Note the curious disparity here. God’s people are very much trying to behave like God’s people. They “delight to draw near to God”. They aren’t just religious; they’re downright spiritual. This isn’t self-imposed, legalistic drudgery; these people are sincerely - joyfully, even - seeking an encounter with the living God. Yet God is not pleased. The apostle James says that if we draw near to God, He’ll draw near to us (James 4:8). Well, Israel is, and it’s not working.
Thankfully, the answer isn’t shrouded in mystery; it’s provided plainly. God’s people, for all their spiritual enthusiasm, are a quarrelsome group of miscreants who have oppressed and neglected the poor. Loving one’s neighbour as oneself is, evidently, not a priority. Under such circumstances, the Lord refuses to be responsive to prayer and supplication, no matter how sincerely and fervently such petition may be offered.
If there is a clearer biblical picture of western evangelicalism today, I don’t know where to find it. Enter any number of evangelical churches and you’re bound to find enthusiasm, dedication and spiritual fervour. If it’s an experience you seek, it’s an experience you will find. But ask yourself, within such churches, do we really love our neighbour - our Christian neighbour, let alone anyone else?
If someone loses a job or falls ill in your church, is any real help rendered beyond some half-hearted promises to pray and a few casseroles? Are we behaving as “one body” (1 Cor 12:12-27), or as several bodies pulled together once or twice weekly for some mutually agreeable religious activity?
If we want a genuine encounter with the Living God, we had better be able to answer this question confidently.
“Go ahead, beg God to be merciful to you! But when you bring that kind of offering, why should he show you any favor at all?” asks the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
“How I wish one of you would shut the Temple doors so that these worthless sacrifices could not be offered! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “and I will not accept your offerings. But my name is honored by people of other nations from morning till night. All around the world they offer sweet incense and pure offerings in honor of my name. For my name is great among the nations,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
“But you dishonor my name with your actions. By bringing contemptible food, you are saying it’s all right to defile the Lord’s table. You say, ‘It’s too hard to serve the Lord,’ and you turn up your noses at my commands,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “Think of it! Animals that are stolen and crippled and sick are being presented as offerings! Should I accept from you such offerings as these?” asks the Lord.
“Cursed is the cheat who promises to give a fine ram from his flock but then sacrifices a defective one to the Lord. For I am a great king,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “and my name is feared among the nations!”
- Malachi 1:6-14
Let’s not get hung up on all the talk of diseased animals and sacrifices. If we think that God needed the Israelites to bring Him a certain sort of animal in a certain sort of condition, we’re missing the point. It’s not as if such sacrifices were somehow taken through a magic portal into Heaven where He used them for purposes unknown. The sacrifices offered to God were typically eaten either by the priests or by the people who offered them (depends on the circumstances).
No, our Lord’s issue here is with the condition of His people’s hearts: “Try giving gifts like that to your governor, and see how pleased he is!” (v. 8). Translation? We respect those who have been placed in authority over us, and would never insult them with haphazard and petty offerings. If I were meeting with a great political leader in my country and I had an opportunity to bring that person a gift, would I simply fish a dollar or two out of my pocket when the time comes, as we so often do when the collection plate gets passed around?
No, I’m not about to go on a tangent about tithing. Those who insist on a 10% rule are also, as far as I can tell, missing the point on this issue. Elsewhere in scripture God rejects Israel’s evidently abundant sacrifices with no mention at all of poor quality.
“The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?” says the Lord. “I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats... wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
- Isaiah 1:11,16-17
Here the text's subject matter is different – in Malachi it's the quality of the sacrifices, in Isaiah it’s the nation’s character of injustice – and yet it’s the same; God detests the sacrifices of malicious, self-centered and unclean hearts no matter what those sacrifices may be. The sacrifice that He truly desires is a clean, contrite and reverent heart (Psalm 51:17, Micah 6:8, Psalm 51:10).
Malachi is addressing people who have failed to put the Lord of Heaven’s armies into His proper context, revere Him as God, Creator of the universe, Holy, Awesome, Terrible, Wonderful. Israel has ceased believing that God is God. He’s become a figurehead, a harmless overseer, an absentee landlord who is not expected to return any time soon. If they believed Him to be otherwise, would they dare insult Him? Would we?
The point for us vis-à-vis church offerings? Whatever amount you put into the collection plate, if you do so generously, cheerfully, reverently and sacrificially, you’re right.* Whatever amount you put into the collection plate, if you do so self-righteously, sparingly, irreverently or thoughtlessly, you’re wrong.
The point for us vis-à-vis everything else? Our Lord is not an idea, not a harmless benefactor, not an afterthought, not to be taken for granted. Yes, He loves us amazingly, overwhelmingly, constantly, but let’s not mistake His love for impassive tolerance. He is to be worshiped. This is not something to be taken lightly.
Heavenly Father. It's so easy for us to take our eyes off you for a moment and plunge headlong off the narrow path, forgetting who you truly are in the process. We beg you not to let this happen. Correct us before we fall, remind us of how awesome, powerful and wonderful you are. And never let us forget or neglect your profoundly tender, personal and overwhelming love. We pray in the name of your precious son, Jesus. Amen.
*This isn't to be taken as an excuse for offering trifles at church. One thing we may want to consider is whether our giving is sacrificial because we've left no margin in our lives for giving. Any reasonable percentage may be nearly impossible for me because I've secured the highest mortgage my broker said I could borrow and/or the largest car loan my bank would allow; consequently I've left so little room at the end of my budget that I can't contribute much to my church without going further into debt. If this is the case, I may not be living a biblical lifestyle; this is a problem I should take pains to address.
Here in these verses we have the end-game. The Lord redeems people from every tribe, language and people for Himself, ushering in His new creation: one that will no longer be stained by sin and death.
The somewhat bizarre platonic notion that, when we die, our spirits will go off to the ethereal realm and experience eternal disembodiment is simply not true. For a time, perhaps, we will be separated from the corporeal, but only for a time. Early Christians simply took it for granted that Christ's return is about the establishment of His Kingdom on earth as it is in Heaven, not the abandonment of the creation 'experiment' in favour of a disembodied eternity. Somewhere along the way, though, we lost our way, and started to believe things that have no basis in scripture.
No matter, here we are today; we have our bibles and are capable of correcting course. Now, what we ought to remember today is that Christ's construction of His Kingdom, while perhaps mysterious to us, is perfectly sensible. He's going in order. What are the most important elements of a Kingdom? I would think:
1. Its King,
2. His Subjects, and
3. The Land in which the Kingdom rests
And what has He established thus far?
1. The King, who won His crown on Calvary, and
2. His Subjects, who continue to grow day-by-day.
The Land comes next, once part 2 is complete. The Lord will establish a new heavens and a new earth. And your end-game, believer in Christ, is a new, indestructible body. Happily, you may put aside any notions of an eternity of playing harps in the clouds (sounds awful, doesn't it?) to rest. You were made for the Spirit, but also for the physical. Heaven awaits, and it's better than we dare dream.
On Friday, January 26, Aurelia Brouwers drank poison and died. She was 29 years old.
In the Netherlands, euthanasia is legal for people with several conditions including severe mental illness, with which Aurelia had been diagnosed. She had tried and exhausted all reasonable options for treating the personality disorder, depression and occasional hallucinations from which she suffered, she said, but to no avail. Life for her was defined by suffering, and she no longer wanted to endure it.
The Dutch government believes that in such instances and under certain conditions, a person ought to be empowered to make such a choice. I won’t bother arguing with its wisdom here. Though I think such a policy to be unwise for social as well as biblical reasons, secular governments who have no interest in pleasing God are bound to make decisions that won’t. It’s the road we’re headed down, and unless we are able to change the hearts of those wielding the strings of power, we can, in my view, do little more than mitigate and delay our society’s inevitable fall from Grace.
It is a terrible tragedy though. As much as we’d like to follow the current zeitgeist into the belief that God is an ethereal, indefinite and compromising figure who will allow people to proceed into any form of eternity that they please regardless of the choices that they’ve made in life, it’s simply not true. An eternity in Heaven – i.e. an eternity in the presence of God – is preceded only by his own prescribed method whether we like it or not. That method is a relationship with one person, and only one person, Jesus Christ. Unless the media failed to provide one very critical (and seemingly incompatible) detail, we can assume that Aurelia missed her chance.
Could faith in Jesus have cured Aurelia’s condition? Had she come to Christ, it could have; Jesus works miracles. However, it’s also possible that this would have continued to be a challenge for her. Christians are not generally exempt from illness of any kind, physical or mental. Nonetheless, her belief that she had exhausted all options can’t be true: all currently viable medical options, perhaps, but not all options.
Faith in Jesus may or may not have cured Aurelia, but it would have certainly acquainted her with a God who suffers with his people, a God who endured such psychological anguish and stress that he literally sweat blood in the garden of Gethsemane. She would have become acquainted with a God who knows how it feels to be lonely and abandoned, but who never abandons those who have pledged their lives to him.
From there, she most likely would have become acquainted with a gathering of highly flawed, but often compassionate and empathetic, believers who are all-too acquainted with suffering themselves. Aurelia could have found meaning in her suffering, rather than emptiness, loneliness and grief. She could have found healing.
Aurelia doesn’t appear to have found Jesus. One wonders if she was ever offered the opportunity.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.