A High Priest

Hebrews 7:23-28

23 Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; 24 but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. 25 Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. 26 For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. (NRSV)

A High Priest

Hebrews is a bit of an enigma to a lot of people. The main argument of the book is comparing and contrasting two religious systems of belief. One of those belief systems is first century Judaism. The problem is that most of us, I would wager, don’t know a whole lot about first century Judaism. It’s like comparing apples to the mystery fruit in the cabinet that you can’t see. So the beliefs and practices the author assumes the reader knows about and understands leave us a little bewildered.

Besides that, the author of Hebrews is kind of using the classic my fish is bigger than your fish argument. But he presents it in such a way that he’s not negating the comparison. He’s not saying, “Your fish doesn’t matter because mine’s bigger.” He’s actually presenting something new and different. It’s a new interpretation of time-honored truth. A kind of alternative or an outgrowth of what has always been held dear. A new revelation that is actually older than the former revelation.

At the very beginning of Hebrews, the author writes, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.” There is no negation of the relationship between early Christianity and the Jewish faith. Rather, there’s a close kinship. It’s one of the reasons why the Old Testament and the New Testament belong together. The Old Testament contains everything in the New, and the New testament reveals what is contained in the Old.

Every time a New Testament author uses the phrase The Scriptures, they’re talking about the Old Testament. The reason I preach so much from the Old Testament—nine of the previous fourteen sermons I’ve preached here have been from the Old Testament—why I love to preach from the Old Testament is because there’s a richness to be found there. Without understanding the Old Testament writings, the New Testament makes no sense.

Two of the matters being compared in this text are the priesthood and sacrifice. And yet, this is only a piece—a snippet—of a much longer argument the author of Hebrews is presenting.

First, let’s look at sacrifice.

Our English word sacrifice or even offering suggests giving something up. The idea of sacrifice was widespread throughout the ancient world. Greeks, Egyptians, Romans, Persians, Canaanites, and Jews all offered sacrifices as a part of their religions.

Among the Hebrew people, sacrifices existed long before the Law of Moses. Cain and Abel, Noah and his sons, Abraham, they all offered sacrifices to God long before Moses and the Torah. In fact, the great medieval Jewish scholar, Maimonides, suggested the system of sacrifices in Judaism was ordained by God as an accommodation for humanity’s primitive desires. As if God were saying, “Alright, fine. If you think you need to kill something to feel forgiven, fine. Do that. Make your sacrifice. But let’s do this in an orderly fashion. Here’s what’s acceptable.” And then God lined it out. The Torah actually limited the use of sacrifice. Human sacrifice was not supposed to happen. The Law was supposed to make idiots like Jephthah the Gileadite a thing of the past.

Yeah, read Judges 11 to learn about that son of a prostitute. I’m not being mean, that’s how he’s introduced to us in the Bible, “Now Jephthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior” (NRSV). He sacrificed his own daughter as a burnt offering because he made a stupid vow. Under the Law of Moses, this was absolutely wrong. Sacrifice could only be done in certain places, at certain times, for certain reasons, in specific ways, by specific people. In other words, women like Jephthah’s daughter weren’t supposed to be murdered because their father was… Well, I have no words to adequately describe what I think of Jephthah. So we’ll leave it at that.

Maimonides even suggested that the limitation of sacrifice in the Torah was designed as a way to move their more primitive ancestors away from the religious rites of their idolatrous neighbors. It didn’t need to be permanent.

The thing is, in Judaism, sacrifice has never been the only way to receive forgiveness. And not all sacrifices were for forgiveness. Repentance, prayer, and doing good deeds—deeds of charity—were ways to seek and find forgiveness. In the book of Jonah, the city of Nineveh was forgiven when the people repented and fasted. They didn’t offer any sacrifices to be forgiven. Sacrifice has never been the exclusive means of being forgiven in Judaism. And no sacrifice was acceptable to God without genuine repentance and contrition.

So what is sacrifice for? There is a definite element of giving to God. A sacrifice was to be a domestic animal, meaning the expense for the sacrifice is coming out of their pockets. They couldn’t sacrifice wild animals because they didn’t belong to anyone. It had to come from them, which is why there were provisions for the poor. The reason Mary offered two turtledoves or two pigeons after she gave birth to Jesus is because she and Joseph were too poor to pay for a lamb. The lamb was to be for a burnt offering, and the pigeon or turtledove was for a sin offering. But if a person couldn’t afford a lamb, then they could offer two pigeons or two turtledoves.

Now, note that a sin offering was for unintentional sins through carelessness. I think part of the reason a woman had to give a sin offering is because, when a woman has just given birth and is then kept awake almost constantly for a few months with a newborn, sometimes she’s just too tired to care. A sin offering did nothing for sins that were intentional or malicious. It was only for unintentional things through carelessness.

A burnt offering represented submission to God’s will. No part of the burnt offering was eaten, because the whole thing was offered to God. There were also peace offerings, which were offerings to express thanks and gratitude to God. There were guilt offerings, in case you weren’t sure if you had sinned or not. It was kind of the better-safe-than-sorry sacrifice. And there were food and drink offerings, which were ways of offering the fruits of our labor to God. It takes work to harvest something, and then prepare it, whether it’s bread or wine.

Beyond giving something to God, for some of these kinds of sacrifices there’s also an idea of substituting the sacrifice for their self. What was done to the sacrifice should have been done to them, but they conveniently got to trade places. They punished the sacrifice in their stead.

All sacrifices are a kind of offering. The primary purpose of offerings in Judaism is to draw near to God. In fact, the word for offering in Hebrew means to draw near.

So when we talk about Jesus offering himself as a sacrifice, we need to keep in mind all of these pieces of what it means to offer a sacrifice to God. Sacrifice was made by Jesus on our behalf so that we might draw near to God. Jesus stated that clearly when he said, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to me.” (John 12:32, CEB).

Now let’s look at priesthood.

The author of Hebrews compares and contrasts two orders of priesthood. The priests in ancient Judaism were the descendants of Aaron, the brother of Moses. The priests were the ones who stood as intermediaries between God and the people. They took turns serving in the Temple. They handled the procedures for all of the offerings I mentioned above.

None of the priests or high priests could hold their office forever because of this thing called death. Another problem is that the priests, too, were capable of sinning. So they had to offer sacrifice for their own sin first, and then offer the sacrifices the people brought to the Temple.

What the author of Hebrews does is to remind us of another order of priesthood, an order that predates Aaron’s priesthood by hundreds of years. The priesthood of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is only mentioned in a few places in the Scriptures. The first is Genesis 14. After Abram rescued Lot, he was met by Melchizedek, the king of Salem and priest of El Elyon, which means in English, The king of peace and priest of God Most-High. This priest-king brought bread and wine, and he blessed Abram. It was then that Abram tithed. He gave ten-percent of everything he had to Melchizedek.

What’s interesting is that the offices of priest and king were sometimes held by the same person. But in Israel they had been separated. The order of Melchizedek is priest and king, which is why he’s seen as a forerunner to Jesus. It’s why the author of Hebrews uses Melchizedek as his archetype for Jesus Christ who is also priest and king. In these two individuals, the offices are brought together again in the same person.

Melchizedek is also mentioned in Psalm 110:4, which is quoted in Hebrews 7:21, “The LORD has sworn a solemn pledge and won’t change his mind: You are a priest forever in line with Melchizedek.” (CEB).

What the author of Hebrews is arguing is that Jesus’ priesthood according to the order of Melchizedek is better than the Levitical priesthood of Aaron. First, the priesthood of Jesus rests on God’s promise—God’s oath that came after the Law and is, therefore, a new thing God is doing—with God’s own Son now the guarantor of a new and better covenant that can make people perfect. One weakness of the Law is that it couldn’t do that.

Also, Jesus priesthood is permanent. We don’t have to worry about a change in management because Jesus is God. He can save anyone who comes to him for all time because he’s always there making intercession for us. As our high priest, Jesus reconciles us to God.

The priesthood of Jesus is superior because of his own character. He’s “holy, innocent, incorrupt, separate from sinners, and raised high above the heavens.” (Heb. 7:26, CEB).

His priesthood is better because of what Jesus did. There’s no need for him to offer sacrifices day in and day out because he already offered himself, once and for all, as the perfect sacrifice. Jesus’ sacrifice essentially puts an end to the need for further sacrifice.

Finally, the priesthood of Jesus is better because of his status. Jesus is God’s Son who’s been made perfect forever. It’s a new thing. A new covenant.

The Good News, here, is that we have a high priest who’s able to save us from the crippling power of sin. We no longer have to be stuck in our past failures. We no longer have to live in guilt and resentment for what we’ve done. Sometimes it can feel like our sin is ever before us, hemming us in, and we’re trapped. People remember it and continue to hold it against us. But Jesus offers us permanent release through this astounding idea of forgiveness. We can repent, we can pray, and we can be forgiven. More than that, we can be transformed so that our sin no longer defines us.

That’s what Jesus Christ, our high priest, does for us. And through his offering of himself, we can draw near to God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and the Common English Bible (CEB). 

Advertisements

Mount Vernon First UMC’s Bicentennial Celebration

I didn’t get to preach today. Instead, our congregation wrapped up its bicentennial celebration with Bishop Michael Coyner joining us for worship.

Indiana became a state in 1816. Mount Vernon was established as a city in 1816. First United Methodist Church beat them both by a year. The Methodist congregation in this area actually dates back to at least 1799. It’s pretty neat history.

I don’t have a sermon to post, but I thought I’d at least post a few pictures and the Scripture text Bishop Mike used for his sermon.

Bicentennial051
We used two communion sets. The silver-plated set is from the late 19th or early 20th century. The glass & ceramic set is the one we started using this month. I figured a mix of old and new would be fitting.

Matthew 5:13-16

13 “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot. 14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. (NRSV)

Bicentennial054

Bicentennial164

Bicentennial178

Here’s to the next 200 years.

The Order Of Things

1 Kings 17:8-16

8 Then the word of the LORD came to him, saying, 9 “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” 10 So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” 11 As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” 12 But she said, “As the LORD your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” 13 Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14 For thus says the LORD the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the LORD sends rain on the earth.” 15 She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16 The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by Elijah. (NRSV)

The Order Of Things

As a child, my favorite Old Testament stories were those of Elijah and Elisha. For some reason they captivated me, and I would read them over and over again. I would even hide under my covers with a flashlight to read them after my parents thought I was asleep. Maybe it was because they tell of miraculous deeds that seem beyond our own reality. I like stories like that. That’s why I read and write fantasy and Sci-Fi novels.

In this story, God sends Elijah to Zarephath. First, it seems odd because Zarephath isn’t in the land of Israel; it’s in the territory of Sidon. The people of this region worshipped Baal, not the Lord. It’s stranger, still, that Elijah would be sent to Sidon because another Sidonian woman named Jezebel, who was Israel’s Queen at the time, plays a prominent role in the story of Elijah. She was the champion of Baal and the murderer of the Lord’s prophets in Israel.

The Lord tells Elijah to go to Zarephath because he has commanded a widow there to feed him. Now, understand that widows almost always represented the poorest of the poor in ancient middle-eastern culture. So the idea that a widow could feed and care for a complete stranger is absurd. What’s more, the Lord has appointed this widow to feed Elijah, but apparently the widow doesn’t know it. She has been chosen by God for purposes of salvation, but she doesn’t have a clue about it yet. All she can see is her own poverty and desperate plight. The widow encounters Elijah at the gate of the town while she’s gathering sticks for a fire. Elijah asks her for a drink of water, and this widow simply stops what she’s doing to get it for him.

As she’s going to get the water, Elijah says, “Bring me a morsel of bread too.” It’s this second request that causes the woman to stop. She doesn’t have any bread to give. In fact, she is about to give up on life itself. Her future is as empty as her hand.

She replies to Elijah, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it and die.”

You see, there was a famine in Sidon and Israel at this time. All this poor woman could see was scarcity all around her. She had lost her husband, so she had no one to provide for her. Her jar of meal was almost empty, and there was no chance of refilling it. Her jug of oil was almost empty, and there was no chance for her to buy more. She had no hope of living much longer because the sustenance of life which sustained her was at its end. There was nothing more. And she had no hope for her son. All she could see was the imminence of a slow death of starvation.

The widow was going home to make her last supper. She was going to share it with her son, and then she would wait until death took them both.

This is a reality that a lot of people face every day in our world. For those of us in this sanctuary, our situations are not nearly as dire as the widow’s, but for some reason, even in times of abundance our worldview is generally one of scarcity. It’s the way individuals in our culture are shaped from birth to death: we’re told we can never have enough, so we think we never have enough to get all that we think we need. When it comes to our own resources—especially money—we see scarcity instead of abundance.

No matter how much a person makes, almost every American believes that if they made 20% more than their current income, they would have some breathing room. All we can see is what we don’t have. So it’s understandable that, when we hear God wants us to give 10%, all we can see is how horribly that would set us back. If we give 10%, then we’ll need to make 30% more to have breathing room, or however the math works out there, because it’s all proportional. But the truth is, unless we’re going home to cook our last meal and die, we’ve never seen scarcity.

Like the widow, who, when she was asked to give a morsel of bread responded by saying that she didn’t have enough, most Protestant Christians respond to God’s request for a tithe—for 10% of our income—by saying that we don’t have enough. We know what we have, we’re on a fixed income, and if we give what God is asking us to give, there won’t be enough for us to live on. It’s impossible to give 10% of our income and still expect to live a satisfactory life. I’ve heard those words uttered in the halls of church buildings. And, when we take a look at the way people live in this country, you’ve got to admit it’s a fair assumption.

Here are some recent statistics. Half of all Americans spend more money than they earn in a given year, carry a monthly debt balance of $15,611 across multiple credit cards, and have decreased charitable giving as a percentage of income every year since 1968.

People in the lower economic strata actually tend to give a higher percentage of their income than people in the higher economic strata. Which means the more money we earn, the less money we think we have to give.

I know from personal experience that it isn’t easy to look at income verses expenses and come to the conclusion that giving 10% to church is even a doable option. We see scarcity. So most Christians give what they feel they can afford to give, which on average is less than a quarter of a tithe. United Methodists give an average of just under 2% to God. Now, that’s an average, so it includes tithers and non-tithers. The statistic says that the vast majority of people in any given congregation do not give God 10%.

Now, let me be clear about something. I’m not preaching on this in order to make anyone feel guilty. We don’t give because we feel guilty. We give because we love God. We give because God asks us to give proportionally according to what God gives to us. And we give because we want to support ministries that make a difference in the world around us. If you don’t tithe, I don’t want you to feel guilty about it. But I do want you to think about what you give and how you give. After all, if you do not tithe, you are in the majority.

I realize that many people confuse our self-worth with our financial-worth, and so any talk about money is a difficult subject. In fact, most people don’t want their pastor to talk about money at all because they don’t think it has a place in the church. The church is a place where we should talk about spiritual things, not things like money. And if you think that, that’s ok, but I’m going to respectfully disagree with you. As I said last week, I firmly believe that financial giving is absolutely integral to spiritual wholeness. Money, possessions, and what we do with them are spiritual matters that Jesus talked about a LOT. These things are spiritual matters.

So how do we break the false cycle of scarcity and start to see the reality of God-given abundance in our lives? Perhaps Elijah and the widow of Zarephath can help us. After saying that she did not have enough, Elijah says to her, “‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and for your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’ She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.” (1 Kg. 17:13b-16).

I think those first words of Elijah to the widow are probably the most important: “Do not be afraid.” When we can only see scarcity, we’re gripped by fear and anxiety. This fear makes us feel like we can’t give all that God asks us to give because we won’t have enough for ourselves. How will we be able to pay our credit card bills, our mortgage, our car payments, our insurance fees, our utility bills, our property taxes, and still buy groceries if we give a full tithe? It’s a very real and fearful thing to think that we might not have enough. But Elijah says, “Do not be afraid.” It is important that we stop being afraid, that we stop allowing the fear of scarcity to overcome us. Do not be afraid.

The next thing Elijah says is also very important, “go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.” (1 Kg. 17:13). You see, God knows what we need to live on. God knows we have bills. God knows we need money to buy food and pay for our expenses. So God says through Elijah, “Go and do as you have said.” Make some food for yourself and for your son. Use your money to pay your bills and buy food. “But first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son.” (1 Kg. 17:13).

But first set aside your tithe and bring it to God, and afterwards pay your bills and buy your food. You see, if we put ourselves first by spending our money on our wants and needs first and then give God the leftovers out of our paycheck, we will never have 10% left to give to God. We’ll never have enough to give what God is asking of us. But if we put God first, and we give to God our tithe first, give it right away, and then afterwards take care of our expenses, we will always have enough for both ourselves and for God.

Now, it might mean that we have to change some of our spending habits, but that’s probably not a bad thing. Remember that statistic about half of Americans spending more than they earn? The spending habits of a lot of Americans need to change because they are unhealthy and unsustainable.

Now, a little word on credibility. I can preach this message to you because I do it. I’m not saying that to brag, I’m saying it so you know your pastor isn’t trying to suggest that you do something that I don’t do. Joy and I tithe on our take-home pay and then some. We made a commitment to tithing when we were first married, and we have continued in that practice.

It wasn’t always easy. When we got married in October of 2001, our financial situation was not pretty. I was a full-time student in seminary, she worked full-time. We both had student loans from our undergraduate degrees and auto loans. We both wondered how on earth we were going to pay our debt off. We wondered if we could afford to tithe. But we had committed to tithing, so we did it.

And you know what? There has always been enough for God and for us. We actually paid off our debts faster than we expected, and we attribute that to tithing. It seems counter-intuitive. But when we put God first, like the widow of Zarephath did, God changes our thinking about money and possessions. We reprioritize our financial lives so there is always enough. We have enough. We simply need to open our eyes to see the abundance of God rather than scarcity of our fears.

The last bit of this is important too. After hearing the words of Elijah, we are told that the widow “went and did as Elijah said.” (1 Kg. 17:15). The widow put her fear aside. She gave first to God. Then she made something for herself and her son. And listen to the result of her faithfulness, “she, as well as he and her household ate for many days. The Jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah.” (1 Kg. 17:15-16).

We might not have a miracle in a jar, but in the widow of Zarephath we do have an example of faithfulness that we can follow. We can choose to give to God first. When we become tithers, God works a miracle in us. We stop seeing the world in terms of scarcity, and start to see the world in light of the awesome abundance that God has provided for us. We begin to see generosity as a way of life: generosity in what we receive and in what we give.

It starts by putting that fear aside and doing what God asks of us. Like the widow, God has called each of us for purposes of salvation. Maybe we don’t see it yet. But our giving supports ministry which changes lives in this building, and across the world. What the widow gave fed God’s servant, Elijah. What we give keeps ministries going: ministries which feed the bodies and souls of our community and the world. It goes towards efforts to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ here and across the planet.

It takes the resources God has given to us in order for mission, ministry, and public worship to happen. That’s why God asks us to give a tithe. All we have to do is put God first.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV).

Ownership

Malachi 3:6-12

For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. 7 Ever since the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, “How shall we return?” 8 Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! 9 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me– the whole nation of you! 10 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. 11 I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the LORD of hosts. 12 Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts. (NRSV)

Mark 12:13-17

Then they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to trap him in what he said. 14 And they came and said to him, “Teacher, we know that you are sincere, and show deference to no one; for you do not regard people with partiality, but teach the way of God in accordance with truth. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not? 15 Should we pay them, or should we not?” But knowing their hypocrisy, he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Bring me a denarius and let me see it.” 16 And they brought one. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” 17 Jesus said to them, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were utterly amazed at him. (NRSV)

Ownership

If you were to go to my study and look inside the cover of any of my books you’d see my name written on the cover page. The very first thing I do when I get a new book is mark it as mine. I just got Percy Jackson’s Greek Heroes and I’ve already written my name it it. I had to, or my daughter might have claimed it as hers. My name is also written in permanent marker somewhere on most of my stuff.

Ownership is an ancient concept. There are references to written property deeds in the Bible. We’ve found papyrus scraps in the desert sand that record business transactions. We keep the deeds to our property locked up in a safe place. We go to great lengths to obtain, maintain, designate, and secure the ownership of our possessions.

Ownership is related to power. Our ability to maintain ownership, as individuals and as nations, depends upon social, political, and sometimes military power. Governments often reserve the right of Eminent Domain to expropriate personal property for the greater good. It’s not always for the greater good of the person they’re essentially stealing from, but…

When we own something, we declare that it is ours. But ownership is never absolute for us. We believe that we own things, but no one can take it with them when they go. Ownership is never absolute. I might think the books in my office are mine, but someday, someone’s going to scratch my name out and put theirs down in its place. We only have our possessions for a little while. So if our stuff is not ultimately ours, then to whom does it belong? Who is the absolute owner? And if it’s not us, then what ought our relationship with the stuff we have be?

One interesting, but often overlooked thing about Jesus is that he taught more on the subject of money and possessions than any other topic except for the Kingdom of God. Let me say that again. Jesus taught more on money and possessions than any other subject except for the Kingdom of God. Does that surprise any of you? But we don’t like to talk about it in church because it’s such a powerful topic. It’s very personal and often touches the core of our values, our habits, and our lifestyles.

How we handle, manage, spend, hold, or give money often reveals the most meaningful things about us. Where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.

The reason Jesus taught so much on money and possessions is because these are spiritual issues. For most of us, the majority of our earthly existence is spent on acquiring money and possessions. And that’s not a bad thing in and of itself. Money is darn useful stuff. I’d rather have it than not. It’s a practical and necessary resource. We need it in order to live and provide for our families. So we need money. We need possessions. Money and possessions are good things. What’s critically important for Jesus is our relationship to them.

When I was in middle school I read the book, Where the Red Fern Grows. In the book, Billy Coleman needed to catch a raccoon in order to train his two dogs, Old Dan and Little Ann. He did so by putting a shiny coin inside a hole in a log. Then he hammered nails into the hole in such a way that it made for a very small opening. Raccoons love shiny objects, and sure enough, a raccoon fell for the bait. The small hole made by the nails was just large enough for the raccoon to put its paw in and grab the coin, but with its paw clenched around the coin it couldn’t get its paw out of the hole.

All the raccoon had to do in order to escape was drop the coin, but it held fast to it even when Billy came up to it and clubbed it to death. The raccoon wouldn’t let go for anything. What captures our heart captures our whole being. Whatever it is that we refuse to let go of is the thing that is most important to us and, therefore, influences every one of our decisions whether we realize it or not.

I chose the text from Mark for the punchline only. I love that line, “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Jesus ate his breakfast with awesome sauce that morning. It’s such a great line. The thing is, we think we know what that means, but we don’t! We think it means, Well yeah, pay your taxes and give to church. But it doesn’t. It’s so much more subversive than that, that most of us miss it completely.

Do you know what belongs to the emperor?

Nothing! Not a dang thing!

Do you know what belongs to God?

Everything!

There was this story going around about some atheists who worked really hard to discover the secret to creating life. And they did it! So they had a meeting with God and said, “Well, God, we don’t need you anymore. We’ve advanced beyond you. We’ve even figured out how to create life without you. So we’re good. Take a hike.” And God was impressed. God said, “That’s really cool. Show me!” So they bent down and started to scoop together some dirt and clay, when God said, “No, no, no, no, no, get your own dirt.”

God created everything, so God owns everything. We are only stewards and tenants of what God has made and what God provides for us. When we believe we own the stuff we have, we can start to border on idolatry. We’re close to putting ourselves in the place of God. We are only stewards. We can have money. We can have possessions. But we have to remember our place. Stewards are supposed to deal with what they have according to the desires of the owner.

So the question we need to ask ourselves, probably on a constant basis, is Am I doing that? Are we, the stewards of God’s creation, handling and dealing with our money and our possessions in ways that God—a.k.a. the owner—finds acceptable and pleasing? When God asks us to give an account, what are we going to be able to say?

In the old Methodist hymnal there’s a song called We Give Thee But Thine Own. It didn’t make it into the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal, probably because we don’t like it. The first two lines say this:

We give thee but thine own, What e’er the gift may be: All that we have is thine alone, A trust, O Lord, from thee.

May we thy bounties thus As stewards true receive, And gladly, as thou blessest us, To thee our first fruits give.

When we give to the Church, we give to God but God’s own. We are only stewards. What we sometimes fail to realize is that giving can actually be a source of joy and freedom. The problem with money and possessions is that these things often end up possessing us. We know we need them, so we hold on to tight! We end up a lot like the raccoon in Where the Red Fern Grows. We’ll hold on to that shiny coin even if it kills us. But, when you can give your money and possessions away, it no longer has a hold on you. It no longer has power over you.

God has given us everything we have. Yes, we’ve worked hard for it. But we don’t own it. We are stewards, and the owner has asked for a tithe, a mere 10%, to be given back to God.

The text from Malachi 3 is pretty blunt. God tells us through the prophet that the people are robbing God. In the text the people respond to the accusation, “How are we robbing you?” and the Lord replies, “In your tithes and offerings!

God wants his people to bring the full tithe, the full 10%, into the storehouse. You see, this is how this whole thing works. This is how it was set up by God in the beginning. When God settled the Israelites in the Promised Land, the Levite tribe didn’t get a portion of the land. Instead, they got a few cities that were scattered all over the place. The Levites were the priestly tribe. They were in charge of worship and service in the Tabernacle, and later the Temple. They studied the Law of God. They were the pastor-types of the day.

God told the other tribes to bring their tithes to the storehouse so all of this worship stuff could happen. Even back then, it took money and possessions to support public worship and ministry. Then, the Levites also had to give a tithe of the tithe. So everyone was expected to give a tithe to God. Everyone.

This is how it works here, too. When you give, when you bring your gift to the storehouse, you are supporting the mission and ministry that we are called to do as God’s church. The church is not a building. The church is people. We are called to mission and ministry. But we can’t do much without resources. That’s why God tells us to bring our tithe into the storehouse.

The most incredible part about what God says through Malachi is verse 10. God 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” (NRSV).

Everywhere else in the Bible we’re told, Don’t put God to the test! But here, in Malachi, God challenges us. God throws down the gauntlet. God says, Put me to the test! Bring your full tithe here! You’ll still have enough! Try me!

Now, to be clear, this is not prosperity gospel. This is not something where we can think, Okay, cool, I’ll throw a twenty into the plate and God will bless me with a hot new car. No. What happens when we start to give as God wants us to give is that God changes us. God adjusts our attitudes about money and possessions so that these things no longer have a hold on us. Money and possessions no longer rule our lives. When we can give the stuff away, we suddenly find that there actually is enough for us. I think that’s the blessing. We no longer live in the fear of scarcity, which often holds us hostage.

The reasons we give are simple. We give out of gratitude to God who has provided us with all things. We give because we want to grow in discipleship. We give because through our giving we serve God. We give because through our giving we help other people. We give because we need to learn to let go of those things that can get in the way of our relationship with God.

God asks us to bring our full tithe, 10%, to the storehouse in order to provide for the mission and ministry of the Church. It’s not a matter of finances so much as a matter of faithfulness. Churches rarely have financial problems. But churches often have faithfulness problems. Faithful giving is simply a matter of knowing who and whose we are.

If you tithe, thank you for your faithfulness. If you don’t tithe, thank you for what you do give. Yet, I also want to encourage you to work toward tithing. You can even take baby steps. Whatever percentage at which you’ve been giving, increase it by 1% each year until you’re giving at 10%. It can be a scary thing to give what God asks of us. I know because I’ve been there. But when we finally let go and learn to give, it becomes a source of joy and peace. We learn to be grateful stewards who are content. That’s what I hope for each of us. Contentment is where faithful stewardship begins.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

(Scripture quotations marked NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version).