While he was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him; so he went in and sat at table. The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner. And the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of extortion and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give for alms those things which are within; and behold, everything is clean for you. 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."
There are personality types like Eeyore and Puddleglum and Charlie Brown that see the dark side of almost every situation and have to work a lot harder than others to feel hopeful. But if you have a theology like mine, pessimism is a living contradiction of God and just can't hang on for long. It's a theology that puts Isaiah 64:4 and Romans 8 at the center and believes that a sovereign God works for those who wait for him; and that he works all things, even the hardest things, together for our good, and that nothing can separate us from his love—not financial shortfall or broken relationships or terminal disease or war with Iraq, or anything else in all creation.
Which means that as I thought about teaching this morning about money, my imagination was carried away mainly with what we could do together as a united people, if we all shared biblically in the funding of the mission of this church. Let me mention some trajectories that make me excited about where God seems to be taking us in the future. I mention these ten things because I want you to feel that this is what Bethlehem is about, not the finances. They are a means to an end. It's the end that counts.
Ten Reasons for Hope Here at Bethlehem
Ten reasons to be encouraged that labors and investments are not in vain.
- God is teaching us more and more about the Holy Spirit and about his gifts and graces, and making us more and more hungry for "all the fullness of God" than we ever have been.
- One of the evidences of this is the growing commitment to the ministry of prayer. It is evident in our small groups and the all-night of prayer, but most of all in the emergence of the prayer teams that are now available after each service to pray for people.
- The birth and growth and affirmation of the vision of 2000 by 2000 to set a pace for sending and harvesting through this decade.
- All three of these have resulted in a much wider and intentional engagement of our unbelieving friends and family members in conversations about Christ and invitations to church. Last year there were 20 reported professions of faith through your ministry of outreach. We hope by mid decade to see that number coming to Christ every month. (Just as I am writing this, one of the men of our church called to say that he decided to do an evangelistic Bible Study at his work and five guys said they wanted to be a part of it.)
- So far since the beginning of 2000 by 2000 last year we have sent out 91 of our people in one way or another in the terms of this decade goal. And 60 people are in the nurture program preparing for vocational missionary service. About $90,000 of our budget increase for next year is new missionaries being funded by our church.
- As I analyzed the attendance patterns for the last several years I was encouraged to notice that in 1987 there were 9 Sundays with over 1,000 in worship, in 1988 there were 18 Sundays over 1,000, in 1989 there were 20 Sundays, and last year 22 Sundays over 1,000. The reason this is so encouraging is that we lost a lot of our parking this year and made it very hard for people to come, and I was gone four months out of this year. So the church does not appear to be excessively dependent on me or on parking.
- Last Wednesday evening the ASK class for prospective members had 26 people in it, which shows that people are continuing to find strength and hope at Bethlehem.
- One of the great sources of hope and joy this past year has been the ministry of small groups. Over 600 of our people are in some form of small group and there have been deeply moving stories of how small groups met people's needs this year. There is every reason to see that ministry growing.
- The new sanctuary is an unmistakable sign to the city that we are here in the Elliot Park neighborhood to stay. It will triple our seating capacity when we move in, some time in May or June (Lord willing). And not only will it open the way for more people to worship with us, but the expansive foyer will make room for the kind of interaction between services that is almost impossible in our jammed hallways now. A wonderful team of people are putting in place right now the plan for paying it off in three more years so that we have no long-term debt, and can pour more and more of our resources into 2000 by 2000.
- Last Sunday our new weekly Radio Program was started on KTIS AM at 3:30. What the Lord may do with this we do not know. We only know that it is the result of a long season of prayer and thought. And we believe it is part of the overall blessing God wants to bring to the Twin Cities through Bethlehem and all the other evangelical churches of the area.
I don't know what this says to you. But I know what it says to me. I turned 45 last Friday. Last Sunday the best friend I had in my seminary class, Tom Provence, a pastor in Louisiana, died of cancer. He was 45 too. When the year rolls over, you step back and ask, especially at mid-life (or more realistically at two-thirds life), is Bethlehem a good investment? Not just for my money, but for my life. I only have one to live. I want it to count for the glory of God more than I want anything in the world. And the answer of my heart—I believe it is the voice of God—is: Yes! It is a good place to invest my life. A good people. A good ten-year vision.
Radical Commitment to Mission and Ministry
So what I want to do this morning is to ask many of you for a new level of hope-filled commitment to the mission and the ministry of this church. Here is the question that fills me with hope as we face the staggeringly wonderful opportunities of 2000 by 2000. What would God do in us and through us if ALL TOGETHER we made the grace of tithing the floor on which we stood and the grace of overflowing liberality the ceiling over our heads?
I say I call many of you to new commitment because some of you are already stretching way beyond the tithe in your giving. In fact there are reasons to be very encouraged about our giving. Funding experts tell us that in the average evangelical church 20% of the members pay for 80% of the expenses; 30% pay for the rest; and 50% don't give anything. They have never learned from Scripture the blessing and obedience of giving. But at Bethlehem the numbers are a little better. Here instead of 50% not giving, about 30% don't give—that's 346 of our members who made no recorded gift last year.
But I asked for an anonymous analysis of those numbers and found that only 22 of those 346 were categorized as "active attenders." Others were non-resident, or no-longer attending, or youth and student and watch-care, or elderly or missionaries. Therefore I do not believe that I am speaking this morning to a crowd of non-givers. What I am doing is speaking to many of you who are giving well over a tithe and others who did not grow up with this pattern and are seeking the Lord about what his will is for your giving as the first pay-check of 1991 approaches.
When Religious Practice Becomes an End in Itself
Let's look at Luke 11:42 and see if Jesus will speak to you as clearly as he has spoken to me this week.
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.
What the Pharisees were doing was giving a tenth of all their produce right down to the spices and herbs in their gardens. They were giving a tenth to the temple ministry. A tithe means a tenth—it is not a general word for giving. It is 10%, one tenth, of our income given to the on-going ministry of the place of worship. But they were neglecting larger issues of justice and the love of God. They were focused on their religious practice but not on treating people with justice or treating God with love. So they were under the condemnation of God: Woe to you, Pharisees! It is a terrible thing when religious practice becomes an end in itself and neglects just relationships with people and a love relationship with God.
The Relationship of Tithing and Justice
Now notice two key things that this text teaches. One is that there are more important things than tithing, namely, justice and love of God. "Woe to you, Pharisees! for you . . . neglect justice and the love of God." These are bigger issues than tithing—like learning the subject matter in school is a bigger issue than making A's.
But the other thing to notice is that tithing is not unimportant; it is to be done: "These [i.e., justice and love of God] you ought to have done, without neglecting the others." In other words don't neglect tithing all your income, even the spices and herbs. But let it all be in the context of justice for people and love for God. Let your concern for people and your passion for the glory of God set the tone of your whole life. Then in that tone of life, your tithing will bring blessing and not a condemnation.
Both Have to Do with Our Money
What speaks so loudly to me here is that both justice and tithing have to do with my money. This is utterly crucial to see. Virtually all justice issues are money issues. If you want to fight the injustice of killing unborn children, it will cost money—just like abortion providers will lose millions of dollars if their commodity is taken away. If you want to fight for justice around the world to give people with less advantage than you better opportunities for food and homes and health-care and literacy and freedom, it will cost money. Justice issues are money issues. You can't be committed to justice and think that everything over the tithe is given by God to expand your luxuries. It is given so that you have enough for your needs and an abundance for pursuing justice for people and love for God (2 Corinthians 9:8).
The Essence of Jesus' Teaching
So Jesus was not saying: Big issues like justice are important and little issues like money are less important. Justice IS a money issue! He was saying: get your heart right about loving God and caring about how people are treated, and then the details of how you handle your money—including your tithing—will be praiseworthy and not a religious camouflage for selfishness.
The teaching of Jesus then this morning is this:
- First, let your heart be filled with love to God; let him be your treasure in heaven.
- Second, from this love for God and his love for you, let your life be filled up with concern for people and how they are treated—especially the most helpless; don't live for comforts, live for justice and compassion.
- Third, don't neglect to tithe your income to the house of the Lord—the place of worship.
Six Closing Incentives to Give
Let me try to strengthen this word from the Lord with six concluding incentives:
- Tithe because Jesus said: Do not neglect this duty. "Why do you call me Lord and Lord," he said, "and do not do what I tell you?" (Luke 6:46).
- If you are prone to say that today we are living under grace and not law and tithing is part of the law, keep in mind that Christ came to fulfill the law and not to abolish it. What does a fulfilled tithe look like? What does more grace do to the minimum level of generosity in the Old Testament? What does more grace do to a believer's eagerness to support the work of God? What does more grace do to our confidence in God to meet our needs? I cannot see how more grace lowers the floor of generosity laid by the law. It simply raises the ceiling.
- In Deuteronomy 14:23 one of the purposes for tithing is "that you may learn to revere the Lord your God always." Many of us have discovered that the decision to keep God first in our financial commitments helps us keep him first in all our commitments. Just as the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil, so obedience with the first tenth of your money is the root of much reverence and righteousness.
- Bringing God the first fruits of your income as a tithe is a constant reminder to you that everything you have is God's. The tithe does not mean: this is God's and the rest is mine. The tithe means that this belongs to the ministry of the church and the rest is meant for a lifestyle of justice and the love of God.
- Tithing teaches real nitty-gritty trust in God. If you don't bring to God the first tenth of your income because you don't think you can live on 90% of your income, then you are probably not trusting God in a way that honors his incredible promises. Tithing is a demonstration that you believe God's promise to add what you need if you seek him first.
- Finally, tithing will bring the blessing of God into your life in many ways. I see nothing in the New Testament that suggests that the promise of Malachi 3:10 is not valid still today for God's people: "Bring the full tithes 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 an overflowing blessing."
In fact I believe so strongly that God will stand by this promise that I make you this challenge (I have checked with David Michael who works with the Helping Hand fund): if you will begin to tithe with your next pay check, bringing to God the first tenth of your income, and if you will ask one other person to pray with you for wisdom in the way you spend and live, then as of February, if you are in a worse financial situation because of tithing, we will give back to you any part of it you want from the Helping Hand fund.
"Put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts!" Let's do it this year like we never have before; and let's do it together. I'm eager to invest my life and my money in the mission and the ministry of this church. Come, join me. Let's expect great things from God and attempt great things for God.