Reminder: we’ve moved!

This is just a reminder to anyone who follows or discovers this blog – – you can keep up with the Group Life blog from now on at

UPPC.org/blog

Blessings,

Mike

The Group Life Blog is moving!

It’s a new year, new teaching series, and the Group Life blog is moving to a new platform! You can find us at UPPC.org/blog.

The new page has no banner ads and is streamlined with the rest of our website. But don’t worry, you’ll still get a summary of Sunday’s teaching and some reflection questions to use in your small group, family, or other devotional time.

Blessings,
MM

Christmas on Location: The Temple Courts

PLEASE NOTE: THE GROUP LIFE BLOG WILL BE MIGRATING TO UPPC’S BLOG AS OF JANUARY 2020. PLEASE CONTINUE TO VISIT THE BLOG THERE!

The week or two after Christmas is always interesting. Some are relieved, while others are already excited for next Christmas! But all of us have to “go back to normal.” So it was also with the shepherds, who had to return to their fields after seeing the messiah. But they didn’t return unchanged — they praised God for what he had revealed to them!

Like the shepherds, we can return to our normal routines with praise and thanksgiving on our lips. Because the Christmas event is reminder that God is with us at all times, in all places, even the most ordinary! So we are invited, even beckoned, to seek God in our everyday, because with him we will find the purpose for our lives.

Luke is a master storyteller, and the first two chapters of his gospel sketch the outline for the rest of the story. This week, we looked at the final part of his outline — Jesus presented in the temple courts.

As we’ve journeyed through Christmas “on location” this year, you can note that the story begins and ends in the same place — Jerusalem, in the temple of the Lord. Luke is careful to also note that Mary and Joseph obey all the Jewish laws concerning childbirth (2:39). This setting concretizes who Jesus is and will become. But Jesus’ role as messiah will achieve victory for God’s people in a way that no one could see coming. No one, that is, except for Simeon.

One of the first, stunning features of Simeon’s song is that God intends the messiah for “all nations” as a light” to the Gentiles.” The Jewish people had every reason to believe that the messiah — a purely Jewish concept — was for their national benefit over against Rome or any other surrounding nation (note that the Greek for “Gentile” is ethnos from which we derive the word “ethnic.”) But Simeon’s prophecy here, which echoes much earlier prophecies even in our Old Testament canon, would still have been a reversal of the idea of messiah at the time.

Second, there is the troubling notion that Christ would cause the “falling” and not just rising of many in Israel, and that he would be spoken against. But mostly, that because of him, a “sword would pierce” his own mother’s heart. Not exactly what you want to hear on your firstborn’s big day at church.

Of course, the benefit of hindsight and the New Testament scriptures that follow help us understand that this falling, strife, and soul-piercing would be at least in part because of the upside-down method by which the messiah would win Israel’s victory — not by conquering suffering, but by joining it, and ultimately taking it onto himself.

Christmas on Location means that the arrival of the messiah (Greek, “Christ”) transforms the everyday lives of the entire world. It means that each of us can find the part that we are invited to play in the ongoing story of Christmas. It means that the Christmas story can be your story, too.

For reflection:
– When is the last time you actively inquired about the purpose of your life?
– Have you ever considered that you are being called to live out a specific role in God’s ongoing work (i.e. the story God is telling)?
– Do you believe that anyone, by God’s grace, can be part of God’s ongoing work (story) in the world? What assumptions does that statement challenge?
– How does it make you feel to consider that God is calling you to be part of his ongoing work (story) in the world? Is it scary? Exciting? Both? Other?

Christmas on Location: Magi

PLEASE NOTE: THE GROUP LIFE BLOG WILL BE MIGRATING TO UPPC’S BLOG AS OF JANUARY 2020. PLEASE CONTINUE TO VISIT THE BLOG THERE!

There are a lot of ways to experience the Christmas season, but perhaps the best is through the eyes of children. Youth minister Rob shared this morning some of his own good memories of Christmas, and now some of the ways his daughter is experiencing it, too. In the end, it’s all about how we respond to the season. In the biblical account of the events surrounding Christmas, there were two parties who had an equal opportunity to respond…but they responded in exactly opposite ways.

Matthew 2:1-12 record the visit of the Magi from the east. Many of us know of the “wise men” or the “three kings,” but the word “magi” is less familiar. In English it shares its root with “magic.” Elsewhere in the New Testament the same word translated “magi” here is translated “sorcerer!” Imagine that — sorcerers in the Bible!

What makes that word study relevant and frankly shocking is the revelation that the Christ child was not private business, intended only for the people already in covenant relationship with God. Rather, Christ came for the entire world, even those whom, in the view of first century Judeans, would be as far outside of God’s covenant community as possible. (There is a lot we can learn even from the motif of “east” as it’s used throughout the Old Testament and now alluded to here by Matthew.)

So the magi are the first “party” in this passage to have a chance to respond to the announcement that God has anointed a new king. And their famous response is to bring gifts, and of course, to worship the new king. And remember, they would not have known all the stories of the Jews, or the prophecies of the messiah. They were outsiders. And this is what makes the other party’s response ironic.

King Herod was actually not of Jewish descent but had been appointed king of Judea by Caesar. So not only did he not share their bloodlines, he was also in cahoots with their occupier, Rome. Moreover, Herod was paranoid and power hungry, even to the extent of putting three of his own sons to death to avoid dissent. Nevertheless, Herod represents someone with high status and power, who had license to do whatever he pleased throughout Judea. He was an insider. So much so that he got to define who the insiders and outsiders were in his region. His reaction to the newborn king is exactly the opposite of the magi, despite being an “insider.” Rather than worshiping Jesus, Herod plots to have him killed, to the dismay of many grieving parents later who lost their sons to his bloody decree.

There are many things we could make of the dichotomy between the magi’s and Herod’s responses to Jesus’ birth. Certainly one of the most obvious is to ask ourselves: “How will I respond?” Will you acknowledge Jesus’ kingship, worship him, give him your life, and trust that as your King he will preserve your life and show the way of living as you were meant to live? Or will you deny Jesus’ kingship, cling to your life, and trust only yourself to determine the life you should live?

Another challenge from this passage is for today’s “insiders,” i.e. the Church. We must consider whether or not we have the courage to let God offer Jesus to whomever God will, regardless of if they fit our paradigm for God’s people. Are there “sorcerers” in your neighborhoods, workplaces, even congregations, whom you can’t imagine God would include in the kingdom?

Finally, it is helpful to remember that God is already on the move. God invites his Church to participate in living and sharing the Gospel (“good news”) of Jesus, but God doesn’t “need” us, per se. So as the new year approaches, let us humbly respond to the ways God is already working in our midst to invite the world into a covenant relationship with Him.

For reflection:
– It is said that “power corrupts.” How does that sentiment influence your understanding of today’s story?
– Why is power such a temptation? Why is it so hard to relinquish power?
– PRAY: When you pray, consider asking God to show you your blind spots, i.e., the people whom you might otherwise not realize God loves and wants in the family of faith.
– STUDY JESUS: When you read the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), take it slow and meditate on the character of Jesus. Who were his friends? Who did he scold? In what ways did Jesus’ life reflect the great reversal of expectations we see in the magi’s visit?
– GIVE: Perhaps the most powerful way to experience the Holy Spirit in our midst is to give of ourselves. Where can your pour your treasure, time, and talent in this new year?

Blessings
MM

Christmas on Location: Mary & Joseph

This morning, Dec. 15, 2019, we had a blessed time of music at UPPC!  First and foremost of course we thank God for the people, place, and resources that make such a celebration possible!  If you missed it, you can watch the live stream on Facebook.

During this Advent season, we are contemplating “Christmas on Location,” the real place, people, and circumstances into which the messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, was born.  The lyrics of Michael W. Smith’s song “The Promise” beautifully remind us to “Fear not, oh Israel, for there is peace still to come.”  But it would take an arduous journey to get there.

Luke tells us about this journey.  The route Nazareth to Bethlehem is difficult to say the least.  Only 64 miles as the crow flies, the journey on foot would take 6-7 days due to rough terrain and elevation changes.  In the end, the road was over 100 miles long.  Can you imagine making the journey on foot, let along while pregnant?  The home stretch was perhaps the hardest, as Mary and Joseph would have to ascend from the area of the Dead Sea to Bethlehem, about 4000 feet of elevation gain.  

But they made it.  And once they were there the baby arrived.  The baby who would topple an empire.  The baby who would topple sin and death.  The baby who is the Son of the Most High God.  And yet, the baby born in humility and the reality of flesh and blood.

Jesus’ relatively unremarkable birth can be a source of comfort for so many of us.  Had he been born to royalty, wealth, or power, who could relate to him?  And who would believe he could understand us, most of whom exist in “humble estate.”  Even the Church in 20 centuries has, at times, become its own institution, whose customs are hard for most people to relate to.  If this is the case for you, then know this Christmas that amidst the many questions Christianity evokes, there is one thing you need to know: God came to us as a baby born to a young mother in a humble home.  This is how available Jesus still is.  He is both humble and powerful, strong in his meekness.  He is both majestically divine, and humbly human.  

This is what we all need to remember about who God is and the lengths Jesus would go to love us weary people.  He’s come so that you may know the purpose and meaning of your life.  He’s come to remind us that despite your holiday season anxiety, or the worries and fears that define so much of the world, Jesus is enough for us this December.  And every day.  Everything else can be imperfect, clunky, messy.  So this Christmas season, may your hearts be full of adoration for the newborn King of kings, who knows you by name and loves you so much.  

For reflection:
– What do you think would be the hardest part of Joseph and Mary’s journey?
– When you think of this chapter in the Christmas story (the journey to Bethlehem), what stands out to you the most?
– Do you believe that “Jesus is enough” for you this Christmas season?  Why or why not?
– For prayer: bring to Jesus those parts of your life which seem inadequate, incomplete, unsatisfactory.  Ask him to show you the ways that he is enough for you.

Christmas on Location: Nazareth

Do you believe God is still active in the world? Walter Brueggemann said: “Few of our people imagine God to be an active character in the story of their lives.” Many of us may believe in God. But there’s a lot of room within that phrase, to “believe in.” Does God exist, but removed from daily life? Is God occasionally involved? Or is God intricately involved in the world, even in ways we can’t always see?

This week, “Christmas on Location” moves from its starting point in the most common sense place — Jerusalem — to the least common sense — Nazareth. A village of only about 300 people, 64 miles north of Jerusalem, Nazareth was not remotely the kind of village any first century Jew would expect God to give life to his messiah. Moreover, to a teenage girl of the most ordinary status.

Mary’s obedient response to Gabriel’s news stands in stark contrast to Zechariah’s doubt. But it doesn’t mean she didn’t have a moment of pause. This was a real girl in a real village, and she was being given real, risky news. A new king? In Mary’s world, only one person got to choose who reigned as king, and that was Caesar. And it was common sense that Caesar had no intention of sharing his power.

In the Roman Catholic tradition, Mary is venerated as particularly holy; people even pray to her, and in some Catholic cultures Mary is at the forefront of the sanctuary while Jesus is in the margins. On the other hand, protestants sometimes fail to give Mary due credit. The truth is probably in between: Mary, like other human beings before her (Moses, David, Elijah, etc.) was an extraordinary person to whom God gave a special revelation, and through whom God brought forth a special grace. Don’t forget — Mary knew and eventually followed Jesus longer than any other disciple. But it doesn’t change the fact that Mary was as real as real gets.

When Pastor Aaron visited Nazareth last month, he was able to see the home which historians believe belonged to Mary and Joseph. It was a humble, small stone home (little larger than Yoda’s). No carbon scoring where Gabriel’s brilliance shone. No sense that Mary deserved special treatment.

So what do these ordinary people mean for us today?

It comes back to how you answer the question at the top: Do you believe God is still active in the world? Moreover, do you believe God can be active in the world through you?

And that question raises another: Are you, an ordinary person, willing to play your part in God’s extraordinary story? Could Mary have ever known the breadth of the impact that this moment with Gabriel would ultimately have? Even after having watched Jesus grow up, seeing him acquire followers and perform miracles…could she have known that 20 centuries later billions of people would still call Jesus “Lord?”

And the life of that extraordinary man, the Son of God incarnate, started with the obedience of an ordinary young woman. “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled.

For reflection:
– What stands out the most to you when you read this encounter between Gabriel and Mary?
– If you were Mary, how do you think you would react?
– Why do you think her hesitation isn’t considered doubt (as Zechariah had doubted in the previous story)?
– Where might God be calling you to be part of God’s story of redemption, right here in your ordinary, everyday life?

Blessings
MM

Photo: Hulki Okan Tabak, Unsplash

Christmas on Location: Jerusalem

Christmas is coming soon, but Dec. 1 was the first Sunday of Advent.  Advent basically means “Get ready, something is coming!”  It’s our opportunity to enter back into our spiritual ancestors’ experience of emptiness, silence, and waiting for generations for God’s Messiah, God’s “chosen king,” to bring a final peace and stability to the land.  

Speaking of “the land,” this year, we are having “Christmas on Location” in the holy land.  So, we’re going do some good ol’ fashioned learning as we also contemplate the meaning of Advent and Christmas.  We are going on a journey together to discover that what has become holiday sentiment for many of us, happened at a real time, to real people, in real places.

Luke’s account of the story (Luke 1:5-25) begins with “the time of Herod king of Judea.” It was a politically divided, tense, and violent time and place. Not exactly the way many of our Christmas stories are told.   But then the story takes a sharp turn!  In this corrupt and volatile place, “There was a priest” and his wife, both descendants of priests, and both seen as righteous in God’s sight.  These two are in stark contrast to King Herod.  But despite their righteousness, they were sadly unable to have children (see Elizabeth’s description of her experience in v. 25).

The temple was an enormous complex! The outer courts are where people would have been gathered to pray while Zechariah was inside the “holy place,” the temple itself (through the double doors in the middle).

The Incense Offering was given in the nave, which was adjacent to the holiest place, believed to house the real presence of God on earth. So, this was the closest Zechariah would ever get to God’s presence…or so he thought.

Priests function as mediators between God and people. But nevertheless, Zechariah is surprised when he has an divine encounter with the angel called Gabriel! The angel assures Zechariah that his prayer has been heard. We don’t know what prayer this means, but given God’s response to the prayer (v.13) I’m convinced it refers to Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s prayers to conceive a child.

Perhaps understandably, Zechariah has his doubts and asks for a sign. He is given one, though not one he might want — the inability to speak until the child was born.

And so, the beginning of the Christmas story, according to Luke, begins with emphasis on emptiness, silence, and waiting.

Emptiness: Earlier this week I asked the church staff to think of a time when emptiness is a good thing, and perhaps other times when it’s a bad thing.  (It’s good conversation starter over coffee, too).  For example, an empty stomach might be thought a bad thing — unless it’s the moment before you dig into a delicious Thanksgiving meal.  Then the emptiness makes the meal taste even better!   Surely it was painful for Z and E to have a home that was empty of children.  And I know that this part of their story resonates with the pain some of you have felt as you’ve longed for children, too.  But without minimizing their pain, this story is clearly telling us that their emptiness set the stage for the Christmas story, the arrival of the Messiah.  They became like their ancestors, Abraham and Sarah — miraculous parents whose child changed history.  They couldn’t have known that before today’s story.  But it would still happen.  It compels us all to consider how we might be experiencing emptiness this Christmas season. 

Silence:  Remember that as a priest, Zechariah’s job was to mediate God to the people.  Now, the people rightly concluded that he had a divine encounter.  But with the benefit of hindsight, I think there was much more to his silence than that.  This was the very beginning of God ushering in a new era, when God’s real, earthly presence would no longer need a human mediator.  In the language of the Message, an era when God, in Christ, would “move into the neighborhood.”  God’s presence would go from being mediated to being IM-mediate.  And what better way to demonstrate that immediacy than to silence this priest? We can only try to imagine how frustrating it would have been for Zechariah to be unable to speak, especially as they prepared for their firstborn.  Like emptiness, silence can be undesirable, even scary.  But it is usually what we need to be more aware of God.    

Waiting: We know that waiting was very familiar to these people.  Their ancestors waited to be saved from exile.  And they had been waiting ever since then for God to restore Israel.  They were agrarian and waited for their crops to grow and animals to mature.  The entire pace of life was slower than most of us can imagine as we have everything from air travel to Amazon.  But…we still have to wait for some things. Just last night, my mom, dad, wife and I were talking about how quickly time goes by.  But I remember one season that didn’t go by very quickly — about eight months of waiting for our daughter to be born.  Time has flown by ever since!  But those months were one of the most acute seasons of waiting I’ve ever had (I can only try to imagine what the waiting was like for my wife!)  I was excited and scared, and time just stretched on and on. It seemed like our daughter would never arrive!  But thank God for the waiting, because it allowed us to get ready (even though when she was born we didn’t feel ready!) Like Zechariah and Elizabeth’s experiences of emptiness and silence, this story compels us to ask about our own waiting this season.  700 years before today’s story, the prophet Isaiah gave God’s word to his people in exile: “They that wait on the LORD will renew their strength; they will fly with wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary; they will walk and not faint.”  

For Reflection:
Emptiness: In what ways is emptiness painful for you this season?  Acknowledge to God that your pain is real and needn’t be glossed over.  But at the same time, this story is a reminder that even our emptiness can set the stage for God to work, even in life-changing ways.
Silence: As the Christmas season begins, how do you feel about your experience of silence?  Does silence make you uneasy, or more calm?  Are your days already silent enough, and you’re excited to fill your ears with music, family, and friends?  Or are you in need of more silence, like Zechariah was, to become more aware of God in your midst?
Waiting: In what ways are you being forced to wait?  What are you waiting for? What are you going to do as you wait?  How will you spend that time? Does your waiting feel exciting, or burdensome? Or both?  What might the Holy Spirit be trying to tell you, or mature in you, during this season of waiting? 

Blessings this Advent,
MM

8 Reasons Why We Give

For centuries, people have longed to “meet with God.” But they were constantly on the move! So the LORD instructed them to build a “tabernacle,” or a mobile tent, in which God would dwell among them. You heard it right — God lived in a mobile home. But the time eventually came to build a permanent temple, and King David prayed to God about it in 1 Chronicles 29: 10-16. David’s prayer is an inspiration for how to think about what it means to give back to God. This week, Pastor Aaron outlined eight reasons why he and his family make a point to give a full tithe and offerings.

  1. We give because it is a reflection of our hearts. It can be hard or even impossible to see what’s really going on in someone’s heart. Now, giving gifts is actually some people’s love language. It might come easier for some than others. But the reason it is a love language is because it expresses the love that otherwise is hidden in one’s heart. And despite the ease with which we might be giving people, giving is part of our most elemental design as the only creatures on earth which are made in God’s very image. Our biological life may be the result of our natural birth, but our holistic being as creations of the Most High reflects God’s own being. So we have hearts that are wired to give.
  2. We give because it honors God’s name. Pastor Aaron mentioned that even though some people have been called to work as pastors, they’re no different than anyone else. That’s the truth! A person’s calling, even into vocational ministry, doesn’t automatically make that person do or feel things. We still have to make choices — hard choices, sometimes — in order to grow more and more like Christ, which is what we’re all called to. Aaron shared a story about a particularly wealthy friend who couldn’t imagine that God would ask him to give ten percent of his income (because it was so much money!) This friend seemed to think that there was a reasonable ceiling to the amount of “his” wealth with which he should honor God. Unfortunately, that friend passed away at a young age and wasn’t able to enjoy the wealth he had saved for himself. Consider what it means to honor God first with the wealth God has allowed us to enjoy.
  3. We give to God because God owns everything. Galations 2:20 reminds us that when we give our lives to Christ, we no longer live to ourselves, but we live to Christ. That is, our lives are so caught up in Him that we are, in a sense, lost into Christ. In fact, Paul’s favorite description for someone who followed Jesus was not to call them a “Christian,” but rather was to describe them as existing “in Christ” (the phrase appears 165 in Paul’s letters!)* And when we are “in Christ,” we can’t exclude certain parts of our life. To be “in Christ” means that our assets are also “in Christ.” And of course, Jesus knew that such a choice wouldn’t feel natural to us, so he promises most clearly that when we lose our lives for his sake we will find our lives — our true lives — even more abundantly!
  4. We give because it allows God to show up. God is at work in our world, and in your personal life. And giving allows us to see that work more clearly and even to participate in it! The fact is that God’s hands are the ones with power and authority, not ours. So why do we clutch so tightly to what we think is ours, when we’re hardly able to even use it in a way that has significant, not to mention eternal, impact? Now, some of you are gifted with making money. It comes naturally, you have ideas that tend to generate revenue, and/or you’re naturally interested in money-making ventures. That’s a gift! Even in the Bible, we know there were wealthy benefactors who supported the work of the apostles. So why not use the gift God gave you to create wealth and offer it back to God? Then you (and so many others) can see God transform it from mere dollars to lasting impact and changed lives.
  5. We give because we believe in the “we” over the “me.” Of the several ministries of the church that move us to communal thinking, the Cherish Ministry to Meru Kenya is one of the most visible. A family from Kenya became part of the UPPC community almost 20 years ago, and they brought their love for their home community with them. Thanks to them, Cherish has always been a partnership and its ministry relational. The dollars and cents simply help make it happen. But the communal nature of the ministry is the point, and the result has been hundreds of children who have been given an education and hope for the future.
  6. We give because we don’t want to be “takers” only. The Dead Sea is a strange place. It receives beautiful water from the north, but it has no outlet. So the water collects and becomes stagnant, gross, muddy, and of course salty. Its lack of outlet makes it lifeless. We all know the occasional “mooch” who doesn’t give but always finds a way to take. Do you want to be like that in the Kingdom of God? When I diagnose my life in terms of giving, if I find that I’m taking more than I’m giving (don’t worry about the math, think of it in qualitative terms) then I might find myself feeling lifeless. NOTE: There are seasons in life when we truly have need! And God knows it, and God is more than willing to give! The principle of not “being a taker” applies to the whole of our lives, even though sometimes we need to be “takers” of God’s grace.
  7. We give a tithe (10% of income) because the needs in our church are bigger than our personal preferences. If I gave only to ministries that I “like” then I’ve reverse the proper order of things. Am I, after all, the creator of the church, or its sustainer? More than that, other people in the congregation prefer ministries that I don’t. So preferential giving also sets us up for competition with our sisters and brothers, and that never ends well. Finally, Pastor Aaron mentioned that in 25 years of ministry, he has never seen anyone prefer the ministry of toilet paper or electric bill! But think about it — without those unattractive but necessary expenses, would we be able to welcome the stranger, show love to kids, and so on? Instead of placing conditions on our giving, are you willing to challenge yourself to entrust your gift to God, and then be active in nominating and electing elders from the congregation to prayerfully discern how to use the collected tithes of the people? (For more info about Presbyterian leadership and polity, email Aaron or Mike — it’s more interesting than it initally sounds!)
  8. We give because the real treasure is coming. Don’t miss Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, because you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as reward.” This is no pie-in-the-sky hope for heaven only. Nor is it a sneaky gnostic view of the world, disdaining the material here-and-now for the sake of a heavenly then-and-there. Rather, it is reminder of the Biblical view of the world’s destiny — that the God who created it and has sustained it will also bring it to completion, without sin or death. There is a glorious day coming. And all our giving throughout our life will pay off when the living God makes all things new.

For reflection
– Do you find yourself still fighting skepticism about how the Church uses the funds people entrust to it? What will you do to respond to your skepticism?
– Do you find yourself needing more reasons than we’ve given in the last three weeks to understand the spiritual nature of giving? What questions remain?
– Are you willing to engage Pastors Aaron or Mike with your questions? We’re just an email away.
– If you have challenged yourself to give sacrificially and experienced God’s generosity and freedom as a result, WE WANT TO HEAR YOUR STORY! Please email Pastor Mike at mmoffitt@uppc.org or comment below to share.

In Grace,
MM

*Figure taken from Julie Canlis, “The Bible’s Description of Salvation is a Phrase We Rarely Use,” Christianity Today, January 2019.

A Biblical Roadmap when Everyone Else is Lost

Gotta love those prophets. Prophets in the Bible were those people whom God chose to communicate God’s messages to people. Sounds like an honor, right? But God’s word to the people was often difficult to hear. The message through Malachi was no exception, but the tough truth from God is essential to our understanding of the deep and transformative purpose of tithing. A “tithe” denotes the first 10% of one’s income, dedicated to God’s work, and entrusted to the organization of leaders to be used in ministry to the community. (By the way, about trusting leaders — corruption among religious leaders has been around from the earliest times, and ancient people had even more reason to be skeptical of religious leaders misusing their tithes. But rather than letting this skepticism hamstring your giving, note the intense scrutiny of God over priests in Mal. 2:1-2).

But having been returned from exile in Babylon, God’s covenant people returned to their unjust ways, especially regarding their wealth. They gave to God only what was left over, rather than the first and best tenth of what God had given them. Now, don’t let this command to give cloud your theology. God didn’t need their money: “Why should I want your blue-ribbon bull, or more and more goats from your herds? Every creature in the forest is mine…” (Ps. 50:9-10 MSG). But God designed his people to be a blessing to the nations, and part of that meant collecting, storing, and distributing the shared wealth of the community so everyone would flourish. But that wasn’t happening, because the people’s gifts were paltry, and because the leadership lacked integrity.

The people’s attitude toward God became so arrogant that they even claimed it was “futile to serve God.” What was their evidence? That sometimes things seem unfair. Do you see how people place themselves on the throne of judgment, as the gatekeepers of what God should and should not be doing? When we try to be the lords and masters of our gifts to God, they are no longer gifts to God, but rather an indirect means for feeding our hidden greed.

But God’s people are called to first honor God’s name. This is not some kind of “ancient” idea. We honor people’s names all the time. Pastor Aaron told a story of one of his kids wanting a Seahawks jersey, but specifically one with the #3 on it and the name “Wilson” on the back. This is a way of honoring someone’s name! We honor other names, too, from celebrities to internet personalities, to corporate names like Apple and Costco. We honor these names with our wealth. And while God may not need us to share our wealth, our communities do. And when we entrust our tithe to God’s storehouse, and when the “priests” (in the Reformed tradition, the pastors and elected church leaders) then God is honored.

Dear Younger Me: Don’t believe the myth that you are the final authority over your belongings. Experience the freedom that comes in letting go of your first 10% and entrusting it into God’s hands. Here are two principles to guide you along the way:

  1. Take seriously God’s lordship over your income. This has nothing to do with financial management; it’s a relational step you must take in your relationship with God if you are to experience freedom in your giving.
  2. Feel free to test God’s faithfulness by stretching your giving beyond your own comfort and experiencing how God comes through and provides for you.

For reflection:
– What seems like a reasonable percentage of your income to entrust to the ministry of the Church? Does 10% seem high, low, or just right?
– Consider what percentage of your income you entrust to the ministry of the Church. In what ways is it challenging to do that? In what ways has it been freeing?
– Consider what percentage of your income would be an emotional or financial challenge for you to give. What amount would require you to trust?
– God welcomes us to test him in this particular area. How could you plan to stretch your giving in a way that helps you be on the lookout for God’s activity in your life?
– How much an individual or household can give is relative to your particular circumstances, rather than on a formula. That said, can you avoid using that relativity as an excuse and instead be honest about your spending and consider whether or not you’re giving to God’s ministry what God is worthy of?

Blessings,
MM

You Feed Them, There is Enough

I’m not sure when the “holiday season” starts these days. Is it mid-September when I actually saw Christmas items on some store shelves? Or maybe right after Halloween? In any case, it’s probably by the time Starbucks releases their long-awaited holiday-themed merch. When the holiday season does finally begin, two things come to my mind: meals and giving. In both cases, whether we’re hosting a meal or preparing gifts, we naturally ask our selves the question: “Is this enough?

That question has permeated all of human history, including the history told in the Bible. And far too often, the world seems to shout back at us, “No! There’s isn’t enough!” And this is what makes Jesus’ life so baffling. In particular the fateful evening when he fed thousands of people using only enough for a few.

Having just been given the news of his cousin’s brutal and unjust execution, Jesus retreats, no doubt to grieve. But his grief would have to wait as thousands of needy people call on him. Led by compassion, he serves them until nightfall, when his friends state the obvious: they’re hungry, so let them go get dinner. Jesus’ responses are legendary:
“You give them something to eat.”
Surely in some disbelief, they remind him they have only enough for themselves. Then his second response:
“Bring it here to me.”

The rest is, as they say, history. So what was Jesus seeing that the disciples weren’t able to see? In short, that God created a world in which there is enough. The key is learning to experience it, and then give it away.

Jesus’ view of the world apparently resembles the Genesis 1-2 world: a world of overabundant resources, given by a loving Father. But that view was corrupted when the man and woman were deceived by the serpent. Remember, his deceptions were not generic, but rather laser-focused. First, he would plant the seed of mistrust: “Did God really say you could not eat…?” When that fails, he would plant the seed of envy: “That’s just because God didn’t want you to actually be in charge, to actually have the final say in your own life. I thought he put you in charge, but I guess not…” Mistrust and envy make a wicked fruit, and human beings have been eating it ever since.

But Jesus insists on undoing those lies and showing people the greater truth–a truth that will set us free from mistrust and envy, free to give of the overabundance of God’s world … free to give as God gives. Here are six basic principles I’ve gleaned out of today’s story, and the Bible overall:

Our Creator provides what we need. I know it sounds too simple, but this is where it starts.  This is step one in telling the serpent to slither away! But do we really live like we believe it?  Do we live like God will provide despite the circumstances, like he did through Jesus and Moses before him — bread to a hungry people in a remote place?  (If you noticed that coincidence, good job; you’re supposed to notice it!) 

Our Creator provides differently than the world expects. God might give us SOMETHING quite different than what we expected.  How many testimonies include the phrase, “I never expected this to happen, but…” God might give TO SOMEONE who is different than we expected.   Finally, the toughest one: God might give to someone MORE OR LESS than he gives you.  Part of trusting God is refusing to judge what God gives, and to whom he gives it.

Our Creator does not guarantee that we’ll understand his provision. Back to the garden we go!  The sin Adam and Eve commit is grounded in the hubris that comes with insisting that the Creator of the cosmos operate only at a level that we understand, or even more, that we approve of!  But a so-called “god” whom I can fully comprehend is truly just a figment of my imagination.  

Our Creator does guarantee that we will be an instrument for his provision. Yes, there is an intentional similarity between God provided bread in the desert with Moses and bread in this remote place with Jesus.  But there is one crucial difference. In the Sinai desert, the manna appeared each morning on its own.  But in the new covenant, the bread doesn’t just appear. God’s people give their own, and God multiplies it.  Same God, same gift — new method. Why would God choose this method?

Our Creator does not need our money, but insists on our trust. In the words of Bono, “The God I believe in isn’t short of cash, mister.”  Of course he isn’t.  What God desires from us is our heart.  The greatest commandment is not “Love the Lord with all your money.”  It is, “Love the Lord with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength.” But here’s the thing.  The one who created our heart, mind, soul, and strength, knows exactly what guides them. And so Jesus taught… 

Our Creator gave us hearts that go where our treasure is. Note the order.  Most fundraisers will try to appeal to your heart, so that you will then send your treasure that way.  But Jesus teaches the opposite. Your treasure doesn’t go where your heart is — your heart goes wherever you send your treasure.  

You want to invest your heart in things that pass away?  So did Adam and Eve. But if you want to invest in that which will never pass away; if you want to take part in miracles; then listen to Jesus, as he says “Bring what you have to me.”  And watch him multiply it, not only for others, but your transformation as well.

For reflection:

  • Make a simple, bullet-pointed list of that which God has provided for you. Include material and non-material provision. Does anything surprise you?
  • Of that which God has given you, what can be used to provide for those around you? Again, include material and non-material things.
  • God calls us to be wise stewards of what we’re given. Are you giving to others (church, charity, etc.) in a way that you feel is wise?
  • The feeding of the give thousand also calls us to be ready to give in a way that feels risky, even ridiculous. Do you ever give in a way that feels like this?
  • What is one thing you could do to take a step out of “safe giving” and toward faith-informed “risky giving?”
  • If your heart goes where your treasure is, do you manage your wealth in a way that directs your heart toward God, what God cares about, and God’s promise to take care of you?
  • What is the interplay between providing for yourself, providing for your loved ones, providing for others in need, and relinquishing control of all your providing in the hands of God?