Let’s pray. Holy Father, we are so grateful for what you have done for us, for continually coming to us. Father we pray, here and now, that you would give us eyes to see and ears to hear, to return to You. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
This has been a busy week for me. I’m feeling kind of tired. I’ve been looking at the news all week long. All that’s been happening in our world, wars and rumors of wars. Don’t you think we need kind of a global healing? Doesn’t it make you think of the Scriptures? 2 Chronicles 7:14 says, “If my people, who are called by my name (Christians, us) would humble themselves and call upon me, I would come and heal their land.” When I studied the Scriptures for this weekend, it also made me think of Psalm 103:2, “Praise be the Lord and forget not his benefits”.
We are so easily drawn away by the evil one, by our own sinful nature, to believe that not submitting to the Lord, not following Him as Lord of our lives is better than living in and with Him. Returning to the Lord is to understand something very clear, that you are created by God. We are all created by God and He’s beckoning you to come back to fellowship with Him, to relationship with Him. I’m going to describe what that relationship really looks like. For some of us, we were raised in the church, we’re church-going folks. But maybe we’ve gone away, or we’re not very regular in worship or in connection with other Christians. We’re not really digging into our faith. The call is, by the way it’s the same call wherever you are, “Return to the Lord!” Maybe you’re sitting here saying, to be honest, I wake up every day and I submit to the Lord. I hit my knees. I pray the Lord’s Prayer. I ask Him to fill me and to use me. For those of us who feel like that describes them this morning, the call is still, “Return to the Lord.” Because the moment by moment drift is always back to move away from submitting to Him. The call is always the same, has always been the same, will always be the same. If you want to live, “Return to the Lord.”
Let’s look at the Scriptures. I am going to start out in Malachi. This is one of the last of the Old Testament prophets, foretelling what is going to come. It is very important that we understand this message. It’s coming from the heart of a father to his children, saying you’re missing it. Don’t miss this message, it’s vital. Malachi 3:1 says, “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. (Who does that sound like? John the Baptist.) Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.” It makes you think of Jesus, every year making the trek. Or as a young boy, hanging out, his parents are walking back and then say, “Where did Jesus go?” “He’s back there talking with the teachers of the law.” It makes you think that he had to be in God’s house. Or it reminds you of the triumphal entry. He will come and it’ll be sudden and it’ll be awesome.
Malachi 3:1 again says, “The messenger of the covenant, whom you desire will come”. Remember, in the Old Testament, these are the Israelites. They desire for the Messiah to show up. They had good times and then they were carried off in exile. Then they came back with little restoration, but then the people kept drifting away. All they had was the hope of the Messiah, the desire to be reconnected. They said “Save us Lord!” Continuing with Malachi 3:1, “(He) will come”, says the Lord Almighty”. But here’s the question; are you ready for His coming?
Malachi 3:2 says, “But who can endure the day of His coming?” He is God. We are not. We are woefully sinful and unclean. When He shows up, He is different and every impurity is dispelled from His presence. This is the reality of us before our holy God. But that’s not the end of the story. Malachi 3:2 continues, “Who can stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.” He’s going to clean it all up. He’s going to purify His people.
The first thing I want you to understand, the call has always been and will always be, to repent for the Lord is near. Now again, I don’t know how easy it is for you to drift away and forget that in your life. But it’s easy me and I do this for a living. My sinful nature gets me thinking “Hey, I can do life on my own. It’s possible, maybe this is even better.” But God is constantly calling to us not to forget that He is holy. Life only works when you are in relationship with Him. Don’t forget. Treat this as a special relationship, don’t forget. Return to the Lord.
Returning is this process of repentance. To repent literally means “to turn”. To turn away from my old way where I am leading and I am walking in my own strength to follow Him. It’s that simple. So here’s the question; are we ready for Him to show up?
Principle #1 – Repent for the Lord is near! In order to live properly before our God, we need to remain in a constant state of humility (He is God, I am not) and repentance (forgive me Lord, I a woeful sinner). That’s why we come in every Sunday repenting. And that’s why every Sunday you hear those words of absolution, which by His grace we can say to one another. You are forgiven. Is that not good news? If we come repentant, we receive that forgiveness, that cleansing, that purification of what He has done for us.
Malachi 3:3 continues, “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver”. I did some research on this. How purification of silver happens is, a guy literally sits there and puts the silver in the fire, right in the middle of the fire, in the hottest part of the fire. So consider the fire to be your life. There is fire all around in our lives. There’s temptation. This is hard, it isn’t easy. We are in the hands of the Maker, God, as He puts us in that fire. You’ve got to be in those hands for this to work and the impurities of our lives start to be pushed away. Through grace He purifies. Then He refines us, He grows us and strengthens us as we stay connected to Him.
There is a fun story I came about in my research. This woman went and actually sat down with somebody who is refining and purifying silver and asked him, “How do you know (because there is an exact moment when you’re supposed to take the silver out), how do you know when the right exact moment is?” And the refiner said, “It’s easy. I have to stay focused on the silver, but the moment I see my reflection in the silver, that’s when it’s done.” Isn’t that a good Gospel message? The day we will all be done is when the image of Christ is redeemed and purified. And when we die that gets perfected in us, into heaven. But until then, we’re constantly being refined and grown to the very likeness of Jesus to become like Him. That’s the process that we who fear the Lord are engaged in, walking with Him.
Continuing with Malachi 3:3-4, “Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in the days gone by, as in former years.” It is as if he was saying, “Remember what it was like when I started this whole thing, Israelites, and you first started to get it? It was awesome and pure, you were coming so repentant, so humbly before me and I was your God and you were my people and you became the strongest nation in the world by a magnitude. But then you walked away.” Return to the Lord and you will see His mighty strength again.
Principle #2 – God will refine and purify us. Expect that to be normal, expect Him to use the struggles of life, the hardships of life to purify us, to make us more dependent on Him, not less. To pour forth more love through our lives, more power through the Holy Spirit in our lives, not less. That’s what life is going to be like as we walk with Him. As we remain repentant before God, He will transform us to become more like Jesus, who worships God in Spirit and in Truth. He brings real, righteous worship. It reminds us of Romans 12:1, “offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship.” God wants us to come and bring our lives before Him and watch what He will do in and through them. Our lives can be used for amazing eternal purposes.
He continues in Malachi 3:5, “So I will come near to you for judgment (this is real, the Holy One is coming). I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the Lord Almighty.” Because to live in fear, this awe of God, is to come to Him knowing how unclean you are. You wouldn’t pridefully ever disobey His will, even though we do. Aren’t you glad that He is gracious, that He forgives every time? He forgives and welcomes us back.
Malachi 3:6-7 continues, “I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.”
Here is the good news, the promise in Principle #3. No matter what you’ve done, God forgives those who repent. No matter what you have done, with God there is always the possibility of forgiveness and new life through repentance. So just like John the Baptist, repent, for the Lord is near. For us, on this side of the resurrection, on this side of the sending of the Holy Spirit who have been baptized, the Lord lives in us. In the Nicene Creed we stated, “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of life.” He lives in us, purifying and sanctifying us.
Let’s now look at the Gospel. Luke 3:2 says, “During the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert. He went into all the country around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. As is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” If you haven’t picked up on it yet, the way you make a straight path for the Lord is to live humbly and repentant before our God. That is the straight path in your heart that only you can prepare for Him. Come ready to receive all of His benefits. Luke 3:5 states, “Every valley should be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.” Basically, anything that’s not the way it ought to be, He will make right. In His coming, He deals with it all. Luke 3:6 continues, “And all mankind will see God’s salvation.” This is how awesome it will be. Luke 3:7 says, “John said to the crowds coming out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers!”. He wanted to make sure they understood who they were. If he were to say that to you, would you say “you got me.” I would, that’s why I’m coming. I get it. I need forgiveness. And the Holy Spirit brings a conviction into all of our lives. We have been called by the Gospel, redeemed by His love. Nobody gets the good idea that they need to come back. It’s God that brings us back every time. John continues in Luke 3:7, “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” It’s God. It’s God warning them. And aren’t you glad that no matter how far you go, God constantly calls out to you? Somehow, through somebody, through your conscience, through the Holy Spirit, He’s calling us back all the time. And here’s the call. If you are really coming to repent, Luke3: 8 continues, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. ” Just don’t come and say you’re sorry, change! Turn, stop living this way. Follow me this time. Don’t just drift back away. Turn and follow.
Do not begin to say to yourselves or even let the thought creep into your minds, “Hey, we’ve got Abraham as our father. My father was a faithful guy, so that’s a good thing. I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.” No, no, no. Let me translate. Don’t say to yourself, “I’m Lutheran, I was raised Lutheran, this is ok. I’m good,” or “I go to church, I was raised Catholic.” Don’t say that. The question is always the same; do you have a humble and contrite heart before our Lord? Are you coming, seeking his forgiveness, his empowerment for everyday life? Now you have a real relationship with our Lord. You’ve repented, you’ve learned. He through us will produce fruit of righteousness. That’s how you’ll know. That’s how we’ll know that we’re His disciples. There will be this amazing love for one another. Because here’s the reality, continuing in Luke 3:9, “The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” This is serious business. We’re coming in a few moments to communion, to God’s holy supper, the Lord’s Supper. This is a holy meeting with God. The very presence of God lives within this sacrament. Are you coming humbly, knowing that you need this? Don’t do this out of rote religion. Don’t do it. Come and receive Him in His fullness.
Principle #4 – True repentance means transformation and fruit bearing. True repentance includes a transforming life through whom God bears fruit, not just being born into a tradition and acting religious. You need to be walking with your God, humbly in repentance. I’m wondering if you are relating to that crowd right now. They were cut to the quick. The Holy Spirit brought conviction. Luke 3:10-11 says, “What should we do then? “, the crowd asked. John answered, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.” Luke 3:12-14 continues, “Tax collectors also came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely-be content with your pay.” Basically, live according to the way I taught you to live, not under your own guidance or power. Live as a steward of life, not an owner of life. Submit to the Lord and follow me. Don’t follow yourself because that is where you will lead yourself. You’ll be liar and cheaters and thieves. That is where the sinful nature takes us all. Submit to the Lord. Return to Him and you will live.
Principle #5 – Live as stewards not owners of life. Life is a gift, so steward your life according to God’s will, principles, priorities and promptings of the Holy Spirit. Thy will be done Lord. Guide me into Your ways. That’s true repentance and it leads to life, the life that is truly life.
In closing, I want to show this Scripture right out of Philippians, which is this picture of what happens if we were to return to the Lord. A quick picture of what it looks like. Paul says in Philippians 1:2-11, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.” As we live in and through Him, He will expand His kingdom through us. He will live a life of love in and through us. Is that not good news? Is that not the life that is truly life? Is that better than all the temptation trying to persuade us from returning to the Lord? So let’s return to Him.
Let’s pray. Lord God, You are good, You and You alone. We come humbly. We repent, Father, of our sins. We thank You that You are faithful and just and You will forgive us of our sins. Father, teach us to come in true repentance. Fill our lives with Your forgiveness and Your empowerment to live according to Your will. We pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.