The Heart of the Διακονία/Ministry (Malachi 2:1–9)

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Let us pray: Eternal and ever holy God, grant this day light to the minds that hunger for truth, and peace to the hearts that yearn for rest. Grant strength to those who have hard tasks to do, and power to those who have temptations to face. Reveal unto all within this place the mysteries of your presence, and send them forth from here empowered with your mighty strength. Amen. "And now, O priests, this command is for you." Do not be fooled, these words from Malachi are not only for priests but for all who minister in the Gospel, so hear them, seminarians, as you have been called and will be set apart for service and ministry to the Church. Over 10 years ago now, I was very young, and I had just left the U.S. Air Force. I had gone to the Air Force Academy, and spent several years training in organizational leadership, management principles, strategic planning, vision casting. I left the Air Force and moved to Wheaton, Illinois and within a year was hired onto the pastoral staff of the First Baptist Church of Wheaton, where I spent the next 5 or so years as one of the ministers of a decently large church. I was very young, this was my first vocational ministry experience, and the senior pastor and other staff members were thrilled because I brought with me a wealth of training in strategic planning and organizational leadership, and First Baptist was in a season of visioning and goal-setting. That's what growing churches do! It also helped in this case, that my senior pastor didn't have a strategic or detailed bone in his body, so he relied on me heavily! I got to work writing staff job descriptions, leading staff and council visioning retreats, teaching our leaders how to write SMART goals, and thinking outside-of-the-box on how our budget could reflect our vision priorities. This experience, as all do, formed me. What was pastoral ministry all about? Essential business principles and effective management laws. I soaked in events like the Global Leadership Summit, and thought about methods to grow our congregation in an already saturated Christian community, working long, long hours sacrificing my time and sanity to grow the church with "proven techniques." You know what I didn't do? I neglected my own deepening growth in walking with the Lord. I got into conflict after conflict, and often forgot to love my people. My arrogance led me to the point where I actually believed the success of our church was on my shoulders. And yet, after years at First Baptist Wheaton, when asked on my final day why I was resigning, I remember thinking, "I spent all this time thinking I was working for God, and I forgot to prioritize truly knowing him." Perhaps my "sacrifices" were in vain. Here in this passage, Malachi, the "messenger" of the Lord, gives a prophetic warning to the priests of Israel who have returned to Jerusalem after the exile. You see, Malachi is putting his finger on an issue with these priests of God, and issue of the heart, and an issue of their very service. Malachi proceeds to accuse these leaders of God's people of failing to respect God as he deserves. One way in which this disrespect is made manifest is through the substandard sacrifices which Malachi claims are being offered by the priests. While God demanded animals that were "without blemish" (Leviticus 1:3, NRSV), the priests, who were "to determine whether the animal was acceptable" (Mason 143), were offering blind, lame and sick animals for sacrifices because they thought nobody would notice. "And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the LORD of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart." The priests' sacrifice to the Lord-their very ministry-instead of bringing blessing and honor to the Lord, was being blasphemed, cheapened, diverted from its true importance-and this disservice represented their very hearts in the lack of union with the Lord. Instead of sacrifice that brings blessing, theirs brought curse. Instead of offering that brings life, theirs brought death. And so what does the Lord say? Well, something very graphic: "Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung-feces, excrement, one can think of another such word- I will spread it on your faces, priests, in fact the very dung of your sick and inadequate animals, the very curse of your 'service,' 'sacrifice,' 'offerings' to me, and you shall be taken away with it." The covenant the Lord set up with his priests was one of life and peace, that he himself gave. It was also a covenant of fear and awe at the name of the Lord. The Lord holds his leaders to give true instruction from their lips, to walk with him in peace and uprightness, to turn many from iniquity, to guard knowledge, and to be true messengers-not only in word and deed, but in being-true messengers of the Lord. Friends, this at its very nature is what it means to be a minister. In fact, in the New Testament, this is very meaning of the word diakonos, which we translate into minister or deacon. We often like to think, perhaps simply, that deacons minister to the widows, or serve at the table, but the word diakonos was not invented by the Church! In fact, before and after the New Testament, the sense of the diakonoi is far less on what they do and to whom they serve, and far more about from whom they received their commissions and calling. For the Greeks, they were agents who represented officials, for the Church Fathers, they were trusted messengers of the bishops, the ones who gave Good News, both in word and in material goods. At its heart, deacons and ministers are reflections, icons, images attempting to copy the presence and authority of the one who sent them. They are to participate in and be exemplars of the Gospel. The common phrase "don't shoot the messenger," need not apply. It is no wonder that Paul calls himself a diakonos, and the apostles call themselves diakonoi commissioned by Christ. And this is Malachi's point. All of the things we learn to respond to our call as leaders in the Church, all of our classes in this very "School for Ministry" for diakonia, are worthless if our hearts forget the One who is worth all. And that's the surprising Good News, because you see, as diakonoi, as ministers of the Gospel, as future or always deacons, we only share in the true diaconal minister, who tells us that, "whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant (your minister, your deacon, your diakonos), and whoever wants to be most prominent among you must be the slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served (to be ministered to, to be diakonēthēnai), but to serve, to minister, to deacon/diakonēsai, and to give his life as a ransom for many." In Old Testament terms for Malachi, the coming Messiah would be the perfect and pure priest as well as the perfect and pure sacrifice. But my friends, Jesus Christ was also the perfect and pure deacon, minister, servant, agent, messenger, reflection, icon, and image of God, and when we step into the calling that he beckons us into, a calling of diakonia (ministry), the one bare essential thing we are to be for the Church, for our people-and for the world-is icons and reflections of him. We can't do it on our own, but we don't have to. No wonder the bishop breathes on us at our ordination and says to us, "Receive the Holy Spirit." Yes, our vows our impossible. But when we lie on the ground as the voices of the saints cry out around us "come, Holy Spirit," we had better believe that something is happening, and that we are truly becoming more reflective of the one who calls. And that, my friends, is the only sacrifice in our ministry "careers" that matters. As our saint and martyr William Tyndale-whose memory we honor today-once said, "There is no work better than to please God; to pour water, to wash dishes, to be a cobbler, or an apostle, all are one; to wash dishes and to preach are all one, as touching the deed, to please God." Let us pray: "Lord Jesus Christ, grant us the grace to accept whatever challenges, disappointments, and successes come our way in ministry so that we may grow in wisdom and experience as we strive to serve you and your Church. Through our obedience and love of you, make us ever more attentive to the unfolding of your will for us and the people we serve. Strengthen our hands for service and give us a clear voice to proclaim your word. Be our example and our guide. Be our strength and our inspiration. Help us always to know our place as ones who come to serve and not to be served. As we go from this place, we lay before you all that we are, everything that we have, what we know and what we don't know. Accept it, transform it, bless it, use it all for the glory of your name. Make us worthy of the trust and confidence placed in us, and guard us in the ways of integrity and truth. And at the end, make us such mirrors and reflections of you that you might truly say to us, "I do know you." In your holy and ever-living name, Amen. COLLECT OF THE DAY William Tyndale, Priest, Translator of the Bible and Martyr, 1536 O God, our heavenly Father, you raised up your faithful servant William Tyndale to be a pastor in your Church and to feed your flock: Give abundantly to all pastors the gifts of your Holy Spirit, that they may minister in your household as true servants of Christ and stewards of your divine mysteries; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. 1
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