February 5 2017

What God Really Wants

Have you ever known or simply heard a story of a kid who got everything from his parents…except his parents?  This is enough of a thing that it finds its way into all kinds of stories today.  You know what it looks like: The kids are afforded all kinds of fantastic opportunities by their parents, but what they really want is their parents’ time.  Unfortunately, that is the one thing they are either unwilling or incapable of giving.  The result is usually a mess.  The parents are frustrated that the kids aren’t showing more gratitude for the things and opportunities they are being given, meanwhile, the kids are acting out in more and more destructive ways because that seems to be the only way they can get their parents to spend any time with them and they figure that angry time is better than no time.

If this was you growing up, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  You had everything you could have ever wanted…except time with your parents.  Or maybe it worked out that you didn’t have anywhere close to everything you could have possibly wanted, and while your parents killed themselves to give you as much as they could, you would have been totally fine with the lack if you could have just had more of them.

On the other hand, as parents this is a trap in which we can easily find ourselves caught.  It could be that we are compensating for the lack of opportunities and stuff we had growing up, or it could be that we had a great childhood and are trying to make sure our kids experience all the same stuff that we did.  Either way, the outcome is that we work ourselves to the bone in order to give them everything, but we never seem to quite manage to actually spend time with them.  It certainly takes more effort to give the gift of time than to just throw money and stuff at the problem, but it is effort that will pay off in spades when we are willing to make it.  The bottom line here, though, is a well-worn cliché, but in spite of its ubiquity we have to keep being reminded of it because we can’t seem to get our hearts and minds around actually putting it into practice: Kids want you, not your stuff.

Indeed, as yet another bumper sticker cliché puts it: The best things in life aren’t things.  That kind of cultural lore rests deep in our bones.  When people draw near the end of their life, they don’t lie there wishing they had just been able to buy that car or afford that house or go on that vacation.  They wish they had spent more time investing in the people they love.  To use a bit of an emotional example, I spent a lot of time last weekend with the Westmorelands as Charles was drawing near the end of his life and stepping through the veil into the arms of his Savior.  In my time with the family I got to hear all kinds of stories.  Charles was ready to go.  He knew what was going on and expressed many times that he was ready to go eat with Jesus.  But one night as Norma was sitting there with him he said, “I’m ready to go eat with Jesus, but I’d sure like to eat one more meal with you.”  He said, “We’ve been married 55 years.  I wish we could have 55 more.”

In a manner that almost makes it seem like it’s printed in our source code, we know that people are better than things.  But sometimes we forget that with consequences ranging from hard to awful.  It takes discipling ourselves to think rightly about God in order to get the truth framed squarely in our hearts and minds.  And as we wade further into the second part of our series, Wise Stewards, that’s exactly what we talked about last week.  If we are going to be the best stewards of our stuff we can possibly be, we’ve first got to learn to think rightly about who God is and how we need to live in light of that.  What we had set firmly before us last week by the author of Psalm 50 is that it all belongs to God.  No matter what “it” is, it belongs entirely to God.  Not only does it belong entirely to God, but the God to whom it belongs is powerful and glorious beyond comprehension.  Thus, whenever we use “it,” we need to use it in a manner that is consistent with what He wants to happen with it.  What God wants more than anything else is our hearts.  If we will give Him that priceless gift, the rest will mostly fall smoothly into place.

But, here’s where someone might raise a bit of an objection.  I told you last week that once we established our theological baseline, we were going to talk about giving.  But here’s the thing: If it all belongs to God, what’s the point of giving?  If everything that we see and don’t belongs to God because He made it, then why do we see God telling us to bring Him our offerings over and over again throughout the Scriptures?  He obviously doesn’t need our stuff.  Remember what He said in Psalm 50?  “I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds.  For every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.  I know all the birds of the hills, and all that moves in the field is mine.  If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all its fullness are mind.”  So then, what gives?

I mean, if it were just a one time thing in the Scriptures, we could probably argue our way around it.  But it’s not.  Consider the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, written about 1,300 B.C.  Try reading it some time.  You’ll probably go cross-eyed from boredom.  (Yes, the preacher just said that.)  It’s true, though.  Until you understand what the author is doing and why all these nit-picky details about sacrifices were important, it can be really, really dry.  The key for us right now, though, is that throughout the document God tells the people not only what to give, but when, where, how, and how often.  The whole thing is about how to make offerings to God properly so we can be in a right relationship with Him.

Several hundreds of years later, God was still talking about this.  When the prophet Malachi wrote his little book of prophecy in about 400 B.C., he included two different sections addressing problems with the peoples’ practice of giving to God.  This wouldn’t be so notable if his book was as long as, say, Isaiah, but it’s not.  It’s a little over 96% shorter!  To talk about something twice in that little bit of space is to say it was a really big issue.

Listen to just a bit of what the prophet had to say, starting in Malachi 3:8: “Will a man rob God?  Yet you are robbing me.  But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’  In your tithes and contributions.  You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.  Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.”

You think He’s a little upset?  I should say so.  But why?  Well, it sure sounds like He’s unhappy with the people because they haven’t been giving sufficiently.  “Bring your offerings!” God seems to thunder through the prophet.  But again, if God already owns it, if His wealth is without limits, then why do we need to give it back to Him?  What’s that really accomplishing?  Couldn’t He just make more of it?  After all, He made it in the first place.  Couldn’t He accomplish His plans without any money?  Jesus spent most of His ministry technically homeless and that didn’t seem to slow Him down at all.  Why does God (or at least the church) seem to want our money all the time?  I mean, haven’t you ever asked something like that?  “If those church people believe everything belongs to God, then why do they seem to be coming after my money so often?”  If you’re here this morning and would not count yourself a “church people,” just know that we have all asked a question similar to that one at some point in our lives.

Let me answer that question by making a statement that’s going to seem really radical at first…especially coming from a preacher.  A Baptist preacher no less!  After all, aren’t we the worst of the money-grubbers?  This statement is going to seem radical so I’m going to make it carefully, being sure to put the emphasis in the right places.  Are you ready?  God doesn’t care how much you give.  He cares that you give.  We’ll talk about that.  He cares how you give.  We’ll talk about that too.  But He doesn’t care how much.  And people who give more don’t necessarily make Him happier than people who give less.

Now, it would be easy at this point for someone who doesn’t give very much or at all to say, “Whew!  That’s a load of guilt off my back!” drop their 25 cents in the plate and pat themselves on the back for being such a good Christian.  That’s not what I’m saying God’s okay with.  I am saying that if you’re keeping the “that” and the “how” well in mind, the “how much” is of very little concern to God.  After all, it’s His stuff.  He knows how much of it you have.  He knows how much of it you need.

Okay, but that still doesn’t answer the question of what God expects from us in giving and why He expects us to give in the first place.  Well, I think there’s a story near the end of the Gospel of Luke that helps to shed a lot of light on all of this.  Turn in your Bibles or thumb on your phone to Luke 21 or else look up at the screen and check this out with me.

“Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.”  So what’s going on here?  This took place during Jesus’ final week before He was crucified.  Nearly all the events of this week played themselves out in Jerusalem and specifically in the Temple.  Jesus spent time nearly every day that week in the Temple teaching, preaching, confronting the Jewish religious leaders, and observing the passing scene.  This was an instance of that last thing.  Jesus had just come away from a pretty significant challenge from the religious leaders of the Jewish people.  Things had cleared up and Jesus was sitting there in the Temple with His disciples just observing people as they came and went.  Specifically, on this occasion the group was sitting across the square from the box where worshipers would bring their offerings.  The box had an opening that was shaped like a trumpet and as folks would bring in their money—which was all coinage—they would drop it in the opening of the trumpet.  The more money someone had put in, the louder the sound it would make as it clanked down into the box.  Because of this, dropping your offering into the Temple box became an exercise in self-promotion.  The rich would bring large bags of coins and make a big show of pouring them slowly down the chute, secretly delighting in the amazement in the eyes of the onlookers.  Now, there was no question the amount of money they were bringing was significant, especially compared with what the average person dropped into the box.  For many of these rich folks, though, their gifts were small compared to their own personal fortunes.

But then this poor widow arrives.  She makes her way to the box with no fanfare at all.  In fact, it almost seems like she’s intentionally trying to avoid notice.  She slips up there just after one of these rich people has made his noisy deposit and the people are celebrating the great commitment to the Temple he obviously has judging by the size of his offering, and when everybody else is focused on him, she drops in her couple of coins that together amounted to about half a penny.  On top of the pile of money that was already in there, these coins would have made almost no sound at all as they hit the bottom of the box.  And once she had quietly shuffled up to make her offering, she quietly shuffled away to make her sacrifice.

Unless you were actually looking for this there’s no way you would have noticed it.  Fortunately, Jesus was watching closely enough that He noticed.  He noticed and turned to the disciples and said something that had to totally blow their minds.  In this single observation He turned the way people had always thought about giving to God on its head.  Nothing could ever be the same again.  Listen to what He said, now in v. 3: “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them.”

I’m sorry, what?  There’s no way that’s true.  I mean, just as a matter of facts, they put in more than she did.  The pile of coins they dumped in the box, regardless of their value, was worth more than a half of a penny.  That’s just basic math.  So what gives?  Did the God who created numbers suddenly forget how to use them?  No, but again, God doesn’t care how much we give.  Jesus wasn’t looking at what was being dumped into that offering box in the same way everybody else there was.  Okay, so how was He looking at it?  Because, I mean, however Jesus was looking at those offerings seems like it’s probably going to be how we should think about our own giving, right?  If we’re wrestling with the question of what God expects from us in giving, something that revealed even a little of how Jesus looked at the matter would probably go a long way toward pointing us in the right direction in our thinking about the matter.

Are you curious yet what He said?  Check this out in v. 4: “For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”  So what does this tell us?  Well, it tells me that the thing Jesus values most in giving is not the amount, but the sacrifice.  The rich folks ahead of this widow may have put in enormous offerings in terms of raw amount, but it was a drop in the bucket in terms of their actual wealth.  Maybe putting it this way would help.  Let’s say Bill Gates came to make his offering one Sunday and wrote a check for a million dollars.  There’d be dancing in the aisles.  Just think of all the good things we could do for the kingdom of God with that kind of money!  But next to Bill there was a little, old widow who had brought her offering as well.  For her offering she signed over her Social Security check for that month.  Who gave more?  In terms of amount, Bill blew her so far out of the water she’ll probably make orbit.  In terms of sacrifice, though, the exact opposite is the case.  And based on what Jesus said here, that’s what matters more to God.  What God wants from us is not that we give some set amount or percentage of our income to Him.  He wants for us to practice sacrificial giving.

If you want evidence, come back with me to Malachi.  Let’s look at chapter 1 this time.  God opens the book by blasting the religious leaders of the people of Israel because of their offerings.  He didn’t blast them for not bringing them, but rather for not bringing their best.  Listen to this starting at Malachi 1:6: “A son honors his father, and a servant his master.  If then I am a father, where is my honor?  And if I am a master, where is my fear? Says the Lord of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name.  But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’  By offering polluted food upon my altar.  But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’  By saying that the Lord’s table may be despised.  When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil?  And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil?  Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the Lord of hosts.”  Things go downhill from there.

It wasn’t that they weren’t bringing offerings; that they weren’t giving at all.  It’s that they were bringing junk; that they weren’t willing to give sacrificially.  But why does giving sacrificially matter so much to God?  Why couldn’t He just say, “Give this much,” and leave it at that?  That would sure be an easier standard to keep.  Saying that we should give sacrificially turns our giving into something that’s really subjective.  How do we know when we’ve done what we need to do?

We’ll talk more about that last question next week (which means you’ve got to come back if you want to hear the rest of the story—see what I did there?), but let’s zero in on why sacrificial giving is such a big deal.  What does it mean to sacrifice something?  It means we give up something we need, or at least that we value dearly, for the sake of someone or something else.  In other words, if you don’t need it or don’t hold it dear, it’s not a sacrifice.  That’s just a matter of definition.

Stay with me here: If we give something to God that we don’t need in the first place, what has that accomplished for us?  Well think about it: God doesn’t need our stuff.  It’s all His to start with.  Have you ever been given something you really didn’t need, much less want, by someone who was just trying to get rid of their junk?  How did you feel about that?  Burdened.  What did it do for the relationship you had with the person?  Nothing at best.  God doesn’t ask us to give because He wants or needs our stuff.  When we give like that we are merely going through the motions.  We’re approaching God as if He was a whiny child we can buy off by throwing money or some other gift at Him.  But if the child is whiny because he wants our attention, because He wants our heart, throwing money at him doesn’t do anything but kick the can down the road where it will gradually get harder and harder to kick.  So again, what has giving God something that we don’t need or an amount of money that really doesn’t faze us for it to be gone really accomplished for us?  Nothing.  Not a single thing.  It hasn’t brought us any closer to God and it hasn’t drawn Him any closer to us.  Remember?  God doesn’t care how much you give.  If we’re giving because we feel like we’re doing Him a favor or else we’re checking off some kind of a moral box we might as well not bother because we’re wasting our time.  So then why does God want us to give sacrificially?

Friends, God wants us to give sacrificially because where our treasure lies, is where our heart lives.  Or perhaps to put that another way: God wants your heart, not your wallet.  And when we give sacrificially, when we give something that is near and dear to our heart, something without which we’re not sure we’re going to be able to make it, we haven’t merely given the offering, we’ve given our heart along with it.  We’ve said to Him, “God, I don’t think I can make it without this, but I trust so much in your ability to provide for all my needs I’m going to give it anyway.”  God wants your heart, not your wallet.  The rich people clanking their large offerings in the box in the Temple were giving their money, but they weren’t giving their heart.  This widow gave both and thus hers was the greater gift.

God wants us to follow the example of this poor widow because that will provide Him the most direct access to our hearts.  When we give Him our trust, it does not matter how much stuff we give Him.  He has the thing He wants most.  Now, we’ll still give Him our stuff sacrificially, but the giving has become a reflection of our trust, not a substitute for it.  But here’s where our deceitful hearts can get us into trouble.  We’ll take what we’ve been talking about this morning, persuade ourselves that we’ve given God our full trust and keep on giving the little bit (or nothing at all) we’ve be giving all along—“I trust God so I don’t have to give very much.”  Doing this, though, will land us in the category of folks we talked about last week who put on a show of churchy living to cover for their decidedly un-Christ-like lifestyle.  They may be fooling a lot of people, but they aren’t fooling the one who matters most.  God wants our hearts, not our wallets, but the simple, if hard, truth is that unless He gets our wallets, the likelihood that He’s gotten our hearts is pretty slim.  There’s a reason that when Jesus observed that we cannot serve two masters He drew out the contrast between God and our stuff.  That’s the natural, intertial pull on our hearts.  The reason for that is pretty obvious: Our stuff is what seems to meet our needs on a regular basis and our money is what provides our stuff.  Thus we give ourselves over to our money to make sure our needs are met.  This is why giving at all is so important.  When we give ourselves to our money, it becomes our master.  Money is a terrible master.  When we give, then, regardless of where that gift goes or even how big the gift is, we declare that we’re in charge.  The reason is simple: you can’t give away something that owns you.  We have to give if for no other reason than that it declares to the world that our money doesn’t own us.

This is also why sacrificial giving is such a big deal.  It’s why Jesus praised this woman who dropped next to nothing in the offering box at the expense of the guys who put in a lot.  When we give God what we are convinced we need, leaving ourselves in a place we don’t think we will have enough, we put ourselves in a place where we are trusting that God will still meet our needs from out of His abundance even with the amount we have leftover and which seems to us to be too little to get the job done.  And here’s the cool thing: If we take that path, we will find ourselves growing in our faith, stepping out into the unknown with greater confidence, and experiencing in more direct and exciting ways God’s limitless ability to provide for all our needs.  God wants our hearts, not our wallets because He wants to give us life, not more stuff.  He wants to give us a gift that will not wear out or break down.  It requires no assembly.  It is useful in every situation.  It is the most valuable thing in all the world.  And no amount of money can buy it.  The only way to get it is to receive it by grace through faith which we express in part by this no-holding-back, sacrificial living.

God wants your heart, not your wallet.  Taking up the practice of sacrificial giving is what will allow that to happen.  When you are willing to live sacrificially, you will find yourself in a place to receive from Him life.  You’ll receive life not because your gift was big—God doesn’t care how much you give—but because your sacrifice was; because your trust is.  This, however, leaves a rather nagging question in place: How do we live sacrificially?  How do we adjust ourselves to this idea that God wants our hearts, not our wallets?  Come back next week and we’ll get really practical.  I’ll give you some specific ways to take some steps toward sacrificially living.  And we’ll see what broader impact of our sacrificial living can be.  For now, though, God wants your heart, not your wallet.  Make sure you give it.