The Tithe: A Statement of Trust (Malachi 3:8-18)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
Sunday, October 27, 2013
In 2008, Hurricane Ike traveled up the Gulf of Mexico and slammed the Texas coast. Hundreds had to evacuate, many to the city of Austin. The Austin Baptist Association called Brandon Hatmaker, pastor of Austin New Church. The association learned of a pastor from Houston who had lost everything. He and his family needed a place to stay. Brandon and his wife agreed this displaced pastor could come and stay with them.
When Brandon, who is Caucasian, says “family,” he is referring to his wife and five kids. The Houston pastor, a Hispanic man, showed up at the Hatmakers home with 82 “family” members in need of food and shelter. Hatmaker writes:
It was the best thing that ever happened to [us]. Instantly the church became “the church.” Without prompting, people from Austin New Church and the community began to call and email to offer their homes as refuge. People cleaned out Wal-Mart of sleeping bags and dropped them off. Food was every-where, grill-outs were planned, events for the kids fell into place … it was beautiful.
And it was fun. Not once did I feel personally put out. Not once that week did anyone complain about their plans being canceled to serve those in need. No one sent an email about Bible study not being “deep enough.” No one worried about the children’s ministry sign-in process. No one complained that they had to give money to help. They just gave. All they could. They gave without coercion or guilt. Smiles everywhere. Joy everywhere. … Everyone was thankful for what they had been able to give.
In a world where we are constantly asking what went wrong, I couldn’t help but ask: what went right? What made [it] so sweet?[i]
I felt the same as this pastor when our church responded to the earthquake in Haiti. We collected offerings. We sent doctors and nurses there on mission trips. We brought doctors from there to here, to show our love and support. Our church enthusiastically gave – gave money and time, but while practical needs, the money and time represented something more. Our hearts were stirred to help people in Haiti just as the people of Brandon Hatmaker’s church wanted to help their fellow Texans after Hurricane Ike.
Money and time reveal what we value. In the case the horror of the situation in Haiti after the earthquake, our money and time revealed our love and compassion.
Pastor Hatmaker said he never heard the complaints that sometimes find a home in a pastor’s in-box. There are gripes about the children’s ministry or this small group or that work project. There are complaints about a sermon or the pastor failed to visit so-and-so or the music was too loud or too long. Each grievance feels important to the individual person who brings it to the pastor’s attention. But in the big picture, these things seem small. As these small things pile up, they feel petty. In the face of crisis, like an earthquake or hurricane, we forget our pettiness. We commit ourselves to something bigger – the work of God.
Pastor Hatmaker’s remembrance of his church responding to Hurricane Ike and my own recollection of our church’s heart in the light of the Haiti earthquake reveals something else. We trust that God will do something with what we give. We trust that God is real and God is there and God hears our prayer. We trust God to multiply our offerings according to God’s purposes. The money we give is a sure sign of how much we trust God.
In the 5th century BC, trust in God was waning. The people of God had returned from exile to a shattered country. Israel was ruined by Assyria and then Babylon and from the West, ill-fated alliances with the new Egypt. The country was increasingly becoming a door mat for ancient imperial powers. After Babylon came Persia and then Alexander the Great and Greece. He was followed by Antiochus and Ptolemy, and then Rome. The great Exodus in which God mightily humbled Pharaoh and split open the Red Sea faded into distant memory. The greatness of David and wealth of Solomon was gone.
Some in Israel fiercely held on to faith, but others fell into half-hearted religious practice. A tithe, 10% of the farm’s produce, along with the fatted calf was expected as offering at the temple. When people tithed, they stated their belief that God was the all-powerful Lord and only true God and they were his. But in the 5th century the meager tithes coming into the temple communicated something else. People no longer trusted in the power of God.
A prophet called ‘Messenger,’ the meaning of the title ‘Malachi,’ came to remind the people that though they saw themselves and their God as small and not worth complete loyalty, their God was still awake, still in Heaven and simultaneously still with Israel. To short shrift God was to rob God.
God does not “fit into our lives.” God is our life. God does not have a part of us. God gets all of us. Anything less turns our faith into a farce. God is an all-or-nothing God. When we try to follow God half-way, God makes life uncomfortable. There are no part-time Christians. We ask “How are we robbing God?” God responds, in your half-hearted giving of tithes and offerings.
When we gave of ourselves after the Haiti earthquake, no one was robbing God. With what we gave, including money, we joined with God on behalf of suffering people. God blessed our offerings as God always does. HillSong is a compassionate church. In our work in Ethiopia, we have given money, prayer energy, talents, time, and the willingness to go. More examples could be named. I am not on the topic of money today because we in danger of robbing God as the Israelites did in the days of Malachi.
The topic matters because most of our lives, we live between huge disasters and inspiring mission trips. Normal time involves uneventful days and dry weeks. Individuals within the church family experience crisis or joy, devastation or triumph. But as a whole, as a body, it appears not much is happening. If you didn’t participate in the project to build a ramp last weekend or the neighborhood clean-up this weekend, can you get excited about it? You didn’t give your time, and even if you tithed to the church, there are several steps from when your tithe goes in the offering plate to when money is spent on materials needed to carry out the local mission. It is not as immediately obvious to see how you are part of God at work in the community. We as a community can feel too relaxed, like nothing is at stake.
Malachi accused Israel of robbing God by failing to tithe. He accused the community of speaking harsh words against God when they envied the prosperity of the wicked. We rob God when we don’t think our tithes are worth the effort, especially in normal times. We speak evil against God when we fall into ignorance of His work through His church, and in our ignorance, we don’t participate. We hold back our tithe or give only a part of it.
Questions naturally arise.
What if the church does something I oppose or supports a group I don’t support?
What if I am having a rough month financially and giving my tithe leaves me short?
What does the church do with the money I give?
I am sure you could think of a dozen equally important questions. The last one, what does the church do with my tithe, is easiest for to summarize. We pay the light and water bill; we give money to on-going mission works and fund mission projects led members of our own body later in the year; we pay our ministry and support staff; we fund ministries in our church – small group ministry, youth ministry, children’s ministry. Anyone who wants to can sit down go through the budget line-by-line and track every penny.
The other questions are more complicated. The church is the body of Christ, but sometimes we make mistakes. We fail to carry out the mission God sets for us. We overlook someone. We fail to visit someone. We support an organization you oppose. That will happen from time to time until the final inauguration of the Kingdom of God. Until Jesus returns, the Kingdom is emerging but not fully realized. Until then, the Kingdom is lived out in well-intentioned, but imperfect institutions. We are imperfect as the temple was in Malachi’s day.
From Malachi for 400 years, faith eroded and failed, so that in the days of Jesus, the religious leaders seemed to be dedicated to self-preservation instead of the proclamation of the word of God. And yet, when Jesus and his disciples visited the temple, corrupt as it was, they witnessed someone who held nothing back. She was not one of those who robbed God.
41 He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42 A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43 Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44 For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”
The widow did not make a decision upon how much to give to the temple based upon her trust in the temple as an institution. She did not decide to drop in those two coins because of her confidence in the priests. She gave because she trusted God. God would use her offering for God’s glory. By giving, she was participating with God. She may not have known what God was doing, but it did not matter. She was part of it.
She also did not make her decision based on how much she could afford to give. She gave it all. She trusted God. She believed to the point that her actions revealed her heart. She believed God would take care of her. She gave God what is God’s. She gave God all she had.
When we fail to do that, we rob God. Malachi’s stinging prophecy might tempt us to search for a way to soften the blow but such an effort would be an affront to scripture. To give less than all, we say to the Houston pastor, ‘we’ll handle you and four of your family members. The other 77 are on their own.’ It is to say, ‘we’ll turn on the church’s lights and pay for the children’s ministry. But staff salaries, water bill, and other ministries aren’t worth the effort.’ It is Malachi watching as the people cowed by the empires around them tithed sometimes, but just held back or only gave a partial tithe. It is the difference between robbing God and living in His joy.
Jesus did not say every follower had to drop every last cent into the temple treasury. Turn to the end of the Gospels and read about Joseph of Arimathea. He was a man of means who generously gave his own money so Jesus would have decent burial. He gave much, but he was still affluent. Turn to the opening of Luke 8. There we learn that the disciples, fishermen by trade, along with Jesus, a professional carpenter, had given up their incomes completely so they could travel announcing that in Jesus, the kingdom had come. They were financially supported by women who followed them and gave a lot. These women did not give up all their money, but what they gave was enough. They gave it because they trusted God to accomplish His purposes and take care of them.
Where does it leave us? I suggest church members give 10% of their income to the church. Additionally I suggest that church members find other ways to participate in the announcement of the Kingdom of God by giving their time and their resources. One can sponsor a child. One can contribute to a Christian organization like Children’s Hope Chest or the Navigators. One can go on mission trips or set aside time each month for local missions. I could go on and on, but the key is to do both. Make a regular, weekly or monthly gift trusting that God will work through the church, even through the church’s imperfections. And, find special projects like mission trips or relief efforts. Regular and special – give time and money generously to both because doing so puts you in the heart of God’s work.
Malachi speaks of those who revered the Lord. After the prophet confronted the people, some took note and thought about things. They weren’t defensive. They did not attack the prophet or try to justify themselves. They meditated upon the word and the Lord noticed them.
“17 They shall be mine, says the Lord of hosts, my special possession on the day when I act, and I will spare them as parents spare their children who serve them. 18 Then once more you shall see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.”
When Brandon Hatmaker thinks on the time his church helped 82 members of the Houston pastor’s family who had been displaced by the hurricane, he remembers amazing worship and joy that can’t be measured. I have the same feeling when I think about the times I have been part of this church as this church has demonstrated Christlike generosity through giving. “Test me,” God says in Malachi. He says it because they did not trust him. Do we? I urge the church this morning to demonstrate radical trust in God through a sustained commitment to the tithe and a prayerful belief that God will work in and through this church in His ongoing pronouncement that in Christ the Kingdom has come.