Saturday, August 10, 2013

How Far Can We Trust God?


Scripture Reading: Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old--and Sarah herself was barren--because he considered him faithful who had promised.
Therefore from one person, and this one as good as dead, descendants were born, "as many as the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore." All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

Gospel Reading: Luke 12:32-40
"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
"Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. "But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

“How Far Can We Trust God?”

     The typical church stewardship campaign starts sometime in October. So, when you return to your home church you will probably start to hear pleas to increase your giving and some of them may use this week’s gospel reading as a starting point because it speaks about where you keep your treasure.

      I don’t ask that you give your tithes and offering here so don’t get the idea that I’m trying to get into your pockets.  I do, however, encourage you to support your home church financially or a faith-based charity.  Giving is one of the ways that we express our faith in God. But it is not all about "giving to the local church budget." This type of giving is about a life that flows with giving, always, everywhere, and always ready to give more.

     This week, we hear blessings found in lives that, through faith, accept God’s promises.  This week’s gospel reading begins with a word of comfort to those who have heard the warning about desiring more. "Don’t be afraid, little flock. Your Father is pleased to give you the kingdom!"

     Letting go of desiring more and endless acquisition can be fearful. Those who advocate or are supported by that ideology will offer dire warnings about your fate if you leave it. We live in a consumer based society, after all. We are constantly bombarded with the idea that we have to have the newest whatzit. After all it will make us smarter, better looking and highly attractive to the opposite sex.

     No fear, Jesus said. No fear. Letting go, selling your possessions and giving alms, keeping a purse as a temporary storage bin for resources almost immediately flowing out to others—these are the ways of the kingdom of God. When your spread your treasure to all who need it more, you show your heart is fixed on the kingdom of God.

     Jesus does not address the issue of income directly. Of course, we must have a source of income in order to become a source of outflow. The difference is how we approach the purpose of income. In the way of the world, the purpose of income is to have more resources for oneself. In the way of the kingdom of God, the purpose of improving income is to be able to share more resources with others.

     This principle is not completely foreign to the expectations of our world for some enterprises, at least. We expect charity organizations to give as much as they can to the causes for which they were founded. We expect "charities" to live by the "kingdom way." How are we doing living this way ourselves? (We all have room for improvement here!). And what are we doing to actively encourage one another to live primarily as "charities", not as entrepreneurs out for themselves, but as stewards of the gifts of others committed to, "Having, First, gained all you can, and, Secondly saved all you can, Then "give all you can.".

     That is a quote from the founder of Methodism, John Wesley in one of his sermons. Wiser, more thoughtful men than I have tackled this subject of faith through giving. The challenge at the end of his sermon is compelling. The language is outdated but the truth in it lives on.

“Brethren, can we be either wise or faithful stewards unless we thus manage our Lord's goods? We cannot, as not only the oracles of God, but our own conscience beareth witness. Then why should we delay? Why should we confer any longer with flesh and blood, or men of the world? Our kingdom, our wisdom is not of this world: Heathen custom is nothing to us. We follow no men any farther than they are followers of Christ.

Hear ye him. Yea, to-day, while it is called to-day, hear and obey his voice! At this hour, and from this hour, do his will: Fulfill his word, in this and in all things! I entreat you, in the name of the Lord Jesus, act up to the dignity of your calling!

No more sloth! Whatsoever your hand findeth to do, do it with your might!

No more waste! Cut off every expense which fashion, caprice, or flesh and blood demand!

No more covetousness! But employ whatever God has entrusted you with, in doing good, all possible good, in every possible kind and degree to the household of faith, to all men! This is no small part of "the wisdom of the just."

Give all ye have, as well as all ye are, a spiritual sacrifice to Him who withheld not from you his Son, his only Son:

So "laying up in store for yourselves a good foundation against the time to come, that ye may attain eternal life!"

     Unless we are faithfully living the "kingdom way" with our money and other resources, we will not be found "ready," because our focus is not on serving our master at all times, but primarily on serving ourselves.  If we keep trying to grow our nest-eggs as individuals, we’ll find we ultimately attract what we’re least prepared for: a thief in the night. Conversely, if we’re constantly about our mission as Christ’s servants, we’ll find he calls us to dine with him, and serves us when he comes to us again.

     In this week’s Hebrews reading, Abraham’s faith and that of "the ancestors" is presented as an undercurrent that directs and is directed by a series of actions over time toward the same direction, even when the ultimate destination is unknown or seems impossible to attain. It’s not a heroic, once-for-all decision. It’s an ongoing commitment seeking a homeland, as the writer puts it, day by day, year by year, as part of the very fabric of their lives.

      That means faith is something that happens in the world, in the real world of our actual lives. It also means that faith is not something that happens the way "the world" typically depicts it—as some rash, "heroic" decision that changes everything from that time forward. The faith of which the Bible speaks is fully in the world, but not of it.

        “He is no fool who gives what he can not keep to gain what he can not loose.”  I heard this quote and it seemed to fit well with the message for today.

        In the Biblical stories about stewards they are commonly slaves or servants that are given responsibility over a task or a piece of property.  Think of the three slaves who were given talents/money by their master before he left for a foreign country.  Two of the slaves put the money to work and earned additional income on it.  They were called ‘good’ and given rewards.  The one who only protected the money by burying it gave back to the master exactly what had been entrusted to him.  He was condemned by his master and the little that he had been given was taken away from him.

        It is important to remember that this is given as an example for us to follow.  We are to take what we are given by God and put it to use for His good.

        Okay, so then the question is, “What belongs to God and what belongs to us?”  Do you remember what was in your hands the day you were born? That’s right, nothing!  That is what you truly own in this world, nothing!

At our home church we often give a dedication prayer after the offering that says, “Of Thy own have we given Thee, O Lord.”  Now I want us to consider the truth of that statement?  How often do we realize that nothing on this earth is ours to keep?   How often do we realize that we are only tenants and not owners?  When do we admit to ourselves that we are only stewards of God’s world?

        I’m reminded of a story about the old-time farmer who sat down to eat and said this prayer, “Thank you Lord for this bread that I baked from flour that I ground from the seed I harvested from the wheat that  I grew in the field that  I planted on the land  I cleared of rocks with which I built the hearth to bake the bread.”  With his lips he may have said, “Thank You Lord.”  But in his heart he was feeling that he had done everything himself.

        Perhaps the farmer should have been praying, “Thank You, Lord for this bread. Thank you from the wisdom to make flour ground from seeds you created.  Thank you for the rich soil you provided, and for the sun and rain in their seasons that caused the wheat to grow.  Thank you for the strength to work the soil and build the hearth.  Thank you for the health to eat the bread full of the nutrients you placed there, O Lord.  Thank You for this time of rest and refreshment in which to enjoy this bread. Amen.”

        Jesus has a lot to say in his many parables about stewards and servants and slaves.  Some are bad stewards and they lose their jobs, possessions, and sometimes their lives.  Some are good stewards and they are rewarded and promoted and praised!.  There is a common beginning to all the stories of stewards: at the start, all of them are trusted to carry out the commands and wishes of the master.  By their actions their hearts are revealed to be either trustworthy or not.

        Invariably the trouble with the bad stewards is that they forget who the true owner is.  They begin to think that what they manage belongs to them.  That is a dangerous mindset.  “Mine, mine, mine!” cries the little child within us.

        The good steward is always shown as the one who obeys the master’s wishes.  But more than that, the good steward is one who begins to think like the master – to have the same heart as the master - and to anticipate what the master wants - without having to be told.  “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.”

        That brings me to my own story.

        I know that many people give financially to God’s work because they believe in God.  That is certainly not unusual.  However, my story about giving is a little different.  I believe in God because I gave. 

After years of disbelief, I had been asked bluntly and directly if I believed that Jesus died for me.  I didn’t. What I had heard growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness was that Jesus died in a failed attempt to set up his earthly kingdom. And in all of the other churches I attended over the years, I had never heard that He died for me. I’d heard that He died to save the world, not me. It was never made personal before.

I started attending church.  I listened to the preacher and the Sunday school teacher talk about the promises of God.  My emotions were stirred. It was obvious that these Christians had something that I didn’t.  I was drawn to it.

And yet my mind was cynical.  Certainly I was too smart to fall for this foolishness no matter how attractive it was!  What I needed was a thirty-day-money-back-guarantee.  I needed some way to ‘try out’ this God thing.

That’s when I came across Malachi 3:10 which says, “Bring 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.”

Really?  I could put God to the test?  Wow! Here was my guarantee. 
I took God’s challenge and started to tithe.  It was not an easy step for me.  I had precious little ‘spare’ money.  I thought it a good week when I still had money left before the next paycheck came.  But I quickly learned that God didn’t want my ‘spare’ money.  God wanted the ‘first fruits’.  He wanted His 10% off the top.

Okay, so this was His challenge.  If I was going to really put Him to the test, I had to follow his plan.  So I did.  I was so surprised to find money left at the end of the first month that I put it aside and didn’t spend it.  The next month I had more money left.

This did NOT MAKE SENSE!  And THAT was the big lesson that I learned: this God stuff does not make sense, because God’s wisdom is foolishness to men.

You see a good steward has that child-like faith that believes what God says, - He will do.  Being a good steward requires an attitude change and in the way we think about

‘our“ possessions.

I’ll admit that it has not always been easy and sometimes I have not proven to be as faithful as I want to be.  However, God has continued to be faithful to me.

Now here is a question for us: Why does God say bring our tithes that there may be food in my storehouse? Why does God want our tithes? Not for Himself, certainly, it all belongs to Him anyway!  It is because it is one way that God expresses His love for us, His children.  It gives us a chance to share, to be in partnership with the Almighty.

Here is that same question turned around. Why should we bring our tithes into God’s storehouse?

Once, I was given a publication entitled “Why We Give” and it says that, “Christians give through their churches for many reasons, including – but not limited to – the following:

        Because God first gave to us

        Because we love God

        Because it is what Christians do

        To make ministry and mission happen

Because, together, we can do what no one individual can do alone.

Remember, God does NOT need our money.  He does, however, want us to be good stewards and share in the joy of giving.  For giving is Godlike.  I encourage you to give a portion of your income and all of yourself to the service of the Lord.

How far can we trust God? All the way, with all we have, with all that we are. Like Abraham we consider him faithful who had promised. What God promises, God will do.   Amen

Not all content of this sermon is copyrighted by Thomas E Williams.  Portions were from other sources.

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