Created to Belong: Putting God to the Test
November 6, 2016
Preaching: Brian Keepers
Text: Malachi 3:1-18
Created to Belong: Putting God to the Test
The drought is finally over.
After 108 years of waiting, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in dramatic style this past Wednesday in Game 7 that went to extra innings. Millions of fans crowded along Michigan Avenue for a Celebration Parade on Friday, waving flags and erupting with cheers. Yes, the drought is finally over for America’s baseball team!
If only the same could be said for God’s covenant people, Israel, and the drought they faced.
Sure, the drought we heard about last Sunday in the OT book of 1 Kings eventually came to an end. It came to an end when Elijah went toe-to-toe with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Caramel—a showdown that exceeded even the World Series in thrills and excitement.
I wish I could tell you that, after this decisive moment of victory on Mt. Caramel, there were no more droughts, that God’s people straightened up and started living faithfully before the God who was faithful to them.
But that’s not how the story goes. There would be a pattern that, if we’re honest, continues with us today—God’s people would turn their hearts back to God and resolve to be faithful. But then after a while, they’d turn away from God again and fail to keep his commandments. Droughts would keep coming, sometimes literally but most often figuratively in the sense of experiencing separation from God.
The most severe kind of “drought” was exile. Because of Israel’s disobedience, God handed them over to their enemies, who destroyed Jerusalem and burned down the temple and carted them off to a foreign land.
But God stays in the story and eventually rescues his people from exile and brings them back to Jerusalem. Today we’re going to fast forward the story quite a ways—all the way to the last book of the OT—a book called “Malachi.” Malachi, like Elijah, is a prophet—a messenger of God sent to his people to be God’s mouthpiece. In fact, the name Malachi literally means, “My Messenger.”
The “drought” of exile in Babylon is over. Under the leadership of the priest Ezra and the governor Nehemiah, God has brought his people home to Jerusalem and the walls and the temple, once in ruins, now have been rebuilt.
But the “drought” in not entirely over, I’m sorry to say. God had promised his people “blessings from heaven,” but that is not what they’re experiencing. Sure, it’s good to be home, but they are still on hard times. None of the previous prophecies about this glorious messianic kingdom have come to pass, and locusts and drought still ravage their crops. Existence remains a desperate struggle for God’s people.
And so the Israelites call God to account. In fact, they put God on trial. That’s what’s happening in the book of Malachi—it has the feel of a court room, like an episode of “Law and Order.” It’s the People vs. Yahweh. They insist God take the witness stand and give an account for why he has allowed certain things to happen. God, where are you? Why haven’t you done what you said you’d do?
And what are the first words out of God’s mouth? Not defensiveness or denial. Not a list of excuses. God affirms his love for his people, affirms his love for us. “I have loved you says the LORD, and I love you still.” Later, God will say, “I the LORD do not change”—God’s covenant faithfulness to his people has not changed, even if they doubt God’s promises and have grown cynical.
But then a sudden plot twist. God turns the table on the Israelites, and now he becomes the prosecutor and they are summoned to the witness stand. They were so quick to accuse God, to put God on trial, but God now puts them on trial.
They blame God for what is happening to them, and yet they are living selfish, disobedient lives. They’re giving God half-hearted worship at best, withholding their offerings. Hearts of family members are turning against each other, and husbands are divorcing their wives for the thrills of younger women. The poor and the most vulnerable are being neglected. And their leaders, the priests, are the worst of all! In fact, it is the corruption of the priests that leads to the corruption of the rest of the people.
It’s not a pretty picture. I want to invite you into the court room drama this morning—we get a front row seat. Here the Word of the Lord from Malachi chapter 3:
For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. 7Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’
8 Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In your tithes and offerings! 9You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! 10Bring 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. 11I will rebuke the locust* for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the Lord of hosts. 12Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.
These are not easy words to hear. When God plays the role of prosecutor, like he does in this text, you can’t help but feel a bit defensive. I’m sure the Israelites must have felt that way.
But let’s not forget something that is foundational. God speaks these harsh words not in spite of his love for us but because of his love for us! God created and called the Israelites, as he has created and calls us, to belong to Him—to be his “special possession”, a people who bear witness to his life and love in the world.
The Israelites were not living as those who belong to God; they were not living their lives in response to God’s love and grace. And so God calls them, and us, to repent—to turn back to him and away from our selfishness and disobedience. “Return to me, “God says, “And I will return to you.”
The Israelites ask, “How shall we return?”
And God says, “Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me!”
The people say, “How are we robbing you?”
And God answers, “In your tithes and offerings.”
God had commanded the people to give 10 percent of the treasure he has blessed them with—their crops and livestock—and offer it in the Temple as an act of worship. The priests would take this and offer it as a sacrifice on the altar.
The “offerings” were those treasures given beyond the tithe that were given to provide for the priests and Levites, who depended on the people’s generosity to live, and then to also provide for the needs of others in their community—especially the poor and the vulnerable.
What was happening was that the people were not bringing in their full tithe nor their offerings, and they were likely withholding their best livestock and produce for themselves and giving God the left-overs—that which was blemished.
Not only was this dishonoring to God, it also meant that the needs of the community were being neglected—especially those who were most vulnerable. God is not pleased about this.
Now let’s pause here to make sure we’re clear on something important. God does not command the Israelites to bring in the full tithe and their offerings as if they need to somehow “buy” God’s love and acceptance. God is not a divine vending machine where they make a transaction—they insert their coins and then press the blessing they want.
Rather, God commands them to give the full tithe and their offerings as an act of gratitude and worship for the love and acceptance God already offers them free of charge. This was their response to God’s grace and generosity in their lives. Their way of saying to God, “Thank you!” and “We love you!”
It was also their way of acknowledging that they belong to God, and so does everything they possess. They were not owners of their treasure but stewards who were being called to glorify God by the way they handled the gifts God had given them. It makes all the difference in the world how you view your treasure—if you see it as yours or truly as God’s.
One of the most important things we see in Malachi is a theme weaved throughout the Bible, and we hear it from Jesus as well: Giving is a heart issue. Our giving is a reflection of our hearts. It is an expression of our faith. And the stingyness of the Israelites in Malachi reveals hearts that had drifted from God and were curved in on themselves.
As it goes with our hearts, so it will go with our giving.
But there is another piece to this that is equally important—the other side of the coin. It’s not just that our giving reveals our hearts; our giving can also shape our hearts. Giving is not just an expression of faith; it is a means by which God increases our faith. In other words, while it is true that “as it goes with our hearts, so it will go with our giving,” it is also true that “as it goes with our giving, so it will go with our hearts.”
Jesus said, “Wherever your treasure is; there your heart will be also.” This is so insightful—that wherever we choose to place our treasure, our hearts will follow. In the act of giving, our hearts begin to care more deeply about whatever it is that we are giving to.
This is why God calls the Israelites to return to him by becoming more generous—bringing in the full tithe and their offerings—because he is giving them a spiritual practice by which to turn their hearts back to God--to grow in their love for and trust in God. It is the path to drawing closer to God and growing spiritually.
Listen again to what God says about this: “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.”
It’s a startling invitation—God says, “Go ahead, put me to the test on this! Make the decision to be obedient—to give the full tithe and be generous in your offerings—and then see how I will bless you! It is the only place in the Bible that we are invited to test God. Typically, the command is to not put your God to the test. But in this matter of tithing and sacrificial giving, God says, “Go ahead, test me. And let me show you the difference it will make in your own heart!”
Of course it’s not just about our own hearts. Ultimately it’s about living fully into the purpose to which we’ve been called—and that is to live a life bigger than ourselves as a people who are on mission with God. You see, that’s the way the economy of God’s blessing works. Israel was called to be a channel of God’s blessing, not a container or safety- deposit box. God blesses them for the purpose of blessing the families of the earth through them. And the more that we open our hands to share what God has given us, the more abundant is God’s blessing poured out upon us—it overflows!
Today marks the second year anniversary of our three year capital campaign…and there is so much to celebrate! If giving reflects the hearts of God’s people, I have to tell you—your generosity in this campaign indicates much spiritual vitality. We are two thirds into this campaign, and I’m so pleased to share with you that as of today, we have nearly 80 percent of the money in from pledges! This is remarkable! Praise be to God!
So I want to say thank you to all of you who have been so generous. From the beginning, we’ve said that is not so much about the amount given, but the level of sacrifice and the joy with which the gift is given.
I also want to challenge us, as a congregation, to finish strong. We have one more year left, and the reality is, the sooner we reach our goal and, hopefully, even exceed it, the sooner we can pay off the debt and are able to use the money God has given us in other ways to impact lives.
Lastly, I want to make an invitation. For those of us who have not yet made a pledge or contributed to the building project, you can still be involved! We have pledge cards available this morning, and I want to ask you to consider how God is calling you to play your part. If our hearts follow where we place our treasure, then it is true that investing financially in some way—again it’s not about the amount but the sacrifice—will give you a sense of deeper investment and even delight in enjoying the new sanctuary and seeing the repurposing happen in the former.
There may be others of us who, because of God’s blessings in our lives, are in a position now where we can give even beyond what we pledged (or perhaps we finished our pledge). I want to ask you to consider stepping out in faith and making an additional gift.
Malachi’s challenge this morning goes beyond the scope of this building project. It is a call to live all of life as a generous people who give sacrificially and joyfully to God and God’s work. One of my deepest convictions is that growing in generosity is literally at the heart of being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ. It has to do with every gift God has given us—not just finances but time and talent as well.
It’s about living all of life out of a spirit of trust and gratitude---opening our hands and our hearts to receive the downpour of God’s blessings from heaven---blessings that may not come in the form of winning a World Series or more money or bigger houses and promotions at work—but blessings from heaven that come in the form of a sense of freedom and joy. The freedom and joy of living a generous life.
Let me close with one of my favorite stories. Two years ago, leading up to our Commitment Sunday, there was a little boy in our congregation—8 years old at the time—who had received his “Imagine Envelope” in Sunday School and took it home to his parents and was so excited about it. That night, he sat down at the kitchen table and emptied out his piggy bank. He even took the money he had received a couple nights prior from the tooth fairy as a reward for his lost tooth, and put in the envelope. Then his little imagination got going—thinking about all the ways he could earn money to give. He told his parents he was going to create some artwork and sell it to family and friends and give half of it to the building campaign. Then he got another idea that he could have his mom pull out some of his other loose teeth so he could take the money he’d get from the tooth fairy and add that to his contribution. By this point, the little boy is on a roll, getting so excited about all the money he was going to give that he nearly burst out of his 8-year-old skin. With a big smile he exclaims to his parents: “I’m a givin’ machine!”
This little boy experienced what I imagine God wanted the Israelites to experience, what God wants all of us to experience—the life and joy of being a “giving machine”—opening our hands wider and wider so that we might be pulled deeper and deeper into the heart of God--into the flow of the downpour of God’s blessings from heaven.
It is at this Table, in this bread and cup, that we come to receive the generous blessings of God, poured out in Jesus Christ, so that we might be transformed into “giving machines”—a channel of blessing, dispensers of grace, those who belong to God and live all of life with open hands and generous hearts for the praise of God’s glory.
“Then all the nations will count you happy; for you will be a land of delight—you will be a people of delight, says the LORD of hosts.”
Even so, come Lord Jesus! Amen!