October 10, 2010

Is It Your Best?

So last week we started talking about the attitude we need to have towards our stuff.  We talked about the fact that we have a tendency as humans to divide our hearts between the stuff of this world and the God who created the stuff.  The result of this tendency is that we become enslaved to our stuff in this world.  Stuff is a tough master because it is not only jealous of our time (which God also is), but it is fragile and gets lonely.  It also keeps us from storing up the kinds of treasures in heaven that will truly last because of our quest to appease its increasingly insistent demands.  I said several times then that trying to have it all will leave us with nothing.  What I meant by this was put more directly by Jesus when He said: “You cannot be slaves of God and of money.”  In looking ahead last week, I told you that we were going to spend this week and next talking about a couple of the results of this tendency to divide our hearts.  And so we shall.  In order to get us there with our passage for this morning, though, I want to spend some time setting the stage for you.

Let me start by sketching for you a broad outline of the history of Israel.  After God brought them out of Egypt, gave them the Law, and led them safely to the Promised Land, they generally had a pretty rocky go of it.  It would be almost enough to make you feel sorry for them except for the fact that their problems were consistently of their own making.  Before the period of the monarchy (as described in the book of Judges), there was a clearly discernable pattern: the people left God, God in turn allowed them to be dominated by a foreign nation in order to wake them up, the people woke up and cried out to God, and finally God sent a leader to save the people and keep them out of trouble for a few years.  When the people did ask for and receive a monarchy, very little about this pattern changed.  Eventually things got bad enough that God allowed them to be completely overrun by a foreign power and essentially gave them a seventy year time out.  The section of the Bible that really deals with this period in detail is the prophetic books of the latter half of the Old Testament.  Throughout the writings of the prophets there are a variety of calls for the nation to repent and get themselves back on track with God.  Interspersed with these are warnings of the consequences of staying their course.  These messages form the bulk of the hellfire and brimstone for which the prophets are perhaps the most widely known.  But, when you read the prophets very closely there is another theme that emerges.  In fact, it emerges even more clearly than do the messages of judgment and destruction.  This theme is the promise of the coming Deliverer.  It was this promise that sustained them during the period of the exile in Babylon and which drove them to resettle in Israel again after the exile ended.  After Babylon was conquered by the Persians, the people of Israel entered what is now called the post-exilic period of their history.  This is the period described in the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and though not focused on Israel, Esther.  This more than any other period in Israel’s history was one marked by waiting.

You know, in a lot of ways, we have much in common with post-exile Israel.  They lived between the times.  By this, I mean that they lived after the period of the monarchy when Israel was an independent nation, and before the period of the Messiah as foretold by the prophets.  In the same way, we live between the times.  We live after the time of Christ’s ministry on earth and before the day when Christ returns to finally establish His kingdom on earth.  They were and we are in a period of waiting.  God has laid out some pretty incredible promises in the New Testament regarding the future of His church in the world and we are in a period of anticipating those coming true.   The post-exile Israelites were waiting for the period of the Messiah to come for the first time.  We are waiting for Him to come for the second and final time.  The people then lived under the power of a government that neither knew nor cared about their values.  Sound familiar at all?  They lived in a day in which the prevailing culture was often dressed up in religious garb, but most folks lived their lives for themselves and gave the bulk of their attention to how they could do that as successfully as possible (and largely along the lines of how culture defined success which have changed remarkably little since then).  Any contemporary echoes there?  There were a number of people who went through the motions of religion because it was the culturally acceptable practice, but many of these folks didn’t have anything resembling their heart in it.  Certainly that one can’t be descriptive at all of us.

Well how do people do in a time of waiting like this one?  At first things go really well.  Imagine that your friend has given you his car to keep for him while he goes away for a trip, but doesn’t tell you how long the trip will be.  And this car isn’t simply a Geo Metro, it’s a Bentley.  Oh, and if you take really good care of it you’ll get to keep it when he returns.  How would we respond to this if he didn’t come back for the car nearly as soon as we expected him to do so?  At first we’d keep the car squeaky clean and in top running condition just in case he showed back up unexpectedly and demanded the car returned.  But eventually, if he is gone long enough, we are going to slide some.  Yet still, we know that we can’t blow it off completely and so eventually we find a comfortable routine that doesn’t take too much away from our normal lives and settle into it.  If we’re honest, we’re not giving the car our best attention, but neither are we completely ignoring it so we don’t feel too bad.  Gradually we get so used to this routine that we stop thinking about what the car is and blindly go about wiping it down every once in a while, starting it up every now and then, and so on and so forth.  Sure there are times when we get excited about the car again, take it for a spin, and show it off a bit, but on the whole, our focus is much more on our current life than the one for which we are supposed to be preparing.  Do you see the parallels here?

As they were settling back in to life after the exile, the people of Israel revealed that they had finally gotten the message about idolatry.  No longer were they tempted to bow down to the false idols of their neighbors.  Yet neither was their faithfulness to their God anything to write home about.  They went through the motions, to be sure, but they gradually relegated this relationship with their God to the backseat.  They went about their lives as they saw fit and gave God the leftovers.  It was into this scene that God sent the prophet Malachi.  Malachi was the last prophet God sent to the people of Israel before sending the Messiah.  He was sent with a variety of messages for the people but they can be boiled down into one major theme: God has done a lot for you, and He’s coming back for you, so you need to get back on track with putting Him first in your lives.  As becomes clear when reading through this sometimes frighteningly relevant little book, this getting off track had much to do with the people trying to split their loyalties between God and their stuff.  So what was the result of this?  Well, you can hear it for yourselves in two different passages.

Open your Bibles to Malachi 1:6 and follow along as I read first God’s words that though to the spiritual leaders of the people were really directed to all of them: “‘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 the Lord of Hosts to you priests, who despise My name.  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 nor wrong?  Bring it to your governor!  Would he be pleased with you or show you favor?’ asks the Lord of Hosts.  ‘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.  ‘I wish one of you would shut the temple doors, so you would no longer kindle a useless fire on My altar!  I am not pleased with you,’ says the Lord of Hosts, ‘and I will accept no offering from your hands.’  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,’ says the Lord of Hosts.  ‘But you are profaning it when you say: “the Lord’s table is defiled, and its product, its food, is contemptible.”  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.  ‘The deceiver is cursed who has an acceptable male in his flock and makes a vow but sacrifices a defective animal to the Lord.  For I am a great King’ says the Lord of Hosts, ‘and My name will be feared among the nations.”  Now turn over to 3:6 as we hear what God had to say to the people themselves: “‘Because I, Yahweh, have not changed, you descendants of Jacob have not been destroyed.  Since the days of your fathers, you have turned from My statutes; you have not kept them.  Return to Me, and I will return to you,’ says the Lord of Hosts.  ‘But you ask: “How can we return to you?”  Will a man rob God?  Yet you are robbing Me!  You ask: “How do we rob You?”  By not making the payments of 10 percent and the contributions.  You are suffering under a curse, yet you—the whole nation—are still robbing Me.  Bring the full 10 percent into the storehouse so that there may be food in My house.  Test Me in this way,’ says the Lord of Hosts.  ‘See if I will not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out a blessing for you without measure.  I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not ruin the produce of your ground, and your vine in your field will not be barren,’ says the Lord of Hosts.  ‘Then all the nations will consider you fortunate, for you will be a delightful land,’ says the Lord of Hosts.”

There is a lot of stuff there, but when you really look at it, there are two major problems being addressed.  The first is that the people were not bringing God their best.  This is the focus of the verses from chapter 1.  Now, the concepts here are somewhat foreign to us because our primary offering to the Lord is usually money and even that usually comes in the form of a little piece of paper that carries no intrinsic value.  For the Israelites still living under the sacrificial system, though, their primary offerings were physical things, most notably selections from their flocks.  With this in mind, these people had no excuse for not knowing what counted as an acceptable offering to God.  In Leviticus 22 there is a list of defects which render offerings unacceptable including animals that were blind, injured, maimed, had running sores, festering rashes, scabs, elongated or stunted limbs, or parts that were bruised, crushed, torn, or severed.  Deuteronomy 15:21 makes this even plainer: “But if there is a defect in the animal…you must not sacrifice it to the Lord your God.”  What was happening was that people were promising to bring the finest of their flock to God.  They were standing up in front of the church with their pledge cards and writing down a number with lots of zeroes behind it for everyone to see.  But, when the time came to actually present the offering they had instead brought the worst of their flock.  The offense of this should be pretty obvious.  In making His point God tells them to try this sort of thing with their appointed governor when, say, paying their taxes.  The same goes for us.  Next time the Internal Revenue Service says you owe a certain amount of money, try and see how long you can get by with delivering less than is expected.  In this same vein God accuses the people of saying some pretty harsh things about the altar.  This translates culturally as accusing the people of saying the church was stupid and unimportant.  Were they really saying things like this?  Would you?  Me neither, but remember, behavior reveals belief regardless of verbal affirmation.  God was calling the people out for having an attitude that viewed the things He had declared sacred as unimportant, worthless, and a nuisance.  He even goes so far as to say He would rather have no worship at all then the junk being brought before Him to pass as worship.  This is God aiming both barrels our way.  It’s like He’s saying, “Look, if you’re going to come to Central Baptist Church every week and fake your way through the songs, sleep through the sermon, stare at the ceiling during the prayers, throw in a couple bucks—way less than your best—in the plate, then why are you bothering to show up?  The pews are bolted to the floor; they won’t float away without you holding them down.”  Here’s the deal: we fall prey to this same problem when we decide to give God whatever we have left over after our expenses are taken care of and as long as it doesn’t cost us too much or otherwise hamper our ability to live as comfortably as we desire.

The second problem was that what the people were bringing God was brought begrudgingly.  They were not brining Him the full amount to which they were obligated and were not happy about what they did bring.  This is the focus of the verses from chapter 3.  God points out at the beginning of the passage from chapter 3 that it’s a good thing His character (of faithfulness to the covenant) doesn’t change (like that of the people) because otherwise they’d have been long since destroyed.  This pattern of giving God this half-hearted, begrudging obedience—when they give it at all—had been going on since the days of their fathers and was continuing at the present.  God actually accuses the people of robbing Him.  That’s a pretty bold accusation because the way in which the people are stated to be robbing Him is that they are not bringing their full tithes and their contributions to the temple.  Wait a minute!  Wait a minute!  Isn’t God a spirit?  Haven’t we heard numerous times that God doesn’t need our money?  How are the people robbing God by not giving to Him something He doesn’t need in the first place?  Furthermore, doesn’t that seem a bit legalistic of God to demand a certain amount of money from each and every person?

Well, let’s talk about this tithe and the contributions here for just a minute to see if we can understand this more clearly.  This passage is one of the primary Old Testament justifications of calls for every follower of God to give at least but no less than 10 percent of every dollar they make to the church.  But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.  The Law of Moses outlined three different tithes for the people to give (one to support the Levites, one to help pay for the various festivals, and one to help the down-and-outs) which collectively obliged them to give 231/3 % of their income to the temple each year (not 30% since the last tithe was given every three years).  People today sometimes bristle at being told to tithe 10% of their income.  Imagine if churches started teaching that people should be giving a quarter of their income to really be counted among the faithful.  The mention of tithes is plural, so it probably references all three of these.  The point is, this is not an appropriate text to justify a flat 10% tithe for all believers.  In fact, nowhere does the Bible specify a base amount for believers to give.  The biblical principle on giving is equal sacrifice, not equal gift.  For some people giving 10% of their income is unwise unless God specifically calls them to it because there literally will not be enough leftover to pay the bills.  For others giving 10% places them squarely in the middle of this indictment by God because that doesn’t represent anything even remotely resembling a sacrifice.  Unless they are living beyond their means or are deluded by the false notion that everything they have actually belongs to them they don’t even miss it.  These folks should be giving way more than 10%.  The fact is, for most Americans, including many members of this church, we fall into the latter group rather than the former.  Today, this second problem manifests itself when we either give nothing at all (which is problematic and unwise for a host of reasons, some of which we will get into next week), or less than we should be.  As for how much we should be giving, that’s between us and God, but for most of us, it’s somewhat more than we currently are.  I have said before and meant it that this is a generous church, but imagine what we could accomplish for the kingdom if each and every member strove to go not only above, but beyond all expectations of reasonableness, and moved into the territory of faith when it came to their giving.

Each of these problems stems from the larger problem we addressed last week: trying to divide our loyalties between God and our stuff.  We give because we want to serve God—much like the Rich Young Ruler.  But we give something less than our best and we give it with some begrudging hesitation because we also serve our stuff.  Remember, when stuff is our master we can’t give too much of it away because who or what will we then serve?  We also can’t give away our very best because why would we want to serve something that’s clearly less than the best?  These are the problems involved with trying to split loyalties, and specifically, trying to get off with shortchanging God.  So what’s the solution?  My friends this is unbelievably simple and exceptionally difficult.  We need a complete attitude shift wherein instead of begrudgingly bringing God whatever’s leftover, we gladly give Him our best.  First, though, we have to answer for ourselves an important question: Is God worth our best?  In Malachi 1 God describes Himself as father and master.  As believers we should have no problems calling God father.  Well, if He is our father, then should we not honor our father with our best?  Though the image of the apathetic son or daughter who slaps together some junk to throw at Dad for Father’s Day might get a laugh in our anti-father culture (and if you don’t believe, watch any high-rated “family” sit-com from the last ten years), it should be an awkward, uncomfortable, and shame-filled laugh because fathers and mothers deserve our very best.  Still, some struggle with the idea of God as father.  Well, Scripture is clear that followers of Christ are slaves of God and any slave who gives his master less than his best is a slave who can count on not having the master’s favor.  And if that isn’t enough, God declares very clearly that His name is great and thus He is worthy of our best.  If we struggle very often with giving God our absolute best (for example, we frequently justify why less will do), then we need to check and see which other god we are also trying to serve.  We give God our best not because He needs it, but because He deserves it.  Let us gladly give Him our best.

Yet in the process let us not overlook the first part of that.  Okay, I know that most of you have this image of Noah as a perfect little angel 24/7, but let me rock your world for just a minute.  There are times when he misbehaves and has to go to timeout.  When he is able to come back out of timeout the first thing we have him do is apologize to whichever of us he has misbehaved towards.  Sometimes you can tell that he really means it, but most of the time I get the feeling that it’s just a formality before he can go back to what he was doing before (particularly when he immediately does whatever got him into timeout again).  When we give to God begrudgingly, we embody the spirit of this misbehaving toddler.  The principle regarding tithing operative throughout the Bible is that tithing is the natural overflow of thanksgiving in response to God having done something remarkable for us and His promise to yet do something remarkable for us.  Abraham gives ten percent of his war spoils to Melchizedek in Genesis 14 because God had helped him win an incredible victory over his enemies.  Jacob promises to give God a tenth of his possessions in Genesis 28 because God promised yet to do an incredible blessing on him.  Such expressions of gratitude and generosity are good for the soul.  When it came to the giving of the Law, God enshrined the tithing in the Law because people generally aren’t so good at the whole gratitude and generosity thing on our own…consistently, at least…and God sought to give us a good starting point.  But this doesn’t change the fact that the spiritual principle is that we should demonstrate our immense gratitude to God (and I’ll leave that huge assumption unqualified for now) by gladly giving Him our best.  In other words, when we are spiritual infants we give because we have to.  But, as we grow, we first give the same amount because we want to, and then give more because God enables to do so.  Take this challenge for what it’s worth.  For those of you who’ve been following Christ for a long time—20, 30, 40, 50, or even 60 years—and you still give percentage wise the same as you did when you started following, consider this: how many other things do you still do in the same way as when you were ten?  Our giving should (and does) thus reflect our gratitude.  All of this is to say: if you want to avoid the problems of begrudging and unacceptable giving to God which stem from our tendency to divide our loyalty, then take up the spiritual practice of gladly giving God your best.

So in the end where does this leave us?  How do these words, spoken some 2,400 years ago, impact our lives?  Well, let us ask ourselves the two operative questions.  First, are we bringing God our best?  Now, the Israelites brought God physical things so in some ways this was easier for them to answer than for us.  But let’s think about it.  Since we think about money first when thinking about giving, how can we give God our best money?  Only crisp, new bills in the plate?  How about giving to God first before anything else?  How about instead of paying all the bills and setting aside some for savings and then giving from what’s left we give to God before any of that?  God talks about our giving to the government.  I suspect that for most of you, the bulk of your taxes come out of your paycheck before anything else.  Did you know that’s optional?  What if we gave before even taxes came out?  But let’s get ourselves thinking beyond money as well.  This isn’t just about money.  Sometimes, limiting our focus to money actually allows many of us to get off easy.  We write off God’s portion out of our checking account and the rest of the stuff is ours.  But what about our time?  What about our talents?  What about our possessions?  What about anything else in our lives that could be used to God’s glory?  Are we using each and every one of those things to their fullest potential in the advancement of God’s kingdom?  Let us gladly bring God our best.  He’s worth it.  Second, are we bringing to God begrudgingly?  Ask yourselves this: how much does your tithing (in whatever form it takes) hurt?  Does it hurt?  Better yet: what kind of hurt?  Is it the kind of hurt where you really don’t know if what’s left will cover all your expenses?  Or is it the kind of hurt where it is actually taking something out of you because you shouldn’t have to be doing something like this?  Do you ever do the mental gymnastics of trying to justify giving less away?  Ever think, “God’s doesn’t really need my money, and I do,” in order to keep more of it for yourself?  Now, the promises of 3:10-11 do not guarantee that God will give more stuff to us if we give to Him lest giving to Him become a means to the end of honoring our material master.  But, God does reward our faithfulness with blessings of all kinds (including occasional physical blessings) and He will always make sure we have enough to meet what He knows are our needs.  He can only pour out such blessings, however, if we are serving only Him.  So, let us gladly give Him our best.

Being in a place of waiting is a hard thing.  It is easy to settle into a routine that forgets all about the reason behind why we do what we do.  We are in a period of waiting.  We are waiting for our Savior to come back and set things right once and for all.  As we wait let us not, however, settle into the patterns of our materialistic, divided-heart world.  Let us make sure our devotion belong fully and only to the God who helps us belong, teaches us all about life, and empowers us to serve in life-giving ways.  Let us gladly give Him our best.  And let us not allow these words to just become another phase of our routine.  Let me make it practical for you: This week, find the thing most precious and valuable to you and find one practical, kingdom-advancing way you can use it to gladly give God your best.   Let your loyalties be put clearly on display.  Gladly give God your best.