May 18, 2014

Big Living

When I was in high school I was in the marching band.  Now, at some schools the marching band is where all the band nerds hang out and everybody else pretty much ignores them because they’re all really weird.  But you see, I wasn’t just in the marching band.  I was a drummer.  Drummers are like the weird kids at the weird kids’ convention.  Part of the reason for this is that drummers tend to be cliquish.  We hung out together more than with the other members of the band.  We met at odd times to practice over and above normal band rehearsals.  We had our own camp in the summers a month before regular band camp.  This drum camp was always one of the highlights of the year for me.  It was good to get playing again after taking a month or so off.  We boned up on our chops—that’s drummer lingo for the necessary muscles to cut it as a drummer.  Working on our chops was fun…but not really at any other time of the year.  The reason for this is that building chops means doing a whole lot of repetitive playing designed to build strength and endurance.  It was building muscle memory.  We’d get in there and play the same exercise 5,000 times.  Now, if you knew you were going to play something like that 5,000 times you wouldn’t do it, but drum techs are sneaky.  They tell you to play something 10 times and then have you do it just “one more time” for the next 4,990 reps.  Now, on the one hand, all this repetition does its job—I can still remember most of the exercises we played.  Eventually, though, the repetitiveness starts to get old.  You get tired of playing the same thing over and over and over and over and over and…you get it.  You’re ready to move on to new and different things.  The familiarity breeds contempt.

This idea actually applies in a number of different areas of life.  Take work for instance.  In the beginning a new job comes with a sense of excitement.  There’s a build-up of anticipation as we look forward to embarking on something new.  But after a while we get used to it all and it degrades from a thrilling new venture to…just a job.  It goes from the opportunity to make an impact to the frustrating means to the necessary end of receiving a paycheck.  Familiarity breeds contempt.  Or how about driving?  Most teenagers are itching to drive by the time they reach driving age.  All throughout the learning process they are constantly begging their parents to let them drive.  When they finally get their license they are out the door…unless of course they have to pay for their own gas in which case they take an entirely more economical approach to things.  But over time, driving becomes just another chore, especially the drive to work.  It’s the same thing day in and day out.  The same trees, same bumps, same houses, same traffic, same construction, same, same, same.   We start looking for things to break up the monotony—new routes, faster speeds, books on CD, and so on.  In college I made the three hour drive back and forth from campus so many times that I started reading books or magazines on the drive just to keep myself awake and engaged…you probably shouldn’t share that with anyone.

There’s one more place this happens: worship.  What happens within these four walls each Sunday morning can become incredibly routine.  It can become something done because that’s just what you’re supposed to do…even if you don’t really want to do it.  The routines of worship themselves can fall prey to the contempt of familiarity.  We stand and sit at the same times every week.  We sing out of the same hymnals.  We sing many of the same songs.  There’s always a sermon.  It’s always long.  There’s always the prayer time.  He prays the same things every week.  There’s always an offering.  You get the picture.  In a church setting like this one, if you’re the kind of person who needs to have things change every now and then just for the sake of changing them, this all probably drives you crazy.  Eventually it’s really tempting to start looking for ways to either break up the monotony or check out.  If you have young kids you start looking over their shoulder at the activity page they got in Sunday school.  People in the middle with smart phones are checking their email or the latest standings or playing words with friends or something.  Eventually we learn that church is boring.  Now, you do it because you’re supposed to, but that doesn’t mean you enjoy it.

You know, this is actually a phenomenon that’s been going on for a long, long time.  It’s been happening for at least 2,400 years.  Way back before Jesus was on anybody’s radar, but after their time of exile in Babylon, the people of Israel were deep into a routine of worship.  Their worship didn’t look very much like ours in most respects, but it did in one: it was always the same thing.  Same sacrifices.  Same purification rites.  Same gathering in the Temple.  Same, same, same.  Now, they kept at it because they had learned well during the exile that you didn’t slack off on worship.  Even if you didn’t want to go you went because that’s what God expected and you didn’t want to make God angry.  You wouldn’t like God when He’s angry.  No, the people were faithful about showing up for worship physically, but as the contempt of familiarity grew, they found other ways of checking out.  They decided somewhere along the way that all God really wanted was the ritual.  If the ritual was right, they were good.  As a result, they talked a mean game when it came to the ritualistic parts of worship, but it was mostly just that: talk.  And all the while their world was shrinking.  It grew smaller and smaller until it didn’t extend very far out beyond the end of their fingertips.

Well, this morning finds us in the third part of our series, How Big Is Your World?  We took a week off last week to talk about how great women are—guys, I hope you honored the women in your life properly—but we are back on track this week and ready to put in place the next piece of the puzzle of how to live in as big a world as possible.  In the first couple weeks we discovered together that living in a big world requires us to be generous.  Generosity expands our world to include everyone impacted by it.  Then, in the second week we found that the reason generosity expands our world is that God is the real owner of everything.  If we seem to be rich it’s only because the God who really is rich has shared generously with us.  If we don’t handle “our” wealth in line with how He handles it, we’ll lose it.  But, if we follow His lead toward generosity, He will be even more generous with us in letting us enjoy more and more of what belongs to Him.  This morning, I want to look with you specifically at one way we can help ourselves to not lose track of who the real owner of everything we might normally declare to be ours is.  We are going to find this by looking at a warning delivered to a group of people who had forgotten.  If you have a Bible with you this morning turn or thumb your way to the very last book in the Old Testament, Malachi.  We are going to examine some verses near the end of the message, but in order to make the most sense out of those, let me run down the rest of it for you.

Malachi was the very last prophet God sent to the people of Israel.  After Malachi is a period historians call “The Silent Years” because there was no word from God…for 400 years.  Malachi wrote to the people about 100 years after they had returned to the land from exile.  They had rebuilt their lives and had returned to the worship of the Lord in the Temple, but their hearts just weren’t in it like before.  And, this wasn’t merely a problem in the pews.  The problem went straight on up to the podium.  The people’s hearts weren’t in it because the priests’ weren’t either.  They were willingly offering God sacrifices that were junk.  They did this because, as we said, they bought into the lie that the ritual was what matter to God most.  So, they professed to be worshiping the God who was the glorious creator of the universe and yet they were willing to give Him junk as a sacrifice.  Think of it like this: if Billy Graham was coming over for dinner would you serve him leftovers?  No, you’d break out the china and whip up your very best dishes.  So why did these priests think it was okay to offer God—significantly more worthy of honor than Billy Graham—junk?  Simply put: Because they didn’t think He was that important.  More specifically, they thought that the real honor was in the action not in the spirit behind it.  And, with the leaders thinking like this, the people followed like ducklings.  They’d promise the moon—as if God could be fooled by grand guarantees of fidelity—and deliver a dud.  As a result, God called them out: “Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished.  For I am a great King, says the Lord of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.”

The thing is, though, while we think a kind of spiritual neglect like this can be left at church and won’t really have an impact on the rest of our lives…we’re wrong.  In the next part of the warning Malachi outlines how the people’s spiritual infidelity amid a grand show of faithfulness was coming home to roost.  Their unfaithfulness to their covenant with God was playing itself out at home in an unfaithfulness to the covenants made between husbands and wives (specifically on the husbands’ side).  Faithfulness at home requires a foundation to be sustained.  That foundation is faithfulness to God.  Apart from that the home crumbles.  And come on, if things are crumbling at home, if feels like the whole world is crumbling.  I think the current state of our culture bears witness to this pretty well.  And when the world crumbles, the remainder is smaller than it was before.

In any event, what’s going on here is actually a cycle.  Familiarity breeds contempt at church which leads to problems back at home which in turn hamstrings our ability to engage well back at church.  This contempt causes us to get slack in our devotion which hurts our ability to be devoted to things outside church causing us to focus more on restoring them without realizing that we’re trying to fix the frame without addressing the foundation.  Eventually the walls start to cave in and our world gets smaller.  In the end, while we’re pretty well shooting ourselves in the foot by all this, we’re saved by the fact that God is consistent with His character even when we’re not.  He says as much to the people of Israel through His prophet Malachi.  Look with me here starting at Malachi 3:6: “For I the Lord do not change, therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.  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.”

This is God saying, “Look, you people have never gotten this right.  Your fathers blew it, their fathers blew it, their fathers blew it, and on back up the chain.  It’s a good thing I’m patient, kind, loving, merciful, forgiving, and really want to have a relationship with you or else I’d just wipe you out.  As it stands, return to me.  Live in my big world once again.  Get off this crazy cycle.”  You see, the thing about a crazy cycle is that you really can jump off at any point.  You just put the brakes on, hop off, and start a healthier new pattern.  Now, of course, it’s not as easy as I make it sound there, but this is how the process works.  And, this is exactly what God calls them to do here.  Their problems started back with the contempt of familiarity in worship.  They continued at home with families breaking apart.  Here we’re on down the chain of collateral a few clicks.  The problem here is that their soured attitude toward worship in general, compounded by their jaded vision from home problems, has brought them to the place where they aren’t even really going through the motions of worship very well anymore.  When God calls them to return to him, to live once again in His big world, then, the very natural response is: “How?  We are so far down this road!  How do we get back on the right track?”  The answer?  A lot simpler than you’d think.  Pick a motion and start going through it again, not halfheartedly, but with everything you’ve got.  Okay, but which motion?  Well, how about the one that tangibly connects what happens within these four walls with what happens without?  How about the motion that can remind us most clearly that God is someone worthy of our honor and trust and faithfulness?  How about giving?

Look how God spells this out to them starting there at v. 8: “Will man rob God?  Yet you are robbing me.  But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’”  Let me pause here just a minute.  Have you ever had somebody rightly accuse you of doing something wrong but of which you were either not aware or didn’t consider to be wrong until they said something?  How did you respond?  Maybe something like this?  You did this!  How did I do that?  God says: “You’ve been robbing me.”  The people respond, “How?!?”  God makes the charge explicit: “In your tithes and contributions.  You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.”

So think about this for a second.  God accuses the people of robbing Him by not giving to Him.  Really?  That’s quite a charge.  I mean, we certainly don’t think in those terms very often today.   We think more in terms of God robbing us by calling us to give from what we’ve worked hard to earn.  Why, for God to talk like this it seems like He thinks He owns everything and that we are taking what belongs to Him…oh wait.  Right.  He does own everything.  He doesn’t have to share any of it with us.  That He does is entirely an act of grace.  When we give back to Him we are giving what already belongs to Him.  This is ultimately about him, but in the short term, it’s more about us.  It’s about us because in the act of giving to God what belongs to Him we are reminded that it does in fact belong to Him and not us.  This has a couple of different results.  First, it keeps in our minds who God is.  He is the creator and owner of all this world.  Second, giving like this is an act of trust in God.  We give what we think we need, leaving us less than we think we need, all the while trusting Him to make what we see as less than enough more than enough.

With this in mind, look at the solution God proposes to the people: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.  And thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.  I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the Lord of hosts.  Then all the nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.”  Do you see what’s happening here?  God’s solution to the problem of robbing Him, which itself was merely a symptom of the crazy cycle they had been on, is for the people to start giving.  Not a half-hearted giving commiserate with the kind of sacrifices they’d been offering, but rather a full-bodied giving that went over and above what they considered reasonable or even possible.  The result of this, God promises, will be abundant blessing.  This is a new cycle to replace the old one.  This is a cycle of blessing.  This new cycle works like this: the people step out and give abundantly, trusting God to be consistent with His character.  God responds with blessings of various kinds thereby affirming and building the peoples’ nascent trust.  The people respond by stepping out in trust again but with even more boldness than the last time.  God responds to this and the cycle continues.

Incidentally, there’s a word to describe this trust in God to act in a manner consistent with His character: faith.  When we give we are building faith.  When our faith gets bigger what happens is that we are coming to a deep and fuller understanding of who God is.  Well, given the nature of who God is a deeper understanding of Him is always going to lead to worship.  And not the going-through-the motions, contemptuous-by-familiarity kind of worship that had gotten them into this problem in the first place, but a real, deep, heartfelt worship that never grows old no matter what the external circumstances of that worship happen to be.  Perhaps to offer a more specific explanation: with this kind of worship going on it doesn’t matter what the music is like.  The more we worship like this the stronger our faith will grow.  More specifically, the more we display this trust in God by giving, the stronger our faith will grow and the more and better we will worship.  The bigger our giving, the bigger our trust, the bigger our worship.  This kind of worship is the fruit of a return to Him.  And, when we return to Him, He will return to us.  We will get to enjoy the blessings of His presence.  Our world will be defined by His which is much, much larger than ours.  Putting a point on all of this, then: if we want to live in as big a world as possible, we need to give as generously as we can.  The more generous we are, the bigger our world will be.  Living big means giving big.  Living big means giving big.

If you want to break free from the monotonous, repetitive world you live in on a daily basis, this is one great way to do it.  Start giving.  And, if you already give, give more.  Give to see God’s work done and wait and watch for how He is going to meet your needs in spite of the financial loss you take.  As you do, watch how your world gets bigger and bigger.  Living big means giving big.  Now, the prophet uses the word tithe here, but the Israelites understood the word differently than we do.  Namely, they had multiple tithes prescribed in the Law.  They never just gave a flat 10%.  Their expected gifts ran as much as 33% of their income depending on the year.  Also, while the word tithe is mentioned in the New Testament, through the lens of Christ, I think the principle of giving Jesus’ followers are expected to follow is sacrificial giving.  Sacrificial giving involves giving to the point of sacrifice.  A sacrifice is by definition costly.  It hurts at least a little.  It should make us a bit uncomfortable, but just for a moment as the discomfort is replaced quickly by confidence that the God who owns everything will meet our needs whatever they happen to be.  He will invite us to live in His big world.  Living big means giving big.

As for how to actually practice sacrificial giving, here are three tips.  First, make it a priority.  Our act of giving should come before anything else.  If we wait for the leftovers there won’t ever be any.  To tell you the truth, if we don’t give first we’re not actually placing much, if any, trust in God.  We’re saying that we’ll trust Him once something else gets taken care of.  That would put us right on par with the Israelites receiving Malachi’s message.  Second, pick a percentage.  While Jesus followers need not be limited to 10% in their thinking (indeed, for some people 10% is no sacrifice at all), it is a good idea to pick a percentage and not worry about the actual amount of the gift.  Because the truth is that we all live on a percentage of our income…we just don’t know what that it.  But, given that we’re not the actual owners of the stuff it would probably behoove us to figure out what percentage of God’s stuff we’re using for ourselves.  That will enable us to give in a manner that honestly reflects our financial state rather than worrying about some random amount.  Amounts can grow static and stale.  They can grow familiar and become objects of contempt: I have to give God this amount.  Percentages, though, are dynamic and change based on circumstances.  Finally, once you choose a percentage, progressively increase it.  Giving like this is a kind of muscle.  Faith expressed like this is a muscle.  If you want to grow a muscle, doing the same workout every single day won’t cut it.  You stick with something until it doesn’t hurt anymore and then you do more.  Without this increase workouts eventually get boring.  Endless reps of the same thing breed familiarity and familiarity breeds contempt.  On the other hand, living big means giving big.

 

And so this morning, if you find yourself stuck in the contemptuously familiar rut of a crazy cycle with a shrinking world, put on the breaks.  Start a new cycle of life that will expand your world: start giving and give like crazy.  Now, it may be that you have ruts all over your life.  You’ve been playing the same exercises for years and it really doesn’t feel like changing a single stroke is going to make that big a difference.  And, it’s true: a single change does not a pattern make.  But what if that change were to serve as the grounding for a totally new pattern?  What if the taste of God’s big world this spiritually radical discipline of giving brought just made you hungry for more?  My prediction is that it will.  So break out of the crazy cycle you’re in and start giving.  If that’s here, great (and if you worship here then it should be at least in part here), but wherever it is, give.  How big a world do you want?  If it’s a big world, this is how you do it.  Living big means giving big.