(February, 2003 POL)
Title: The Offering
Text: 1 Corinthians 16:1-4
I got a chuckle from a cartoon I saw a while back. It shows hundreds of people streaming out the doors of a large church sanctuary dressed only in their underclothing: men in their boxer shorts, women in their slips . . . One person turns to another and says, “That was the best stewardship sermon I ever heard.”
Every Sunday morning, as part of our worship service, we take an offering.
Now when you think about it, taking an offering for God is a very strange thing. God doesn’t need our money. God created the earth and the sun and the moon and the stars and the galaxies. God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, the Psalmist tells us. God’s resources are infinite. Yet throughout the Bible, the primal act of worship by human beings is making an offering to God. In the beginning Cain and Abel made offerings to God. Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the kings and prophets of Israel all made offerings to God. In the New Testament, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus went to the temple and made an offering to God. The Apostle Paul told the churches to take an offering every Sunday. A few minutes ago we took an offering in this sanctuary. And when I’m finished speaking, we are going to take the mother of all offerings: estimating our giving for the year 2003. Clearly, the Bible and the Christian Church say you are to make offerings to God. Why? If God doesn’t need our money, it must be because you and I have a need to give.
In my years in the church I have noticed two prevailing schools of thought about the offering. The first is what I call the old realist approach. The old realist is usually some no nonsense businessperson who says, “Look, you have to pay the bills. You have to keep the ministers fed, the lights on and the building maintained. The missionaries have to be supported. And nobody’s ever come up with a better way of getting it done than to call a ‘time out’ after the sermon and have the organist play something pretty while you pass the hat and ask everybody to dig down deep in their pockets and pitch in their fair share.” The old realist sees the offering as a necessary evil.
Across the aisle from the old realist sits the young idealist. He or she sees the offering as an unnecessary evil: “Why don’t we live like the lilies of the field in this church? Why don’t we just have faith and trust God to make ends meet? Why don’t we pray instead of having stewardship campaigns and pledge cards and fund appeals?”
Now I have to admit that in the early years of my ministry I tended toward the young idealist approach; I tried to show my faith in God’s abundance by making nary a mention of money in worship. I considered that way of preaching to be more spiritual. And it may be spiritual, but folks, it’s not Biblical.
In Paul’s eyes, the offering is neither a necessary evil nor an unnecessary evil – it is a necessary good, so important that it must be an integral part of the worship service. Listen again to his words: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income…”
If you look at the New Testament in the original Greek, you get an even better idea of how important offerings are to Paul. Paul used nine different Greek words to denote the offering. By contrast, he used only four words for love. You may not have noticed before, but I ask you to consider how our entire Peachtree worship service climaxes with the offering. After the hymn, after the prayers, after the anthem, the music gets soft and then it starts to swell into a Jacuzzi of sound. Louder and louder it becomes, until, as if responding to a Pavlovian instinct, we leap to our feet and burst into song. Ushers parade down the aisle as we sing: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow / Praise him all creatures here below…”And one of our families comes forward to dedicate our offering to Almighty God. We make a big deal of the offering here at Peachtree. According to Paul, we are right to do so.
In my last church, we also took the offering seriously. One Sunday when I was not in town, there was a bomb scare. The usher came up to the associate pastor in charge and slipped him a note saying a bomb was set to go off in the building. This pastor stood up and took the offering, and then he evacuated the people. When they stood for the doxology, he just pointed them toward the door.
The offering is central in our worship of God.
Let me give you five reasons why.
First of all, through our offering we participate in the work of God in the world. One weekday afternoon, I walked out of my office door. To the left of the door is a rack where we put out printed copies of our sermons. When I walked out that day, I saw a big friendly African-American man sitting in a chair reading one of my sermons. I introduced myself and he told me he was a pastor who was just starting a new church in South Atlanta. He told me, “I watch Peachtree on TV, and sometimes on my day off I come over here and sit in this chair and read your sermons.” I said, “Oh come on, get a life. On your day off you come here and read my sermons? I’ll mail you my sermons. We have wonderful sermon ladies who come and prepare and send out those sermons. Let me have the sermons sent to you.” After I said that, this man looked down our hallway, which may be longest hallway in Atlanta. He looked in one direction and then turned and looked in the other direction. Finally, he looked up at me and said, “No, thanks. I just love to come here and see all that God can do.” When we give here to Peachtree, we raise up a witness to the living God who still works wonders. We show the world all that God can do.
A second reason why the offering is so important is that by making an offering, we enter into the heart of Christian worship. In the Bible nobody ever came before God without a gift. In Exodus 34:20, God explicitly told Israel, “No one is to appear before me empty-handed.”
The most privileged personage in all of Israel was the Levitical priest. On behalf of his nation, once a year he was allowed to enter the Holy of Holies and there bestow offerings upon Almighty God. Friends, today we are that Levitical priesthood. The veil was rent in twain by the cross, so we are the priesthood of all believers. And Sunday after Sunday, we stand inside the Holy of Holies and bestow offerings of prayers and praise and possessions upon our God and king! We are here today not just to receive blessings. We’re here to make offerings that bring a smile to the face of our Holy and Mighty God.
The third reason why the offering is central to Christian worship is one of my favorites: the offering is what makes our worship realistic and saves us from sentimentality. My next question may seem strange in this context, but have you ever wondered why dogs love to stick their heads out the windows of moving cars? It’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about. Why do they do that? I even tried it once; it didn’t do a thing for me. But you should see the ecstasy on the face of our chocolate lab, Carolina. Finally it dawned on me that when she sticks her head out the car window, Carolina enters a doggy fantasyland. She is thinking, “I’m the fastest dog in the world! I’m running fifty miles an hour. Call me Superdog…” And best of all, she can indulge this fantasy without expending one ounce of energy!
Some Christians are like that. They come to Sunday worship service because they love to feel the wind in their face. They love to sing songs about daring faith, and thrilling trusting, and radical obedience. But in reality, like the family dog, they’re only along for the ride – what they want is sensation without substance. Currently, my favorite quotation is from the President of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, who said, “In the history of the world, no one has ever washed a rented car.”
Until you feel ownership in the kingdom of God and its work through Peachtree, you will not give. But when you do give, you show that your faith is as real and as hard as the coins you drop in the offering plate. Every Sunday we have a ritual called the offering, where we put our money where our mouth is.
A fourth reason why the offering is so important is that it is an expression of simple gratitude. Think of your checkbook as thank-you stationery. Here is my checkbook. Inside it is the stationery I use to write thank-you notes, to say “Thank you God. Thank you for crisp fall mornings and cool air to fill my lungs. Thank you for this beautiful urban forest we call Atlanta. Thank you for this nation I love, so free and fair, where next Tuesday I have the opportunity to help choose the leaders who govern my society. Thank you for friends and family, for my wife Becky and our marriage, and for my daughters Sarah, Jessica and Amy, who tend to use up a lot of my thank-you stationery themselves. I thank you for our children with their whims of iron. Most of all, I write to say thank you for Jesus, who shares my every moment and knows my every need, who sends his angels to stand guard over me as I sleep. I write thank you for a loving heavenly Father who sends his Spirit to bear witness with my spirit that I am his child – moment by moment, day by day. And for this faith, which if I let it sink deep enough into my soul, will one day have me going to my death in a state of crazy anticipation, as if setting off on a far-flung adventure with my closest friend.”
It is in this context of thankfulness that Paul talks about the offering. At the end of1 Corinthians 15, which precedes our reading, we soar like eagles through the Himalayan heights of Easter hope. Paul writes: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? …Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord…Now brethren, concerning the offering…” Paul seems to be saying that in light of the fact that God has made it possible for you to live forever, you should be sure to write him a thank you note! We’ve provided thank-you stationery in the form of your pledge card this morning.
Our fifth reason for the centrality of the offering is this: we are not just giving to God. By giving on earth, we are laying up for ourselves treasure in heaven. The paradox of the Christian life is that we only keep what we give away. So the offering is a savvy investment plan for eternity.
I find it interesting that Jesus does not talk about giving as a matter of morality. Preachers will often speak as if it is immoral for us to hang on to our wealth and possessions. Jesus’ argument for giving isn’t from morality, but from wisdom: if you’re building up treasures on earth, you’re not immoral – you’re just stupid! What could be dumber than to end up in eternity someday and find out that none or very few of your riches are there waiting for you? Jesus’ parables tell of wealthy people who wake up on the other side and say, “Oh no, what was I thinking?” And they live in eternal regret for not having laid up a more heavenly treasure.
So Paul says you should build up your investment account for heaven systematically: “On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income…”
You wonder, “How much should I give?” Paul answers, “In keeping with your income.” In other words, look at your house…look in your garage at the car you drive… look in your closet at the clothes you wear…look at how you spend your leisure time. Now tie your standard of giving to your standard of living. Give “in keeping with your income.”
John Ortberg has a sermon entitled “It All Goes Back in the Box.” In it he talks about playing his grandmother in Monopoly as a boy. Grandma was ruthless. They used to play marathon games that went on for hours. Each was determined to win the battle of wits between two cutthroat Monopoly moguls. As property changed hands, the one with the upper hand would gloat. Of course the greatest thrill was to put up hotels on Boardwalk and Park place, and then (if this has ever happened to you, you know it’s the greatest feeling in the world) to watch your opponent land on Boardwalk, roll snake eyes, and land on Park Place. When that happened, you got to watch them turn over their deeds and mortgage their properties, wiped out financially. But no matter how thrilling the victory, at the end Ortberg’s grandmother would scoop up the green houses and the red hotels, the huge stacks of millions of dollars, and she’d always say, “Now it all goes back in the box.”
If you think about it, life is like Monopoly. We scheme. We strategize. And if we play the game well, the money rolls in. If we’re very successful, we may get a real Park Place and put up a real hotel. Along the path of our success, we are respected and admired and even looked upon with fear and awe, because we are real-life Monopoly moguls. But John Ortberg’s Grandma was right: no matter how much earthly wealth and success we amass, in the end it all goes back in the box. And the blunt truth is that when our bodies die, we end up in a box as well.
We prepare for that moment in two ways: by receiving Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior-and by laying up for ourselves treasure in heaven, where moths and rust, bears and bulls, ups and downs, and inflation and bad decisions, do not rob us of our wealth.
John Templeton is one of the most famous investors in the world. He annually confers the largest monetary prize in the world for religion. The amount of the Templeton Prize is even larger than that of the Nobel Prize. Sir John is a Presbyterian, and a few years ago, I had the privilege to dine with him. A while back, John Templeton spoke in Philadelphia. His speech was billed as, “Come hear John Templeton reveal the secret of his success!” It seemed as if every stockbroker in Philadelphia turned out for the event, held in the ballroom of a hotel. John Templeton stood before them and said, “The success of my life is due to tithing.” He continued, “The key to investing is putting your money in undervalued stocks…Today, a life of servanthood is undervalued, the lives of children are undervalued and the gospel of Jesus is undervalued. Put your money in things of eternal value.”
Years ago I came across a collection of thoughts from Mary Jean Arian, entitled Gifts from a Hair Dryer-Reflections of a Mom as She Combs Her Seven Year old Daughter’s Hair After a Bath:
Comb and dry. Comb and dry. “Soon I won’t be able to do this any more,” you say to yourself, knowing that the little straight bob must inevitably yield to grown-up coiffures and ugly curlers. What will she be like at 14? Where will her hair be blowing then-at 16 and 18? Do you suppose boys will love to watch her hair blow as you do now? And some of them will feel it on their faces. And one of them will marry her and her hair will be spread under a veil, and then, spread out on his pillow. And oh, you hate him a little and wonder where he is at this moment, whether he’ll be good to her. They will grow old together. And the gold-brown hair will be gray. And you will be gone. And then, she will be gone-this very hair that now your fingers smooth. And all the tears of the world swim for a second in your eyes as you snatch the plug out of the socket suddenly, and gather her into your arms, burying your face in the warm hair, as if you could seal this moment against all time.
But of course we can’t. “Only one life will soon be past…and only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven.
This morning, we’re asking our members and regular worship attendees to estimate your gift to God’s work through this church in 2003. If you are a guest and this is not your church home, please know that we are not asking any financial gift from you; we’re simply asking you to pray for us. You may have never seen a bunch of people who need more prayer than us. Or perhaps you might make this a time to dedicate your life before God. When you receive the card, would you consider writing, “Lord I offer my life to you… or re-dedicate my life to you.” Or simply say you will pray for our church here in Atlanta
This is an Estimate of Giving card. You can change your estimate at any time by making a simple phone call to the church business office. There is nothing binding about what you write on the card. We’re going to have a few moments of quiet during which it’s okay to whisper to your spouse, and then we’re going to ask you to fold your card and come forward. As an act of dedication of your life to God, place the card on this table. We urge couples and entire families to come forward together. Guests can come forward as they desire – we have no particular order, come as God calls you to. If you have mobility problems, please ask someone near you to take your card up for you.