10. How shall we return?
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Let us pray. Draw us close, Holy Spirit, as the Scriptures are read and the Word is proclaimed. Let the word of faith be on our lips and in our hearts, and let all other words slip away. May there be one voice we hear today — the voice of truth and grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This is not the last sermon that I will preach at Blythwood Road Baptist Church as your pastor. Having said that, there is a sense of finality about today. The retirement party was two nights ago and at the end of this week I begin two weeks holidays; by the time I return to work it will almost be the middle of July. The city will be up to its ears in the Pan-Am Games. Who knows how easy it will be to get to Blythwood from Yonge and Eglinton, never mind Leaside or Scarborough.
Hopefully after that the weather will be warm and dry enough that either some cottage or beach beckons you. By Labour Day I will be your former pastor, so this may be the last sermon you hear me preach before retirement. At first glance it seems like an odd text, doesn’t it? I am finishing off the series dealing with the Minor Prophets, and Malachi is the last of those; it still seems odd at first. Yet as I worked through it, I could not escape how right and how vital this last of the Major Messages of the Minor Prophets was. If this is the last sermon you hear me preach as your pastor, I’m OK with that.
Like some of his prophetic colleagues, Malachi leaves us guessing as to who he is and exactly when his ministry took place. An oracle. The word of the Lord to Israel by Malachi. We’re not completely sure we even know the person’s name. If you have your Bible open or you are looking at one of the Pew Bibles you will see a footnote is attached to the word Malachi. Check at the bottom of the page; for those of you far sighted get out your reading glasses or extend your arm as far as it will go and what you discover is the name Malachi means my messenger. Now there is a name that every prophet could be given; every prophet is a messenger of God.
Dating Malachi is also difficult. He mentions no particular king or any well-known event. The one thing we can be absolutely certain about is that Malachi was written before 180 B. C. because a book that historians know was written then quotes from Malachi. The best guess appears to me to be around the middle of the fifth century B. C., before the year 450. So lets’s take a look at his message.
The book is a series of disputes between God and his messenger on the one hand and the people of God on the other. We are looking at two of those. The first part of our text is God’s answer to a dispute about God’s justice. You have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet you say, “How have we wearied him?” By saying, “All who do evil are good in the sight of the Lord, and he delights in them.” Or by asking, “Where is the God of justice?”
This is an important issue for any person of faith. The fancy 25¢ word for this issue is theodicy, the vindication of divine providence in view of the existence of evil. We need to do some serious work here because this is something that is a part of all of our lives. A child dies, a pilot crashes his airplane full of passengers into a mountain, an earthquake strikes—who of us has not thought or said, “What’s going on? Did God take the day off?”
These are legitimate questions. In fact one book of the Bible, Job, is based entirely on this issue. Job insists that he is a righteous man and despite that he suffers a number of catastrophic losses. In that book God is more critical of the friends who tried to defend God than God is of Job. The Psalms of Lament are also full of questions to God about the suffering of the righteous and what appears to be the way in which the wicked escape judgement. Yet in our text it seems as if the Lord is wearied by such questions. Do we weary the Lord with our honest questions?
I am certain the answer is no. I think the key to understanding what is going on is the answer given by God in chapter three. See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. …But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
One of the themes that we see running through a number of these prophetic books is that God’s people are anxious for the judgement of God to fall on the nations around them, while at the same time failing to see that they too must account for the ways in which they have failed to faithfully serve God and obey God’s commandments. They have wearied God by asking “Where is the God of justice?” when all they have wanted to see was divine judgement fall upon others. They have wearied God by failing to understand that God’s desire for justice and righteousness begins with the people of God.
God’s people are to live lives of witness. They ask for the God of justice to visit; God says he is soon to appear. Take a look at the text. This is what the God of justice wants to accomplish when he appears—
• purifying the priesthood;
• bringing judgement upon those who follow a false faith,
• upon those who dishonour their marriage vows,
• upon the dishonest,
• upon those who mistreat their employees,
• upon those who oppress the disenfranchised,
• upon those who refuse to honour God.
God says to them, there is nothing new here. This is what I have always asked of my people. You very well may see wickedness around you but my desire for justice and righteousness begins with my people. That has not changed; God’s desire for justice and righteousness begins with the people of God, the family of faith in this place.
The second dispute to which we will give our attention today naturally follows God’s desire that justice and righteousness begin with God’s people. As far as God is concerned it is rather obvious what he wants from his people, but this also is a dispute. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?”
What comes next, of course, is likely one of the best-known verses in all of the Minor Prophets, although I suspect many folks who can quote the verse do not know the book in which it is found. Malachi claims that the beginning of God’s people turning back toward God is being sure that they are being faithful in the matter of tithes and offerings. Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.
Let me suggest a way of understanding this particular word to God’s people, both then and now. Scholars tell us “Tithing was a very old custom in the ancient world. Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians and Canaanites all practiced tithing before Israel became a nation” (Word Biblical Commentary: Micah—Malachi, 333). I find that detail fascinating. Nations around Israel that were their enemies and in the case of the Canaanites, always a source of spiritual temptation away from the true worship of God, practiced a particular discipline that is adopted within Judaism also as a sign of faithfulness to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. So what can this mean?
I suspect that while it is not always true, it is certainly often true that money is the issue. I think we are invited into a conversation that is taking place between God’s people and Malachi, God’s representative or messenger. God says to his people your consciences are so dulled by your long history of disobedience that you do not even understand that you must repent, you must return to me. You ask, “How shall we return?” and I say that you should begin that return by first bringing all that is needed for worship to the Temple, the place where I choose for my name to dwell on earth.
In other words, the tithe is not an end in itself. It is not a matter of giving ten percent in order to discharge an obligation. Rather to offer the tithe is very often the sign of a willingness to give the whole of one’s life to God, because often it starts with the money.
This is an area of our lives that has come under scrutiny in a recent (2014) book called The Paradox of Generosity. The authors, Christian Smith and Hilary Davidson, one a professor and one a PhD candidate at the University of Notre Dame, engaged in a study to discover if it could be proven that it is more blessed to give. Here is how they summarize their conclusions.
“By grasping onto what we currently have, we lose out of better goods that we might have gained. In holding onto what we possess, we diminish its long-term value to us. By always protecting ourselves against future uncertainties and misfortunes, we are affected in ways that make us more anxious about uncertainties and vulnerable to future misfortunes. In short, by failing to care for others, we do not properly take care of ourselves. It is no coincidence that the word ‘miser’ is etymologically related to the word ‘miserable’ ”(p. 1).
Friends, at the risk of opening myself to being portrayed as The Reverend Obvious, God knows what God is doing. I wonder if that’s why God, in the words of the prophet expresses this idea in such an over the top way… you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! In other words, God knows there is something about the way in which we have been made that makes generosity desirable. To again quote Smith and Davidson: “Generosity is not a random idea or a haphazard behaviour, but rather, in its mature form at least, a basic, personal, moral orientation to life. …Generosity always intends to enhance the true well-being of those to whom something is being given. For this reason, we think, generosity is ultimately an expression of love, even if in specific instances it takes on an appearance of responsibility, justice, duty, or citizenship exercised ”(p. 4).
There are very few places in the Bible where God invites us to test him. There are stories in which God honours the request for a test, like Gideon with the fleece (Judges 6:36–40). Isaiah invited King Ahaz to ask God for a sign (Isaiah 7:11, 12). However I think this invitation of God for us to test God’s resolve, God’s power, God’s intention is unique in all of scripture. The focus for me is not the 10%. I think our focus should be on the whole notion of God answering the question posed by the people, “How shall we return?” How do we come back to you God? How do we repent? How, God, do we get right with you?
God says to us, “I have shaped you to love. Love takes on many disguises. Sometimes it looks like the pursuit of justice, sometimes like kindness, compassion or forgiveness. And there are times when love looks like generosity. Why not start there? Actually why not make it a test? Yes, make it a test; I know I will pass the test because no one who ever truly loved me and others ever regretted it.'