A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., November 7, 2010.
2 Corinthians 8:12-15
What I always say to people is that if you take the standard of 10 percent and say God required it of the poorest people in Old Testament Israel, and now that we’re under the grace of Jesus and we have the indwelling Holy Spirit and we live in this incredibly affluent culture, do you think he would expect less of us?
—Douglas LeBlanc in Tithing—Test Me in This
Father, you have taught us that we always ought to pray and not lose heart. You have taught us that, if we seek you with all of our hearts, we will not be disappointed. So again, in this hour of worship and supported by these friends who bow with us, we come to seek your blessing. We, who are weary and heavy laden, seek to rest in your presence. We seek to find the sustaining power that allows us to persevere and do more than we imagined, all that we are called upon to do. We, who know our sin all too well, seek forgiveness today. Grant us clean hearts. Grant us the assurance of pardon that we have already listened to this morning. We pray that you would remove the guilt from our hearts that we might leave this place sensing that we are clean, sensing that we are able to come into your presence. We, who are anxious over worldly goods, would ask for the power to let go of our need for more. Help us, Father, to be free from the things that make us look for security in worldly goods. Free us from the insecurity that makes us think that friends would be more numerous or they would find us more valuable if we would strive for a particular lifestyle. Free us from the false belief that security is in anything but you. O God, help us not to focus on what we don’t have but what we do have. Help us to see the many blessings and to fix our hearts on things above. Remind us of the peace that has come to our hearts through prayer. Remind us of the moments of inspiration that have come through worship, and remind us of the sense of blessing that we have found when we have served you and followed your Son. O God, remind us that in no purchase and in no thing we have acquired have any of these things happened. There has not been that type of blessing. Only your spirit has done these things for us. Remind us today that you and you alone are our refuge and strength, and in you and you alone do we trust. For Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
It has been about 20 years since I was a pastor in Nashville and I was observing the billboard advertising campaign of another congregation that was across the city. It was about the time when David Letterman had his list of Top Ten Things on Late Night. Somebody had come up with the top ten reasons why people don’t go to church. This particular church had taken up an advertising campaign on the top ten reasons why you should attend their church and, of course, all the reasons were that they were not like the ten reasons that people don’t go to church.
Reason No. 7 to Come to Our Church: NO ORGAN. Evidently, people had done a survey that found out that a lot of people don’t go to church because they don’t like the organ. My answer to that is I think the organ adds a lot to the worship service.
Then somewhere across town on another bulletin board that this church had put up was Reason No. 1 to Come to Our Church: We don’t talk about money. I have had a conviction for a long time that the top spiritual issue that we all face is forgiveness. Even as a small child, you begin to run into people who don’t treat you right or people who treat you unfairly. The issue is: What am I going to do with the way I feel about this person? How are we going to relate to each other when we are not happy with something the other person has done?
The other major spiritual issue that we all deal with is how do we relate to stuff? How do we relate to money? When I drove by this billboard that said, Reason No. 1 to Come to Our Church is because we don’t talk about money, I think, Do they not talk about forgiveness? If what they were trying to say was, We are not going to hound you to death about money, I am all for that. I think as a congregation I cannot imagine a church where there is less of that than there is here. But if you box yourself into a corner and say, We don’t ever talk about money, what you have said is, We are not going to deal with one of the primary spiritual issues that people wrestle with every single day. How do I relate to my stuff?
If you have paid much attention over the last two or three years, I have had a strong sense of leadership in that I need to take foundational biblical passages and be as direct and concise about these as I possibly can. Over the next three weeks and as part of the sermon series, “Now That I Believe,” I will be preaching about how do I relate to my stuff? How do I relate to the pressure to acquire? How do I relate to the one thing in most people’s lives that is the chief competitor with God? Now that I believe, how do I relate to my money?
In preparation for the three weeks, let me give you what I think are three core, foundational truths about what is behind this.
1. We are all called to be more like Christ. In our church mission statement, we talk about seeking Christ’s heart. We believe that, as a body of believers, as individual Christians, we are all called to be more like Jesus.
When we baptize and do the responsive church covenant, we say, “Though we will never obtain his perfection, he is our model for living.” If we think about morality as Christians, we are not called to be good because there is a set of rules we all should keep. We are called to reflect the character of God on earth. We are the children of God and we are supposed to look like God. When people look at us, they should say, “I see the resemblance. I understand now what it means to be a follower of Christ because I have seen you.” If that is the case, then how can we do either of these things if we are not people who give? What does it say, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” Everything we understand about God is related to God’s giving.
We are approaching Thanksgiving. One of the sermons will deal with giving as gratitude. We all talk about how we have been blessed. What does that mean except that God has given to us? Can we even conceive of God being the loving, good, and gracious God that we believe him to be if we don’t believe that God gives?
2. Everything belongs to God. The scriptures say, “’The cattle on a thousand hills are mine,’ says the Lord.” In either Leviticus or Deuteronomy, God is leading the children of Israel into the Promised Land, and he says, “The gold is mine; the silver is mine.” Everything we own belongs to God. We are allowed to use it and we are responsible for the way that we use it.
3. The primary remedy to the spiritual dilemma that we find ourselves in when we are trying to determine how we are going to relate to stuff and material things is found in giving. I really believe that with all my heart. When we give to God, everything else begins to fit into its place.
For the past couple of years, I have tried to state as clearly as I can that I believe that the financial crisis we have been passing through as a nation is primarily a spiritual crisis. Whether we want to talk about credit card debt, mortgage foreclosure, or national debt, it is the unrestrained need for more that puts us in this position. I honestly believe that if we had somehow put into place giving over acquiring, obtaining, and borrowing to get more that we would have placed upon our lives a framework that would have stopped us from some of the crazy things that we have done. I just believe that a church that will not talk about money might as well not talk about forgiveness, grace, or the lordship of Christ. All of these things are part of the spiritual issues that we face and they are all on a par with how we relate to stuff.
Today is the first of three Sundays of stewardship emphasis. The title for today’s sermon is Now That I Believe: I Give As I Am Blessed. There is a very clear sense in the Old Testament that people who believe and worship God bring a tithe. If you are not familiar, a tithe is a gift, an offering, of 10%. As the meditation text says even the poorest Jew was called on to bring a gift of 10% as an offering to God.
In the New Testament, the concept of tithing begins to take a backseat but in the words of Paul from 2 Corinthians 8, it is very clear that giving is in proportion to what we have. In some way, there is a proportional gift that we should give. I want to share with you today three reasons why I think tithing, as an example of proportional giving, is what we are called to do Now That We Believe.
First of all, it really has to matter what we give. If it is really going to be a gift that expresses love and devotion to anyone, somehow the gift has to matter. A perfect example of how we feel about this is the issue of re-gifting. Everybody knows what re-gifting is. You received a gift last Christmas and it is still on the shelf. You owe somebody a gift and you think, “I’ll re-wrap that baby and just slide it on over there. Nobody will ever know.” But then we forgot the gift receipt was still in the box and it was dated last year and we gave it this year. Who knows what all the subtle hints are? Most of us have gotten gifts and thought, “I believe this has been given before.” How much does that gift convey? We appreciate it. It is meant well, but isn’t there a strong sense that it really didn’t matter to the person. It does not have to be an expensive gift. It could even just be what a child has drawn and colored but they invested so much of themselves in. A gift has to matter. That’s why when David and his men were fleeing and he needed to make an offering somebody said, “Let me provide the animal for the sacrifice.” But David said, “I will not give to the Lord that which cost me nothing.” It would not have mattered. It would be like David re-gifting to God.
Alexander the Great was obviously not a Christian. He lived before the time of Christ and was not a part of the Israelite heritage. But one of his generals came to him and said, “I would like to borrow 50 talents of silver.” Talents were a measure. Alexander called upon the treasurer to give him 100 talents of silver. The general protested, “That’s too much. Fifty will do.”
Alexander said, “Fifty may be enough for you to receive, but it is not enough for me to give.”
Somehow the gift has to matter, and in God’s goodness, providence, and leadership this sense of a tithe matters. I don’t know about in your house, but in my house, a tithe matters. Ten percent of what I have means a lot to me. A proportional gift, a gift that is not related to an amount which is part of what Paul is talking about to the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 8, is not just an amount but is related to what you have. I give as I am blessed. Whatever I have, if I give a proportion of it that is related to the guidance of scripture, it is a good gift to God. God receives it. It is a gift that matters to me. It has touched my heart. I cannot give it without it meaning something. It blesses both the giver and God in knowing that is where our heart has been.
The second thing that a tithe does is it forces us to think about what we are going to give. We can simply give casually. We can simply say, “I am going to give the same amount I gave last year.” Then 10 or 15 years later, we are still giving the same amount and it is not related to any particular thing other than that is an amount we once came up with. But if we give proportionally, we have to stop and think how much that would be. We have to stop and think what that would reflect based on what we have. We are forced to give with some thought, heart, and hopefully with some prayer. We have a basis for deciding how much that should be. What does this really mean in my relationship to God? If it is 10% or more, to me that seems to mean a lot.
The third thing is this: If you are familiar with the tithe in scripture, it was typically what was called first fruits. Have you ever had the first green beans, the first tomatoes, or the first ears of corn that come in a garden? After eating all the food that is frozen or shipped in from Bolivia or wherever it comes from that doesn’t taste quite right, when those first fruits come in, they really are good. The first fruits offering in ancient Israel were always an indication of giving the very best to God and giving to God first.
The principle in tithing is that we give to God first. Then it forces you to manage what you have left. That is not the way many of us give. Many of us do everything we want to do and then figure out of what is left, What of this do I want to give to God? Putting God first by using a first-fruits approach and making it 10% or so, making it a proportion, all of a sudden we are put into the position of having to determine how we are going to use what is left over? There is less leftover, but it forces me to think about how I am going to use it. I am convinced that people who tithe wind up being the better stewards of their money than people who don’t. It forces us to look and really examine what we have. In my mind, it is awfully hard to tithe if you don’t budget.
If you don’t give in proportion to what you have and come up with an amount some other way, consider the meditation text today. What I always say to people is that God required the 10% standard of the poorest people in Old Testament Israel. Now that we are under the grace of Jesus, meaning we are not bound by the law, if we have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and we live in this incredibly affluent culture, do you think God would expect less of us? That is a powerful question, isn’t it?
If we don’t relate what we give to God in some proportion to what we have, is what we give closer to the meaning of goodness and thoughtfulness or is it closer to the meaning of re-gifting what God has given to us?
If the poorest Jew in Old Testament times gave 10%, does what we give express more gratitude or less gratitude? Does it express a higher appreciation for the lordship of Christ or a lesser appreciation?
It is very interesting. We will come back to the Second Letter of Paul to the Church at Corinth again during these next few weeks, but Paul was talking about an offering he was trying to take up for the poor in Jerusalem. The Corinthians have enough to make a difference. But if you read all the section about the offering, we come to understand that it is not about the amount he was going to get from the church. It was not even about the poor widows in Jerusalem who may or may not eat if they don’t give. It is really about the hearts of the Corinthians. It is really about Christians who claimed to excel and seemed to have so much good in their lives and whether or not their giving is going to match all of their claims. It seems to me that the message to the Corinthians has not lost its power and that the eternal word of God still speaks, even to us.
If the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one doesn’t have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of fair balance between your abundance and the need of the people in Jerusalem so that their abundance may be for your need in order that there may be a fair balance. Paul goes on to say that the one who had much did not have too much; the one who had little did not have too little.
When people give proportionally, the opportunity to give is the same upon all and the blessing is the same upon all.
How have you been blessed? How is the lordship of Christ, the love of God, reflected in what you give? How do you decide? Do we give on some arbitrary number or do we determine that, in the wisdom of God, he has given us the principle of tithing and proportional giving so that we might all participate as we have been blessed in the work of the kingdom. The one who had much still had, the one who had little still had, and all who gave were blessed equally.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.