A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on October 30, 2011.
2 Samuel 24:18-24
O God, we wonder if we have prayed too little. Have we forgotten friends for whom we have promised to pray? Have we bowed our heads and closed our eyes and forgotten the stories from the news channel? Have we been too glib about our own hearts and in our own need for your spirit of truth to take up residence there? We ask the questions but we confess we know the answers and so you must. We pray, therefore, for the needs that are not forgotten by you. Continue to strengthen the weak. Continue to heal the sick. Continue to comfort the confused and, Lord, hold it not against them if there have not been prayers lifted for them because we have forgotten. We pray for each family affected by a bomb blast and we join our hearts with those who pray for loved ones in uniform around the world. We pray for other items in the news and ask that you would forgive us when we do not see a concern as a matter of prayer and quickly go on to our next concern. We also pray for the needs of our own hearts. We ask that fear would no longer dominate the way we respond to life. You have given us a spirit of power and may it demonstrate itself every day in our hearts. May we no longer show selfishness nor be guided by it, but willing in all things to be generous. May we be like Christ today. Whatever challenge, whatever opportunity, and whatever obedience might be required from us, we pray that the heart of Christ would, indeed, guide us. Shape us even now as we pray the prayer that he teaches us again and again to pray: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.
All of our gifts, whether they be of music or martyrdom, are like the intrinsically worthless present of a child, which a parent values only for the intention.
–C. S. Lewis in Christian Reflections
We would not believe what we believe if we did not think we were right. Nobody would set out to believe a false thing, but we are Christians because we think Jesus Christ is the best expression of God and what it means to love, worship, and serve God. If you were put in a group of people that represented many of the religions of the world and you were asked to give a statement of what makes Christianity distinctive, what would you say?
Chances are you might try to use the Bible, and somebody from another faith might say, O, we have holy writings, too. We believe in Jesus. Some other religions actually acknowledge certain qualities of Christ, or they would say, Yes, and we also have the Prophet, or we have Buddha, or something else.
If you were to try to say, This is what makes Christianity different from the other faiths, what would you say it is? For me, it is this simple: Of all the faiths of the world, our faith is one that calls on us to love God. Other faiths ask that people obey, that people fear, that people believe, or that people follow a path of truth. All of these things would be a part of what it means to be a Christian, but when you strip everything else away, what we are asked to do is not to fear, not to obey, but to love. It is out of our love that all of these other things come. The loving relationship between God and the people that follow God is what sets being a Christian apart from everything else.
If we do look at our scriptures, and for us, this would be our validation, we know that in the simple statement in the First Letter of John, John says, “God is love.”
We think about the Gospel of John where he tells us, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” We think about Christ’s death as an expression of God’s love. Why did Christ die except that God loves us enough that God wants that barrier restored, that God wants us to be forgiven, wants us to be whole, and wants us to be with God forever because God loves us. We think about what Paul says, “We love because God first loved us.”
All through scripture, particularly in the New Testament, we find how God loves us, and we turn around and love God back. There are a couple of times where Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment, and what is the greatest commandment? That we shall love the Lord our God, with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul, with all our strength. This is what God wants. God wants our love. This distinctive part of what it means to be a Christian and have this emphasis on loving God above all other things is really in our experience although we sometimes forget about it.
Occasionally, someone will inquire about our relationship with God and will say, Do you love Jesus? I can remember as a college student working in a small church as a part-time youth minister. Occasionally, on Sunday nights, we would have testimony time. The pastor’s name was Brother Gowen. Brother Gowen would get up and say, “Who would like to testify to their faith?” It had a set formula. The first person would stand up and say, “Brother Gowen, I just want to say I love the Lord, and . . . .” Then they would tell about something that God had done in their life. Pretty soon, two dozen more people would stand up and say, “I just want to say I love the Lord, and . . .” and tell their story. Chances are, if someone would ask us to give an account of what we believe, somewhere early on we would talk about why we love God. What sets us apart from other faith traditions is that we love God.
Several years ago, there was a book that was written as a self-help book for marriage. It was called What Do you Do After You Say ‘I Do’. Let’s take that thought. What do we do after we say, “I love God”? How do we show that? I can give my wife a kiss. I can hug my children. I can greet friends warmly. I can do all manner of things, but what do I do with God? How do I show God my love? We can start going to church. We can buy a new Bible and start reading it. We can begin praying. We can serve in a position in the church. What are other things do we do to demonstrate how we love someone?
If we were to look at our other relationships, what do we do when we start loving somebody that we can see? Chances are once we say we love someone, one of the first things that happens is we give a gift. Have you ever walked into somebody’s office or home and there are flowers or something else that wasn’t there before and you say, “Where did that come from?”
And you say, “I am dating Bob, and for our first month anniversary, he gave me that.”
They start counting out the months and you think, I have been in love a long time and I have forgotten how we used to mark off months just to say I love you. One of the first things we do when we fall in love is to give a gift.
Let’s just say that a football player is drafted in the first round of the NFL draft. He has gotten the multi-million dollar signing bonus, and some sportscaster sticks a microphone in front of him and asks, “What are you going to do with all that money?”
The football player responds, “I am going to buy my family a house.” One of the first things they think of is somehow returning a gift to their family—something extravagant, something good, that they might not have any other way. They want to give a gift.
I think the question may have been asked earlier today in Bible Study, but if someone were to ask you, What is the best gift you have ever received or the best gift you have ever given? Who did the best gift come from and who did you give the best gift to? There may be an odd circumstance or two, but most of us are going to talk about someone who either loves us that gave us this gift or someone whom we love deeply and dearly that we gave the best gift to. The best gifts are very rarely given to people we accidentally know or someone that seems to come across our way. When we love, we give. It is just that simple.
In scripture, what we find is that when people love God, they give. Just think of this: The earliest expression of worship by God’s people is always someone who is thankful and expressing love to God. They took rocks and built an altar. That is the simplest form of worship that there is anywhere in scripture. Noah builds an altar. Jacob builds an altar. Abraham builds an altar. They put on the altar their sacrifice. As the smoke goes up, that is their offering. In their nomadic culture, that is what they give to God. When people worship out of love and a sense of gratitude to God, they give. That’s it. Before there were hymns, sermons, brass, bells, etc., there was just giving a gift to God.
How did people decide what to give? There are a couple of things that we find in the New Testament. One is that they often gave their first fruits. We are moving away from generations that might have been raised around a farm, but perhaps some of us still remember what it was like to be raised on a farm. But I can tell you when the first vegetables of the garden came in, that was a big deal. You had been eating canned things. You had been eating things you had to buy at the store that tasted nowhere as good as what we raised in the garden. When the first fruits of the garden come in, that is the best. Do you realize that in ancient times, they always gave the first fruits to God? This was a way of honoring God. We want God to go first. God gets the first fruits. The things that were sacrificed were always the first fruits. We can think about it this way, too. You have been waiting all winter, and now the vegetables have come in. You are ready for them, but before we take any, we give to God the first fruits. Nothing like those first green beans, those first ears of corn. The first fruits went to God, but it was also an expression of our wait because we want to show our thanks and dependence on God.
People always gave their best. At Easter time, we talked about Jesus being the sacrificial lamb, the perfect lamb, and the perfect sacrifice. Do you know where that comes from? That comes from the tradition in the Old Testament that when people were ready to sacrifice a lamb or a goat or other animal to God, it would be very easy to look around the flock and say, That one is lame and it is probably going to die anyway. I will give that one to God. That is like getting re-gifted at Christmastime, isn’t it? In the Old Testament law, it was prescribed, “Take a lamb without blemish.” Take one of the best. Take one that it cost you something to give. That is the one you sacrifice to God—not the one that is already blind, not the one that is already diseased or the runt of the litter, the one that is struggling to live. You take the good one.
When we talk about Jesus being the perfect lamb, he is an image of the kind of gift that people are supposed to offer to God—the best—not the one that it won’t matter if it is gone.
You may wonder where the scripture comes in today, and it is here. There has been a plague. David feels the plague is his fault and he needs to offer something to God. The word comes, “Go, get this land, build an altar, and offer a sacrifice.” David and his men go to do this. Araunah sees him coming, finds out that he wants his hand and he says, “I tell you what. Take my land, and by the way, I will just provide everything for the sacrifice. Don’t you worry about a thing. You don’t have to pay me. I know you are the king, and I want to be in good favor. Just take what is mine and you make an offering of it.”
If we could see the look on David’s face, it must be absolute slack-jawed amazement, as Grady Nutt would say. David said, “Are you kidding? Would I offer to God something that cost me nothing? No. I will pay you.” The offering had to be the best. It had to represent what David really wanted to give out of his own heart to God.
If you noticed the title of the sermon today, it is Giving for God’s Sake. Out of our love for God, there are times where we are called upon to give the best. We don’t want to re-gift people. We don’t want to give them something that we found in the back of our closet that did not matter. That is what David is saying. “I am not going to give to God that which cost me nothing.”
The Stewardship Committee is doing something entirely different this year. You should have received a commitment card in the mail. There is also a commitment card in the pew rack. I challenge you to get it out. There is not a place on that card to list an amount. We are not talking about money. We are talking about hearts. The invitation is not to please help us pledge the budget. The invitation is to join your heart with the hearts of other Christians to say, I recognize this is a part of the way I love God.
There are three different things you can choose. Maybe you have never pledged before and you think, I want to start someplace. Maybe you are giving and you are thinking, I need to continue this and grow in it. The Bible lists the tithe as a significant standard and maybe that is the place where you are. You can be any place on the scale, but if your desire is to express back to God the generous heart that God has expressed to you, there is a place for you to mark it.
You may be thinking, If they don’t want an amount, what good does it do to fill out a card? You may think, I am going to start exercising, but you have only told yourself. You can always fudge and sleep in tomorrow, but if you have told somebody, I am going to start exercising and I will meet you at the track at 6:00 a.m., now you have a commitment. Now you have something that you realize you have expressed out loud and it is real, too. The card is an opportunity for each of us to express out loud so that we can hear ourselves say it and also say it to God, This is where I am in my life of generosity and I want to give for God’s sake because I love God. This is where I am in my journey right now. It is not about the money. It is really about my heart and your heart.
God loves us so much that he sent Jesus to die for us, and I want to express my love back. What would be a fitting gift for a God like that?
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.