Written by Pastor Ed
Offering our Best
Nov. 22, 2015
Books of the Bible – Malachi
So, at last we come to the final sermon in this series on Books of the Bible, which I’m sure will be a relief to some and perhaps a disappointment to a few. But we end with a fitting book for this Sunday. Malachi is the last book of our Old Testament, the final prophet in the Book of Twelve, and contains some of the passages familiar to us as we head into the Advent season. It is not the final book in the Hebrew Bible, that is Chronicles. It was actually Luther who rearranged the books into the order we now find them.
The book of Malachi, as with Haggai and Zechariah that we looked at last week, are all post-exilic books, and indeed, Malachi may be one of three prophetic oracles that were originally separate, two of which became attached to the end of Zechariah, as I mentioned last week, and the third given its own title and place, thus making a neat “Book of Twelve” minor prophets. Malachi means “messenger of the Lord” and quite likely is not actually a proper name of the author. It has been attributed variously to Ezra or Nehemiah, or even Zerubbabel.
But while we don’t know the author, we can place the date of the book within a fairly narrow span, probably around the year 460 B.C., after the temple has been rebuilt but before the reforms of Nehemiah. It is a distinct time in the life of the returned exiles. As I noted last week, they had returned to the land full of hope and anticipation, but life was hard and not at all what they had expected. They had begun to rebuild the temple, but had become discouraged until Haggai and Zechariah had lit a fire under Zerubbabel and Joshua the priest and the temple had been finished in record time.
But again, it seemed, the promises of the prophets had not come to pass. Haggai had assured the people that if they would finish rebuilding the temple, good times would return. Things would get better. It was perhaps the same message as we sometimes hear from the health and wealth preachers of today. If you do the right things, give the right tithe, God will reward you with good health and greater wealth.
But what happens to your faith if those promises aren’t fulfilled, as they often aren’t? Well, the same thing happened then as now, people get discouraged and begin to wonder if God really cares about them at all. They were going through the motions of religion, but not really worshipping. While the sacrificial code called for bringing the first-fruits, a lamb without spot or blemish, the best of the flock, they had decided that any old lamb would do. While various prophets had warned about the dangers of taking foreign wives, they figured it really didn’t matter anymore.
And so Malachi, the messenger, through a series of questions and answers calls the people to account. “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not wrong? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not wrong? Try presenting that to your governor; will he be pleased with you? (1:8) Religion for the people had become a matter of going through the motions, with little substance. They had become lazy in their rituals, and were mostly concerned about getting the obligations they felt out of the way so they could get on with having a good time and doing what they wanted to do.
Moreover, they had become cynical about whether God really was concerned about them, or anyone, for that matter. Their preachers had promised them so much, and yet they were struggling with drought and poverty. In fact, the messenger says, the Gentiles are more interested in God than God’s people seem to be and God is held in greater esteem by the unbelievers than he is by those who claim to be God’s people.
The messenger of God, Malachi, calls the priests who accept those blemished sacrifices, as well as the people who offer them, to account and reminds them that a day is coming when they will be stand before God and be held accountable for their actions. Although they may question, “How did we rob God?” it is their actions that speak for them. And again the image of the refiner’s fire is used, sorting out the true righteousness from those who simply are going through the motions. Some words that, if you know Handal’s Messiah will be familiar to you.
“See I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me…But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire…and he shall purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.” (3:1-3)
So what message might we take from this oracle? Well, as I read the book of Malachi I was reminded of a song that I remember singing when I was much younger, and perhaps you did too since I found it in the blue Mennonite Hymnary. It reads like this:
“Give of your best to the Master,
Give of the strength of your youth,
Throw your soul’s fresh, glowing ardor,
Into the battle for truth.
Jesus has set the example;
Dauntless was he, young and brave;
Give him your loyal devotion,
Give him the best that you have”
Now I don’t know if Howard Grose, the author of that hymn was inspired by Malachi or not, but he may well might have been, for he captures many of the sentiments of the oracle of Malachi. And I wonder, do we sometimes fall into the same habits as the people of that day?
Now back when I was singing that song, my parents were probably telling me that it meant I should wear my best clothes to church on Sunday, but I’m not sure that’s a good interpretation. In fact, I wonder if that’s not going down the same road as the post-exile Jews – following the forms, but forgetting the substance.
Because offering the best of the flock wasn’t just because God wanted something that wouldn’t make the priests sick. It had to do with trust in God. Trust that even if you offered the best of the flock, God would supply your needs. And by offering the best, showing that you indeed thought God deserved the best in obedience to him.
For what we do, how we respond to God, shows what is important to us and where we put our priorities. If you’re on Facebook, you have undoubtedly seen the kerfuffle over the Starbucks Christmas cups, which are plain red this year. Immediately there was an outcry from certain quarters that this was another sign of the “war on Christmas” because they had taken the snowflakes, as though those were the true symbols of Christmas anyway. Perhaps the best rebuttal I saw, among the myriad of posts were several that had a message something like this one:
It is very easy for us to get caught up in petty controversies and arguments about things that don’t really matter and forget the weightier matters. The prophets, including Jesus, remind us to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God.” (Micah 6:8) Those are far more important than practicing the right rituals or using the right symbols. Jesus tells us to seek first the Kingdom of God. And Malachi warns us that when we say we are God’s people, but then only give God the leftovers, we are robbing God and betraying the trust we are called to have in him.
We live in a world where many things compete for our gifts, whether time, talents, or money. This time of year our mailboxes are full of requests, people are asking for our time to volunteer, and undoubtedly our time is being used up by many activities. And it’s easy for God and the church to take second, or third, or even tenth place in our lives. We go through the motions, but that’s really all we’re doing – going through the motions. Are we giving of our best to God?
The book of Malachi points forward to the coming of a messenger, like Elijah who would proclaim the year of the Lord. Next Sunday we begin our journey through Advent, a time to look forward to the fulfillment of that hope in John the Baptist, and Jesus. It is a time for us to examine ourselves, to recommit ourselves to the priority of God’s Kingdom and living out the call to follow in the way of Jesus.
As the hymn says,
Give of your best to the Master
Give him first place in your heart
Give him first place in your service
Consecrate every part.