Advent #2 2013 – From Formalism to Renewal

This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on December 8th, 2013. To listen to the audio, just click on this link – Mal 3.

Faith Tends to Become A Formality.

Historical Context:  The worship of Judah became a formality. Practically, it no longer made sense to them to offer healthy animals, or their tithes, to God.  Their attitude towards God changed, over time, from one of devotion to one of apathetic disinterest. This attitude is most clearly expressed in Mal.3:14-15 You have said, ‘It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept His charge, and that we have walked in mourning before the Lord of hosts?   So now we call the arrogant blessed; not only are the doers of wickedness built up but they also test God and escape.’

God sent prophets, like Malachi, to warn Judah, but they ignored the prophets until, finally, Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians and the people of Judah went into exile – their “day of the Lord”.

Our Spiritual Dynamic:  So what can we gain by looking at these ancient warnings to an ancient people?  On this Preparation Sunday we want to look at the spiritual dynamic of Faith – Formality – and Renewal, which we, as believers, continually go through.

What is formality?  Going through the motions of things without truly being engaged in them.  Any part of our faith can become a formality:  communion, preaching, service, study of scripture, or prayer.  These things are the gracious means through which God teaches us about grace and reveals himself to us.  However communion can just become a ritual.  Prayer can become a dishonest performance in which we just tell God what we think he wants to hear.  The study of scripture and even preaching can become dry – a duty in which our only hope is to be done – rather than to meet God.  Our tendency is to slip from an engaged faith – a responsiveness to God – into a more formalized faith, in which we go through the motions less thoughtfully.

This is why we need times of renewal, and one reason why the church calendar is helpful – because it gives us times to prepare  – times to repent – and times just to be ordinary.   We need these  different times because we are human, mortal.  We cannot maintain burning zeal without letdown any more than we can sustain a sprint over a lifetime.   The church calendar points us to the dynamic of seasons of faith – which is exactly the kind of thing we experience as followers of Christ – ups and downs – flatness and zeal – joy and despondency.


We Have a Choice of How We Will Respond to Formality.

The Response of Dishonesty and Disobedience:  This is what we see happening in Malachi 3:1.  If you hadn’t read Malachi chapters 1 & 2, this would sound like a very  joyful message:  Behold, I am going to send My messenger,  and he will clear the way before Me.   And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the Lord of hosts.  … but these words are ironic.

In fact these people were saying, probably as part of their ritual worship, that they were seeking the Lord and that they delighted in the messenger of God’s covenant (a legal agreement between God’s people and God as their king), but they neither expected nor wanted God to appear.  They were offering diseased, lame and blind animals for the sacrifice, rather than spotless lambs (see Mal.1:13).  They were perverting the instruction of the Lord and leading people astray (Mal.2:8).  They were not paying laborers their wages, oppressing widows and the fatherless (Mal.3:5).

How did they come to this point?  Their worship had become a formality, and they had decided that what no longer engaged them was no longer important or worth their effort.  This attitude towards God even bled over into their marriages. so that men, whose relationship with their wives had become a matter of formality, decided that their marriages were no longer worth the effort (Mal.2:14).

The Response of Repentance:  The other choice of responding to formalism is the choice to repent.  We can decide to turn from our formalism and to put forth the effort to seek God.  We can do this through perseverance in what are called the “means of grace”.  The means of grace are those practices through which God can create true knowledge, a graciousness, spiritual renewal in our hearts.

  • If we pay attention to the elements of communion and the gracious invitation of Jesus, then communion can, and should, make us more aware, grateful and hopeful towards God through Christ.
  • If we study the word of God believingly – hoping for and looking for truth and grace, our study can encourage and bless our souls, engage our minds, and give us reason to praise God.
  • If we pray with honesty, coming to God not with our dishonesty, our, “…cover-ups and counterfeit poses which seal us off from our true selves and from God”, but with honesty about who we are and where we are spiritually – God can work healing in our lives and change us.
  • If we serve others with humility, offering our service to God for his glory, God can awaken in us a love for people and reveal to us the servant love of Christ for us.

Jesus continually calls us through these portals into his gracious, enlivening, powerful presence.


Jesus Calls Us Away from Formalism to Renewal and Life.

God Lovingly Confronts Our Formalism: But who can endure the day of His coming?   And who can stand when He appears?  These are frightening words, intended to warn the Israelites that, in their present state of formalism and disobedience, judgment was going to be a terrible thing.  But these were not the only words God was saying to these people.  God said these words to his people, through his prophet because his desire was that they would repent.  This is clearly seen in Malachi 3:7 – From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My statutes and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you…. What God wants is not our destruction, but that we would be his people – whom he has created – whom he loves – lovingly engaged with him.

Jesus Has Become Our Refining Fire:  Because of God’s desire for us he sent Jesus.  The “Day of the Lord”, which was so destructive for the unrepentant Jews, was followed by another “Day of the Lord” – a greater fulfillment, in which the Lord himself appeared in a human body.

And what happened in this day of the Lord?  Jesus was like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap, in his teaching and in his living.  Ultimately he refined God’s people and removed their impurity on the cross.  Through him we have passed through the “Day of the Lord” once, and because of him we are able to be prepared and to look forward to his coming.

Jesus Calls Us to Renewal and Life: Now, we live in Jesus and in the process of being refined – made holy in practice.  Our tendency is towards formalism – and towards dishonesty about our formalism.  We have a tendency to put our faith on automatic pilot – to pray in a way that sounds right, rather than pouring out our  hearts to God – to read our Bibles quickly and without much thought – to take communion thinking more about what other people are doing than about drawing near to God through our participation – to serve God’s people as a duty rather than in loving devotion.

We tend to ignore these things, but Jesus is committed to our renewal and calls us to honesty.  Jesus has refined us and Jesus is refining us.  He is calling us to recognition and confession.  His offer is not condemnation but loving forgiveness, encouragement and grace to help us.

Conclusion:  So this morning, let us respond by understanding the dynamic cycle of our spiritual walk with God.  Let us recognize our tendency towards formalism, and our continuing need for renewal – not as something strange, but as part of our fallen life in this world.  Let us trust in Jesus whose Spirit is always preparing us to receive him at his coming, by calling us out of formalism towards renewal.  Let us rest in the knowledge that the grace of Jesus is sufficient for wayward people.  Amen.

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