So, we’re looking this morning at the mismatch between God’s great love for us, and our response to that love. So: I know in myself that God’s love is really very great. It’s a very big and wonderful thing. But if you were to read how much God loves us from how I respond to him, you would not get the impression that God’s love is very big and very wonderful. There’s this gap which is a big gap, and that’s what we’re thinking about.
We’re thinking about it with the help of the book of the prophet Malachi, which was written about 400 b.c., nearly two and a half thousand years ago. The people of Israel have been exiled into Babylon. They returned to their land, and rebuilt their temple and their city. And then a hundred years have passed, and not much has happened. Certainly things were not as good as they used to be in the good old days, and things are not as glorious as the prophets had foretold they would be.
So the people are growing tired and cynical. They’re beginning to question everything that God says; they don’t really believe him any more; and so the book of Malachi opens (we met this a couple of weeks ago) not with a great string of criticisms for all the things that people are doing wrong. It opens with a statement that God loves them. “‘I have loved you,’ says the Lord.” Now of course, straight away they question it. They question everything these days. “How have you loved us?” And so God tells them.
But this gets to the root of the problem. All the issues that Malachi is going to have to address in four chapters of his book all trace back to the fact they no longer believe that God loves them. Their circumstances are tough. I mean, arguably, our circumstances are tough; but believe me we haven’t got a thing on them; their circumstances were really tough. And they’re looking at those and not at the love of God. And so they’re allowing how tough life is to colour whether or not they really believe that God loves them. They’re losing sight of God’s love.
So we saw last time that because they no longer believe God loves them they’re disregarding God’s name, that is his character, his reputation, who God is; it just doesn’t matter to them that much anymore. They’re not that obsessed with God. And that then means that when they bring animals for sacrifice (something that they did back then) they were bringing lame, diseased, blind, crippled animals, that they couldn’t even have sold to market, and yet they think that this is an appropriate offering to the Lord God, because God’s name isn’t that important. God isn’t that important, so surely he may as well have the cast-offs from their flock or their herd.
Now we said last time that we today don’t offer animals for sacrifice, and that’s because Jesus (when he died on the cross) dealt with our sin once for all. So the days of slaughtering sheep and goats to deal with the problem of sin, that’s long gone. But we also said that we offer ourselves as living sacrifices. As we serve God, as we serve other people, we are offering ourselves to God as a sacrifice. And so the idea that we might offer a cheap blemished cast-off, the leftovers that are of no value, that’s still something that is relevant for us today.
But last time we only had time for an overview look at the passage, to see what’s going on at a sort of high level. I wanted today just to go down a little bit in altitude, and look at some of the details that we didn’t get time for last week. And in particular, to look at why does it matter? Why does it matter if we doubt God’s love, if therefore we disregard God’s name, and if therefore the sacrifices that we offer to the Lord are blemished and inferior? Why does it matter? Why can’t we just do that, not worry about it?
The answer is it matters for three reasons.
We Need God’s Mercy
Reason number one is that we need God’s mercy. We need God’s mercy.
All of us need mercy. None of us treat God as he deserves, and so if God were to treat us as we deserve, we would be in deep, deep trouble. We need God to be lenient with us, not to punish us as we deserve, but to spare us, to forgive us, to let us off.
Now obviously, we don’t earn mercy by being devoted to God, otherwise it wouldn’t be mercy. It would just be God giving us what we deserve. So you don’t earn mercy. But have a look at what is going wrong here. So let’s look at verse 9. He says to them: “Now plead with God to be gracious to us.” That is priestly language; that is asking the priests to do their job, to go into the temple, and ask God on behalf of the nation to be lenient, to forgive, and to bless them. Ask God to bless, when what we deserve is much worse than that.
Well, how will that go down if the priests do that job?
Well, “‘With such offerings from your hands will he accept you?’ says the Lord Almighty” — a question that begs the answer “No”. He won’t, of course he won’t, not with sacrifices like that.
So they would go to God, then ask for God’s forgiveness, for his favour, and they bring a diseased animal as their gift to persuade God to give them the thing that they’re asking for.
It’s a bit like: imagine that you need a huge, huge favour from a friend you need them to do something for you. Depending on how good your friendship is, or how much they owe you, you either take them around a present to try and persuade them to help you, or if they’ll do it for you anyway then once they’ve done it you take them a present say thank you for what you just did. And you’d take around maybe some flowers, or some chocolates, a nice bottle of something to drink. Depends what they did; it could be a much bigger gift. “Here, have a new car.” I don’t know: “Have a new computer.” It depends how big the favour was they did as to what kind of present you would take around to say thank you.
What you would not do is look in your fridge, and go “We didn’t plan our meals very carefully this week, and there’s a chicken here that’s expired yesterday, and we should have eaten it a few days ago. But we misjudged this one, but maybe they’d like that chicken. So we go: “Here you go, to say thank you for this huge, huge favour here’s an out-of-date chicken.”
You wouldn’t do that and yet that is what they’re doing to God.
Now you don’t earn God’s mercy with devotion, or with chicken, or with sheep or goats. Jesus paid for all of it. But if our response to what God wants to give us by way of mercy is that shallow, it betrays that our desire for mercy is not genuine. It doesn’t stem from a deep conviction that God is holy, and that we need his mercy. It’s just a very superficial wish for God to be a little bit good to us if he feels like it, and nothing genuine from deep within. And if our response to God’s mercy is as shallow as that, we don’t really want it and so we probably won’t really get it.
So we all need mercy. That’s one reason why this matters.
A Little is Worse than Nothing
The second reason why this matters, is that when it comes to responding to God, a little is worse than nothing. A little is worse than nothing.
So there are lots of things in life where a little is better than nothing. I never get time to get on top of all the flower beds that need weeding in our garden, and all the hedges that need trimming. In fact, I never get anywhere near scratching the surface of that job. But if you get half an hour to cut back one bit of hedge, or weed one bit of flower bed, that is still worth doing. It looks better than it did before. Okay, it shows up the dirt elsewhere, but apart from that it is better done than not done.
Or ask people to give money to fund our church hall. So, if someone’s got a spare thousand pounds to give, we’re not going to say no. That’ll be lovely. But if someone’s only got one pound to give — you know what — those pounds, they add up. So we’d still say to people: “Don’t worry you’ve got a pound to give; that’s really kind of you; thank you for giving it to us.” A little is better than nothing.
When it comes to responding to God and his kindness, a little is worse than nothing, because he’s God. God is the greatest, and he wants everyone to know that he is the greatest. And then, as exhibit number 74 to show what that God is like you, meet me. And there’s me, doing things that shows that God is just worth a little, that God is this big. Anybody who sees exhibit number 74 will think worse of God because they saw me. If they had not actually met me, actually their view of God would be better than it was before.
So fine, we all know there are people out there who don’t have time for God, who don’t believe in him, who don’t care about him. We’re not talking about them. But if the people who do think that God is worth bothering with, think he’s only worth bothering with a tiny little bit, then what we have just done is not made God look better. We’ve made him look worse; we’ve diminished him; we’ve subtracted from him, not added to him. And so a little is worse than nothing.
Am I just making this up, or is it in Malachi chapter one? No, it’s in Malachi chapter 1. Here’s verse 10: “‘Oh, that one of you would shut the temple doors so that you would not light useless fires on my altar. I am not pleased with you,’ says the Lord Almighty.” So here are the priests. They’ve got various duties to do. They light fires, they burn incense, they change the bread on the table, they offer sacrifices — they do various things. And God says: “You know what? There’s one thing that you guys, you priests, could do, that would please me more than anything right now. Lock the door and walk away, so that the whole enterprise just stops. I would love that.”
Now if God would say that to us as a church, that’d be pretty devastating, wouldn’t it? “You gather together on Sundays, because you think you’re worshiping, honouring me; but actually what I would prefer you to do is just lock the door and not bother.” Well, God doesn’t say that to us, but he does say it to them. That’s how bad their token stuff is.
So number two: A little is worse than nothing.
The nations will honour God
Number 3. Third reason why all this stuff matters, our response to God matters, is because the nations will honour God. The nations will honour God.
So why does God wish they would shut the temple? Because God does not have all of his eggs in one basket. God has other options.
Verse 10: “‘O, that you would shut the temple doors.’” Why? Verse 11: “… because my name will be great among the nations. From where the sun rises, to where it sets, in every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to me, because my name will be great among the nations.”
So you know what: you can shut the temple. It’s not a problem for me, because one day people from every nation upon earth will treat me as I deserve, and will give me the honour that you guys aren’t giving me. So you just shut your temple. Go away, because my name will be great among the nations. So I will be honoured regardless, whether or not you guys join in.
The same thing in verse 14. “‘I am a great king, says the Lord Almighty. ‘My name is to be feared among the nations.’” One day every knee will bend, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. All that you or I might get to do is miss out. We can’t stop it happening. It’ll happen. Jesus will be honoured, all over the globe, and you and I are either on board or we’re not, but it will happen.
So all that happens if we don’t respond to God as we should, is that the one place where there should be today a little glimpse of the future (which is with us lot), is the one place it’s missing.
That’s why it matters, because it would be tragic if we are not on board where the train of history is going. If we’re not on that train, it’ll be tragic because it’s going there anyway.
So if, like me, at times you find that your enthusiasm for the Lord Jesus Christ is not what it was, or is not what it should, be then there are two things you need to do.
Number one: you need to see it matters. You see, our need for God’s mercy is urgent. If we only seek God’s forgiveness half-heartedly, we are on the way to losing sight altogether of our biggest need, which Jesus Christ met in full. God will be honoured and we are just in danger of losing out ourselves. See that it matters, if that’s you.
But secondly, if that’s you (and for most of us there will be seasons when it is), then what we need to do is the same as last week: return to God’s love in the person of Jesus. Our enthusiasm for God is never the first move. If you’re half-hearted it’s because somewhere inside you you’re saying verse 2: “How have you loved us?”. And so the answer is to pray, to ask God to open your eyes that you might see his love for you more clearly. Pray, and then look. Look at the Lord Jesus, as he is revealed in Scripture. And keep looking at him, until his love comes into sharp focus. And then you’ll find that your reverence for God’s name, and your response in sacrificial service just flows as a result.