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?

Moses: Water, Whiners, and ‘What is it?’

Oh boy — this scripture seemed pretty straightforward at first, but as I delved into it I discovered so many treasures! Let’s jump in…

The Israel-ites (that is, descendants of “Israel,” a.k.a. Jacob) are safe. Phew! God has rescued them from certain death at the hands of Pharaoh and/or drowning in the Red Sea. Moreover, God has provided for them for the last month and a half in the wilderness. He purified water for them, will teach them so they can live disease-free, and led them to an oasis (Exodus 15:22-27). But here’s the thing about hunger — today’s hunger makes yesterday’s food seem a long, long way off.

The Israelites’ anxieties rise back up to the surface in an irrational accusation that Moses and Aaron have fooled them and are planning to kill them all (Ex. 16:3) And God answers their anxiety with still more provision! He will “rain down bread from heaven” he promises. And there are three reasons for his provision that we can learn from this passage.

  1. God provides in order to test us. This is not quite as “lovey-dovey” as I would have hoped. It’d be nice to read something like “I will provide because y’all are just so awesome.” But that’s not the first reason God gives. He provides for them to “see whether they will follow my instructions, or not” (16:4). While it might not look good on a Hallmark card, it does make sense. Whenever we’re given resources, we have a responsibility to consider how to use them. It’s like when I got my first credit card — would I spend within my means? Or would I test the limits? The choice is ours.
  2. God provides in order for us to know him. The Hebrew word for “knowledge” (yada‘) refers to a whole-self kind of knowledge that includes intellectual awareness, but especially experiential knowledge that we gain as a process. In fact, it’s ironic that God wants them to “know,” and their response to the gift (manna) is “What is it?” They don’t “know”! But God doesn’t need them to “know” what it is. God wants them to gather it, eat it, and live! Their “knowledge” of God will result from putting their faith into action, regardless of their understanding.
  3. God provides in order to sustain us. Thank God that he knows how we are formed; he remembers that we are dust (Ps. 103:14). And what provision! The Israelites are afraid that everyone will die, but God’s response is that “Everyone is to gather as much as they need” (16:16). Not only would they get enough, but it would also be tasty! The manna was said to have tasted like honey. And meat? What an indulgence! Throughout history, only the privileged get meat. But here, this ragtag group will eat the same abundance they ate in Egypt, but with an added treat — FREEDOM.

For Reflection:
– Describe a time when you felt God had provided for you. What did God provide? Was it enough?
– When God provides for us, how might we “take the test” and use that provision to follow in his instruction?
– Describe a time when you felt pangs of need. What did you need? How did that need make you feel?
– When you’re waiting on God to provide, how might you remain open-minded to the notion that God’s provision might perplex you, (that is, make you say “What is it?”)
– Are you willing to be perplexed in your walk of faith? Willing to lack understanding but follow Jesus’ anyway?

Many blessings,
MM

Moses: By Faith

Our Lent series on repentance led us to Easter, where Jesus’ resurrection promises the forgiveness of sins, but also the believer’s entry into an entirely new world. So it’s fitting now to begin a new teaching series on Moses, who is perhaps most famous for his role in leading the Hebrews to a new land.

The New Testament book called “Hebrews” helps Christians understand our faith in the much, much broader context of the stories of “the ancients” — our predecessors in faith. In particular, Hebrews 11:23-29 recounts some of the most memorable moments of Moses’ life of faith. But many of us have not taken much time to consider what the ancients have to teach us. Rather, the modern mindset is often reversed, beholden to the assumption that what is younger and newer has more to offer than what is older and time-tested. This reversal of logic is fed by the ubiquitous consumerism in which we live, which preaches that it’s our right to have our unique needs met, and it’s our right to have whatever is new and updated.

Still, we know what it means to recognize the impact of those who have gone before us — those who had to live by faith in a future they would never see. Consider the experience of looking through an old family photo album. These aren’t just people in weird clothes or with odd hairstyles. You’re looking into the eyes of our mothers and fathers, our recent ancestors who were then experiencing as much uncertainty (or more) as we are now. Reading stories of the ancients is like looking at the family photo album of our faith. And Moses is in a lot of the photos.

Moses’ faith was so influential that he is one of only two people who lived during the Old Testament period and then also appear in the New Testament, when Jesus meets with him and Elijah on the mount of transfiguration. Moses’ faith was so influential that Jewish people to this day retell the story of the exodus from Egypt, which Moses led under God, during Passover. Moses’ faith was so influential that it helped him persevere being hotly pursued by the most powerful army in the world. Moses’ faith was so influential that thousands were saved from bondage, thousands would come to know themselves as God’s people, and eventually through Christ countless billions through the centuries would become adopted daughters and sons of the most high God and be set free from the bondage of sin and death.

And ironically, Moses didn’t even physically make it to the land God promised his people.

For the next 17 weeks, we’re going to journey with Moses. We’re going to see what his story can tell us about our own stories, how his faith sets the stage for our faith, and how his life became the archetype for Jesus, who is the “pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

For reflection:
– Can you think of something an ancestor of yours did that you still benefit from? (Example: a great-grandparent that immigrated to the U.S.)
– Can you think of something you are doing now that is setting the stage for a future you may never see?
– When you think of Moses, what are the first things that come to mind?
– When you think of Moses, does anything distasteful or unpleasant come to mind?
– What does it mean to you, to “live by faith?”

Many blessings,
MM