A Call To Return

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During the giving review we're having a mini-series on Malachi. It's an easy book to find – the last book of the Old Testament. But it's not necessarily an easy book to dip into. The book was likely given to Israel after they returned from Exile. The people had found the return to Jerusalem hard and not glorious. Malachi speaks to a people disillusioned. Instead of enjoying the rule of a glorious king they found famine and drought. They doubt God's promises. They doubt he's worth obeying. Issues that no doubt we struggle with too. So Malachi reminds Israel, and us, of God's love and calls us to obey him. Let's pray that God would speak to us tonight…

Imagine coming home after church tonight. As you approach the door you see it is slightly ajar. Inside it's all dark. You call out but no one is there. You turn on the light to see it is not as you left it. The television has been taken. Your computer has gone. Your papers rifled through. You call 999 and report a robbery. You sit down. You feel angry. Why? Because someone has taken your possessions. Someone has taken what is yours!

A robbery is the picture God uses to describe how Israel treat him in Malachi. Of course in one sense we can't rob the God who owns everything. Yet still God accuses Israel of taking what is his. We'll come back to that later. But it is all the more remarkable to see the way God treats his people. Instead of finishing them off in judgment, God calls his people to return (6-7). Come with me to verse Malachi 3.6:

"I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever 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.

The Lord does not change. He is a God of grace. That is why he has preserved Israel. Because Israel have not changed either. Since the time of their forefathers Israel has been turning from the Lord's commands. So God calls them to return to Him, that is he calls them to repent. To stop rebelling and submit to him as Lord.
And the command comes with a promise: if they return to him, he will return to them. If they would submit to him, he will restore their battered relationship.

Yet, what is Israel's response? It's the response of a rebellious child who won't acknowledge his disobedience: "But you ask, 'How are we to return?" It's as if to say, "What's the problem. I haven't done anything wrong!"

So God spells it out for Israel in verse 8:

"Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, 'How do we rob you?' "In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse – the whole nation of you – because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house…"

So far all they've done is rob God. How have Israel robbed God? They have failed to give their tithes and offerings. Under the Old Covenant Israel were bound to give a tenth of their income. God calls his people to give (8-10a). The tithe was given as part of the praise they gave the Lord for the good land he had given them.

The Levites received it to support their work in the temple. They gave a tenth to the temple priests.
And every third year the tithe went not only to the Levites but the less well off. God so identified with his temple and its servants to steal from them was to steal from him!

In short, what the Israelites did with their income reflected the true nature of their hearts. Their hearts weren't bound up in the worship of God.

Think of a man who gives a bunch of wilted flowers to his wife. When she receives them he leaves on the reduced price tag on. What might the wife infer from the husbands gift? She is not worth the price of a bunch of flowers. Israel's failure to give to God is even worse. It says he is not worth praise. He is not worthy of their worship.

What we do with our money reflects what we worship. You may not describe yourself as religious but we all worship something or somebody. It's what we place our trust in. It's where we find our joy. Where are hearts are, our cash will follow.

Jonny Depp was in the news this week. Apparently he spent £14.3 million on a 45 metre yacht, £3.2 million on a failed record label, £238,000 a month on his personal staff, £159,000 a month on private planes and £23,800 a month on importing wine.

From his shopping list we get a sense of his priorities, and of what he deems worthy of building his life on. We might not be millionaires but we can so easily put our trust in the wrong places too. Our hearts can be bound up in the worship of other things. Perhaps our possessions, education, work or relationships.

So when God says return to me he's saying return your hearts to me! Israel are to demonstrate their return to God with their wallets and purses. Giving does not bring Israel into relationship with God, rather their giving demonstrates their relationship with God. So it is with believers today. We're saved by God's undeserved kindness, but if our hearts have understood it we'll demonstrate it in our giving.

Believers today are not bound by the Old Covenant: Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9:7 that we're not to give out of compulsion but to give cheerfully. Neither are we bound to giving 10%, we are to give according to our income (1 Cor 16:2) - it may well be more than 10%.

The Israelites had the very opposite of a cheerful heart. What was at the root of their stinginess? They did not think God was worthy of their money. In verse 14 they say, "It is futile to serve God. What do we gain...?" If God wouldn't give them what they wanted, then he wasn't worth their money. But also it seems they don't trust God to provide. Verse 9 tells us they're under a curse for not tithing, and it could well be the Lord was sending drought and pestilence as a result. But they wouldn't learn their lesson. Rather instead it seems that they were using it as an excuse to reduce their giving!

So the question for us is do we use similar excuses to rob God of his glory by withholding what we have from Him? What might that look like? It might look like an attitude that says, "The gospel is fine but it's not really worthy of my cash. I can think of far more exciting things to spend my money on." Or it might look like an attitude that says, "If I give sacrificially then the Lord will fail to provide what I need. He's not great enough to provide for me."

The Israelites were to give to the upkeep of the temple because the temple was where people could meet God. Today Jesus has replaced the temple as the place where people meet God. God's people give to the spread of the good news of Jesus. Giving to the gospel honours God because it trusts God to provide for us and it shows Jesus as worthy of worship.

Currently on BBC2 there is a programme called, 'Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is.' The idea is antiques experts go out and buy objects from flea markets they think are worthy of their cash. If they think an antique is worth it they've got to put their money on it. Malachi calls the Israelites to put their money where they claim their hearts are. It's as if he's saying, if you think the Lord is worthy – show it! A heart that has returned to God is demonstrated with what it does with its money. Worship includes our wallets and purses. That's a challenge for us too: do we put our money where we claim our hearts are?

Not only does God call his people to give, but God calls his people to test (10b-12). Who are they to test? God invites them to test him! Look with me at verse 10:

"Bring 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. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit," says the Lord almighty.'

God says test my faithfulness. If you give, see how I will provide! He promises to provide for Israel by bringing rain resulting in a great harvest. This is not a prosperity gospel of if you give then God will make you rich. The Bible is full of faithful men like Job who none the less encounter trial, Jesus being the ultimate example.

However, the Bible is clear that God provides. Jesus says to us in Matthew 6:33, "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you." He is the one who provides our daily bread!

As God's people give today we shouldn't expect a harvest of wheat in return for giving, rather Paul says in 2 Corinthians 9:10 we receive a harvest of righteousness. Paul uses the picture of a ripe harvest field. This is better than harvest of wheat because it lasts forever! But Paul indicates too that there is some form spiritual benefit now when he says the giver will be 'made rich in every way.' I take it that giving towards the gospel is good for our souls but not for our bank accounts.

But God's promise to Israel does not stop with a bumper harvest, it becomes a super sized promise. Come with me to verse 12:

"Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land," says the Lord.'

If Israel return to God the nations will call them blessed. The nations that look down on them now will reel at the blessing poured out on Israel. But more importantly, Israel will be a delightful land! That is God will take delight in his people like a father delights in his new born child. A picture of God delighting in his people is a picture of cosmic intimacy!

Now the word 'blessing' Malachi uses 3.10 is repeated throughout the Bible. It reminds us of God's promise to Abraham to bless him, make his people great and be blessing to all peoples. All God's promises to bless his people are fulfilled in Jesus. How can God bless law breakers who return to him? Paul says this in Galatians 4:13

'Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on the tree."He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.'

God gave his Son to become a curse so that rebels might inherit a blessing. The Son would be shut out of Jerusalem on a cross so that law breakers might be brought into a land of blessing. This is a God who provides for his people. This is a God that is worthy of our worship!

Ultimately the supersized promise of verse 12 will be fulfilled when Jesus returns and brings his people home to the delightful land of the new creation. And there God will live with his people and delight in them.

Knowing that kind of blessing becomes the ultimate resource for giving. Let me give you an example of man whose heart was changed when he received blessing through Christ. Timothy Hackworth was born in Wylam in 1786. He followed his father's footsteps and became an engineer. While working at the pit he returned to God and God returned to him. He became a member of the local Methodist church and quickly became involved in preaching in local chapels.

His boss insisted he could never take Sundays off so he left the pit to seek employment elsewhere. He wanted to serve on Sundays. Here was a man who sought first the kingdom and trusted his Father to provide what he needed.

The Lord did provide: in the end he became the chief engineer of the Stockton and Darlington Railway Company! He became a railway pioneer. You can still see his locomotive at the National Railway Museum at Shildon (if you're that way inclined!)

Clearly he loved his work, but it seems to me that Christ was the one who really thrilled him. That's who really gripped his heart. It's what he did with time and money that demonstrated who he trusted and worshipped. Around his engineering works he built a model village for his workers and a chapel and Sunday School where they could hear the gospel.

While the chapel was being built he opened up his own home for church meetings! And on top of that he gave his time to preaching on the church circuit and leading a class, a bit the like a home group of its day. He was a busy man, yet poured his time and money into the cause of the gospel.

His life is an example of what happens when men and women return to God. His heart was gripped by Christ, and his time and money followed. And knowing God's provision in Christ enabled him to trust God to provide. Christ not only is the source of our blessing but the ultimate resource for our giving. Instead of finding our security in our possessions we can find our security in the heavenly inheritance Christ has given us. That allows us give cheerfully. Instead of finding our joy investing in our earthly possessions we can invest in the eternal kingdom. That allows us invest cheerfully.

What is it that turns stingy hearts into cheerful hearts? It's experiencing God's gracious blessing in Christ.

Let's close. God calls his rebellious people to return to him and, by demonstrating repentance in giving, be blessed. As verse 6 tells us the Lord does not change. So let us return to him in Christ, and lets give wholeheartedly trusting in him to provide.

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