One of the main things I think that we and all other people in America are searching for is the good life. Am I right? I mean, we all want to have a good home, a good car or two, good vacations, good children, good friends, good food, and so on. Who wouldn’t want such a good life? Indeed, there might be a few odd balls who would prefer a bad life, but they are certainly a rarity. Not many make it their goal in life to have bad cars, bad homes, bad children, bad friends and bad food. It’s natural for us to aspire for something better than that. It’s a given that we will seek the good life. There’s nothing wrong with that.
That’s really not the question. The real question is: can the good life actually be had? We apparently think so. For we have devoted most of our energy to finding it. We spend our days earning money; we spend our nights and weekends finding or planning new ways to spend our money. But here’s the catch (and its a big catch): rarely, if ever, do we come to the point where we know for a fact that we have the good life. Surely you must have noticed that shortly after you think you have arrived, you suddenly realize that something more is needed. There’s always something more, isn’t there?
The downside is, most of us always find a way to spend all the money that we take in; we have filled up our schedules to the point where we find it difficult even to sit down and have dinner with our families. We are losing the art of conversation. We sometimes actually prefer to get an answering machine rather than a real person so that we can say what we want to say without having to "waste our time" listening to another human being blather on.
And we wonder why its become more difficult to form friendships and why neighbors don’t know each another any more and why children are rarely seen playing outside. What has happened? We are living the good life aren’t we? Isn’t this the way it’s supposed to be?
Indeed it is, for this time period in the United States of America, this is the way that we are supposed to live. This is what they tell us. The favorite term in referring to us is "consumer." And that’s what we have obediently been doing for entire lives. We’ve been consuming stuff. We’ve been consuming stuff in the hopes of finding that good life that always seems to elude us.
Just what have we gotten ourselves into? Whatever it is, The Lord calls us to come out of it. Instead of always following the weary cycle of earning and spending, he calls us to back up a little bit; rethink what we are doing and try different approach. Instead of earning and spending, he suggests earning and giving. He said in today’s Gospel lesson "Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s" (Mark 12:17). Notice that this is the possessive form: it implies ownership. You, of course, already know that Caesar, that is, the government, owns things that are now in your possession. What you probably didn’t know is that God owns things in your possession too.
So God owns something that you now have in your possession? Oh yeah. Remember Psalm 24, we spoke it responsively today. What does it say? "The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it." Once again we find the possessive form. Everything is the Lords. And everything means Everything doesn’t it? So everything you own or even aspire to own is really the Lord’s. Do you believe that? I’m confident that you do. It’s God’s Word after all. And you wouldn’t be in this church if you didn’t believe that God’s Word is the truth.
But maybe there’s a part of you that says, "Now wait a second, I earned all that I have." You’re just a little too close to it. Back up and see the big picture. Who made it possible for you to earn what you have? Who gave you your mind, and your hands and your talents and your very life? Who saw to it that you would be born under a good government that protects you and allows you to do your work in peace? The answer is God on all counts. This is what the Bible says, and this is what we believe.
So if everything that we have is God’s in the first place, I think each of us should take a good hard look at ourselves and ask: "how am I spending God’s money?" Perhaps also a closely related question, "how am I spending God’s time?" I think that if we answer these questions correctly, it will go a long way toward helping us to live not just the good life that we so fervently seek but never attain, but the BETTER life which God would have us live.
Let’s dig into God’s Word a little bit. Let’s make it our goal to find answers to these way-of-life questions. Don’t be afraid. It’s not that deep. It’s rather simple actually. There are numerous places wherein God spells it out in rather clear language.
In particular, the Old Testament Lesson that we read today, (Malachi 3:6-12) couldn’t be more clear. It probably jumped out at you when we read it for the first time this morning. God broaches the subject of what we are going to do with his stuff rather boldly as he says to the people of Judea, "Will you rob me?" It probably hit them upside the head, in much the way it hits us upside the head. "How? How are we robbing you, Lord?" He explains: "In tithes and offerings."
So they were supposed to give some of his money back to him, but they weren’t. Actually if you read the first part of Malachi, you’ll find out exactly what they were doing. In those days, when they gave offerings to the Lord, they gave animals, which were often understood to be the legal tender of the day. Well, the people in Malachi’s day were indeed giving animals to the Lord, but they were giving lame animals, blind animals, and even diseased animals; the kind of animals that they themselves had no use for.
I’ve got to tell you about something rather strange that has happened to me since I’ve been living in this area. It’s probably because we’re very close to a freeway and strange things will often flow on freeways. On three separate occasions, a nondescript white van pulls over on my street. A shaggy looking character gets out and says, "hey, you want to buy some meat at a low low price?" And I’m thinking to myself, "What was their a nuclear accident somewhere? Did you find a bloated steer on the side of the road and carve him up so you could sell him to people like me" And I, very promptly, and sometimes even sternly say, "NO!" You see, I’m kind of funny that way. I’m just not into suspicious or tainted meat. Apparently, God isn’t either. Through his prophet Malachi, he actually told his people that he wished someone would close the doors to the temple so these so-called offerings could no longer be received.
Now the Lord doesn’t change, as he says. And just as he didn’t like the tainted meat that they were offering him, I’m guessing he probably doesn’t like it when our offerings are tainted either. How do we taint our offerings? By not giving him the best, the first, and the stuff that we ourselves would prize. The offerings that we give on Sunday are not to be like the change that we get at the coffee shop which we dump into the tip jar. It’s not to be the money that we have left over after we’ve done everything that we’ve wanted to do. The offerings that we give; that we set aside for him, need to be of the first order. We must think of him first, before we make all our plans to spend it elsewhere. The same could be said about the way we spend our time. Before we set up our entire schedule, we need to think of him first.
Now correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t there some commandments that relate to this? Of course! You know them. You love them. You’ve committed them to memory; "You shall have no other Gods," (Ex 20:3) and, "Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy" (Ex 20:8).
God accused the Judeans of robbing him: Robbing him by offering him the dregs of their lives and income. But he also accused them of robbing him by not fulfilling what he referred to as "the tithe." What is the tithe? The tithe is ten percent. God expected them to give ten percent of his money back to him and they weren’t doing it.
Now in modern times, people are always quick to point out that the tithe was something that is from the Old Testament period and therefore not pertinent to our situation. And yet when Jesus was speaking with a man who told him that he tithed, Jesus didn’t say "Oh, you should stop that immediately...your a New Testament man." Nope. Jesus said, "that’s good, you should do that." Jesus thought tithing was a good thing. And besides, the people back in Malachi’s time didn’t know everything that we know. They had some inkling of the great and mighty things that God was going to do for the whole world, but they didn’t know the wonderful specifics; that he was actually going to die in our place so that we would be saved for all eternity. We really shouldn’t be downplaying and begging off the tithe! On the contrary, we should be talking it up and asking ourselves if 10% is enough!
So if you want to break the weary cycle of earning and spending, earning and spending, earning and spending, and get off the endless quest for the elusive good life, maybe you could try earning and giving for a change. Maybe you could start tithing; giving back to God just 10% of what is technically already his.
But of course, in Malachi’s day, it really wasn’t about the money. It wasn’t about the offerings. Their truly lame offerings were merely a symptom of a problem with their hearts. Their hearts weren’t in the right place. They were overcome with greed. They were caught in the same web of earning and spending that we get caught in. They became so focused on the earning and spending that that became the center of their lives. It became another God to them. They were not remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy and this really hurt God. He so often speaks of his relationship with his people in terms of a marital relationship. And his bride, the people he loved were drifting away from him. They had come to the point were they were just going through the motions. And he could see it in their offerings. The offerings they gave revealed what was in their hearts.
What does he see in your offerings? What is in your heart? That’s the real issue isn’t it? That’s always been the issue. God loves you and he wants you to love him in return. Of all the lessons in life that we could learn, this is the one that matters the most. Learn it. Learn that God loves you and learn to love him in return.
We are born blind to God, incapable of hearing his voice, incapable of knowing him. But then he breaks into our lives with his grace and helps us to see and hear and know him. And as we come to know him, we learn that he gave not just 10%, but that he gave us his all, he went to the cross and actually died in our place. God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. God so loved you that he gave his only Son to you! He is yours! Which means, he has also given you complete forgiveness for sins. Which means, he has also given you eternal life. And that eternal life has already begun. Jesus said, "Whosoever lives and believes in me, will live even though he dies" (John 11:25-26) And now he asks you, he simply asks you to start living like the eternal person that you are. Take your focus off of your money and start focusing on the one who has given you his money.
That’s why we put our offerings on the altar. That’s why we do our offerings during worship. Our offerings are an act of worship. With our offerings we are saying, "God I get it, apart from you I have no good thing. What I give you now is what I used to worship and am constantly tempted to worship. I am giving it to you now to you now to show that it is you that I worship" Your offering is a representation of what’s going on in your heart.
And do you know what’s really interesting? When you stop thinking about money so much, and start thinking more about your eternal relationship to the Lord, you will find that money problems begin to go away. I know, its rather counterintuitive, but much about the Lord’s ways seem that way to us. Listen to what he says to the people of Judah "Bring the whole tithe into my house....test me in this, and see if I do not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it" (Mal 3:10). And this is not just an Old Testament thing. Jesus said pretty much the same thing; "Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over it will be poured into your lap" (Luke 6:38). Paul also said something similar. "Remember this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly and whoever sows generously will also reap generously" (2Corinthians 9:6).
So here we have three different passages of scripture that tell us to do the opposite of what we are normally given to do with our money. Instead of gathering, hoarding, and spending it all on ourselves, we should give at least a portion of it to the Lord. The Lord actually tells us to test him by giving the tithe. So why don’t you test him? I am convinced that if you do, you will begin to possess the BETTER life that our Lord has promised. AMEN