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Samantha had been quite desperate to be promoted, not only, in her view, was she overwhelmingly the most competent person on the planet but, for her, the supposed fruits and trappings of success, so long denied, could not come soon or plentifully enough. So, when she became a manager, she thought that she would be happy and always somehow in clover.
The book of Malachi was written following the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon. To these devout people, the glory and enthusiasm of returning to a dignified Jewish life in Palestine was a wonderful prospect; surely signifying that the promised Messiah was at hand. Earlier prophets had spoken of rains that would never fail to come when needed, a land that would be abundantly fruitful and a nation that would attract all others to serve them. Like Samantha’s experience of management, the reality was harshly different. It was only a small remnant of the Israelite nation that returned. The new Jewish community was but a speck in the vast Persian Empire, scarcely larger than Jerusalem itself and its land was rocky and unproductive. Of course, the rains remained unreliable and as year of hard living followed year and the fabulous dreams of earlier times remained unfulfilled depression set in and questions were asked.
“Why are we serving God? It is futile, what did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before God Almighty? And anyway the evil doers are prospering and we are not - why should we bother?” And so in practice what the book of Malachi tells us is that the priests were lax in their leading of temple worship, the people did not pay their tithes, offered the worst of their animals for sacrifice and were frequently divorcing one another to marry foreign women. They were looking over their shoulders at the riches enjoyed by those not following God’s commandments and took opportunities to break the rules themselves. Samantha was the same. The hardships of long hours, the frustrations of not being always to able to have her way and the tedious demands of her masters, all combined to convince her that she was under rewarded and what better way to put it right than a little deception on her expense form? After all, others were up to it and prospering, so why not?
Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament and chapter four is the last chapter. The book is written (uniquely) as a series of questions and answers. Our reading this morning is the prophet’s answer to this ever-present question: “Does God love us? And if so how is it that the bad people who don’t love him do so well? Why should we struggle on to observe his way and continue in the right paths?”
And Malachi’s answer is graphic: “Surely the day is coming, burning like an oven when the evil doers will be stubble, the day that comes shall burn them up, but you who revere my name shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.”
What an ending to the Old Testament narrative; something between four and five hundred years passed between the writing of Malachi and the birth of Jesus Christ. However, this little book anticipates much of what Jesus would come to say. The last words of our Gospel are but a sample:
“Not a hair on your head will perish; by your endurance you will gain your souls”