Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Giving (Part 5, Reaching Up, Reaching In, Reaching Out)

[This was shared during midweek Lenten worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio, earlier today.]

Malachi 3:8-10
Luke 6:38

If a skeptical friend were to ask us as Christians what we think is God’s most basic character trait, we probably would say love. After all, 1 John 4:8 tells us, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” At the very center of God's character then, is love.

“But how,” our friend might ask us, “do we know that about God?”

More than anything, we see that God loves not by His words, but in His giving.

God gave life to us, a gift none of us deserved.

And when the human race fell into the condition of sin, separation from God, that brought death, God wasn’t done giving. Every Christian knows John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

We know about God’s love because God gives.

And when we become Jesus’ disciples--when we let Jesus reign over our lives--we’re called reach out to others in Christ’s name through lives that reflect the generosity God has shown to us.

Giving involves our whole beings: giving our time, commitment, energy, for example.

But giving does involve money too.

Personally, this has been a hard part of my faith in Christ to live out. For lots of reasons, by the time I hit my teens, I was a tightwad.

I could list all sorts of contributing factors, but there’s really a simple explanation for the stinginess that characterized my young adult years: I was an atheist then and didn’t know that my brain and my brawn, the means by which I earned my income, came from God and therefore, everything I had was a gift from God.

But even after I came to faith at age 23, giving was hard for me.

And yet, in response to God’s love in Christ, we are to be generous.

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers,” the apostle Paul writes in Romans 12:1, “by the mercies of God, to present [or give] your bodies [your whole selves] as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

We read statements like this and think, “If I give myself and my money away, there will be less for me.”

But when we think that, we underestimate our God.

When it comes to the provision, love, and grace of God, there’s always more where that came from.

We can never outgive God!

In Old Testament times, God’s people were commanded to give the first 10% of their income-a tithe-to support the priests at the temple. But in the whole history of ancient Israel, the people rarely did that. It was true that many of the priests were corrupt. So, they may have thought they had a good excuse for not giving the tithe.

But, the corruption of the prophets didn’t invalidate God’s command that His ancient people give in response to His grace.

In Malachi 3:8-10, God tells His people: “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—your whole nation—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. 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 there will not be room enough to store it.'”

This is the only place in Scripture where God tells His people to test Him. Be generous, part with what you don’t think you can part with, God was saying, and see if I don’t look after you.

God isn’t commending the “prosperity gospel” peddled by some televangelists here. He’s not saying, “GIve me 10% of your income and I’ll make you a millionaire.”

He is saying that giving is a way in which we express thanks to Him for grace and a way in which we express faith in God’s ability to keep caring for eternity.

In fact, our faith and our joy in the Lord tend to grow in proportion to the ways in which give we give of ourselves to the causes of loving God, loving others, and making disciples. In Luke 6:38, Jesus says: “Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

Through the years, God has sent me living examples of giving disciples for me to imitate.

At the church I served in Cincinnati, we used to have a message in the worship bulletins: “We ask our guests not to make an offering. It’s our privilege to welcome you today.” That message was wrong for several reasons. (And I was the one who insisted it needed to be included in the bulletin!) One is that it saw the church in institutional terms, as though the offerings we give in worship are all about the care and feeding of the church as an institution.

Much of our offerings do go to support the work that congregations do to fulfill Christ’s great commission of making disciples. But more than anything, we give because as believers in Christ, we need to give. Giving takes our attention off of ourselves and puts it onto God and neighbor. Giving also expresses our trust in God.

It was a woman who began worshiping with us at our church in Cincinnati who taught me that. The first time she worshiped with us, she saw that message--“We ask our guests not to make an offering. It’s our privilege to welcome you today"--and thought, “There is no way you’re going to keep me from making an offering.”

That's because years before, she had left an abusive marriage, was raising a young child on her own, and was working a job that allowed her to barely eke out a living. But she knew that God was sustaining her through her challenges and she decided then that she would join a church and give, even of her money, 10% of her meager income. The New Testament doesn’t designate a required amount for our giving, but what that woman found, as she later told me, was that as she trusted God, “God took care of 100% of my needs on 90% of my income.” That lesson stuck with me.

Our call is to reach up, reach in, and reach out because we follow a God Who saves us by grace through faith in Christ.

When we give, whether to the Church or to mission agencies or to people in need, we give praise, worship, and honor to the God Who shows His love for us in how much He gives to us. We trust Him to take care of all our needs--to provide our daily bread--even as we dare to give. Amen

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