Tag Archives: giving

God’s surprising views on justice

12 Oct
Photo by Zalmaury Saaved on Unsplash

Last year we started studying the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy.  Then I went on sabbatical. We had covered the first nine chapters of Deuteronomy.

Now we’re heading back in! 

For the most part, though, we’re going to study Deuteronomy differently than we did last year.  Last year we went chapter by chapter, verse by verse.  But beginning with Deuteronomy 10, the book changes.  It becomes quite topical, and some topics are repeated in numerous chapters.  So as  we restart this study, we’re not going verse by verse.  We’re going theme by theme.  Or topic by topic, as you will see in this post.

We left off last year having studied chapters 8 and 9, and if you glance at them, you can see what Moses is doing.  He strongly urges the people to love the Lord, to follow the Lord, and remember how awfully they sinned against the Lord.

The really bad sin was when they made a golden idol in the shape of a calf and began worshiping it, saying things like they wanted to go back to Egypt, where they had been slaves?!?!?  We don’t have time to get into all the details of that story, but God was so upset at this, that he said to Moses, the game was over.  He was going to destroy the entire nation and start over again with Moses.  But chapter 9 ends with Moses reminding the people that he interceded for them, begging God to give them another chance.

With that we come to chapter 10.  What did God think about Moses wheeling and dealing?

Read chapter 10, verses 1-11. God relents!  And there is a new beginning.  

With that Moses wraps up the story of Golden Calf.  But why would Moses retell this story?  Remember that here in Deuteronomy, the people are on the verge of entering the Promised Land.  That Golden Calf incident happened 40 years prior.  Many of the people hearing Moses tell that story were not even there when it first happened.  So Moses has a good reason to bring that up: he wants them to remember their past.  They are not getting into the Promised Land because they were so good and special and powerful.  Nope, they are getting into the Promised Land because God chose them, forgave them, and helped them.  Moses wants the people to have a proper dependence on God, and to obey God and not make the same kind of nearly disastrous mistake their parents made.

That is why in the next passage, 10:12-22, Moses has some really important instructions for this new generation.  Look at verse 12-13.  Moses asks the people, “What does the Lord ask of you?”  It’s a great question.  One that we often ask as well.  “Lord, what do you want me to do?”

He answers, “Fear the Lord, walk in his ways, love him, serve him with all your heart and soul, observe his commands and decrees.” 

This is so central.  God wanted a loving connection with his people.  You can really see God’s heart for his people in this passage.  He is saying to them, “I want to walk with you, and be with you, that there may be genuine affection between us.” 

He goes on in verses 14 and 15 reminding the people that while God owns all of creation, guess who he decided to make his special people?  Israel.  Moses reminds them that God is the initiating force behind this relationship.  He started this when he set his affection on their forefathers.  People like Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. 

Because of God’s choice, the people need to see how their relationship with God is unique.  Because God chose them, they have some choices of their own to make.   He says in verse 16 “Circumcise your hearts, therefore.”

Circumcision was a big part of Jewish culture.  When God chose their forefather Abraham, God said the mark, the physical mark of their relationship with God, was that all males would be physically circumcised on the 8th day of the tiny little baby lives.  You might think, Why in the world, of all the things that God could think of to mark his people, did he go with that one?  We’ll never answer that question.  But this passage in Deut. 10:16 reminds us of something so important.  God actually has a deeper mark in mind.  The circumcision of the heart.  There the word “heart” is not referring to a person’s “blood-pumper”.  It’s not like God is moving his focus from one physical part of the body to another.  He also is not talking about emotion.  Sometimes in our day we cover our heart when we get emotional and say, “Awww, that’s so precious.”  But that is not what Moses is talking about.   In the Hebrew conception, heart referred to your will.

I recently listened to a Bible teacher named John Ortberg talk about this.  He said this: the heart that God is talking about here is your will.  This is your ability to exercise dominion in the world. The ability to choose.

But, he said, while will is central to who we are, it is terribly weak.  He referred to a scientist Valmeister who studied this.  Valmeister did experiments on will, and he found that our will can get tired, like a muscle being used. Our will gets tired, when trying to deal with the stuff of life and especially when making hard choices. Valmeister found that while our will is good at making decisions, it is also terrible at overriding our habits.  If we like to snack on sugary treats, and we do it every day, especially when we are stressed, our will is not good at helping us overcome that habit.

One thing, though, is easy for the will. Surrender. We all think that death to self is terrible and hard. Remember that Jesus said, unless we take up our cross and die to ourselves, we cannot be his disciple?  We hear that and think how awful it sounds.  Author Dallas Willard said that death to one’s lesser self is so that a more noble and glorious self can be born.  Our will was made to surrender to God.

Circumcision of our hearts, then, is another way to say, “People, surrender yourselves to God.”

And there is good reason to give yourself so completely over to God.  Look at verse 17, we can surrender to God because there is no god like our God.  He is the great God, mighty and awesome.  Above all gods.  When we surrender our lives to him, it’s not so bad.  It would be a major sacrifice if Moses had said to the people, “circumcise your hearts for God,” and God turned out to be some second-rate middle-level deity.  In the same way, it would be pretty pathetic if Jesus said, “Die to yourselves and follow me” if he ended up dying on the cross and staying dead, and never rising from the dead.  But no, YHWH is the one true all-powerful God, and Jesus didn’t stay dead, but rose again to victory over death, victory over sin, victory over the devil.  For us to surrender to him means we are giving our lives to the most powerful one who loves us.  That’s pretty awesome.  We can surrender to that!

As Moses continues through this passage, he describes God, and it becomes more and more clear how great it is to surrender ourselves to God.  Because there is none like him, God has some really interesting points of view about life.  Look at verse 18.  God has an eye out, a heart, for those in need.  He defends the fatherless and the widow, loves the alien, giving him food and clothing.  What an amazing God!

But it is not just God who cares for those in need.  Israel is to follow God’s heart, Moses says in verse 19, loving the alien, because they were once aliens. What a great God we have.  He cares for all people, and has a special heart for those in need.  When we give ourselves over to him, we will also care for those in need.

As we come to the end of this chapter, verses 20-22 give us a quick recap.  Fear God, serve him, hold fast to him.  He is your praise, he is your God, who performed mighty wonders.  Moses reminds Israel of the last 450-500 years of their nation’s existence.  When they first went to Egypt, they numbered 70 people.  Now they are in the millions, and God rescued them.  In other words, they have every reason to circumcise their hearts, to surrender to God, and to follow his heart, which is a passionate desire to help those, like they once were, people in serious need of help.

In the coming chapters, Moses wants the people to get this, so he brings it up again, and again. Turn to chapter 15.  I’m not going to read all of this.  Because we’re going to jump to chapter 19 as well.  In these chapters, I want us to see how Moses continues the theme of God’s heart for those in need.

Look at verse 1 of chapter 15, and the old NIV, says, “At the end of every seven years, you must cancel debts.”

Do you have debts? Doyou have debts that have been going on for at least seven years?  And did you just think, I’m going to head over to my bank tomorrow, and I’m going to plop my Bible down and have a little talk?  Please don’t do that.  They probably won’t be too thrilled with you trying to get out of a legally-binding document like a mortgage.

This verse is much better translated “Every seventh year you shall make a release.”  God instituted in the nation a regular pattern of release.  It did include debts, but also slavery, also land and more.  One scholar says, “The laws of release…provide a structure in Israel for maintaining a balance and equity in society, and especially for giving access to the wealth of the land to those who had not property rights of their own.” (McConville, 257)

Hear that?  You just heard God’s heart.  God’s heart is sometimes unexpected.  God’s heart sometimes doesn’t jive with the economic standards of the day.  In Israel, God wanted to make sure the people who owed money were not taken advantage of, or that paying back the loan didn’t destroy them.  And furthermore, look at verse 4.  “There shall be no poor among you.”

Look at verse 7.  “If there are poor among you, do not be tight-fisted or hardhearted.  Rather be openhanded.  Freely lend whatever they need!”  Verse 10, “give generously to him, without a grudging heart.” Verse 11, “I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.”  Over and over God is showing his heart.  We can really learn about God in these chapters of Deuteronomy!  God has a heart for those in need. 

Remember this all goes back to the fact that Israel did not earn their wealth and prosperity on their own.  God chose them, God saved them, God protected them, he forgave them when they sinned, and he brought them to a land that was capable of making them rich.  God did it all for them.  They had been enslaved and poor and powerless.  Now God is saying, remember where you came from.  Remember how I saved you.  Remember my heart for justice for those who are now like you used to be.  And love them, and give to them, and reach out to them.

In 15:12-18 this theme continues.  Again, hear the word release.  This time, he says, release servants.  And don’t just let them go, saying, “Good riddance, hope you can fend for yourself.”  No.  Give them what they need to make a new start. Look at verses 13-15.  “Supply them liberally!  Give to them as the Lord has blessed you.”

Now jump to chapter 19, and we continue to see God’s heart for justice.  This time with a really interesting idea: cities of refuge. In chapter 4, we learned that Moses created the first cities of refuge.  What in the world were cities of refuge?

Basically, Moses tells us in chapter 19 that cities of refuge were places of refuge for people who caused the unintentional death of another.

You might think, isn’t that rare, though?  Why is God so concerned about accidental death, something that hardly happens?  This one is personal for me.  On this blog I previously told my story, as I accidentally caused the death of an Amish lady in a car accident that was my fault when I was 17. 

When you lose a loved one it is hard.  When the cause of death is irresponsibility, that is even harder.  God know this.  He knows how bad it hurts when you lose a loved one, even when they die of old age.  But when they die unexpectedly, younger, and because of people’s stupidity or irresponsibility, it hurts even more.  People who lose a loved one that way might take revenge.  God had Moses and the people of Israel create cities of refuge where people could flee to their safety.  Again, we see God’s heart for those in need.

In chapter 19:14, there is another illustration of God’s heart. Don’t move boundary stones.  Don’t try to cheat property lines.  Here in America, boundary lines are set by law, and they are highly mapped out.  But even then, have you ever had a neighbor try to snag a few extra feet?

Our property has a rental property on one side, and different people have come and gone.  Each time a new tenant arrives, I talk with them about our garden.  I call it our garden, but it is almost entirely on the rental property’s back lawn.  So I explain that we have an agreement with their landlord to use it, and of course they can too.  We planted berries back there, and they are welcome to them.  So far it has worked great.  But what would be wrong is if I tried to say, that is my property!  That would be cheating.

God’s heart is a heart of justice, no cheating.  Likewise, in verses 15-21, God says that people accused of a crime must have testimony established by two or three witnesses.   Again, we see God’s heart is for justice.  No lying.

Moses in chapters 10, 15, and 19 presents to us that God is a God of justice.  God cares about the poor and needy, the fatherless, the orphan, the widow and the alien.  He cares about fairness and equity.  And we should too.  We should circumcise our hearts, and surrender to him, which means will we learn his heart, think like he thinks, do what he does.  We build our lives on his ways.

What is amazing is how this passion for God’s heart worked its way into the early church.  Jesus regularly taught about helping the poor and needy, and he himself ministered to them frequently.  So when you go to the story of the beginning of the church in Acts 2, what do you find?  Turn to Acts 2:42-47.

In Acts 2:44-45, they were together and had everything in common.  Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.  Sounds just like God’s heart in Deuteronomy!

Turn over to Acts 4:32, and we see this again.  Such amazing generosity!  Those first Christians had circumcised their hearts, were surrendered to God, and were being so giving.

Turn to Acts 6:1, and see how they talk about a ministry of caring for widows?  They got it.  The church knew God’s heart for those in need, and they did what they could do reach out.

When our church did a mission trip to Chicago in 2010, to work with our sister church there, it opened my eyes to God’s heart for justice.  I had been through four years of Bible College, and then through a seminary master’s degree, and somehow I barely heard anything about this.  In Chicago, they walked us through their neighborhoods and opened our eyes to injustice, and they also walked us through the Bible and opened our eyes to God’s heart for justice.  We looked at passages like we are studying in this post, and so many more.  It was embarrassing to me to realize that as a student of the Bible for so many years, I had missed this.  And it wasn’t like it was some small emphasis in Scripture that is easy to miss.  It is all over Scripture.  I am so thankful for how my church family has sought to identify the injustice in our community and seek to address it.

This is why Faith Church is so supportive of Conestoga Valley Christian Community Services, which operates a food and clothing bank.  This is why we have been a location for the summer lunch club.  This is why we support Homes of Hope.  This is why we give to the Conestoga Valley Ministerium Helping Hands fund, which provides support of those in need in our community.

This is why we support the idea of abolishing slavery around the world. This is why we support refugee resettlement.  Because that is God’s heart. 

What will it look like for you to so appreciate God’s heart for you, for rescuing you, for saving you, that you allow his heart to grow within you, so you that you reach out to those in need?  Do you need to be more giving, more generous, more involved in helping people?

Two surprising ways to respond to suffering

10 Oct
Photo by Jonathan Rados on Unsplash

Being surprised or scared can be a horrible feeling right?  Even when the surprise is a good surprise, there are some people that hate to be surprised!  Do you know anyone who makes you promise that you will not throw them a surprise birthday party?  Why? When you are in a groove, a routine, and something interrupts you, it can feel like a loss of control.  We hate that. 

In our next passage in 1st Peter, he says that Christians are people that should not be surprised about something.  Take a look at 1 Peter 4:12-19.
In verse 12 Peter is once again addressing his Christian friends who are being persecuted for their choice to follow Jesus. He says, “Do not be surprised about it, as if something strange were happening.”

Imagine being persecuted because you are a follower of Jesus.  Our normal viewpoint is that following Jesus is normal and good.  To be persecuted, to be shunned, to endure physical bodily harm simply because we are followers of Jesus sounds crazy.  If that happened to me here in Lancaster, I would be very surprised.  I wouldn’t expect it.  It would feel like my life is out of control.

But here Peter is saying to these Christians, “Don’t be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering as though something strange is happening to you.”  I want to say, “Peter, what are you talking about?  Don’t be surprised at pain and suffering?  If they are not surprised, then how should they react?  Are you saying they should expect it, as if it is normal?  No way!  They definitely SHOULD be surprised.  That pain and suffering is wrong, it shouldn’t be happening.”

From our vantage point living in a time and place where there is no persecution for our faith, of course we would think that persecution is surprising and strange.  But those Christians were not living in our time and place. 

And what is more, I suspect that Peter is concerned that if those Christians become surprised at the suffering, and they think it is strange, they will miss the opportunity to have the right attitude about it.  If they think pain and suffering for Christ is strange, they will likely have the wrong attitude about the persecution.

In my own life, and when I have interacted with people going through difficult situations, I have seen that often times when we are suffering, we hate it, we want it to be done, and can easily become bitter and angry and lose heart.  We often look for someone to blame, and we get stuck on that. It is very, very easy to have the wrong attitude about suffering.

So Peter tells them not to be surprised, and he goes on in verse 13 to explain to them the right attitude they should have about their sufferings.  And what he says is truly a shocker: they should rejoice that they participate in the sufferings of Christ!  And thus they will be overjoyed when his glory is revealed.

But he doesn’t stop there.  He says in verse 14 that if they are insulted for Christ, they are blessed, and God’s Spirit rests on them. 

Rejoice.  Be overjoyed.  You are blessed.  Huh?

That’s the kind of language that we normally reserve for good things.  Birthday parties.  Even surprise parties.  The blessing of new children, weddings, baptisms, new jobs, raises, new houses, a vacation.  You name it.  When really good things happen to us, we rejoice!  We are overjoyed, and we say that we are blessed.

The hashtag “Blessed” was a thing that was overused and is oftentimes still used when people post on social media about something good that happened in their life. But Peter isn’t talking about any of that good stuff.  He is talking about painful trials.  Suffering.  Participating in the sufferings of Christ, he calls it. Why does Peter call suffering, “good stuff”?

Christians, Peter says, look at suffering differently.  Very differently.  For Christians, painful trials are not strange, they are cause for rejoicing!  For Christians, suffering is not surprising or unexpected, it is cause to say “I am blessed!”

Just let that soak in.

We are so used to our comfy society, and we try so, so hard to avoid pain of any kind, that what Peter is saying might have us ripping out this page of the Bible.  I get it, I am not a fan of pain.  When things don’t go our way we can be quick to say “God, why are you doing this to me?”, and we generally don’t look at ourselves, that we might be the cause of our pain. Or we point to others as the cause, and then we get angry, hurt and bitter.

But read through this passage by Peter again, and what you will find is that there is nothing like that described here as the way to handle suffering and persecution. What Peter does say, instead, is that Christians will have a change in perspective about their pain.  No blame, anger or bitterness, but rejoicing in the pain.  But how?

Three of us from Faith Church are once again in training for a marathon.  On Sept 30th, we will run 26.2 miles.  That will be a painful day.  But what most people don’t realize is that a marathon of 26 miles can only happen after much training.  Our training plan is 18 weeks long, and by the end of the marathon, we will have run nearly 600 miles in those 18 weeks.  For the last month or so, we have been saying that we are basically hungry, tired and sore all the time.  My knees ache.  My feet hurt.  My muscles are just worn out.  You might think, then why do you put yourself through that?  It is a very good question, because I hate pain.

But there is something weird that happens, and it is unexpected.  On the day of the marathon, after I have run about 21 or 22 miles, and all the way until mile 26.1, I am thinking this is stupid and dumb and I am never putting myself through this pain again.  And then I see the finish line, and I cross it, and something comes over me, and I think this is the greatest thing ever, and I love it and I’m definitely going to run a marathon again. You know what I doing at that moment?  Rejoicing through the pain.  But how?  My body still hurts.  In fact it hurts bad.  But you know what? My attitude has changed.

It’s all about attitude and perspective.  Peter is telling them to have a new perspective, a new outlook.  See pain as blessing.  He says in verse 13 that it will mean extra joy when Jesus’ glory is revealed, which is another way of talking about some day in the future when they meet Jesus face to face.  And further, in verse 14, they are blessed because, Peter says, God’s Spirit rests on them!  That is amazing.  Not only do they get the joy of going through what Jesus went through, and so identifying with him like that, they also are blessed because God’s Spirit is on them.

When you are facing suffering, a change of perspective will allow you to see the pain as joy and blessing.

But not all suffering should lead to rejoicing.  Peter is quick to say in verse 15 that there is some suffering that does not qualify as rejoicing.  That is suffering for doing wrong.  He lists a couple sins in verse 15.  If you suffer consequences for poor behavior, that is not good suffering.  When we are suffering, it can be hard to be honest with ourselves.  When we suffer we can think that is all bad and painful and want it to stop, and that can mess with our heads.  We can start to think that it wasn’t our fault.  We can start to blame others.  We can start to say that we are being attacked by the devil.  There are all sorts of things we can do to have the wrong attitude about suffering.

Peter says, don’t do that.  Be honest with yourself about your suffering.  Own what is yours to own about a situation, about a circumstance, about why there is suffering going on. Be honest and own it.  That requires a lot of humility and maturity.  It is hard to swallow your pride and say, “I messed up.” 

But, as he says in verse 16, if you suffering because of your faith in Christ, now that is a whole new thing.  That is good suffering.  And you can and should rejoice!

But the thing is that when we are suffering for Christ, it is still suffering, still hurts, still stings, whether physically, emotionally, or relationally.   If we are suffering for Christ, if people are making fun of us for praying at meals, for going to Bible study, for reading our Bibles, for going to church, for talking about Jesus, you name it, then there is one simple thing we can do to make the pain go away. 

Just stop following Jesus.  Or more likely, we can hide the fact that we are following Jesus.

Think about it, if you were one of these early Christians who used to participate in wild partying, just like we heard about in an earlier post about verses 3-4, and you have stopped that partying, your old friends might not like the new you, and they might heap abuse on you.  That would not feel good, and depending on long the abuse lasted and how awful it was, the easiest thing to do to make the abuse stop would be for you to go back to your old ways.

A Christian would feel shame from their old friends. And in that culture that was a big deal. Scholars tell us that the Ancient Near East was an honor and shame culture.  What that means is that saving face was a huge part of their society.  People would go to great lengths to save face, including lying.

When Peter says, in verse 16, “do not be ashamed,” he is using honor and shame language that would have spoken deeply to his friends.  I think it speaks to us too.

Have you ever been ashamed of Jesus?  For me the most obvious time in my life when I struggled with being ashamed of Jesus was in 9th grade in high school.  I had gone to a private Christian all my life up to that point, and 9th grade was my first year in public school.  I remember that gradually I stopped wearing my Christian school apparel.  I stopped telling people I had previously gone to a Christian.  I stopped telling them my dad worked at the Bible College.  He was just a professor.  I didn’t want to feel shame.  I became way more concerned about what other kids in school thought, than what God thought.

That was wrong.  But how about you?  How do you feel shame for being a Christian?

Sometimes there are people in our world who loudly say they are Christians, and then maybe don’t act the way that Christ actually acted.  That can cause shame for us because we may think, “I don’t want to declare I am a Christian, if that poor example of Jesus is what people think when they think of the name ‘Christian’.”  There were certainly people like that in Jesus’ day; the Pharisees, for example.  But Jesus’ followers were still to follow his ways and let it be known that they were living their lives because of their desire to follow Jesus.  He didn’t tell the disciples to not follow God just because others were hypocrites about it.  Instead he said, “follow me.”

Peter says we should praise God that we bear the name “Christian.”  We should wear that label with pride.  Of course we don’t actually wear “Christian” as a written label, such as a logo on a hat or shirt or flag.  There is another, but still very physical, visible way we show we are Christians.  We show we are genuine followers of Jesus by how we live our lives, and a huge way we can do that is to rejoice in the midst of suffering.   I have watched many people in my church rejoice and faithfully praise God, even as they have battled difficult health and life situations.  That has been amazing.

When people think of the word Christian, they should think, “Those are the people who rejoice in suffering.”

We Christians have a different perspective about our pain!  We praise God, Peter says, that we bear the name Christian.  And Jesus Christ had a different perspective about suffering.  He said, “Blessed are you when men persecute you because of me.  So rejoice.”  When we rejoice in suffering, we carry Jesus’ name, we are Christians.

But just as Peter says that we praise God that we bear that name, he goes on to say in verse 17, “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God.”  I read that and I thought that I don’t like that sound of that.  Judgment?  In the family of God?  What does he mean? Peter, in verse 17, is connecting back to verse 12.  Peter is now rounding out a thought he started then.  Look back and 12 where he says, don’t be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering.

Peter is literally using a word picture here of a trial by fire. It’s no joke.  Fire purifies.  But even more, a trial by fire is a test.  Like walking on hot coals.  Can you handle it? Would you do it?  Will you pass the test?  Or will you chicken out?  The persecution those Christians endured, Peter says, is a test.  And would they pass the test by remaining faithful?

In verse 17, then, he hearkens back to verse 12.  It is time for judgment to begin with the family of God.  By tying the two verses together, we get the idea that as these Christians were going through persecution, it was a kind of trial by fire to see if they were going to remain faithful to God or not.  How would they handle the fiery trial?  They were literally being tried and tested first.  It began with them. And the testing would continue with everyone else, including those who do not follow the Gospel.

Peter quotes a proverb to support his view.   In other words, he is using Proverbs 11:31 to say, “if you, the faithful follower of Jesus, are going through difficult trial, imagine how much more difficult it will be for the ungodly and sinner?” In verse 19, Peter’s conclusion is this: when you suffer for God, commit yourself to him, because he is faithful, and thus you though you are suffering, you can and should choose to do good.

We Christians have a different perspective about our pain.  We need to be known for joy in the midst of suffering, and for doing good.

We Christians view things differently.

We rejoice in suffering.

We’re unashamed about Jesus.

When we suffer, we respond by doing good.

When we are feeling like we have been treated wrongly, we rejoice and we serve others!  It would be very easy to succumb to bitterness, or wallow in self-pity, but Peter says that when we are persecuted, we choose to do good. 

When you are feeling shame, choose to volunteer and serve others!  Peter’s advice here is genius.  He knows that when those Christians were being persecuted, it would be so easy for them to be self-focused and get stuck in a mindset of “how bad they have it”.  But what does he tell them to do?  Rejoice, be unashamed, and do good.

When you get bad news about your health, think about how you can volunteer at the clinic. 

When you lose your job, think about how you might serve the homeless and those in need of food and clothing.  Maybe you’ll have some time on unemployment where you can volunteer at a food bank or shelter!

When you have a relationship go bad, call up the person you know who struggles with loneliness and encourage them.  Invite them over for coffee, or take them out for lunch.

We Christians think about suffering differently!  Our heart and focus needs to be on Jesus and on others, as we look for ways to rejoice and serve.

When Jesus was people-watching and taught his disciples how to be generous

1 Aug

Image result for givingI love people-watching.  When I was in college, I took a class in which one of our assignments was to go to a place where lots of people walk by and we had to people-watch. While we were watching them, we were to pray that God would give us a heart for people.  I never did this before, at least on purpose like that, and I found that it is fun!  The mall is a great place.  You see people do interesting things!  I encourage you to try it.

There was a time in Mark’s account of Jesus’  life where we read about Jesus and his disciples at the temple, and they are watching people when something very interesting goes down right in from them.

Here’s the story from Mark 12:41-44:

     Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”

 

The rich people they watched threw in large amounts.  Then along comes a widow who gives what?  The NIV calls it “two very small copper coins”.  In the language this was written in, Greek, the coins are called lepta.  But what is a lepta?

Scholars tell us that are many options for what these coins might be.  Best guess is called a Prutah, one version depicted below.  These were very common in Judea.

What were they worth?  The NIV says “a fraction of a penny”.  Other translations say “a cent.”  The Greek says they are equal to a kodrantes, which is a coin with a tiny value.  So the NIV gets it right.  The widow has given hardly anything at all.  Pennies.

I know Ben Franklin said “a penny saved is a penny earned” but he said that in the 1700s.  Transport Mr. Franklin to 2017 and he might be in line to argue that we should just get rid of the penny.

CBS News reported last year that pennies cost 1.5 cents to make.  Relative to their face value, the report states, pennies are in fact the most expensive coin the US Mint makes.  And they are worth the least.  Time to get rid of the penny!

This lady gives pennies in the offering.  It is easy to think, Well, that’s a horrible offering.  She’s giving money that is basically worthless.  What can God do with a couple pennies?  It is likewise easy to think the rich people gave a gift that is far more important, meaningful and valuable.  The rich people gave a gift that will actually make a difference!

That is, until Jesus points out something about the difference between the rich people and the widow.  The widow put everything she had in the treasury.  And Jesus’ conclusion is that the widow was the one who put in the most!

When I read this I wondered if it was just a one-time thing?  Maybe this widow never gave much at all during her lifetime.  And on that day she picked up two pennies and thought “Huh, these are worthless, I’ll just drop them in the temple treasury.” Maybe she was actually trying to look good and gain praise for herself.

But I don’t think so.  The reason I don’t think so is because it was Jesus who was people watching.  Jesus’ comments show that he had an inside view of this woman’s situation.  He knew she was giving all she had. He knew her heart, that her gift was a gift of complete surrender to the Lord.

When I think about that, I think it is much more likely that she was a woman who wasn’t making a one-time gift, or a random gift.  She is showing us what happens when a person knows how to practice the discipline of giving.

So how do we grow a habit, a discipline, of giving financially?

First of all, you can grow a habit of giving when you have the eternal view of giving.  In his Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus talked about storing up treasure in heaven.

See your giving as having eternal value.  When you give an offering, you are not just giving money that is going into the church’s bank account here on earth.  You are making a spiritual impact in God’s Kingdom.

Next, we need to see ourselves as stewards of God’s money.  Jesus’ close friend, Peter, would later write about this.  See 1 Peter 4:10.  It is a hard statement, but we need to see our money is not ours.  It seems like it is ours because we work for it, we invest it, we bank it, we spend it.  It is really easy to forget that it is God who enables us to earn it, to have the money.  We simply need to see him as the source of it all.  It is his money, his bank account, his debit card, his credit card.  We need to spend his money in a way that honors him.

Third, God loves a cheerful giver.  Paul talks about this in 2 Corinthians 9:7 when he says “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” Cheerful here is the word in Greek “hilaros” which is where we get our word “hilarious”.  God loves a hilarious giver.  By using the word “Hilaros” Paul is not saying that giving should be funny or comical and you’re laughing your head off.  Instead it is the idea of great joy in giving.

We need to see it as a joy to give.  We can be excited about it, knowing that giving is being obedient to God, and that God says he will bless us.  That does not mean that if you give a regular joyful offering to the church, God is going to turn you into a millionaire.  But instead it means that you will be trusting in him, and you’ll have the blessing of knowing that you are being obedient to God.  And perhaps the blessing won’t be realized until heaven.

There was a person in Faith Church who years ago came to worship with $10 in their wallet.  This person was a struggling single mom, desperate just to keep a roof over her kids’ heads.  She could have used that $10 to feed her kids lunch after church.  There is nothing wrong with feeding your kids.  But right in the middle of worship, that person felt convicted that God wanted her to give her $10 to the church.  It wasn’t a guilt-ridden decision.  Instead she gave joyfully, knowing she could trust God.

After worship was over another person in the church came up to her, having no idea what had just happened, and gave her $10 saying, “I feel the Lord wanted me to give you this.”

Next, know that you can give joyfully and sacrificially because God knows what you need and he is faithful to his promises to take care of you.

I also heard of a person who gave away a month’s salary and told not a soul about it.  One day that month a lady stopped by with groceries for this person and their family.

Or have you heard of George Mueller and the orphanages?  Mueller was a deeply godly man in England who ran a number of orphanages.  As you can imagine, it takes a lot of money to care for children and staff in an orphanage.  And Mueller had more than one!  But his practice was not to have a fundraising department.  Instead he would pray, and he would accept speaking invitations at churches to talk about the ministry.  He would not ask for money.  People would give anyway!  One day early on, the Muellers and the group of orphans sat down at the dinner table to eat.  There was no food left.  They set out the plates and silverware, and rather than eat, they prayed.  Just as they were praying, a bread man came knocking on the door.  He had day old bread that he could no longer sell, and he wanted to see if the Muellers could use it.

Then there is the story of a family from Faith Church that cared for foster children.  One day they received a call asking if they could care for a child immediately.  They had no bed for the child.  They prayed, and a bed showed up.

God is faithful.  As Isaiah 41:10 says, “Fear not, for I am with you.”

Again the teaching of Scripture is not that God will make you rich, or make life easy, if you give generously.  But he has promised to take care of your needs.

I recently learned of a lady who said the curious phrase, “I would be afraid not to give.”  We shouldn’t give out of fear, as if God is going to strike us with lightning if we don’t put 10% of our income in the offering basket at church each week.  That is not what this lady meant.  When she said “I would be afraid not to give,” her heart was in the right place.  She feared depending on herself, when God calls us to depend on him.

Do you need to practice the spiritual discipline of giving?  I encourage you to start.  But maybe get a trainer.  Who do you know that is a very generous person?  Who do you know that gives regularly, generously, sacrificially, and cheerfully?  Talk to them, and ask them to train you how to give.

What the Bible teaches about how much you should give (or How to beat donor fatigue in a world that asks a lot)

17 May

Image result for cure for donor fatigue

Donor fatigue is real. Do you feel it?  Are you tired of all the people and organizations asking you to support them?  Last week I introduced the issue of donor fatigue by saying that in our culture, where money is tight for so many, it can be hard to be generous.  When all of the asking piles up, it feels frustrating and exhausting.  But since Jesus calls us to be generous people, how do we avoid donor fatigue?

This past Sunday we looked at the final section of 1st Timothy, chapter 6, verses 17-21, and there Paul talks about generosity.  In verse 18 he gives four important commands:

  1. Do good
  2. Be rich in good deeds
  3. Be generous
  4. Be willing to share

In other words, be like Amazon.  Amazon specializes in distribution.  I’ve been astounded at how fast Amazon can get purchases to me.  If you have an Amazon Prime subscription, you get your products in two days.  And shipping is free!  We need to see ourselves as distributors of God’s resources.

Those of you who are rich financially, Paul says, should be known not because you have a lot of money, you should be known for your generosity.  There is nothing wrong with having a lot of money.  Paul never says money or having money or making money is wrong.  Back up a few weeks and we saw that it is the love of money that is the problem.  But money itself is neutral.

No doubt, Paul is saying that those who have a lot of money, those who are rich, need to be exceedingly careful because they can become arrogant.  So those of you who have money, see yourselves as distributors.  God has given you the ability to make money, or maybe you were born into money, so you can be a distributor!

When our hearts are so full of the joy of the Lord, when we know that God is faithful to keep his promises, we can see ourselves as distributors of God’s resources.  That is what honors God.

Paul’s teaching about generosity is something he would refer to in other letters as well.  Probably the best place to read a full treatment of what Paul had to say about generosity is found in 2 Corinthians 8-9. I would encourage you to make a note of that and read it this week.

He is especially focused in 2 Cor. 9:6-15.  In verse 10-11 he says, “You will be made rich… so that you can be generous!”  We are distributors of God’s resources.

You can sum up Paul’s teaching of giving in four words:  consistent (1 Cor. 16:1-4), joyful (2 Cor. 9:6-15), sacrificial (2 Cor. 8:1-15), generosity (2 Cor 9:6-15; 1 Tim. 6:17-21).

You know what word is not in any of these passages?  Tithing.  Do you know what tithing is?  It is when you give 10% of your income to the Lord.  This word is in the Old Testament frequently.  In fact, Israel was commanded by God to give three different tithes.   Two of them were annual, and one was every third year, amounting to about 23% of their income given to the Lord every year.  But the purpose of those tithes included caring for the Levites and other causes that were very similar to our taxation system.

But what about Jesus and the apostles?  There is some debate about this.  I have read authors who make a case that tithing should be binding on all Christians.  I am not convinced with their argument.  If Paul believed that Christians should tithe, he had ample opportunity in 2 Corinthians 8-9 or 1 Timothy 6:17-21 to say that.  He doesn’t.  In fact, if tithing was so important for the church, it really is strange that Paul didn’t mention it.  My conclusion is that tithing is not binding on Christians.

It is not wrong to give 10%, but quite frankly for some of you, 10% is not nearly enough.  You could give a lot more.  And maybe you should.  For others of you, it is OK if you give less.  The question that we need to answer is “How much money should I give to the Lord?”  And a second question as a follow-up, “To whom should I give that money?”

Let’s try to answer the first question: How much should I give?  The principle is this:  Give with consistent, joyful, sacrificial generosity.

I have heard people say “I can’t give,” or “I can’t increase my giving.”  But let me ask: when we think that we can’t give, are we really saying: “I can’t give because I have to support my lifestyle first, and there is nothing left.”?

That’s why back in 1 Timothy 6, Paul has something important to remind the people of in verse 19: “Lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age.” Doesn’t that sound a lot like Jesus talking about storing up treasure in heaven?

How do we invest in heaven?

Paul goes on to say that we “Take hold of life that is truly life.”  What is the life that is truly life?  We talked about this last week when Paul said something very similar: “Take hold of eternal life.”

It is a life of trust in God.  We think, and our culture certainly tries to convince us, that the good life is life that money can provide. But what about God’s life? Living God’s life?  Being filled with the Holy Spirit, transformed, with the fruit of the Spirit flowing out of us?  That is truly life, living eternal life now. So how we do take hold of that now?  It is a life of consistent, joyful, sacrificial generosity.  But what does it look like?

We need examples of people who live out consistent joyful sacrificial generosity.  One is a guy named R. G. Letourneau.  He was famous for creating a company that built earth-moving machines.  He was a committed disciple of Jesus, and as his business and wealth grew, he decided to practice a reverse tithe.  For him, the answer to the question “How much should I give God?” was 90%.  His story is in the book The Treasure Principle, which I encourage you to read for more examples of generous people.  Those people show us that it is possible to live a life of consistent joyful sacrificial generosity.

Letourneau is a wonderful example of the phrase “God loves a cheerful giver!”  There is a massive joy in radical sacrificial generosity.

I have been so impressed with how Faith Church has practiced consistent joyful sacrificial generosity. We had a fundraising breakfast a few weeks ago.  It benefited one of our Faith Church families that has had significant medical concerns.  It was amazing.  Delicious food, great conversations, and it brought in thousands of dollars to show love to that family.  That was some joyful generosity!

So I am not going to answer the question “How much should I give?” with a dollar amount or a percentage.  Instead, when you try to answer the question “How much should I give?” I encourage you to take that question to the Lord in prayer.  I ask you to present your income and your expenses to the Lord in prayer.  See what he would have you do.  And in prayer to the Lord, ask him this: “Lord, how can a I move more in the direction of consistent, joyful sacrificial generosity?”

One last thought on that joyful part of giving.  So often giving a regular weekly offering, or giving a monthly contribution can seem compulsory.  Do you ever feel like that?  Do you ever daydream about how you could use that charitable donation for new gadgets or entertainment?  If so, join the club.  How then, can our charitable giving be joyful?  When you see the value of what you are giving towards, it fills you with joy.  It is the mission of God’s Kingdom, especially through your local church.  When you know you are depending on God by giving generously, it fills you with joy!

The second question is “Who should I give to?”  When you are bombarded with requests, this is a hard one to answer.  I wish it were as easy as “give 10% to the church, and then give generously on top of that as God blesses you.”  But the New Testament teaching is consistent, joyful, sacrificial generosity.  But who do you give to?  Let’s take a look at a few practical options.

Our church family has decided that we would like to operate using a budget.  Every year at our congregational meeting we vote on that budget, and throughout the year that budget guides our spending.  We plan a budget that asks each family to give about 6.3%, based on average local incomes. When we vote on the budget, we are making a commitment together as a church family that we will give enough to fully fund that budget.

There are plenty of other ways to give, as I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon.  Give to missionaries, to local social services, or those working in international justice and relief.  But donor fatigue is real.  None of us can give to every cause that asks us, and frankly none of us can give to all those we want to give to, let alone all those that ask.

So remember the cheerful part.  It is so easy to feel guilty about giving, like we are not giving enough, like we are disappointing people or God.  But instead I encourage you to be joyful and cheerful about giving what you can.  Of you money, your time, and of your abilities.  How can you cheerfully, joyfully, avoid donor fatigue?  Tend your heart.  God is most of all concerned about your heart!

Take a look at closing comments Paul gives in verses 20-21: “Timothy!  Pay close attention to what I have said in this letter.”  Paul was a mentor to Timothy.  That principle of mentorship is very important.  As we think about finances, do you have a spiritual budget coach?  I urge you to be humble and ask for help if money is struggle for you.  We often view money as deeply personal, as if no one should know how much we make or how we spend it.  Instead, I urge you to open the doors to that area of your life.  Invite financial accountability.

This is a sermon that I struggled with preaching.  How should a preacher preach about money?  I don’t want people to walk away from the sermon just hearing “Joel’s asking for us to give more money to the church.”  Please hear my heart in this.  I know money is a struggle.  I know the feeling of getting a letter from the bank saying that you overdrew your account.  I’ve been there, many times.  It’s embarrassing and humiliating, especially when they charge you fees.  But I urge you to trust in God to provide as you give, using the principle of consistent, joyful, sacrificial generosity.

For some of you, I urge you to consider how you can re-evaluate your spending.  What can you do to live more simply so you can pay off debt?  Perhaps one of the most spiritual, sacrificial things you can do is reduce your expenses so you can pay off debt faster, and thus put yourself in a position to be more generous faster.

Remember that behind it all is our heart’s desire.  The principle is consistent, joyful, sacrificial generosity.  Obviously, Paul is saying to Timothy that people should give of their finances to the work of the Lord.

But they should be generous is other ways too.  In good deeds.  Generosity is a lifestyle.  It is not just about how much money you give to the church.  Are you a generous person with your money, with your talents, with your time, with your abilities?

You don’t have to be a millionaire to be generous.  All of us can be consistent, joyful, sacrificial generous people, with the three Ts: our time, our talent, our treasure.  So I urge you to place all that before God, and say “Here I am, Lord, all of me.”

Do you feel you’re being asked to give too much, too often?

12 May

How many of you are living paycheck to paycheck?

What do I mean by “paycheck to paycheck”?  What I mean is that you need that paycheck to keep coming in order to pay your bills.  If you don’t get that paycheck, you won’t be able to pay bills, buy groceries, etc.  Does that describe your family?  If so, your answer is “Yes” to that question.

But if you have enough savings where you can live for at least a month or more without any income, without working, without unemployment, then you would answer “no” that you are not living paycheck to paycheck.

My intent is not to shame anyone.  I know in our society there is a goal, a dream, that we should build up savings accounts and become financially independent.  But the reality is that for many of us finances can be such a struggle.

Those of you who are younger families, life is expensive with all the sports, and lots of bills, school loans, groceries, health insurance, car loans, rent or mortgages, and credit cards.

If you are an older family you might have a fixed income, lots of health bills, and life might be expensive for you too.

The reality is that we live in an amazingly prosperous society, but most people don’t feel prosperous.  Instead, for most of us, finances stress us out.  Do finances stress you out?  My hand is raised for that one.  I hate money.  I work hard to earn it, and it seems like it is gone just as fast as it comes in.

You know what that means?  When money feels tight, it is hard to be generous.

Not to mention how many people and organizations are asking for money: the sports booster club, the fire company, the fraternal order of police, the politicians, the non-profits like the Boy Scouts and local social services organizations.

And then there is the church asking you to give to mission trips, fundraisers, missionaries, the weekly regular offering, and more.

Let’s just admit it.  We churches ask a lot.  Last week at Faith Church it struck me that on one weekend we asked our church family to bring donations for the youth group Chicken BBQ, then to purchase Chicken BBQ, then to give a regular offering on Sunday morning, then to give over and above offering to the Capital campaign, and then at the end of the worship service, we asked yet again, when took up our monthly special offering for missionaries.

Frankly, as I read this, it’s embarrassing.  Essentially, last weekend we asked the family of Faith Church to give to five different needs. I’m tired of fundraising.  Are you?

We live in a day and age where so much is asked of us.  We are tired of all the requests.  We wish we could give more, and we feel guilty that we can’t.  Have you felt like that?  It is called donor fatigue, and it is real.  Has donor fatigue crept into your heart and mind?

This Sunday we finish our study through 1st Timothy, looking at what Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:17-21.  He has some important words to say to those of us experiencing donor fatigue.  We invite you to join us at Faith Church this Sunday May 14, 2017 as we are going to talk about how we should view generosity in a world where finances are a struggle and many of us have a bad case of donor fatigue.

Oh Geez…Not another sermon about giving…

17 Oct

offering plate A few years ago my family attended my son’s middle school soccer team’s end-of-year pizza party in the school cafeteria.  We were brand new to the school district, and in fact had not even moved there yet.  But we had a sales agreement on our new house, enough to meet school board requirements to let kids start the year with their class rather than having to change schools a month after the new school year begins.  What that meant is we barely knew anyone.  You know that feeling of being alone in a crowd?  That was us.

We got our seats, and soon enough I began overhearing a conversation from a couple other dads at the end of our table.  It went something like this:

“What did you think of the sermon this past Sunday?” (That piqued my interest!)

“I hate sermons about giving.” (Uh-oh, I thought…I bet I see where this is going.)

“Yeah, give, give and give some more.  Doesn’t he know that life is tough for us?”

On and on the discussion went from there.  I remember thinking, if only those guys realized what it was like from the other side of the pulpit.

Maybe there are some pastors who love to talk about giving, but my guess is that most feel just as awkward about it as the people listening feel hearing it.  When a pastor preaches about giving, the pastor knows how self-serving the sermon can seem: “Give…because I need my salary checks to keep coming!”  At least that is what we can imagine you are thinking as you listen.  We know that in reality you are hearing this sermon wrestling with the tension between wanting to be faithful to the Lord, to be generous, and knowing how expensive life is.  We know that many of you are wondering how you’re going to pay off debt or how you’re going to pay the bills.  We know some of you are living paycheck to paycheck. We know that because some of us are wondering those same things, as we live paycheck to paycheck.

I guess it is one big awkward mess.

Why do we keep preaching about giving then?  Do we really need to talk about it?  Do pastors fear that people will stop giving if they, the pastors, stop preaching sermons about giving which leave people feeling guilty?  Is it possible to talk about giving without guilting people into giving? As we continue in the 1st Corinthians series, Phil Bartlet will be preaching on 1st Corinthians 16:1-4.  There you’ll notice that Paul talks about giving, and he does so pretty specifically.  I wonder if he felt awkward about it? Something tells me he didn’t.  He talked about giving a lot, actually.  If Paul talked about it, then we need to talk about it.  Perhaps there is something inherently beneficial about giving that we don’t realize?

So…yes, we’re having another sermon about giving on Sunday.  But don’t stay away.  Maybe even come with an expectant heart and mind!  Join us at Faith Church on Sunday!

The Most Obnoxious Christmas Commercial of All Time

13 Dec

Before you read further, stop here and think to yourself: what is the most awful, obnoxious Christmas commercial you’ve ever seen?  Maybe write it down.  Maybe comment in the comment section below.  Take a few moments and get some options in mind.

The commercials I am referring to have become a staple of Christmas television for the last ten years.  One author calls them the most obnoxious of all time.  Here’s an example from 2011 (2013’s version is not much better):

Did you guess Lexus?

As we continue our study of The Advent Conspiracy, this Sunday we will talk about giving more.  So we’re going to learn how to give our loved ones luxury cars for Christmas!

Or maybe not. Is there another way to Give More?

Whenever pastors start talking about giving more, people get nervous.  They get “sick” and have to stay home from worship that Sunday.  Let me tell you from the other side of the pulpit (which I never use anymore), that pastors hate preaching about giving.  How can we convey biblical teaching so that it doesn’t come off as self-serving?  It is awkward all around.

Perhaps we can look at it differently.  In the Advent Conspiracy, we have already talked about how the focus of Christmas is to worship God, and so we worship him by spending less, in order that we might be able to give more.  If we spend less, though, won’t we have less to give?  Come find out!