In the Real World

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“They shall be Mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up My treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him. Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve Him” (Malachi 3:17-18).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
A few years ago, The Matrix trilogy offered the premise that the world we see and experience is not real, but computer-generated. This is a secret known only to the few humans who’ve been liberated. Only after being freed from the machine do they finally see how deceptive what they thought to be the “real world” truly is!
In our text, the people of Israel had their own perception of the “real world.” They were still living in the glory days when their nation had been very powerful and God had blessed them with peace and prosperity. Sadly, they failed to remember how they had fallen away from God and His Word, and how God had allowed them to be crushed and taken captive to a foreign land. They forgot that it was only by God’s grace they had been able to return to their land and rebuild the temple. Failing to learn from their past sins and errors, they were once again being led astray by false priests and deceptive rulers. Blinded by their own sin and rebellion, what the people saw with their own eyes became “reality” for them.
Into that setting came Malachi, one of the last of the Old Testament prophets. He was sent to call the people to repentance and to proclaim the truth of God amid the squalor and confusion of humanity. Though he prophesied more than four hundred years before Christ, his words are as vivid and applicable for today’s church as they were when they were first spoken.
It was easy then, and it’s easy now to let what our eyes see become the defining reality not only for our lives, but also for our very understanding of our relationship to God. What a tragedy, says the message of Malachi! There is something far greater and far more real than this present moment and this present world. Although we can’t see it now, we will see it on that great and final day when Jesus returns as Lord of lords and King of kings. Everything else, including this moment in time and all that appears to be so real, is transitory and ultimately will pass away. Only God’s future, the new heaven and earth, is the real world.
The people of Israel in Malachi’s day thought they had it all worked out. Everywhere they looked, the wicked seemed to be doing just fine. The people even said to the Lord and His prophet, “All who do evil are good in the eyes of the Lord, and He is pleased with them.” And they wearied the Lord with their cynicism, as they repeatedly asked, “Where is the God of justice?”
When the Lord confronted them for their baseless accusations, they sought to evade the question. “How have we spoken against you?” they asked. And the Lord replied, “You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping His charge or of wailing as in morning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and escape’” (Malachi 3:14).  The people of Israel were convinced that what they saw was all there was, that their perceptions were the “real world,” and so they lived as if it were the real world. But they were living in delusion.
What about you? What do you think you see? After all, that was then and this is now. It’s different for us, right? Or is it? It does still often seem as if the arrogant and evildoers prosper. Doesn’t it? Immorality is portrayed as a healthy alternative lifestyle. Public figures can live reprehensible personal lives and still be lauded as great people. Popular role models for children seem to be models of immorality and rebellion against God rather than people of virtue.
And unfortunately, at times even the church seems to be caught up with this nonsense. A watered-down version of religion, far removed from the biblical tenets of Christianity is all around us. We’re told: All gods are the same. It’s intolerant to insist there is absolute truth. It’s not so important what you believe, but that you believe something. The church must look and act more like the world around her to be accepted by the world. We buy into this foolishness, saying by our actions, “It is vain to serve God. What is the profit of our keeping His charge or of wailing as in morning before the Lord of hosts? And now we call the arrogant blessed. Evildoers not only prosper but they put God to the test and escape.”
But we can no more get away with this perception than could those who first heard Malachi. Our Lord, in His mercy, confronts us as He confronted them so long ago. What condemned the ancient people of God also condemns the modern people of God—you and me. But, more importantly, what redeemed, renewed, and reclaimed the ancient people also redeems, renews, and reclaims us!
The tragic fact is that not all who heard the prophet believed his words. They couldn’t get past their own perceptions of how they thought things were in the “real world.” Unable to reconcile what they heard and were taught with what they saw and experienced, they chose to ignore the prophet’s words
Some did listen to the prophet’s warning, however, for we’re told, “Then those who feared the Lord spoke with one another. The Lord paid attention and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him of those who feared the Lord and esteemed His name” (Malachi 3:16).
From the tragic mass of rebellious Israel, God called forth His faithful ones. They saw with their eyes the same things others saw. But they knew that the Lord had a greater reality—one defined not by sight but by faith. They came to realize only God’s future is the real world. It’s confessed without seeing, believed without experiencing. By God’s grace, some heard the Word of the Lord and believed.
What did they say to each other? We’re not told, but it’s apparent that it was pleasing to God. No new actions on their part were required. They simply confessed what God’s Word had stirred in their hearts. A renewed and revived faith, a “fear” of the Lord, an “esteem[ing] of His name” defined their confession. Through this faith their names were written in a book of remembrance.
Now, what about you? What do you believe? Is the world around us all there is? Is this the real world? When you hear a call to repentance, do you process it through your fallen human experience in this fallen world? Or do you hear, believe, and confess a more powerful reality than this world has to offer?
We Christians are indeed called to faith through things not understood by this world, though they use the things of this world. Have you heard a pastor with his all-so-human voice say, “Your sins are forgiven”? Have you been touched by the water of Baptism? Have you knelt at the altar and received bread and wine while fully believing they are the very body and blood of Jesus given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins? If so, then you’ve experienced the very promise of God’s future! You’ve experienced, in part, the real world. In this foretaste of the feast to come, you’ve received a glimpse of eternity!
All this is based solely on the magnificent grace of God. It was His grace that sent His Son from heaven into this world to share our humanity. It was His grace that led Jesus to Calvary, where He, the Lamb, was slain once and for all humanity. It was His grace that raised Jesus on Easter morning, granting eternal life, freedom, forgiveness, and hope beyond this finite world for all humanity.
This day the God of all grace sets us free from the world by presenting to us again His Word of forgiveness, a forgiveness that extends even to our love for the dying world around us. He calls us to a new life in Him, a new life lived in this world in joyful anticipation of His heavenly kingdom! You see, God’s future is the real world. It will be revealed in the end when all will see the real world.
Listen again to the final words of our text. “They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, in the day when I make up My treasured possession, and I will spare them as a man spares his son who serves him” (v. 17). They who feared the Lord and esteemed His name are His “treasured possession” and are treated with the compassion a loving father has toward his child.
But notice something else. The Lord through Malachi says, “Then once more you shall see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not” (v. 18). In this world, that distinction seems blurred. In the reality of God’s future, there is no blurring for them or for us. The difference will be stark and distinct.
In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis uses a fictional account to picture the “realness” of life in heaven in comparison to life here on earth in a fun, memorable story about taking a bus tour of heaven. As they arrive, the ghostly figures that file timidly off the bus are so insubstantial, they are barely visible, almost transparent in the bright light of heaven. And the grass in heaven is so much more real (or true) than the new arrivals are, that each step on the lush lawn hurts their feet.
One man tries to pick up a golden apple that has fallen to the ground, but it is like trying to lift a boulder. Another discovers he’s able to walk across a river as if he’d found a series of strategically placed stepping stones. (Talk about hard water!)  Lewis himself, writing in the first person, fears a coming rain may pummel them into the ground or perforate them like a hail of machine gun fire.   
Now don’t take this description literally. You certainly won’t find buses mentioned in Scripture. For that matter, I can’t see grass mentioned as growing in heaven either, though it certainly could be. These are just imaginative ways of describing something that is far beyond our understanding. The reality of heaven is so far beyond our experience here on earth, that we finite human beings have to use imaginative language to begin to picture its glory and majesty.
I guess for now, we’ll have to settle for that, realizing that one day we’ll fully understand what the real world is like. St. Paul put it this way, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).  
But that doesn’t mean we’re left with no idea of what heaven is like. Scripture doesn’t leave us clueless. While it doesn’t describe all the physical attributes of heaven, it does give us number of the important details of what you will see in this real world. The most important being this: You will see the blessed Son of God, who redeemed you through His holy, precious blood. You will see the great “Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End” described in Revelation 22 as you gather with all the saints of all ages for the wedding feast of the Lamb.
Do you realize what you’ve been doing this last hour? In the worship service, you’ve been rehearsing for the real world. Through Word and Sacrament and song, God has been preparing you for eternity! This is your future for it is God’s future. This is the guarantee of God’s own holy promise. This is the end of all He has done for you and in you. This is what defines you: you are His child, being prepared for a life far beyond anything this world has seen or known.
Until then, you and I will live in this world. But here we live as strangers and pilgrims. Our reality is greater than that granted by this poor world. By His grace we go beyond what our eyes see to what our hearts believe without seeing—the real world, which, will ultimately be seen by all creation! God’s future is your future, His real world is your world. For Jesus’ sake, for you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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