May 4, 2014

The Owner’s Kid

If you haven’t seen it yet there is a fairly new business located just up the strip from Martin’s in Colonial Heights.  It’s called MP Bounce and it’s basically a collection of oversized jump castles that kids can play on until they drop for a pretty small fee.  Now, from the standpoint of a parent with young kids who occasionally need naps so we don’t have to duct tape them to the walls in order to survive the evenings it’s fantastic.  You take them there in the morning when the crowds haven’t quite arrived, let them bounce their little legs off, move heaven and earth to keep them awake on the drive home, and then put them to bed for a couple of hours.  This business model was obviously designed by a parent with young kids.

In any event we took the boys there a few weeks ago and it really did work about like it was supposed to work.  But, while we were there, I noticed a trio of boys who seemed to all be connected somehow.  Two of them were probably three and the third must have been seven or eight.  After a while I started watching them pretty closely almost to the exclusion of our boys.  This wasn’t some weird neglect on my part, though.  As I watched them I noticed that the older boy was really rough with the younger two.  They started returning the favor which led to their parents getting on them for it, but there didn’t seem to be anyone watching the older kid to offer similar correction.  Then the kid started bouncing all over the jump castles in ways that were pretty decidedly against the rules clearly posted all over the place.  Finally I watched as he ran behind the snack counter and helped himself to something and realized that this was the owner’s kid.  Now it all made sense.  It’s the same thing that often applies to how preacher’s kids behave at church.  They’re here so much that they start to view it as an extension of their house and act accordingly.  I get it.  I did the same thing.  I wasn’t a preacher’s kid, but I guess I avoided that narrowly enough and we were at church often enough growing up that I treated church like an extension of my house and behaved accordingly too.

Because his parents owned the place, the kid was acting like he did.  He was acting like he was rich, which, with regard to the jump castles, he was.  Thinking about that, there are a couple of ways to be rich.  The first is to, you know, be rich.  You can have a lot of money and assets and rightly be considered very wealthy.  The thing about being rich like this, though, is that only a few ever manage to really achieve it.  I mean, sure, it seems like there are a lot of rich people when you watch shows on TLC or HGTV or other networks that like to profile the rich and famous, but as a percentage of the global population, nobody’s rich.  The other way to be rich, though, while not quite as surefire, offers many of the perks of wealth to folks who would otherwise never have the chance to experience them.  The trick here is to be friends or family of someone who’s rich.  I know of a guy who has a condo in Park City, Utah where he goes once a year to ski, he has a house in Myrtle Beach where he can stay anytime he wants, and a boat he can take out on the ocean in Hilton Head as often as he desires.  Sounds like a rich man, doesn’t it?  Nope.  But he’s friends with people who are.  This second way to be rich actually has some perks over the first.  As long as your rich friend stays rich and generous, you get to enjoy most of the perks of wealth without having to deal with the hassle of actually owning and taking care of the stuff.  You get to play with the toys without the stress of keeping up with them.  This seems like a great system to me…especially since I’m not rich but I know people who are.

So this morning we are in the second week of our series How Big Is Your World.  Last week I played a sneaky trick on you by starting the sermon talking about how to live in a big world and then making a pivot about halfway through to talking about money.  Okay, so we didn’t talk about money directly, but we did discover that the key to living in as big a world as possible is found in being generous.  We learned from the wisest guy who ever lived that the world of the generous gets larger and larger.  Being generous expands our world to encompass everyone impacted by our generosity.   The more generous we are, then, the bigger our world becomes.  Generosity expands our world.  I left you with the promise that in light of the fact that most of us have the hardest time being generous with our money, we were going to have to spend some time talking about that.  This morning…we’re not going to go there just yet.  There is something else we need to clarify first.  We need to figure out why exactly it is that being generous is the key to living in a big world.

In order to do this come back with me to this idea of there being two different ways of being rich.  I mentioned just a second ago only the perks of being rich in the second way.  The reality, though, is that there are some potentially significant drawbacks here as well.  Perhaps most notable of the drawbacks is this: when we are rich in the second way there is a very great danger of forgetting that we aren’t rich in the first way.  In other words, we start acting like the owner’s kid was acting at MP Bounce.  Even though we don’t actually own anything, we start behaving as if we own everything.  You know what this look like in someone else.  They’re prideful.  They walk around with a sense of entitlement.  They act as if they’re better than other people.  They insist on putting themselves first as if their assumed wealth makes them worthy of special treatment.  It’s disgusting to see.  But, because these folks really are rich in the second way and not the first, eventually the time in the sun is going to come to an end.  Usually this end isn’t very pleasant.  The actual owner gets offended that his generosity was abused and the person abusing it gets embarrassed.

This is actually a pattern with a long historical pedigree.  In fact at times whole nations have succumbed to this temptation.  One particular nation that fell prey to this temptation was the nation of Israel.  With the exception of a few years over the course of their lengthy historical journey, Israel was a nation definitely rich in the second way.  Even for those years when they were actually sitting pretty high on the hog, they were still a minor nation on the world stage.  And, as God sought to make a point of regularly reminding them, they didn’t have anything that He didn’t provide anyway.  So they were definitely rich in the second way…but they often forget and thought they were rich in the first way.  Generally speaking, this got them in a lot of trouble.  They would start thinking they could handle things on their own and a neighboring nation with a much bigger and better-equipped army would come and smash their faces into the ground.  Or, worse yet, they would start preening with their ill-assumed wealth and God would let them run on this line out until they hung themselves.  More often, though, when they started thinking they were bigger than their britches allowed, God would graciously send someone to call them back down to reality.

Fortunately, many of these wakeup calls got preserved for us in the Scriptures.  The word to describe all these various calls to faithfulness is prophecy.  And I know that for some folks that definition doesn’t seem to match up with how they understand prophecy to work, but most prophecy in the Bible can adequately be described as a wakeup call rather than a prediction about what the future holds.  In any event, most of the prophecy in the Bible is grouped together in the prophetic books ranging from Isaiah to Malachi.  But, there is some prophecy that pops up in other, unexpected places.  In fact, one of the places in the Bible that you might least expect to turn for a prophetic word of warning is the collection of psalms in the Bible.  After all, a psalm is a sacred song used for worshiping God.  We don’t usually associate prophecy with worship.  And yet, given that as far as Biblical prophets went their main job was simply to communicate the words of God to the people—a job not so different from what preachers do today—a word of prophecy could potentially be excellent material around which to construct a time of worship.  Prophecy can lead to worship in part by teaching worshipers exactly how to worship in a manner that will result in the most good for both them and the god they are worshiping.  As it turns out, we find just such a word of prophecy about a third of the way through Psalms.  And as it further turns out, this particular word of prophecy offers us a clue as to why generosity is the only sure thing that will result in a big world.  Find your way to Psalm 50 and we’ll take a look at this together.

Psalm 50 resides within the second book of Psalms.  The broader collection of 150 is actually broken into five smaller collections that, while punctuated by a variety of other issues, take worshipers on a journey through some of the hardest places of life eventually ending with a series of affirmations of God’s faithfulness and praise.   When you read through the psalms, you’ll notice that many of them get attributed to someone.  Most often it David, but this one is attributed to a guy named Asaph.  There are a few different people named Asaph in the Old Testament, but this particular Asaph is probably the man appointed by David to be a worship-through-music leader in the temple.  He created a kind of musical guild which led musical worship in the Temple from the time of David all the way to the Babylonian captivity and even beyond.  In other words, he was probably somebody who was in the Temple watching the people bring their offerings day in and day out.  He saw the kind of gifts they brought and the attitudes coming with them.  He was really in a position to evaluate the people’s worship and pass some judgment as God directed.

Well, one day as he was watching all this take place a holy discontent began to build inside of him over the casual, almost entitled manner in which the people were carrying out their worship.  This feeling eventually sprang forth in a prophetic word of judgment.  I can almost imagine the reaction of the worshipers when Asaph shared these words with the people.  This came at a time when David was probably still the king meaning the nation, while militarily powerful, was constantly embroiled in war with one enemy or another.  Surely if there was a word of judgment from the Lord it was going to be focused on Israel’s wicked neighbors.

With all this in mind, look with me at Psalm 50 starting at v. 1: “The Mighty One, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting.  Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.  Our God comes; he does not keep silence; before him is a devouring fire, around him a mighty tempest.  He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people: ‘Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!’  The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge!”  So imagine you are standing in the Temple for worship with your offering, angry at the injustice facing the nation due to the constant threat posed by your people’s enemies, and these words are spoken.  You’d be on the edge of your seat with excitement.  A word from the Lord!  Oo!  He’s calling His people to come close to listen.  Surely He’s going to pronounce a word of judgment on all these wicked people surrounding us.  He’s going lay the smack down on all these poor slobs for rejecting Him and abusing us.  You’re waiting for v. 16: “…to the wicked God says…”  But there are a few verses in the way of that.

After a pause the worship leader opens his mouth to speak again: “Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify…” Here it comes!  Who’s going to get it now?  Who’s in God’s crosshairs?  “…I will testify against you.”  Yeah, right on!  You tell them, God!  Wait…what?  Testify against us?  What’d we do?  Alright, somebody must have brought a defective sacrifice with them.  Who did it?  You guys all know the law.  You know God won’t accept anything less than our best.  Come on, fess up.  Who’s the culprit?  If we don’t get this right God is never going to get what He needs from us.

Then the prophet keeps going.  Look at v. 8: “Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.”  Okay, hold on a minute here.  I’m getting mixed signals.  First God says He’s going to testify against us which obviously means that our worship isn’t good enough for Him which obviously means that somebody’s brought an insufficient sacrifice, but now you say God doesn’t have any problems with the quality or the quantity of our sacrifices.  So which is it?  Is God upset with us or happy with us?  Make up your mind!

So you can see perhaps that the people were in a bit of a quandary at this point.  God catches them off guard by speaking through His prophet against them rather than their enemies.  Then this is followed immediately by an affirmation that their sacrifices, their worship rituals are not the problem.  For a people for whom worship rituals were pretty much everything, this was awfully confusing.  Thankfully, they aren’t left here very long.  Starting in v. 9 the prophet begins to come to the point.  Where he starts, though, initially seems only to add to the confusion.  Look at this with me.  “I will not accept a bull from your house or goats from your folds.”  See the confusion?  God just said their sacrifices were fine and then He turns around and says He won’t accept them.  Huh?  What’s He mean?  Well, look closely with me here.  Notice from whence the sacrifices are coming.  He doesn’t simply say, “I will not accept a bull or a goat from you.”  That’s not the problem.  Their sacrifices are of a fine quality.  No, no, no.  He says, “I will not accept them from your house and from your fold.”  The emphasis here is not on the sacrifices themselves but on their source, namely, the people bringing them.  What God is saying here is that He won’t accept these sacrifices given from out of the personal abundance of the people.  Well why not?  Isn’t that how we are supposed to give?  From out of our abundance?  Yes…but you see, God’s using a particular rhetorical device here called sarcasm.  Do you know what sarcasm is?  (The correct answer would be nooooooooo…)  God’s being sarcastic to make a point.  The people were bringing offerings to God with the mindset that they were giving from out of their abundance as if they were rich in the first way.  The problem of course being that, well, they weren’t.

Here’s what was happening.  Folks back then generally believed that the gods had placed people on this earth in order to work the land for them.  We were like the serfs of their fief except their fief covered the whole planet.  If we did not make sacrifices to the gods then they didn’t eat.  And a hungry god is a grumpy god.  You don’t want to deal with a grumpy god.  Also, if we didn’t worship them they were stripped of their ability to help us.  Our worship served as a kind of fuel to their power.  If we tried to take power from them by withholding worship, they might zap us out of spite.  If we tried to starve them out by not offering sufficient or enough sacrifices they might zap us out of spite for that too.  What this all boiled down to was a kind of symbiotic relationship between the gods and us wherein we needed them to keep the natural world in good working order, but they also needed us.  If either of us fell down on the job the whole system went ker-plop.  The thing about this kind of religious system, though, is that while, yes, people worshiped the various gods and goddesses, there was nothing particularly redeeming about them that would make them worthy of worship.  They were worthy in the sense that they had the most power and could squash you if you didn’t, but if everybody pulled out of the system at the same time, the gods were up a creek without a paddle.  I don’t know about you, though, but if a god I’m considering worshiping needs me, that’s not a god who’s really worthy of my worship.  A god who needs anything isn’t really worthy of worship because he is not, by definition, what philosophers sometimes call a maximally great being.

Well, the God of Israel, in spite of what the people were thinking, was and is not like this.  He doesn’t need anything.  He didn’t need their sacrifices.  Listen to how He puts it: “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 its fullness are mine.  Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?”  In other words, here’s what God was saying to the people: “You’re bringing all these sacrifices to me as if you were doing me a favor.  You’re bringing all these sacrifices to me as if I needed them.  You’re bringing all these sacrifices to me as if you actually own this stuff and are graciously sharing with me.  Friend, you don’t own anything.  You’re not rich.  You can think otherwise all you want but that’s not going to change reality.  Here’s the reality: I own everything.  I’m the one who’s rich.  If you seem to be rich it’s because I’ve shared with you.  Other than my generosity you have nothing.”

Think about this for a minute with me.  God is the real owner of everything.  He created it and thus it belongs to Him.  He may have put us in charge of managing it, but that makes us rich in the second way just like the people of Israel.  Stay with me here.  If God is the real owner of everything then all the stuff to which you might normally affix the label “mine” isn’t really.  It just seems like it.  But, like a parable Jesus once told, eventually the owner is going to come back to claim what belongs to Him and is going to be looking to you for an account of how His stuff was managed while He was gone.  If it wasn’t managed in a way He likes then like Lucy there’s going to be some splainin’ to do.  But, if we have handled it well, then He is going to invite us into the fullness of what is His.

This, then, is why generosity is how to live in a big world.  If we want to enjoy the fullness of what belongs to God (for instance, life), then we need to manage His stuff in a manner that is in accordance with His desires for it.  We need to use His stuff like He would.  Well, how does God use His stuff?  Last time I checked He tends to be pretty generous with it.  Let’s just focus on the group gathered in this room for a minute.  By a show of hands, who did not have a roof over their head last night?  Who missed a meal this past week because you genuinely couldn’t afford the food?  Did anybody have to walk to church this morning because they can’t afford a car (I had to walk, but until we get rid of one I had three different cars that could have ferried my across the parking lot).  Who currently has more than one TV in your home?  How many people have running water and were able to take a hot shower the last time they bathed?  Huh.  It seems like God has been pretty generous with us.  Now, before some of you raise the objection that we are the exception on the world stage let me offer you this: perhaps God has been overly generous with us for the purpose of seeing us follow in His example, using the abundance of stuff He has entrusted to our care in a manner consistent with His handling of His own stuff.   And when we demonstrate that we can, the fullness of what is His will be made available to us.  Our world won’t be limited to what our meager efforts can achieve, but rather will expand on out to the limits of what God can.  That’s pretty big.  Generosity expands our world because generosity taps us into the source of everything.  The world doesn’t get any bigger than that.  Friends, we are rich without question, but only in the second way.  And, as long as we keep that in mind the world is at our fingertips.  There is no God-glorifying experience that will be out of reach for us.  But, if we forget that we are not the owners and start living like we are the whole thing will eventually come crashing down on our heads.


Incidentally, did God offer any kind of a solution to this problem, a way to avoid forgetting who’s the owner?  Look at vv. 14-15: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and perform your vows to the Most High, and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”  In other words, if we want to live in the big world generosity allows, if we want to keep firmly fixed in our minds who the owner of everything really is, there are two things we need to do.  First, we need to cultivate a spirit of gratitude toward God in all things expressed through worship.  This will help remind us of who God is and keep at the forefront of our minds that everything we have comes from Him.  (Because if we’re grateful then we must be grateful for something, meaning it didn’t come from us.)  Second, we need to lean on Him when things get tough and not on our own insufficient abilities.  This will help us remember not only that He is our provider, but also that if our means are not sufficient to meet our needs, other folks’ probably aren’t either.  And, if we have more than we need in one area or another, perhaps the reason is so that we can help them.  That’s part of how God invites us into His big world, by giving us more responsibility in managing it.  Well, putting all this together, if you want to live in a big world, here’s what you need to do: Gratefully lean hard on God.  Gratefully lean hard on God.  Gratefully lean hard on God.  Your world will never be bigger than when you gratefully lean hard on God.  When you gratefully lean hard on God you will never forget who the real owner is.  Gratefully lean hard on God, and then come back next week as we continue learning how to live in a big world.