What if God Really Did Show Up?

Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/usdagov/6059884729/">US Dept. of Agriculture</a>

Malachi 3:1-7

“Look. I’m sending advance notice by courier, to make it clear:

You’ve been looking for God, and suddenly God will arrive in the Temple.

You’re going to love this new deal my messenger will bring you,” says God.

Not! You won’t be able to stand it when God comes! God is like a smelter. God is like astringent. God will be a smelt operator, a silver smelter, and God will purify the priestly caste like gold and silver, until they have something good to offer God again. Then God will receive gifts from the people again, like it used to be.

“Then I’ll come to your sentencing,” God says. “I’ll be the witness against those who practice slight of hand, the cheaters, the liars, the people who refuse to pay fair wages, who force women and children into slave labor, who turn away foreigners, and who have no regard for me. I don’t change. I’m God. So you’re not too far gone, my children.

Ever since your parents turned away from what I said, you’ve been asking, “How do we get back?” Coming back is for the asking, and I’ll be there.

In Malachi’s day and ours, the people who cry “God” the loudest seem to be the most in violation of God’s commandments. They cry for a “return to the good old days when people went to church,” but if God were to show up and witness the lies, the cheats, the slight of hand, the refusal to pay fair wages, the 16 million women and children enslaved around the globe – well, it wouldn’t be pretty. Because it’s not pretty.

The return to “the way it used to be” isn’t so much about a return to tradition, or to nostalgic “good old days.” It’s about a return to justice, which is at the heart of the commandments. How do we get back? By starting with our own lives. Living justly. Doing what is right. Not doing the lying, cheating, withholding, and enslaving. By welcoming those who are different. That’s how, if we really believe in God, we might show the world (and God) that we do.

Fidelity Counts

wedding cake
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/shelleyp/833463719/">Shelley Panzarella</a>

Malachi 2:10-17

Don’t we have a common ancestor? Aren’t we created by the same God? So why have we abandoned each other? And why are we walking away from our ancestral deal? Judah has been two-faced, and Israel and Jerusalem have acted disgracefully. Judah has violated God’s favorite inner room, and has gone off to marry a stranger outside the faith. May God weed out from among us those who’ve done this, all the while pretending to speak for or make an offering to God.

You should cover the altar of God with your tears, because your offerings are no good here. They have no currency coming from you. “Why?” you ask. Because God knows about you and how you cheated on your wife. She’s your partner. That was the deal. God made her, one and the same spirit. And how will you have decent children if you run around on your wife and can’t control yourself? God hates infidelity. So says God. “It’s as if your very clothes reeked with violence,” God says, “so make sure you’re faithful.”

All your talking is just making God tired. “How?” you ask. By calling evil good and saying God approves of it, and then by asking, “Where’d God go?”

People marrying outside the faith upsets Malachi. People getting divorced for the purpose of getting remarried upsets Malachi more.

Many of the Bible’s writings, both Hebrew and Christian, view fidelity in marriage as symbolic of faithfulness to God. After all, if you can’t be faithful to a real person you’ve promised to share your life with, how can you be faithful to a person you’ll never see face to face this side of eternity? For Malachi, the rampant practice of ditching one’s wife for a trophy represented the “problem with Israel” in that day.

Little has changed. People still decry the divorce rate as a sign of the decadence and godlessness of society.

Malachi, though, identifies something many modern legislators of morality leave out: the real human cost of infidelity. Malachi says that for those cast off, it’s every bit as much an act of violence. In a world that relegated (and still often relegates) women to being property, Malachi affirms that “God made her, one and the same spirit.” In a world where children don’t count – where they were to be seen and not heard, and where they still don’t get a vote or a voice – Malachi asks, how can you expect them to behave when you set such a bad example?

Whether you believe in Malachi’s God or not, faithfulness in human terms still holds deep significance. Infidelity still has real human consequences, for individuals and for the “social fabric” of life. Even if we’re not of Malachi’s religion, we do well to listen to his call to faithfulness.

Authenticity Matters

people leaving church with homeless man sleeping by the door
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/1uk3/3654346878/">Luke Addison</a>

Malachi 2:1-9

Now, clergy, here’s what I have to say to you:

“If you won’t listen, if your hearts aren’t in it for me,” God says, “then damn you. All your blessings will turn to curses. In fact, they’re already curses, because you’re just going through the motions. Your ministries will be fruitless, and you’ll all be shitfaced. Your offerings will be crap, and you’ll be out on your ear.”

“This is what I have to say to you. It’s so that my deal with Levi will stick,” says God. “I made my deal with Levi to promote life and well-being. Promoting life and well-being, that is what reverence is. That is what being faithful to me is. Telling people the truth without demurring, having integrity, doing what’s right – that’s what will lead people out of their messes. Clergy should be knowledgeable enough that people can get good advice from them. They are God’s representatives.”

“But you’ve abandoned all that. You’ve tripped people up with bad advice. You’ve broken the deal,” God says. “And insomuch as you’ve substituted your own agenda for mine, I’ll spurn you, and embarrass you in front of everyone.”

If Malachi were around today, he might be Luke Addison taking a snapshot of people coming out of church on a beautiful spring morning. The picture makes you wonder what kind of sermon they’d heard just moments ago. The bigger question is, what kind of sermons are routinely preached here, that would lead to such stark indifference among the people who attend.

Malachi threatens a sudden “fall from grace” for those who claim to represent God but who are more concerned with their own agendas. Once in a while we see famous preachers fall that way, publicly. It never fails to be an embarrassing spectacle, and an occasion for religion’s detractors to say, “I told you so.”

But more often Malachi’s words play out in the “death by a thousand cuts” ordinary ways shown in Luke’s picture. As often as ordinary people see the disconnect with sanctimonious show and the truth of the camera eye view (and the windows of the soul), the credibility of institutions of faith is critically compromised.

[Bonus: What goes for the church, goes for every other institution, and their leaders: Credibility is damaged much more by day-to-day lack of authenticity than it is by bad headline news.]

All or Nothing

woman observing a triptich
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/teesha/5120375111/">Teesha Dunn</a>

Malachi 1:10-14

“I wish that someone would go lock the temple door, so you’d stop making empty sacrifices on my altar. You’re turning me off,” God says. “I don’t want your grain.”

“In spite of you, I’ll do just fine everywhere you look. Everyone else, even the heathen, will offer better offerings than you. They recognize greatness when they see it,” God says.

“But when you say, ‘God’s table is unworthy, and God’s food is rotten,’ you insult me. You say, ‘Boring!’ and make a stink about having to worship,” God says.

“You offer me your leftovers, your cast-offs, stuff you’ve stolen and isn’t even yours. You bring this and expect me to be happy about it?” God says.

 “Damn you, you cheater! You’ve got a perfectly good lamb to give, but you give an emaciated one. I’m a great king!” God says. “Even the heathen know better!”

Who do you think you’re fooling?

Something is worth it, or it’s not. Either you’re committed to the God project, or you’re not. It does no good to pretend, either way. God’s not fooled. And you yourself know whether you’re really committed or not. It’s only a matter of time before it’s obvious to everyone.

Religion, especially, is a very thin veneer. People have extremely sensitive hypocrisy meters. Say one thing on Sunday and do another on Monday and your real value to the movement is toast.

Malachi’s word to the religious folks of his day – and ours – is that it’s time to fish or cut bait. Offer the best you have, or don’t bother.

[Bonus: Malachi’s word applies to much more than religion. Is your company’s motto a logo with nothing behind it? Is your big talk about “family” belied by a marriage falling apart? Do your friendships go more than skin deep? You’re the only one who can really say, of course, but don’t think the rest of us can’t see through you. On the flip-side of the coin, though, when your life rings true, we’ll all know that, too.]