|HOW SHALL WE RETURN?
Series: Questions People Ask - Part Five
Pastor Stephen Muncherian
March 17, 2002
Please turn with me to the Book of Malachi chapter three. This morning we’re continuing on in our series of messages from the Book of Malachi which we’ve entitled, “Questions People Ask.”
This past Monday - in Venice, Florida - Rudi Dekkers of Huffman Aviation was going through his mail and found a letter from the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Six months to the date after September 11th, Rudi Dekkers received notification from the INS that Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi had been given student visas which would allow them to been trained as pilots. Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi were the terrorist pilots who flew the planes into the World Trade Center.
Dekkers said he was surprised to get the forms. The INS had a different reaction which included embarrassment - a lot of finger pointing - and a review of what went wrong. Ultimately - the workers at the INS were doing their job - doing what they were supposed to do. Yet, they failed.
This morning we’re going to look at our fifth question that people ask. This question comes from God’s people who thought they were doing all the right things and yet God says that they were failing in their relationship with Him.
If you’re with me in Malachi 3 - look with me at Malachi 3:7: “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 - here’s question - But you say, ‘How shall we return?’”
In order to understand the question, it’s important for us to see that God’s people didn’t realize that they had left God. According to them they were doing all the right things - they believed in God - they were going up to the Temple and to all the services - offering sacrifices - making donations. So, when God says, “Return” they said, “How? How can we return if we’ve never left?” Put another way, “What’s wrong with just being sincere in our faith and work for God?”
So many Christians today are asking the same question. Because they don’t realize that they’ve left God. The call to return is met with disbelief - skepticism - sometimes even anger.
Charles DeMirjian - in the AEUNA Forum - writes about BMW Christians. With apologies to the ultimate driving machine Charles identifies BMW Christians as those who come to church for Baptisms, Memorials, and Weddings - BMW. Something like “CE” church-goers who come at Christmas and Easter. People doing religiously what they know how to do.
We grow up in Christian homes - going to Sunday School - going to church - living morally upright clean Christ centered religious lives - serving in the church - contributing financially - bringing our own children to Sunday School. In our CACC Bylaws there’s a list of 8 requirements for members in this church which most dutifully fulfill.
All of these things are not wrong. They have their place and their value. But, we can do all these things and still miss the heart of God’s call to His people to live in a personal blessed relationship with Him.
Dr. J. Vernon McGee in his commentary on Malachi writes this, “Ritualism has been substituted for reality. Pageantry has been substituted for power. The aesthetic has been substituted for the spiritual, and form for feeling. Even in the orthodox, conservative, and evangelical circle, they know the vocabulary, but the power of God is gone.”
Which is a danger we face. To be living - comfortable in our Christian religious experience - and not realize that we have moved away from God.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus speaks of a son who takes his inheritance, leaves his father, and wastes this tremendous inheritance on activities which surely displeased his father. When the son hits bottom - alone in the ceremonially and physically unclean world of swine - the son comes to his senses - and decides to return to his father. He changes his mind about the direction he had taken his life.
We know this parable. When the son returns - he has been and still is the son of his father - and the father welcomes him with open arms. (Luke 15:11-32)
To return - means to repent. The Greek word “metanoia” “abashkharouteun” literally means “to change your mind.” It means to be walking in a direction, find out you’re going in the wrong direction, and then turn 180º around and head in the opposite direction.
That’s what God is saying to His people, “You need to change how you’re thinking about our relationship. You may be doing all the right religious things. But, you’re failing in your relationship with Me. Return to Me.”
To put this practically God gives His people - and us - an illustration about what He’s talking about. Look with me at verses 8 and 9. God asks, “Will a man rob God?" Is it really possible that finite man could steal from the Almighty God who possesses all of creation? “Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me! But you say, ‘How have we robbed You?’ In tithes and offerings. You are cursed with a curse - you’re missing out on My blessings - for you are robbing Me, the whole nation of you!”
It’s possible to “rob” - to steal - not only by taking something from someone - but also - in this illustration - by holding onto something that belongs to someone else. In this case the tithe that was owed to God was not being paid. It’s possible to rob God when we don’t give Him what is His due.
There are a number of observations that we could make about tithing - the whole teaching about 10% and the comparison of the Old Testament requirements and the New Testaments teachings about giving. But, setting all that aside, the bottom line of why God uses this illustration is because tithing is a physical demonstration of the direction of our hearts. Tithing demonstrates the direction our heart is pointed - away from God or towards God.
God telling His people, “You’re robbing Me” is how God points to what is seriously wrong in the hearts of His people.
In Mark 10 there’s an account of a rich young aristocrat who comes and kneels before Jesus. He’s very wealthy - a powerful man of great influence - probably a member of some ruling council.
This wealthy aristocrat has been listening to Jesus’ teaching and he senses that there’s something he doesn’t possess - something that Jesus offers. As Jesus is leaving, the man runs up, kneels at Jesus’ feet and asks the question, “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus answers Him, “You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not cheat, honor your father and mother.” In other words, “What has God said to you? Have you obeyed?”
Without hesitation the young man says, “Teacher, I’ve done all these things from my youth up.” Here’s an open-hearted, morally excellent, sincere, religious young man. Since the point in a young Jewish boys life when he became responsible to obey God, he’s kept the commandments. Don’t miss this. He’s done all the religious things he suppose to do - all the right things - and yet he was failing in his relationship with God.
Jesus has compassion on him. Jesus tells him, “Then the one thing you need to do is sell everything you possess, give all your money to the poor, and come follow me.” We know what happened. The young man goes away sad because he was really rich.
Just like God in Malachi - Jesus pierces to the heart of the matter. This man - with all his acts of religion - had glimpsed a quality of life that he lacked and he wanted it. He believed with all His heart that Jesus had the answer to the emptiness within his spirit. But he was sorrowful, because he also knew, at the words of Jesus, that he had to surrender everything, to repent of everything he controlled his life with, and turn towards following after God on God’s terms and not his.
Jesus looks around and says to His disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God” Not because they’re wealthy. But, because wealth - how we view it - use it - abuse it - tithe it or withhold it - represents self-control over our lives - demonstrates the direction our heart is pointed - away from God or towards God.
Even the disciples struggled with this. In Mark 10, Peter - listening to this conversation between Jesus and this young man - Peter says to Jesus, “We’ve left everything to follow you!” In other words, “See, Jesus, we’ve taken the vow of poverty. We’ve given up everything and followed you.” Their claim is to servanthood by acts of righteousness and poverty. But they demonstrate that their hearts are still focused on themselves.
Jesus rebukes them with a reminder - that no matter how surrendered they may think they are - pride and control still reign in their hearts. Despite their following Him the reality is that even the disciples have still not repented and surrendered their lives to God. (Mark 10:17-45)
These are hard words to hear. They wound our pride. God saying to His people, “Return to Me.”
The Apostle Paul - writing to the church in Thessalonica - in 1 Thessalonians 1:9 Paul commends the church because they have, “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God.”
An idol is anything or anyone that occupies a greater place in our heart than God. Religion - the things of God - the things we do for God - coming to God on our terms and not His - no matter how morally upright and “Christian” we may be - it’s idolatry if God is not first in our lives.
Notice how Paul writes this: “you turned to God from idols.”
So many have this backwards. They’re trying to turn from idols to God. They’re trying to turn their lives around - trying to change their hearts - trying to live the Christian life. That only leads to trying to do a religious duty for God - faith as an obligation - religious idolatry - failure in our relationship with God.
Take a look at the palm of your hand. Now turn your palm away from you. The back of your hand turns with it. When we turn to God from our idolatry the rest of our lives follow. We live moving towards God rather than away from Him.
Returning to God - repentance - means receiving what God has already chosen to do for us in Jesus Christ - to turn towards His offer of victory over sin and death - the life that He freely gives us - turning from living the Christian life focused on doing things by our power and understanding to allowing God to live out His life in us.
In Malachi 3:10 God goes on with His answer. Verses 10-12 contain blessings for God’s people who have turned to Him. Verse 10: “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this,” says the Lord of hosts, “if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows. Then I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of the ground; nor will your vine in the field cast its grapes,” says the Lord of hosts. “All the nations will call you blessed, for you shall be a delightful land,” says the Lord of hosts.
A couple years ago I heard Frank Pastore - a believer in Jesus Christ who used to pitch with the Cincinnati Reds - I heard Frank Pastore talk about a trip he took with his son to Disneyworld - out in Orlando, Florida. How many of you have been to Disneyworld? How about Disneyland? I’m told its the same set-up.
When you finally get to the main gate there are ticket booths - then turnstiles - finally you get into this open area just inside the gate. As you come through the main gate, right in front of you is this hill with a large picture of Mickey Mouse made out of flowers. Above that is the Main Street train station. Then there are little shops with souvenirs and balloons and sometimes Disney characters walking around. Then - finally - on each side of the entrance are these two tunnels that lead under the train tracks into Disneyland.
Frank was saying that for weeks they’d been building up this trip to Disneyworld - talking about Mickey Mouse and the rides and all the fun they we’re going to have. Finally, after all this build up they got there - went through the gates and arrived at this entrance area. His son was in awe - absolutely overcome by what he saw. Mickey! Train! Balloons! So they stood there for a minute and then Frank said, “Let’s go!” Let’s go through the tunnels.
And the son started screaming. “What do you mean let’s go? We just got here. Look, Mickey, train, balloons. Why are we leaving?”
Frank had to literally drag his son - kicking and screaming - into Disneyworld. Imagine this - a child being forced to go into Disneyworld. Finally, when the son got to Main Street and saw Disneyworld - not just the entrance - he calmed down - he understood.
So many Christians have some understanding and experience with God - salvation - a Christian lifestyle - the church and her traditions. But, its like they only see the entrance - not the whole Kingdom of God - all that God offers us and wants to bless us with. There’s so much more that we miss because we’re content with the basic things - the first things - focused on doing things they way we understand them - and not going on to the deeper things that God has for us.
God says to His people, “Please, stop trying to do it on your own. If you return to Me I will lead you in a relationship with Me and pour out My blessings on you in ways you can’t even begin to imagine and never could experience on your own.”
This morning you may be here - and what you’ve heard today may even make you feel angry. God’s people in Malachi’s day didn’t like what they heard. These are hard words to hear. Especially if we’ve been living within our understanding and traditions of what God wants. But, in love, God is honest with His people - with us. We can’t do this on our own. We can’t live the Christian life our way. The way to know His blessings - the true reality of life in Jesus Christ - is to turn our hearts - and so our lives - over to Him and let Him lead however and wherever He chooses to do so.
_______________________Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture taken from the New American Standard Bible®, © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.