Genuine Worship

When is the last time you read through Malachi, the short book at the end of the Old Testament? If it has been a while, or if you have not pondered what Malachi’s prophecy is really all about and how it applies to Christians today as well, let me encourage you to read it, meditate on it and examine your heart and life in its light. I trust that this will serve as an introduction to what Malachi is getting at in those four chapters.

Malachi begins with an emphasis on the greatness of God as seen in His love for His people. The people, however, question that love. When God says, in verse 2, “I have loved you,” that indicates that He had loved them in the past and He still loved them now. The people, incredibly, asked, “How have you loved us?” When the Israelites questioned His love for them, God reminded them that He chose their forefather Jacob and his descendants–not Esau and his descendants–to be His servant-people. The Israelites’ faith, however, had given way to doubt and skepticism. They were ignoring God’s commands. They were neglecting worship or they were offering unacceptable sacrifices when they did go to the temple.

Now let me ask you, how often do we question God’s love today when we face hardships? This is the “what have you done for me lately?” attitude.

The priests were the first to be accused of abandoning God. God said, through Malachi, that they despised His name. They did not give Him the respect He deserved. They did not even act in the way that a good child or servant would act toward a father or master. A faithful son honors his father, but the priests were not honoring their heavenly Father. A faithful servant has reverent respect for his master, but the priests despised the name of the Lord.

Beginning in verse 7, God points to the defiled food they were offering on the altar to Him—-food they never would have offered their governor. These actions reveal an attitude of contempt toward God and they dishonor His greatness and holiness. By bringing lame, blind and sick animals to the priests to be offered to God, the people were revealing exactly how much God mattered to them. In Leviticus 22, God declared that the sacrificial animals were to be perfect, not sick or deficient in any way. Yet the people were bringing inferior animals—-the ones that were leftover or rejected and for which they had no other use-—and thinking that would be sufficient. Really this is mocking God! And the priests were just as bad, because they had the nerve to ask for God’s favor on those sacrifices!

What are we expressing about our love for God if we do not give Him our best? Sadly, many who profess Christianity today are the same way. They give God their leftovers-—whatever is easy or convenient or painless or superfluous. After all of their bills are paid and they have done all the things they want to do, if there is some money left over they might give God some. If there is nothing else going on on Sunday morning that they would rather do they might go to church. This is not what God deserves, expects or requires. Instead, we are to honor God and His greatness by offering Him the very best of our time, energy, talent, service and resources. The quality of our offerings will reveal the intent of our heart, and that is what God cares about and wants-—our hearts. God does not need our money, our time, our talents or anything else we could possibly give Him. And God is not really concerned with the quantity of our gifts. This is what Jesus was teaching His followers in the case of the widow’s mite.

In Luke 21:1-4, Jesus said, “these”—-the rich, who were putting in exponentially more money than the widow put in-—were giving out of their abundance. In other words, what they were giving did not cost them anything. There was no sacrifice involved. The widow, on the other hand, gave all that she had, which demonstrates two important things. First, her love for God exceeded everything else in her life; He was the most important thing to her. Second, she trusted that God would provide for her needs. Too often our temptation is to think of the expenses we have, all the things we need to do, and rationalize that if we give God a tithe, or more, then we will not have what we need to meet our obligations. The widow demonstrated that she trusted God. Now does this mean that we should all give everything that we have to the Lord? When I get my next paycheck should I sign the entire thing over to the church? No. There is such a thing as being foolish and prevailing upon God—-testing Him, really—-and that is a sin, too.

In Malachi 1:12, after declaring that His name would be exalted in the sacrifices of sincere believers in the future, God told the Israelites that they were profaning His name through their attitudes toward the required temple sacrifices. To profane something means to treat it as insignificant. God is holy; to treat Him as insignificant demonstrates contempt and extreme arrogance. The people were scorning the sacrifices, treating them as contemptible. They did not see any need to follow God’s instructions or to bring anything special for their offerings. They believed that offering any animal was fine as long as they offered one. They went beyond that, though, and even expressed doubts about the validity or need for the entire sacrificial system. The people either no longer believed in the system or they were so far from God that they did not even care. When God said to them that they were treating the process as a nuisance He uses a word that basically meant “a whole lot of trouble for nothing.” The people were just going through the motions; they had no conviction about what they were doing. Their heart was not in it. They were completing an activity purely out of habit. It was an empty ritual to them.

This will probably remind you of Genesis 4 when Cain and Abel brought their sacrifices to God. Abel brought what God required. Cain, however, did his own thing, thinking that should be good enough. It tells us that for Cain’s offering God had no regard, and that should be a lesson to us, as well.

Now in chapter 2, verses 1-9, God announced that He was turning from the people and bringing His curse on them. Not only were the people mocking God through their sacrifices, they were not honoring Him in their lives. They were marrying pagan wives and husbands who worshiped idols. Verse 1 reveals that the priests’ actions demonstrated contempt for God, for His temple and the entire sacrificial system. So God says, in verse 2, that He is going to curse them. Verse 8 tells us that they had turned away from God and what He had prescribed for them. We addressed much of this already in chapter 1. Now in verses 10-12, Malachi turns from addressing the priests to addressing the people. God called them to live honorable lives, fulfilling obligations to one another-—especially in their marriage relationships. The ESV uses the word “faithlessly” in verses 10 and following but the KJV and HCSB and some others use the word “treacherously.” That word occurs five times on verses 10-16 and its root meaning is “to cover” or “to act covertly.” The idea is acting falsely or deceitfully and trying to get away with it.

Verse 11 tells us that a detestable thing has been done. That is a strong word, meaning disgusting or loathsome. What had the people done? They had profaned the sanctuary of God by marrying daughters of a foreign God who worshiped pagan deities. When they came into the temple their presence defiled the temple. They were unclean. Even some of the priests were marrying unbelievers according to Ezra 9. Early in their history the Israelites had been instructed to marry within their own nation of worshipers because God wanted them to be uniquely His, not worshiping any other gods. God, through Malachi, was condemning marriages of Jews to idolaters or those outside of the Jewish faith, and the reason was purely to maintain religious purity. This had nothing to do with race or nationality. This was all about the relationship with God. This is akin to the New Testament instruction in 2 Corinthians 6 not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers. This is an important reminder of the necessity in choosing carefully ones spouse and of living a faithful and committed marriage. Later in this chapter it talks about husbands who were divorcing their wives so they could marry younger, pagan wives.

In an earlier post I addressed the topic of integrity in worship. That is the same thing here. God is telling the people that they cannot say they love Him and worship or live the way they are living. James 2:14 asks what good it is to say we have faith if we do not have works that demonstrate that faith. That is what Malachi is getting at here. The people of Jerusalem may have said they had faith, but they were not living it out. Their worship was ritualistic and hollow. Their lives were not demonstrating a sincere faith or even that they cared about how God wanted them to live. God is not interested in our professions. Neither is He interested in our hollow “acts of worship.” What He is interested in, what He wants, is our hearts. When our hearts are right with Him, our worship will automatically result. A heart that is right with God cannot help but worship Him.

“Sloppy Sabbath”

Interestingly, on the same day in which there was an extensive discussion in an online professional networking community of which I am a member regarding the manner in which so many Christians dress today for church or chapel, I also stumbled upon, quite by accident, an article on CNN from this past April entitled “Stop dressing so tacky for church.” The article, by John Blake and appearing on CNN’s Belief Blog, includes a picture to lead the article with the caption “Remember when people used to dress up for church? Casual Friday has now morphed into Sloppy Sabbath.”

Blake introduces his readers to Rev. John DeBonville, rector at the Church of the Good Shepard in Massachusetts, who has a real concern about the overly casual approach being taken by so many today when it comes to church attire. “It’s like some people decided to stop mowing the lawn and then decided to come to church,” he said. “No one dresses up for church anymore.” Blake’s description of the matter goes like this: “They saunter into church in baggy shorts, flip-flop sandals, tennis shoes and grubby T-shirts. Some even slide into the pews carrying coffee in plastic foam containers as if they’re going to Starbucks.”

This is all part of Blake’s introduction, designed to set the stage for the question of what really is appropriate to wear to church, or does it even matter? “The answers to these questions are not as easy as they may seem. The Bible sends mixed messages about the concept of wearing your Sunday best. And when pastors, parishioners and religious scholars were asked the same questions, they couldn’t agree, either,” Blake writes. Where they did find agreement, though, was in the fact that American culture has become more comfortable with sloppy dress in just about every area of life, from the workplace to the grocery store.

Blake allows Jennifer Fulwiler to introduce one reason for this change, one that I find entirely convincing. Reflecting on the fact that her great-grandfather would put on a coat and tie to go to the grocery store and that her grandparents–and many of their generation–would wear their very best clothes to fly on an airplane, Fulwiler comments, “We dress up for what we’re grateful for. We’re such a wealthy, spoiled culture that we feel like we have a right to fly on airplanes.” This mind shift has carried over into church: “Church is like air travel now – it’s no longer a big deal because people have lost their sense of awe before God.” Fulwiler offers the same approach I have used when having this conversation; if someone were invited to meet the Queen of England (her example), it is highly unlikely they would show up in jeans and a T-shirt. Several years ago there was a mild uproar over the fact that some college athletes had attended their meeting with the President of the United States wearing flip-flops for the same reason.

Yet, Blake writes, the idea that the importance one attaches to an occasion is reflected in his or her wardrobe choice is an idea that is “hopelessly old school” in many places in the United States, including many megachurches. Interestingly, though, Blake–whether intentionally or not–proceeds to provide a reason for that that supports the point Fulwiler is making above. “[M]any of the popular megachurch pastors are middle-aged men who bound onto the stage each Sunday dressed in skinny jeans, untucked Banana Republic shirts, and backed by in-house Christian rock bands,” he writes. “They’ve perfected a ‘seeker-friendly’ approach to church that gets rid of the old formal worship style with its stuffy dress codes.” In other words, those who recognize the importance, significance and meaning for coming into the House of the Lord to worship Him have consciously decided to “dress down” so that those who do not recognize that will not fell uncomfortable. I am wholeheartedly opposed to the notion–once common in some churches–that individuals who do not arrive at church dressed in “Sunday best” should be turned away, shunned or chastised in any way. Ones attire cannot be permitted to become a stumbling block that would prevent that person from coming to know the truth of the gospel or the love of God.

Blake next turns back to the other side of the argument, quoting Constance M. Cherry, “an international lecturer on worship and a hymn writer.” She says, “Many young people and boomers judge the value of worship service based on personal satisfaction. If I get to wear flip-flops to Wal-Mart, then I get to wear flip-flops to church. If I get to carry coffee to work, I get to carry coffee to church. They’re being told that come as you are means that God wants you to be comfortable.” Therein lies the real heart of the matter, I believe; a worship service is not about “personal satisfaction.” It is also not about what anyone is wearing, of course, but the external reflects the internal, and those who approach church attendance with a casual “whatever works for me” attitude are quite possible going to approach the Bible and their relationship with God with the same attitude.

Much to my satisfaction, Blake includes in his article this statement regarding the notion that “God wants you to be comfortable”: “The Bible says that’s not true – people had to prepare themselves internally and externally for worship.” Citing Cherry again, Blake points out that in the Old Testament Jews had to be ceremonially clean before entering the temple and that both the Old and New Testaments teach that God should not be approached casually.

Blake also cites Carl Raschke, though, a professor at the University of Denver, who says that the early church did adopt a come-as-you-are approach to attend church and who points to Mark 12:38 where Jesus reproached the Pharisees for their fine clothes. The reality, though, is that Jesus was not mocking or criticizing the Pharisees’ attire. Rather, He was chastising them for focusing so much on the external and ignoring the internal. The Pharisees were masters of looking good without actually being good or doing good. They were all about the show, all about appearing impressive and above others. Jesus took them to task for that and He would do the same today if someone were to show up in church dressed to the nines but completely focused on themselves and impressing others.

Blake points out that others who espouse the come-as-you-are approach to worship point to James 2 in which James instructs the first century church not to show favoritism to those who are well-dressed, giving them preferential treatment over those who are poor or poorly dressed. Again though, James was not condemning dressing up for church; his letter cannot be interpreted to mean that God does not want us to dress well when we gather to worship Him when we are able to do so. Rather, James was condemning the practice of treating those who were well-dressed in a better or preferential manner out of a desire to impress and please the wealthy attendees. There is absolutely no place in Christianity for treating anyone different based solely on their clothing.

Therein lies the root of the issue. What anyone wears to church is not about, should not be about, what anyone else thinks. I dress up for church every Sunday. The only nod I have made to being more casual is that I seldom wear a suit jacket anymore, but it’s always dress pants, dress shirt and tie for me. I am in a very small minority in my church that dresses that way–it is not even unusual for me to be better dressed than the pastor. I often speak in other churches, and it is the exception rather than the rule for there to be anyone else in those churches wearing a tie when I am there. I do not think those in jeans and t-shirts or in khakis and polo shirts are any less holy than me or that I am any more mature in my faith than they are simply because of the difference in our dress, and I certainly hope others do not think I think that or think that I am in any way better because of my attire. I dress up to go to church because I think it’s the right thing to do. If I can wear a tie to work every day there is absolutely no reason I cannot and should not wear one to church. If I will put on my best to attend a wedding or a funeral there is absolutely no reason I should not put on my best to worship Almighty God.

The bottom line is this–I do not think that one’s attire has anything to do with their ability to worship God and I certainly do not think any church should have a dress code. I am sure that there are Sundays when those in t-shirts are more in tune with the Lord or receive more from the service than I do in my tie. So please do not interpret anything I am saying here to mean that I think you better get your act together and start dressing for church. What I do think is that you should take time to ask yourself why you dress the way you do when you go to church. If you dress up, is it because you are doing so as an act of worship and as a reflection of your attitude toward the Lord, or is it so that you can impress others? If you dress casually, is it so that you can be comfortable or because you don’t think God cares what you wear anyway, or is it because church is just one more place to go, no different than any other activity?

I’m not judging you and I hope you’re not judging me…but we should all take the time to judge ourselves and take a look at why we dress the way we do. God doesn’t really care about the clothes themselves, but He does care about the why.