Returning to God

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In his article: 'Nine Marks of a Prosperity Gospel Church', David Horton writes about how prosperity gospel teachers motivate their church members to give financially.

He writes this:

"Isolated Old Testament passages are often used as examples of God's abundant reward for faith giving. One passage often used to manipulate hearers into giving more is Malachi 3:10."

That's our passage for today!

He goes on:

"Prosperity teachers highlight two points from this passage. First, they tell hearers they are robbing God by not tithing."

That's taken from Malachi 3:8

"Second, they assure hearers that God wants them to test him by giving more, so that he can give them more."

That's taken from verse 10.

And I could add a third point in from verse 9 – they warn us we will be cursed by God if we don't give enough. That would be prosperity gospel point three.

It's uncomfortable hearing this, isn't it? Not least because that's what Malachi 3 seems to be saying to us today – and yet we feel instinctively it can't be saying that. So we often avoid sections of the Bible like Malachi 3 and stick to safer more familiar ground. Well, brothers and sisters, the solution is not to ignore Malachi 3, but to understand it correctly. So let's pray for God's help to understand and apply this passage of the Bible correctly!

Father, please help us to listen to your Word carefully, relate to you wholeheartedly and use our finances rightly. In Jesus' name, Amen.

1. Relationship Stalemate! (v.6-7a)

So let's look at four scenes from Malachi 3. Scene one is relationship stalemate!

From the general context of Malachi, the relationship between God and his people in Malachi's day was that of an unhappy marriage. In chapter 1, we see that God's people were doubting God's love for them and so they had become half-hearted in their service of him. In chapter 2, we learn that their religious leaders were teaching error. People's marriages were being torn apart by unfaithfulness. And as they reaped the consequences for their disobedience to God, they thought that God was treating them totally unfairly while he let evil people around them prosper.

God's people were spiritually not a pretty picture. They were cynical. Disengaged. Hard-hearted. Fed-up with God. Whose fault was this situation?

"For I the Lord do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them."

The contrast is stark. You have God who is unchangingly patient, and God's people who are unchangingly disobedient. And because stubbornness on one side, the relationship has reached stalemate. The peace-talks are stuck.

So let me ask you today. Has your relationship with God gone stale? Bitter? Cool? Apathetic? Are you stuck in a downward spiral of half-heartedness? If you're in that situation – as sadly we all are sometimes – it's not a surprise that we are reluctant to give financially to God's work.

What's the way forward to break the relationship stalemate?

2. Probing Dialogue! (v.7b-9)

Scene two is a probing dialogue! How wise God is! He knows that he will have to take the initiative to break out of this relational deadlock. But what approach to take? He knows these disengaged believers will 'shut him down' if he comes in hard, so instead he engages them in a dialogue, relentlessly pushing, probing, persuading them to see sense.

And he starts with the heart of the matter – their attitude to him. Verse 7:

"Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts.
But you say, 'How shall we return?'"

Now this response is not likely to be a genuine question. It's not that God's people don't know how to return to him. No – they are stubbornly digging in their heels! Imagine a secondary school teacher in a Maths lesson who says: 'James, can you finish the exercises on page 67 while I explain to Rosanna about the causes of the French revolution.' James says: 'Well, how am I supposed to do that then, Miss?' It's not a genuine question. It's the old tactic of asking a question to avoid obeying the teacher. That's what I think is going on here. God's people are playing hard-to-get. But God is not in the business of giving up.

So God probes relentlessly further:

"Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me."

Their response:

"But you say, 'How have we robbed you?'"

God has been patient in dialoguing with them, but now it's time for God finally burst the bubble. Verse 8:

"In your tithes and contributions. You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you."

The half-heartedness of God's people is shown in their half-hearted giving. They were supposed to bring in 10% of their crops into the 'storehouse' which was a kind of 'food bank' for the maintenance of the temple staff and their families… but they didn't. And because of this God cursed them – all of them – the whole nation. That is why their crops were failing. That is why their lives were miserable. Because they were half-hearted.

So let me ask you today. Will you return to God? God says through Malachi 3:7-9: engage with me! Return to me! So will you engage? Will you return?

All material things you own – from your house and car to your clothes and shoes is a gift from him. And if you have more than you need, it's because he has given you more than you need, so you can use it generously to serve others and spread the gospel. So what's holding you back from giving generously to God what belongs to him anyway that he has generously given to you? In that sense, could it be that you and I are robbing God?

That's scene two. A probing dialogue. What's the way forward?

3. Generous Invitation (v.10-11)

Scene three is a generous invitation!

"Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need. I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts."

God invites his people to test him!

The Almighty God becomes like a car salesman. 'Do you guys not believe what I'm saying? Take my promises for a test-drive! Test out my words! You'll see that I'm telling the truth!'

Now this is where we need to be careful to avoid taking the 'Prosperity Gospel' turn-off at the roundabout! We can't go straight from: Old Testament > Us. We need to put in an extra stop in our Bible timeline journey: Old Testament > Jesus > Us – let's think this through.

What's the difference between God's message to them then – and to us now?

Firstly, our obedience to God looks different. Tithing in the Old Testament is linked directly to the upkeep of the temple. The temple has now been replaced by Jesus. We go to Jesus to meet with God – not a religious building. So Christians are commanded not to tithe, but to give generously – which may mean giving less than a tithe, but could well be much more.

Secondly, God blesses our obedience differently. He doesn't promise to flood us with material blessings (as we see in Malachi 3:10). But he does promise to generously meet all our needs (that's Matthew 6:31-33). He does promise to generously out-give any sacrifices we make for him (that's Mark 10:28-31). And he does promise to generously grow our generosity to others (that's 2 Corinthians 9:6-11). So do you trust in God's generosity to you enough for to give generously to him? That's the generous invitation of Malachi 3:10!

What will be the result if God's people accept God's generous invitation?

4. Outward Impact (v.12)

Scene four is outward impact. So, the logic is this. If God's people return to God, then they will give the full tithe, then God will bless them in many ways, then...

"Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts."

God's mission statement for his people in the Old Testament was for them to live in his land under his authority with his blessing. And the surrounding nations would 'come and see' what the fuss was about. It's the same today – God blesses all Christians spiritually with every spiritual blessing in Christ so that we can make an outward impact on those around us – and 'go and tell' them what the fuss is all about.

So do you want to see God's Kingdom turning Tyneside upside down? Do you want to see thousands more people around Tyneside hearing the gospel? We can make more of a gospel impact in Tyneside if we are more committed to God and more generous with what he has given us. Think about it. In a world that can never be satisfied and just can't get enough – people should look at our Christian lives, our priorities, our simplicity of life, our contentment and our generosity – and think: 'Surely this is a better way to live – we want to know more about Jesus.'

And as we give generously to support ministry here, church planting in the region and world mission, our money means more people can hear about Jesus Christ. And when Jesus returns more people will say: 'Thank you for your giving. Because of your giving, I heard about Jesus. I trusted in him. I was saved from hell. I'm here in heaven. Praise God for your giving.' Surely that's the kind of impact we want to have as a church? That's scene four. Outward impact.

As we finish, I can't avoid the question I raised earlier: How does Malachi's message compare to the message of the prosperity gospel teachers?

  • Both tell hearers they are robbing God by not tithing.
  • Both assure hearers that God want them to test him by giving more, so that he can give them more.

What's the difference?

Well, the primary concern of the prosperity teachers is financial. It's all about making them and their congregations financially prosperous. Relationship with God is just a means to an end. Malachi's primary concern is pastoral. His letter is all about calling God's people to relate to God rightly. This attitude is expressed in financial giving, but restored relationship with God comes first.

So at this giving review, we don't want to manipulate you into giving. We want to call you to give yourself wholeheartedly to God – who gave himself for us in the person of Jesus, as Galatians 3:13-14 says:

"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'—"

God's people in Malachi's day were experiencing the 'model form' of that curse – but the ultimate curse is facing God's anger for our sin. And Jesus died on the Cross to take God's anger for our sin. Why?

"so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith."

This is good news! Because of Jesus, no more curse! Because of Jesus, we receive the Holy Spirit! Because of Jesus, we receive the spiritual blessings God first promised to Abraham! This is why we should return to God! He is the true source of all generous giving!

Let's pray. Father, thank you for Jesus' death on the Cross for us. Help us to give ourselves fully to you and to use our finances generously to make Jesus known. In Jesus' name, Amen.

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