Sermon: Are You Just Going Through the Motions? - Malachi 1

A model sermon: God spoke through Malachi to apathetic and complacent Judah, calling them back to serious worship. As an antidote to going through the motions in worship, this is what God expects.

Sermon series: Apathy - Who Cares?

  1. Are You Just Going Through the Motions? - Malachi 1
  2. Do You Honor Your Commitments? - Malachi 2
  3. How Do You Treat God? - Malachi 3
  4. Sermon: What is Your Decision? - Malachi 3-4

Scriptures: Malachi 1:1-14


Nate cautiously approached his pastor one day and admitted, "I'm not sure what the problem is. I feel empty inside."

This confession concerned his pastor considerably since Nate was one of his most faithful laypersons. Whenever the pastor called a meeting or needed something done around the church, Nate and Nancy always showed up. "Tell me about it," the pastor said.

"Well, I just feel like I am going through the motions. Doing church work, helping people, and even attending worship do not energize me anymore," moaned Nate. "I'm tired of doing stuff. I'm living a lifeless religion."

The Jews living in Jerusalem were just going through the motions in their worship when Malachi arrived on the scene. Malachi, the man, is shrouded in mystery. Little is known of him, except his name, which means "my messenger." He may be described as a vigorous, clear-cut personality who strongly opposed anyone who treated the Temple and the things of God with indifference. Carelessness in worship offended him. He wanted to restore the genuine worship of God based on a true relationship with Him. He was a fearless reformer who spoke without hesitation or embarrassment.

He addressed the Jews who had returned to their land after living in exile for 70 years. They had rebuilt the Temple and reestablished the worship of God. Externally, everything seemed okay. But inwardly a cancer of complacency ate away at their commitment. As God's final spokesman prior to John the Baptist, Malachi arrived to challenge God's people.

The Book of Malachi is structured as a seven-cycle argument between God and his people. Different from other prophetic books that focus on discourses, the Book of Malachi takes the form of a dialogue or argument in which God speaks and the people answer back. God tells the people how he expects them to live, the people respond with a cynical question, and then God expands on his original concern.

Malachi begins by telling them that God loves them with a tender, affectionate, and unconditional love. In return, our only reasonable response is to worship him with devotion and sacrifice. Anything less would be disingenuous. Unfortunately their worship had become insincere, going through the motions.

God spoke through Malachi to these apathetic and complacent people, calling them back to serious worship in chapter one. God told them, and us, what he wants in worship. As an antidote to going through the motions in worship, God expects:

I. The greatest reverence

"A son honors his father, and a servant his master. But if I am a father, where is My honor? And if I am a master, where is your fear of Me? says Yahweh of Hosts to you priests, who despise My name" (Mal. 1:6). In the original Hebrew the word honor means literally to be heavy. So when you honor someone it means you treat them as a heavyweight in your life - someone of extreme importance, someone of great significance, someone who is huge.

When God says in the Ten Commandments, "Honor your father and your mother," he's not saying just obey them and respect them, but treat them as if they're truly significant to you.

God says here: I'm a father. I'm a master. I expect honor. I expect reverence. Don't treat Me with contempt. Far more significant than the gifts on the altar is the heart of the worshipper. God wants to find a heartfelt attitude of honor and respect toward Him, an attitude that recognizes who He is and how gracious He has been.

Years ago, Henry Ward Beecher, was one of the most famous preachers in America. People from all over the nation came to worship at his church. One Sunday he was absent, and a visiting preacher substituted for him. When the visiting minister came to the pulpit the people realized that Henry was gone. Some of the people started for the doors. The minister said, "May I have your attention. All those who came this morning to worship Henry Ward Beecher may now withdraw from the church. All who came to worship God may stay."

People may come to a worship service for many superficial reasons: to hear a certain preacher, to watch their children perform, to visit with their friends, to fulfill an obligation, to enhance their business opportunities, to see what everyone else is wearing. But only one reason is acceptable - to give honor and praise to God. Worship is not an attempt to entertain worshippers or to stir their emotions. Worship is not an attempt to manipulate worshippers' minds and hearts. Worship is not an attempt to indoctrinate persons. Worship is, first of all, an attempt to focus our attention on God, to honor Him.

II. The best response

God made His allegation to the priests, the professional worshippers. They should have known better. They were responsible for the people's obedience. Now the priests reply with a question. "Yet you ask: 'How have we despised Your name?' 'By presenting defiled food on My altar.' You ask: 'How have we defiled You?' When you say: 'The LORD's table is contemptible.' 'When you present a blind animal for sacrifice, is it not wrong? And when you present a lame or sick animal, is it not wrong? Bring it to your governor! Would he be pleased with you or show you favor?' asks the LORD of Hosts" (Mal. 3:6-8). The priests were accepting not just the second-best from the people, but worse than that. They were bringing God sick sheep and gross goats. They were offering worthless anmials.

Old Testament law required people to offer God sacrifices from their flocks and herds. If they had an animal that was no good for breeding and wasn't going to fetch much of a price at the butcher shop, they would give it to the Lord. God says: I don't want those tainted sacrifices.

We no longer offer God animal sacrifices, because Christ became our sacrifice. He has borne the penalty of our sin, like the animal sacrifices in Old Testament times bore the penalty of those people's sin. God, however, is quick to tell us that in response to what his Son has done for us the only reasonable response is to give back to God our best.

My older brother, Jerry, was my baseball coach in Little League. He always expected us to play our best, to go all out. I remember one time at practice I wasn't giving it my all. He called me over, put his arm around me, and said, "Rick, you can do better than that."

God says to us: You can do better than that. You say: Better than what? Better than blemished sacrifices, better than leftovers.

The Bible presents three standards for sacrifices:

A. Give the best

I was with a group of pastors the other day. One of those guys grew up on the mission field. He told about the time his parents paid $100 dollars for a shipment of clothes from the states. When they opened the crate they discovered that all the clothes had the buttons and zippers removed. They spent money on a shipment that was worthless. I wonder how often God must feel the same way. Do you give God your best?

B. Give to God first

God is never to get leftovers. Many years ago my wife and I were called to pastor a small church that gave us a "pounding" - a throwback from the old days. Church members would bring a pound of flour, or sugar, or sausage, to help the pastor's family set up house. When we arrived at the parsonage for our first night in our new home, we opened the cupboards to discover the shelves were filled with canned goods, the refrigerator was stocked to overflowing, and several craft items were lying on the kitchen counter to decorate the new home. We were very thankful and appreciative.

But as we began to place the craft items around the house we noticed that some items had pieces missing and others were broken. When we checked out some of the items in the refrigerator they had already passed their expiration date. Then we started to go through the canned goods in the cupboard. Some were so old that rust was on the cans. While many of the church members donated items that were of good quality others gave items that were destined for the garage sale or the garbage can instead redirected to our pounding. They gave leftovers.

We had two simultaneous emotions: one was of great joy for the generosity of many of the people and the other was of great sadness for getting unwanted discards. I wonder if God often feels the same way.

C. Give what costs you

Giving should be sacrificial. David wanted to offer a sacrifice to God. He wanted to buy a man's threshing floor to build an altar to the Lord. The man offered to give oxen for the offering and wood for the fire. Instead of looking for a shortcut, David said, "No, I insist on buying it from you for a price, for I will not offer to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing" (2 Samuel 24:24).

What does it mean to give less than the best? What does it look like to give to God last? What does it mean to make gifts that cost us nothing?

  • It's when I spend an hour in an evening reading the USA Today cover to cover and then in the five minutes before I fall asleep I read God's Word. That's offering God the leftovers.
  • It's when we bring to our careers our best energy, our best talent, our best motivation, but when it comes to serving the body of Christ we either sit on the sidelines or look for something that requires the least amount of energy.
  • It's when we spend a lot of money on ourselves for a summer vacation, but when it comes to giving God an offering we look at the budget and say, "What's left over here?"
  • It's when we watch a Clemson or Carolina score a touchdown and leap off the sofa in jubilation, but in worship we sit passively with our hands on our lap.
  • It's when we love our kids so much there is nothing we wouldn't give them, but if we're honest our heart doesn't beat that fast for God.

We make no apologies here when we challenge you to bring your best. I stand before you and say God deserves minimally the first ten percent of your income. That's what Scripture teaches. I make no apologies when I say get involved in ministry and service here. Roll up your sleeves. Use the talents and gifts God's given you. Find a place to serve. Worship God enthusiastically.

All too often we have a sentimental grandfatherly view of God. We think He winks at our sins, and no matter what we give Him He says, "Oh, that's great. Thank you so much." Notice what God says about such an attitude: "'And now ask for God's favor. Will He be gracious to us? Since this has come from your hands, will He show any of you favor?' asks the LORD of Hosts" (Mal. 1:9-10). God says: Shut the temple doors. It's better not to come to church. It's better not to pretend to be spiritual than to bring Me less than your best.

III. The highest regard

The quality of one's worship is in direct proportion to one's concept of God. The higher our view of God the better is our worship of God. God's complaint against the priests was that they "despised" God's "name" (1:6). Then, God makes this grand statement in verse 11 and 14: "For My name will be great among the nations, from the rising of the sun to its setting. Incense and pure offerings will be presented in My name in every place because My name will be great among the nations . . . For I am a great King . . . and My name will be feared among the nations" (Mal. 1:11, 14).

God's name represented His person, His character, His very nature. His name will be great. Why? He is the great King. He is the Lord Almighty. Twenty-three times in Malachi God calls Himself, "The Lord Almighty." Often the word Almighty is translated hosts, meaning a great number of armies. The Lord Almighty has all the hosts of heaven ready to do His work because He has infinite authority in the universe.

We are just going through the motions when we don't recognize God's greatness as we worship. We are going through the motions when we allow the extraordinary to become ordinary. We are going through the motions when the mystery of worship becomes familiar.

When we experience great worship, I ask myself: What moved us? The familiarity of the songs? The number of people participating? Or did the Holy Spirit point us to God who is great?

IV. The warmest response

The Jewish people had become bored with their worship. "You also say: 'Look, what a nuisance!' 'And you scorn it,' says the LORD of Hosts. 'You bring stolen, lame, or sick animals. You bring this as an offering! Am I to accept that from your hands?' asks the LORD" (Mal. 1:13). They brought cheap sacrifices, blemished animals, lambs covered with running sores, blind lambs, lambs that no respectable shopkeeper would accept. Their sacrifices cost them nothing. They gave as little time as they could. They did their duty, nothing more. Their worship became ritualistic, humdrum, mechanical, and familiar.

Would that describe our worship today? Do you come to church and say: "How long is this going to last? Do we have to sing so much? Why is the preaching so long?" Do you come to worship and make a mental list of what you're going to accomplish when you get home?

Ravi Zacharias said, "When man is bored with God even heaven does not have a better alternative."

George Malone tells the story about a big Gothic cathedral in his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia. This cathedral has colorful stained-glass windows that were donated after the Second World War in honor of the men and women who gave their lives. The windows illustrate pictures of soldiers. One day he overheard a little boy asking his mother, "Mommy, who are those people?" pointing to the stained-glass windows. And she said, "Those are the people who died in the service." And he said, "Mommy, would that be the Sunday morning or the Sunday evening service?"

I don't want you dying in our service. But it is up to you what kind of worship you bring. You could be tired, feeling low, overwhelmed with anxiety. It may seem like you're being asked to give too much in worship. But it's not about you. It's about God. Worship is about giving God our hearts.

V. The grandest result

When our focus is on God in worship, when we honor Him, giving Him our best, exalting His great name, offering Him our warmest worship, our lives will be changed. Malachi stated, "'And now ask for God's favor. Will He be gracious to us? Since this has come from your hands, will He show any of you favor?' asks the LORD of Hosts" (Mal. 1:9).

With God's favor come great benefits. In worship we not only honor God we help ourselves. We should meet God's command by honoring Him, giving Him our best, exalting His name, and sincerely worshipping Him because He meets our needs. When we experience true worship, certain results occur in the life of the worshipper.

  • We receive pardon for our sins. Worship provides the opportunity for worshippers to receive forgiveness for sin.
  • We engage power for our weaknesses. Worship provides the opportunity for worshippers to tap God's strength, to come more and more under his control.
  • We experience peace for our anxiety. Worship provides the opportunity for people to experience God's comfort.
  • We renew purpose for our days. Worship provides stability when life is up and down.


Worship is not the focus of the Christian life. That focus is on day-to-day obedience to God. But worship is the force that helps make the day-by-day life of obedience possible.

Worship is not for God's benefit; it is for ours. If you leave church with your faith stronger, your hope brighter, your love deeper, your sympathies broadened, your heart purer, and with your will more resolute to do the will of God, then you have truly worshipped.

Rick Ezell is the pastor of First Baptist Greer, South Carolina. Rick has earned a Doctor of Ministry in Preaching from Northern Baptist Theological Seminary and a Master of Theology in preaching from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Rick is a consultant, conference leader, communicator, and coach.