"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," says the Lord of hosts. "But you say, 'How shall we return?'" (Malachi 3:7)

I was struck by something that George Bernard Shaw once said about the importance of contemplative thinking: "Few people think more than two or three times a year. I have made an international reputation by thinking once or twice a week." It reminds me of the Hundred Acre Wood where "halfway between Pooh's house and Piglet's house was a Thoughtful Spot where they met sometimes when they had decided to go and see each other, and as it was warm and out of the wind they would sit down there for a little and wonder what they would do now that they had seen each other." I'd like for you to take this devotional to some quiet, thoughtful spot (out of the wind) and sit down for some 'contemplative thinking' - because I feel that what God is saying here through His prophet is important and well worth our effort to listen.

The first thing that we notice is God's condemnation of the sinfulness of the people. In fact, we're told that this people had become quite entrenched in their disobedience - "since the days of your fathers". The New Living Translation puts it as follows: "Ever since the days of your ancestors you have scorned my laws". This pattern of disobedience had been with them for quite some time. Long ago they departed from the statutes and commands of God. That's what the Hebrew word means: to depart from, to turn aside from, to revolt against. This Covenant people, to whom God had revealed Himself and given His ordinances, had chosen to turn toward God a deaf ear and to abandon the teachings they felt were imposed upon them. This was done out of a self-centered conviction that God's laws were in direct contradiction to all the pleasures in life that they were intent on pursuing. God's statutes, in other words, stood in the way of their happiness. Therefore, they had turned aside from them.

But the second thing that is quite noticeable here is the blindness of the people in that even when confronted with their rebellious behavior, they could not see it. God, through His prophet, urges the people to 'return' to Him and promises that He will also return to them (with blessings). But blinded Israel could only respond by asking: "How shall we return?" Now, on the surface, that may sound like a legitimate question of faith, but it's not. They were not seeking the way of repentance, but rather were questioning why the prophet would even suggest the need for a return to God. In their opinion they had done nothing wrong. With annoyed offense they denied their guilt and defied the prophet to show them any area where they were out of steps with the commandments of the Lord. 'Return to the Lord? When did we ever go away from Him?'

Now, in the next devotional (the Lord willing), we'll go on to consider an example Malachi provides of their disobedience - the failure on their part to observe the Tithe. But for now, I just want you to sit and reflect upon how we also struggle at times to own our sin and to return to the Lord in genuine faith and repentance. I think you'll agree that it is oh so easy for us to excuse our sinful behavior and to label our actions as anything but sinful. We sweep our transgressions under the rug, so to speak. We raise up extenuating circumstances to justify our conduct. And when confronted with our infractions, we often take on the very pattern of naïve self-defense that we witness here in the people of Israel. But somehow, God has a way of causing all our arguments to fall flat, doesn't He?

Do you recall that occasion when the prophet Nathan confronted a sinful David - and how David was utterly devastated by the surfacing of the enormity of his transgressions? That visit by Nathan is to be viewed by us as an act of divine grace. God showed his love for David in confronting him with his sins and meeting him with forgiving mercy. That's what we are witnessing once again here when Malachi relays the Lord's appeal: "Return to Me and I will return to you."

But what does it mean to return to the Lord? What specifically was God asking of Israel? Well, look back with me at David's prayer found in Psalm 51 for surely there is the prayer of a man that sought to return to the Lord. Notice David's cry for mercy: "Be gracious to me, O God . . . blot out my transgressions." See how David freely confessed his sinfulness: "Against You, You only, I have sinned and done what is evil in Your sight." Look at how sincerely he asked for cleansing: "Cleanse me from my sin . . . create in me a clean heart". And finally, take note of David's pledge to offer appropriate sacrifices in response to God's goodness: "my tongue will joyfully sing of Your righteousness. . . my mouth will declare Your praises." David knew that the only acceptable offering God desired of him was a broken spirit and a contrite heart - so that is what he pledged to give.

Friend, this is what God was looking for here among His people. This brokenness was what He desired to find in Israel even as He looks for it in your life and in mine. Our excuses gain us nothing and all our defenses fall flat before Him. Only in His mercy are we to find comfort for our souls. And it is real comfort God offers us - that He will return to us as we return to Him.