Today I want to talk about how the difficulties and disappointments of our life can deaden our heart, making them cold and inward-focused. But I also want to explore how the joy and grace and love of God can make our hearts generous. It comes from this text in Malachi. If you've been coming here, you know that this is part of a larger series of sermons where we've been looking at each part of our worship service and trying to figure out why we do the things we do—why we have communion, why we have preaching, and why we have a call to worship. We've been looking at how God is present and powerful in each aspect of the worship service and how we're being changed.
The Bible says over and over that you will be changed when you worship. Everybody worships something or someone, and whether you're a Christian or not, you will become like what you worship. I think we all know this intuitively. If you worship your family, you'll become someone who excludes anything that intrudes upon the comfort and prosperity of your family. If your ultimate value is sex, you'll become a lustful person, a person who just wants to consume. If you worship the acclaim and affection and admiration of other people, you will set up your life to get those things. Or if you worship yourself, you won't want to hear or have any other voices in your head. But if you worship the God who is love—the God who sent his Son Jesus to serve those who rejected him, who came to be a servant in love to give his life—then slowly but surely, the Bible says, we will become more and more like him.
We become like what we worship.
The specific part of the worship service that I want to look at today is the offering. This week I was trying to think about how we've talked about money before in this church. I was listening to a sermon that I gave a number of years ago about money and about giving, and I am tempted to do right now what I did then, which was to apologize in advance for giving the sermon, especially to those of you who may be here for the first time. One of my favorite things in the whole world is when there are new people here. I see new faces here today. And so there's a part of me that is cringing right now to think about people who are here for the first time who will just hear about money and the offering. So I'm tempted to apologize, but I'm not going to. Here's why: First, our spiritual lives have everything to do with our material lives. The intersection of the spiritual and the physical can't be torn apart. Therefore, when we think about our spiritual lives, we'll necessarily have to think about money. The Bible has tons to say about money, so we want to talk about money, too. We believe that God has richly blessed us. How do we respond to that?
Here's the second reason: Neither this text nor this sermon are about money. They are about generosity. And that's not just a euphemism. What's at stake in this text from Malachi is the generosity of heart that God wants us to have. Because when difficulties and disappointments come into your life, you'll want to contract your heart; you don't want to give away anything. But the Bible says that when God's grace and love comes in, it will conjure up generosity of every kind, certainly with money, but also with our time and with our hearts, with ourselves.
You and I know that it's hard to be generous. So how do we become generous of spirit and heart? How do we keep the disappointments and difficulties of life from making us coldhearted?
How our hearts close up
Now, we're looking at Malachi 3, but I want to give you a whole overview, a context, for the book of Malachi. Israel as a kingdom, as a nation, had once been a very prosperous and beautiful and far reaching kingdom. It was becoming what God wanted it to be: a people who would be so blessed by God with beauty and prosperity, that they would bless the rest of the world. And they were beginning to do it.
In 1 Kings 10 there's a great story about the Queen of Sheba hearing about Israel's prosperity, beauty, wonders, and riches that were in Israel. Sheba is now modern day Ethiopia, and the queen traveled all the way to Israel to visit King Solomon. (There's actually attestation to this visit outside of biblical literature, in Ethiopian literature and elsewhere.) And when she gets there, she discovers that Israel was actually bigger, better, more prosperous and more beautiful, and the people were more joyful. But then after a slow period of decline, Israel's enemies began to encroach on them until finally one of the world powers of that time, Babylon, invaded the capital of Israel, which was Jerusalem. Over a period of about fifteen years, the capital was invaded three times; and each time that it happened, more and more of the capital was sacked. More people were killed. The temple was razed. The last time that Babylon came in, they captured a large number of the people who lived in Jerusalem and took them to Babylon to live there as slaves. That's called the Exile. They lived in Babylon for seventy years as slaves.
Well, eventually another power invaded Babylon and conquered it. It was Persia. And the King of Persia did something peculiar: He found out about the exiles in Babylon, and he said, "You guys can go home." In fact, he sent them with money and protection, and he said, "Go and rebuild the temple. Go and rebuild your city." And he even sent messages to their enemies outlying the area, saying, "Don't mess with them. I want them to rebuild this temple and their city."
Now, think about how long the exiles had been there. What would it have been like to go back after seventy years? This was long enough for a lot of the people to have died and a whole new generation to have been born and brought up. But think of the stories that must have been told. While in the exile, the prophets were speaking God's word to them and saying, "Someday you're going to get to go back. Some day you're going to fulfill the calling that God has given you to be God's people." And they'd been yearning for this and calling for this day after day, year after year.
So eventually they got to go back and they did rebuild the temple and the city. But here's what happened at that time, or rather here's what didn't happen: their expectations were not met. Things didn't turn out how they hoped and dreamed.
Now here's a question: Do any of you know what that's like, to hope for something for a long time, but when it finally comes to fruition it doesn't turn out how you imagined? It could be a job. It could be a marriage. It could be moving here to New York. Or it could be a vocation. You put in all of your hope and effort, but your expectations weren't met. If you've experienced anything like that—and I would guess a lot of us have—you know that it's one of life's worst experiences. When that happens your heart closes off. You say, No, no, no. I'm not going to have any more of that. And you don't want to ever give your heart away to anything else again.
The results of a closed heart
And that's what happened to the Israelites. Chapter 3:10 alludes to a famine that had taken place. So when they got back not only were their expectations not met, but a famine also took place. So now all of a sudden money and resources become scarce. And the book of Malachi is largely about how the people responded to it. They didn't respond well. Now I don't want to be too tough on the Israelites here. That's what happens when something difficult happens. When you put yourself totally on the line, and things don't go well: your heart begins to contract. You don't want to give yourself away to anything. The Israelites began to act in ways that were closed off and selfish.
In chapter 1 we are told that Israel started offering defective animals for sacrifice. In the Israelite sacrificial system, people were supposed to give God their best. A number of places in the Law say, Don't offer an animal with blemish. When you offered an animal without blemish, you were offering the most worthwhile, and the most pure thing you had. You would be saying to God, "This is what I think you're worth." God would ask for the sacrifice, and you would want to give it. But after this time of famine and difficulty, they began to offer defective animals—blind animals, animals that weren't worth as much to trade, animals that had already been killed by predators out in the wild, and so forth.
Chapter 2 says the priests, the professional clergy, weren't teaching the whole truth. By chapter 3 we see the heaviness that was on the people of Israel. Their hearts, which were cold and distant from God and others, could be seen in how they used their money. Jesus said that if you want to know where your heart is, look at where your treasure is. In other words, look at where you spend your money. That applies to all of us—from the richest to the poorest. One of the best barometers to find out what we think is important is to look at our checkbooks. What do you spend your money on? And when Malachi looked in the checkbooks of the Israelites, this is what he saw: In their difficulty and in their disappointment they began to cut corners. The two main places they began to cut corners were caring for the poor and giving to God.
So look at verse 5. First, verse 5 says that there's rampant oppression of the hired worker and his wages. There's oppression of the widow and the fatherless. And the people are thrusting aside the sojourner; they do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts. Secondly, they started relating to God in the same way. They were getting stingy with God as well. Verse 8 says that they were failing to fulfill their financial obligations to the temple. "Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, 'How are we robbing you?' In your tithes and contributions."
When you hear words like "oppressing the hired worker" or "robbing God" it is a perfect opportunity to think, That does not apply to me. I'm not a CEO. I'm not a black-headed villain. I'm not twisting my moustache. I'm not oppressing the hired worker. But in Malachi's day things were financially tight, and those who were having the most difficulty getting along were not being helped—single parent homes, people who were aliens, people who were on the margins, people who weren't able to get enough work. They weren't faring well, and it had to do with the fact that the people around them weren't being generous. All it takes is an ungenerous people to oppress the poor.
The same thing goes for how we rob God. It sounds such a big pronouncement. How am I robbing God? was the very question that the people of Malachi's day were asking. But all that means is that the worship of God was being neglected. And it doesn't take a morally reprehensible person to neglect the worship of God. All it takes is someone who's too busy or who's feeling a little tight financially to say, It's not a good month. I'm not going to give. I'm not even sure if I really need to be there all that much. I'm not sure how much I get out of going to church.
Now this is confession time. It doesn't seem foreign to me that when things are tight, when I'm going through a rough patch to think, I'm not really giving what I should. I know that there are poor people out there. I can't give right now, because things aren't going well for me here.
Does thought process seem reasonable to you? But to that kind of attitude—even if it sounds reasonable and even if it sounds familiar—God says, "You are oppressing my people." When he talks about the poor, God's Word says, "My heart is especially with those who are poor—the widow, the fatherless, and the alien." Those three groups of people comprise anybody on the margins in the Old Testament. God says, "I have put my heart on those people especially, and you're totally neglecting them. You're doing nothing. You were an orphan, and I adopted you. You were slaves in Egypt. You were slaves in Babylon; I brought you back. And you look around and you see orphans and you see those who are being oppressed, and you don't do anything."
It's the same thing when we say, Well, I'm not giving at church. God says, "You are robbing me." I'm not going to talk today about whether or not people like you and me are required to give ten percent. All I'll say is that people in the Old Testament were required to give ten percent. Now that we're on this side of the cross, now that we know all about the death and Resurrection of Jesus and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, I can't imagine we should be giving less than ten percent.
And to that—now I'm talking about the people of Malachi—God's saying, "You are robbing me for not giving me back what is already mine. I'm asking for a portion of it back. And by not giving it to me, by not giving yourselves to me in worship, you're robbing me." Friends, this is a word to us, too. There is so much I'm proud of about what our church has done and what our church is doing in order to serve the poor of this neighborhood. But if we are to be faithful to the call that God gives us here to be generous of spirit, there is so much more that we could be doing for the people that we walk past all the time. I know each one of us has that same thought process: Things are tough for me now. I'm not sure I can really do anything. And we try to put it out of our heads. But you know you're seeing the people that are being talked about in this passage. You see them in the back of the restaurants. You see them on the street. And even if you don't see them, you know that they are living here, people who are just barely making it. And so we think, Let's not talk about it. Let's get to the potluck and let's get home. But God says, "You're oppressing my people, the people that I care about the most."
Now, when we think about worship, sometimes we think: Well, it's not that big of a deal if I'm not going to be there or if I'm not giving. But God has said, "I want you to be there. I want to meet with you." And when I say that this is an indictment, I think of us.
Go back and read chapter 2 of Malachi. It's all about the teachers and the priests and the leaders, and God has a special indictment for them. So if there's any failure in our church, failure to not to serve the poor well, a lot of that falls on David and me as the pastors. The book of Malachi says that all you have to do to be biased against the poor is to not seek them out or care for them. And part of that falls on us. So this isn't just me pointing at you and railing against somebody out there. This is a hard word to all of us.
How the gospel opens closed hearts
Hang on. It gets worse. Remember when I said this text isn't about money? It's really not. And the key to seeing that comes in a careful reading of the very beginning of Malachi 3. It says, "Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me." Do you know who that's talking about? It's talking about John the Baptist and Jesus. There are lots of places that point to this prophecy of John the Baptist coming and paving the way. In Malachi 3 God says, "The Lord, whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight. Behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts." Jesus Christ, God incarnate, came to the temple in order to bring the judgment that's talked about here in Malachi. Many of you know that Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament. It's also chronologically the last book. Therefore it's especially poignant that this prophecy is here, because when you turn the page, you see Jesus fulfilling this prophecy—the Lord coming to bring judgment against people like you and me, who don't take care of the poor, who turn a blind eye to people who are being oppressed, and who don't really care that much about worship.
And look at verse 2: "Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap." Who could stand in the presence of Jesus? The answer is nobody. And I mean that literally. There's a place in John 18 where a retinue of soldiers comes to arrest Jesus. The text says that they have weapons and torches. They have government officials. They have officers. They have priestly leaders. There are only a few people there, but they come with all these weapons and authority. And they come up to him and say, "Are you Jesus of Nazareth?" In the Greek Jesus has a two word reply: "I Am." And when he says, "I Am," the text says that they all get driven back to the ground. Nobody can stand in his presence. So when he comes for judgment, which is what he did, it is a fierce and terrible thing. The story of the judgment that Jesus came to bring was the time he came into Jerusalem. He came like a king, a conquering king. On what? On a steed that nobody had ever ridden before. He came to bring judgment against the people that we're talking about here from Malachi, which is all the people—religious and nonreligious.
Do you remember how he did it? Jesus set up a trial, a trial for all the people of Jerusalem and all the people of the world. And all the witnesses gave damning evidence against themselves. They turned away from the justice and love that God called them to share. They turned toward wickedness, depravity, and their own selfish ways. And the verdict of the trial was this: Everyone was totally guilty, and the sentence was death. So Jesus took everybody outside of the town, including you and me. We went outside of town, and he was carrying a cross on his back. He went up on the cross, and the Bible says that we were all there. And when the sentence was handed down, the penalty was death, and he suffered it. And we were all there. That's the most important thing that's ever happened to you. And you were there! Jesus, the judge, was judged in your place. All of the guilt that you've ever felt (or maybe have felt) about not caring for the poor or not caring about worship fell on him.
Now what does this have to do with generosity? Everything. Look at verse 3 which says, "He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver. And he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver. And they will bring offerings and righteousness to the Lord." See, this text isn't about money, because when Malachi talks about Jesus coming to bring judgment, to bring fire, he's not coming to make sure that people can give more gold or silver. He's coming because the people are gold and silver. He says the sons of Levi are what he's refining. The sons of Levi are the gold and silver. The sons of Levi were the priests, and all over the New Testament we read that now you and I are the priests. God's people are the priests. And so Jesus Christ has not come just so you and I can be generous to other people who don't have money. That's a byproduct of what Jesus has come to do. What Jesus has really come to do is to make you into silver and gold, and that's not just for pastors and leaders. What Jesus wants, what God wants from you is you. He doesn't want your time and volunteering, and he doesn't want you to participate. Those are all good byproducts. What God really wants is you. You are the silver and gold that he wants to spend. This isn't code for "Please give more." It's not code for "Please sign up for one more committee or …." Those things will naturally happen when we discover that God has come to purify us, because we are the gold and the silver that's being talked about in this passage.
We just went through a pretty rough patch in this church financially. In fact, in some ways we're still in that rough patch. But the truth of the matter is that there is a greater poverty in our church, and there has been for quite a while: A poverty of people. A poverty of people giving themselves fully. I'm not saying this to make you feel guilty. You don't need to crouch down in your chairs or pews. There is a poverty of people who don't believe that their time, their efforts, and their hearts are ultimately worth giving. You don't participate in a home group, you don't participate in other people's lives, or you don't get involved or find out what's going on in the lives of the people around you, because ultimately you think, I would just be a bother to other people, or my faith isn't strong at all. I don't even know what I believe. I don't want to be messing anybody else up. Or, you think, I'm not really sure that I have gifts that I can give to anybody at church. I look around and I see there are plenty of people doing a lot of great stuff. I see lots of people, very competent people. I'm just probably bothering people if I get involved.
You can say all those things, but you'd be denying what God says here about what you are: You're infinitely valuable. God has been refining you. If you're refined you're getting burned. That's how gold and silver get refined, they go through fire. And I know that a lot of you have been going through fire. And God says that's what's going to make you valuable. You're calling God a liar if you say this church doesn't really need you on Sunday, if people in your home group don't really need you. You may not think that you are an infinitely valuable part of this church, but I know that you are infinitely valuable, because this text says so.
God's tools to release generosity
Every person here has at least two valuable tools, either with them or available to them, to serve and love the people around them. Those two tools are the Holy Spirit and your own weakness.
First, you can have the Holy Spirit. Anybody here that's a believer in Jesus has the Holy Spirit in them. The Holy Spirit is God himself living inside of you. And the Bible says over and over that he's going to equip you and give you everything you need to do in order to fulfill the tasks that he's given you to do. You have God himself with you. And if you're not a Christian, if you don't know what you believe, then I'm here to tell you that God gives the good gift of the Holy Spirit to anybody who opens their heart to Christ. If you think Ah, I don't have the Holy Spirit, then you've come to the right place. He is here, and he wants to enter into your life. And all you have to do is to ask, to say that what you really need is God's power. Then you can serve and love the people around you and serve our church, because you have the Holy Spirit.
Secondly, we have our weaknesses. No matter whether you're a Christian or not, you have weakness. Now, there are tons of gifted people in here. But what's really going to enable you to serve the people around you is your weakness. And I could go to lots of places in the Bible to prove that point, but I'd first point to the cross of Jesus. At what point in time does Jesus give the most? How does he save the whole world? When he's naked on a cross, physically incapacitated, spiritually suffering and on the precipice of unbelief. You think, Well, I can't serve. I'm really struggling right now. You're describing what was happening to Jesus on the cross. And you think, Well, that's Jesus. No. It's not just Jesus. Some of the greatest gifts that I've ever seen given in this church were given out of utter weakness.
The best example I can think of from this church is Carrie Wong. A lot of you remember Carrie. Carrie was a member of our church from the very beginning, and Carrie was a very gifted women. She went to the University of Chicago. She was bright. She was funny. She served in college ministry for a while. She did a lot of great things, even serving here in this church. But do you know when she really started to serve this church well? It's when she got sick. She was sick the last three or four years of her life with lots of different illnesses, but in the last two years of her life she was diagnosed with brain cancer. And at that point when she became weak, she began to serve us. How did she serve us?
First, she made it very clear that she needed our help. She was not afraid to be weak in front of us. She was not able to speak very well. She was never embarrassed about that. By the end she couldn't do anything at all, and yet this is the point where she began to serve us the most. There are a lot of people here, who are thinking, I don't want people to see the weaknesses that I have. But by doing that you are robbing the people around you of a chance to serve you and, more importantly, you're robbing yourself of a chance to serve them in your weakness. You're waiting to be competent. You're waiting to do something so that everybody would say, "Oh my gosh, that is great what you just did." But the place where Carrie served us the most was when she was the weakest.
Secondly, Carrie suffered really well. She suffered with hope. You see, this text says that when God is refining us, it's going to burn a little bit. And a lot of times, when those difficulties and disappointments come in, we suddenly begin to suffer and it's hard to have hope at that point. But if you and I can suffer with hope, then it is a tremendous gift to the people around us. If we can keep our eyes on the best example of the redemption of a dark situation, which is the Resurrection—if Jesus can be raised from the dead, if God can take the worst thing that ever happened in the world, the death of Jesus, and can raise him up to become the source of our salvation—then he certainly can use your weakness and your suffering.
Suffering is going to come in your life, bad suffering. And in some ways you need to prepare for it. Some of you have encountered it already, and some of you haven't. But that dark time is going to come—disease or sickness or a marriage that turned bad, or friendships that crumble, or a church that's disappointing. When those things come, God is refining us. But we can suffer with hope. That's what you can control. You can respond in hope. And when you and I are able to keep our eyes not on our suffering but on the One who redeems our suffering, then we can begin to react, not with closing our hearts off, not with stinginess, not with a meanness where we think, I'm never going to give myself away again. Instead, we can respond like Jesus did. He gave himself away even when everything seemed to be turning out bad.
So, this sermon is not about money. It's about generosity. It's about having a generous heart. Don't you want a generous, joyful heart? I don't want anybody to walk out of here and think, I feel really guilty. I feel really terrible. I haven't done …. That is not the point of this text. Ultimately, this text should leave us leaping for joy as we leave this place. It should leave us saying, There's nothing that God is going to give to me that isn't going to refine me and make me more like silver and gold. So I can give myself away. I can give more of my money away. I can give more of my time away. I can joyfully do that because I know the One who's refining me.
Vito Aiuto is the minister for the Reformed University Fellowship at New York University in New York City and a member of the music group Welcome Wagon.