At Halloween when I was a child, one of my brothers and I would trick-or-treat in the apartment complex where we lived. One year, we were both costumed as characters from the television science-fiction program Battlestar Galactica, which was popular at the time. But every year, we made the most efficient use of our time by starting out the moment trick-or-treating hours began, trying to garner as much candy as possible by hitting every apartment with its light on.
Each year we did well, collecting enough sweets to keep our dentist in business for years to come. It also happened each year that near the end of the evening, the last few apartments on the route would run out of candy. This wasn’t a problem; the residents would offer apples or perhaps a nickel or dime instead. Having given out all their firsts, which is candy, the residents moved on to secondary offerings. We didn’t mind.
Intro to the Passage from Malachi
This month’s reading from Malachi recounts a similar dynamic between God and the people of Israel. Recall that back in the Book of Daniel, the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem and took many of Judah’s brightest and best, including Daniel. By the time of Malachi’s prophetic work, God had delivered the exiles back to their homeland by means of the Medes and Persians, who crushed the Babylonians. God’s people now had permission to rebuild the city walls and resume temple worship. Despite God’s herculean patience and faithfulness, the people of Israel did not give God their first and best in sacrifice. Read this month’s passage and note that they gave God polluted foods along with sick, lame, and blind animals.
A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise My name. But you say, “How have we despised Your name?” By offering polluted food upon My altar. But you say, “How have we polluted You?” By saying that the LORD’s table may be despised. When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts.
Teaching Point 1: God Gives His First to Sinners
Deuteronomy 15:21 reads
But if it has any blemish, if it is lame or blind or has any serious blemish whatever, you shall not sacrifice it to the LORD your God.
God was clear and particular regarding what He would accept as sacrifice. There were and are at least two reasons for giving God the firsts of what we have. First, God is the giver of all good things, including food, drink, house and home, friends and family, and work. It is appropriate that we honor God with the best of what He has given us, that which belongs to Him anyway. Second, we honor God with our firsts because of what He has done.
Teaching Point 2: God Is Always the Giver
In addition to giving us so much, we recognize that God created us, redeemed us sinners in Christ Jesus, and blessed us with faith in Him by the work of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel. What is more, God sustains this faith in His provision of His Word and Sacraments. It is an inspiration to realize that even as God expects from us our best, He is blessing His people. As I give God the best of what He has given me, I am reminded of not only His faithful provision but also the assurance that He will continue to give. As I give God my firsts, I am reminded that our Lord is not only almighty but also loving, faithful, and patient. God is always the giver. I am always the recipient.
Despite this, we, like the people of Israel, usually gift God our seconds or thirds, if anything at all. We support the ministry of our local congregation only after we have enough for what we not only need but also want. We offer our time in service to the Lord with the scraps left over after we have completed all we wish to do with our time. In doing so, we not only dishonor God but also deprive ourselves of the joy and assurance that come because of giving our best as described above.
Teaching Point 3: God Gives Us His Best, Jesus
There is a third—and certainly most important reason the Lord calls us to give our best—and that is it keeps us mindful of God giving His best, Jesus Christ. Recall that at the first Passover, God called the people to slaughter a lamb without blemish and then apply its blood to the doorpost and lintel of their homes. Hundreds of years later, John the Baptist called Jesus Christ “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). The lamb of the Passover pointed to the Lamb of God, our Savior. God, in His mercy, gave us His best; not a mere human being, not an angel, but His own Son. Through faith in this First, we are forgiven for retaining our best for ourselves. What is more, God continues to give us His best in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, where we receive the true body and blood of the Lamb, sacrificed on the cross and risen from the grave.
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