Finders keepers - Deuteronomy 5:19
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
According to the U.K. Christian handbook for 1996/97, British Christians gave £1.8 billion pounds each year to Christian organisations. Now that may sound pretty impressive, until you realise that figure constitutes just 2% of their average income. When looked at like that it really does make a mockery doesnt it of that hymn beloved of evangelicals Take my life and the penultimate line, Take my silver and my gold not a mite would I withhold.' The tragic fact is many Christians in the West are breaking the eighth commandment - You shall not steal- without even knowing it and they are doing it at the most shameful level of all-they are robbing God.
Now if you dont believe that such a thing is possible and this is merely preachers rhetoric, then turn with me to that second reading we had earlier, from Malachi 3: 6-12. For it was into a situation remarkably similar to ours that these words came some five hundred and thirty years before Christ.
Now let me sketch in a little of the background so that we can appreciate the unbelievable crassness of it all. You see, because of their constant rebellion against God and a failure to keep his commands, including the 10 words given by Moses at Horeb, God carried out the punishment threatened at the end of the Book of Deuteronomy, namely, that the people would be carried off into exile by a foreign power- Dt 28. Well, that had happened 70 years or so earlier. Then in his kindness and in keeping with his covenant promises, God moved the king of the Persian Empire, Cyrus, to issue a decree to enable the Jews to return back to their homeland in order to rebuild the temple and the city of Jerusalem. But pretty soon, even with a spanking brand new temple, spiritual and moral apathy began to set in. Temple attendance became what it is for many church goers today, a routine drag-something they would do when they could fit it in. The priests were no better, they simply pandered to the peoples whims, giving the people what they wanted - comfortable religion without the centrality and challenge of Gods Word. And as is always the case the spiritual dimension soon began to impinge on the moral aspects of life. Divorce became two a penny, immorality began to peak and people wanted their religion on the cheap. They were not willing to pay their dues- giving God his worth - a few coins would unthinkingly be thrown onto the collection plate as it was passed by, that was as far as they were willing to go. Sure, they were credally orthodox, they believed the right things as do many Christians today. The problem was, they were not practising the right things- and especially at the point where it would show the most -their giving. They thought that the eighth commandment couldnt apply to them and their relationship with God. And they were soon to discover how wrong they were.
And what is Gods reaction to this? Well, it is quite moving really, look at the beginning of v6 and then end of v7 I the Lord do not change, return to me and I will return to you, says the Lord Almighty. This is not the vengeful reaction of a cheated cosmic banker, but the heartfelt response of a spurned lover. You see, the real test of a peoples devotion to God is to be found not in how loudly they sing but in how sacrificially they give. So let us test ourselves in the light of this passage to see to what extent we are breaking the commandment at this point and what needs to be done if that is so.
First of all, there is the need for radical repentance- vv6-7 "I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your forefathers 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." Its as if God is saying: Look, ever since I chose you to be my people you have constantly failed me. You are no better than your ancestor Jacob who was by nature a crook and a cheat. I made a covenant, a promise with you which I have not abandoned, otherwise you would have been destroyed long ago. You said you love me, but you do not keep my commands. You say you worship me but offer nothing but the fag ends of your labour. You are supposed to be a light to the nations, but if the truth be known you are indistinguishable from them .You live in a self obsessed world and you are self-obsessed yourselves.
It is alleged that in the 11th century, the Pope was showing the great theologian, Thomas Aquinas the fabulous treasures of the Vatican. Rather proudly the Pope remarked , The church can no longer say Silver and gold have I none. And quick as flash Aquianas picked up on that partial quote from Acts 3 and replied, Yes, and neither can it say "In the name of Jesus of Nazareth rise up and walk. 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.
But the question in v7 is how? What is the real test that we have been influenced by Gods Spirit as we have heard his voice in Scripture? By the amount of tears we shed? Or the twinges of guilt we feel as our consciences have been pricked? No, but by changing direction, which after all is what the word repentance actually means. And one of the surest indicators that we are heading Gods way and not being dragged down the worlds way is what we do with our money-- hence the problem of relentless 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 you can imagine, cant you? how these people would have been squirming in their pews as Malachi was delivering his sermon. Malachi would not have been a laugh a minute preacher because the situation was such that from Gods point of view it was no laughing matter. And that is when he dropped his bombshell. Looking around his congregation, he said, But you, you have robbed God. But how? To speak of a man robbing God makes as much sense as claiming that a two year old has knocked out Mike Tyson -it is an impossibility. Surely, everything belongs to the Lord anyhow , so what is the prophet talking about? Has someone snuck in through the backdoor of heaven and stolen a few celestial trinkets? Is that it?
Well, it is only too possible to rob God and many of us are doing it day in and day out often unwittingly, and it happens 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-no need for Project Newland. He only has to speak and the Vicars salary is in the bank-forget the Church Commissioners. But that is not Gods way. Instead he invites us, no more than that, as his people he commands us, to freely and willingly and actively co-operate in his work of the Gospel-being that light to the nations. That way we not only do we share in the joys and the benefits of the Gospel ourselves - in seeing people saved and cared for and Gods name being honoured, but it is one of the means whereby we can become more like God himself. God by nature is generous, as we shall see. He loves to give and he cant give enough. And we of all people know this truth even better than the Jews, because this side of the resurrection we can see that God gave his all when he gave his precious Son and did not hold back one drop of his blood so that people like you and me could spend eternity with him in heaven instead of endless days 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 Adams great sin-which is the sin of Israel here and the sin of the church now? In order to become like God he stole-taking that which he shouldnt -the fruit of the tree. The irony is that the way to become like God, is not to take but to give.. and to give and to give.
Now here in Malachi 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, because it belongs to the LORD anyhow. But it didnt end there. On top of that was a poll tax, first fruits, free will offerings, sacrifices and special gifts in addition to the tithe. The problem was these people were not even giving the bare minimum.
Isnt it tragic therefore, that Christians fall well below even the pattern for Old Testament believers -2% and not 10% and so end up robbing God? From 2 Corinthians 2 and 9, 1 Corinthians 16 and Mark 6 we gather a list of words to describe Christian giving, let me tell you what they are and ask do they describe the way you give to the church, they are giving: sacrificially, joyfully, willingly, sponteneously, proportionately, secretly, regularly, trustfully - and all as a result of grace. You know, I have never heard Christians arguing about how they can give more. I have only ever heard them arguing about how they can avoid giving as much as they should. Many churches today, including our own, are facing serious financial challenges. But the real question is not how to raise money. It is how to release money that is already their tied up in our pockets and property. Tithing, is not the issue, although it might well be a good idea to ask ourselves this question: If our wages or salary were ten times the amount we give to God each week, would we be well off? The real issue is love. Love for God and his work in sharing that love. If we dont love someone, we will not think twice about robbing them.
No doubt, like us, these Jews had their fair share of excuses why it was not prudent or possible to give as they should. It was a time of economic recession for a start. After all you must take care of your own family, God would surely understand that, and then when times get a little better, then we can start thinking about giving properly, when we have a little more to spare. But what they, nor we, have reckoned on is that there is a link between the welfare of the nation and the spiritual poverty which occasions it-v 9, -they are under a curse. Now for us under the rule of Christ this does not mean we embrace a health and wealth gospel -give money to Jesus and he will ensure material blessing for you, that new jag and big job. No, no. For us this is translated into spiritual terms. This is the way one writer puts it: The penalty for robbing God today, as with OT Israel, is often that our harvests are blighted. When our love to God is so meagre that we fail to put our hands into our pockets then the Holy Spirit withdraws in 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. Isnt that right? And it makes sense when you think about it. If you have a group of Christians who might say all the right things, but are so set on making sure their own home is so fantastic and their childrens education outstanding and their clothes simply the best, that they are giving a pittance in comparison to Gods work of salvation, then why should God entrust new believers to their care? What examples would they be seeing? Why, then they would then turn out to be just as materialistic and spiritually barren as those around them.
You know I am quite convinced that the situation in which we find ourselves today, even at St Johns, is like that of these Jews. I very much doubt that many of them decided to break the 8th commandment and deliberately hold back on their giving. It was simply that other things got in the way, they had not been properly taught and so they adopted the values and priorities of the surrounding culture. For us that is the pressure to treat religion like a hobby, indeed less than a hobby, for most of us spend far more on entertainment than we do on evangelism. So we need to do two things. First pray that God will give us a spiritual gift- a charisma. Which one? Well, according to Romans 12:8 ,the gift of giving generously. Then you will never rob God. Secondly, plan. Those of us who are earning- fill in one of these forms firstly to start giving regularly if we havent already, giving in a planned way-and why not use bankers standing orders -that makes life easier all round .And secondly increase your giving if you have not done so for a while. You know, a church this size should not only be able to meet its general needs-which is about £100,000 a year just to keep the show on the road, but we should be able to go well beyond that so we could be supporting Gospel work elsewhere. Also, given our size and the wager earners we have, Project Newland should be in the bag if we pledge generously over a period of say three to four years, that £500,000 should be coming in-from us-the sums make that quite clear. And let me say if you have not yet pledged or you have maybe given a one off donation and you feel you should increase that by giving regularly, which is what we desperately need ,again take one of these forms and fill it in-this week. Wouldnt it be a terrible thing to come before our Saviour on the last day only to discover that we have short-changed him? I am sure none of us want that because he is such a wonderful Lord. Which brings us to our final point.
You see, the real beneficiaries of being generous to God is his people and a world to whom his people are sent -hence, real renewal 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, suffocating under the weight of materialism and greed. The danger is that the church becomes stifled too. Gods loving response to his people in order to spare them from this is to allow them for the one and only time 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 is 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 isnt 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 have the happier you will be. Christians are to show that the more you give away the happier you will be.
When Winston Churchill called to America for assistance in Britains struggle against German aggression in 1941 he pleaded: Give us the tools and we will finish the job. Almost everywhere, including here, Christian work is being held up because of lack of funds. My dear brothers and sisters this should not be so. The Christian gospel deserves better than this. The Living ,all giving, God deserves better than this. We have been given the task to care and evangelise. Care so the world will notice how God moves his people to care for a careless world. Evangelise so that the world may know of the God who so loved that world that he gave his one and only Son. If everyone who names Christ as Saviour and Lord would give proportionately, regularly and generously, not motivated by duty but by love, then nowhere would Gospel advance be hindered by lack of funds, and especially in this needy City of ours which God loves dearly. You see to do otherwise is to rob God and so break the eighth commandment.
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