Tonight we are, unapologetically, thinking about money. Let me begin with two brief comments.
One, Martin Luther famously said that “whenever the gospel is taught and people seek to live according to it there are two terrible plagues that always arise: false preachers who corrupt the teaching and then Sir Greed, who obstructs right living.”
And, two, for those who are students - it is good to learn about giving when you are young and poor. It is easier then when older, if you are rich.
So much by way of introduction.
We now want to look at our Old Testament lesson, Malachi 3.6-12. And my headings are first, BEWARE OF DRIFTING; secondly, ROBBING GOD; and, thirdly, BLESSING OUTPOURED
So, first, BEWARE OF DRIFTING
Why do we have this giving review? Why annually do we teach the biblical principles of giving and of the Christian stewardship of money and possessions?
One answer is because it is so easy to forget them. This was exactly the situation Malachi was addressing – a situation where God’s people had forgotten Haggai’s basics. Let me explain.
Last week we looked at Haggai chapter 1.
Jerusalem was sacked by the Babylonians in 586 BC. Haggai was prophesying about 520 BC, twenty years after some Jews had returned home from exile in Babylon. On return they started to rebuild the ruined Temple. But they soon gave up because they decided the renewal and refurbishment of their own homes took priority.
So Haggai challenged them head on about not putting God first in their use of time and money. However, we ended up last week with the good news that the leaders - the political and religious leaders (Haggai 1.12) …
“… with all the remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God, and the words of Haggai the prophet as the Lord their God had sent him.” (Haggai 1.12)
And they finished rebuilding the temple. They had now put God first and his work as a priority.
Well, wind the clock on 60 or so years after Haggai and to the time of Malachi and about 460 BC. 60 years, of course, is quite a time. It is just like now compared to the 1950s when we had in the UK a new Queen. It was soon after the end of the Second World War and church life was still strong. In 1954 Billy Graham, the US evangelist, came to London and thousands went to hear him.
But where are the churches now – 60 years later? So many are empty and too many bishops and clergy are theologically confused not least over sex and gender issues.
All that is like Malachi’s day. Spiritually people were disillusioned and discontented. In the new Temple the worship was now sloppy and, worst of all, God said to the priests (the clergy), through Malachi, chapter 2.7-8:
“The lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction.” (Malachi 2.7-8)
The clergy were no longer teaching God’s word. We then read of marriage and divorce problems – just like today. But, also very seriously, the priests and people were blind to these sins, some of which were the sins that Haggai had attacked.
Haggai’s lessons had been completely forgotten - certainly regarding money and possessions. So Malachi has to do some reminding.
You see much of the teaching in the Old and New Testaments was, and is, reminding people of things they knew but so easily have forgotten, or reminding others of things so they don’t forget in the future! And that is why we have this Giving Review. For we all can so easily forget God’s truth, including his truth about money and giving.
And forgetting things is why people easily drift away not only from Christian standards but from Christ himself. It was C.S. Lewis who once observed,
“If you examined a hundred people who had lost their faith in Christianity, I wonder how many of them would turn out to have been reasoned out of it by honest argument? Do not most people simply drift away?”
Certainly God’s people in Malachi’s day had drifted and they just hadn’t realised it. Whose is in danger of drifting like that tonight? Well, Malachi warns you to beware.
That brings us to our second, heading ROBBING GOD
Look at chapter 3 verses 6-8 where God, through Malachi, is spelling out the underlying problems. But verse 6 begins with an underlying assumption:
“For I the LORD do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” (v6)
Note how God starts when he wants to correct you or tell you something you don’t want to hear. He reminds you that he is good. He is the Lord (in capitals) – that is the divine name, Yahweh – Jehovah – the gracious covenant God, who does not change. So you can be assured (as these people were being assured), that when correcting you, God’s mercy and faithfulness continue. He is wanting the best for you.
And his desire for his people’s good never changes, even though his people deserve, in terms of simple justice, to perish – to be “consumed”, as it is put in verse 6.
But why do they deserve to be consumed? Verse 7 tells you:
“ From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them.” (v7)
These people were disobeying God (as verse 5 shows us). So God, giving them another chance, says, verse 7b:
“Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts.” (v7)
That is repentance – turning around and accepting God’s will and God’s way – his law - because God is good. However, having forgotten the message of Haggai and not having now been taught properly by the clergy, the people do not realize they are disobeying God.
It is just like today where, sadly, so many just do not realize in so many areas of their lives there is sin and utter folly. And this will incur God’s judgment unless people “return to God who will return to them”.
But what does it mean to “return to God”? Look as verse 7c:
“But you say, ‘How shall we return?’” (v7)
And then God says quite shockingly – verse 8:
“Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’”(v8)
They still do not understand. Then comes the bomb-shell – in the last words of verse 8:
“In your tithes and contributions.” (v8)
Now, the tithe was (and is) giving a 10 per cent of whatever - your harvest or your flock or your income. Nor was a tithe just part of the Mosaic law. It went back, for example, to Abraham who gave the priest-king Melchizedek (Gen 14.20) “a tenth of everything”. However, in Malachi’s time these tithes or tenths were used for the maintenance of the Temple and the living costs of priests and Levites (other religious officials) and some other needs.
And “contributions” were like special giving in addition to the tithes – like our giving for St Joseph’s; and in New Testament times, like Paul’s special collection for the Jerusalem church that you read about in 1 and 2 Corinthians.
But God says that these tithes and contributions are not to be thought of as being given to the Temple’s (or the Jerusalem church’s, or JPC’s) finance administrator for the Temple (or the local church’s) budget. No! it is giving back to God (for his work in such places).
And this is strong language. It is being said that, when this tithe is not received, it is “robbing” God. How can that be the case?
Well, the Bible is clear. You and I are stewards, not owners, of all we have. You read, for example, in Haggai - from 60 years earlier (Haggai 2.8):
“The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the LORD of hosts.” (Haggai 2.8)
So this concept of being a steward for God is very important. It meant that when these people in Malachi’s day got round to giving tithes and contributions, they weren’t free to do exactly what they liked with what was left. No! They were to be stewarding what was left over for God.
And it is still the same today, for us. They had, and we have, to be using what we don’t give to God also wisely and in the way he would want. This, of course, includes family responsibilities and, yes, the need for refreshment and creativity and a host of other things, but not spending wrongly or such that God was, or is, robbed.
Sadly, that was happening at this time in the 5th century BC. God was being robbed. And the result was serious. Look at verse 9:
“You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.” (Malachi 2.9)
Because the people of God corporately were depriving God in this way, they suffered. It seems there were plagues of (probably) locusts or other forms of agricultural diseases. And the result inevitably was famine.
What, then, does God say was the solution?
That brings us to our third and final heading, BLESSING OUTPOURED
Look at verse 10:
“Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.”(v10)
That is true to life. When you give as God directs, there is blessing - always spiritually and often, as is the case here, materially. Look at verses 11-12:
“I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the LORD of hosts. Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts.” (v11-12)
But you say, “do you really believe that our spiritual obedience can affect the material world?” The answer is, “Yes!”
Wesley famously said, speaking of believers:
“Religion must necessarily produce both industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches.”
However, he went on with a warning:
“But, as riches increase, so will pride, anger and the love of the world in all its branches.”
Yes, riches can have negative outcomes. So beware of being outwardly a good “giver” and giving 10 percent and other contributions, but still needing to repent.
Jesus in Luke 11.42 from our second Bible reading said:
“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.” (Luke 11.42)
Here Jesus is supporting the tithing principle. He commends these Pharisees for tithing but he knew of four problems with tithing.
One, if people think being good at tithing automatically gets them right with God, they are very wrong – that alone is through faith in Christ.
Two, these legalistic Pharisees, we know from elsewhere, were too keen to let others know about their giving. Jesus said they should be more secret.
Three, Jesus taught that the issue was not really how much you give, but how much you keep back. Later on Luke tells us that Jesus saw …
“… the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on” (Luke 21.1-4)
She was giving not 10 percent but 100 percent. 10 percent is not to be a ceiling.
And, four, these Pharisees may have dutifully counted up the stalks of mint, but they neglected not only justice but also loving God. Yet loving God is the great motivator for giving.
As we’ve seen, God made it clear to the Jews in Malachi’s day that they were not “consumed” for all their sins, because God was still gracious and merciful. And in time God made it clear that he was merciful then as now, not because of people’s giving, but because of, as Paul told the Corinthians …
“… the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8.9).
That is why basic Christian doctrine is summed up in the word “grace” (supremely in Christ) and Christian ethics in the word “gratitude” (supremely for the Cross where Christ died for our sins).
So that is why, in conclusion, the right way to respond to the Giving Review with the words of Psalm 116.12;
“What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” (Psalm 116.12)
Then give faithfully and gladly and see if God (Mal 3.10) …
“… will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.” (Mal 3.10)