Now that the people were officially out of Babylon, the verdict was clear. It wasn’t exile that was the problem, it was them. Nothing had changed: the religious leaders were just as corrupt as ever, caring less about others or God than themselves. Everyone did whatever they wanted sexually—disregarding the damage to their own souls or the body count of others left behind them (2:10-16). On top of all that they were a bunch of Scrooges (1:6-14; 3:6-12). And they wondered why God wasn’t listening to them. Ironically, people assumed God didn’t care about them; they certainly didn’t care about God (3:13-15).
They were still worshiping, but did it really matter? Leaders of a previous generation, the Martin Luther King Jrs and the Billy Grahams, were dead. Many were losing their faith. People were falling off into cynicism as many had no answers for their questions. Up stepped an anonymous figure. We don’t know who Malachi was, the word simply means “My messenger” — more of a title than a name. But this person stepped into the vacuum to remind God’s people of their past, put their present into perspective, and address their questions:
- Cynics: How has God loved us?
- God’s messenger: Do not forget the blessings he has allowed you to experience. Blessing you did not earn, but God gave you as a gift because he loves you (Mal 1:1-5).
- Cynics: How have we shown contempt for God?
- God’s messenger: By disregarding what you owe him, worshiping him with token gestures (1:5-14).
- Cynics: Why does God no longer pay attention to me?
- God’s messenger: Because he’s standing up for the women you’re abusing (2:13-16).
- Cynics: How have we wearied God?
- God’s messenger: By complaining that God loves evil since we see evil men succeed (2:17).
- Cynics: How are we to return to God?
- God’s messenger: Stop robbing God. Act like your life depends on him, not money (3:6-12).
- Cynics: What have we said against him?
- God’s messenger: You’ve said faith in God doesn’t make any difference. Those who don’t follow him are better off (3:13-15).
Malachi, again, takes us back to the beginning to urge us forward. Malachi reminds us of Moses, of the promised blessings and curses. God was right. They had been exiled. And he had brought them back. But now what? Nothing is really resolved, right? Malachi basically repeated Moses’ warnings: follow God, watch for a coming messenger, and try not to get cursed (4:4-6). Just as Moses knew, Malachi still seemed to be waiting on the time when God would change peoples’ hearts. But when?
Fast forward hundreds of years: John stood in the water, shouting out to the crowd, “I am the one saying, Prepare the Yahweh’s Path! The Day of Yahweh is coming! (Mal 3:1-5). Get ready. Can you help anyone? Do it! Are you using anyone? Stop it! Do your job fair and square and trust God to take care of you” (Lk 3:10-14).
He was enraged at the religious leaders of his day: “You bunch of snakes! Who told you this was the cool thing to do now? Change! Do something tangible that shows you’re actually serious about returning to God, and stop telling yourselves you’re so much better than everyone else. The purifying fire is about to expose you” (Mt 3:7-10).
Then Jesus came up to the water. John’s eyes grew wide, and he shook his head. But Jesus grabbed his hand and pulled him close, saying, “Go ahead, John. Put me in the water. Let’s put into motion what God has planned for so, so long. Let’s set things right.” And just like the Israelites crossing with Moses’ words still ringing in their ears, Jesus stepped into Jordan, coming out of his baptism burdened with the mission to finally bring the exiles home.