My M&M message, part two

Yesterday, I posted part one of my M&M message. Here’s part two. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, click here, and at least read the intro I did there. Go ahead; we’ll still be here when you get back.

Okay, at this point, if you’re still reading, I’m going to assume you know what’s going on here. So, without further adieu, here’s part deux of my M&M message:

In Malachi 3.7, we read the challenge to return to God, and it ends with a question from the people: How can we return to God?

Great question. The magazine Christian Century describes how one guy tried to answer that question: when his church closed and the building was sold and became a pizza joint, the pizza place kept some of the old pews, and used them. One night, this guy walks into the restaurant, and goes over to one of the pews. He picks it up, and says, This is my pew – and he walks out with it.

There’s a guy who wanted to return to church by returning church to him. But that’s not what God says through Malachi. In response to the question: How should we return, listen to how God responds in Malachi 3.8.

The question of returning to God is quickly described as one of robbing God. How’s that, God? they ask. And God answers in Malachi 3.8b-12.

The situation of the people in Malachi’s day is such that things aren’t looking good; the economy is bad; returning from exile isn’t all they thought it would be. So, when the people are looking in their wallets, most weeks they’re thinking: I don’t FEEL like giving today; things are just too difficult.

But, God is calling them to live life, not based on feelings, but faith. And so, God says to them: Trust me – in fact, go a step further: TEST Me – by giving what I’ve asked you to give, the tithe.

What’s the tithe? Well, tithe just means “tenth.” And in the OT, in Leviticus 27.30-33, and Deuteronomy 14.22-29, the Israelites are commanded to bring a tenth to God. For them, as people who lived off the land, this involved a tenth of their crops and herds, brought before God. (Imagine how big the offering plates must have been….)

But the purpose of the tithe was an act of worship. Their tithe was to be used as a meal in the temple, one that the Levites could share, since the Levites who worked in the temple didn’t have land or income.

But there’s another essential element to the tithe. We see it in Deuteronomy 14.28-29.

The tithe was worship; but it was also provision for those in need. And so, when God says in Malachi that when the people don’t bring their tithe, they are robbing God – what God is really saying, I think, is that when we refuse to help people in need, we are turning our back not just on those in need, but God.

And so, when God says in Malachi, Test me and see if I don’t provide, He’s not saying: Give so your life can be more comfortable. This is where so many preachers and teachers get it wrong. God isn’t saying: Give, and I’ll give you more. Give so that you might be comfortable, or happy, or secure.

God is saying: Trust me. When you provide for those in need – when you sacrifice so that others, who have less, can be blessed – you can trust Me to take care of you.

In other words, what God is saying is: Live by Faith. GIVE by faith. And every time God’s people give generously, they are saying: God, we trust you to provide for others, and for us.

That’s great. But we don’t give cows or corn; so what does Malachi mean for followers of Jesus?

Well, as with everything we read in the OT, we need to turn to the New Testament to help us understand what it means for us today. Look at what it says in 2 Corinthians 8.1-7.

Paul is clearly using the Macedonians as an example. First, they give themselves to the Lord, and then to the needs of people. They are so fully trusting in God that they insist on giving, even when have so little – because they understand that a life that belongs to Jesus holds nothing back.

So, it’s interesting that when Paul talks about giving, he doesn’t require tithing. In fact, there’s only one time that I know of where tithing is mentioned in the NT as an example. It’s in Luke 11.42 (parallel: Mt 23.23), when Jesus says to the religious leaders: You tithe down to the smallest plant, and that’s good – but you neglect the weightier matters: justice and love of God. Jesus says: tithing is good, but it’s not just about what you give; it’s gotta start in the heart.

And so, the challenge in the NT for us, the followers of Jesus, is to let our giving reflect our desire for God’s justice and love to reach ALL people. And when that’s our goal, why we EVER consider nickel-and-diming God? How can we, the people of God, be anything BUT generous, when our God has been so graciously generous with us?

I read recently that we as Americans spend 11 billion dollars on bottled water, every year. Even more amazing: that’s about the amount it would take to bring clean water to all the people of the world who need it.

If that’s true of water/water, what about Living Water? If $10 billion would get everyone clean water, it’s estimated that only $1 billion is needed to provide for those who are taking the gospel to every area of the globe. And when you put that alongside the reality that we, as Christians, are giving, on average 2.5% of our income to God’s work – then, you don’t have to be Warren Buffet, to realize: the opportunity to bring water, and living water, to the world, is in my pocket, and yours.

The question of Malachi is still valid – where each one of us who follows Jesus, needs to ask ourselves: Am I robbing God? The money God would use to spread his love, and meet needs from Mt Washington to the Middle East to most forgotten of this world – the money God would use is in your hands, and mine.

So, I believe that the NT does not lay down a legalistic amount we have to give; instead, it offers this simple invitation: Give, as has been given to you. And when we truly experience the grace of Jesus, we recognize that everything we are, and everything we have, is an opportunity to bless others.

And for some of us, 10% is a simple, clear plan and path for giving. But, as my friend Ben says, if that seems unattainable to you, or too Old Testament for you, then pray: God, what would generous giving look like for me?

Then, listen. And plan your giving – because you won’t consistently give as an act of faith unless you plan it.

And most of all: Trust. Live and Give by faith. Because, you see, money is ultimately not just about money. What you do with your Money is ultimately one of the most important ways you answer THE most important question: Who do I really trust?

My M&M Message, part 1

This past Sunday, I did something I’ve never done before – and may never do again. I gave my church an opportunity to choose the sermon. The text for the day was the book of Malachi, and two key themes jumped out at me: Money & Marriage. And since I like to focus my message on one key, over-arching idea, I pondered how to tackle both.

And then I decided I would give people the choice. So, I prepared for both messages, and at the appropriate time, I asked them to vote by raising their hands. At first service, the consensus was money. So we tackled that. At second service, the vote was closer. In fact, we did a “re-canvass” – having folks raise their hands a second time. There seemed to be a few more votes for marriage, so that’s what we went with. (I must also admit that I wanted to do marriage, since I hadn’t covered it yet – and so, in a close vote, I was inclined to lean in the marriage direction.)

So, I guess you could say Sunday was my first – and probably only – M&M Message. Money first, then Marriage. At each service, I promised the folks that I would post the message they didn’t get to hear, in case they didn’t get the message they chose. So, this week I am blogging twice – a reworked version of my messages on marriage and money.

We see this addressed in Malachi 2.10-12, where Malachi addresses men who have chosen to marry women who worship other gods. Malachi, and God, call attention to the casual nature in which some of the Israelite men are marrying; partnering with those who don’t know and worship the One True God.

It was a big deal in Malachi’s day; it’s still important, today.

So, the first challenge here is for young people, or any who might be thinking of marriage, to remember: the most important trait isn’t: a guy with a good job, or nice hair; a girl with a great body, or who laughs at all your jokes. What you need for the journey is a person of faith, who will walk with you, not against you.

The New Testament picks up this theme in 2 Corinthians 6.14. Marriage is designed by God as journey of two people, seeking to follow Jesus, together. And so, if you are single & hoping to get married, what kind of marriage you will have is already beginning to be determined by the standards you set before you say yes to that first date

But what if you are married to someone who doesn’t share your faith, or at least your level of commitment? 1 Corinthians 7.12-15 gives us some insight here.

If you are married to someone who doesn’t share your faith, or trust in God – don’t run, don’t shun, and certainly don’t nag, but nurture. Don’t annoy, encourage. Love, serve … and let your faith in Jesus, be a light to your spouse and your family.

Malachi then turns to address another issue, Divorce. But before he brings up the D word, he brings up the P word: Prayer. Take a look at Malachi 2.13-16.

Malachi asks: Do you wonder why your prayers feel like they’re bouncing off the ceiling? It starts at home, he says – it’s because you are not being faithful in your marriage.

In the OT, only the man could get a divorce; the wife had no say in the matter. And Divorce came pretty easily. Deuteronomy 24.1-4 says the husband basically has to give his wife a letter of divorce. But Malachi says: this is not God’s ultimate will for you, or for marriage. Marriage is a partnership, a covenant before God, to walk together through life.

And so, if you are married and you are seeking to honor God in that marriage, the first thing you need to remember is that you have made a commitment to Jesus, and to your spouse, to be partners in life. And it grieves God when we GIVE UP on our marriages, when, instead, we should be GIVING THEM UP to God.

Men: if you are married, your first responsibility to Jesus is to love your wife; to care for her and give your life for her as Christ gave his life for the church.

Women: if you are married, your first responsibility to Jesus is to love your husband; to partner with him in a way that allows your home to be a light to others.

And I wonder: how many of us are striving so hard to be successful at work or in the community, while at the same time settling for mediocrity at home? How many of us know more about our favorite sports team or what’s happening on facebook, than we know about our spouse’s heart?

Let’s go a little further. In a culture where marriage and sex and relationships are rapidly being redefined, how are we as Christians living differently?

  • Well, when feelings determine how long our marriages last, not our faith; we’re not.
  • When we live together, disregarding God’s plan for faithfulness & sexual union; we do look just like the world.
  • And when we let porn, or emotions, or flings come between us and our spouse; then we’re agreeing with the world: That’s just the way things are today.

Now, some of you are saying “Amen.” And some of you might be saying “Ouch.” And maybe some of you even want to ask me: Who are you to judge?

But the prophets, of which Malachi is one, specialize in Truth. And often, Truth is hard, and hard to hear. But remember: it’s truth given because God loves them, loves YOU. And the reason the prophets point to truth is because truth is the only thing that sets us free.

And so, the big picture we see here in Malachi is that God is grieved at the way we, His people, sometimes treat sex and marriage – not because he is a fussy or prudish God, but because he loves us, and calls us to honor him, and follow him, and Trust him, in the most important areas of our lives.

So, let me offer this humble suggestion: if you’re married, don’t expect marriage to be your savior, or your spouse to meet all your needs. Your spouse is, instead, an imperfect partner on a long journey. There will be bumps on the way, wrong turns, and maybe even long periods of boredom and monotony. But, as the writer Maggie Gallagher notes, there are two ways to approach a marriage:

  • One says: ‘you’re mine because I love you’
  • The other says: ‘I love you because you’re mine’

Do you see the difference? The first says: “You’re mine if I feel like I love you.” Any one want to guess how long those relationships/marriages last?

But the other says: “I choose to love you because you are mine.” I am committed to making a life with you because of the covenant we both have made before God, to each other.

What symbolizes 50 years of marriage? It’s gold, of course. And it’s appropriate that fifty years is symbolized by something solid, precious, beyond value.

William Bennett describes going to a wedding where the couple changed the vow from ‘As long as we both shall LIVE’ to ‘As long as we both shall LOVE’. Bennett said he gave them paper plates as a wedding gift. He was kidding … I think.

But that leads to a great question: If you are married, or will be: Do you want a paper marriage, or a golden one?

A paper one? It folds, it crumbles, it gets discarded when the first sign of stress comes along.

But a golden one; it builds on the foundation of God’s love, where two people do the hard work, daily, of building their lives together on that love. A golden one is where a man and a woman choose, not always what they feel to be true, but what they KNOW to be true – that God is faithful to those who walk faithfully with him. And so, as a couple, they do the hard work of building a life together. They learn to say things like: “I’m sorry” and “I’m ready to listen” and “We need to pray” and “I love you” and, if necessary: “We need to get some help.”

That’s what a golden relationship looks like; it’s not perfect. Instead, it’s 2 people walking together, through the rough and tumble of life, one day at a time.

So, what kind of relationship are YOU working on? Paper, or gold?

The last thing I want to say: is a word of grace. When it comes to relationships, we’ve all stumbled. Every one of us have messed up at love. And some of us, have not simply messed up – we’ve done a face plant, leaving pain and agony in our wake. Others of us, meanwhile, have been messed over by someone we loved, and we’ve been left to deal with the broken pieces.

And so, the last word on marriage and relationships is one of grace. ALL of us need the word, whether we’ve merely stumbled, or we’ve fallen off the cliff. But no matter what you have been through, there’s grace. With Jesus. And with His church.

You can’t change the past, but you CAN let grace change the future. For Jesus offers grace, right where you need it most, when you turn and trust him – in marriage, in relationships, in life.

For I was a stranger, & you welcomed me

On a trip to Jordan a few years back, I was able to accompany some local workers as they visited with Syrian refugees. The refugees lived where they could, with what they had. I remember going to visit one family, who lived in the basement of an unfinished home. The main floor opened to the sky, but at least the basement provided shelter. So this refugee family of maybe 10 or 12 (as best I can recall) called this place “home.” (And they had a TV in their “home” – and the kids were watching Tom & Jerry. Some things are universal, I guess.)candy

Even so, as we visited refugee families in less-than-ideal living conditions, without fail, they welcomed us. Warmly. Whatever they had to drink, they brought out. Though these folks had next-to-nothing, they shared whatever they had with us. They were people in need who we were there to help, and they were opening their lives to us. They were the refugees, but still I was the guest and they were the hosts. (Although, I did get to pass out candy to the kids. That was fun, cuz what kid doesn’t like candy?)

Three reasons this comes to mind this week.

One, this past Monday was World Refugee Day – a day to ponder and reflect on the plight of 21 million people in the world who are refugees. Today. Right now. 21 million! And more than half of those are children. Each day, nearly 34,000 people are forced to flee their homes because of conflict or persecution. That is approximately 1 1/2 times the population of Fern Creek, where I serve – uprooted from their homes. Every day!

But World Refugee Day isn’t just a day to think about this great need – it’s also an opportunity for us to say: How might God use me in this? 

Which leads to the second thing I want to share. Some of these refugees are coming to Louisville. Some are already here. Fern Creek Christian, where I serve, is exploring ways to welcome these folks, and love them in Jesus’ name. So, maybe God would lead you to beyond pondering or posturing – to loving. A great way to start would be reading these two articles, which help put a human face on the refugee crisis: this shorter article from the Washington Post, and this longer article from a Christian perspective.

Finally, in light of my experience in Jordan with Syrian refugees, I can’t help but reflect on our common humanity. Most people in the world want many of the same things I want: peace, a decent job, and the opportunity to raise our families in a safe place. Most people don’t want to kill anybody – whether those “anybodies” are Christians, or Muslims, or LGBT folks.

There are plenty of people who use awful events like Orlando to advance their own agendas – agendas that are often about division, or fear, or isolation. Instead, let me encourage you to respond the opposite way – by asking God: How would you use me to love those who are different from me – whether they be on the other side of the world, on the other side of a political spectrum, or just on the other side of the street?