Gimme, gimme (or I will take it) - Exodus 20:15
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
This could be the shortest sermon I have ever preached. The commandment is short and to the point- ‘Do not steal’ –three words which say it as it is. In the original Hebrew it is only two words- ‘No stealing’ so it is shorter still. This means that the commandment rules out pilfering at work- taking stationary that isn’t yours, downloading music and films illegally, copying illegally, plagiarising other people’s work for your essays as well as the blindingly obvious- you don’t shop lift. But the trouble with dealing with this commandment in that way is that it can appeal to the Pharisee within us. We carefully prescribe what we think stealing is in such a way that it doesn’t apply to us, but does apply to everyone else. The other problem is that it leaves another 20 minutes or so in the service to fill! I said that this could be the shortest sermon I have ever preached, but of course it’s not going to be. For there is at least one place in the Bible where God accuses his own people stealing, more than that, stealing from him would you believe? And so we can see how this commandment directly applies to us in here rather than those out there. The place where such an accusation is made is in the Book of the prophet Malachi chapter 3.
Now before we turn to this passage in a little more detail let me remind you of something we have seen on a number of occasions as we have been working through these commandments, namely, that while they are cast as negative imperatives- you shall not do certain things, they form the flip side to something which is actually positive. While this eighth commandment, ‘no stealing’ is designed to ward off the attitude of greed which leads to the action of thievery, the positive value which undergirds it is the desire to protect and promote generosity. The greedy person inwardly craves to take more, but the generous person longs to give more. And since God is a generous God- ‘God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son’, then what do you think should characterise his people who are the recipients of this great giving? Well, that they too are givers. The last thing they should be is thieves. But the shocking thing is that is exactly what we can become almost without realising it and so break the commandment at this point-that we end up robbing God.
When someone who has been caught with their hands in the till eventually stand before the magistrate, they will not expect to be let off scot free. That isn’t the case, however, when we come to God. Because of God’s character there is hope that things might change, there is hope of forgiveness. This comes out in verses 6-7, “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. 7 Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.’
Here is the paradox- God has not moved and God is moved.
God has not moved, he says so, ‘I the Lord do not change.’ God is the one great constant in the universe, his character is the polar star by which all his creatures can charter the course of their lives. I remember someone saying when I was a very young Christian that if we find ourselves distant from God, then there is only one person who has moved- and it isn’t Him. And here it is not God who has moved, it is his people, nonchalantly drifting further and further away until God becomes a mere name, a distant memory. It is called backsliding. Could I ask: is that your experience? It certainly is the experience of God’s people in the passage. But just like when you are out in the wilds at night and have wandered off the beaten path and find yourself lost, there is a polar star you can look up to in order to get your bearings and get back on the path again, so there is God for the believer.
So how has God not moved?
Well, God has not moved in terms of his purposes, “I the Lord do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.’ God made a promise to his servant Abraham that through one of his descendents he would restore a rebellious and hostile world to himself and there was no way that promise was going to be set aside even if God had to deal with a crook and cheat like Jacob and all those who claim to be God’s people who have followed the pattern of his early life- being a cheat and a thief. God had to teach Jacob a number of tough lessons to humble him in order to bless him, as he sometimes has to do with us, but bless he will. In fact, had it not been for God’s promise and set purpose, the whole Jewish nation would have been consigned to oblivion long ago- and many churches and Christians too if the truth be known. But his purpose to love and to bless is set like stone.
Also, God has not moved in terms of his principles, ‘Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them.’ One of the things which children cannot abide are grown ups who say one thing and do another. Oh, they may initially like it, getting parents to change their minds or play one adult off against another, but deep down, they like to know what the boundaries are, even though they test them, because without them they are left feeling insecure. Don’t you appreciate people who say what they mean and mean what they say, rather than forever chopping and changing their minds? I know I do. Well, thankfully, God is a God who sticks to what he says. He has given us commandments, like these ten, for our flourishing and he is not going to start changing them because we start moaning or think we know better than he does. A hopeless parent does that, but God is a good parent. This is why it is a none argument to say, as people do, ‘We are living in the 21st century and so these commands and principles about not lying or sex only within heterosexual marriage, or coveting no longer apply, they belong to a bygone age.’ That is what C.S. Lewis called ‘chronological snobbery’, for you can be sure that future generations will look back upon our generation and say, ‘Did they really do that? Whatever arguments there may be for saving a mother’s life because of a pregnancy, did they really value life so cheaply that in the UK alone there was an abortion every 3-4 minutes?’ God’s commands, like the character of the God they express, remain the same.
But God is moved in terms of his passion, v7, ‘Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.’ Do you not detect a kind of intense longing in God’s voice? This is the cry of a spurned lover, the anguished yearning of a father for the prodigal, the kind summons of a King to his people. God’s heart does not grow cold by our sin, it is stirred by it. He sees the way we are stumbling from one disaster to another, having put to oneside his commandments. Like a parent seeing a child carelessly wondering out onto a busy road, and he cries out, ‘Stop! Come back!’ That is what he is doing. That is what he is always doing- calling people back by the Gospel.
So what is it that these folk- and us- are doing or capable of doing which provokes God at the deepest level of his being to cry out and reach out to us? The answer is that God’s people are involved in daylight robbery: vv 8-10a "Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. "But you ask, `How do we rob you?' "In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse--the whole nation of you--because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.’
Now this is a serious charge that God is making. So let’s ask with these folk: how is it possible to break the eighth commandment against God? In this way: God could if he so chose provide everything miraculously. He only has to say the word and there is a new church building. But that is not the way God has chosen to operate. Instead he gives us the privilege of sharing in his great work of spreading the Gospel, to be as these Jews were meant to be – ‘a light to the nations.’ That way we not only share in the joys and the benefits of the Gospel ourselves - in seeing people saved and cared for and God’s name being honoured, but it is one of the means whereby we can become more like God himself. God as we have seen is generous by nature such that he did not hold back a single drop of his Son’s blood so that people like you and me could spend eternity with him in heaven instead of an eternity in the darkness of hell. And unless we are given opportunities to give freely, then this is one aspect of God we cannot show. Do you remember Adam’s great sin-which is the sin of Israel here and the sin of the church today? In order to become like God he stole by taking that which he shouldn’t have -the fruit of the tree. The irony is that the way to become like God is not to grab but to give. And if we steal- from God or anyone else, that is when we are least like God and more like the Enemy.
So how do we steal from God? This is the way it worked out in Malachi’s time: "But you ask, `How do we rob you?' "In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse--the whole nation of you--because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house.’
For the Jews it was a matter of a clear command as we see it in Dt 26, to give a tithe or ten per cent of everything to enable the Temple to function. But it didn’t end there because on top of that there was a poll tax, first fruits, free will offerings, sacrifices and special gifts. The problem was these people were not even giving the bare minimum and God was ashamed of them because they were shaming him in their stinginess.
So here is the first way in which we can rob God in terms of our money. Roughly, Christians in the UK give less than 2% of their income to God’s work. That’s robbing God. From 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, 1 Corinthians 16 and Matthew 6 we gather a list of words to describe Christian giving, let me tell you what they are and ask whether they describe the way you give to the church? The words are give:sacrificially,joyfully,willingly,sponteneously,proportionately,secretly,regularly,trustfully-and all as a result of grace.. The real question for many churches today is not how to raise money, it is how to release money from our pockets. Tithing, is not the issue, although it might well be a good idea to ask ourselves this question: If our wages were ten times the amount we give to God each week, would we be able to manage? The real issue, you see, is love. If we don’t love someone, we will not think twice about robbing them, but if we love someone, we will rack your brains to think how you might give to them.
But we can rob God in other ways too. We can rob God by withholding from him our time and talents. I am sure that Lee, Scott and Jake would bear me out on this, but the most frequent reason people give for not being able to offer their services to God’s work in the church- when we are desperate for a children’s helper, or something practical like the working party on a Saturday morning, is that they don’t have time. I don’t doubt for a moment that is some cases that is true. But isn’t it so often the case that we can find time to do the things we really want to do? Mainly because of the increase in leisure and our belief that we have a right to such things, we are so very different from earlier generations. During the Second World War, my Dad as a boy was mainly raised by a friend of his stepfather, not least because his stepfather was such a nasty piece of work. This man, known as Uncle Sam, was a coal miner. He was about half my height and deaf in one ear, presumably because he was in the Royal Artillery during WW1. He would work an eight hour shift down the mines during the day and then in the evening work his allotment and get some extra money by working a few more hours as a rat catcher for the local council. That was just the way life had to be lived and from what I can gather he didn’t complain about it, he just did it, he had a family to support and times were hard. And I think to myself, ‘Why is that kind of hard work and commitment so hard to find today when it comes to providing for God’s family and the countless number who are strangers to the Gospel? Are we missing something?’ Uncle Sam certainly could not be accused of robbing his family, he worked jolly hard to provide for them, but perhaps some of us can be accused of robbing God in this way.
Similarly with our talents. Paul tells us that Christ has liberally given gifts to his church for the use of service in building up the saints. Jesus, you will remember told a parable of three men one of whom in this case by not using his money in his Master’s service effectively robbed him and was punished for it- Jesus spoke of being cast into out darkness where there is the weeping and gnashing of teeth- a very unpleasant place. The point is clear- we are not to be like him. Friends if God has given us abilities (and he has) and we are not in some measure using those for him, then we are robbing God as surely as breaking into the church safe and stealing the collection. That is the thrust of what the prophet is saying.
And who are the real losers when we rob God? Well, it isn’t God, it is we ourselves. We short change ourselves which is what all this talk of being under a curse is about and as it says in v11, pests are devouring the fruit so the people don’t benefit from hoarding goods anyway. This is the way one writer describes this: ‘Old Testament Israel tilled the Promised Land, sowed seed and lived by the crop. But the church lives by sowing a different kind of seed and looking for a different kind of crop. We sow the Word of God in the Gospel and we look for a harvest of conversions. The penalty for robbing God today, as with Old Testament Israel, is often that our harvests are blighted. When our love for God is so meagre that we fail to put our hands into our pockets then the Holy Spirit withdraws from such a church. The Word is preached, but there is little or no accompanying conviction and saving activity of the Holy Spirit. Have you ever been in a church where for months and months there have been no conversions? It is like visiting a barren land, where the harvest has been cursed. Look at it another way. If this group of Christians has so little genuine love for God that they keep skimping as much as possible on their offerings to him, that is hardly the kind of fellowship into which God will feel able to introduce new converts. How can such a fellowship with such little regard for God be entrusted in the development of a new babe in Christ?’ (John Benton. The Message of Malachi, p 107).
You see, a worldly clinging to wealth inevitably leads to a loss of spiritual power. And the only way back is repentance, ‘Turn to me’ says the Lord Almighty and I will return to you.’
You see, the real beneficiaries of being generous to God is his people and a world to whom his people are sent - vv 10-12 ‘Test me in this," says the LORD Almighty, "and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit," says the LORD Almighty. "Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land," says the LORD Almighty.’
We live in a culture which is slowly being suffocated to death, being smothered under the weight of materialism and greed. The danger is that the church becomes smothered too. God’s loving response to his people in order to spare them from this is to allow them to ‘test him’- to actually see him being true to his Word as we are faithful to his covenant. The call is to be adventurous in our faith by being free with our giving and then as more money, time and talents are released for Gospel work, more Gospel work takes place - and God is seen to provide for his people-the harvest of souls is gathered in. What is more, in turn, as we read in v12 it is a witness to the nations. If God has blessed you, that blessing isn’t meant to stay with you, it is meant to be shared out with others. The nations do not believe there is a generous God, but by his people being generous that puts paid to that lie. The nations believe the more you take (by whatever means) the happier you will be. Christians are to show that the more you give the happier you will be because then you will be more like God.
Let me close by reading some words from an old hymn which puts this commandment in perspective:
By and by when I look on His face,
Beautiful face, thorn shadowed face;
By and by when I look on His face,
I'll wish I had given Him more.
More, so much more,
More of my life than I e'er gave before
By and by when I look on His face,
I'll wish I had given Him more.
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