After listening restlessly to a long and tedious sermon, a 6-year-old boy asked his father what the preacher did the rest of the week. “Oh, he’s a very busy man,” the father replied. “He takes care of church business, visits the sick, works on his sermon, counsels people…and then he has to have time to rest up because speaking in public isn’t an easy job.” The boy thought for a moment and then said, “Well, listening ain’t easy, either!”
Why are some of you nodding your heads? It ain’t easy to listen, is it? Especially when it’s something that we don’t really want to hear. Let me tell you up front that you can relax a little this morning because our passage in Malachi 1:6-14 is directed more to paid pastors than it is to you. You can listen in and apply what spills over because these verses will mess with each one of us.
I want to acknowledge those of you who have taken the time to read through this short book of Malachi. If you haven’t been able to do it yet, I encourage you to read these four chapters at least once a week. This congregation is truly amazing. I talked to someone a few days ago who said, “I want to step it up spiritually.” Someone else told me to “bring it on” because they want to be challenged in their faith.
Let me remind you of the situation that Malachi is addressing. The Jews have returned to their land after living in modern-day Iraq for 70 years. The Temple has been rebuilt and the worship of God has been reestablished. But things are not easy. While outwardly everything seems OK, on the inside a cancer of complacency is eating away at their commitment. As God’s final spokesman at the end of the Old Testament, Malachi comes on the scene to challenge them, and us, to give God our best.
As we’re listening in to this dialogue between God and His people, we learned last week that of all the things God wants us to know, the most important is that He loves us. He loves us with a tender, affectionate, and unconditional love. Just as people 2400 years ago wondered if God really loved them, so too, we often ask the same question. Malachi starts with love and then talks about the status of their lives. Actually, because they didn’t respond to God’s love, things started to head south for them. Their worship became wimpy, their leaders became lightweights, their relationships ruptured, their offerings were anemic and they stopped serving.
To help us understand our passage today, think of the beginning and the end of Malachi as two bookends. At one end is the beautiful statement found in verse 2: “I have loved you.” On the other end we find a promise in verse 2 of chapter 4: “But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings. And you will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.” The prophecy of Malachi begins with God’s love in the present and ends with God’s promise in the future. And everything in between is God’s program to get us from here to there.
As part of His program for our spiritual progress, God longs for us to give Him our best. Let’s focus on three ways we can do that.
1. Embrace an authentic faith (6-7). What we see right away in verse 6 of chapter 1 is that there are two sides to the Father’s love. One side is tender and the other a bit tougher. He is relational in His giving, and He is resplendent in His glory, and as such, we must honor Him: “A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If I am a father, where is the honor due me? If I am a master, where is the respect due me? says the LORD Almighty…” John Piper argues that we must hold these truths in tension. We should have a childlike security in His care for us and we should have a childlike reverence for His authority.
God refers to Himself as the Father of Israel in Exodus 4:22: “This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son.” And, in Exodus 20:12, He tells us to, “Honor your father and your mother…” To “honor” someone is to consider them weighty, or heavy. While the priests probably celebrated this statement because they wanted their own children to honor them, God is saying that His people, including the priests, no longer consider Him to be weighty.
God deserves to be honored because He is holy. I want you to notice the phrase, “Lord Almighty.” As we learned during our “Metaphors of the Messiah” series, “Lord” is the name “Yahweh” and was too holy to be spoken by human lips. In fact, it was so revered that it was only pronounced once a year on the Day of Atonement, and then only by the high priest in the most holy place of the Temple.
If the name needed to be written, the scribes would take a bath before writing it and then destroy the pen afterward. While “Yahweh” is difficult to define, this name refers to the fact that God is who He is; He’s the one who causes everything else. He is unchanging, the one who inhabits eternity. The title “Almighty” is the word “hosts” and means a great number of armies. The Lord Almighty has all the hosts of heaven ready to do His work because He has infinite authority in the universe. He has myriads of unstoppable angelic armies who do His bidding flawlessly and never fail in their errands.
Seven times in these nine verses, and 23 times in the whole Book, God calls Himself, “The Lord Almighty.”
Verse 6: “If I am a master, where is the respect due me? says the LORD Almighty.”
Verse 8: “Would he accept you? says the LORD Almighty.”
Verse 9: “Will he accept you? says the LORD Almighty.”
Verse 10: “I am not pleased with you, says the LORD Almighty.”
Verse 11: “My name will be great among the nations, says the LORD Almighty.”
Verse 13: “You sniff at it contemptuously, says the LORD Almighty.”
Verse 14: “For I am a great king, says the LORD Almighty.”
Now, during the first half of verse 6, the priests are probably saying, “Amen, that’s right God. Bring it on. Let the people have it.” But notice the second half of the verse: “It is you, O priests, who show contempt for my name.” Ouch. Now it’s time for them to listen. By the way, this had to be a difficult message for Malachi to deliver because he was not a priest. They probably resented him and looked down upon him. They certainly didn’t like what he had to say.
The priests were showing “contempt” for God, which means they no longer thought of Him as weighty. They were despising their duties and scorning the sacred because worship had become wearisome, and they were taking God for granted. And, they had the nerve to lash out at the Lord of Hosts. Look at the last part of verse 6: “How have we shown contempt for your name?” Whenever you ask God “how,” He will tell you. In verse 7, He answers them: “You place defiled food on my altar.” Unbelievably, the priests persist in their questioning: “How have we defiled you?” God replies, “By saying that the Lord’s Table is contemptible.”
They were just going through the motions like we sometimes do when we allow the extraordinary to become ordinary. In fact, intimate familiarity with the holy can lead to a humdrum spirituality if we’re not careful. Ravi Zacharias said it this way: “When man is bored with God even heaven does not have a better alternative.” If God bores you, then nothing else is going to satisfy you either.
Genesis 4 records what happened when two brothers, Cain and Abel made sacrifices to God. Cain was a farmer and brought the first fruits of his harvest and Abel was a shepherd who brought the first of his flock as an offering. For some reason, God accepts Abel’s offering and rejects Cain’s. People have suggested all sorts of reasons why God would do this but it has nothing to do with the offering and everything to do with the attitude of the one making the offering. 1 John 3:12 tells us that the reason Cain’s sacrifice was not accepted was that he had a heart full of evil. Hebrews 11:4 says that the reason Abel’s offering was accepted was that he had a heart of faith. God looked at the sacrificer and then at the sacrifice. He looked at the offerer and then the offering. He was looking for authentic adoration; not a sacrifice that was in essence a spiritual sham.
If we want to give God our best we must first embrace authenticity. We must stop just going through the motions, refuse to play church, and do whatever it takes to keep the fire burning. Some of us dishonor God and count Him contemptible when we try to live on what Charles Swindoll calls, “three dollars’ worth of God.” He writes, “Some of us would love to buy three dollars worth of God. Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep, but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk or a snooze in the sunshine…I want ecstasy, not transformation. I want the warmth of the womb, not new birth. I want a pound of the eternal in a paper sack. I want three dollars worth of God, please.”
2. Give God priority over possessions (8-9). We could sum up Israel’s problem by saying that they were suffering from SARS – Severe Acute Religious Syndrome – and it was highly contagious. Look at verse 8: “When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you? says the LORD Almighty.” The priests were accepting not just the second best from the people; but worse than that, they were bringing God sick sheep and gross goats. They were offering the ones that weren’t worth anything.
Imagine the parade of diseased animals limping and stumbling blindly toward the Temple. Their oozing sores were covered with flies. Some of them probably collapsed even before they got there! The reason God says, “is that not wrong?” twice in this verse is because the people, and certainly the priests, should have known better. In Leviticus 22:2, 19-20, God made it very clear that He was not interested in substandard sacrifices: “Tell Aaron and his sons to treat with respect the sacred offerings the Israelites consecrate to me, so they will not profane my holy name. I am the LORD…you must present a male without defect from the cattle, sheep or goats in order that it may be accepted on your behalf. Do not bring anything with a defect, because it will not be accepted on your behalf.”
Here’s the principle: God deserves priority over your possessions. These people were more concerned with keeping what they had than they were in giving God their best. Their hearts were not in it any longer. They were still coming to church but it was just a meaningless ritual to them. They had accepted mediocrity in their lives and their leaders did nothing about it. God tells them to try and offer their junk to the governor as payment of their taxes and see if he would accept them. The bottom line is they thought God didn’t care what they did. After all, they were middle class people who had worked hard. They had high taxes, bills to pay, and they didn’t have a lot of extra cash.
I’m challenged by this passage because the priests could have said, “Hey, it’s not our fault that the people are bringing their garbage to God. We’re just sacrificing what they give to us.” God doesn’t buy this. He holds the priests accountable for what the people are bringing. Likewise, your pastors are responsible to make sure that this congregation does not slip into a ritualistic religion that no longer gives God the best. It all comes back to the Word of God, doesn’t it? God makes it very clear what He wants and we must therefore respond accordingly.
There are at least three standards for sacrifices in Scripture.
- Give the best. Israel had been taught to look through the flocks and find the one animal without defect or blemish to sacrifice. This wasn’t easy to do because this animal was the cream of the crop, the most expensive, the one used for breeding, but it was what God demanded.
This reminds me of the story of Mary of Bethany found in John 12. She loved Jesus so much that she looked for the one gift she could give that would be the most appropriate expression of her devotion. She had been phenomenally forgiven and so she wanted to give greatly. As she went through her possessions, she looked for something that would represent Her relationship with the Redeemer. And then she saw it, an alabaster jar of expensive perfume, which was worth almost a year’s salary for a common working person. She went to Jesus with the jar, broke it, and spilled out its fragrant fluid on His feet. The whole house was permeated with perfume and the aroma wafted up to God in recognition of His weightiness. Are you giving God the best that you have?
- Give to God first. I love the sense of joy that accompanies giving in 2 Chronicles 31:5: “As soon as the order went out, the Israelites generously gave the firstfruits of their grain, new wine, oil and honey and all that the fields produced. They brought a great amount, a tithe of everything.” God is never to get the leftovers. He should receive what is right, not what is left. When the Israelites gave God 10% right away, it helped them to recognize that everything they had was a gift from Him. We’ll talk more about this when we come to Malachi 3 but I find it very interesting that according to 1999 IRS figures, those who make the least amount of money contribute a greater percent of their income to charitable causes than those who make the most money. This chart appeared in the recent issue of Moody Monthly (May/June 2003, Page 48).
Why the disparity? One reason is because when we don’t have much we recognize that what we do have is a gift and we want to give out of gratefulness. When we have more we think we deserve it and because we’re spending what we have, or in some cases more than we have, the thought of giving to God first is either absurd, or absent from our minds altogether. And yet, God calls us to give to Him first, no matter how difficult that may be. It’s like the story of the widow in Mark 12:41-44, who gave all she had, while those who had a lot gave just a token of their wealth. Listen. God always measures the value of an offering by its worth to the person bringing it.
· Giving should cost something. Israel had been taught that giving should be sacrificial. In 2 Samuel 24, David came to the recognition that his own sin had led Israel astray, and God’s judgment had come in the form of a plague on the people. David interceded in prayer and then he wanted to offer a sacrifice to God. He went to a place owned by a man named Araunah and told him that he wanted to buy his threshing floor so that he could build an altar to the Lord. Araunah generously offered to give the oxen for the offering and the wood for the fire – kind of a “turn-key” sacrifice. All David had to do was sit in the pew and everything would be taken care of for him.
Instead of looking for a shortcut, David refused this discount and said in verse 24: “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” Likewise, we must give sacrificially, not sacrilegiously.
Are you giving God the best? Are you striving to give Him the first? And does your giving cost you something? Beth and I have always given at least 10% to the Lord’s work and then we try to respond sacrificially to God’s promptings, when opportunities like the Family Life Center, or when mission projects come along. Friend, one of the best ways to monitor how you’re doing spiritually is to take a look at your giving. Are you leaving God your leftovers, or are you giving Him priority over your possessions?
3. Grasp the greatness of God (10-14). Verse 10 should cause us to bolt upright in our chairs. God would much rather have us shut down the church than to come to Him with pathetic leftovers: “Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors, so that you would not light useless fires on my altar! I am not pleased with you, says the LORD Almighty, and I will accept no offering from your hands.” How would you feel today if when you came, the doors were locked and everything was sealed up tight?
As hard as this may be to hear, God does not need our sacrifices. He’s saying to us today, “Don’t you dare allow me to be represented as some lifeless religious icon. I’d rather you shut everything down than have you continue in a phony religious ritual. If you’re not prepared to give me every inch of your life, then you can’t play church because I’m closing the doors.” This stings, but no worship at all is better than halfhearted sacrifice. God doesn’t need us to give Him anything.
This passage gives us the purpose behind offerings. Listen to these verses and see if you can detect a pattern:
· Verse 11: “My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD Almighty.”
· Verse 14: “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord. For I am a great king, says the LORD Almighty, and my name is to be feared among the nations.”
Did you catch it? Every time God mentions sacrifice, He follows it with the phrase, “I will be great” or “I will be feared.” Sacrifice is directly linked to the greatness of God. That’s why when we give Him our best we are grasping the greatness of God. Conversely, when we offer Him little or nothing, we are really saying that God doesn’t matter much to us. When we fail to celebrate God’s greatness by giving Him our best, our priorities go out of whack, and we become bored with God and excited about the world. Have you ever noticed that there is no one more miserable than a half-hearted Christian?
That’s what happened to the priests in verse 13. Instead of counting it a privilege to minister on God’s behalf, they exclaimed, “What a burden!” It was more trouble than it was worth in their minds. They even “sniffed at it contemptuously,” which means that they “puffed” or “blew” in exaggerated exasperation. I imagine God looking at us and wondering why we get so bored with Him. God actually put this into a question in Micah 6:3: “My people, what have I done to you? How have I burdened you? Answer me.” And in Isaiah 1:12-13, we hear an extreme exclamation from the Almighty: “When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me…”
Notice the strong phrase at the beginning of verse 14: “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord…” God not only wants the temple shut down but the offerer of awful stuff will be bitterly cursed. No wonder the Lord is angry. They promised to give their best, but then they gave Him their worst. You sang, “Take my life and let it be, consecrated, Lord to Thee, take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold.” But now you’ve changed your mind. Perhaps your pledges to the Family Life Center or your weekly offerings have gotten off track. You promised to be a living sacrifice, but now you’re trying to crawl off the altar. God does not want to be cheated as Ecclesiastes 5:5 states, “When you make a vow to God, do not delay in fulfilling it. He has no pleasure in fools; fulfill your vow.”
God is saying that His name will be great, whether we acknowledge it or not. The party will go on without us. God told Israel that His greatness and His grace will be given to the Gentiles and that’s what’s happening right now. And, there’s a time coming when every knee will acknowledge His supremacy.
Ray Pritchard gives three symptoms of wearisome worship in the church today:
· Inadequate Preparation. This touches what happens before the service begins. Did you ever wonder why the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sundown? Because the preparation for worship begins the night before. Are you taking time on Saturday night to get yourself ready for Sunday morning?
· Half-hearted Participation. This speaks to what we do when we finally get to church. Because we generally know what’s going to happen in a service, it’s easy to just go through the motions. There is nothing more boring than trying to worship God when your heart isn’t in it. The people up front are not there to entertain you. They are there to assist you in worship. You are not the audience, God is.
Improper Motivation. This touches the reason we come to church in the first place. Are you here just to get something for yourself or do you come because you have an appointment with God? Your answer makes a world of difference. Instead of wondering if a service helps you, or determining if you liked it or not, the real issue is this: Did I meet with God today and to some degree, did I grasp His greatness?
Friend, this ain’t easy to hear, but it’s time to step it up! Are you giving God your best with your time, with your talents, and with your treasures? Are you giving Him what is left, or what is right? If we’re going to give Him our best, we must first grasp His greatness and embrace an authentic faith.
The Archbishop of Paris told the following true story. One night many years ago three young men set out to sample all the sinful delights of Paris. For hours they consumed themselves in every possible pleasure, holding back nothing, indulging their wildest fantasies.
When morning came they found themselves lounging on the steps of a great cathedral recounting their exploits. Suddenly a strange idea hit one of them. Why not go inside and confess to the pastor all they had done? They meant it as a blasphemous joke, the ultimate insult after a night spent in sin. It would be their crowning glory.
So, fortified with the laughter of his friends, one young man volunteered to go see the minister. He began to confess his sins—loudly, one by one, in long, lurid detail. As he did, his friends outside began to laugh.
The pastor realized what was happening, interrupted the man, and said, “Young man, I have heard enough. You needn’t confess anything else. If you would like to be forgiven for all your sins, you only need to do one thing. Outside is a big Cross. Simply go there, kneel down, look at the Cross and say these words, ‘Lord Jesus, I know all you have done for me, and I don’t give a .’”
Saying nothing, he walked outside and knelt before the Cross, looked up at the dying Christ and said these words, “Lord Jesus, I know all that you have done for me … and I ask you to forgive my sins.”
The Archbishop of Paris ended with these words: “I know this is a true story, because I was that young man.”
It all comes down to this. If you ever get a glimpse of the greatness of God, and what Jesus has done for you, you’ll never play church again and you’ll give God your best for the rest of your life.
Dr. Ray Pritchard is the founder and President of Keep Believing Ministries.