December 30, 2012
Rev. John Watts
GIVING GOD OUR BEST
Helen and I are looking forward next month to another season of “American Idol”. It’s one thing we enjoy watching together. She’s not much into football. I really can’t stand the Home and Garden channel. But we have a standing date, sitting side by side on the couch, for every episode of “American Idol”. And we almost always end the season in stunned disbelief over whoAmericaeventually chooses.
I mention this because of one of their live episodes a while back when something went wrong with the sound. I forget what it was specifically. Maybe a dead battery pack or a feedback loop — it was a fairly major gaffe. You wouldn’t think twice about such a mistake usually, except this was “American Idol”. The singers might forget their words or fall off the stage or have an emotional meltdown. That’s what makes it fun to watch. But the production standards are so high, you almost never see anything go wrong. And so I remember when it did. And I remember feeling a sense of relief, because it seems things like this go wrong in our worship services all the time.
I was reading a book about quality in churches. Here’s how quality is defined: “Doing things right! Striving to do things better today than we did yesterday, and keeping at it until we exceed being the best, and set our sights on the highest goal of all — perfection.” And then this statement that sure caused me to sit up and take notice: “Large or small, the only churches to survive will be those that make quality the standard in all that they do.” (Benchmarks of Quality in the Church: 21 Ways to Continuously Improve the Content of Your Ministry, Norman Shawchuck and Gustave Rath)
I remember my previous life as a district superintendent. I remember a difficult meeting with a congregation. They had all kinds of excuses about why their nursery was a mess and was located in a dark and out of the way location in their church. There was defensiveness and resentment, even hostility, at the mere suggestion that this might be something they should look at.
To quote from that book on quality again: “By now someone may be saying, ‘Come on now, God accepts our unprepared lessons and our off-key choirs and the broken-down cribs in our nursery and the weather-beaten signs and the unkempt lawn. After all, God accepts us just as we are.’ Yes, perhaps if you insist on trivializing God’s acceptance so that it applies to sloppiness. But the conversations should not end there, for even if God can excuse poor quality, the ‘thirty-something’ generation (the very generation we must reach if our congregations are to still be around in the year 2025) has already proven that it will not — neither in education for their children, nor in dish-washing soap, and certainly not in religion.”
Standards of excellence tend to slide. I thought this last Sunday of the year might be a good time to talk about this. New years can begin with wonderful resolutions and renewed determination to get serious about whatever it is that needs attention in your life. And maybe through the early part of the year you really did turn over a new leaf and things did change for the better. Twelve months, though, is a long time and it’s hard to fight that built-in human tendency to slack off and do less than our best.
Our text today is about a time when standards of excellence had slipped rather badly. And the leaders, those whose job it was to enforce these standards, were not leading. Yes, it was the clergy of that day who were perfectly content to preside over one of the sorriest chapters in Jewish history.
We’re talking about the time after the exile and the return fromBabylon. We talked a few weeks ago about the destruction of theTempleby the Babylonians. By now theTemplehad been rebuilt, better than ever. Standards of excellence were high then. The Bible provides chapter after chapter of job specs. But once that huge job was accomplished and the people returned to the routine of daily living, theTemplestood proud and tall but a kind of dry rot crept into the structure of their life together as people of God.
They were fighting with each other. There was never enough to make them all happy. There wasn’t even enough to keep their stomachs full. People were selling themselves and their children into slavery to survive (Neh 5:1-5). Morally the attitude was that anything goes. Life in general was just falling apart. It was a terrible time. And, as I mentioned, the clergy weren’t helping. They were part of the problem.
So God raised up a layperson to be a leader. His name was Malachi. Malachi was a prophet called of God to re-establish standards of excellence among God’s people. He had his work cut out for him.
Our text deals with one specific example of what Malachi was up against. His people had an “anything goes” attitude toward worship. God had prescribed quite specifically how they were to conduct the ritual sacrifices that were part of their worship. They were to offer their best lamb. They were to walk through their herd and choose the blue ribbon lamb, the one that would bring the most money at the marketplace. That’s the lamb they had been instructed to bring to theTemple. They were to make an excellent worship offering. But in Malachi’s day they interpreted these standards rather loosely. Here’s what God is saying to them through his prophet:
“When you offer blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice lame or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you? 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, “and I will accept no offering from your hands. For from the rising of the sun to the setting of the same my name will be great among the nations” (1:8-11).
Do you see what’s going on here? Instead of bringing their best lamb to God, they were doing just the opposite. They were walking through their herd in search of the most worthless lamb. They’d find the one that was half-dead, the one they’d have to get rid of soon anyway. They’d place that lamb on the altar and say, “This is for
God — hope he likes it.” And Malachi is telling them, “I have news for you — God doesn’t like it. In fact, if this is the best you can do, don’t bother. It’s better to offer God no lamb at all than a blemished lamb.”
I hope you’re beginning to realize that this text isn’t just a dry old history lesson. It has some contemporary relevance. In fact, I wonder if any of us here today can read this passage and take to heart what it is saying and not be convicted. For we’re guilty of the very same thing.
We are not giving God our best. We are giving God our leftovers. Leftover time, leftover talent, leftover energy, leftover money, leftover love. After we’ve reserved the best for ourselves. God gets that sickly lamb, the one that has to lean against the fencepost to keep from falling over. And it doesn’t occur to us that this might be offensive to God.
I can’t speak for you. I can only speak for myself. This is a passage that makes me real uncomfortable. This is one that shines a light right into my heart and reveals how far I am from God’s standard. I’ve been cutting a few corners spiritually. I’ve been leaning real heavily on God’s grace. I’ve been rather casual about my end of the covenant. I’ve figured God understands. God appreciates my good intentions. God knows I will do better next year. And if I don’t, there’s always the year after that.
Then I read this passage from Malachi and I hear a very different message from God. I hear God saying, “John, I would rather you give me nothing at all than toss me a little something whenever it’s convenient for you.” I hear God saying, “I don’t want your scraps. I don’t want your leftovers. I want your best, or nothing at all.”
Now why would God be that demanding? Why would God’s standard of excellence be that high? Why does God want nothing less than our best? Because God has only ever given us his best. God expects excellence because God demonstrates excellence time and time again.
Let’s see if we can come up with a quick list. God demonstrated excellence in creation. Look at the clouds. Look at the flowers. Visit the ocean or the mountains or the forest or the high desert. How did God do? What grade does God get? We’d need a new grade, several notches above excellent.
Or human beings. How did God do when he made us? Our minds, our bodies, our spirits? We’re “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139:14). It staggers the imagination to think what we are capable of mentally, physically, and spiritually. God gets an excellent plus for the job he did in making people.
And then these people rebelled against their Creator. How did God respond? God demonstrated excellent forbearance. God was “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Neh 9:17). God just kept loving them.
There was that part of their history in the wilderness. They were traveling fromEgyptto the Promised Land. God provided excellent guidance. There was a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. No G.P.S. necessary.
When God’s people faced enemies and they were outnumbered, sometimes a hundred to one, God provided excellent protection.
When there was a famine or a drought, God provided excellent provision.
And then in the New Testament we read how “in the fullness of time” (Gal 4:4) God sent his absolute best to come to this planet to live with us. He sent his Son to be born in thatBethlehemmanger. In Jesus we see God’s standard of excellence.
Jesus was excellent in teaching. Excellent in wisdom. Excellent in love. Jesus redefined excellence. He was God’s best. He lived an excellent life. And then he died an excellent death. Even as his life slipped away in horrible agony on that cross, he managed to forgive his enemies, to provide for his mother, and to make room for one more lost soul in heaven. No one ever died so excellent a death!
But the story doesn’t end there. There was an excellent resurrection on Easter followed by Pentecost and an excellent plan for the work of Jesus to continue with the gift of the Holy Spirit and the birth of the Church.
Jesus told us he is preparing an excellent eternity for us (Jn 14:2). And until then, in Jesus, we have an excellent life — “life in abundance” (Jn 10:10).
Is it any wonder we get to the last book of the Bible and we find that unforgettable scene of worship in heaven? Every creature bows before God’s throne and joins the angels in song: “Excellent, excellent, excellent is our God . . . Worthy, worthy, worthy is the Lamb” (Rev 4-5).
The question Malachi raises is simply this: How are we to respond to a God this excellent? What kind of love, what kind of life, what kind of worship offering, what kind of commitment is fitting for a God this wonderful? Somehow I don’t think that lamb that is going to fall over if it doesn’t happen to be leaning against a fencepost is the correct answer.
So I invite you to struggle with this. I am struggling with this. What quality of lamb are we going to give to God who has only ever given us his very best? What quality of life are we going to live in this new year that begins Tuesday? More of the same? Or are we truly going to tie a knot and resolve that we will not slip backwards, we will move only forward, climbing ever closer to the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:14).
Part of our heritage in theUnitedMethodistChurchis a heritage we share with all the Nazarenes in a place likeNampa. Our spiritual roots go back through John Wesley. John Wesley was a man who had the highest of expectations for himself and for those who came to Christ under his ministry. John Wesley was one who was not afraid to use the word “perfect”. Not that he claimed perfection for himself or for anyone else, but because he feared that with less than Christian perfection as a goal, we would fall so far short of what is possible for us. And he stressed that it’s not a matter of striving and straining to be better people and whoever tries the hardest wins. He explored that dead-end in his early life. We can do nothing without Christ. But with Christ, there is nothing we cannot do.
This was always a special time of the year for John Wesley. A new year was a new opportunity for him to tie a knot in the rope of his years and to resolve from henceforth to give God his absolute best. He would hold what he called a “Covenant Renewal Service”. Often we use one of the prayers from this service and think that’s all there is to it. But the whole service is considerably longer. It took four pages for Carol to print it in the insert you find in your bulletin.
We’re going to read these words and pray these words right now. And I know if you’re like me some of these words will just be words, at least the first time through, and this service will be much more meaningful if you will take this bulletin insert home with you and spend time with it in your personal devotions as you prepare for the beginning of a new year. In fact, John Wesley suggested signing it and keeping it as a reminder of your covenant with God.
May this new year be a year of realizing more fully that God has only ever given you his very best. That won’t change in 2013.
But what can change is the best you give back to God.