Offering God Less than the Best (Part 1)
In the late 1970’s, when Jimmy Carter was President, on several occasions he spent the night in the homes of average Americans. Suppose the President decided to come to your home. The big evening finally arrives. Crowds line the streets as the presidential limousine pulls up in front of your house. It is escorted by police motorcycles, squad cars, and Secret Service agents. The President emerges from the limousine, waves to the crowds and media, and walks to your front door. You open the door wearing dirty jeans and a torn T-shirt. “Oh, hello! I’ve been working out in the garden.” As the President steps into your cluttered living room, you say, “Sorry about the mess, but my wife got caught up in the soap operas on TV this afternoon and didn’t get around to cleaning. But dinner’s almost ready. She’s heating up leftovers in the microwave right now. Hope you don’t mind paper plates.”
That’s ridiculous, isn’t it? If you knew the President was coming to be a guest at your house, you would look your best. You would clean your house. You would get out your best dishes and prepare your best meal for the President. The President deserves more than leftovers. He deserves the best we can offer. So does the Lord. Surely, no one would offer less to God, would they?
The priests in the book of Malachi were doing just that. They were offering to God inferior worship. The worship they offered amounted to offering God the leftovers. Malachi is the last of the Minor Prophets of the Old Testament. Ezra and Nehemiah had returned to Jerusalem and rebuilt the city, the walls, and the temple and reinstituted true worship in the temple. Here we are a few years later and worship had begun to slip.
Worship is supposed to be a celebration of being in fellowship with the living God. It is a time set aside for believers to demonstrate their faith with genuine praise and thanksgiving. God even arranged the worship of Israel in a way that praise and thanksgiving would be most natural for the people – He arranged it for the three great harvest festivals in the land, barley in the spring, wheat in the summer, and summer fruits in the fall. Because the harvests were a gift from God, the people were by duty bound to bring tokens of their thanksgiving to offer to God at the feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles. And because these were harvest celebrations, they were natural times for the farmers to rejoice – the work was over for the season. If you have spent any time on a farm, you know how hard the work is, and how much joy there is when the harvest is finally in.
When the people came to worship, God did not require a great deal of them in the way of offerings – tokens, really, of their herds and their crops – a handful of grain or an animal for the family. But what they brought had to pass two important tests, and in many cases only they and God would know if they passed them. What they brought had to be the first and the best. Nothing else mattered. It had to be the first-born animal, or the first fruit of the crops or the orchards. God gets his share first, because he is the most important. But it had to be the best – the best firstborn or first fruit offering. To bring God an inferior gift would say that one did not think much of God, for the quality of the gift indicates the value the giver places on the one receiving the gift. That is true in any human relationship, and it certainly is true in the spiritual relationship we have with the Lord.
But people are always falling short of pure worship – or at least pure worship on a sustained level. And so the prophet Malachi came on the scene in Israel to rebuke, reprove, correct, and exhort the people. In the earlier periods the prophets had to deal with idolatry and pagan corruptions in Israel’s worship. After this exile that was not a major problem. Instead, worship was being corrupted by the indifference and selfishness of priests and the people. And so Malachi had to address a whole different set of problems in the nation. The message is addressed to the priests directly, but as we will see, because of their failures, the nation was also guilty of not honoring and fearing the Lord. His first sermon recorded in the book, directed at the priests, but certainly speaking to the worship of the people, deals with their making a mockery out of worship by bringing inferior offerings. God was not pleased with that kind of worship.
Our worship must be worthy of the one to whom we offer it.