Have you ever given someone a lousy gift? Like you knew it was a lousy gift and you gave it to them anyway? In his book Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller writes about a Christmas Eve when his view of God was changed, and how that affected his perspective on everything else.
For my mother that year I had purchased a shabby Christmas gift – a book, the contents of which she would never be interested in. I had had a sum of money with which to buy presents, and the majority of it I used to buy fishing equipment…. (Did you ever do that as a kid? Get a certain amount of money to purchase gifts for Christmas or a birthday and spend most of it on yourself?)
I drifted in and out of anxious sleep, and this is when it occurred to me that the gift I had purchased for my mother was bought with the petty change left after I had pleased myself. I realized I had set the happiness of my mother below my own material desires.
We opened our gifts the next morning, and I was pleased to receive what I did, but when my mother opened her silly book, I asked her forgiveness, saying how much I wished I had done more. She, of course, pretended to enjoy the gift, saying how she wanted to know about the subject.[i]
Lousy gifts. We’ve probably all given them. It isn’t fun to get lousy gifts. It isn’t fun to give them either. One gal, a professor of marketing at New York Institute of Marketing, actually did a study on lousy gifts. Mean gifts, like a woman who gave her childless daughter-in-law a pregnancy test. Selfish gifts, like the husband who gave his wife a huge flat-screen TV, right before the Super Bowl she had no plans of watching. Or the man who gave his wife some lawn furniture for Mother’s Day. She told him she really didn’t like the pattern, and asked him to return the gift. Instead of returning it, he went and bought more and gave it to her for her birthday a few weeks later. Or the woman who bought her husband a bunch of clothes for his birthday that she knew he wouldn’t like. Or the grandparents who buy their grandchildren a gift the parents specifically asked them not to buy, or who give their grandchildren any gift that makes a lot of noise. Those are actually revenge gifts for all of the noise our kids brought into our lives when they were young.
More often than not, a lousy gift grows out of the attitude of the heart behind it. Dislike, anger, a desire to humiliate, or selfishness. Or maybe we haven’t taken the time to get to know them well enough to give them a gift they’ll appreciate. On the flip side, do you have someone in your life you want to do your best for? Someone you want to give great, meaningful gifts to?
The theme of the little Old Testament book of Malachi, one of the minor prophets and the last book in the Old Testament, is worship – the appropriate response to God’s incredible love for us. He talks about our tendency to take God and God’s love for granted and to consistently slip into giving God less than our best. Half-hearted worship. Selfish worship. Worship that is all about us, and not really about God at all. Grudging worship.
Malachi opens with the incredible, self-sacrificial love of God. He reminds us that God could have left us to die in our sin. He created this incredible cosmos as a playground for us. He created this world and us with incredible precision and detail. The God who created the blue whale and the elephant also created the gnat and the hummingbird. The God who created the mighty redwood tree also created the dandelion. The God who created the countless and immeasurable stars in the sky also created your unique fingerprint, a fingerprint so unique that it can be used as evidence against you in a court of law if it is found at a crime scene. And we spit in his face. We turned against him. Not satisfied with all that God gave us and created us for, we wanted more. We fell into sin and, because God had created us as stewards, caretakers, of his creation, creation fell with us.
God could have said, “Fine. I’m done with you. You want to spit in my face, turn your back on me? Go ahead. Oh, you’ll have to face the consequences of your actions. Sin can’t survive in my presence and you are now marked by sin.” God could have turned his back on us and left us to die in sin. And if God were like us, he probably would have. But he didn’t.
As soon as we fell into sin, his plan to lovingly, graciously offer us salvation was put into action, and it culminated with God coming into the universe he created as one of us in Jesus Christ, and living for us the life that, because of our sinful natures, we cannot live, and then dying for us the death that, because of our sinful natures, we should by rights have to die, a death that separates us from God. He took all of that on himself, and he then gives us his life, his righteousness, his grace and mercy. He fills us with the Holy Spirit, empowering us to live as an outpost of his kingdom in this fallen, broken, sinful world even as he prepares to make all things new. And how do we respond? Turn with me to Malachi 1:6-14. Our response to the endless supply of God’s love and grace and mercy? Half-hearted, selfish, grudging worship.
So how do we worship well? How do we respond in a way worthy of who God is and what God has done for us? God starts by asking a tough question: As a general rule of thumb, children honor their parents. Am I not your heavenly father? Where is the honor for me as your heavenly father, the source of your life and your salvation? And servants honor their masters. As creator and savior, I am lord of all. Where is your honor for me as your lord? In other words, where is your reverence, your awe? You act like I am nothing, like what I have done for you is nothing. Half-hearted worship grows from a lack of honor, of reverence for God. It grows from a lack of awe. Most of us show more awe in the presence of one of our human heroes, an athlete or a musician or a great leader, than we do in the presence of almighty God. We’d show more awe being a special guest in the Oval Office, regardless of who is in office, than we do coming into the presence of God.
When Moses stood in the presence of God on Mt. Sinai, his face radiated the glory of God even when he left so much that the people were afraid to come near him. He had to put a veil over his face so that the people of Israel would even come near him. When the prophet Isaiah stood in the presence of God he fell on his face certain that he would die from the awesome grandeur of the vision, and described the angels he saw more as fire-breathing dragons than fat little cherubs. When the Peter, James, and John stood before the transfigured Christ, they wanted to build him a house of worship. And when John stood in the presence of God on the Island of Patmos, he fell on his face as though dead.
We come to worship like it’s nothing. And then, when we’re confronted by God’s question to us through the prophet Malachi, we respond with contempt. “How have we despised your name?” How have we not honored you? We’re here, aren’t we? What more do you want? What we’ve done is good enough. When confronted by the truth of the Word of God, we tend to get defensive, don’t’ we? So God has to spell it out. Look at Vv. 7-8. And then again down in Vv. 13-14. Because we have no reverence for God, we give God what’s left, instead of our best. As a counselor I sometimes work with married couples. And a lot of them come in not hating one another, they’re just out of touch and out of tune with one another. They’ve lost the sense that their relationship is special, that the person they’re married to is an incredible person. They’ve gotten so distracted in the details of day to day life, parenting, work, friends, hobbies, that they’ve lost sight of each other, and they give to each other what is left only after all of those other things have been taken care of, instead of before. They give each other what is left, instead of what is best.
How often do we do the same with God? Who here remembers Paul Harvey, the great radio newscaster. I used to love listening to him. “Stand by for news.” “And now you know the REST of the story?” right? Well, several years ago around Thanksgiving, he shared a true story of a woman and her frozen Thanksgiving turkey. The Butterball Turkey Company set up a telephone hotline to answer consumer questions about preparing holiday turkeys. One woman called to inquire about cooking a turkey that had been in the bottom of her freezer for 23 years. That’s right – 23 years. The Butterball representative told her the turkey would probably be safe to eat if the freezer had been kept below zero for the entire 23 years. But the Butterball representative warned her that even if the turkey was safe to eat, the flavor would probably have deteriorated to such a degree that she would not recommend eating it. The caller replied, “That’s what I thought. We’ll give the turkey to our church.”[ii]
Does what we offer represent our best, or what’s left? For ancient Israel, before Christ, certain of the sacrifices the people were to offer required a perfect, spotless, male lamb or the best of their grain and produce. In other words, they were to bring something of incredibly high value for the sacrifice. On most farms, the breeding males are the animals with the highest value. In any given season, roughly half the livestock born are male, and the other half female. It isn’t ever perfect, but it’s close. But in the animal kingdom, a single male can service several females. So the farmer keeps all but maybe the worst of the worst of the females, and only the best of the best males. In an entire flock of new lambs, hundreds even, only one or two ram lambs will be kept. The rest will be castrated and used for food. Only the best males are kept, and because they can service several females over several years, each year the females have better and better babies and the herd or flock is improved. Because of that, really, really good breeding males, bulls, rams, stallions, are incredibly valuable. We call them herd sires, and they’re the foundation of a good breeding program.
And that was what God was asking for. One of the really valuable ones. Something that meant something, that had real value. Something that required sacrifice to give up. Real sacrifice. But what were the people bringing instead? Animals they’d stolen. Or animals that had problems and so would never be used as herd sires. Animals destined to be eaten anyway. No real sacrifice. They gave out of what was left, instead of the best. In fact, look at V. 8. They were offering things to God they wouldn’t dare offer to their human governor! They had no reverence for God, and so they were unwilling to sacrifice for God. Worshipping well requires reverence for God and a willingness to sacrifice, to sacrifice our time, our talent, our treasure, for the glory of his name.
But when these people did worship, they did so grudgingly. Look at V. 13. “What a weariness this is.” Wow, does that hit home? How many of us have ever thought that about our service in the food pantry or community meal? About our participation in worship? Even about our relationship with God? God wants a relationship with us. He wants to meet with us in worship, to meet with us as we read and meditate on his Word, to meet with us as we pray, to meet with us as we serve. He wants to enjoy our company, and wants us to enjoy his company. And we view it as a bothersome, wearisome chore. We have no joy in it.
Have you ever been in a situation where you felt like your friendship was a chore for the other person, like they really didn’t enjoy being with you? It stinks, doesn’t it? And we’re so caught up in the details of our daily lives that we view our relationship with God as a chore to be endured so that we get to go to heaven when we die. That isn’t what God is inviting us into! C.S. Lewis, who is probably my favorite Christian thinker, said, “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” Half-hearted worship grows out of a heart that holds no reverence for God, isn’t willing to sacrifice anything for God, and holds no joy in a relationship with God. Wholehearted worship, worshipping well, begins with a reverence for God, is willing to sacrifice anything for God because of what God has done for us in Christ, and does so with joy in the heart.
But we’re human. Our emotions ebb and flow. Some days we feel it and some days we don’t. So what do we do when life is bad, when we’re mad at God, when we really, truly, DON’T want or feel like worshipping God well? Look at V. 10. God would prefer that we not even open our doors than that we offer him worthless, half-hearted worship. The New Testament writer of the book of Hebrews says, “Through him (through Christ) then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Heb. 13:15. We offer a SACRIFICE of praise. Sometimes, our willingness to be present and engage is a sacrifice, and that is our reverential, joy-filled offering. Remember, joy isn’t the same as happiness. It is the quiet confidence that God is in control. So during the times when I’m not feeling it, and they are legion, I trust that God is in control, and I my worship itself becomes the sacrifice.
How many of us have ever been at a concert and chanted “One more song” at the end – crying out for an encore? If your preference is classical music, maybe you didn’t actually chant it, but you wanted it, didn’t you? How many of us have ever been disappointed because a sporting event or season ended, or a movie ended, or a concert ended? We all have, haven’t we. How many of us have ever been disappointed when a service of worship ended? Don’t actually answer, I’ll just get depressed. If a service goes even 5 minutes over the expected time, we’re talking about it at brunch afterward, aren’t we?
We’ll cheer at a football game, but won’t clap in worship. We’ll sing at the top of our lungs at a concert, but won’t open our mouths in worship. We’ll watch in rapt attention at a movie theater or play, and can’t keep ourselves awake during the sermon. We’ll get so incredibly excited about tickets to see our favorite team play, or band perform, or to Universal Studios, and we grudgingly, half-heartedly trudge into worship. We long to be a church that worships well. That doesn’t mean our praise team is perfect or our worship space is state of the art. It means that our hearts and minds are prepared, tuned in to God. Reverence for God. A willingness to sacrifice because of what God has done for us in Christ. And joy in our hearts, offering a sacrifice of praise when we aren’t feeling it emotionally, refusing to allow our emotions alone to drive us. Serving and worshipping and coming into God’s presence with joy and anticipation. That is worshipping well. God is worthy of far more than a lousy gift. Let us pray.
[i] Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (Nelson, 2003), p.9-10
[ii] Paul Harvey daily radio broadcast (11-22-95);