""I have loved you deeply," says the Lord. But you retort, "Really? How have you loved us?"" (Malachi 1:2a)

The Book of Malachi, the last of the Old Testament prophets, was designed by God to serve as a sustaining message for His people during a difficult period of transition. Boice writes that Malachi "is not only oriented to the past . . . bemoaning the decline of godliness in Israel", but he also "looks forward" to the coming of the Lord - the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world.

Now you know, as do I, that periods of transition can be disconcerting as they often are filled with possibilities even as they are fraught with dangers and follies. Not all change is for the better. Neither are the changes, as they finally reveal themselves, always as they were promised to be. The Age of Reason, with its intellectual rejection of all supernatural, was to issue in a saner, more rational era in human history. It did not. WWI was to be the "war that ended all wars". It did not. Do you recall how the "Arab Spring" was heralded as a wonderful rising tide of democracy that would close the door on senseless hostilities? It did not. Barack Obama, America's first black President, was to usher in a more congenial, post-racial, post-partisanship renewal of our Country. That did not happen.

Clearly transitional times such as these bring the people of God a whole new set of pressures and difficulties but our duty remains the same. As salt, we seek to preserve what is good and worthy of being saved and maintained. As light, we seek to point out the traps and snares to be expected in the coming days, ever and always, in each succeeding generation, we point people to Christ as the one Savior for a lost world.

This was the role Malachi played. He began his ministry around the year 430 BC, roughly 100 years after the captive people of Israel had been set free from Babylon by Cyrus of Persia (538 BC). In the years leading up to this last prophesy, the work on the Temple in Jerusalem had been started (535 BC) and finished (515 BC). Under Nehemiah's leadership, the walls of the city had been rebuilt (443 BC) and the prophets Zechariah and Haggai had spoken on God's behalf to the nation. These were years of tremendous changes. More and disturbing changes would follow in the next 400 years (between the Testaments) as the whole world awaited the coming of the promised Messiah. How were the people of God to conduct themselves in this interim? How were they to endure 400 years of divine silence? How were they to prepare their hearts for the coming Savior? The answers to these questions move us directly to the heart of Malachi's message. Let's look at it together.

The prophesy of Malachi is easily understood as a reply to nine questions in the hearts and minds of much of the nation. My aim in the coming weeks is to address each of these questions in turn, beginning with the one before us today. Here in the opening of the Book, God declares His love for Israel, an announcement which should have brought reassuring comfort to their hearts. But that's not the response we find, is it? God tells them He loves them and they respond by questioning God's honesty. "Really? How have You loved us?"

Surely you've heard the expression; "what have you done for me lately". That's the attitude of the people. While they may have been willing to admit to numerous acts of divine love in the past, they were unable to point to evidences and proofs of that love in their present set of circumstances. Yes, God had set them free from Babylon and they had been allowed to return home. And yes, over time many improvements had been made. But things weren't as they once had been, nor were they as desired. The Temple was rebuilt, but it was no thing of beauty as it had been under Solomon. The people had homes but they weren't as nice. They had food but wanted more. If God truly loved them, then wouldn't their lives be better? - wouldn't they be better off? - wouldn't they be free of many of the difficulties that plagued their daily existence? If God really loved them, wouldn't He do better by them?

Ever felt that way? Haven't you ever thought, in the midst of a trial, that if God truly was who He claimed to be and if He truly cared about you, then He would do something about your trouble? It's easy, in those times, to allow a bitter, complaining spirit to rise up within us - one that fully believes that we deserve better - we deserve more that what God has given. And so, in our self-pity, we begin to doubt the Father's love.

With patience God points to His sovereign choosing of Israel for His own possession by reminding them that He chose Jacob (the younger) over Esau (the elder). Then He asks them to consider the manner in which He had rejected Edom, turning their territory into a "land of wilderness" while showering Israel with blessing after blessing. How could they even begin to doubt God's love for them? How could we?

Listen, God's love for us is not to be seen in our prosperity or in an absence from pain. His love does not mean that we will not suffer in this world or be spared its many hardships. Rather, the proof of His love is in His sustaining care and abiding presence - and ultimately in the gift of His Son. There's the proof to which Malachi points - the coming of the Christ -- the "Sun of Righteousness" with healing in His wings (4:2). That's the only proof you and I need of God's love for us. Don't you think?