Sunday, May 27, 2012

Be Well

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (NRSV)

If you’re old enough to remember the days of Vietnam and when McDonalds first put up the Golden Arches, you are also probably old enough to remember Julie Andrews’ song “Practically Perfect” in the movie “Mary Poppins”.   Mary Poppins was the nanny who was “prac-tic-ally perfect in every way”.

About the same time as Mary Poppins entered the scene, Mac Davis introduced us to his version:
   O Lord, it’s hard to be humble,
   When you’re perfect in every way
   I just can’t wait to look in the mirror,
   ‘Cause I get better looking each day

Now, those were fun things, Mary Poppins and an arrogant cowboy…priceless!  But Jesus laid out a tougher plan; He said we should “be perfect”.  What’s a believer to do with that?
The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, believed  it was possible for followers of Jesus to achieve spiritual perfection – to the point of not sinning.  Indeed, he held that God expected it.  Wesley believed the pursuit of Christian perfection should shape our lives here on earth.

It would seem that to become “perfect,” one would have to get rid of a whole shopping-list of bad things.  The problem is that we love those things because we have a base nature that tends to get worse, not better.
When I was a kid I used to come in from a hard day of playing in the dirt.  Mom would get the bath ready.  I'd go in the bathroom, sit on the edge of the bathtub, wet the end of the washcloth, and clean a little spot right in the middle of my forehead.  I could then announce with a clear conscience that I'd washed; Mom would say, "Get real!"

Reality says that if you are not 100% perfectly-clean you are still dirty.  In a spiritual sense, you are not clean, simply by quitting one or two bad habits and going to church.  That is reformation.

If you get rid of all the bad habits, go to church all the time, go on visitation, sing in the choir and give all your money, well, that is incredible reformation.  And it still isn't perfection!

In fact, that's not even what God requires, or what He wants!  God doesn’t really want your reformation; God requires a transformation!  And only the grace of God can do that!

Now, there are a lot of different ideas of exactly what Jesus meant by telling us to “be perfect” or morally healthy.  It takes a lot of thought to get our minds around this one.  We know ourselves, and we know how hard it is just to stay on a diet, or quit smoking or cussing.  But to do it all; to actually be perfect before God….that is a monumental concept.  John Wesley’s sermon on Christian Perfection is over 20 pages (be thankful this one is only 4!).

So, where do you start?  How is it possible to be perfect?  How do you do that?  How do you change?  The answer is, YOU don't!  Christ does it in you!

In John’s first epistle the Apostle gives us the starting place for Christian perfection:  If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.   The word “purify” (or “cleanse”) is much different than the washcloth plan I tried to pass off as having cleaned Russell.  Beloved, when Jesus cleans you, not even your mother can find a dirty spot!

Now, if this is the starting point, where is the finish line?  How can we (as Wesley asked Methodists two centuries ago)…how can we “go on to perfection?”  I believe with all my heart that the answer to that question is two-fold:

Number one is that you cannot do it.  Only God can create in you the kind of moral character that “perfection” suggests.  Everywhere in Scripture we are told to follow after Jesus and his righteousness (see Matthew 6:33).  But it is not following-after to catch righteousness that we are urged to do; rather it is in the following-after we will find ourselves transformed  by the righteousness of Jesus Christ!

This is where the “number two” comes in…the longer you give yourself to Christ’s will, without reservation, totally abandoned to His leading, the more you will become like Him, and less like your old self.

It has been said that the Christian life is a marathon, not a sprint.  It was never truer of something than this one issue.  Elizabeth and I got married on February 12, 1967….a lot of changes have taken place.  Hanging out with her for the past 45-plus years has changed the little boy who tricked mama with a “little-dab’l-do-ya” washcloth.  Now there are no socks dropped on the floor, crumbs left on the table, or messy garage.  And, do you know what?  I now like it that way!

It is the same way with hanging out with Christ – there will be changes…you will be going-on to perfection as you learn to submit to His leadership.

That’s what the Apostle Paul found out.  He first met Jesus on the road to Damascus.  After following Jesus for 30 or more years he was still learning, but he’d learned the most important thing about Christian perfection – when you hang out with Jesus you learn to love what Jesus loves, and, keeping your eyes on Jesus, the rest somehow fades away…

…and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace.

So…you want Christian perfection?  Say it with Paul:
I want to know Christ…this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:10a, 13b-14 (NRSV)

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Good News

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”   (NRSV)
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”   (NRSV)
What do you consider “good news”?  Is it…
Getting a raise?
Birth of a child or great-grandchild?
Better report from the doctor?
In the Scriptures  there are 64 occurrences of the phrase “good news”.  Here are just a few:
In 1 Samuel when “bi-polar” King Saul finally met his end his enemies cut off his head and paraded it around.  The word around the kingdom was that it was good news!
In 2 Kings 7 Jerusalem was under siege by the Aramean armies; it was working!  After months of starvation four lepers who weren’t even allowed inside the city walls decided it would be better to be prisoners with full bellies.  So they went into the enemy camp, but found it was deserted, and all the food had been left behind…good news!
The book of Proverbs says a lot about good news… that it’s refreshing to the body and it’s like cool water to the thirsty soul! 
Isaiah said that the ones who bring good news have beautiful feet, and Messiah Jesus would stand on those beautiful feet and proclaim the best good news to the oppressed, the brokenhearted, the prisoners and mourners.   And, of course we read that all through the New Testament account which is called the Gospels (which means “good news”).
Throughout the rest of the New Testament we read that the apostles and all the disciples picked up Jesus’ command to go and tell that good news; it’s our heritage down to this very moment.  Every Sunday the sermon is supposed to proclaim the Good News, and then God’s people are supposed to take that as their message to live and proclaim every day of their lives.
On December 17, 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first flight of an airplane at Kitty Hawk NC.  The flight lasted 59 seconds and travelled 850 ft.  Wilbur rushed to the local telegraph office and sent the following message home -- WE HAVE FLOWN FOR 59 SECONDS - WE WILL BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS! 
Upon receiving the telegram their sister, Katherine went to the newspaper office, told the editor of her brother’s new flying machine, and informed him, they would be home for Christmas, if he would like to set up an interview.  He told her that was nice, and he would be sure to put something in the paper regarding the boys.  On December 19th, the local paper placed the following headline on the 6th page of the paper:  "WRIGHT BROTHERS HOME FOR CHRISTMAS".    The most important story of the year -- man’s first flight -- and the editor missed it! 
While the editor of the Wright’s hometown paper wasn’t exactly a visionary (he kind-of missed the importance of heavier-than-air flight), the reason he didn’t get it right was because his eye was on the small place – the little town they lived in, and not the lofty 1-minute flight that would lead to space travel.
Sometimes we get it right because we’ve been wired for joy, and good news can’t be hidden.  When we were in Seminary our children were still very young.  Jennifer was the oldest at nine; Carrie was only two.  We lived on the campus in a small trailer park.  Every day our little front yard was a gathering place for Jennifer and Jason’s friends.  It was a “stampede” alley which didn’t bode too well for toddlers.
Carrie often came in crying that the “big kids” hurt her, or hid from her.  On one such occasion there were (it seemed) eight hundred kids playing after school; Carrie came through the door dripping tears and sobbing inconsolably.  Elizabeth was just taking fresh-baked cookies out of the oven which she intended as a treat for the neighborhood kids.  She offered two to Carrie to soothe her sorrow, cautioning, “now don’t tell the others yet; I don’t have enough for everyone yet.”  
Clutching the two huge sugar cookies in her chubby little hands, our little evangelist ran to the front door, kicked open the screen and, at the top of her lungs announced:  “I GOTS COOKIES!”
It’s just a plain fact…some news isn’t meant to be hidden; and that’s what Jesus wanted us to know…and tell!

[1] New Revised Standard Version
[2] Proverbs 15:30 and 25:25
[3] Isaiah 52:7 and 61:1
[4] On, in sermon by Stephen Sheane "Christmas Past, Present and Future" 12/21/2008)

Sunday, May 13, 2012


13“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.  14“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.  15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house.  16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.  17“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.  18For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.                     Matthew 5:13 - 18 (NRSV)

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.          Galatians 5:13 (NRSV)
We have been spending time with Jesus on “the Mount” – the sermon of our Lord; two-thousand, three hundred and eighty-four words[1] introduced by the “beatitudes” and ending with the astonishment of all the listeners marveling over how Jesus taught with such awesome authority.  This was heaven’s proposal for how to live if we want to take seriously the idea of loving God.
There have been virtually libraries of books written on the beatitudes alone, let alone the other 109 verses of Jesus’ sermon.  In choosing to preach seven sermons on “the sermon” I am obviously not exhausting everything that could be said about living as a follower of Jesus Christ; I have simply chosen the seven topics that have been the most important for me in growing as Jesus’ disciple these last fifty-plus years. 
As we live the Christian life and grow into our discipleship we become like a garment woven together with holy thread…the strands all provide and receive strength from each other.  Christ is all, and in all[2].
Each of these exhortations to living a Godly life is a component and a bridge.  Each is vitally-important; none greater than any other.  Each provides a pathway to the others.  The first four topics we covered were:
·        Believing in Christ (faith)
·        Developing a relationship with Christ in prayer
·        Forgiving (and being forgiven) by others
·        Giving (developing our life in Christ through stewardship)
Today’s theme is serving as a slave.  Within the Bible’s 1200 chapters, there are more than 1450 references to the word “servant” or “serve”.  Something which is mentioned that often demands our attention.
Let’s look at developing our lives of discipleship through serving as a slave.  Yeah, I know what you’re thinking…wasn’t slavery outlawed?  Well, yes, of course it is outlawed to make someone else a slave to anyone.  But, in discipleship, becoming God’s servant is something for which we volunteer; we choose to be slaves of God.

Three words of relationship

There are three words in the language of the New Testament that are used to describe serving.  These ancient Greek words, from “weakest to strongest” (from a Christian perspective), are latreuo, diakonos and doulos, forming a progression of relationship to Jesus. 


The weakest relationship is that of legalities.  The word ,  "latreuo" (latreuo) is translated "minister" in many cases, and it speaks of the one who is hired to perform a service.  Many people see their relationship to God as dutiful, paying an obligation, or a legal responsibility to "worship" God.  This is weak in thinking and theology.  If God wanted people who were going to "pay Him back" he surely would look elsewhere.  How can you repay the cross?


The next strongest relationship is the diakonos (diakonos), or “friendly host” to Jesus.  We get our word “deacon” from this word.  It describes the one who follows after Jesus to be a heartfelt lover of the Lord.  Today there are many in our society who love the idea of "doing something for Jesus."  They go to church, give, and serve on committees and boards.  It is a nice picture of nice people doing nice things in a nice way.  As long as everything stays "nice," everything will be "nice."  However, we know that this isn't a nice world.  It is a world touched, gripped and ripped by sin.  Not everything in the church, home or public place will be nice and ideal.


The third word is doulos (doulos), or "slave."  This is the strongest word for relationship to Jesus.  It literally means "bondslave," the person who had no choice with his own life.  In ancient times a bondslave was committed for life to serve the master of the house. 
It requires commitment to give yourself to someone.  Paul, James, Peter, John and many early disciples referred to themselves as the bondslaves (doulos) of Christ.  This is the strongest word of relationship because it requires the most bridges burned.  The latreuo is a hired servant, so he is there for what he'll receive in payment.  The diakonos is serving because of favored conditions. 
The doulos, because of the cross and God’s mercy and grace, is there to lose himself in life-long, loving disposal to the Master's wishes.  Do you see the progression?  It goes from receiving wages (weakest relationship) to giving self (strongest relationship).
Now, the essence of our text can be explained in the light of those three words.  When Paul said, " love serve one another." he used the word "doulos."  The relationship is based on giving ourselves to one another – servant/slavehood.  He didn't use "latreuo," saying we have an obligation to serve like a hired waiter.  He didn't say "diakonos," indicating "hanging-out with the brethren" until the going got rough.  He said, "doulos;” we are to be slaves, devoted to each other, even as we claim to be devoted to Christ. 
Notice three implications about this:

Those who consider themselves slaves to everyone in the body are considered greatest in the body by the head of the body.

and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.                                                     Mark 10:44 (NRSV)
After I became your pastor, the first time we had a workday here, I showed up in my jeans and sweatshirt.  One of the men remarked, Preacher, we don't expect you to do any of the work here.  It was a wonderfully affirming word of respect for the office of Pastor; however, there was work to be done, and I am part of the body here. 
It is the same with winning souls, visiting the sick and serving the body.  Servanthood means you do the work because you are His servant.

Those who have compassion to meet the needs of people instead of just judge people will be truly serving.

36Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”  37He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”                                                                                                       Luke 10:36 - 37 (NRSV)
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the true servant of God's will was the man who put aside racial, economic and religious barriers to meet someone's dire need.  There are thousands of people in this community who need the ministry of this body. 
There was a little boy in the ghetto who was having his faith in God mocked.  His companion said, "If God really loves you, why doesn't he take care of you?  Why doesn't God tell someone to bring you shoes and a warm coat, and better food?"  The lad thought for a moment and then, with tears starting in his eyes, said, "I guess God does tell somebody, but somebody forgets."

Those who have consecrated themselves to serve the body will really be serving the Master

And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’                                                                     Matthew 25:40 (NRSV)

There is a beautiful story by Tolstoy about a humble cobbler named Martin.  In a dream Jesus speaks to him, saying, "I will soon come to you."   "When he woke up in the morning, he was excited.  Jesus would pay a visit to him sometime during the day.  He swept his shop clean, prepared a delicious meal, and waited for the visit.  In the morning a hungry exhausted child came to his shop, so Martin fed her and let her rest for a while.  At mid-day an old woman happened by.  The woman was cold and shivering.  Martin gave her a warm shawl and she went on her way.  Late in the afternoon, a barefooted beggar came to his door, and Martin gave him a pair of shoes.  But Jesus did not come.  When Martin went to bed that night he was disappointed. 
That night Jesus once again appeared in a dream to him.  Lord, why did you not visit me today? Martin asked in all sincerity.  Jesus then replied, Martin, three times I visited you.  First as a little child, then as an old woman, and finally as a beggar.  When we help a needy person, when we offer food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, we are actually helping Jesus.  When we care for the forgotten of our society, as Jesus did, we are actually helping Jesus.[3]
Serve one another? 
We can take that to heart in varied ways.  We can serve each other like Salome' did for the Baptist, serving his head on a platter.  That's the world's way. 
We can latreuo one another like hired servants, just doing what we do because it is our duty to do things around the church.
We can diakonos one another like fair weather friends, being nice among the nice as long as everything's nice.
                                                     – or –
We can be Biblical slaves, doulos, committed to each other, filled with mercy, meeting needs, doing it with love as unto the Lord.

[1] In the NRSV
[2] Colossians 3:11
[3]Piero Ferrucci, Inevitable Grace, (Los Angeles, Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc, 1990) 90-91

Monday, May 7, 2012

Not More Than ONE Master

8Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings!  9You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you!  10Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.  11I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the LORD of hosts.                                    Malachi 3:8 - 11 (NRSV)
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.       Matthew 6:24 (NRSV)
I was tempted to preach a sermon about total-life discipleship this morning and deftly weave-into the message precepts and principles of money.  That would have been my “comfort zone”. 
I repented!  God never called me to preach in a comfort zone, or to provide one for the church family.  God’s Word has also convinced me that although we human beings have a tendency to say “my this” or “my that” – it is all His, not mine. 
While stewardship extends to every area of life…time, health, family, I am specifically talking about money this morning.  This sermon is about money; specifically, the money in your pocket.  My meaning is clear…we may say, “my money, my real estate, my family, my time, my, my, my” But, it is not your money or time, it is His! 
The Lord IS the owner of the cattle on a thousand hills – and, oh yes, He also owns the hills and the air over them!
This will be a Biblical message in the tradition of Jesus.  Jesus said more about a person’s possessions (and what he does with them) than He did about heaven, hell, love or the second coming. 
This is also a straight-forward message – these are urgent times!  I could attempt to make us all feel good by reciting the statistics of how much we gave to missions last year.  I could try to make us feel guilty that we aren’t building new buildings like some other churches do.  But, “feel good” or “guilt-trips” aren’t what is called-for by God’s Word.
So-called “feel good” messages are like putting a band-aide on a cancerous tumor.  If a doctor tells you things are well, that you should go home and you’ll do just fine, when in reality you have only a few weeks to live, he is not a doctor – he’s the enemy.  It is the same with a preacher who won’t give you the Word of God without candy-coating. 
A guilt-trip preacher might get you to part with a few bucks, but you don’t get near the heart of God with guilt-giving.  If we give out of guilt it only takes a little time until the guilt subsides; then we slip back into our old ways.  Once the guilt emotion wears off, we rediscover our real heart’s desire – self!  Guilt doesn’t last.
What DOES last is the Word of God.  And so, this morning I want to share with you the BASICS OF CHRISTIAN STEWARDSHIP from the “Owner’s Manual”…God’s Word
When you start with basics you must start with…


The question is, “What is Christian Stewardship?”  The answer is simple – it is the “whole tithe” (as we read in Malachi).
* Mathematically the tithe is 10% of your income.  The first time we encounter the word “tithe” in the Bible is Genesis 14:20, where Abraham paid a tithe to a priest named Melchizedek. 
* Positionally it is not just A tenth; it is the First Tenth!  When most of us are introduced to the idea of giving a tithe we mentally picture all our other financial commitments, and then try to “fit” tithing into the program. 
That is not what God has told us to do.  All the way through Scripture we encounter the principle of “firstfruits”.  God’s people are not to bring leftovers to worship. 
Abel’s brother, Cain imagined his choice of offering was just as good as what God had required.  He was wrong; it got him in big trouble.  God requires “firstfruits” – in other words, He requires the best you have.  In Malachi’s day the people brought sick and disfigured animals for sacrifice, keeping the best for themselves.
The first tenth…the tithe…is not only the first you get; it is to be the best you have!
* Definitely…the tithe is the Lord’s! 
All tithes from the land, whether the seed from the ground or the fruit from the tree, are the LORD’S; they are holy to the LORD. Leviticus 27:30 (NRSV)
We may be tempted to say, “That’s Old Testament law; we’re under grace!”  That is true, but Jesus also said rather clearly that He came to fulfill the law, not do-away with it. 
The early church took that seriously.  You can see (in Acts and Philippians) that the first century believers not only gave a tithe – that was their base; gifts and offerings were given above the tithe.  Giving was a sacrificial completing of the law.
You may also say, “OK, tithing is Biblical, but I just can’t afford that much right now.”  I have heard those words many times.  Often that means the person has obligated their income to the point that he is way over his head, to the point that the concept of tithing brings fear.  You fear that the charge cards won’t get paid!  Folks, that fear is an indication that things you buy or want are more important than obedience to God; that is a dangerous game to play.
Common sense says you must pay your bills; otherwise you’ll get hauled into court.  Spiritual sense overrules the objection here.  Given a choice, I’d rather be hauled into any court in the land and be publicly humiliated, have all my worldly possessions taken away, and be put in prison for life-without-parole, than to stand one second before God’s court in heaven, having withheld what belongs to the Lord! 
The first basic of Christian stewardship is definition; it is the first tenth that is holy to the Lord.


* Where should I give my tithe?
“Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse…  Malachi 3:10a
The storehouse is the church; more accurately – your church!  Someone once called the paying of our tithes “an act of worship AT God’s house of worship.”  The place where you have chosen to worship is the place you are to worship with your tithe.
Whenever God’s Word is specific (such as “thou shalt not steal”) we are to be obediently quiet.  There is no question that the Bible tells us to bring our tithe where we worship.  It is my personal belief that when and what you give ABOVE the tithe is discretionary.  You give those gifts where the Spirit impresses you the greatest need exists.  But the tithe belongs where you worship.
Sometimes I am asked for counsel by folks on the Internet.  One person considers me a “temporary pastor” for their family.  They live in another state and are looking for a church home.  They wanted to know what to do with their tithe until they found a church…should they send it to me?  I told the person to give the tithe where they worshipped each week.
A lady in a church I once served told me that it was a joy to bring her tithe to the worship service.  She counted it a privilege to offer to God her tithe and other offerings.  She also told me that the greatest joy she experienced was putting away several dollars each month, in addition to her tithe, so that she could be “in” on meeting needs for the poor children in her neighborhood.  Folks, that woman bought more new shoes and blue jeans for kids that weren’t hers, than anyone I’ve ever met.  These were her gifts above the tithe.
However, for the ongoing mission and work of the church, God’s people who make up that church body are to faithfully BRING their tithes to worship each Lord’s Day.
On the first day of every week, each of you is to put aside and save whatever extra you earn, so that collections need not be taken when I come.              1 Corinthians 16:2 (NRSV)
Definition – the first10%, Direction – my church, and…


* What will my tithe do?  It meets the needs which God chooses.  Notice that it meets spiritual needs:
22Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field.  23In the presence of the LORD your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the LORD your God always. Deuteronomy 14:22 - 23 (NRSV)
One of the chief needs we all have is to learn to worship.  A man came to his pastor with a check for $10,000.  He said, “Preacher, this is my tithe for the next two years; I want to pay it up in advance.”  The pastor wouldn’t take the check.  He told the man, “You bring it as you receive from the Lord.”
Giving is connected to our regular need of worship.  You wouldn’t pray one good long prayer at the beginning of the year; or eat one good meal.  Your spiritual needs are met in ways you can’t describe when you bring your offering regularly.  On the first day of the week you bring yourself, and your offering.
Our giving also meets temporal needs:
28Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the LORD your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.                        Deuteronomy 14:28 - 29 (NRSV)
God’s people should never have to beg or go hungry.  That is God’s promise, but it is based upon the fidelity of believers in the local church to bring their tithes for the meat in the storehouse.
The formula for revival has always been humble prayer, mixed with earnest obedience!  When God’s praying people are God’s obedient giving people, the world sees the demonstration of God’s power and love in action. 
* Needs are met.
* Miracles take place.
* Society is deeply affected.
Now, there are three basics –
     Definition:  Christian stewardship is the tithe,
     Destination:  given in the local church,
     Disbursed:  to meet the needs God has ordained;
     Of course “stewardship” is a word that encompasses all of life, not just things related to money.  We must be careful to remember that all we possess (our time, health, family, etc), are all gifts from God; they should be well-taken-care-of as acts of ultimate stewardship.  There is another caution, however.  We must also beware of:


* What if I reject this?  Simple answer; you are robbing God!
8Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings!        Malachi 3:8 (NRSV)
That is very plain language.  And even though it is disturbing information, this is a fact that demands very plain details
Many people are listed on the rolls of many churches.  But, they not only neglect to worship with their presence, they choose to spend God’s tithes on themselves.  That is not obedient, and it is not at all smart!  It is self-destructive. 
Worship and giving are activities you need in your life; they are designed to bless you and strengthen you.  Putting aside your need for both harms you.
Consider the principle of “The Widow’s Mite”.  If you remember Jesus and his disciples were sitting near the treasury of the temple.  People were coming and going; most were giving some kind of offering. 
An extremely poor widow walked-in and dropped in two coins…mites – pennies, if you will.  A “mite” was about 1/64 of a day’s wages.  In today’s economy it equals about 71/2 minutes of paycheck.  So, if you work for $10 an hour, it would be about $1.25.             Here’s the story from Doctor Luke:
2He also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins.  3He said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; Luke 21:2 - 3 (NRSV)
Now Jesus said her gift was greater than any other – even the rich folks who gave large sums.  The reason Jesus assessed the gift that way was that it was all the poor woman had.  The woman was down to less than the cost of a cheeseburger!  She gave out of her need…sacrificially. 
Two important facts here: 
1.           The woman was at worship – she was there with an open heart, and…
2.           She was going to give, even if it meant not eating that day.
Jesus pointed-out this poor woman in order to help us understand that giving to God is never hidden from the eyes of God.  He has promised that giving will bless us, and He is as good as His promises.
But, the reverse is also true in the principle; those who withhold that which belongs to God (worship and tithes) bring reproach on themselves – and the damage is considerable. 
You may recall the rich young ruler.  Jesus told him to “let go” of his riches…it would lead to treasure in heaven.  The young man went away sad, supposing he had more than heaven had to offer.  Jesus’ told his disciples that the young rich man was in peril of holding on to the weight that would keep him out of heaven.
If God will praise a widow for giving her last buck-and-a-quarter, he will certainly condemn anyone who steals what is rightfully His.  Would a man rob God?


* What if I have not been faithful with the tithe?  Is God gonna get me?  Yes – or No, it depends on you…
7Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?”
10Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. Malachi 3:7, 10 (NRSV)
The promise of judgment for disobedience is real; but so is the promise of mercy and blessing.
*    If you have been holding-out on giving God your best in stewardship, you can repent…that means return to God, begin anew.  You can start right now giving Him your best.  When you return to God, He returns to you.  It is done in faith…you take a step towards God, believing He will accept you; and His Word promises He will. 
*    That is how the Christian life is begun; an act of faith as you pray for forgiveness…God accepts this genuine repentance and accepts you as a child of His. 
*    That is also how the Christian life continues, we act in faith every day, worshipping and giving.  It is God’s way.
What is your decision?  Have you been faithful with God’s tithe?  If so, wonderful…continue to grow in the faith as you give tithes and offerings above the tithe.  Already there?  Teach others the joy you have experienced.
Have you not been faithful?  Begin now, and grow.  Return to God’s way, and His ways will bless you.
Have you not ever begun the walk with God?  You can start.  Remember, when it was time for God to give, He didn’t send some old, broken-down, left-over angel for which he had no further use.  God sent his firstfruits – His best – His one and only begotten Son…for you!
The tithe is God’s standard of Christian giving because what you have in your possession represents all you are.  It represents your labor, your work, and your worth.  You can choose to give God the leftovers, your least, what you can spare…but it will never be any better than that. 
The steps can be very definite this morning.  We have reserved taking the offering until now…you can begin to trust God by giving your tithe, even if you have never done that before. 
You can also trust Him by joining hands with this church family – become part of what is going on here to serve Him in worship and witness.
The firstfruits of what God requires is YOU.  Let the church say, Amen!