Make God a Priority - Mark 12 and Matthew 19
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Make God A Priority – 02.26.2023
[Mark 12:41-44 and Matthew 19:16-30]
Sometimes I day dream about what it would be like to just preach happy things. You know? Like, stop worrying about the bible, and trying to encourage people to grow more Christ-like – you know, instead just make people feel good. I think I’d be good at it. You know? Become one of those trendy mega-church pastors with lots of money and have every sermon basically just be a giant pep talk, motivational rally instead of reading this book to find out the truth of what’s out there and how God wants us to live, what God expects of us. It would probably be easier, probably, if my job was to keep you happy, instead of keeping you holy. It would be easier to give you the world, I think, than to give you the good news about God. But only one of those is actually valuable.
Has anybody here ever heard of Benny Hinn? Benny Hinn is a well known prosperity gospel preacher. If you’ve never heard of that, prosperity gospel preachers are people who preach that if you give enough money, God will bless you. Usually they have very successful tv shows – like televangelists. People like Jessie Duplantis, Kenneth Copeland, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar (remember him? He’s the guy who said, God wants me to have the most expensive private jet in the world and you should send in your donations so I can buy it?). Very good public speakers, brilliant preachers, sometimes they preach the actual gospel, but a lot of times they just use Christian words and a feel good message to make themselves a lot of money. I’ll put it bluntly – these men, and women have too much money. They use religion to fund their lavish lifestyles and it is the modern version of what the Catholic church was doing before the reformation. And Benny Hinn is one of them. He’s done loads of television appearances, and he’s known for his “healing” services – where he miraculously heals people and they give him money. Anyways, a couple weeks ago Benny Hinn said, in the middle of a sermon – I think I’ve got this wrong. And he repented of prosperity gospel, and said I will never preach that ever again. It made some waves in the Christian corners of social media, but largely the response has been one of mistrust. Does he really repent of what he did? Can we trust this man – and I think that again points to the issue of trust with money and religion. I want to be completely straight-forward and authentic with you all – there is a serious tension between religion and money. The church has made mistakes in the past, and we need to move forward carefully.
Today is part four of our sermon series The Shift. For the month of February we have been taking apart the expectations of the church, all those things we were told we have to do – and we are asking the question Why? We are told that we need to do a lot of things in the Christian Life – go to church, read the bible, pray, give money, volunteer – and they’re not bad things, but if we don’t understand why – we will not have the passion or motivation to actually do them. Today we are going to look at the issue of giving money. Now this is a tricky one, because money in the church is a VERY touchy subject. Couple weeks ago we did a brief survey – 2000 years of church history in 15 minutes – and one of the things we touched on was the deep corruption in the Catholic Church before the reformation, and how a lot of that centered around money. And even though we had the reformation, corruption with money remained. Thankfully the Methodist church put policies in place to avoid that. I don’t know if you know this, but we actually have a really great system of checks and balances – to keep leaders like me from mis-using church funds. I have a credit card for church expenses, but I have to report on every item, every receipt has to fit into a category in the budget. Other than the card, I cannot directly access the funds. I have to put in a request, and then other people have to approve it. The people who count the money, do it in front of security cameras, and they are not the same people who keep the records and cut checks and they are not the same people as the ones who spend the money. Actually it goes further than that, and I think you need to know – if you’re a member of this church, you are welcome to take a look at our finances. Giving is confidential, we don’t share who gives what, because that’s private. But if you want to see how much comes in, and how much goes out and where it all goes – you can come in anytime to look at it. Back when we had bulletins, we used to print a snapshot on the back. Honestly? Even if you’re a random visitor who walked in off the streets, you’re welcome to look at our finances. It’s not super exciting, and it’s a lot to take in the first time you see a finance report – but my point is that we have nothing to hide. I personally believe the church lost people’s trust in the last couple decades because some bad apples in other churches mis-used funds and we have a hard job in front of us to earn people’s trust back.
Crazy part is that Jesus warned us about all this nonsense thousands of years ago! Jesus talked more about money than anything else! In Matthew, Mark and Luke one out of every six verses deals with money. Jesus knew that this stuff was going to be a problem, an idol, a corruption, a temptation, a blessing and a gift. Of the 29 parables Christ told, 16 deal with a person and their money. Our scripture from Mark says, [read v.41]. So let’s paint a picture. Jesus sits down opposite the treasury. Back in the day they didn’t pass an offertory plate down the pews, they had a place where people would drop off their gift, before you entered the temple. And so Jesus plops down and watches people passing through, putting their gifts into the offering. Buncha rich people put in large amounts of money. So far so good. [read v.42-43]. Rich people come in and put loads of money in the plate, widow comes in and puts in a penny, a PENNY, and Jesus says she gave the most. Now, of course, this is very embarrassing for Jesus – because now he has to go back to accounting school. So far in this story all we have learned is that Jesus is terrible at math. Large amount of money. Penny. Think about this, is there a person in the room that would prefer a penny? Jesus, you’re not making any sense. Think about all the good you can do with the large sum of money – that’s clearly more important. You can print so many more bulletins with the rich person’s gift. Using the math of the world, the system of accounting that we have for this life – Jesus is wrong! It keeps going, [verse 44]. Rich people are giving out of their surplus, out of their extra, but the widow gave everything she had. Everything she had to live on. So now, in our culture, we realize – hey the rich people are very clever and the widow is an idiot! Isn’t this how we look at giving in our lives? Take care of ya business, and then whatever you got leftover, use to make yourself feel good by giving to charity or the church or whatever you want. Jesus has got to be mistaken. Ask yourself, would you ever recommend a woman in poverty give everything she has to the church? Jesus teaching doesn’t make any sense. It’s funny, I think this is a familiar story, many of you have heard this story before – but you don’t actually believe it. You wouldn’t follow this advice. This is one of those situations where Christians know the bible, but we don’t really believe it.
Something is wrong with this passage, it doesn’t make sense to us – unless Jesus is using a different value system than the rest of the world. A penny is not more than a large sum of money, unless it’s not about the amount. Jesus does not want a portion of your abundance, Jesus wants all of who you are. I’m not talking about money anymore. Jesus does not want your extra, your surplus, Jesus wants everything you’ve got. Everything you’ve got to live on – put it all in there. The amount doesn’t matter, the priority matters. Do you bring your leftovers for Jesus? Or the first fruits of your life? Is God the first thing to come off your schedule when you get busy? Is God the first thing to come out of your budget when money gets tight? The gospel is not about money, it’s not about amounts – it doesn’t take a chunk of your paycheck, it takes all of who you are. Before we move on, I should mention that right before Jesus sees the widow give her gift, he warns against the corruption of the scribes in the church and how they don’t take care of widows like they are suppose to, and then right after our scripture passage he predicts the destruction of the temple. This story about giving everything to God is framed inside a warning against corruption in organized religion. Jesus wasn’t messing around with this stuff.
Our second scripture tells the other story about money that most people have already heard of – the story of the rich young man. And it goes like this, [read v.16-17]. So this guy walks up to Jesus and says – what good deed must I do? And Jesus responds, “why are you trying to get there with good deeds?” Well that’s not actually what he says, but basically – he says, There is only one WHO is good. DO you see it? Because the only way to eternal life is through Jesus, it’s not about good deeds. Then he changes the question – to enter life, keep the commandments. The rich young man, who basically is the mascot for legalism, asks, “which commandments?” Which rules do I have to follow? [read v.18-19]. What’s funny to me is that these are easy rules to follow. Jesus is listing the stuff society uses to determine who is a good person. Don’t steal, don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t lie, and be nice to people. It’s not a way to earn heaven, but it is a good way to live life. If you do all that stuff, most people will like you. But then we get to verse 20. Verse 20 is so important, [read it]. The reason this verse is so important is because I don’t think we ask that question in our culture. As long as we follow that little set of rules, society will basically consider us a good person – and for so many of us that’s good enough. Bare minimum, how to live a good life. But the rich young man asks the super important question – even if the world thinks you are a good person – what do I still lack? And Jesus tells him, [read v.21-22]. Sell all your stuff, and give the money to the poor. I was thinking about this when I was writing this sermon – it says the young man went away grieving, because he had many possessions. And most scholars and pastor’s that preach on this text, we assume he does not sell his stuff. He looks at all his stuff, and it makes him sad to sell it – but maybe he still did it. Why do we assume grieving means we don’t do it? Is it because in our lives, if we don’t like something, or if something is a sacrifice for us – we won’t do it?
I remember, years ago I preached on this text, this story of the rich young ruler. And I remember, I had just become a pastor – it was like my first year or something like that. I remember reading the text and thinking that the obvious application is that we should sell all our stuff and give it to the poor. And I actually had people ask me, “they don’t really mean for us to sell all our stuff, right?” And so I got in front of that congregation, and in a moment of cowardice, I muted the message. I wanted them to like me, and I wanted to make them happy and so I told them something that made them feel better. I don’t even remember what rationalization I came up with, but basically I preached and said, “No, no, no, that’s not what it really means, he means something else.” But now I’m reading this text, and I’m wondering – what if? What if that was the message? What if God asked you to empty your bank account, sell your house, sell all your stuff, your couches, your tvs and give all the money to the poor? Would your response be any different than the rich young ruler? Because honestly, I love Jesus with all of my heart, but I also would be grieved because I have many things. If you live in modern America, it’s not like money might be an idol for your life. It’s not like maybe you struggle with love of money – money is an idol for every single person in this room. Our culture demands it. Jesus knew it would be a problem, and that’s why he talked about money so much. God uses different math than the rest of the world, and it is hard for us to see it God’s way and not the world’s way.
The good news for us this morning is that God reveals value. God teaches us better financial math than the world. Let me see if I can explain it like this, when you go to a doctor for your annual check-up, he or she will often begin to poke, prod and press in various places, all while asking you, “Does this hurt? How about this?” And if you cry out in pain, one of two things has happened. Either the doctor has pushed too hard, without the right sensitivity. Or, more likely, there’s something wrong, and the doctor will say, “We’d better do some more tests. It’s not supposed to hurt there!” So when God teaches us about money, and generosity, and we cry out in discomfort, criticizing the message or the scripture that makes us uncomfortable – either God pushed too hard, OR something is wrong. And the Great Physician tells us, “my friend, we are going to have to run some tests, because it’s not supposed to hurt there.” God reveals to us where real value is found in life, and it is very different than what the world promised. There is a transformation of character, a molding of the heart that God intends to work in each of us. I would argue that we start out generous. Children give more instinctively, more willingly – but as we grow we learn the habits of greed and self-interest. And God’s project in our hearts is to undo the bad habits of selfishness that the world has taught us.
God reveals value, and so our response is to store up our treasure in heaven. The rich young man is told, give it to the poor, take care of the poor and you store up your treasures in heaven. See, the mental shift I want you to make this morning is to realize that giving in church, or giving at all – it’s not about the church’s need, it has always been about the transformation of your heart. God wants to cultivate a generous heart in your life, and giving accomplishes that. That’s why it’s a percentage, not a set amount. Jesus was not impressed with the rich people giving lots and lots, because they gave from their abundance, which did not work down into their soul. Their giving demanded nothing of their heart, and Jesus wants our heart. God wants to create a generous spirit within you and the practice of giving does that.
A long time ago churches taught the tithe, 10% of your income, goes to the church. The bible is actually pretty specific about it. The first fruits of your labor go to the temple, it’s how you feed the priests and keep the temple operational. But then, partially because of all that corruption we talked about, there was a significant push back. They said anybody who pushed for 10% was being legalistic. It’s kinda funny because they say things like, “well, Jesus never talked about the tithe, Jesus wasn’t so legalistic. And looking at the two passages we just read, they’re right – Jesus didn’t talk about 10%! How much did he want the rich young man to give? 100% How much did the poor widow give? 100% You’re absolutely right – Jesus is not interested in 10%.n But no, it’s not about percentage - they said it should be about our hearts. It should be about joyful giving and a generous spirit, and so a bunch of churches stopped teaching the tithe. They stopped talking about 10%, and started talking more vaguely about joyful giving. Would you like to know what happened? We are actually LESS generous! On the whole, most people in our culture give roughly 2.5% of their income. We focused on joyful giving and cultivating a generous spirit, we got away from paying attention to numbers and the end result is that we became drastically less generous, and I don’t think we’re more joyful. Which is weird, because we’re giving less money, which means we have more money in our bank accounts which means, according to our culture, we should be happier. The hard truth is that we as a church have failed to cultivate a generous spirit. God shows us how value really works.
Alright, now let me soften it a little bit – because I still want you to like me. I completely understand. And this church is not worse than other churches, this is a national problem – basically every church in America has numbers that look a lot like those numbers. And I get it. I have struggled with my giving too. That’s why I’ve set up automatic payments. I decided how much of my paycheck I want to dedicate to God, and twice a month a payment automatically comes out of my account. Some people have told me that it’s dumb that I give money to the church when the church gives me my paycheck. But it’s not about money – just like all of you, my spirit still needs to grow, my heart needs to be molded by the practice of giving to be more generous – because God has revealed that a generous heart is worth more than whatever is in my bank account.
Alright, all of this comes together with one final application, this is my challenge to you this week. Choose the path of generosity that demands the most of you. I’m not saying you have to sit down and calculate 10%, although that’s a great starting point, to see if you’re being generous of not. I’m not advocating legalism, I’m just saying when we stopped looking at the numbers – stopped looking at 10% we became radically less generous. But I just want us to do whatever creates a generous heart in our lives. People who are a part of this church should become more generous over time – because that’s the math God uses. C.S. Lewis once said, “I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare.” Choose the path of generosity that demands the most of you. Give at a level where you feel it. Where you have to cut things from your budget to make God a priority. Where you notice it in your life. Don’t give your leftovers, give your first fruits.
Sometimes I daydream about what it would be like to preach just happy things, what would my job look like if my goal was just keeping everybody happy. But honestly, the truth is I love you too much to give you something that is worth less. God uses different financial math than the world. He teaches us that a generous heart is worth more than money in the bank account. And so I’ll leave you with this, May you choose the path of generosity that demands the most of you. May you give your entire life to Jesus; offer God your heart and let him shape you into a generous human being. And May you find true value by making God a priority in your life. Amen.