January 29, 2017

Stewardship 101

We’re a little ways into January now, but companies are still trying to capitalize off of our drive to make positive life changes as the new year dawns.  As poorly as many brick-and-mortar retailers did over the Christmas season they’re desperate for about anything right now.  In any event and as a result, what are some of the most frequent commercials we see at this time of year?  Gyms.  Weight loss programs.  Tax prep companies.  Financial management groups.  This morning, I cannot help you with most of those.  I don’t have any weight loss solutions for you—I used to be scrawny because of genetics, but that’s starting to fail on me.  I can loan you exercise equipment I never use—but I can’t promise much in the way of results because I haven’t seen them myself…because I never use them.  I can’t help you with your taxes at all.  Lisa will tell you as quick as I will that my brain leaves my head when I get within even a reasonably close proximity to tax forms and I lose the ability to process and understand even the most basic explanations of how they work.  And while I’m not terrible with money, you do not want me investing your wealth for the future.  I am a writer and a teacher, not a financial guru.

The point, though, is that if you think about it, there is a common theme running through these and other commercials we see at this time of year: Getting your life straight in order to have the best life possible.  Now that’s something with which I can offer a little bit of advice. But lest you think I’m offering hubris with a side of pride here, the advice isn’t from me.  I’m nowhere near an expert on that.  This advice comes from the Scriptures.  And if I could suggest a single phrase that would encapsulate all the various ways we can get our lives in good working order it would be this: Wise stewardship.  If we want things to flow smoothly in our lives, the better stewards we can be of who we are and what we have the better off we will be.

And if this is the first time you’ve joined us or else you are just listening particularly carefully this morning that phrase makes it sound suspiciously like I’m going to be talking about money today.  Oh no!  Quick!  Hide your purse!  Sit extra hard on your wallet!  The church is after our dollars again!  Well, the truth is we are going to talk about money.  But not this week so you breathe a big sigh of relief and put your wallet or purse back down.

More than just talking about money, though, I want to spend the next few weeks with you talking about how we can be the wisest stewards possible of our stuff.  I mean, being good stewards of our stuff seems like a pretty clear way to have a better life, right?  I don’t think there will be many arguments with that notion in the room this morning.  Well, if we’re going to talk about being wise stewards of our stuff, we have to deal with the fact that Jesus said (I’m paraphrasing) that there is nothing that competes with God so much for the devotion of our hearts as our stuff.  He said that our heart will be wherever our treasure is.  And, more often than not, our treasure is our money.  Thus, making sure we have a clear theological framework in place for thinking rightly about our stuff generally and our money in particular to help us order our loves properly is something we’ve got to do if we are going to be consistent, faithful followers of Jesus.

With all of this in mind, this morning we are kicking off a brand new, three-part series called Wise Stewards.  The goal of the next three weeks is just as I told you.  I want to help you craft a theological framework for thinking rightly about your stuff so that you can use it consistently in a manner that most glorifies God.  The reason for this is simple: When we use our stuff consistently to glorify God we will gain the most benefit from it.  We’re going to start this morning by looking at the big picture.  Then, over the next couple of weeks I want to talk with you more specifically about giving.  I want to look first at what God really wants from us when it comes to giving, and then we’ll get a bit more particular and practical as we talk about some of the nuts and bolts of how and why we give.  In the end, I want to leave you thinking about using your stuff in a way that will bring you the most joy.  Actually, I don’t want to leave you simply thinking about it, I hope to spur you to some action.  That’s why in a couple of weeks as we wrap up the series, I’m going to offer you some specific things to consider doing to put all of this into practice so that it can actually do something in your life.

For the rest of this morning, though, I want to deal with the fact that we can’t start out talking about money if we’re going to think about being wise stewards of our resources.  The issue is way bigger than that.  We’ve got to take a couple of steps back and see things from the right perspective.  And the right perspective when it comes to this particular area of our lives is going to come when we get our hearts and minds wrapped firmly around who God is and what that means for us.  And I don’t know of many places in the Scriptures that help us do this better than Psalm 50.

Psalm 50 offers us some pretty important perspective when it comes to thinking about our stuff and how we use it, but it doesn’t start out there.  Just like where we’re going this morning, it starts way bigger than that.  Listen to how the psalmist starts out here in Psalm 50:1: “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.”  So right out of the gate here we see this incredible picture of God.  This is God is all His majestic splendor.  He has command of the earth.  When He speaks all of creation—everything on which the sun shines as it tracks across the sky—is summoned to listen.  More than that, this God we’re talking about is the perfection of beauty.  He is the one who all hearts desire after even if they don’t know it yet.  People have always been attracted to beauty even if they have not always defined it in the same terms.  Well, God is the perfection of beauty.  He’s the one to whom we are most attracted regardless of the particular definition of beauty we have adopted.  The early church father, Augustine, wrote that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in this God of beauty.  What we see here is one of the highest and most glorified descriptions of God we find in the Psalms.

The psalmist continues in v. 3.  Listen to this: “Our God comes; he does not keep silence; before him is a devouring fire, around him a mighty tempest.”  This is just an image of the terrible glory that surrounds Him.  This is an idea of what God’s presence is like that appears many times in the Scriptures.  Let me see if slightly different terms will make it more understandable.  Have you ever seen an image of a giant thunderstorm from a distance?  The power and fury is something to behold.  It is at one and the same time beautiful and frightening.  From a distance, it is a wonder of nature, but up close the power and fury is enough to blow you away.  The psalmist describes the presence of God in similar terms.  He is not the God of the deists who sits back passively and watches with mostly disinterest as the world He created plays itself out before Him.  He speaks and gets involved in the action.  He brings the full power of His presence to bear in order to keep things on the path down which He is guiding it.

Look how this unfolds now in v. 4: “He calls to the heavens above and to the earth below, 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!”  Wow, right!?!  This incredible God of might and beauty, of power and prestige comes to judge.  But rather than merely wiping us away with his ferocious judgments, He judges rightly.  He convicts the wicked of their crimes, but He calls the righteous ones—those who have pursued Him in a right relationship (which we now understand comes through Christ)—to Himself.  They are made right by sacrifice (which, again, we now understand to be the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross), and can stand firm and confidently within the fury of His presence.

Again, wow!  But lest you wonder what exactly all of this has to do with being good stewards of our stuff, let me pull back the curtain and show you.  We are talking about the God of power and glory here.  He speaks and the world listens.  All creation quakes at the sound of His voice.  He is the righteous judge over all the earth.  It all belongs to Him.  In other words, we are using His stuff.

Did you ever borrow something from someone you considered to be particularly significant?  How did you handle it?  Let’s say you were in desperate need for a crystal punch bowl for a fancy party you were hosting.  Now image that this news has somehow reached the ears of the President of the United States.  Out of the blue, he calls you and says, “You know what, I think we’ve got one sitting around here that will be just perfect for your event.  It’s the crystal bowl that John Adams had commissioned for the White House when he moved in as the first occupant.  [I don’t know if such a thing exists—I’m just making this up.]  I’ll have someone bring it down and you can get it back to me when you’re finished.”  How would you handle that bowl?  Wouldn’t it be with way more care and concern than you do with your own stuff?  Of course it would!  The last thing in the universe you would want to do was to see anything happen to that bowl.  Imagine if you came in and found your kids using it as a swimming pool for their dolls or actions figures.  Your brains would explode all over the room!  Folks in the next county would probably be able to hear you threatening their lives if they ever so much as processed a thought to do something like that again.  This bowl is not yours and what’s more, it’s a national treasure.  You would move mountains to make sure you were the best steward of that bowl possible.

Well…our stuff isn’t really our stuff.  It belongs to this God we just saw described.  If we don’t think about our stuff in those terms, we’re not going to use it right.  There’s no way we’ll be sufficiently motivated.  If you were under the impression that your sketchy friend, Phil, picked up that “crystal” bowl at a pawn shop for $15 bucks, you wouldn’t treat it in nearly the same way you would if it came personally from the President.  You wouldn’t even treat it the same way if you had worked, saved, scraped, borrowed, and begged for enough money to buy it yourself.  If we don’t think about God rightly, we’re not going to think about our stuff rightly either.

Now, what comes next in the Psalm is important, but I want to skip over it for a minute.  Starting in v. 16, the psalmist talks to the folks who don’t get this right.  And it’s not like they’re getting this wrong because they didn’t know any better.  They’re getting it wrong because they chose poorly.  Listen to his words for this group of people starting at v. 16 and I’ll just read all of this at once and then we’ll come back and talk about it for a minute: “But to the wicked God says: ‘What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips?  For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you.  If you see a thief, you are pleased with him, and you keep company with adulterers.  You give your mouth free rein for evil, and your tongue frames deceit.  You sit and speak against your brother; you slander your own mother’s son.  These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself.  But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.  Mark this, then, you who forget God, lest I tear you apart, and there be none to deliver!’”

Yikes!  So, what God is doing is indicting the “wicked” here.  But if you read down the description of these folks…they really don’t seem that bad.  I mean they’re certainly not bad guys, but they aren’t mass murderers or anything like that.  But you see, we’re conditioned to think of the “wicked” as this special class of irredeemably evil people.  Yet that’s not how they are envisioned in the Scriptures.  In the Scriptures the “wicked” are folks who don’t take God seriously as God and who then live lives that reflect this error in belief.  Well, that can work itself out in some pretty seemingly benign ways.  Did you catch that line right near the end?  “You thought that I was one like yourself.”  Perhaps another way to put that would be this: “When you envisioned God, you envisioned yourself.  You thought I’d give you the same breaks you give yourself.  You thought I’d overlook the same sins that you overlook in your own life (while simultaneously bringing the hammer down on other folks who do them).  You thought you could say, think, and act however you pleased because I agreed with you that it was right in that moment.  And I let you get away with this for a while because I wanted to give you the space to come to your senses all by yourself.  I’m done waiting.”

Well…that could be any of us, right?  I mean, it could be that somebody we would identify as a “good person” could make this kind of error in belief and live his life accordingly, couldn’t it?  Yeah, it could.  And if you look a little more carefully at v. 16, this is exactly the point it makes: “What right have you to recite my statutes or take my covenant on your lips?”  Think for a minute here: Who would be reciting God’s statutes or professing to be a part of His covenant community?  I’ll give you a hint: It’s not the folks who profess to be unbelievers.  These “wicked” people were part of the covenant community.  These were the folks who were “at church” on a regular basis, but who weren’t living the lifestyle God demanded of His people when they left (and maybe not even while they were there).  Author Brendan Manning once wrote something that you may very well have heard before, but which addresses this very lack: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world is Christians: who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, walk out the door, and deny Him by their lifestyle.  That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

This is why if we are going to talk about stewardship and using our stuff rightly we have to start so much bigger than our money.  How we think about God determines how we use our stuff.  There is a direct connection.  And don’t think that just because you’re in the church you’re covered.  It’s easy for biblically “wicked” folks to hide under a sheen of righteousness.  But there’s no life to be found there.  That kind of thing doesn’t make for wise stewards.

So what does?  Well, let’s jump back a bit and pick up what we skipped earlier.  Verse 7 now: “Hear, O my people, and I will speak; O Israel, I will testify against you.  I am God, your God.  Not for your sacrifices do I rebuke you; your burnt offerings are continually before me.’”  In other words, God wasn’t upset with them because they weren’t sufficiently religious.  They went through the religious motions of worship all the time.  They were over-the-top in their religiosity.  But God doesn’t want His people to be religious.  Religious people do the things they do because either A. they believe that by doing them they can manipulate God into doing what they want Him to do; or B. they believe God somehow needs something from them.  This is how people have almost always thought about whatever they identified as their higher power to be.  The gods depended on the people for food (thus the sacrifices), and in return the gods gave the people rain or children or bigger harvests or protection from enemies or what have you.  Both of these notions are supremely untrue when it comes to the God of the Bible.

Ironically, the one error the people didn’t make then was thinking that anything they had was theirs.  Even the pagans back then thought their stuff really belonged to the gods.  God was upset with the people of Israel for going through the motions of worship.  Today we make the equal, but opposite, error.  We think our stuff is really our stuff and go through the motions of worship because of the cultural benefits.  Although, as the number of cultural benefits continue drying up, fewer people are willing to go through the motions.  That’s not entirely a bad thing.  The kick is that instead of turning to secularism as we are so often led to believe, more folks are turning to any one of a number of different superstitions, most of which were exposed as nonsense and driven out by Christianity quite a while ago.  As King Solomon said: There is nothing new under the sun.

In any event, what God was upset with the people for then (and He’s still not that big a fan of now) was not thinking about their stuff rightly and thus not being the kind of wise stewards He wanted them to be.  Listen to what He had to say to the folks who thought they were somehow doing Him a favor with their acts of religion: “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 its fullness are mine.  Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?  [That’s a rhetorical question to which the glaring answer is NO.]”

Okay, fine.  But what are we supposed to do instead?  Verse 14: “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.”  God doesn’t want us to religiously go through the motions with our stuff.  He doesn’t want that because it’s not our stuff.  It’s His stuff.  He doesn’t want our stuff because He doesn’t need it.  Everything is His including what we so frequently call “ours.”  What He wants from us…what He wants for us…is worship with grateful hearts.  Because God is who He is, what He both deserves from us and desires for us is worship.  The best thing we can give God is ourselves in faithful commitment to the life He has laid out for us to live.

If we are going to become wise stewards of all of our stuff, there is one overridingly important idea around which we must get our hearts and minds wrapped.  Here it is: It all belongs to God.  It all belongs to God.  Say that with me: It all belongs to God.  Again like you mean it: It all belongs to God.  One more time with conviction: It all belongs to God.

All Christian stewardship must begin here: Worship and an acknowledgment that it all belongs to God.  What is “it all”?  Anything.  Everything.  It all belongs to God.  He owes us nothing; we owe Him everything.  If we try and practice the spiritual discipline of sacrificial giving before we have this most basic point down, we will inevitably fall into one of the two groups God calls out in this psalm: the unfaithful who nonetheless mask their unfaithfulness with a guise of righteousness, and the faithful who have gotten lost in the rituals of worship and have forgotten its heart.  They have forgotten that it all belongs to God.

But when we get this right…the result are pretty spectacular.  Check out the very last verse here: “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me; to the one who orders his way rightly I will show the salvation of God!”  That’s what’s at stake here: Nothing less than salvation.  It all belongs to God.  Even that.  And when we are wise stewards with the little bit God’s given us now—something we are able to be and do consistently only when we have invited Christ into our hearts, submitted to His lordship, and by that allowed the Holy Spirit to come in and start changing the way we think and love—we’ll demonstrate to Him that we can be trusted with the whole thing.  Being wise stewards isn’t just about our stuff.  It’s about our entire lives.  It’s about the whole of eternity.  God has salvation waiting for us.  But we’ll never taste its sweetest fruits until we have gotten our hearts and minds wrapped around a simple truth: It all belongs to God.  Now, we can talk about giving.  Come back next week and we’ll do just that.