Sunday, November 12, 2006

Putting God First

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church during worship celebrations on November 11 and 12, 2006.]

Mark 12:38-44
Forgive me as I hit you with what may seem like hyperbole: My wife makes the best vegetable soup on Planet Earth! I know what you're thinking: "He's biased." But, I’ve eaten a lot of vegetable soup through the years because I like it so much. And, I'm sure that my wife makes the best I’ve ever tasted.

It’s a funny thing about vegetable soup, though. It seems to share a characteristic that a lot of those things we call comfort foods have in common: Vegetable soup is always better when it’s reheated. On the second and third days, after being cooked and then refrigerated and set on the stove to simmer for a time, vegetable soup hits its stride as a taste treat. Sometimes, leftovers are the very best thing you can set before another person!

But leftovers--the leftovers of our time, our talents, and our treasures--are the worst things we can set before God. Why is that?

First: Unless we give God first place in our lives, He’s likely to have no place in our lives.

“I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God,” God tells us in the Old Testament. What? Is God jealous like a lover, demanding exclusivity? Yes, that’s exactly what God is like.

In fact, in the Old Testament, God is portrayed as a husband to His people, Israel. When they chase after other gods, their idolatry is seen as a kind of adultery. And when they ignore His will, they’re seen as turning their back on their relationship with Him.

In the New Testament, the Church is sometimes pictured as “the Bride of Christ” with Jesus as our husband. It also calls the Church, “the body of Christ,” denoting an almost organic connection to the One Who died and rose to give us everlasting life.

Whatever picture of God in relation to you and me that we like best, it’s clear that God means to have a close, intimate relationship with those who follow Him.

Leftovers can sometimes be a great way to express our love for those we care about. But at other times, they can be deadly.

Last week, during MSNBC’s coverage of the midterm election, Chris Matthews mentioned the children of President Franklin Roosevelt, whose lives were almost universally marked by spectacular failure and scandal. “What a litter that was!” he joked. True. But there probably is a reason that the children of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had such disastrous lives.

I once read about the typical meeting between a Roosevelt child and their father. The meetings would take place in FDR’s office, the child anxiously bursting in to bring some exciting news from their little life, dad absentmindedly listening as he read papers and scrawled notes on memos. After a few moments, FDR would look up from his desk for the first time, put on that classic smile of his, and treat his kid like some intrusive office seeker from Schenectady by saying, “It was grand of you to drop by for a visit.” The interview was finished. All the great man would give to his children was his leftovers.

There are many ways we can put God first. Husbands and wives can listen to each other. Parents and children can be attentive to one another. God cares about how we are with each other.

We can also volunteer our time and donate our money to organizations trying to help the 1 in 5 American children who live in poverty.

We can use our talents in service to God.

We can begin each day in prayer and reading Scripture, using the Our Daily Bread devotional, for example.

We were designed to put God and His purposes first, not because God is an egomaniac, but because God made us for a relationship with Him. We are only complete--what our English translations of the Bible unfortunately call perfect, when the hole that exists in all of our souls is filled by God. Only we can give God permission to do that by putting Him first in our lives.

When we do put God first in our lives, it will be clearly seen not only in how we use our time and our abilities, but also in our checkbook registers.

Most of us remember that the first murder in human history happened when one son of Adam and Eve, Cain, killed the other, Abel. What’s less remembered is why Cain killed his brother.

It turns out that Abel had offered the first offspring of his flocks to God. Cain gave God his leftovers. Their offerings may have been of equal value, but God obviously enjoyed Abel’s offering more.

When Abel gave God the very first bit of his wealth, the first ten percent of his income, he was expressing gratitude to God. He was also expressing faith that God would sustain him even if he only had 90% of his wealth left.

Cain was so resentful of the pleasure God took in Abel’s faith that he killed Abel. The first murder occurred because one child of God thought so little of God that he offered God his leftovers. At least for the moment he took to kill his brother, Cain gave no place to God in his life. Unless we give God first place in our lives, He is likely to have no place in our lives.

There’s a second reason I think that it’s dangerous to only give our leftovers to God’s purposes in the world. In our Bible lesson for today, Jesus lashes out at a group of supposedly holy people, the scribes. He says they “like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!” And then an even worse indictment: “They devour widows’ houses...”

Some suggest that Jesus was accusing the scribes, experts in Biblical law, of figuring out how to get their greedy hands on the meager estates of widows, who usually had no money. Maybe. But it seems likelier that Jesus meant something else entirely: The scribes were perfectly content to let the poor--like widows--give and give of their small reources to the support of the Temple and priests. But, while courting reputations of religious faithfulness and piety, the scribes themselves gave a tiny fraction of their fat wallets and of their time and of their abilities to the purposes of God.

You’ve heard me speak before of the man, deeply moved by a sermon he heard in worship one week. He stood up and shouted, “O Lord, use me!” But with all eyes on him, he suddenly thought better of his zeal and added: “in an advisory capacity.” This was the religion of the scribes. They were very free with their advice to others and even to God. But, whether it was their time, their abilities, or their cash, God and others only got their leftovers.

Many of you have heard of the Pareto Principle. It “states that for many phenomena, 80% of the consequences stem from 20% of the causes...” In most businesses, for example, 20% of the people will make 80% of the payroll. And 20% of the people will do 80% of the work and 80% of the people will do 20% of the work.

Jesus was really lamenting the injustice which resulted when a fraction of His fellow Jews--the scribes--demanded that those with less time and treasure give their all while they gave their leftovers.

With His uncomplimentary portrait of the scribes still ringing in his disciples' ears, Mark says that, Jesus:
sat down opposite the treasury [one of the offering receptacles on the ancient temple's grounds], and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he...said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
It's interesting to note that the Greek New Testament word that's rendered as "all she had to live on" in our lesson is the word, bios, meaning life, the word from which we get our terms, biology and biosphere. Jesus says that in spite of the ingratitude of selfish people, she gave her life to God. She foreshadows what Jesus later does on the cross, giving His life--a life which, unlike that of the widow or you and me, was perfect and sinless--for the sake of all of us.

The widow gave everything she had to God. In this, she also foreshadows the early believers. One of the characteristics of the early Christian Church, the Church that began after Jesus rose from the dead and went back to heaven was how it violated the Pareto Principle: 100% of its members did 100% of the work, contributed to the work of the Church and helped one another out.

One passage in the New Testament book of Acts, which tells the history of the early Church, says: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.”

What would happen if something of the spirit of the early Church infected the Church today?

What if it infected Friendship Church?

And what would happen in the lives of those Jesus describes as "the poor in spirit," people who have no connection to Christ or the Church, if we in the Church were more like that widow and less like the scribes, giving ourselves, our efforts, and our treasures to Christ and His purposes in the world?

I tell you what would happen: Lives and communities would change for the better!

In northwestern Ohio, I saw some of this spirit in the Mennonite community centered in Archbold. The Mennonites not only made it their business to take care of each other in their local and faith communities. They also extended their care to others. It's no coincidence either, that Mennonites do a commendable job in providing relief and seeking justice for the poor throughout the world. That’s what happens when people dare to violate the Pareto Principle, dare to follow Christ, and refuse to give God their leftovers!

Next Sunday will bring us to the most important Consecration Sunday in our congregation’s history. When you receive your time, talent, and estimate of giving survey this week, please pray about how you will respond to the Savior Who gave His life for you and how you will be part of what God wants to do at Friendship.

Speaking specifically to finances, let me tell you that I know that for many of you, this has been a hard year. Many have seen dramatic drops in their incomes and unexpected expenses. My wife and I have been hit with those kinds of expenses: our kids' college loans are starting to come due and we recently had to fork over $6100 to have our bathroom remodeled after it started leaking into our family room. We've had to dip into our HELOC

I also understand--and more importantly, God understands--how your time for Friendship's ministries can be limited. My wife does less than she would like to do with the church because financial circumstances dictate that she work two jobs. The same is true for many of you.

Whether it's our time or our talents or our money, God doesn't ask us to give anything more than we have.

God also knows that Friendship isn't the only place where you can serve God's purposes in the world.

But I urge you, as you approach next Sunday, to ask God, whatever your ability or limitations, to help you put Him first, to ask God to help you discern what you can do...because you know that on the cross, God put you first.


Anonymous said...

Good words, Mark. I especially appreciated this key point: "Unless we give God first place in our lives, He’s likely to have no place in our lives."

Your ministry in word is both powerful and grace-filled.

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you, Jeff, for your kind words.

Blessings in Christ,

Mandalynne said...

Hi Mark,

As of two years ago, I recieved Christ - officially and whole-heartedly, and started attending a Church in the area. Seriously changed my life. Recently, some girls and I in our College group felt the need for a Women's Fellowship night - where we come together and have a safe haven, where we can really discussing things in our lives and how they pertain to our walk with Christ. Sometimes it's easier to talk without the men around. It's been running wonderfully since May and there have been tears shed, laughs shared and we recenetly blessed with the opportunity to help bring a Jewish girl to Christ. It's been an amazing time. However, tomorrow night is my turn to "share". Basically, pick a topic and sort of steer the Bible study with verses and prompt questions, ect. Let me tell you, it's been a rough time. My "passion" is sorta on embers, and my willingness to read the Bible is that of a stubborn mule's. I just don't want to. Anyways, I figured that would be as good a topic as any: Putting Christ First. Something that I've been struggling with a lot lately.

Anyways, long story short, thank you. I didn't think that googling would do me much good, but I'm thankful that God led me to your page. What you wrote really spoke to me, and you made a lot of great points I never even thought of. I appreciate it all, and wanted to let you know that your ministry is reaching farther than the walls of your church.

Thanks again!


Mark Daniels said...

It was wonderful receiving your comment. God bless you!

Mark Daniels