Sunday, November 17, 2013
I heard about a woman last week who wanted to get her husband tickets to the game between the Denver Broncos and her husband’s beloved Kansas City Chiefs. NFL tickets can be pricey, so she put up her Wedding ring on sale, on EBay. A sacrifice? Yeah but, the Chiefs are 9-0, and they will beat the 8-1 Broncos. She wants her beloved husband to be able to see it. It is worth the sacrifice.
I later discovered, the wedding ring she wanted to sell was from her husband! Not the one who for whom she was going to buy tickets. When the radio talk show hosts discussed this woman’s gesture, they thought it she was selling the ring from her current husband. One of the hosts’ wives called the show. She was so touched that football mattered this much to this family, she offered to pay for their game tickets so the woman could keep the ring and the man could see the game. This wife of the talk show, herself a football wife, understands how important football is and how much people are willing to give up for their team.
Young Mormons sacrifice two years of their lives to travel the world and spread their faith. Shawn Bradley was a top basketball prospect and after his freshman year at Brigham Young University, he was sure to be a first round NBA draft pick, a guaranteed millionaire. He put it off for two years. He traveled and evangelized. His gospel, the Latter Day Saint faith, is one I reject. But, clearly it was important to him.
Young Muslims who get swayed by promises of the most radical sects of their faith give up even more. Mostly poor people, they are lured by promises of Heaven. They believe with such intensity that they tape bombs to themselves and detonate right in the middle of crowds of people they have deemed the enemy. I think this is evil. Absolute evil. But clearly, the person willing to be a suicide bomber takes his faith seriously.
Do we? I don’t think we need to put our lives on hold for a two-year door-to-door stint. God does not call everyone to that. But, do we take the call God does place on us as seriously as Mormons take their faith?
I reject suicide bombings completely. I see nothing in that expression of faith that is good or worth emulating. Do we who follow and worship the Prince of Peace have the same zeal for our God, the true God that extremists and suicide bombers have for their distorted vision of God?
Do follow after the teachings of Jesus as ardently as football fans follow their favorite teams? Does living as a disciple of Jesus matter as much to us as the Chiefs beating the Broncos matters to that fan in the Midwest? If we say yes, it matters that much, then what is the sign that it matters. If someone observed your life or my life, what would that observer see that would lead him to say “oh, that is obviously a follower of Jesus?”
For affluent people or people in a context where Christianity is the cultural norm faith can become lukewarm. And this is deadly. Affluent people see what their money can get for them. They see how their privileged position in society gives advantages. The benefits of worshiping God are not as obvious. It is not clear why we should live in dependence on God and in obedience to God. Faith is relegated to the margins of our lives. We don’t stop believing. We do stop thinking that faith matters very much. We certainly would not give other things up for the sake of worship and ministry.
The 5th century BC prophet Malachi faced such a state of affairs. ‘Malachi’ literally means messenger and this ancient God-worshiper was commissioned with a pointed, confrontational message for the people God.
Malachi does not primarily deal with politics. He doesn’t talk about monarchy. He lives after foreign invaders have toppled Israel and Judah’s kings. The people have returned from exile and live under a governor who is appointed by Persia. War and politics are not issues. Malachi’s issue is a faith gone stale in a world where God’s people see the powers around them more than they trust in the power of God.
Are we prone to suffering from a similarly limited vision? Do money, secularism, consumerism, entertainment, and a thirst for material things all cast shadows that prevent us from seeing God or seeing how import God is in life?
In Malachi, God is the speaker and God begins establishing what is at stake. Verse 2 – “Israel, I, the Lord, have loved you.” God recounts how Israel was chosen and protected. “But,” God says, “You embarrass me by offering worthless food on my altar. … Isn’t it wrong to offer animals that are blind, crippled, or sick? Just try giving those animals to your governor” (1:7a, 8).
Worship in ancient times involved a system of offering animal sacrifices as burnt offerings. This was established by Moses and the animals were to be the best of the flock, the first born and unblemished. Worship in Malachi’s day had degenerated to the point that if people bothered to offer anything at all, it was the runt of the litter, the lame of the flock.
An analogy for today might be us saying in worship after we’ve paid our bills and after we’ve paid our taxes and after we’ve set aside money for retirement and for vacation, then, if there is anything left, we’ll put a little bit of it in the collect plate at church on Sunday. Malachi called out the people and especially the priests. They all knew they wouldn’t dare cheat the governor’s collection on taxes. There would be painful consequences for that.
We would not think of holding back our taxes or skipping out on our bills. We would suffer for doing so. Do we see how holding back in our worship causes injury to our relationship with God? Someone might respond, when I sing, I worship my heart out. Malachi responds back, fine, sing your heart out. When God gets the left overs of your money or your time or your energy, then God sees the place you are giving Him in your life.
I heard the story about the woman who wanted to sell her wedding ring for football tickets on a sports talk radio show. One of the hosts professes to be a Catholic. Catholics, like Baptist, worship Jesus Christ. He is Lord for Catholics, which means Jesus is master over every area of life.
This radio show host, every once in a while, mentions he is Catholic and that it is important to him to be Catholic. He never mentions Jesus. His views on money do not suggest that he gives Jesus’ teaching any thought on that topic. He often regales the audience with tales of heavy drinking, intoxication, and vile language. He expresses his love for movies a Catholic priest would definitely not condone. He is ignorant of the most basic Biblical stories, like wise men bringing gifts to Jesus. In fact nothing in his speech or values would lead a listener to think that he follows Jesus. Yet he would say being Catholic matter to him. In what way?
If someone looked into my life or yours, would they think following Jesus matters to us? I am not saying we have to have it all together. We don’t. I am not saying we must be perfect. We can’t. The leading saints in the Bible messed up. I am not saying one major fail or epic relapse dooms us. But I am asking, and I am asking this of myself and each of us. If another person just examined our lives, would they conclude from our choices that following Jesus matters more to us than anything?
God’s response to a lackadaisical, half-hearted approach to worship comes in Malachi 1:10. “I wish someone would lock the doors of my temple, so you would stop wasting time, building fires on my altar. I am not pleased with you priests and I refuse to accept any more of your offerings.” People who spend their lives studying the Old Testament will tell us that God’s highest purpose for humanity is worship. It is in worship that we relate to God. We are created for the purpose of relationship with God. More than anything else, the reason you and I exist is to relate to God.
Our relating to God begins when we gather as his people, his church, and together, we worship him. What we do here on Sunday mornings matters more than anything else we can imagine. It matters to God. God knows where our hearts are in it. God knows when we go through the motions. God delights in our heart-felt worship. God vomits out worship and offerings that are given begrudgingly.
I wish someone would lock the doors of my temple. I refuse to accept any more of your offerings.
I imagine the prophet day after day in the temple courts, debating with priests. I can see the priests wanting to plug their ears. They have to deal with the reality that they serve at the pleasure of a pagan foreigner, the emperor of Persia. There are foreign powers all around, they are powerless, and now this annoying prophet badgers them to be more faithful to the God of Moses and the God of David. Well, centuries have passed and whatever God did for Moses and David is not being done now. So the prophet comes and argues and they argue back. Or maybe they blow him off. This happens for a time.
Someone is watching and writing it down. A poet captures the spirit of these disputes. Instead of the prophet’s name, the poet simply calls him “Messenger,” “Malachi.” The poet writes it all down because he can see who truly believes in the power of God; not the priests, the ones who are supposed to testify to God’s reality. It is this prophet.
Through him, God says, “From dawn until dusk, my name is praised by every nation on this earth, as they burn incense and offer proper sacrifices to me” (1:11). People who are not the Chosen People; people who do not have the benefit of prophets and a heritage of Abraham and Moses; somehow people all over instinctively know to give their hearts to God. Through Malachi God says, “I am the great King, the Lord All-Powerful, and I am worshiped by nations everywhere.” But the priests arguing with Malachi, representing those who have received the revelation of God have now slipped into a ho-hum faith.
I fear American Christians are constantly in danger of a ho-hum faith.
But, I see signs that many in our church are motivated by a desire to worship and serve God. Three recent examples stand out for me. We had an event, the Fall Festival. It was planned by our associate pastor Heather. One of her great joys was that all the volunteer stations were filled pretty quickly. Does that seem small, people volunteering to run a bounce house for two hours? Is that really a sign that faith is alive? There are many ways someone can spend a Saturday morning. We had about 20 volunteers who decided they believed God was working through the Fall Festival and they valued God’s work enough that they wanted to be part of it.
A second sign is similar to the first. Heather is planning a major Christmas event – the Bethlehem village. On Thursday of this week, in her office, she let out a triumphant shout. Why? Again, people in our church are deeming that this event is God at work and they want to be part of it.
Of course volunteering is not something to be done in place of worship but along with whole-hearted, fully-energized worship. Worship is not done in place of tithing. Tithing is one expression of worship and when worship matters to us, we give ourselves to all aspects of it.
A third encouraging sign for me came this week. My wife Candy is leading a campaign for Children’s Hope Chest to raise funds for the medical care for the kids at the care point our church supports in Ethiopia. Candy gasped as she was tracking the gifts that came in. Someone made a 4-figure contribution. I asked if that gift came from here and she said, “Yes.” I said, “Don’t tell me anymore.”
The generosity is greatly appreciated, but the point is not for me to know who did what. All I need to know is I am a part of a church where there are people whose faith is seen in their actions. Gifts given joyfully and sacrificially are received by God. The relationship that worshiper has with God is deepened as that person, that volunteer, that singer, that tither trusts God and cares about worship more than anything else. The reward is the very real sense of God’s presence every day of life.
Is that reward enough? Does God matter that much?
I am reading a book of essays by African American theologians. One talks about the invisible institution – the church of the slaves in pre-civil war America. Slaves either had to attend churches run by their white masters or they were not permitted to worship at all. Teaching slaves to read was strictly forbidden. So, no Bible reading.
And yet, secretly, a few slaves did learn to read. They would sneak away from the slave quarters, late at night, and have church services, far back in the forests where the white people could not see or hear them. What did they risk? If they were caught, they could be whipped, sold, or even killed. Worship mattered that much. They realized that their life was in God and apart from God nothing mattered. They were willing to risk everything just to worship Him in Jesus name and hear the stories of His salvation.[i]
I know some among us recognize how valuable our walk with God is. Each of us this week should spend time wrestling with the question. Does my faith matter? If I say yes, what are the signs? How would someone who takes note of my life know that Jesus is more to me than anything else?
Let this be the question that troubles each of us in the week ahead.
[i] Dwight n. Hopkins (2003), “Slave Theology in the Invisible Institution” in African American Religious Though: An Anthology (edited by Cornel West and Eddie S. Glaude Jr), Chapter 34.