(Malachi 3)

        Last week a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette called me to ask if I ever thought about the words and phrases we use in the church. She wanted to know if I struggled to communicate when some of the language we use as the church seems like religious jargon. (The article was published in the May 14, 2005, issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette religion section).
        I welcomed this conversation because it is something I have thought about for quite some time. The words we use and the way we define things matters. This isn’t just hairsplitting or quibbling over semantics; I do not mean the clever word-smithing or doublespeak of politicians. What I am talking about is something we all experience - words shape reality. They become ways of forming community and relationship. Naming things is important. Words that once meant one thing now mean something completely different. Words like "gay and queer" were once very common words but now they have a very specific meaning and the way they are used may define how one stands on the issue of homosexuality. Naming things is important and words create relationships. In the military, there are proper and improper ways to speak to one’s superior officer given the circumstances. Why? Words create relationships. They shape reality. Polls show that many Americans, an overwhelming majority in fact, believe in God. But what do they mean by God? Some may ask, "Does it matter?" Considering that God tells Moses that his name is "I AM," meaning that he defines himself, I would say it does matter.
        Words are very important. We have the ability to use words the way God does. We have the ability to learn the Lord’s language. Or we can wear God out with our words. This is the charge that Malachi lays upon the people of Judah during their court case with God ... Read Malachi 2:17 – 3:15

        They have wearied the Lord with words. They have changed the "terms" of their relationship with God. Terms – in the sense of words! God is too nice to judge. God is not paying attention to evil and those who do what is wrong get away with it so there really is no point to doing what is right. Maybe what we have called "wrong" really is "alright" and maybe what we have called "right" is really "too strict." They have changed the terms. They are renaming things and reshaping reality on their terms – but not God’s terms.
        "Yes, I'm on my way to visit you with Judgment. I'll present compelling evidence against sorcerers, adulterers, liars, those who exploit workers, those who take advantage of widows and orphans, those who are inhospitable to the homeless—anyone and everyone who doesn't honor me." God will use his words. He will announce his terms. He will speak up and be a witness. Those who engage in sorcery will hear God’s terms. Those who are involved in adultery will hear God’s terms. Those who lie and those who oppress the poor and their own workers will hear God’s terms.
        But before that happens, God is going to send them a speech therapist. He is going to send them a translator. God is going to send a messenger who will teach the people God’s terms. It will be a process of purification and refinement. It will be hard, but if God arrives before they are ready then none of them will be able to stand up to the test.
        God is now appealing the Case on behalf of Israel. He has moved from defendant to prosecutor to judge but now he becomes defense advocate. God the judge is withholding the sentencing to give the people time to change. He wants to delay so that they will return to him and learn how to speak of the world as he does. He wants to give them time to cease their sorcery and adultery and to reverse their oppression. 3:6 For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. 7Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, "How shall we return?

Purification and Preparation – Isn’t this the question before us also? Isn’t this question before our culture?

Returning to God – Learning the Lord’s Language (Living with God’s Terms)
        Let’s be honest before God, living in a culture that is good at warping words it is easy to find ourselves speaking our own language and living on our own terms. That’s when we have to ask, "How do we return to God so he might return to us?" The simple answer is we need to trust in God and keep our covenant with him.
        God called upon Israel to stop robbing him. They were withholding their tithes. Why? Because they didn’t trust him! They wanted to manage their resources on their terms. Notice that the people have said harsh things about God because to them keeping the covenant is all a matter of profit and gain. (3:14) What’s in it for us? Why serve God? It really seems like a waste of time because the people who really succeed are the proud, the arrogant, and the rich.
        It is in the simple things that we return to God. That’s how we practice trust and covenant. How do we regard our resources? Even if we give 10% how do we use the 90%? Do we view that as the Lord’s money, (one of our church terms) or is the Lord’s money just the allowance we give him each week? How do we view our faith? How do we talk about it? Is it a means to an end for our spiritual life? Or is it all a part of who we are?

God Taking Names – Read Malachi 3:16-18
        Here is hope at the end of this difficult trial when God was sued by the people he loves. Some of them listen to hims and try to imagine a new way. They love to think about God and the respect his covenant.
God takes down their names and then he names the people in the book. "They are mine!" he says. "These are my kids!" And that makes a difference. Words shape reality and create relationships. How you name things matters. And God is going to show us how that is done.
        The article in the newspaper ended on a good note. I people will pay attention to it. I was talking with the writer about the fundamental teaching of the Scriptures that God creates the universe with words. It is a very important teaching and it is unique in creation stories. Here’s what I said: "God speaks and that sets the creation story apart. He allows man to name creations. And in naming them, we define them. We have this gift of speech and language and it is not unimportant."
        Of all creatures in creation we are they only ones who use words in that way we share in Gods' creative power. According to the traditional church calendar, today is the day of Pentecost. On the Pentecost Sunday after Jesus resurrection and ascension to heaven, God’s spirit enabled his messengers to speak and to be understood by the crowds in the temple. The miracle of Pentecost is not that the apostles spoke in tongues – it is that the people understood the word they were preaching. Instead of confusion, there was clarity and the world was learning to speak the Lord’s language. This is the dawning of the day that Malachi anticipates.
So, will we weary God with our abuse of words or will we learn to praise Him with our words/mouths? Will we let His spirit teach us how to use words and to name things and how to create relationships on God’s terms? Everything else in the universe speaks on God’s terms and praises Him. Can we, the creatures who use words, praise Him?

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 15 May 2005

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