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God and What's Left Over
Scripture: Nehemiah 10:28-39
Track 2 of 52 in the Sermons from 2003 series
Running time: 31 minutes, 56 seconds.

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Chuck Sackett Speaker: Chuck Sackett
Dr. G. Charles Sackett is minister of Madison Park Christian Church.

View all sermons by this speaker.

Sermon for Sunday, May 11, 2003
Mothers Day
"God and What's Left Over"
(Nehemiah 10: 28-39)
C. Sackett

Not long ago I ran into this rather fascinating book, It's What My Mother Taught Me by Herb Mather. It's a story of how generous givers develop. By the very title you get a clear indication of who was significant in the life of these people. It's got one story in here, for example, of Saul's grandmother. Here's what she said to her eighteen year old grandson. "I want to share a special secret with you. Since you were a child, your mother and your father taught you to tithe to the church and to God. Right now I want to tell you why it is that we do that." She paused for a moment. She looked up at the sky and she said, "Our God, Our Heavenly Father is the owner and ruler of this vast universe. He doesn't need our money, but I will tell you this. When we give God the very first of our very best, we fill God's heart with joy."

That eighteen year old young man was learning an incredibly valuable lesson about who owns the universe and why in the world we respond by being faithful stewards of what God has given us. It has absolutely nothing to do with God needing our money.

Mrs. Harrison, who grew up in the inner city of Los Angeles, said, "My mamma died when I was twelve years old. My grandmother raised me and I always paid that little tithe. I called it a tip until I learned better. I didn't know the meaning of it. As I went to conferences, women's meetings, Saturday morning meetings, I finally discovered what the tithe was all about, a small percentage of income you give to the work of God, some people call it the 10 percent tithe. That's just the way I was brought up."

I don't know what kind of a household you came out of, but I came out of a generous household. Now my parents were Christians, but my parents were generous people. Now I just watched generosity overflow out of their lives. And I have to tell you that I'm indebted to my parents, my mother, my father, because they were, in fact, very generous people and they taught me something I think of extreme value. Now, you've been reading, I trust, this book by Kregg Hood and in that particular text he makes a strong affirmation of tithing and my opinion, too strong. And I want to just offer you a bit of corrective without sounding like I'm trying to undermine what he said, I think that he has a great deal to offer and much of what he said was correct, but there are two or three things that I would like to highlight for you, not the least of which is this. He ignores some of the key issues of literary genre. His primary quotation comes from the book of Proverbs. Proverbs is not a book of promises. Proverbs is a book that has to do with principles. Proverbs tells you what life is usually like. It's wisdom literature. And by its very nature it can't make promises but it can make these general principles and if you live in a certain way, certain things are going to happen and generally that's true. But we've had enough experience with life to realize that not everything always comes out exactly the way we perceive that it's going to come out. Even in the best of times, sometimes things don't turn out like we think they are going to.

There's a second difficulty that he raises for me in this book and that is that he ignores the covenant. He doesn't take into account that we live under the new covenant rather than the old covenant and his primary emphasis is upon legal texts out of the Old Testament which, in fact, do require from Israel, a tithe. Interestingly enough, no place in the New Testament is that brought over into New Testament requirement.

And then, probably the one that troubled me the most was the language of curse - that if you don't tithe, you bring yourself under God's curse. That was true in the Old Testament. There wasn't any question about that. In fact, the text that we're going to look at is, in part, along those very lines. But, since we're no longer under those curses, he states the case, I think, a bit too strongly and yet, I would want to caution you that the Lord does discipline those that he loves.

Well, having said that without trying to undermine what it is that I think is of extreme value in that particular text, I probably ought to give you my own bias opinion about this because you're the one - I'm the one you're going to have to listen to for the next fifteen or twenty minutes. I don't believe in tithing. I've always done it. I just don't believe in it. What I mean by that is I don't think that Christians are required to give a legal 10 percent of their income to the church. I think it's a great place to start - just don't think it's required. But I've spent my whole life as a Christian doing it. In fact, back in the good old days when we first started preaching - 1973 - January - I was getting paid $99.00 a week. My tithe would have been $9.90. If you went back to those days, if we still had the old check stubs - what you would discover, is a whole passel of checks written for $10.00. Now, it was a very minute distinction, but I want you to hear the distinction - we weren't tithing! It was only a dime more, but on $99.00 a week, it was a BIG dime! Then they gave me a whopping big raise about a year or so later - I started making $104.00 a week. Our check started being written at $11.00 and then $12.00 and then they became extremely generous with this young preacher and paid me a great deal more than I was worth. They paid me $125.00 a week. And, our checks began to be written at $15.00. What I want you to hear is that we have never tried to be rigid in this sense of doing 10 percent, but we made a decision when we first got married. We would never do less than what was required of an Old Testament person. I figure if I live under grace, why would I do less than those who lived under law? It's an intriguing principle of basic stewardship that we begin to wrestle with what it is that God wants us to do. And so I, frankly, looked at every major text that I can think of to look at in the New Testament to try to get a handle on this.

Matthew, Chapter 5, for example - you get this sermon on the mount passage where Jesus makes this interesting comment to his listeners - Chapter 5, Verse 20 - you're probably familiar with this text. After talking about ah - not giving away the word, but the word standing forever, he says in Verse 20; For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. And I've heard people say, that we give because we want to be more righteous than those Old Testament people. Well, if that's true, we've got a big step to take because they gave 23.3 percent every year. That was their tithe. So, if we're going to put this into kind of a works righteousness sort of thing until we get to 24 percent, we aren't practicing a greater righteousness than they. However, if you read that text in Matthew, Chapter 5, you understand very quickly, this is not some kind of legal comparison - here's the standard, now you step above it - it's a heart issue. You've heard it said, that thou shall not commit adultery, but I say to you, don't even look with lust. You've heard it said, don't murder, but I say don't be angry. It's a heart matter. The greater righteousness in giving is not a dollar and cents amount. It has to do with the heart. What's the heart like when you put that offering in the tray.

I took a look, for example, over at Luke 11, Verse 42. There it appears there may be some indication that we ought to give in the same way. He's talking to the Pharisees - it's this place where he has these six WOE statements. He talks about what the Pharisees did and he says to (Verse 42): "Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone." Just because we do things out of the heart, he says, doesn't necessarily mean we leave those more defined areas behind. But it still becomes a matter of the heart.

Hebrews, Chapter 7 is often one of those texts that is used where Melchizedek, this prince of Salem - king of Salem meets Abraham after Abraham has been to war and Abraham pays 10 percent of the booty of war to Melchizedek, the high priest and the line of argument goes something like this because Melchizedek is a type of Christ and because Abraham is the father of the Christian people, therefore because Abraham tithes to Melchizedek, Christians ought to tithe to Christ - that's kind of been the argument. Except that it ignores the whole point of the book of Hebrews and that is that Christ is superior to all of the old covenant. He is superior to Melchizedek's priesthood. He's superior to the Levitical priesthood, superior to angels, superior to law, he's superior to everything. Therefore if we give, we don't give because of some legal code, but we give because Christ is, in fact, superior to ALL of that legal code.

Well, having said all of that - some of you are wondering "WHAT IN THE WORLD are we going to get to??" Well, what about that Malachi 3:10 passage - if you rob the Lord, then he is not going to bless you and therefore you ought to give 10 percent - I - there's a famous Oklahoma preacher who's brand on his ranch was Malachi 3:10 and he made standing promises to anybody that would listen to him - if you tithe, God will bless you - he'll open up those storehouses and he'll pour out those things upon you - and frankly, he never had to settle up. I think you could do that because God will, in fact, bless you. But again, that's a covenant issue. So, what is there instead? What do you come to, if somehow, you dismiss the concept of rigid legal tithing out of the Old Testament? What's the principle that comes? Can I suggest to you that it's the principle of firstfruits? That, that carries over in principle, not in law.

Listen to what some of Mather reports from various testimonies. Ah - Here's a young boomer parent that is probably young, ah, like I'm young. I tried to do what I could after I paid my bills. I probably gave what was left or what I felt comfortable with. In the last five or six years, we ‘ve tried to make the commitment to set aside the church's portion first, rather than last. My goal is to make sure I give 10 percent, then I can say I'm giving my full tithe.

Listen to the first language. Over here, Patricia says: The church check is one of the first checks I write each month. We tithe. If special things come up I give. It's one way to get beyond that 10 percent. And then she describes how she also gives of time and other things.

Andrew makes this comment. My goal is to make sure I give 10 percent. Probably the neat part is, when I look at the monthly budget or the weekly budget is you really don't miss it. If you wait last to do it, you probably miss it. I guess that's how it ought to be done. It's that sense of firstfruit.

The context of our text, Nehemiah, Chapter 10 is post-Jerusalem captivity. Israel has failed in their covenant relationship with God. They've been taken captive for seventy years. Now, they've been brought back home. Ezra has come, reestablished the law. Nehemiah has come, rebuilt the walls of the temple and now the people are dedicating themselves, once again to a covenant relationship with God. We pick it up in Verse 28 of Chapter 10. It's an odd kind of a text, but listen carefully to this principle of firstfruit.

"The rest of the people--priests, Levites, gatekeepers, singers, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand--all these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord.

We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us to take their daughters for our sons.

When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts.

We assume the responsibility for carrying out the commands to give a third of a shekel each year for the service of the house of our God: for the bread set out on the table; for the regular grain offerings and burnt offerings; for the offerings on the Sabbaths, New Moon festivals and appointed feasts; for the holy offerings; for sin offerings to make atonement for Israel; and for all the duties of the house of our God.

We--the priests, the Levites and the people--have cast lots to determine when each of our families is to bring to the house of our God at set times each year a contribution of wood to burn on the altar of the Lord our God, as it is written in the Law.

We also assume responsibility for bringing to the house of the Lord each year the firstfruits of our crops and of every fruit tree.

As it is also written in the Law, we will bring the firstborn of our sons and of our cattle, or our herds and of our flocks to the house of our God, to the priests ministering there.

Moreover, we will bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our gain, offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and oil. And we will bring a tithe of our crops to the Levites, for it is the Levites who collect the tithes in all the towns where we work. A priest descended from Aaron is to accompany the Levites when they receive the tithes, and the Levites are to bring a tenth of the tithes up to the house of our God, to the storerooms of the treasury. The people of Israel, including the Levites, are to bring their contributions of grain, new wine and oil to the storerooms where the articles for the sanctuary are kept and where the ministering priests, the gatekeepers and the singers stay.

"We will not neglect the house of our God."

This basic principle came out of that covenant failure, the first belongs to the Lord. Now, it's not like he doesn't have it all, but the first belongs there - and here's the principle, I think, that comes out of this text. God gets his first! That orders everything. See. When God gets his first, everything else falls into place! I've been playing with an image. I don't know what to do with it, but I'm sure you're going to hear more about it sometime in the future. If Sunday is the first day of the week, then that orders all of our temporal priorities. See, if Sunday is not the last day of the weekend, when everything is kind of winding down and now you've got to think about Monday as being the first day - if Sunday is the first day, then spiritual things order everything about our lives.

Well, if the first check you write goes to the Lord, that will order your financial things as well. See. When God gets his first, everything else falls into place!

Here's where I think our author, Kregg Hood, is absolutely correct. He gives you these four basic principles and I think he's correct on these principles, even though I disagree slightly with his more rigid sense of tithing. He is affirming that we give proportionally and when we give proportionally, God blesses. He says these four things: Giving will motivate a greater faithfulness. It will simply motivate you to be more faithful in every other way

I have a good friend who decided he was going to move out of the renting into the buying of a place to live and discovered how expensive it was to buy a house - and realized that if he was gonna buy a house, he was gonna have to spend more on the house every month than he gave to the church. And he refused to do that. He decided that his greatest expense, if you will, was going to be the church. And so, he bought less house and raised his giving so that his giving to the church was always greater than his house payment. Rather intriguing kind of thing to have happen!

I found this fascinating - I want to share a bit more of this - I mentioned this book last week - ah - Craig Blomberg's book, Neither Poverty nor Riches - I want just to read the front dedication cover to you - you know, that little thing where they put the blurb to the memory of. Here's a little statement at the bottom of the page. "All royalties received from sales of this book will be donated to Christian organizations of the author's choice that are currently implementing significant aspects of the Biblical themes surveyed in here about social concern."

See. What happens when you put God first is that it begins to order everything else about you and it increases your faithfulness in every area of your life.

He says, Second, (Kregg Hood says) It releases God's financial blessing. I don't know how to explain that - to tell you exactly what that means - it's not like my experience has been that God just suddenly made me wealthy, because he never did. When I made $99.00 a week, I had one day off a week from the church and I worked because that was the only way I could put shoes on my children. But I have to tell you, we never went without. You can tell I've never missed meals. I've been blessed. There's never been a time when I wasn't able to take care of the things that I needed to take care of because God honored that commitment to write those checks first. And they have always been written first. I've had my children asked me, don't you think it would be okay if you just skipped giving this week in order to pay that bill? And I've said, well, I'm sure God would understand, I'm quite confident he would not be upset about it, but that's just not how we work. The church goes first and that very week, somebody handed me a check and you know how much it was for - exactly the amount that the bill was for. Because God honors that kind of stubbornness - huh - to do things the way you think God wants them done.

The third thing that Hood says that it expands kingdom work. Have you thought about the potential of what could happen if all the Christians tithed? Just minimally gave 10 percent of their income?? This church alone - the annual amount of money that we would have to do kingdom work would be about two million dollars. I just "ball-parked" it. I have no clue of how close this is going to come but I'm just "ball-parking". There are 40,000 people in Quincy. The average income per capita is like $18,000 a person. That's $720,000,000 - if every person in Quincy tithed, we'd have 72 million dollars we wouldn't know what to do with - other than maybe accomplish some social justice

There are those like Ron Seider (??) who is an economist, who have made this estimate, that if every Christian, if only the Christians, in the United States tithed, we could eradicate world hunger in less than a decade - simply because of the resources that would be available.

The fourth thing that Hood says is that it changes our spending habits. That's true! When you write the first check to the church you don't have as much in there to spend. So you have to start thinking differently about how you're going to spend some of your money.

Here's what Diane says: This is an odd statement, but I'm going to share it with you cause I was intrigued by it. When my husband was working, we made a point that if we could give 15% to a restaurant when you tip somebody, you could surely give 15% to the church. We decided if you're going to tip somebody else you might as well tip God. I'm not sure that I like, particularly, the language but I hear what they're saying. That if God comes first, it does change how you spend your money. I think of a - I think of a friend of mine who has decided that he would never buy something for himself that he didn't give an equivalent amount to the church or to one of his missionaries. So if he bought a new pair of shoes and they cost him $50.00 bucks, they really cost him a hundred because fifty went to the church.

It orders your spending - it changes your habits - you don't have any choice but to reorder things.

I had the privilege of working with a man down in Granite City, Illinois. Worked for the steel mill. He was a guy who wanted to become a Christian. We sat through the studies together. Finally had the privilege of baptizing him into Christ and he came to me about a week later and he said, ya know, if I'm gonna be a Christian, I probably need to start giving something to the church. But, he said, I've got to be honest with you, I don't have any money. Now - I was bolder in those days than I am now so I just asked him - what do you mean? You don't have any money? And he just gave me his finances - I mean - he just laid them out in front of me - and ya know what? He didn't have any money! He was the typical American. Hocked up to his eyeballs in credit card debt. So I said, alright, let's talk - how we gonna do this - because I think you are right - you need to do something. I said, when you get paid on Friday, what do you do? He said, well the first thing I do is, I go to a--and he named the bar-- and he cashed his check and he bought a beer and then he bought a case which in those days cost $5.76. I don't know how much they cost now, but back then it was $5.76. And about the time that he said that, he said--I guess I won't be buying that case any more, will I? I said, you know that would be a really good place for you to start, so you know what started showing up in the offerings every week? $5.76

And then he began to pay off those credit card debts and he'd cut up a credit card as soon as it was paid up and the next thing you know he began--do you see what happened? He put God first--it reordered all of his spending habits. It changed the way he dealt with his finances. I think Kregg Hood is correct at that point.

What I'm really calling you to do is just simply being generous, not legal, generous. Understanding this basic principle of joyful intentional giving. Not because you sit down and mark out 10 percent of your paycheck but because you have made a decision, I want to give to God out of the overflowing joy and worship of my heart and I'm gonna start somewhere.

I want to come back to a couple more testimonies that came out of this. This is Brad's testimony. We don't set out to give a tithe. Last year we gave double the tithe. We're not the biggest proportional givers in our church. But when our income goes up we try to be generous.

Here's the testimony of Justin. When I started tithing the first month was terrible. The second month wasn't so bad. The third month it became pretty routine. After that, it began to have financial impact.

Or the testimony of Mark. Ten percent is just basic. I stopped counting.

Whatever the Holy Spirit tells me to do in my heart, I do it. The amount, or what percentage, I don't think that's what's important. And I always pray to God Let this ten percent increase. And I tell God, Give me the faith and the heart to . . . . . . . than I am giving.

About fifteen years ago, I ran into a concept that I'd never seen in print anywhere before, but we'd been doing it for all our married life. Ron Seider calls it the graduated tithe and for him it's a very complex formula. You decide how much you need to live on and you give ten percent of that. Anything after that is given in increasing increments. It gets way too complicated for me.

But this is how it looked to us. Any time there was extra income, we gave a double tithe. So for example, if I did a wedding or a funeral, and somebody paid me to do that--we gave 20 percent of that to the church. Because we just figured that it was just added blessing. We've been doing that all of our lives.

Now, I want to be careful how you hear this because I don't want this in any way to come across badly--but I don't know what else to do except give you my personal testimony. My primary job is in Lincoln, Illinois where I work for Lincoln Christian College, five days a week. We give on our money to that organization, at just slightly over a tithe level. You guys are kind enough, also, to pay me for being here to preach. This is extra for me. This is not what I do for a living. This is what I do for fun. This is my recreation. So we give significantly more than a tithe here. Because we have always practiced that graduated tithing, that if God honors us with additional income, we're going to give it away, because that's his blessing.

See. I think it works something like this. If you know that it takes $50,000 a year to live and you make $50,000 a year and you give $5,000 of it away, you've got nothing left. You're living on what you can live on. But if you make $150,000 a year and it costs $50,000 to live and you give 10 percent, you've given three times as much. That's true--you've given $15,000--but you've got $45,000 left over, that you didn't have to have. So the real key is, not to raise your standard of living, to raise your standard of giving instead. And it's a challenge that I simply would lay in front of you.

Here's the way Ron Seider, excuse me, Craig Blomberg, put it. I'll just read a brief portion.

He said, "I was challenged early in my adult life by two different pastors, one in the United States and one in the United Kingdom, who gave 25% of their total income back to the Lord's work." Now he's talked about this. He's going to talk a bit about his own life. He says, at the bottom of this paragraph. "Our overall total income put us $4,000 below the average household income for our suburban community and yet we gave over 30% of our income to the church." He said, this was 1998. "This was the fifth consecutive year that we went over 30%."

I take that to be an extreme challenge. I'm gonna see if we can get permission to photocopy the last two or three pages of this book, just in case you might want to read it, cause it's such a powerful testimony of how they do that and how they've accomplished it.

Here's what I'm asking you to do. It's a very simple thing. If you've never tried tithing, I'm going to ask you to try it. If you've never sat down and said I'm gonna give 10 percent of my money to the church, I'm gonna ask you to try it. That's hard!

Ben says in here, It's hard! I don't even have to turn to the page. That's all he said. It's hard! When you first start, it can be. It can be a real challenge because it reorders so much about your life. Go for it! Try it for a year and if at the end of a year, your life is not radically different than it is now, then stop doing it. That's Malachi's challenge. Try me! See, if I won't take care of you.

Now if you're sitting there thinking, I cannot do that--I just can't--Okay--that's alright too. Let me share with you one last testimony.

This one comes from Tanya. I'd always been hung up or obsessed with the full ten percent. But in a sermon, the minister said that it's okay to grow to ten percent, to start somewhere and gradually grow. So that said to me, this is something I can do. I'm moving in that direction. I'm trying to get there. I started at 2% and I stayed at that level for six months. I moved up. I saw that even with giving what I thought was a huge amount of my little income, I was able to go on and eventually get to the full ten percent.

That's what I'm suggesting. If you just don't feel like, because of your financial situation, you can start at ten, start at two or three, but do it with intention to move into that kind of place where you're giving a bit more.

Now for those of you who are already tithing or more, I'm suggesting that you graduate your tithe. That you really take seriously that this is not a rigid rule. It was never intended to be a legal law, but in fact, it becomes a principle of how I give to the Lord so that he is always first. Because you see, if he gets his first, everything else will take care of itself. Now please hear me--the rest doesn't belong to you--it's not like he only owns ten percent of it--he only asks for a portion of it. It's all his - ultimately - we all know that!

It's a challenge - I know that--I believe you're up to it.

Father, sometimes giving is a very difficult thing to do. It represents so much of our energy - the hard work. It in many ways reflects our priorities - what's most important. We're coming, committed, to try to give what we can and to grow in our giving. So help us. We pray in Jesus name. Amen