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Refining and Defining
Coming home! Consider the nostalgia, memories, anticipation, and tears conjured up by the phrase, "coming home." Few of us can imagine what it is like for the hostages to come home. After years of harsh imprisonment, beatings, chains, boredom, and separation, they now come home! Was home what they expected? How quickly will they be able to adjust to home? I remember when I came home after serving three years in Japan as a missionary. The culture shock was unexpected and difficult to handle. It was far harder for me to readjust to home than it had been for me to adjust to Japan. Coming home is not always what it is cracked up to be!
Yesterday we observed the fiftieth anniversary of the entry of our nation into World War II. Some of you may remember what it is like to come home after serving in war. Following World War II, I had three uncles and several neighbors come home as different people. Veterans do not have an easy time readjusting to home. Veterans of the Vietnam war especially found it difficult to come home, and resume their lives.
I wonder what it was like for the 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent to come home following their unjust interment during World War II. They had lost their rights and some their property and possessions. Coming home must have raised mixed emotions--joy, pain, embarrassment, anger.
Coming home for the Jews who had been exiled in Babylon was also not easy. The Jews had been carried into exile when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians. 70 years later, when Babylon was conquered by the Persians, King Cyrus released the captive Jews and allowed them to go home. 70 years is a long time to be away from home; most of those who went home had never lived at home. They had sung the songs and heard the prophecies, like Isaiah, about going home and rediscovering the glory of the days when David ruled in righteousness and power. They dreamed of coming home where the land would be become miraculously fruitful and the rain would never fail to come when needed, when the nation would become so powerful and respected that other nations would come and serve them.
But, the reality was they were totally unprepared for the devastation and poverty that met them when they came home. They walked the streets of a flattened Jerusalem. So deeply were they depressed, so overwhelming was their inability to cope, and so much energy was expended in merely surviving, it took 23 years to rebuild the temple and 90 years to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem. For 90 years the city was exposed to invaders, plunderers, thieves, and scavengers. They were also depressed and demoralized because the temple they were able to rebuild was of no comparison to the magnificent temple that Solomon had built. The elderly who remembered the splendor of Solomon's temple wept when they saw the second temple.
It was during these depressing times the prophet we call Malachi preached. Actually, Malachi means "messenger", but as we don't know his real name, we call him Malachi. So depressed and cynical were the people that even those who had tried to remain faithful to the religion of their ancestors were asking the "why" questions. Why did this happen to us? What good does it to do to try to remain faithful? Where is the God of justice? And, perhaps, the saddest question they asked was, "What evidence is there that God loves us?" Malachi 1:2, "I have loved you, says the Lord. But you say, `How have you loved us?'"
In this climate of depression, cynicism and hopelessness, Malachi preached repentance and reformation. He rebuked them for doubting God's love. Malachi was upset, as were most of the prophets, by social injustice. He was (3:5) "against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan." Malachi was upset by adultery and easy divorce practices.
He rebuked the priests for exemplifying faithlessness and leading dispirited worship. Malachi was upset by the dispirited, lackadaisical, and indifferent worship services. They were going through the motions of ritual, but the heart had gone out of their worship. They were not contributing their 10% tithe. 3:8-10
Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, "How are we robbing you?" In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me--the whole nation of you! Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.
Besides not contributing their tithe, they were placing spoiled food on the altar, and bringing blind, lame and sickly animals to be sacrificed.
They offered God what was second best, not the best. They were stingy, content with mediocrity, cynical, depressed, and indifferent. It would be better, said Malachi in 1:10, to close the doors of the temple. The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard's analysis of his age also characterizes the age of Malachi, "This age will die, not from sin, but from a lack of passion. There is a deadness everywhere." And, Malachi prophesied, 3:3-4
He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord.
In Malachi we see the important balance between worship and ministry, between worship and social concerns. We are called to both worship God with our best, and go out into the world in mission and service. Malachi calls us to refine our worship and define our relationship with God in terms of our worship. The relationship we have with God is especially defined in terms of our financial giving, our tithe, and the quality of our worship.
The controversy is ancient between those who say our primary mission is to care for the poor, and those who say our primary responsibility is to provide buildings in which we worship God and provide instruments by which we worship God. We as a congregation are now faced with the problem of the chancel organ. The Organ committee has presented its report to the Trustees. The Trustees accepted the report and is now seeking input from the committees on Finance, Worship, Music and the Strategy Council before making a recommendation to the Administrative Council and ultimately the congregation. The recommendation calls for repairing and refurbishing of the organ at an approximate cost of $350,000; which, of course, we don't have, and which will have to be raised in a special campaign.
There are those who will say, "Think of the good we could do, the hungry we could feed, the missions we could support, with that money. It is wrong to spend that much money on something for ourselves." There are those who criticize the church of the middle ages for building magnificent cathedrals in the midst of poverty.
Malachi helps us realize there is a balance. A church that does not engage in mission is not a church; it is not faithful to God's call to serve the world and preach the gospel. Similarly, a church that does not worship God with its best will lose its heart and not long exist. It is the worship of God that has given birth to great architecture, art, poetry, drama, and music. Those majestic cathedrals, as well as the fine arts they spawned, have endured for centuries. It was the desire to worship God with our best that led our congregation to erect this magnificent structure in which we worship. This structure will endure for many years, testifying to the enduring, sustaining love of God.
Providing the best organ we can build for God's worship instead of doing mission is wrong. Likewise, doing mission without providing the best organ we can build in this magnificent sanctuary is also wrong. Why? Because impoverished worship will not long sustain mission. Worship is what defines who we are, and what we are about. Worship is what feeds our spirits so we have the motivation, stamina, and courage to engage in mission. When we compromise worship, and do not do our best, the importance of God in our lives is diminished, and the vitality of the church is weakened.
What does Malachi have to say to us personally? When you, like the disappointed Jews coming home, are depressed, discouraged, and hopeless, look upon your problems as refining fire, purifying and cleansing you. In this Advent season, prepare for Christmas and the new birth of the Christ child in your home and heart, by worshiping and serving. Worship God with your best--sing, pray, meditate, and give your best; and serve the poor and oppressed. Then Christmas will really come.
© 1991 Douglas I. Norris