As we close our series of lessons on the "Minor Prophets" of the Old Testament, we study Malachi. Malachi sounds a familiar tone among the minor prophets: pay attention to your relationship with God. Perhaps because of the wonderful message that we should look at God as our father, some treat God as they do their earthly father - with disrespect and indifference. Let's jump into our study of Malachi and find what God has to say about that!
"Lest We Forget!" June 29, 2013
Malachi 1; Leviticus 1:1-3; Malachi 2; Ephesians 5:21-23; Malachi 3; Exodus 32:32; Malachi 4
Edward Snowden is a messenger. Like Elijah running from Ahab, the whistleblower on the U.S. government's intrusive surveillance programs has the NSA hopping mad. The Department of Justice is after him. The chairman of the U.S. Select Committee on Intelligence wants him prosecuted. But Snowden (as of Monday) continues to elude being captured as he seeks political asylum.
The former Central Intelligence Agency employee leaked top-secret information to the press regarding American and British government mass surveillance systems. The Guardian published a series of articles on Snowden's disclosures about classified intelligence programs that collected telephone data. He released this information to "inform the public as to that which is done in their name and that which is done against them."1
Snowden is being charged for stealing government property and communicating national defense information with an unauthorized person. The U.S. government feels he needs accountability and is responsible for putting the security of the country at risk. On the other hand, Snowden feels the U.S. government needs accountability and is putting the privacy rights of U.S. citizens at risk. He states, "I don't want to live in a society that does these sorts of things [surveillance on its citizens]... I do not want to live in a world where everything I do and say is recorded."2
In our Sabbath school lesson this week we uncover information from a little known prophet named Malachi whose name means "my messenger." The essence of his book is on accountability. The prophet reminds Israel that all through their history God has shown them love. The Lord has been merciful and gracious in extending a covenant to them, but God's people have not held up their end of the agreement. Their obedience has been shallow.
Malachi goes so far as to say to the people, "You are stealing from God!" Their response in essence was, "We don't know what you are talking about." The messenger then reveals top secret information about their superficial religious actions. "You are keeping what rightfully belongs to the Lord." (See Malachi 3:6-8.) Also, the people are not being accountable to God by bringing blemished animals for sacrifice, offerings that were supposed to represent the perfect Lamb of God, the Savior.
Edward Snowden has a message for the leaders of our country. He believes they need to be held accountable to protect the rights of its citizens. Malachi also had a message for the leaders of Israel. He too believed they needed to be accountable, not so much to the people, but to God, in living obediently to the Lord's commands. We may debate just how far a government has a right to gather personal information, but we know that nothing can be hidden from the government of heaven. Even our motives are open before the eyes of God.
Commentary for the June 29, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, says the Lord Almighty, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty.” Malachi 3:8-11, NIV
Whenever a stewardship sermon is given at church, the one speaking is almost certain to bring out this passage from faithful Malachi the prophet. Along with this scripture we often hear examples of such blessings being given or of devourers rebuked. Many of these stories are unattributed and are difficult to verify. However some come with provenance. An example is the story of the miracle groceries as told by Rev. Robert Costa of Detroit, Michigan:
In 1984, Mike and his family belonged to an East Coast church. One Sunday evening, the sermon was on sacrificial offerings, and a special offering was taken at the end of the sermon. The only money in Mike’s wallet was a $50 bill, which was supposed to buy a week’s worth of groceries for his wife, their five children, and himself. However, in a move of faith, Mike put the $50 bill in the offering. Then, after the conclusion of the service, the family went out to the parking lot to go home. Within minutes, they joyfully returned to the sanctuary, and asked the pastor to come outside and see their miracle. Somewhat skeptical, the pastor accompanied them outside to their 20-year-old station wagon. Peering through the windows, he saw that the interior of the vehicle was completely filled with bags of groceries. Happy for the family, he remarked that someone had given them a huge blessing. “You don’t understand, pastor,” Mike said. “Before service, I made sure that all the windows were rolled up and the doors were locked. I have the only key, so it must have been the Lord!” To which the pastor added, “Giving truly is the only key to God’s provision!” (Mike had no family living in the area, and no one from the congregation ever claimed responsibility.)
While this story and many others like it are heartwarming, they are also problematic. The implication is, like in Malachi, if you give sacrificially to God, He will take care of you. However, life also has many examples where this has not happened. How do we explain the faithful Christian who in spite of that faithfulness dies a painful death from cancer? How do we explain the faithful Christian parents who pray regularly for their children and then see their children lost in some tragic accident? Does this mean that although God promises to help, He is impotent in some cases? Why would that be?
Even the Bible has examples where the righteous also suffer in spite of their righteousness. Perhaps the most vivid example is Job. Faithful in all his ways, he nonetheless suffered greatly. While it is true that the book of Job tells us he was well rewarded in the end, how does having more children make up for the loss of those you had before? Anyone who has actually lost a child knows that it does not. The memory of the loss will forever be a scar on their heart.
Stories like “The Miracle of the Groceries” backed up by Malachi’s pronouncement tend to diminish God into simply being a heavenly vending machine. You put money in; He pours more out in blessings. But if we give based on the expectation of blessings is our offering a gift or a transaction? What happens to our faith if the transaction is not honored by the other party? For instance, what happens the next time Mike gives $50 he cannot afford to give and the station wagon is not filled with groceries?
Perhaps a more typical example of our relationship to God is King David. Anointed as King of Israel by the prophet Samuel, instead of reaping wealth and blessings as a result of his faithfulness, he spent many years wandering in the wilderness in fear for his life as King Saul sought to slay him. Later, even his own sons sought to subvert his rule and seize the kingdom. Maybe the life of a saint is not the life of uninterrupted blessings that Malachi appears to present.
If we give to receive blessings are we honoring God with our gifts, or are we simply paying homage to greed. Is there really that much difference between being obedient to obtain a blessing, and being good so Santa will bring us presents? Is God Santa Claus? Do all the obedient Christians get gifts while those who are not are given lumps of coal? Although several Bible writers, particularly in the Old Testament, portray God like this, Jesus felt the need to frequently correct the distorted ideas about God that were popular.
While many believed that you must obey or God is going to get you and do horrible things to you, Jesus said that God was more interested in saving people than in judging and condemning them for their evil deeds.[i] In regards to blessing others based on their obedience, He revealed that blessings are based on compassion, not works of obedience.[ii]
Today, as Christians, we have built magnificent buildings and employ many thousands of people to operate and maintain vast, worldwide infrastructures. Many generations have contributed to raising these edifices and launching this army of workers. However, one must ask at this juncture, how much of our giving is furthering the work of proclaiming the gospel as opposed to simply maintaining the status quo?
In the first century, A.D. Christian church, the believers met in houses and held their possessions in common for the benefit of all.[iii] Even our Lord did not have a place to call His own where He could lay His head.[iv] How much of a contrast that all is to church administrators living in large houses with multiple garages, bedrooms and bathrooms. We might ask if it is wrong to own such things, but perhaps we could ask a better question to help our understanding. Would Jesus have refused to minister if He were not guaranteed a house, a chariot, and a salary?
The picture becomes even more acutely focused when we realize that some administrators of Christian institutions are enjoying six-figure incomes. Some might say that these are also paying much more tithe than someone who is on minimum wage and who is making only a fifth as much, but if that money is only going to perpetuate a system that produces such inequity, what is gained?
Sometimes it seems more and more that we have well-to-do individuals coming to church in expensive vehicles replete with all the latest entertainment and technology accessories and costing several tens of thousands of dollars from homes worth a half million dollars or more and then standing up front for the offering call and telling the elderly ladies who have a hard time figuring out whether to pay for medicine or food this month that they must give sacrificially so they can be blessed. How can they possibly understand the struggling young couple who are both working but do not have enough to clothe and feed their children well because they only make minimum wage and most of that must pay for housing. Since their minimum wage jobs provide no medical insurance and the fact that they are both employed full time disqualifies them for state assistance, they are only one illness away from disaster.
After Pentecost, some believers, like Barnabas, sold their property to meet the needs of the saints.[v] This was not to pay for the upkeep of a huge public hall with a state-of-the-art audio-visual system, but to provide for the needs of other believers. Today, we have been known to do the opposite, accumulating houses and condominiums to build a net worth that is only encumbering us with debt and possessions that need ever more upkeep. As we do with our homes, we also do with our churches. Woe to that church with a dwindling membership that must struggle with the overhead cost of an overbuilt church plant.
If we are unable to overcome this desire for more and bigger things, heeding the words of Malachi regarding tithe and offerings will not save us. It will only condemn us. For the more we pay in tithe and offerings the greater a witness it will be to the wealth we had and our failure to care for the needy and poor among us. No matter how many preachers may receive salaries from our tithe, it will never be equal to the care we bestow on even one needy person.[vi] This is the gold standard of the Kingdom of God.
[i] John 3:17
[ii] Matthew 5:45
[iii] Acts 4:32-35
[iv] Luke 9:58
[v] Acts 4:36-37
[vi] Isaiah 58:6-10
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