Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Twelve of the Twelve - Malachi and casual worship.

My friend Abe is probably tired of me ripping him off, but I have to tell this story since I'm writing about Malachi. One day, Abe tells me he can sum up the whole book in four words.

"What are they?" I ask.

He waits a moment for dramatic effect and says, "Don't F*** With God."

We laughed for a solid minute. Giggling. Seriously.

Of the three post-exile prophets, Malachi offers more of a punch in the mouth than a pat on the back. He began his ministry after the death of Nehemiah, Judah's reforming and God-fearing governor. It would seem that the hearts of the people had again grown apathetic, proud, and selfish. The first line of Malachi's prophecy sounds like one of the encouraging words of his contemporaries. "'I love you,' says the Lord." The next line calls the people out on their proud hearts. "But you ask, 'How do you show us your love?'"

This is an important theme in Malachi. God reveals an aspect of His perfect and unchanging character and rebuts the arrogant questions of the people. Like Job, the people have no response. The writer intends for the reader to understand this: God is perfect.

Every believer, including me, you, and your pastor, we've all questioned God in some way by asking, "Do you really know what's best?" I can say that we ask this question with confidence because it lies at the heart of every sin. When we question God's perfection - His perfect love, goodness, justice - we begin to listen to the lie that we know better.

Some food in the temple was considered holy, special and set apart. The priests thought to themselves, "Well, it's all food. We can offer whatever and that should please God." God responds in Malachi 1:6-7, "'A son honors his father and a servant his master, But if I'm a father, where is the honor due me? And if I'm a master, where is the respect due me?' says the Lord of Hosts to you priests who despise my name. You ask, 'How are we despising your name?' By saying that the table of the Lord doesn't deserve respect." The priests at the time ignored God's command to only sacrifice healthy, spotless lambs. They thought it was acceptable for them to offer blind, sick, and lame animals. God cuts through any possible excuse saying in verse 8, "Try offering such an animal to your governor, and see if he will be pleased with you! Would he even receive you?"

It's been fourteen years since I've been in a real fight. Maybe you wouldn't call it a real fight, but it was the last time I actually struck somebody. In 8th grade, I beat up a kid in gym class because he made a remark about my brother going to jail. It was for something minor and he was only in there for a couple of days, but I was heartbroken that week. I loved my brother even though he made a bad choice. So I lost my temper in the middle of class and knocked the kid to the floor. Then he said something that still amazes me. He sat up hugging the stomach I'd just kicked and asked with total sincerity, "What did you do that for?"

In Malachi 2:13-14, the people hug their own stomachs after the beatdown in chapter 1. "Here is something else you do: you cover the Lord's alter with tears, with weeping and with sighing, because He no longer looks at the offering or receives your gift with favor. Nevertheless, you ask, 'Why is this?'"

Here are some sins Malachi addresses throughout the book: giving pathetic offerings (1:7-8), complaining about the "ritual" of worship (1:13), needless divorce (2:14), diminishing the seriousness of sin (2:17), and denying God's goodness (1:2, 3:13-15). Last night, my fiance and I met with a couple for dinner. While we talked, I casually flipped through the Archeological Study Bible and read the introduction to Malachi. The writers noted how the prophet didn't talk about gross idol worship like the pre-exile prophets. Judah hadn't taken on foreign gods like Baal again. Instead, they had given themselves over to a lame form of orthodoxy. They went through the motions. They went to church. They tossed a few dollar bills into the offering (you know, if they had cash in their wallet that morning). They lived as if God didn't care about their day to day lives.

In 3:14-15, the people said, "There is no point in serving God. What good is it to obey His orders or to walk about as mourners before the Lord of Hosts? We consider the arrogant happy; also evildoers prosper; they put God to the test; nevertheless, they escape." I have heard people in the church say similar things. It's easy to look at the world around us and wonder why the wicked have more fun. So maybe, they thought, it's not a big deal if I party like everyone else. Maybe it's okay if I take advantage of a few gray areas at work. Maybe it's okay to justify my flirting because of my wife/husband's lousy attitude. I don't have to give anything to the church. Jesus still loves me. I still pray. I'll go to heaven without having to give up my life or happiness. Right?

If all of that were so harmless, then why does God sound so pissed? Why does He want us to know He won't be effed with? Because He's holy and perfect. He deserves everything. The people of Judah were only giving God their Sabbath and holidays, not their hearts, not their lives. If you think I'm overreacting, read 2:2-3, "'If you won't listen, if you won't pay attention to honoring my name,' says the Lord of Hosts, 'then I will send the curse on you; I will turn your blessings into curses. Yes, I will curse them, because you pay no attention. I will reject your seed; I will throw dung in your faces, the dung from your festival offerings; and you will be carted off with it.'"

Every one of us, to some degree, has casually sinned in these ways. We don't always fear God and show Him the respect He deserves. If this is enough to suffer a curse and a mouthful of manure, then where can one find any hope? Malachi gives this message from God in 3:16-18, "Then those who feared the Lord spoke together; and the Lord listened and heard. A record book was written in His presence for those who feared the Lord and had respect for His name. 'They will be mine,' says the Lord of Hosts, 'on the day when I compose my own special treasure. I will spare them as a man spares his own son who serves him. Then once again you will see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between the person who serves God and one that doesn't serve Him.'"

Our hope is found in Jesus, the son of God. Scripture tells us in Galatians how those who accept Jesus die to their old selves and are raised in Him. We are hidden in Christ. When God looks at the heart of a believer, He sees Jesus, and He spares us. In this passage, we also see a promise of a day where we will see who prospers more, the righteous or the wicked. The people of Judah may not have served Baal, but they served other idols. They were idols of money, romantic fantasies (I'm looking at you, Meg Ryan), and comfort. Ultimately, the people of Judah worshiped themselves. They thought they knew best, just as Adam and Eve thought they could be like God. It's only when we give up our lives, offer all that we have and all we are to Jesus, that we will find true life. I wouldn't want to give anything less to the God who created everything.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Eleven of the Twelve - Zechariah and the attitude of a shepherd.

Since the beginning of this series on the minor prophets, I wanted to explain the main theme of each book and point out where the prophecies look forward to Jesus. In Zechariah, the two goals seem to become one. The book opens with an exhortation. "The Lord was extremely angry with your ancestors. Therefore, tell them that the Lord of Hosts says this: '"Return to me," says the Lord of Hosts, "and I will return to you," says the Lord of Hosts. "Don't be like your ancestors. The earlier prophets proclaimed to them, 'The Lord of Hosts says to turn back now from your evil ways and deeds'; but they didn't listen or pay attention to me," says the Lord.

Zechariah, like Haggai, prophesied to God's people after their return from exile. They are the kinder of the minor prophets. Where the others proclaimed God's coming wrath for sin, Zechariah and Haggai offer a different tone. God's justice is perfect, but He is also deeply in love with those He chose as His own. Zechariah sees a picture of men riding over the whole world to report on its affairs to God. When the men report the world as "quiet and at peace", the angel speaking with Zechariah prays, "Lord of Hosts, how long will you keep withholding mercy from Jerusalem and the cities of Judah? You've been angry with them for the past seventy years!" God replies, "I am extremely jealous on behalf of Jerusalem and Zion; and to the same degree I am extremely angry with the nations that are so self-satisfied; because I was only a little angry at Jerusalem and Zion, but they made the suffering worse." God goes on to promise the restoration of the Temple and all of Jerusalem.

See, God sounded pissed during all those years at the time of the earlier prophets, but it was more like "Dad Voice". He expected the other nations to continue in wickedness like one might expect the trouble-making neighbor kids to egg your house. But if any of you parents were to learn that your kids were involved in the vandalism, you might have an idea of what God felt.

It's true that Zechariah speaks to the inhabitants of Jerusalem regarding immediate issues, but I might sound redundant if I focused on that part of his message. Where Haggai spoke of an attitude of poverty, Zechariah seems to address the spirit of poverty in the heart. For example, in chapter 8, God promises a beautiful restoration of Jerusalem. There's peace there, families, and joy. In verse 6, God dismisses the circumstances. "This may seem amazing to the survivors in those days, but must it also seem amazing to me?"

More than anything, though, I see Zechariah talking about the coming Messiah. Here we read the prophecies foretelling Jesus' entry into Jerusalem on a donkey (9:9), Judas' price in betraying Jesus and what he did with the money (11:12-13), His being a firstborn son killed in public (12:10), His followers abandoning Him at His arrest (13:7), and His triumphal return when one day He comes again to rule (14:4-9). Jesus seems to be everywhere I look in this book. If not in outright prophecy, Zechariah at least describes the attitude of Jesus.

In my first few times through the book, I stumbled over Zechariah's use of the word "shepherd". I knew that they symbolized the leaders of Judah, but there seemed to be two different kinds of shepherds. At times, God is pissed at the shepherds and wants to punish them. Other passages talk of a good shepherd. In 10:3, God says, "'My anger burns against the shepherds, and I will vent it on the leaders of the flock.' For The Lord of Hosts will care for His flock, the people of Judah; He will make them like His royal war-horse." But a subtle change takes place in this verse. The leaders of Israel often had a reputation for ignoring God's law, the message of the prophets, and the suffering of the people. Nehemiah had to correct the nobles of oppressive usury in Nehemiah 5. The second half of Zechariah 10:3 takes the responsibility of Judah's care off of its leaders and onto God Himself.

The prophet further explains this change of responsibility in chapter 11. God tells of ridding Judah from three shepherds in a single month. I can't say for sure, but it sounds to me like a reference to Josiah's three sons, the last three kings of Judah. Here, the flock is "handed over to the power of a neighbor and to the power of his king." At the end of chapter 11, God promises to raise up one more cruel and careless shepherd before punishing him as well.

Chapter 12 tells of God rescuing Jerusalem from calamity. An interesting change in attitude happens here. God says in 12:6, "When that day comes, I will make the leaders of Judah like a blazing fire pan in a pile of wood, like a fiery torch among sheaves of grain; they will devour all the surrounding peoples, on the right and on the left. Jerusalem will be inhabited in her own place, Jerusalem." Here, finally, the leaders would find themselves in their proper place. They would operate in God's power and follow His direction.

In the gospels, Jesus referred to Himself as the Good Shepherd. This claim makes sense of Zechariah 13:7. "Awake, sword, against my shepherd, against the man who is close to me." This is the one time that God claims a shepherd as His own. He had already pledged to take responsibility for the flock. His shepherd is Jesus, who became a man, and stayed close to the God the Father. He now acts as king, now in the church and in the future over everything. He is our high priest, praying for us and offering us salvation through his death and resurrection.

Good leadership, those who shepherd the flock under Him, must follow His lead. Jesus said in John 5:19, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner." Like Jesus, the Good Shepherd, we can know what God wants through scripture and the revelation of the Holy Spirit. For any of us who lead to any degree, whether in a political office, church responsibility, or as the head of a household, we must have this attitude. Instead of the worthless shepherds condemned in Zechariah, who sought personal gain and prominence, we need to humbly submit ourselves to God and seek His direction.

This sounds like a simple ending, but it comes with a challenge. When making a decision (and I don't mean something like "do I take another sip of coffee or not?"), stop to pray and ask the Holy Spirit to give you guidance. If the Bible instructs something contrary to the way you have always done things, decide if you are going to pattern your life after scripture. In our own power, apart from God's wisdom and direction, we are doomed. Without Him, we can make no good decision.