I presented a form of the following as a Sacrament Meeting talk in our Stake this past Sunday, February 19, 2012. My assigned topic by our Stake President was Malachi 3:8-10.
President Uchtdorf gave vital counsel this past week as part of his keynote message in the Worldwide Leadership Training broadcast.
As part of the message, he notes the importance of viewing the scriptures not simply as an answer key, but as a catalyst to new learning, and further revelation. He emphasized the importance of continuing to seek learning from even familiar scriptures, especially when we feel certain we already know what they mean.
President Uchtdorf said,
"Unfortunately, we sometimes don't seek [new] revelation or [new] answers from the scriptures ... because we think we know the answers already... as good as our previous experience may be, if we stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop pondering, we can thwart the revelations of the Spirit. Remember, it was the questions young Joseph asked that opened the door for the restoration of all things. We can block the growth and knowledge our Heavenly Father intends for us. How often has the Holy Spirit tried to tell us something we needed to know but couldn't get past the massive iron gate of what we thought we already knew?"
Along with President Uchtdorf, I invite you to follow this counsel next time you hear familiar scriptures, such as the ones often repeated in Sunday School lessons, or memorized as Scripture Mastery. The ones that you have an automatic answer as to 'what it means' - I invite you to study them further.
Our Stake President has taught that it is regularly the case that the stories found in the scriptures can contain greater lessons when viewed as an illustrative whole, than when viewed as simply the sum of its individual quotes and verses.
In the spirit of this counsel by both a General President and our Stake President, my message comes from exploring Malachi 3:8-10.
Many of you will immediately recognize that reference, and be thinking, "Ah, yes. The Tithing Scripture." Some of you may already now be reciting it silently to yourselves.
If I asked one of you to sum up what that scripture teaches us, many would sum it up simply: "Pay your Tithe and you'll receive blessings from the Lord". And that is indeed a true and powerful message contained in that passage. It's a simple principle that I have experienced in action in my own life.
In The Book of Mormon, in Third Nephi, we can find the story of Jesus using this scripture in a fascinating and unique way as part of a connected and personalized teaching experience to reinforce not only the surface principles we generally gain from it, but to also lovingly inspire his people, and to confirm their already righteous actions and desires. He uses it not as a rebuke, or even a call to repentance. Jesus doesn't use the scripture in that instane to tell his audience that they're missing out on blessings!
Most of you remember the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. You either saw it on the news, or personally traveled in its wake to contribute aid and relief. You are also familiar with the additional coverage on the news of Tsunamis and Earthquakes that have occurred worldwide, and seen the devastation and grief, and sorrow they leave behind.
In the early chapters of Third Nephi, such a horrible natural devastation has occurred, and many, many have been killed or wounded. In the silence of the aftermath, the historian Mormon tells us that "a voice [came] heard among" the survivors , "crying" its message.
The key repeating theme of that divine message is easy to recognize - it's a call to return to God, and an invitation to be healed. It was a message of hope.
But it didn't immediately calm their broken hearts, for "after the people had heard these words... they began to weep and howl again because of the loss of their kindred and friends."
No matter who they had been before the rampaging storms, their lives had now changed. They were all now the poor, the destitute, the needy. Many had surely become orphans. Many had surely become widowed. The misery and destruction and loss was real. Not just a hypothetical.
But still, we learn that many hearkened to the call and truly desired to walk back to feel the Joy of God's presence. I don't know how they fully understood the message, but I see indications that they understood one part of it to be a very literal call to begin a journey to return to God - even to the House of God.
As the eleventh chapter of Third Nephi begins, we find that Nephites have gathered from devastated regions all around to a single key location: the Temple at Bountiful.
Think about what must have been involved in that - the emotionally and physically ravaged, coming together, journeying together, uniting together to seek healing.
It is after these journeys have occurred that we read "that there [was] a great multitude gathered together, of the people of Nephi, round about the temple which was in the land Bountiful; and they were marveling and wondering one with another, and were showing one to another the great and marvelous change which had taken place."
Since we have just had the image of massive natural destruction strongly illustrated, it is natural for us to read this 'great' change as being in reference to the land.
But after what was probably a few months following the devastation, and the results of a journey and gathering, it strikes me to think that perhaps the "great and marvelous change" could have been something more significant - the sight of what they as a community of faithful Saints have become, as individuals who were very literally "desirous to come into the fold of God, and to be called his people," who showed by their actions that there were very "willing to bear one another's burdens, that they may be light .. and [were] willing to mourn with those that mourn; ...and comfort those that [stood] in need of comfort."
In such circumstances, one's mind may be drawn to Matthew's record of Christ saying, "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
As the Nephites were marveling at the love and service around them, there, gathered together at the Temple, they had a powerful encounter with the Living Christ.
It's hard for me to comprehend how they must of felt when they had the realization the Risen Lord had come to dwell among them. This reality was made shockingly clear – and intimate – with his invitation to each individual to handle the signs of the wounds of the Great Suffering Servant.
It is instructive, especially as one who seeks to be a disciple of Christ, to see how the Master Teacher approached this loyal group of humble saints.
In a variation of Jesus' most well known New Testament Sermon, He addresses the poor in substance and spirit, the mourners, the meek, the hungry and thirsty, the merciful, the peacemakers, and the suffering faithful.
The Nephite audience encapsulated all of these attributes. And Christ shares with them a message of hope and praise: they have obtained the Kingdom of Heaven, they are being comforted, they have been spiritually nourished, they have seen mercy, they have seen God, and are named among the Children of God.
It is my feeling that Christ was explaining to them that they had obtained all of these blessings even before he descended from heaven to declare it to them. By their faithful and active love for each other, they have brought all of those blessings among each other. Even before Christ appeared in the flesh, they had seen Him in each other, indeed a "great and marvelous change."
Shortly after this, Jesus turned to the ancient scriptures, and in expounding them gave them new meaning and significance.
And this is where Malachi 3:8-10 comes into play.
But, as Jesus did on this occasion, I'm going to begin a few verses earlier than we often do. While this passage was originally addressed to a wicked self-serving Israelite group in the years following the Babylonian exile, I invite you to listen from the perspective of the humble Nephite survivors that were presently being taught and comforted by the Risen Lord, where they had gathered at his Temple at Bountiful.
Jesus quotes, "[The] Lord whom ye seek shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in; behold, he shall come, saith the Lord of Hosts. But who may abide the day of his coming, and who shall stand when he appear[s]? "
Again, think of the Nephite crowd, those who were just then not only abiding in, but basking in the day of his coming, and found standing in awe and love when he did appear.
The Malachi passage then expresses the type of people who would not abide and find pleasure in such an encounter. For all intents and purposes, Jesus is witnessing to the Nephites exactly who they are not:
"And I will come near to you ... [but] I will be a swift witness against the ... adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, [those who oppress] the widow and the fatherless, and [those] that turn aside [and do not assist] the stranger...For I am the Lord, I change not."
The Lord then shares what the message was against those wicked ones, those who, again, were in direct contrast in heart of the Nephites at Bountiful. They received a very familiar invitation from the Lord.
Malachi reads "Return unto me and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of Hosts."
The Nephite faithful had returned unto the Lord, both literally, to the Temple, and as manifest in their unselfish and charitable actions and commitment to each other as a community - as the Children of God. By emulating Christ's love, they had returned to Him in Spirit and in Truth.
But those Malachi was originally addressing, those who were, just as the Nephites, around the corner from a real Temple, challenged the invitation, wondering what more they possibly would be required to do. They ask in what ways more should they 'return'. They'd done what was required, was the implication. But now God was rejecting them rather than coming to comfort them. What was going on?
The Lord, answers, famously, in the form of a question.
"Will a man rob God?"
What a strange answer. It immediately turned the question back to them. The Lord isn't noted as waiting for their answer. The Israelites may not have thought such a thing as robbing God was possible, but the Lord informed them, " Yet ye have robbed me."
"Wherein have we robbed thee?"
"In tithes and offerings."
Tithes, or 'The Tenth', were, for both audiences, made up not of coin or money, but in their goods. Their food. Their animals. Their livelihood.
The Nephites at hearing this may have recalled the words of King Benjamin, who powerfully taught that wisdom is to recognize that "when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God." - or, when you are not serving others, you are not serving God. When you are robbing your brothers and sisters, you are in effect robbing God.
Matthew's Gospel features a Parable where an individual, told he had practically served the Lord, responds in confusion.
"Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
Malachi's direction from the Lord to his people is directly connected.
"Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat [or food] in my house;"
His house. His household. His family. Our family.
People were starving around Malachi's Israelites, both physically, and spiritually. And the people were not seeing to the needs of the community. You are cut off, the Lord said, not because you're not going through the ritual motions, but because you do not truly care for each other's needs. For my Family's needs.
However, this could so easily change. Show your love for me by showing your love for my people - your community.
"Prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of Hosts, if [as you do this] I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing that there shall not be room enough to receive it."
Here, now, comes a selection that I see as having a powerful effect on the Nephite Saints. Here, Jesus, through the words of Malachi, is showing the gathered Saints what blessings are already in store for them. Again, he is not calling them to repentance, he is comforting, and blessing their faithful, practical Christ-like love!
"And I," the Lord promised, "will rebuke the devourer for your sakes, and he shall not destroy the fruits of your ground... And all nations shall call you blessed"
When Mormon shows us what became of this community over the next few hundred years, we see that the promise was fulfilled. We see a model Zion people, and, from Mormon's perspective "surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God."
I remember as a child, growing up in a different Christian faith, being taught that tithes and offering are money we give to God.
My childlike mind accepted that true principal, leading to one day, wondering a very practical question - how do those who collect the money hand it over to God? Do they send it up to heaven? Does God come down to collect it? Does he send Angels? What does God do with that money? Does God need money?
There have been many lessons taught in the Church throughout the years surrounding the principle of tithing. Many focus on the spiritual and even temporal blessings that may come to the giver as a direct divine result of obedience to this principle. And having experienced some of those, I know there is powerful merit to that discussion.
But what I feel led to focus on today is the practical blessing that comes to the community of saints – the Covenant family of God – through giving of our resources to assisting our fellow brothers and sisters.
I've heard it said that tithing doesn't really benefit God, it's purely a test, or trigger for receiving personal blessings because, of course, God doesn't really need our money.
Might I suggest an alternative perspective.
Brothers and sisters, we are described in the scriptures as the Body of Christ. President Uchtdorf recently expressed in General Conference that we are, in very deed, the Lord's Hands. He works through us, and what we offer Him to use.
A faithful brother in my home ward is suffering from Cancer. Recently, he came to the stand, and expressed his love for the members present, and shared that he has truly and powerfully felt the arms of the Lord around him.
But he wanted to make sure we understood that when he spoke of the Lord's arms, he didn't mean the physical form of the Lord - but he wasn't speaking of something intangible either. He wanted us to know that the generous acts of love and assistance and service he has received from his fellow brothers and sisters as the very answers to his prayers were, in a very, very real way, the manifestation of the Lord's blessing in his life, as real to him as if he saw, as the Nephites did, the physical form of the Lord.
This resonated with me, because I too have seen the Lord's hand through the hands and hearts of others, in their acts of love and service in the wake of tragic loss and suffering in my own family's life.
The Lord can do all things as long as we, his arms and hands and feet do not resist His will. In practice, the Lord only has as much goods and services to distribute as we are willing to put back into His hands.
As I see the great work the Church has been able to accomplish, both spiritually and Temporally - such as through its Welfare Program - I am humbled that I am able to participate, and grateful for humble saints like you who express your love for the Lord by expressing love for His Children in returning to the Lord's Hands a portion of that which has come into your hands.
Part of our preparation for Sacred Temple Experience is participation in the principle of tithing. One of the many sacred roles of the Temple is to help us understand in a profound manner what it means to become more like Jesus Christ, and what it means to follow in His footsteps.
As Elder Christofferson expressed in the recent Leadership Training Meeting, "The core of [Temple] covenants ... include[es] sacrifice and consecration." - When you are already regularly contributing a tithe, you are expressing that you are already living these Laws in your heart, and you are indeed prepared to go before the Lord and formally commit to them.
It is partly because of this that I like to approach the commitment to Tithe and contribute Fast Offerings as being very much like an ordinance, such as the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. A regularly repeated physical and symbolic act which serves not only as a physical reminder, but also as a pledge of allegiance and willingness to serve the Lord and His People.
As we willingly give of our substance to for the betterment of the Community of Believers, as distributed through the discretion of the Lord's appointed leaders, we can, as we do with the sacrament, turn our minds to the Savior, the One who's very purpose is to give of himself to bring us Joy.
We can all have a conviction that even when our contribution may be monetarily small, we are truly and effectively serving others. The funds go throughout the world. Your tithes and offerings assist with materials and opportunities that "help members live the gospel of Jesus Christ, gather Israel through missionary work, care for the poor and needy, and enable the salvation of the dead by building temples..." - Tithes also assist many saints in furthering in their secular educational pursuits, helping them become more effective citizens and leaders.
Again, I am grateful for your contributions to the Lord's work, to the many individuals throughout the world whose lives have been bettered in immeasurable ways because of opportunities you have helped provide. It is truly an act of Christ-like love, and discipleship.