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“The Servant's Danse”

Malachi 3:6-18
Bob DeGray
October 17, 2004

Key Sentence

God shows himself real to those who honor and serve him.


I. Return to me - Malachi 3:6-7
II. Test me in this - Malachi 3:8-12
III. It is not futile to serve God - Malachi 3:13-18


        This December, on Friday the 17th, we’re going to have a repeat of what has almost become a Christmas tradition, the concert called ‘Medieval Christmas’ by Kemper Crabb and Chris Whittington and their group. I encourage you to put it on your calendar now, because it’s quality stuff and good for the spirit. That’s true of a lot of the music Kemper has written over the last thirty years. One of those songs kept coming to mind as I watched the flow of today’s text. The song is called‘The Danse’, and it pictures our relationship with God, and honoring God and serving God as a dance in which he takes the lead and we follow:

        All creation moves in a cosmic danse; Before the Lord her King;
        And the rhythms, the reason, the rhyme of the danse pulses within everything.
        And the universe wheels and whirls like a dervish in perfect seven-step time
        The Lord made the Danse, He taught her the steps,
        and He causes the songs to shine.

        We must danse, danse, danse, danse in God's honor.
        We must yield all our steps unto the King.
        We must danse, danse, danse, danse in God's honor.
        Let His praises ring throughout the earth

        Adam and Eve dansed in Eden's environs, early in earth's morning air
        They named all the animals musical names, glorious potentiality shared.
        But Lucifer sang out a serpentine song, and offered death's danse as a token.
        And pausing to listen Adam missed his step;
        Earth's harmony in the danse broken.

        We must danse, danse, danse, danse in God's honor.
        We must yield all our steps unto the King.
        We must danse, danse, danse, danse in God's honor.
        Let His praises ring throughout the earth

        Jesus dansed into the world, singing His heavenly song.
        He taught the Danse to those who would listen and learn as He moved along.
        But the steps of His Danse led to a cross,
        where He died while the haters mocked on.
        But He Dansed through death's arms and over Hell's gate
        and in three days dansed forth from His tomb


        The dance is a metaphor for the interaction between God and his people. God faithfully takes the lead in the dance, but in order to receive the benefits of being his people, we need to respond to his lead, otherwise the dance falters. In Malachi 3:6-18 we see this relational back-and-forth between God and his people three or four times, through positive examples where it happens the way it should, as well as through negative examples. And we learn that God shows himself real to those who honor and serve him. This is just as true in the dance of the Christian life today as it was in Old Testament times: God shows himself real to those who honor and serve him.

I. Return to me - Malachi 3:6-7

        Because he is faithful, God always meets us in our repentance. Malachi 3:6-7 "I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. 7Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you," says the Lord Almighty.

        God’s faithfulness, in contrast to human fickleness, is one of the most comforting themes of Scripture. In Malachi several charges have been brought against Israel, including the fact that they’d broken faith in their marriage covenants, and their covenant with God. But despite their sin, God didn’t break faith. In Psalm 89 he says “If they violate my decrees and fail to keep my commands, 32I will punish their sin with the rod, their iniquity with flogging; 33but I will not take my love from them, nor will I ever betray my faithfulness. 34I will not break faith with my covenant or alter what my lips have uttered.” God is faithful: that’s why he won’t quickly destroy sinners.

        And they are sinners. God says “Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them.” They have ‘turned away’. That’s a very accurate description sin - it is turning you back on God by doing what you know is wrong, things which violate his word. Isaiah 59 says “your iniquities have separated you from your God and your sins have hidden his face from you.” Turning away from God into sin results in eternal separation from him.

        But the fact of God’s just judgment for sin does not negate his faithfulness. Even now he says to us what he said to these Israelites “Return to me and I will return to you.” The dance metaphor fits this verse: You’ve probably seen ballet or ice skating where the hero and the heroine separate to the far sides of the stage, then they turn and rush back into each other’s arms. So it is with God: if we return to him he returns to us. The word ‘return’ is Hebrew shuv. It appears over a thousand times, and is often translated ‘repent’ as well as ‘turn’ and ‘return’ and many similar ways. The Theological Dictionary says “The Bible is rich in idioms describing man's responsibility in the process of repentance: "incline your heart unto the Lord your God" (Joshua 24:23); "circumcise yourselves to the Lord" (Jeremiah 4:4); "wash your heart from wickedness" (Jeremiah 4:14); "break up your fallow ground" (Hosea 10:12) and so forth. All these expressions are summarized by this one verb shuv, which combines the two ideas of turning from evil and turning to the good.

        ‘Shuv’ is used twice in Malachi in ways that show it’s great richness. At the end of the book we’ll see that the messenger sent ahead of the Messiah - John the Baptist - will ‘turn’ the hearts of the fathers to their children, and of the children to their fathers. In this usage the action of turning our hearts is done by an outside force, usually God himself. He shoves us into repentance through the work of his Holy Spirit.
But our verse, Malachi 3:7, is even more remarkable: it not only pictures man turning to God in repentance, but God is turning to man to rescue him. The classic picture of that is in the parable of the prodigal son. Yes, the son repented and returned, but it was the father who was out there day after day waiting for him, and when he saw him, he ran to him.

        Benny Hester captures this well in his song “When God Ran”

        Almighty God, Great I Am, Immoveable Rock,
        Omnipotent powerful awesome Lord,
        Victorious Warrior Mighty Conquerer, Commanding King of Kings.

        The day I left home, I knew I'd broken His heart:
        I wondered if things would ever be the same,
        Then one night, I remembered His love for me;
        and down that dusty road, ahead I could see:

        It was the only time, the only time I ever saw Him run
        was when He ran to me, Took me in His arms, held my head to His chest
        And said "My son's come home again".
        Looked in my face, wiped the tears from my eyes
        With forgiveness in His voice He said "Son, do you know I still love you?"

        It caught me by surprise, It dropped me to my knees when God ran.

II. Test me in this - Malachi 3:8-12

        ‘Return to me and I will return to you, says the Lord’. You’d think that alone would break the hearts of these Israelites. But it doesn’t and, as usual, they ask God for specifics, and so he gives them one in verses 8 to 12, one instance of many in which they are not honoring him, fearing him, serving him. Malachi 3:8-12 8"Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. "But you ask, 'How do we rob you?' "In tithes and offerings. 9You are under a curse--the whole nation of you--because you are robbing me. 10Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this," says the Lord Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. 11I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit," says the Lord Almighty. 12"Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land," says the Lord Almighty.

        By focusing on Israel's failure to tithe, or make offerings, God isn’t implying that this was Israel's only sin or one with a status greater than others. But it was a characteristic sin, of a piece with their neglect of God's people, their treachery to their marriage partners, and their willingness to place any old thing on the altar of God: they were willing to cheat God out of what was due Him.

        The verb "to rob", used in the Old Testament only here and in Proverbs 22:23, means to defraud, or take forcibly. The implication is that everything we call ours really belongs to God, and when we don’t allow him to use what is his, we rob him. In the New Testament this truth is seen in the term stewardship. We are not owners of what is ours, we are managers, holding all things in trust for God, and managing things wisely for his benefit, rather than embezzling his stuff into our own accounts.

        So Israel had robbed God of what was his by not giving him the tithe. The tithe, or tenth was a standard set by Abraham in his gift to the priest Melchizedek. Under the law this tenth was "holy to the Lord", set apart for his use. According to most Biblical scholars another tenth was to be given for the benefit of widows, orphans, resident aliens and others in need. Finally, every third year another tenth was to be given to the Levites who resided nearby. If you add that up, the Hebrew tithe was more like 23 percent, not counting additional offerings which were given at the temple voluntarily for some special purpose. God’s people were expected to be giving, and they still are. Sadly, the complaint against the people of Israel here is a complaint that God could well give to his people today - that Christians too are robbing God of what is his. George Barna recently reported that of Christians who claim a personal relationship and commitment to Jesus, only one out of ten even tithe.

        Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe Christians are governed by a law that commands us to give 10 or 23 percent of our earnings to God. But, the practice of tithing does precede the giving of the law of Moses. And the Old Testament, even when not applicable to us as law is given to us as wisdom, so it’s wise to consider the tithe as a possible standard for your giving. And as one scholar has said “If it was appropriate under the law to give a tenth, Christians will want to give no less than a tenth insofar as we have received and known so much more!”

        The New Testament does in fact set a standard for those who are stewards of what God owns. The standard is generosity and liberality and joy in giving. The classic text on this is 2nd Corinthians 8 and 9, where Paul says things like “But just as you excel in everything--in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us--see that you also excel in this grace of giving.” He instructs us to give according to our means: “for if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.” But then he says “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” So there is a standard of joyful generosity and an expectation that God blesses such generosity. Jesus says much the same thing as Paul and Malachi in Luke 6:38 “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

        In Malachi God challenges the people with this truth:“Bring the whole tithe into the store house, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing you will not have room enough for it.” The "storehouse" is the temple treasury, and in a larger sense it’s the place from which all of God's blessings proceed. But there is probably no justification for what some call "storehouse tithing," by which all giving to God's work is channeled through the church. In fact I think your giving budget should include the church, first, but also other good works, charities, missionaries, etc. with some reserved to respond to unexpected needs. Furthermore, we have to recognize that God owns not only our stuff but our selves and so we should practice giving for God’s use not only our money, but our time, energy and hearts. This is ‘the whole tithe’ and it applies here at Trinity: we ask you not just to give from your bank account, but from God’s provisions of time, energy and talent as well.

        God's challenge was to "prove," or to "test, try, or examine" him. He challenges the people of Israel to determine personally if obedience to Him makes a difference. Notice how this fits the metaphor of the dance: God makes the promise, we respond, and God provides as he has promised. If people take up the challenge, God will release "the windows" or "floodgates" of heaven and send an abundance of rains, so that "there will not be room enough to receive it." He promises almost unlimited resources if His people would only put Him to this test. He promises rain, and freedom from pestilence, and therefore an abundant harvest, so that “all the nations will call you blessed, for you will be a delightful land" The promise God had originally given to Abraham in Genesis 12:1_3 will be fulfilled.

        But what does this blessing mean to us? Does it mean that as we give God is obligated to multiply our wealth? No. You’ve heard me before on this prosperity gospel: I’m convinced that any reading of Scripture that makes God a cosmic vending machine held hostage to the quality of our faith is not only wrong, but heretical. But I’m not saying there isn’t blessing. God does bless our gifts of money, time and energy. He just doesn’t necessarily bless them with multiples of money, time or energy. He blesses them with intimacy, with the strength of his Holy Spirit, with delight in his work and in his word, and as Ephesians says “with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” Jesus himself said that we are to store up for ourselves treasures in heaven. We all know, on some level, that material prosperity, while not in itself sinful, is not the key to happiness or godliness. So while God is concerned about our material situation - he made these bodies and he intends for them to be cared for - he will not give us second best by blessing only in the material realm when he could give us first best by blessing us in the spiritual realm to make us more like Jesus.

III. It is not futile to serve God - Malachi 3:13-18

        The final section of today’s text shows that what we really need is to commit to God all of our lives. It says this in response to the assertion by these Israelites that it is futile to serve or honor God. Malachi 3:13-18 “You have said harsh things against me," says the Lord. "Yet you ask, 'What have we said against you?' 14"You have said, 'It is futile to serve God. What did we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? 15But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly the evildoers prosper, and even those who challenge God escape.' " 16Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name. 17"They will be mine," says the Lord Almighty, "in the day when I make up my treasured possession. I will spare them, just as in compassion a man spares his son who serves him. 18And you will again see the distinction between the righteous and the wicked, between those who serve God and those who do not.

        Two answers are given to the question ‘Is it futile to serve God?”, one from the arrogant, skeptical members of Malachi's audience, the other from the believing community. The skeptics had hardened themselves against God’s offer to put him to the test and receive his blessing. They say "The wicked have already put you to the test and shown that you’re a paper tiger.” It obviously does not pay to serve the Lord, or even to honor him by obedience. What difference could anyone point to that resulted from keeping God's ordinances? All service to God was materially and spiritually useless, unsubstantial, unreal, and there was no profit in it. The word "profit" occurs thirty_nine times in the Old Testament as a technical term for the weaver's act of cutting a piece of cloth free from the loom. Thus in Malachi it has the negative connotation of men expecting their "cut" or percentage, as a racketeer or gangster would demand his "cut" for his evil work.

        The skeptics' last charge was that "mourning" yielded no profit either. They had clothed themselves with dark clothing - the word "mourning" comes from the verb "to be dark" - as if to show grief and sorrow for sin or for the plight of the nation, but they saw no benefit in it. Little wonder, for false piety is useless without a right heart attitude. So the skeptics look around and conclude that the proud and arrogant are "most happy", and ‘prosperous’. The wicked could tempt this impotent God and go free; nothing bad ever happened. That accusation is still heard today.

        But in verse 16 we see another group, like a breath of fresh air amidst this skepticism. This is the believing community: at least a few people who still wanted to dance in God’s honor and yield their steps to the king. They had an altogether different attitude: as they talked to each other, their conversations focused on Him. More than that, we are told twice in verse 16 that they feared the Lord. In verse 5 we saw that the sinners in Israel didn’t fear him. But these few remained in awe of him and respected his desires and feared his judgments. They were also distinguished by their mind-set: they ‘thought on his name.’ or ‘meditated on His name’. These believers were "setting their value on, esteeming as their highest prize," the name of the Lord; his person, his qualities, his ethical and moral standards.

        If you asked any of these God_fearers what they judged to be their wealth, their greatest asset, they would point to the name of God and all it stands for. They proved the words of Jesus “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" because they were focused on the name and person of God, and so they honored and served him.

        God, in turn, “listened and heard them." He’s committed to showing himself real to those who choose him. And these people showed it - at least the way I read the text it was these believers who made a solemn commitment to him and wrote their names in ‘a book of remembrance. This was probably something similar to a Persian custom they had observed, of entering into a book all noteworthy acts by individuals in the kingdom. Or it’s like the signers of the declaration of independence pledging their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. And God read the book. He knew that only these few, continued to honor and serve him while so many others scoffed.

        In response He makes some very precious promises. “They will be mine in the day when I make up my treasured possession.” That last phrase literally means that they will be his jewels, his treasure. This is a phrase my wife Gail uses often to describe her affection to our kids, and even to me: ‘you’re my treasure’ - and that’s how God feels about us as his children, as reflected in both the Old and New Testaments. And the first phrase is an even more pervasive promise - “They will be mine” - an echo of the grand Bible theme “you will be my people and I will be your God.” God chooses to dwell with those who turn from sin to him, and who then honor and serve and fear him. And it’s not that they are sinless - Just as in the parable, God says he will show compassion on them the way a father spares his son. The father forgives and blesses the son who fails, yet remains committed to trust and service.

        So when the day comes for God to carry out His plan for judgment and salvation the believing community will be cared for. God will "spare" the righteous believers, but he will punish the wicked. Then the distinction between the righteous and the wicked will be clear. The accusation these people made of God’s injustice and his tolerance of the proud and arrogant will be proven wrong, in the day when Jesus comes to judge. The righteous, the ones who, by faith, fear, honor and serve him will enter into eternal life, but the arrogant, disbelieving and sinful will be judged.

        So what can we take away from this passage? First, that if we are far away from God, we need to humble ourselves and turn to him, to repent, and admit our sin, and accept his free offer of forgiveness through Jesus. ‘You have turned away’ says the Lord. But ‘return to me and I will return to you.’. Second - that our money is a good barometer of our hearts. If we are not willing to call God owner of all that seems to be ours, and to give generously from our income and our assets, then we are robbing God, and our hearts are probably far from him. I’ve printed up some of the verses on stewardship we used a few years ago when we were fund-raising for this building, and I encourage you to take one, to meditate and to act on those verses.

        Third, God does want more than our money - he wants us to fear and to honor him, to give him our hearts and our worship and our service. In that sense, if you are not serving God energetically, you are robbing God. Gods faithful promises are received by you when you turn to him in faith, and then become a steward of all that is really his, serving and honoring him with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.