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"Return"

Malachi 3:7-12 
 

"'From the days of your fathers 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?'"
 

It is almost as predictable as leaves falling in the Autumn or the pollen count going up in the Spring. Over time, we tend to drift from God. At times we're hot, at times we're cold and at times, we're lukewarm. Our spiritual fervor is cyclical.

But this text isn't addressing those normal spiritual intensity cycles. It is addressing rebellious times when we walk away from God. A rebellion that is generational, not cyclical.

Verse 7 says, "From the days of your fathers . . ." The sin wasn't new with their generation. They were living a lifestyle that their parents taught them and their parents taught them. A complacency that made spiritual things less real and less important than the material world.

In many ways, this section splits the issues in Malachi's prophesy and calls the people to repent of the sinful lifestyle-a time of spiritual rebellion. A rebellion that had become cultural and affected everyone-even the priests.

You'll recall from a few weeks ago, the priests were approaching their duty in a half-hearted manner. Actually, by offering God less than their best, they were insulting Him and denigrating Him instead of elevating Him and worshiping Him. 

Whether the complaint was the priest that offered crippled sacrifices or the people who were withholding their praise or their tithe, Malachi records God's objection to His people diminishing God's importance in their lives. He objected to them making spiritual things less real and less important than other things.

Was God's complaint that their spiritual activities weren't done with excellence? I suppose you could make that argument. But there is more than that. For one thing, I believe their attitude toward God and serving Him demonstrated that they didn't really love Him.

The Apostle John wrote, "This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome" (1 John 5:3 NIV) And Jesus said, "Those who obey my commandments are the ones who love me." (John 14:21 NLT)

Love for God and obedience to His commands are inseparably linked throughout scripture. Moses wrote, "And it shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the Lord your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul," Deut. 11:13 NASB

Which raises another issue. It isn't just important to keep the letter of the law and keep God's commandments, it is also important to do it with sincerity, or as Moses put it, "heart and soul."

Those in Malachi's day were practicing a "loophole" faith, or a "minimalist" faith. The problem was that their devotion slowly eroded until their insincere motives were clearly exposed. They needed to get real.

How real are you with God? Are you passionate about pursuing Him? Are you following His commandments "heart and soul?" Or are you half-hearted? 

Robert Webber, Professor of Ministry at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Ill, recently said, "[worship] doesn't have to be excellent; it has to be real."

(http://www.freshministry.org/illustrations.html)

A couple of weeks ago, we had a very non-excellent worship service on Sunday night. It wasn't that we didn't prepare, we did. Our band had worked up a couple of new songs that went well with the theme of the service. I'd found some art on the Internet that helped give some dimension and texture to the songs we'd be singing and planned on projecting it while the band played the introductions.

I found a great visual to go with the message that I placed as a background to the PowerPoint sermon presentation.

Besides all that preparation, we'd just upgraded our projection system to XGA quality with increased power. It is awesome. 

Then five minutes before the service, the electricity went out. Not just at our church, but in the entire neighborhood.

We scrambled to put more candles out in the room, I went up to the office and got my battery powered PA and at 6:00 we began our service.

We went totally "unplugged." We had to jettison most of the planned service. Instead of doing a set of music, moving to the message, then closing with another set of music, we prayed, then sang a few songs to the guitar, had a brief time of fellowship, and then had the message.

I preached without notes, because they were all on the PowerPoint presentation. It definitely wasn't my finest hour. But something wonderful happened. God showed up. It was one of the finest services I've attended lately. God spoke to me. And from what I've heard the rest of you say, He spoke to you too.

It isn't about snazzy PowerPoint, cool tunes or beautiful art. Worship is an act of connecting a primal part of our souls to our creator. It has more to do with what happens in our hearts than on the stage. 

Don't' get me wrong-it is nice if the singers hit the high notes, the pastor is eloquent and the instruments are properly tuned. But without the connection of God to man, even the most "excellent" service is a waste of time. It has to be real. In spirit and in truth.

Jesus said, "God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth." John 4:24 NASB

I believe that same analogy carries over to keeping all of God's commandments, not just in being obedient to worship. Input is as important, if not more important than output. Or to put it another way, our "heart and soul" approach to loving God by keeping His commandments is the issue. 

Yes, it is important that we keep His commandments and that we do it "heart and soul" because that is how we show God that we love Him. But it is equally important that our focus remains on Christ and not on what we are doing. Our focus is on God, not the worship service. Our focus is on God, not the committee meeting. Our focus is on God, not the hospital visit. That subtle difference divides the religious from the truly Christian.

Something a prayer prayed by Arthur Burns reminded me of.

Arthur Burns was a man of considerable gravity. In the mid twentieth century, he was the chairman of the Federal Reserve, an ambassador to West Germany and served as an advisor to Presidents from Eisenhower to Reagan. When Burns spoke, Washington took notice. 

Burns began attending an informal White House Prayer meeting during the 1970s. Week after week, everyone took turns closing the meeting in prayer. Everyone that is, except Burns. Burns was consistently overlooked-out of a mixture of respect for his beliefs and reticence. Burns was a Jew.

One week, a newcomer led the meeting. This person did not know Burns was a Jew, so he didn't hesitate in asking Burns to close the meeting in prayer. The old-timers watched Burns, wondering what he would do. Without missing a beat, Burns reached out, held hands with the others in the circle and prayed, "Lord, I pray that you would bring Jews to know Jesus Christ. I pray that you would bring Muslims to know Jesus Christ. Finally, Lord, I pray that you would bring Christians to know Jesus Christ."

Today, I join Mr. Burns in that profound prayer. I pray for the Jews to come to know their Messiah, and especially in these troubling days, I pray for the Muslims to know Jesus as more than a prophet-to know Him as Lord and Savior. But I'd also pray that we Christians would know Jesus Christ.

Not just know about Him and participate in rituals celebrating Him. Not just to fall in love with His teaching and follow them. But to know Him.

(http://www.freshministry.org/illustrations.html)

"Return to Me," God said, "and I will return to you." Beginning to know Jesus Christ, not just know about Him, is what returning to God looks like.
 

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