This Is Only a Test – Sermon – Rev. Alex Moir – 11 April 2021

WELCOME

Good morning First Baptist. We welcome you to worship this morning. Be sure to remember your brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the week as you pray for them, and as the Holy Spirit brings their faces to your mind. Be sure to also connect with them in the ways that are possible. And if you have any questions or would like to talk to someone, please don’t hesitate to contact the church through the church telephone and leave a message. (519-733-4144)

Call to Worship

“Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!  Incline your ear and come to me; hear that your soul may live …”

— Isaiah 55:1,3

Prayer

It is at the level of our most basic needs that we sense a unity with each other, gracious Father … the need for food and water, and the need for Your presence.  We are encouraged by the truth that You are always far more ready to accommodate us than we are to seek You.  Thank You for accepting us into Your courts this day … in the strong name of Jesus the anointed.  Amen.

Song

Today's Message: This is Only a Test

Scripture Reading: Malachi 3:6-12

Breaking Covenant by Withholding Tithes

6 “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. 7 Ever since the time of your ancestors 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.

“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’

8 “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me.

“But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’

“In tithes and offerings. 9 You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. 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 there will not be room enough to store it. 11 I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not drop their fruit before it is ripe,” says the Lord Almighty. 12 “Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,” says the Lord Almighty.

If you have listened to any radio through the years, you’ve probably heard this announcement from time to time …

“We interrupt this program for a test of the emergency broadcast system.
We repeat; this is only a test.”

The announcement is usually followed by a few short loud blasts, then a bit of explanation … that, had this been a true emergency, we would receive further instructions.  Of course, no explanation is given as to why my baseball broadcast has been interrupted instead of some call-in news show … but I’m willing to sacrifice to keep the system operating.  

Testing is an important part of other “systems” as well … and we even find it mentioned in the Bible.  For the next three weeks we will look at three scriptures in which the word for “test” is mentioned.  Today we start in the last book in the Old Testament, the minor prophet Malachi.  The word “minor” refers only to the size of the books relative to other larger prophetic books … their message is always quite “major.”

If you’ve done any reading in the book of Malachi you’ve likely sensed something of the tension that is a major part of the meaning of this important work.  As with all the prophets of the Old Testament, at least from Isaiah forward, they were all connected in some way to the exile experience of the Hebrew people.  Malachi comes a little later to the scene than was the case with Ezekiel whose work we studied during the winter.  While Ezekiel was trying to help his fellow exiles cope with this new reality (his ministry began around 593 B.C.) Malachi begins his ministry about 140 years later when the return of the exiles to their home country has already begun.  The Persian emperor was encouraging the Jewish exiles’ return, to begin restoring their culture and faith.  To the casual observer this would seem to be a good thing … but problems were emerging.

You would think that a return to their home country would have elicited much joy from the Hebrew people … and it did for a while.  But it didn’t take long for the majority to lapse into old habits … particularly when it came to matters of worship.  Hear these words from Yahweh, through His servant Malachi:

“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.

— Malachi 3:6-7

Even though the exile was over and the Hebrew nation was beginning to return home, the age old problem of perfunctory worship had begun to infect them again.  Though they were attending the worship opportunities and the annual festivals their heart wasn’t in it, at least for the majority … something like us when we go for our daily workout.  We get it over as quickly as possible and get on with life.  That may be acceptable practice when you’re dealing with an elliptical machine … not so good when you’re worshipping the God of the universe.  The essence of the problem appears that they had “turned away” from the “decrees” and had not kept them.  The word “decree” in Hebrew means literally that which is “etched” or “prescribed.”  It refers to the action plan in a person’s life, the beliefs that power us to live in a particular way.  Their casual approach to these elements of worship made them susceptible to other less than worthy ideals upon which to base their lives.

So, it is with us today.  Engagement in worship is what we are after in our contemporary church experience.  To help with this, those of us who plan and lead worship experiences try our best to bring the best elements into our services.  An effort is made to bring variety to the music, to make sure public prayers are well thought out, to plan with the needs of all kinds of learners in mind and to prepare carefully for the message or sermon.   But the most important component to vital worship may be the person who is worshipping.  The best worship happens when there is a felt need on the part of those who have gathered.  One of our oft used worship songs identifies this important component …

As the deer panteth for the water,
so my soul longeth after Thee.
You alone are my heart’s desire,
and I long to worship Thee.

However, our passage hones in on one particular aspect of worship that is troubling to Yahweh.  It involves that aspect of the service where we give thanks in a special way for the blessings God has brought into our lives …

“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse,” (v. 10a)

As in our experience, Hebrew worship involved a material response.  Though their “collection” happened as they entered the sanctuary, the purpose was the same … to give something back to the Creator God who has provided us with all good things.  The problem was that they were holding back, revealing an unhealthy attitude which had developed in God’s people.  They had begun to believe that their good fortune and returned prosperity was largely their own doing.

We have to be careful with this as well.  Certainly, we have all worked hard in fine tuning the abilities or skills that we have … but the original interest or gift that inspires us to seek different lines of work or creativity comes with us at birth.  Yes, we work hard to be the best we can be … but the raw materials for all of life are beyond our initiation.  As a result, it is entirely appropriate for us to respond to the God of the universe in thanksgiving, with something tangible to offer.

However, there is another reason for the “joyful giving” part of the Hebrew worship, as we see in the second part of v. 10 …

“that there may be food in my house.”  (v. 10b)

We participate in the “joyful giving” part of worship to express our thanks to God … but it is also done to facilitate “eating” as well.  The “food in my house” excerpt refers to provision for the leaders of worship in the Hebrew context.  In order for proper worship to take place in Temple or synagogue, good leadership was necessary.  Their support, as well as the upkeep of the house of worship, were necessary aspects of a healthy worship environment.

And so it is with us today in our church ministries.  As this congregation considers the calling of a new pastor, his/her material support is important as well as that of other staff members and the entire ministry of the church.  If we believe that the presence of healthy congregations is important in the life of any community, we need to take seriously the proper funding of such ministries.  The comfortable building and commitment to staff and ministry that has been a tradition in this congregation need to be continued.

If this is a part of our “spiritual service” to our gracious Father, then we need to consider our individual response to this need.  We get a little nervous when we hear the word “tithe”.  It is an Old Testament word that means “one tenth” and it has been the standard of measurement for giving in the Christian church.  There is no doubt that it represents a sizable commitment, one that not everyone feels they can make.  Perhaps this is where the Hebrew people found themselves as they made their way back to their country of origin.  With all the resettling costs as well as uprooting themselves from a country where they had become established, it must have seemed a daunting challenge to resume support for the ministry of the Temple/synagogue.  But Yahweh has a deal for them, if they agree to commit …

“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.”  (v. 10c)

The Father’s faithfulness to our physical/material needs is well attested in scripture.  In his sermon on the mount, Jesus addresses our needs and the care which our Father extends …

So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?”
For the pagans run after all these things,
and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 

— Matt. 6:31-32

This teaching seems to indicate that the Father will always honour our basic needs.  My wife and I have always believed that, if we are faithful in giving to His kingdom, He will meet those needs … and he has never failed us!  It might be quite true that giving a tenth of your after tax income might be a bit of a stretch at this time.  But as pastor through the years, I have always amended the “Yahweh Challenge” to suggest to the folks I have served that we have to start where we are.  Maybe you won’t be able to commit to a tithe right away … but how about committing to some particular percentage below that?  It’s certainly superior to the “slapping of the pockets” to see what spare change we can give that particular week.  I believe that the Father will sustain us if we begin to seriously commit to the advance of the Good Kingdom.

But there is a final benefit to this giving lifestyle as well.  The word for “test” implies not just material blessings but spiritual ones as well … and it may be that, during this intense time of challenge in our community and our world, it will be the spiritual strength that sustains us.  It may remind us again of the great assurance Paul wrote about in his letter to the believers in Rome …

“And we know
that in all things
God works for the good of those who love him
who have been called according to his purpose.” 

— Romans 8:28

What a wonderful blessing it has been for this past year and a bit, to see the Spirit continue to work in our virus infected world.  The congregation of First Baptist Kingsville has been a vital part of that ministry … may you continue to make the ministry of this church an important part of our lives!

Prayer

How we praise You, gracious Father, for how You seek us out.  In our fallible state we tend to overlook the ways we may have wandered from You.  We are so grateful that our spiritual diagnosis is not ours alone.  We pray that You will continue to intervene in our lives and bring us reminders of how we may serve You better and enjoy Your presence more fully.

We do confess, creator God, how we recoil at the cost of discipleship.  We remember many turning away from Your Son when He asked for commitment.  Yet we are reminded daily of the progress Your Spirit is making in our world … and we so want to participate in that.  Remind us of the investment that we as a congregation make in the lives of people and the true joy in seeing lives changed.

As we close our prayer for all people, we think of so many of us who are discouraged after yet more restrictions caused by this virus.  But we know that You have designed life in such a way that no virulence or infection can last forever.  We proceed from this worship time this day, knowing that our bodies will develop resistance to this illness … and that we must raise our eyes above the current challenge that will last only a while longer.  Open the eyes of our collective hearts, Lord, to what the post-COVID world will look like … and how we may serve in Your name those who have been affected by it.  In the name of the gentle healer Himself, we pray … amen.  

Song

Benediction

“For the mountains may depart and the hills be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed, says the Lord who has compassion on you.” 

— Isaiah 54:10