Thursday, January 22, 2015

We Promise Our Gifts

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.  Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles.  All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.  And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.    Acts 2:42-47 (NLT)
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in Heaven.  “So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.       Matthew 6:1-4 (NRSVA)
Our vows in the church of Jesus Christ, specifically the United Methodist Church, are our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.  We have arrived at promise #3 our vow to give our gifts to God’s church.
If you are a believer, you have heard many times how it is a Christian's responsibility and joy to give.  If you are human, your heart probably rebelled, alerting you to the fact that you really didn't want to give.  You might have even had the thought cross your mind, who does that preacher think he is, telling me I should put MY money in HIS plate? 
There are three responses I've come to understand:
a. It’s not my plate; 
b. It’s not your money; 
c. The preacher is supposed to tell the congregation to put the Lord's tithe in the Lord's plate on the Lord's Day, and in the Lord's way (cheerfully!!).
Cheerful giving is what I want to talk to you about today.  This speaks not so much about how much, but how we give our gift.  I have read the Bible, attended seminars on Biblical stewardship, studied human nature and history.  In all, I have not been able to discover more than two basic motivations, or reasons why people give – worship and prestige.  Worship is a love-motivated response; prestige is the idea that, if I give, I’m going to get something out of it.
What is it that decides the difference between an act of selfish prestige-seeking and an act of worship?  The simplest answer is motive.  Our text is right in the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, His primary teaching on how to live like a follower of Christ.  It shows that Jesus was attempting to teach the disciples that true worship only happens when the motive is pure. 
The finest act of Christian activity, that does not have love, or unselfish devotion to God as its motive does not, and cannot, please God.  You can never be giving as a love-response when you’re seeking something in return. 
The difference can be illustrated this way.  I have a habit of giving items I don’t need to Good Will.  It is a worthwhile way of contributing to a good charity.  It has a secondary benefit of making inexpensive items available to people who cannot afford to buy new things.  Now, it is easier for me to put those items out for the garbage than to load them in the car and spend part of my day off driving to Good Will.  The question becomes this: 
Would I still donate to Good Will if they didn’t give me a receipt for a tax-deduction?
Jesus further nailed that down later in His sermon when he said,
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 (NRSVA)
So, if there are really only two motives for giving, our questions as followers of Jesus are:  what are they, and what do we do about them.   Let’s see what Jesus says:


Giving is neither good nor bad by is simply a transfer of goods, services or promises from one entity to another.  The hidden trap Satan lays-out for the Christian congregation is in how we FEEL about the giving we do. 
If giving becomes a competition for the attention of others, the motive is prestige.  When we give in order to be elevated in the minds of others we cancel any reward our giving may bring.  Giving like that is an investment, not a gift.  The reason for this is that the attention becomes directed at the giver rather than God. 
In June of 2006, Warren Buffet, the world's second-richest man at the time, announced that he would donate 85 percent of his $44 billion fortune to five charitable foundations.  Buffet said: There is more than one way to get to Heaven, but this is a great way.[1]
Buffet is wrong on two counts – there is only one way to Heaven and that is through the Lord Jesus Christ, and His gift of salvation on the cross. 
The other reality is that, even if it WAS a way to Heaven, the greatness of that way is diminished by attempting to purchase salvation with money.  God gave His priceless Son for our salvation; or giving, like our worship at the Lord's Table must direct the attention towards God if it is to be valid.
In our text Jesus mentioned the giving of alms.  He was talking about benevolent, freewill offerings.  The "tithe" (giving of one-tenth of income) was a practice in Jesus' time.  But he was specifically pointing to the gift above that tenth. 
The Pharisees, who Jesus called the hypocrites in this passage had a ritual of blowing their own horn; on a day when they were about to donate, they literally had trumpets play to call attention to their generosity.  Now, I've never seen that in any church.  But we certainly have our own ways of making sure others know.  
Chuck Swindol told about a “hi-tech” offering box he heard about in a church.  It has a laser that reads the contribution immediately.  When you drop in a $5 bill or more nothing happens.  Any coins that total fifty cents or more sounds a little bell.  A quarter will get you a gong; and a dime sets off a siren.  If you walk past without giving, a camera pops-up and takes your picture, faxes it to the treasurer and puts a flag on your membership letter.  Some churches would run out of film!  Jesus says giving for personal glory or popularity is wrong. 
The reason Jesus abhorred the blowing of horns is that it put people on different levels.  When the rich man gave his large contribution, it announced to the poor man that he had no esteem in the Lord's house.  This is why the Lord's chosen way of stewardship is tithing.  No matter how much or little you earn, 10% is still 10%. 
(Incidentally, if you’re one of those who actually do give 10% and imagine someone ought to be impressed with that – the Jews in Jesus’ day typically gave 1/3 of their income…33%.  And that was average!)
God's way is equal sacrifice, not equal amounts.
My personal view on tithing is that it is both good and bad; a GOOD place to START, and a BAD place to STOP
It starts a Christian off with God's minimum standard for stewardship.  But if a person stops there, never growing in his giving, we end up with a theology that says:  "God owns 10%; the other 90% is mine."  And, frankly, with most of us that could lead to creative thinking about how to hold onto some of God's 10%. 
In the early part of this century, a southern Senator by the name of Vardeman once rented out a plot of land to a sharecropper.  The Senator was to get a fourth-part of the produce.  He never got it. 
When he saw the man he asked, did you plant
Yessir! was the answer.  Did you harvestYessir
Where's my fourth
Said the sharecropper, That's just the trouble, sir...They wasn't no fourth, they was jus' 3 loads, an' they was mine
Beloved, when we start cutting up what belongs to God – and what we are entitled to, we miss the point altogether.  This is God's world; He owns it all, and the prestige, glory and honor are His – and His alone!


As we recall, this passage is set in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, which is Jesus' teaching about love.  The word "alms" is translated literally as acts of mercy.  The one motivating factor in our giving is to be our love. 
I find the greatest sermon of all in John 3:16:
For God so loved the world He gave..."  
And I find the greatest explanation of that sermon in 2 Corinthians 8:9,
For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.
In 1930 up in Connecticut, a 19 year old boy was sent to prison for second-degree murder.  He was paroled in 1955, and settled in Williston, Florida.  He worked as a baker. 
About twenty years ago he gave his life savings to the Florida Sheriff's Boys Ranch at Live Oak.  Why?  He wanted to help steer boys away from the kind of trouble into which he’d fallen. 
His statement to the press was, I felt it was the most Christian thing I could do.  He will never see the faces of most of those boys, or know their names; but he loved them.  People's lives are affected by love.
It is a response of love, for a God who gave.
Today we celebrate deliverance.  Christ gave more than His life savings.  He went to a place called Golgotha to give us His best; there He cancelled for once and all time the debt of sin. 
And to all who will come to Him, calling on Christ for forgiveness and fellowship, He bids, Come.    
God loved us, so He gave us Jesus.  If we want to love Him, what shall we give? 
If you wrestle with that awhile – your heart will hear an answer from Heaven.

[1] Associated Press, "How Do You Spend $1.5 Billion a Year?" (6-27-06)

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