Glory to God!
I wonder what you thought of that reading from Malachi – pretty strong stuff. That kind of language is not very often heard in our circles – in fact most of that reading never appears in the common lectionary of Sunday texts that so many churches use; ever. We will get back to Malachi in a minute, but first to the angels.
This stewardship season we have been looking at biblical songs: Hannah’s, Mary’s, Zechariah’s, and now the angel’s song. Though Christmas is past for the year, these songs are incredibly relevant and have a message for us, today, and so does Malachi the prophet – in fact their messages overlap.
Now, the angels. Either the angels sang a very short song, or it only had one verse which they kept repeating. But it is a great song; it gets right to the point: Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors.
Have you ever considered how those two are connected – giving glory to God and experiencing peace? They are not connected because God put them together like lettuce and tomato, rather they are inherently connected, like blossoms and bees. Glorifying God is an essential condition of peace.
Now, do not let your eyes glaze over and your mind wander away; this is not pious religio-speak disconnected from real life: I am talking about real life.
Everyone in this room, I would guess, including me, is feeling somewhat anxious today. Most of us here are past the point of worrying about loosing our jobs; probably the majority here have their homes paid for – though I know that is not the case with others, like me, and so we have additional reasons to feel anxious. But all of us are watching the value of investments plummet. All of us are wondering if a trillion dollar bail out will actually work – the stakes are enormous – either way. We wonder about the future of Social Security and Medicare, the price of prescriptions and everything medical. We have children – many of us have grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, and we feel anxious about the world they are going to live in for these reasons and many more besides.
Where, we may ask, is all that peace the angels sang about?
We need look no further than the shepherds, watching their flocks by night. It is common to notice that the earth-changing message of the birth of Jesus was announced first to the poor; to people at the bottom of the economic food chain and social hierarchy, not to kings or even to temple priests.
Poor, low-class shepherds heard the angels song, and, since they did what the angels told them to do – they went to find the newborn Messiah – we can assume that they believed the message of the song. Glorify God, and experience his peace.
Shalom: for shepherds
Peace of course, is “shalom”; not just the absence of conflict; not only a feeling of calm, but total well-being. It is the deep experience that the Shepherd of Psalm 23 brings, “I shall not want.”
Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth shalom among those whom he favors.
Nobody wants to be a shepherd. It’s not a good job. The hours are long, the conditions are rough, and the pay is horrible. There is no future in it. “Our daily bread” is as much as you can ever hope for. But shepherds who glorify God, who put their trust and their hope in him, can have shalom.
Shalom is possible for shepherds – at least for shepherds who give glory to God. Shepherds believe that Messiah has come, not to make them rich, but to bring God’s kingdom to earth.
The covenant community of mutuality and generosity
In God’s kingdom, the people are bound to one another in a covenant community of mutuality and generosity. They care for each other, tend to each other, never on the basis of status or wealth. They do not live according to the values of the day; they know that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions. (Luke 12:15) And so they freely give, and humbly receive each other’s gifts. This covenant community Glorifies God who made them, who came to be with them, who forgave them, and who empowers them. This is the Shalom of the Shepherds – which both comes from and leads to giving glory to God.
This shepherd’s shalom is what God gives us, right here today. We too, give glory to God, recognizing that he is the source of every good gift; barbecue, brass band music, warm days in January in Gulf Shores Alabama, and the people we are surrounded by at this minute. The shalom of the shepherds that we have is because we know that we too are members of this covenant community of mutuality and generosity. The Lord is our shepherd; we shall not want. Even in anxious times like these. Especially in anxious times like these.
But what happens when the covenant community does not glorify God? What if the covenant that should have bound them together is forgotten? What if they start to believe that they are on their own; no one is looking after them; the good gifts of life are self-made and scarce?
Then the fist clenches around the coins; and there is neither glory to God, nor shalom.
This is why we read Malachi. That is what had happened to his community. What were the signs?
The first was obvious: they started robbing God – he says without regard to hurting feelings and offending. They kept back their tithes – their 10% – because why in the world would you glorify God in your giving if he is not the source of your gifts? Malachi called it robbery precisely because he knew that 100% of everything they had came from God – who only asked a scant 10% in return.
What else, Mr. Malachi, is characteristic of such a perspective? Listen again to his description:
5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the LORD of hosts.
- Sorcerers: those who break the covenant to worship God alone.
- Adulterers: those who break the covenant of marriage.
- Those who swear falsely: those who break the community covenant to live justly.
- Those who oppress the hired workers in their wages: who break their economic commitments to other members of the covenant community.
And who would end up as a hired wage worker? The widow and the orphan. The weak. These types end up taking jobs nobody wants – like being shepherds.
This community has broken down. No glory is given to God – and so God is robbed, and the whole community unravels into selfishness, unfaithfulness, and injustice; there is no shalom.
Malachi connects robbing God in the tithe with the effects on widows and orphans for good reason. Every third year in Israel, the tithe was collected specifically to support the widows and orphans. When God was robbed, so were they. (Deut. 14:28-29)
We are living in similar times.
There is a solution. Malachi names it with one word; “return”. The Lord says:
7Return to me…
and he immediately adds a promise of response:
and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.
But that begs the practical question: “How?”
But you say, “How shall we return?”
This is where Malachi brings in the money: How do we return to God – really?
8 Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! …10 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. – which sounds like “shalom” to me.
Is this not what the Lord Jesus was thinking when he said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matt. 6:21)
The angels do not sing: “Glory to Wall Street and shalom, peace on earth”.
Nor do they sing, “Glory to the personal nest egg and peace on earth”.
Nor, “Glory to the un-covenanted consumer, and peace on earth”
There is no glory in mis-attributing the source of all good gifts, and there is surely no shalom when the essential covenant is broken.
Today is our day to act on Malachi’s word. Today is our day to “return.”
Today we return to the Lord with our pledges of tithes, our offerings of our hours and minutes of life, our abilities and gifts of service.
Today we affirm that we are a covenant community of mutuality and generosity.
Today we boldly acknowledge the source of everything good in our lives, and we join the angels in giving glory to God!
Today we assert our hope for shalom, for peace, for well-being; we have found our shalom in God whom we glorify, and in the covenanted community he has created for us.
Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth shalom among those whom he favors.