the covenant. They are to teach the people how to order their lives in relationship to God and thus how to order their lives with one another. They are to be God’s messengers in this covenant relationship. But instead of speaking for God the priests have spoken against him. They have despised his name and they have dishonored him. Their disregard for God and his covenant has led to the malaise and discontent in the lives of the people of Israel. Instead of teaching people how to live, their dishonorable teaching has caused people to lose their way.

It seems contradictory that God who claims to love the people is also prepared to punish. How can that be love? It is love because God cares about the way people live. If the people do not live in covenant, then they will return to the egotistical pursuit of pleasure that hurts the innocent and disrupts the bonds of good society. God loves the priests and the people enough to care about what happens to them. God loves them enough to be intolerant of the lack of love and respect they show to one another because of the lack of love and respect they have for God and covenant. There are consequences of such behavior and those consequences bring curses upon the priests.

Now, God’s advocate speaks to the people of Jerusalem gathered to watch the courtroom drama. God has delivered his verdict and the people need to learn the lesson. They too have broken covenant like the priests and if they think it was just the priests who have a stake in covenant, then they need to think again. Malachi (whose name means God’s messenger) speaks to the people ... Read Malachi 2:10-16 ... To emphasize all of it, God himself speaks, “I hate divorce, and covering one’s garment with violence! So take heed to yourselves and do not be faithless!”

Malachi is telling the people that God is very much aware of what they’ve done – even if they are not. They have broken covenants with God and one another and the consequences have come back to visit them. The two covenants they have broken are related: In Israel, the men and women married young, often before the age of 20. Now after years of companionship with the wives of their youth, after building homes with them, after raising children, after worshipping with these women, they have discarded their wives to marry other women. There’s no mention of why the men were doing this: the women were often foreign women who brought with them knowledge of other cultures and gods. Perhaps it was just that the women were younger and no Israelite father would give his daughter to a man already married. Perhaps it is because the women were exotic and strange and had the allure of the forbidden. Perhaps it is because marriage to these women enabled the men to secure business relations with the men of other nations. We don’t really know and Malachi doesn’t bother to cite the reason because the reason for the divorce doesn’t concern God as much as the consequences of the divorce!

The consequences are 1) that the men are breaking faith with their ancestors who struggled to preserve their faith in God in the midst of a land full of idols. And now they casually bring idolatry into their society. 2) They are disrupting their society and creating hardships by turning out their wives who expected these men to care for them and provide for them. They have broken faith with their wives and God takes that seriously. 3) They are breaking faith with their children and not passing on the covenant to their offspring. When God speaks he speaks his hatred of the way the people of Israel have made a mess of covenant not only with him but with one another. According to God it is violence. He doesn’t care how spiffy a tuxedo they wear to their wedding, it might as well be covered with the spiritual and social blood they have shed. God hates this culture of covenant breaking Israel has created only because he loves his people so much.

I really don’t know if it is easy or hard to see how this text implicates all of us. Their culture of marriage and divorce is so unlike our own in many respects (women couldn’t initiate divorce, marriages were arranged by parents, the problem of foreign gods) and then in other respects it is so like our situation because we have created a culture of covenant breaking that ignores the consequences. In her book, The Divorce Culture, Barbara Defoe Whitehead surveys the titles of recent books providing guidance for divorce. These titles demonstrate that the consequences of divorce are being ignored. For men, the most popular titles appeal to male competitiveness and include titles such as The Fighter’s Guide to Divorce: A No-Holds Barred Strategy for Coming Out Ahead, The Lion’s Share: A Combat Manual for Divorcing Males, and How to Dump Your Wife. For women the titles include such upbeat and nurturing titles as: Divorce and New Beginnings, Growing Through Divorce, Our Turn: Women Who Triumph in the Face of Divorce, and The Best Is Yet to Come. But it is the children’s literature on divorce that is perhaps the most honest. It contains titles that speak of the loss and the anger. Titles such as Daddy Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, Unfinished Portrait of Jessica, It’s Not the End of the World, and I Won’t Go Without a Father. Could it be that like Israel we have broken faith with one another and with our children?

Before I go any further I want to be clear ... the divorce that God hates is not simply divorce in marriage, but the divorce that is the breaking of covenant which includes covenant with God and with one another. God’s charge is for his people to be faithful. We are all stakeholders in marriage and the other structures that hold us in godly relationship with one another.

I want to be clear. God loves everyone who has been divorced for whatever reason. There are no exceptions. God loves you. But I know form personal experience that divorced people haven’t always felt like the church loves them. That’s wrong. Divorced people in a church or people on the verge of a divorce sometimes feel like a football coach in a West Texas town: If you lose, we will give you your walking papers. We are not going to do that. We are going to love you. Just as we can forgive lying, gossip, and angry words even as we hold one another to the standard of maturity and speak plainly of the consequences of divisiveness; so also we can forgive the failure of marriage even as we hold one another accountable to covenant. To speak plainly of the consequences of breaking covenant, does not contradict love or forgiveness. And likewise, to love and forgive does not contradict the ability to speak plainly.

I want to be clear. I am not saying that we are going to be naïve and pretend divorce cannot happen. Not even God does that. He hates divorce. Why? Because it tears up the people he loves. If you have been divorced you know what I mean. I went through a divorce with good friends and all of us felt the pain of it. One day we were discussing Malachi 2:14. My friend spoke, “God says, I hate divorce. Well, so do I.” I don’t think there is any better way to understand this text.

I want to be clear. Divorce is not merely an individual choice. It isn’t limited to the private realm. We all have a stake in every marriage and every family bond. (This is why we demonstrate our commitment to young families!) You don’t hear that very much in our culture anymore and I think this has magnified the problem. God implores us to do more than condemn sin or take a stand against divorce, he warns us not to break faith, which is to say – Keep the covenant! Keep the covenant of marriage and the covenant of faith and the covenant of Christ-like love. Keep faith with one another! This is more than an attitude that says “Hate the sin but love the sinner.” No, it goes beyond that to say that you cannot truly hate sin until you first love the other sinner! And if we do not hate sin and the way it dehumanizes and wounds and de-spiritualizes, then in what sense do we truly love?

This has been a hard sermon to preach. It may have been even harder to hear. I offer no pat answers, quick-fixes, or three-step solutions. Such glib advice only feeds into the individualism that has distracted us from the harder, but more rewarding work of maintaining covenant. What we need to do – all of us, divorced, married, remarried, never married – is strive to keep the covenant and not break faith with our cloud of witnesses and with the generations we witness to. Most of all let us strive to keep the covenant that God made with us. He sent his Son to form a new covenant; if you have been baptized into Jesus then you are a child of that covenant. Live by it! The Son sent the spirit so that we might be able to live in covenant with one another. The spirit gives life and well-being. Let’s love one another according to the ethic of this spiritual covenant rather than the ethics of individual choice.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 8 May 2005

addendum from Written Without Ink:
The Divorce Culture

        Preaching is not easy. Not because of the study or the public speaking. It is not easy because you are required to speak plainly and truthfully about subjects that are sometimes uncomfortable.
        The sermon today, from Malachi 2, was one of those difficult sermons. Once the words leave my mouth, I know that I have no control over what is heard. My prayer during my study has been that God's grace and love would be evident in every sentence even as I declared the unbridled truth that God hates divorce. Perhaps what has made the task of preaching such a text and subject so difficult is the tradition of hellfire and brimstone, toe-stomping preaching. My aim in preaching is not to "sweat the sinners" or give the guilt-ridden a half-hour of catharsis. My vision for preaching is to do what Paul describes in Colossians: "To proclaim Christ, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ."
        Combine the tradition of condemnatory preaching with the fact that so many divorced people have, quite regrettably, felt alienated by or "kicked out of" the church and perhaps my trepidation at preaching the text of Malachi 2 is clear. I should mention that I was helped by a reliable and astute conversation partner: Barbara Dafoe Whitehead's book, The Divorce Culture. I found her work to be unique. Instead of building an argument against divorce, she brilliantly surveys the ideological foundations of what she calls our culture of divorce. We are all stakeholders in the institution of marriage and divorce impacts all of us. Her survey speaks for itself and her closing chapter recommends that we begin to reframe our concepts of social institutions, such as marriage, with the ethics of virtue and community rather than the ethics of individual expression.
        After reading the book I began to see that Malachi 2:10-16 is implicating a culture of divorce in Israel. They had exchanged the ethic of covenant with an ethic of faithlessness. Perhaps in rediscovering covenant we can begin to heal the brokenness of our American culture. So, what do you think?

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