I think this is the first time I’ve ever introduced a sermon series with the second sermon; but while we started our journey through Malachi last week, the service last week was busy enough that there really wasn’t time for more than a homily, so the introductory stuff really had to wait. I didn’t want to just let it go, though, because Malachi’s a bit of a difficult book. On the surface, it looks like an angry book, full of judgment; it’s structured as a series of arguments, with the Lord making his case against Israel like a prosecutor, and crushing his people’s feeble attempts to justify their behavior. If you don’t read more closely, you could easily miss the fact that the core of the book is not God’s anger but his covenant faithfulness; his fundamental complaint is that his people have not been faithful to him because they don’t trust him to be faithful to them.
That’s where the first section, which we read last week, comes in, and that’s why it’s so important. God doesn’t begin with the indictment, he begins by telling his people that he loves them. Some of them, at least, doubt this—hence their response, “How have you loved us?”—and so he challenges their doubt. The most important thing for Israel to understand is that God does indeed love them, that his covenant love and faithfulness are unchanging and unchangeable, unmoving and unshakeable; everything else flows from that. In particular, everything else in this prophecy flows from that; the opening argument that we read last week is the context in which all the rest of the book must be read, and it is the answer to all the charges the Lord makes. Every word of judgment in Malachi must be understood as an expression of the frustrated love of God for a people who are unwilling to take him seriously enough to love him back.
At bottom, this is a problem of worship, and so as the Lord calls Israel to account, he begins with the priests. God has made it clear to his people what he requires from them—they aren’t supposed to sacrifice just any old animal; they are to give him their very best, the first and the fattest and the strongest of their herds. They’re supposed to give him their very best because in doing that, they are showing him true worship—putting him first in their lives, showing that they value him more than anyone or anything else, including their own comfort and the approval of their rulers. It’s the same thing we talked about a few weeks ago, that giving God our best before we give to anyone else reveals something profoundly important about our heart attitudes. In this case, however, the people of God aren’t doing that; in fact, they’re bringing him the least they possibly can, the blind, the lame and the sick. It’s the minimum necessary to be able to say they went to church, and the priests are letting them get away with it.
Now, to understand where the priests are coming from, you have to know that when sacrifices were offered, only a small part of the animal was actually burned on the altar; most of the meat went to the priests. Along with the tithe, this was how the Law provided for their support—which meant that they depended on the sacrifices to get enough to eat. If they figured that the blind, the lame and the sick were the best that they were likely to get, you can imagine them being afraid to challenge the people for fear of driving them to stop sacrificing altogether; better to let it go and have some food than to stand on principle and go without. But in letting that pass, they were forgetting that it wasn’t their table, but God’s—they ate there as his guests; they weren’t just making do with worse food for their own sake, they were compromising his holiness and allowing the people of Israel to lose respect for him. Who deserves more honor—the God of the universe, or the latest local politician? Israel was effectively saying, the local politician; the priests were letting them do it, and so making it worse. That had to change.
At this point, some might be wondering if this is really that big a deal; if we’re talking about the love of God, wouldn’t it be more loving for God to just let it slide? But the thing is, our worship is at the core of our being; if we worship him falsely and he were to just let it slide, that would let everything else in our lives slide along with it—into ruin, ultimately. For God to let that happen to his people would be an act not of love, but of indifference; as the Presbyterian scholar Elizabeth Achtemeier put it, “It is only when God leaves us alone that he no longer loves us.”
The fact of it is, God wants our worship—and wants us to live lives which are the fruit of true worship—not just because he likes it and fully deserves it (though he does), but because it’s what’s best for us. God has made his covenant with us so that he can give us his life and his peace, delivering us from the powers of strife and death that dominate this world; he has invited us to his table because he has a feast to offer us, and he wants us to share in it. When we don’t give him our best, when we shortchange God so that we can keep more of what we have for ourselves, we’re not really making him any poorer—who we’re really shortchanging is ourselves. This angers and grieves God, not because he’s losing out, but because we are.
Let us, then, this morning come to the table of the Lord to worship him with our whole heart and mind and soul and strength, because he is worthy of all honor and all praise; let us come to give him the best of what we have and are, because he has given us everything we are and everything we have. Let us come because he loves us, and deserves our love and gratitude in return; and let us come because it is the best thing we can possibly do. Let us come to the table of the Lord, for this is the table of life.