Giving, a family affair?

One of the things that most struck me from Deuteronomy 14 was the family nature of giving. The household went together to the tabernacle/temple to make their offering. The family all saw what was being given.

Imagine little Joseph. The harvest is in. And dad starts measuring everything and setting a tenth of it to one side in baskets. There’s a tenth of the corn. A tenth of the oil in jars. A tenth of the new wine in jars. And the firstborn animals set aside in a pen apart from the others. Then dad and mum begin loading the family up with the produce they have set aside before as a family you set out for the tabernacle or temple. Once there you feast and celebrate the generous goodness of God, before leaving the rest for the Levites.

Now Jospeh is a curious little chap and he and his brothers and sisters wonder why, so they ask dad and dad explains because God has saved us, we are his people, everything we have is his. We give a tenth back to him every year because we love him and trust he will provide for us next year.

The next year. Joseph sees dad set aside the tenth, and this year it’s much bigger. There is no way we’re carrying this lot is there, that’ll be lots of trips! But instead dad takes it and sells it and they travel to the tabernacle/temple with a bag full of silver and there they buy grain and wine and animals and feast and make their offering.

The next year is different. They still set aside a tenth. But this year they don’t travel far, just into town and leave it at the storehouse. But Joseph and his sisters miss the feast at the tabernacle/temple, until mum explains that this is their year for providing for the Levites and those in need in their community just as God provides for them.

Giving and the theology behind it was woven into the routine and rhythms of family life in Israel. But is it for us? Have we privatised and individualised our giving so that our families have no idea what we give and there are no opportunities for those kinds of conversations. It’s one of the draw backs of BACs and Standing Orders there is no visible sign of our giving. I’m not suggesting we ditch them and go back to offering bags – I think our treasurer may hate me if I did that. But I do think as families we need to think about how we discuss our giving as families. How do we help our children see and be able to ask those kinds of questions?

It matters because we want our children as they grow up to see what following Jesus looks like, including in terms of giving. I wonder if giving is decreasing from generation to generation (which I think it is though I only have a hunch on that and no evidence) precisely because we rarely model such giving in a way that invites questions and teaches routines and rhythms.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

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Pension pot giving?

So I did a little maths this last week as I thought about giving. What if every adult in your church only received as income the state pension of £185.15 a week. What if they tithed (I’m not recommending tithing just using it as an example – I’ll post on tithing later in this series) that income every month and gave that £74 a month to church would your giving go up or down? What about for us personally, would our giving go up or down? Because for many of us we earn much more than £185.15 a week!

What does that basic maths reveal about your heart? What you love? Where your treasure is? Where your hope is? Which kingdom you are seeking?

Money is tight, or so we are told. And for some of us money is tight. But it’s not £185.15 a week tight. Money is tight because of our expected standard of living. We expect to have more, be able to buy goods cheaper, be better off, enjoy the finer things in life. I read an article on a news website this week where someone was bemoaning having to give up alcohol and going out and talking about feeling poor because they couldn’t do those two things. That is not poverty. Neither is cancelling your Netflix or reducing your mobile phone bill, or not being able to get the latest phone, or not having a holiday. And yet that is the world we live in in the west, that is what it is to be squeezed.

Now there are families for whom the hardship is much more basic. We know of families for whom it is literally heat or eat and not because of an extravagant way of life or entitled expectations but because they face genuine hardship.

But for many of us our expectations are so sky high that we spend more than the weekly pension on entertainment and fitness and subscriptions in a month. And yet in many places giving to church is low, scarily low. Many of us give a lot less than 10% of the pension to church a month.

Singing for your supper

Yesterday we were looking at Deuteronomy 14v22-29 and Moses address to the Israelites about tithing. It’s a fascinating passage and immensely helpful but not one we naturally tend to think about when we think about giving. I attempted to summarise it something like this: “Giving is a celebration of God’s generosity and an expression of faith in him that mirrors his generosity in providing for those in need.”

In short giving is God’s people giving back to God a fraction (1/10th) of what he has generously given them. It’s a passage replete with pictures, of corn and wine and flocks and herds, of the family who’ve been blessed so much that they can’t carry their tenth to the tent of meeting/temple and so instead have to convert it into silver and then buy stuff nearer to the temple/tabernacle. Just imagine for a minute what you’d need to carry 1/10th of all you have, isn’t God generous!

It always feels a bit like singing for my supper when as a pastor you have to preach on giving. But this passage contains some huge challenges for us that we all need to wrestle with?

Do I think of giving as a celebration, is it something I rejoice to do? Tithing and taking that tithe and eating it at the temple/tabernacle was a reminder of who they were because of God’s saving act and sustaining. They were God’s people, they can rejoice that they are showered with blessings because they are God’s people. That’s so often not the way we approach church let alone giving which we do with the spirit of the curmudgeon not the celebrant. Giving begins by recognising who we are in Christ and lavish love and grace that made that possible and rejoicing in that sonship we are saved into.

Do I see God as generous? This is an area of huge challenge because it’s a battle for us. Every advert tells us we need more. Every product placement or influencer who promotes something is telling us we don’t have enough, we don’t have what we need. Every update or new product launch says what you’ve got isn’t good enough let alone something to be grateful for you must have this. And all of that, as well as our rapaciously avaricious sinful hearts, works against seeing God as generous. But God has given his people, God has given all people, absolutely everything they have. It’s all gift! And God is generous. Is that how I see everything I have? Only when we see things like that will we be liberated from crying mine, and will we be able to approach giving in the right way.

Do I see giving as an expression of faith? Be brutally honest with yourself; how much do we really live by faith? Not can you look back to the past and a moment or two when you lived by faith, but am I daily, annually acting so that I live by faith? Are we as a church living by faith? Israel are to set aside a tenth of their produce from the start of the harvest. That’s right a tenth right from the get go, not of the surplus or the left overs but of the whole harvest. So that they learn to fear the Lord. So they learn to trust him. So they learn to rely on him not on what is in their storehouses or barns. That is another challenge to us. Does my giving reflect trust in God to provide? Does what I give build my faith muscles as it forces me to rely on God or do I do it without thinking about it or feeling it because I’m only giving from my surplus?

Do I give in a way that mirrors God’s generosity to those in need? God gives to his people and his people are to give so that the Levites are not neglected and can serve God and teach his word. God’s people are to give so that every three years provision is made for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow. The nations round about Israel should look at Israel’s giving and the care it provides for the vulnerable and be amazed at the generosity of God seen in his people. Does my giving reflect my becoming more like my generous God?

Those four questions are questions we need to wrestle with.

A secular prosperity gospel

This Sunday we’re back in Deuteronomy 14 after a week off for Remembrance Sunday and it’s a passage on tithing. I always feel like I’m singing for my supper when it comes to teaching and preaching on giving. But it can also feel like fighting an uphill battle. We have a real problem talking about money in the church in the UK. We are reticent about it in a way the world isn’t, the news is filled with stories about money at the moment. The energy crisis is about money. Inflation is about money. Potential strikes and longed for pay rises are all about money. Discussions today about tax rises and council taxes hikes and the resultant fall in living standards are all about money.

There is a spiritual battle being fought for hearts and minds over this issue. Money is not a matter of indifference. It’s not unspiritual. Jesus, and the Bible as a whole in both testaments, draws a direct line connecting our hearts, our worship, our trust and our money. We need to do the same.

We need to begin by exposing some of the subtle ideas that lie behind societies thinking and reporting on issues related to money and lifestyle.

Our society believes in a secular prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel pedalled by some false teachers in the church is a travesty and one we ought to stand against. But we also need to expose the more subtle prosperity gospel our society believes in and teaches and which affects our thinking about life and money. The one that compares this year to last year, or this year to a previous decade and talks about a loss of income in real terms, about standards of living decreasing. All of which exposes the belief that life should get better. This year I should be paid more not have a pay freeze. This year what I have isn’t sufficient. How is it fair that this year I am worse off? How can that have happened, it shouldn’t, life should keep on getting better and better, I should have more money and be able to do more with it.

We need to stop and check our thinking because behind that idea is a foundational belief that money and stuff – mammon – will satisfy. There is also a belief that we deserve more, that what we currently have isn’t enough – and what does that do to gratitude and contentment? It kills it. That materialistic mindset has been so effectively taught that it is rampantly marauding through our minds and hearts and we don’t even know it let alone stop to check it. And it stymies joyful giving at source. We don’t even think beyond that secular prosperity gospel shaped thinking – life should be getting better, I should have more disposable income.

But we need to because we will never hear the radical things the Bible teaches and commands whilst that blocker is there.

Want need and must have conceptional drawing on the chalkboard

Can a believer not want to be holy?

Holy do you feel about holiness? Holiness gets a bad reputation in our society; it’s stodgy, joyless, legalistic, funless drudgery. But there is so much we misunderstand about holiness. We’ve listened to the hissed whispers of the Devil that the world needs our compromise not our distinctiveness, that to be holy is to make the gospel unattractive, to compromise is to show people that we’re not that different.

But that is far from how God defines his people. In Deuteronomy Israel are consistently called “a people holy to the LORD your God.”  They’re set apart.  They are saved, redeemed, to be different, to be distinctive, to bear the family image.  It’s so important that it’s repeated again and again. This is who they are; distinctive, sanctified, different, called out, holy.  God’s people who show what God is like to the world.

That call echoes down the ages to all of God’s people.  It’s personified in Jesus who is holiness en-fleshed.  It’s heard in his call to his disciples to follow him, to live like him with an awareness of the depth of God’s love and so obeying him.  You can’t be a disciple of Jesus and find holiness distasteful, because to do so is to find Christ distasteful.  Jesus was holy, he died to make you holy in terms of our status, and so we cooperate with the Spirit to become increasingly holy in reality.

Perhaps we struggle with holiness because we think of it as burdensome legalism, perhaps that’s how you’ve seen it.  It’s certain how it’s often portrayed in the media.  What the devil whispers to us. But it isn’t that.  That’s a twisted stunted fake holiness.  True holiness is becoming increasing like our God who is loving and full of grace and truth.  It’s seen in Jesus who is full of grace and truth; who loves fiercely and compassionately but stands on God’s word without compromise as he invites people into the kingdom.

If we have no appetite for true holiness we need to ask ourselves why?   Is it that we are struggling to believe we’re loved and so are looking in the wrong places?  Or because, actually, we’re not really children of God, because holiness is the families defining characteristic, it’s what it means to be God’s child becoming more and more like Jesus?

But maybe you’re thinking I want to be holy, I want to follow Jesus, I try, I pray, but I keep on sinning.  Thomas Brooks uses an illustration of water. It’s not falling into the water, but lying in the water that drowns.  It’s not falling into sin, but lying in sin, that destroys the soul.  There is forgiveness for our sin in Jesus if we repent, but are we falling into sin, or happily lying in it?

How do you feel about holiness?

Grasping who we are in Christ is the key to distinctive living.

Holiness begins with grasping our identity in Christ. Only when we grasp who we have been made to be, only when we explore it’s depths and heights, bask and bathe in it’s many joys and apply it to our heart deeply will we want to live as distinctive people. Grasping who we are in Jesus liberates us to be who we are.

Deuteronomy 14 starts with Israel’s identity.  “You are the children of the LORD your God.”(1)  God didn’t save them from Egypt to leave them as orphans.  He freed them and adopted them as his sons with all the love, commitment and care that brings.  So Israel don’t need to search for love and acceptance from those around them because they’re loved and accepted by God and they must grasp that.  That’s why the story of God’s lavish love for Israel; from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph right through to the Red Sea and the journey to Sinai precedes the giving of the law.  It shows them how loved by God they are, that they’re God’s sons, his children, because seeing that will liberate them to live distinctively.  That’s why Moses has rehearsed their history, because it’s the history of God’s undeserved grace and love and their adoption as his children.  They can be different because they can never be more loved!

It’s no less vital for us to grasp this about our identity in Jesus too.  So often we live as if we’re not loved because we forget we’re loved by God, we’re functional love amnesiacs.  And what’s the consequence of that?  We search for love and acceptance, approval and affirmation from those around us; from an absent father, an high achieving mum, siblings, our friends, our boss, our society and try to find it by being what they want us to be.  It’s what makes living distinctively as God’s holy people hard.

It’s why we’re so tempted to soften the truths of the gospel so people like us.  It’s why when society clashes with the Bible over marriage, sex, divorce, greed, truth, or love, we find it so hard to be distinctive and stand for what the Bible says, because we’re searching for love and affirmation from those around us.  Because we’ve forgotten we’re already loved beyond our imagination, with a love that loves us even when we slip up or make a mistake.  Loved with a love that won’t cancel us but is for us.

1 John 3v1 says “See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God!  And that is what we are!”  Do you believe that?  That God has lavished his love on you in Jesus and made you his child?  And God isn’t an absent or distracted Father, he’s the perfect Father.  His love doesn’t fluctuate.  You don’t have to keep on earning it again and again because Jesus earned it once for all for you in his perfect life.  Just stop and think about that for a minute, let that life changing truth reshape your thinking.  God has lavished his love on you in Jesus and it’s a love that will last for an eternity and which we can never reach the boundaries of even as we have eternity to explore them.

Grasping that new identity, who they are is key to Israel, to us, being who we God has made us.  Only when we grasp that daily will we be freed from the search for love from others to live distinctively as God’s people.  Only then will we love God’s laws, his instructions and not think of them as restrictive.

Goldilocks and the 3 chairs

The Locks family; Graham, Olivia, and their 3 children Lily, David and Isaac were looking for a new church in a new town. They had relocated with work, found good schools, new places to pursue their hobbies and the sports they loved. But now it was time to look for a church.

The first week the church was ok; they liked the sermon, they liked the welcome, there were people there who were like them, but well the kids were expected to stay in the service and whilst there were activity sheets for them it wasn’t quite right.

And so the next Sunday they tried another church in the area; this one had great kids work, all singing all dancing groups for each of the different ages of their kids, the welcome was OK, the sermon whilst faithful was a bit dull, again there were people like them there, but with this church it was the song choice, they were all old hymns. It just wasn’t right.

And so on the third Sunday they found themselves in a third chair in a third church wondering if this one would be just right?

Be careful: Stay in Christ

As we’ve seen over the last few posts being ‘in Christ’ is key to out growing as a believer. Continuing in Christ, being firmly rooted, built up and strengthened in him matters because the world isn’t neutral.  It’s possible for the Colossians and for us to wander away, or to be drawn away, from this amazed, thankful, joy at living in Christ.  That’s why Paul is exhorts them to continue to live in him.

Because there are other ways of thinking in Colossae and in our world today.  They may look and sound good but they’re empty, they’re hollow, they’re deceptive, there is no substance to them.  These different ways of thinking depend on human tradition and thinking, they look good but they are hollow and deceptive, because behind them is opposition to God (v8) not joy in him.  They are based on the elements of the world not on Christ.  They’re opposed to Jesus, they want to draw us away from Jesus, to stop them exploring and growing in Jesus love,

Paul outlines some of them.  (v16)They may be religious actions and practices and festivals, that others look down on you and judge you as being ungodly for not joining in with them.  They may involve claims to power and angelic encounters(v18) and those who practice it will say you’re ruled out if you don’t do them.   They may simply be worldly ways of thinking in line with whatever is currently on trend on in(v20-23) Colossae and in your work place or among your family or friends.  They may look wise, they may look good, people may argue you aren’t loving if you don’t do them.  They may even claim you can’t be a real Christian if you don’t do them.

But Paul says they are only shadows(v17).  None of those things can give us what is ours in Christ.  Paul says they are shadows.  If I asked you to choose; you can have this chocolate bar I currently have in my hands or you can have its shadow.  Which would do you want?  It’s a stupid question isn’t it?  Why would you take the shadow, when you can have the real thing?  That’s what Paul is saying.  Don’t have the shadow which is ultimately nothing when you have the real thing in Jesus!  He also says (v19)those who worship angels have become disconnected from the head of the church, from Christ, and so there will be no growth and eventually they will wither malnourished and die.

Christians grow as we live in Jesus, full of the Spirit, exploring his love and mercy and grace and goodness, and as we help one another and fuel one another’s overflowing gratitude for a love we can never exhaust or break.

How do we grow as believers, as a church? “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, being rooted and built up in him and established in the faith juts as you were taught, and overflowing with gratitude.”

The outworking of being in Jesus

Grasping that we are in Jesus is the key to growing in our faith. And the Colossians will grow, mature, become more like Jesus, as they understand and grasp the significance and the implications and the application of locating themselves, their identity, in him as they do 5 things:

  1. Continue to live your lives in him – Jesus is Lord and you are in him so live that out.  Live your life in him, by his word, following his footsteps.  Follow Jesus don’t wander off somewhere else.  Keep going living in him.  Don’t have the ticket but step out of the plane!
  2. Rooted in him – They are to sink their roots down deep into Jesus, why?  Let me illustrate.  Imagine I got you to stand on one leg flamingo style. OK.  What happens when I push you?  You fall over.  Now imagine you plant your legs wide apart and squat a little bit, now I can’t push you over.  You’ve planted yourself, you’re rooted. But actually the idea here is of being rooted not as individuals but as a community – with roots entangled together – if you stood with others and all planted your legs and linked your arms I couldn’t move you.  The Colossian believers need to sink their roots down deeply into Jesus together.  To explore the full riches of complete understanding of what God has done in Jesus, of what it means for them to be in Christ.  Of God’s love for them.  His saving them from their sin, his mercy, grace, goodness and plans together.  Because that will make them secure, that will feed them and nourish their faith and grow their love of Jesus and it will enable them to grow.  There is always more to understand of Jesus love and all that he has won for us.
  3. Built up in him – It’s the image of a building being constructed that doesn’t just have just it’s foundation in Jesus but all of it is built in Jesus and on his work as he commanded just like that wise man building on the sand.
  4. Strengthened in the faith as you were taught – They mustn’t chop and change what they believe but they’re to hold on to the truth of the gospel and its implications as they’ve been taught it.  The gospel’s truths and implications don’t fluctuate from generation to generation as culture does, because God doesn’t change, sin doesn’t change, our need for salvation doesn’t change.  And so they‘re to be established, steadfast, firm, strengthened in the faith they have been taught not adapt it and amend it and soften its edges.
  5. Overflowing with thankfulness – Don’t you love that image, their hearts are to be always full to the brim and overflowing with thanks for what God has done for them by the Spirit through Jesus in saving them.  Let me give you an example of what that looks like because I think we struggle with this – we Brits are more likely to overflow with moaning about the weather than with thankfulness.

Do you remember the famous dinner party in  Luke 7.  The scene is set.  Jesus is at Simon’s house, it’s posh, it’s full of people in their best outfits, and on their best behaviour, they’re probably trying to show how spiritual they are by debating predestination or what the Hebrew or Greek really says to impress Jesus.  But then a horrified hush descends as ‘she’ enters the room.  The whispers start as the tears start to roll down her cheek and she bends and begins washing Jesus feet with them, then wipes them with her hair and pours perfume on them.  Do you see what’s going on there?  Jesus tells us “I tell you, her many sins have been given that’s why she loved much.  But the one who is forgiven little loves little.”  Why does she act as she does?  Why does she go where she isn’t welcome?  Why does she keep going even as the whispers and stares start?  Why does she weep and kneel and anoint and wipe.  Because she was overflowing with gratitude for her salvation because she was constantly amazed at Christ Jesus saving her.

The Colossians are to mirror her actions, that’s what overflowing with gratitude looks like.  It is a constant amazement at what Jesus has done for me, that he has loved and saved me a sinner, that we are now in him, that fills the heart and overflows with actions that show love for the Saviour even as the world looks on disapprovingly.  Hearts constantly filled to the brim and overflowing with amazement at what Christ has done.

Can I ask have we lost that?  I think it’s easy as we go on in the Christian life to lose that sense of wonder, that sense of joy and gratitude.  A thankfulness for God’s amazing grace.  Just stop right now and wonder again at your Saviour, at all he has done for you.  What will that overflowing thankfulness lead to?

The Colossians will grow as they go deeper into Jesus, as they explore and understand and grasp and apply more and more of what it means to be in Jesus, as they experience and explore the sheer scope and wonder of their Saviours love and the joy and hope that is theirs as they are united to him.

We grow as we do the same.  As we explore more of who Jesus is, what God has done, who he has made us as his people in Jesus, how he sees us in Jesus and covers every sin past, present and future, and the plans he has for us in Jesus.

We don’t just start off with Jesus.  We don’t let go and let God.  We don’t split our growth 50:50 with God.  We grow as we fully explore more of who we are in Jesus and apply that to our hearts and thinking and we will never exhaust the depths of his love.

Growing is going deeper into our identity in Jesus

In the last post we thought about what growing in maturity was not. It’s not God then me, it’s not God not me, and it’s not God plus me. So what does it look like to grow in maturity as we follow Jesus?

In Colossians 2 Paul writes(6-7) “So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.”

Do you see the key idea?  Where do the Colossian believers find themselves?  Where must they locate themselves?  If they turned on their spiritual Google or Apple maps where would they be?  They are living their lives “in Christ”.  They are united to Christ.  This is a really crucial idea for us to get because it’s one of the ways Christians are referred to most often in the New Testament.  And it’s the key to being liberated to live for Jesus and grow up in our faith.

Let me try an illustration to help us get this idea.  Imagine that I decide to go to New Zealand, what do I need to do?  I need to book a seat on a flight to New Zealand.  But the booking’s not enough is it?  If I want to get to New Zealand I need to be in the plane when it takes off. It’s no good me just having the ticket on my phone or in my pocket.  It’s no good me just knowing of the plane but not being on it.  It’s not enough to be at the airport close to the plane or even observing the plane as it takes off.  There‘s no point me trying to copy the plane, running up and down making engine noises with my arms out on the runway. I have to be in the plane.  Then everything that happens to the plane happens to me.

That’s Paul’s point: believers are in Christ and so everything that happens to Jesus happens to them and us(9-15).  In Christ the Colossians, and we with them, are brought into the fullness of God(9-10), doesn’t that blow your mind?  We are brought into experiencing the full love and goodness of almighty God because we are in Jesus by faith.  In him our hearts are circumcised(11), we are buried with him to our old way of life in baptism and rise in him to new life.  (13-15)We were dead in our sins until we were made alive by being united by faith to Jesus with all our debt taken by him at the cross and nailed to it.  And because we’re in Christ his victory is our victory over every power and authority which he’s achieved at the cross(15).

Isn’t that absolutely mindblowing?  By faith we are united to Jesus and all that’s his is ours because we’re in him, there is a lifetime of growth in unpacking and mining that truth.  And the Colossians will grow, mature, become more like Jesus, as they understand and grasp the significance and implications and applications of locating themselves, their identity, in him.

Fundamental to our growing in Christ is to recognise who we are and where we find ourselves. We are in Christ! Everything that happens to him happens to us.

Photo by Daniel Eledut on Unsplash