Recently, my church finished a series on the Old Testament book of Malachi. If you have never read it because you don’t even know where it is, pick up a Bible, find the Gospel of Matthew and flip back two pages. And it’s pronounced Mal Lai Kai, not Mal La Tchi. 🙂
The story of Malachi begins with the Israelites back in the Promised Land after 70 years in Babylon. Under Ezra the scribe, they have begun rebuilding the homes. And then Nehemiah comes as the new governor with an imperial edict to rebuild the walls and the temple. It was Nehemiah, not Donald Trump who said, “I’m going to build the wall and you’re going to pay for it.” Only it was to the Persians, not to the Mexicans. Sorry. Throwing in some political humor…. 😛
However, spiritual malaise crept in. It happened once before; another prophet named Haggai called them out on it. God asked the Israelites; “You built your houses but when will you finish building mine?” The Israelites seemed to have listened. Things got better, and then they start sliding back again. In fact, things go so bad that the Israelites were offering shoddy and blemished animals as sacrifices. Men and women were divorcing and just demonstrating bad behavior.
Worse of all, the Israelites had the audacity to tell God that they have done nothing wrong. God tells His people that He loves them with a great love and that He has protected them, but they have repaid his generosity with disdain and stubbornness. And the Israelites even dared to ask why bother with the sacrifices when they got little out of it.
I said earlier that our series title was called In/Distinct. Why this name? Because at the end of the day, the Israelites were not much different than their neighbors. In the pagan world of the 6th century BC, everyone offered sacrifices to their gods. How were the Israelites supposed to be different, to stand out from society?
- The Israelites’ sacrifices were supposed to be about the forgiveness of sins. The pagans offered sacrifices because they wanted something from their “gods.”
- The Israelites’ lifestyle was supposed to be different than their pagan neighbor. They supposed to do things God’s way.
- Third, above all, God’s relationship with His people were not transactional but familial. When I say transactional, I mean quid pro quo – I scratch your back, you scratch mine. In religious context, a supplicant offers a goat to the goddess of fertility and in return she will have a smooth pregnancy. But when it comes to a familial, there is no give-and-take. My family and friends ask me for help and I will give no strings attached, no return favor required.
And what about Christians today? How distinct are we from the rest of society? Is the church behaving or misbehaving?
Here are some questions we have to ask ourselves. Now, I’m not perfect and I certainly don’t have all the answers. I am certainly not accusing anyone of anything. I don’t have anyone or any church in mind.
- Is our relationship with God translational or familial? Do we go to God and ask Him to do something for us because we did something for Him? OR, do we treat God like our earthly parents – where I do things for Jesus because I love Him – no strings attached?
- And what about our behavior? I mentioned divorce; according to a Barna poll from years ago, the divorce among Christians is not much more different than among nonbelievers. Maybe it’s gotten better, maybe it’s gotten worse. Nevertheless, should Christians be distinct?
- And what about the church? Does the church promote a message of God’s love? Or what you can do for God just so He can bless you – the health and wealth gospel?
God has forgiven you in Christ, no animal sacrifices required. God longs to be your Heavenly Father by adoption in Christ, no need to prove yourself. In fact, I think God might even be insulted to think you can bargain with him. After all, if you found out that all someone wants something from you solely in hopes you doing something for them, wouldn’t you be incensed?
That was what happened described in Malachi’s time in the 400s BC. And looking closely in the 2010s, we see much of the same. Somehow, whether intentionally or unintentionally, Christians can come across as another religion of do’s and don’t’s. We’ve become indistinct.
Question: When was the last time Christians became distinct again (in a good way)?