SERVE ONLY ONE MASTER (Naaman – Part 3)

Those who long to be rich, however, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.  For the love of money is the root of all evils. Some people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains. [1 Timothy 6:9-10 (NET)]

magpieIn the story of Naaman, along with the faithful but nameless servant girl, we have a scoundrel servant in Gehazi. He worked for Elisha and it must have irked him to see the prophet refuse Naaman’s offerings of gold, silver and clothing (worth something in the neighborhood of $2 million today). I imagine he was thinking how foolish it was to send that wealth back to Aram. After eyeing those riches, Gehazi wanted some for himself. Elisha would never know, so what would be the harm?

Gehazi followed after Naaman and concocted a story that Elisha would like two talents of silver (about 75 pounds) and two sets of clothing for two young prophets who had just arrived. More than happy to find a way to repay Elisha, Naaman offered twice that amount; Gehazi returned home with his ill-gotten gains and hid them. When Elisha asked where he’d been, he foolishly lied to his master. The prophet, however, was not deceived and told his servant that it was a time for worship, not a time for financial gain, and that Gehazi would be afflicted with Naaman’s leprosy forever. Gehazi had believed those riches promised power, comfort and luxury; what they actually delivered was life as an outcast and untouchable.

Gehazi’s story reminds us that God’s miracles cannot be brought and that God’s power in our lives is not for personal enrichment or financial gain. Gehazi tried to serve both Elisha and avarice; his story illustrates that we are unable to serve both God and mammon.

 Money is in some respects life’s fire: it is a very excellent servant, but a terrible master. [P. T. Barnum]

 There is nothing wrong with men possessing riches. The wrong comes when riches possess men. [Billy Graham]

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. [Matthew 6:24 (NET)]

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THE TITHE

One-tenth of the produce of the land, whether grain from the fields or fruit from the trees, belongs to the Lord and must be set apart to him as holy. [Leviticus 27:30 (NLT)]

HibiscusTithe means ten percent and the Jews were required to give ten percent of all they earned or grew as part of their worship. Because there were three required tithes, the actual percentage given was more like 23%. One tithe went to the Levites, another was for the use of the temple and religious festivals, and a third one, required every third year, was for the poor. Although no tithes were collected from the land on the seventh (Sabbath) and 50th (Jubilee) years or when there was drought or famine, tithing was mandatory at any other time and the Israelites got in trouble with God when they didn’t fulfill this obligation.

With His sacrifice on the cross, Jesus fulfilled all of the requirements of the old law. As Christians, we’re no longer obliged to visit Jerusalem for the festivals of Passover, Shavuot, or Sukkot nor do we observe Yom Kippur. We don’t keep the Jewish dietary and butchering regulations, light Shabbat candles, refrain from work on the Sabbath, or require circumcision. Like tithing, those are the laws of the Old Covenant and Jesus brought us a New Covenant. Nevertheless, there are some Christian pastors who think that one specific Old Testament law remains: tithing.

In effect, the Old Testament tithe was an involuntary tax and no one I know cheerfully pays his or her taxes. Searching for every loophole, they may even employ some “creative accounting” to lessen their payment. When we think “tithe,” we can easily start nit picking and hair splitting like the Pharisees. Are we talking before or after income taxes? Can we take off tuition for a Christian school, medical expenses, property taxes or business expenditures? What about mileage to and from church? Is the tithe for our parish or the church at large? What about faith-based causes like World Vision, the Gideons or Samaritan’s Purse—are they part of the tithe? Can good causes that aren’t faith based, like the local food pantry or homeless shelter, qualify? Perhaps the greatest problem with tithing is that we begin to think that only 10% of our money is God’s when, in fact, it all belongs to Him! Moreover, He also owns our time and talents and how do we measure ten percent of those? The tithe can become what Randy Alcorn calls the “finish line” instead of the “starting block” for our giving.

If we don’t tithe, how do we decide how much to give? A pastor friend gives the perfect answer: we pray! We simply ask God exactly how much He wants us to give and how and where He wants us to give it. In obedience to Him, we then commit our resources—our finances, time, and talent—as He directs. What we don’t do is base our giving on feelings, recognition we may be given, or the entertainment value of the pastor’s sermons. Offering our first fruits rather than our leftovers, we don’t give thoughtlessly, randomly, or grudgingly. We base our giving on God’s principles of stewardship and use His gifts wisely to expand His kingdom. Whatever He tells us to give, we give joyfully and with thanks—remember, it’s all His!

You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.” [2 Corinthians 9:7 (NLT)]

Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. [Matthew 6:21 (NLT)]

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SACRED TRUST

He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves.” [Mark 11:17 (NLT)]

great egret - corkscrew swampSeasoned travelers know the worst place to exchange their money is at the airport. With no easy option to get local currency, the unsuspecting tourist gets the worst exchange rates at the highest fees. Seasoned travelers also don’t buy suntan lotion or Dramamine onboard the cruise ship or a face mask and goggles at the ski shop on top of the mountain. Knowing their customers are desperate for their products, those shops tend to gouge them with inflated prices.

That’s what was happening in the Temple when Jesus cleared it of money changers and merchants. Jerusalem was filled with pilgrims who’d traveled long distances to worship, offer sacrifices, and pay their annual temple tax. With the Tyrian half-shekel the only coin acceptable for the tax, people had to exchange their foreign currency. Because traveling with animals was problematic for the pilgrims, they had to buy their sacrificial offerings in Jerusalem. The priests solved the problem, not out of the goodness of their hearts but as a way to fatten their wallets.

They rented out spaces in the Court of the Gentiles to money changers who charged excessive fees for their services and to merchants who sold sheep, lambs, goats, doves, pigeons, grain, and anything else necessary for a sacrifice at exorbitant prices. Since sacrificial animals were to be unblemished, the priests had to approve them. They charged an additional fee for the inspection and, if an animal wasn’t purchased at the Temple, chances are that it wouldn’t be approved. What should have been a service to the pilgrims had become a scheme to swindle them. The priests who looked for flaws in offerings were blind to the flaws in their own behavior.

With the commotion of the animals and vendors competing for business, the courtyard was no longer a place of worship. The inevitable animal odor and excrement was considered defilement of a sacred place; people weren’t even supposed to pray, recite blessings or study the Torah if urine or feces were visible within a range of six feet. That the sanctity of the Temple was profaned by this filth and exploitation or that the worship of Gentiles was disturbed in the mayhem of this stockyard and marketplace didn’t seem to bother the priests. It bothered Jesus enough so that He chased the offenders out of the Temple.

Today’s equivalent of that first century corruption can be found in those churches that don’t operate with financial oversight or fiscal responsibility. Whether out of ignorance, irresponsibility, or dishonesty, they use smoke and mirrors with vague budgets and no accountability or audits. The church has been given a sacred trust both to raise and spend money with integrity. Let us never forget that people’s tithes and offerings come at a cost to them. By the time the money exchanger took his cut, the half shekel Temple tax represented four days wages and the widow who put her two small coins in the Temple treasury gave all that she had. The church must recognize the sacrifice that comes with every dollar and take their duty to be good stewards seriously. As congregations, we must demand fiscal responsibility and transparency; we have an obligation to keep God’s house from becoming a den of thieves.

So guard yourselves and God’s people. Feed and shepherd God’s flock—his church, purchased with his own blood—over which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as leaders. [Acts 20:28 NLT

No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. [Matthew 6:24 (NLT)]

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LIVING WATER

Medicine LakeJesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water. … But those who drink the water I give will never be thirsty again. It becomes a fresh, bubbling spring within them, giving them eternal life.” [John 4:10,14 (NLT)]

When in Canada last summer, we came across a strange body of water called Medicine Lake; although it looks like a lake, it really isn’t. It’s where the Maligne River backs up before disappearing into several underground pipelines. The cave system draining this river is one of the most extensive in the world. Every spring, the runoff from melting glaciers and snow fills the river with water much faster than it can drain and, as the water backs up, the river becomes a lake. As the summer progresses, the inflow slows and the water level gradually lowers until, in autumn, it once again looks like a river. The disappearing water resurfaces far away in lakes and rivers throughout the Canadian Rockies and eventually ends up in the Pacific Ocean. Medicine Lake is like a bathtub without a stopper that is being filled faster than it can drain; once the faucet’s flow slows down, the tub’s water level lowers but it never quite empties.

On the other hand, the bogs near our northern home are more like bathtubs with drains so gunked up from hair, soap and other yucky stuff that the water can’t empty. Typically, rain and snow are the only source of a bog’s water. Formed when a lake fills with debris, a bog has little or no drainage and the water that enters it stays there. Without movement, the bog’s water becomes stagnant, gets a foul odor, and can become a breeding ground for insects, bacteria, parasites and disease. Thinking of these two bodies of water, I wondered if I’m like Medicine Lake or a bog. Like the lake, do I spread God’s blessings or, like the bog, do I keep them all to myself? The water that feeds both starts clear and fresh, but only water that flows (as it does in the lake) remains that way.

Jesus said He gives us living water, the Holy Spirit, so that we’ll never thirst again. For the water to remain fresh and sweet, however, we can’t allow it to become stagnant; it must flow in and through us and, like the water from Medicine Lake, spread far and wide. Like those underground streams, we must be His pipelines, not just of our blessings, but of the fruit of the Holy Spirit. Only when Jesus’ living water pours through us can we bring life to the world. Are we stagnant cisterns or flowing pipelines with rivers of living water flowing from our hearts?

Jesus stood and shouted to the crowds, “Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart.’” (When he said “living water,” he was speaking of the Spirit, who would be given to everyone believing in him. [John 7:37-39a (NLT)]

The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring. [Isaiah 58:11 (NLT)]

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WHY JOIN?

The community continually committed themselves to learning what the apostles taught them, gathering for fellowship, breaking bread, and praying. Everyone felt a sense of awe because the apostles were doing many signs and wonders among them. There was an intense sense of togetherness among all who believed; they shared all their material possessions in trust. [Acts 2:42-44 (VOICE)]

Locarno-Madonna del SassoWe’ve left our old church and have been house-of-worship hunting. At first, it was like trying various hotels once a week to discover one of good quality with the right character, location and features for us. Having found a good prospect, we returned several times, signed up for a community service opportunity, and joined a Bible study. Now, it’s more like we’re renting a house; we’re meeting the neighbors, becoming familiar with the community and getting an idea of what a long-term stay would be like. Nevertheless, we’re still just temporary residents and have no ties. As we settle into this new church, however, our prayer is that it will feel enough like home that we’ll want to join it, which is a commitment somewhat like buying a house (but without the mortgage and closing costs.)

Why should we bother to join a church? Couldn’t we continue as Christians-at-large and just visit churches? There are over 85 Christian churches in our town alone, so we’d have plenty from which to choose. Why not remain a renter and just drop our tithe into whatever basket is passed that morning?

There’s a big difference, however, between renting something and living in a home we own. In a nightly rental, we really don’t care about the mud we’ve tracked into the room, the burnt out light bulb, the coffee stain on the rug, or the people in the next room. Even when renting a house, as long as everything works, we aren’t concerned about the aging appliances, the armadillo digging under the deck, or the grubs in the grass; we can always move on elsewhere. It’s only when we buy the house that we become committed to it, our neighbors, and the well-being of our community. Because the house’s future is tied to ours, we invest our time, love and money; we look not just to today but also to tomorrow.

Church membership, like owning a house, is a commitment and one that means far more than maintaining a building. It’s a commitment to worship regularly, serve one another, spread God’s word, study, fellowship, pray for each other, uphold doctrine, be held accountable, and ensure its future for the next generation. Commitment is what keeps us caring for the homes we own and it’s what keeps a church functioning.

When we buy a house, we get a building but, when we join a church, we get much more than that. We get a ready-made family—a group of people who share the same foundation and love of Christ. And that, more than anything else, is why we’ll join the church that’s right for us once it’s found.

Why should you join a church? Because by committing yourself in that way you will help to fulfill your purpose as a Christian. It seems pretty obvious from biblical metaphors of building stones and body parts that the Christian life was not meant to be lived alone. You, as a Christian, were designed and created by God, not for a life of individuality and self-will, but to fill a niche in the spiritual building called the church. [Jim Elliff]

They were unified as they worshiped at the temple day after day. In homes, they broke bread and shared meals with glad and generous hearts. The new disciples praised God, and they enjoyed the goodwill of all the people of the city. Day after day the Lord added to their number everyone who was experiencing liberation. [Acts 2:46-47 (VOICE)]

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CLAIMING PROMISES

Tao New MexicoThe Lord said to Abram after Lot had parted from him, “Look around from where you are, to the north and south, to the east and west. All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. [Genesis 13:14-15 (NIV)]

We were visiting an area church when the pastor referred to the above verse from Genesis in which God tells Abram (Abraham) he can have all that he sees. As the sermon continued, the pastor recited a litany of God’s promises and he seemed to be preaching a “name it and claim it” theology only, in this case, it was more like a “see it and have it” one. Granted, it was the first sermon of the year and the pastor clearly wanted to start 2018 on a high note. Nevertheless, claiming God’s promises and thinking they mean He’ll give me everything I visualize isn’t Bible-based.

Our faith and thoughts do not create our reality. If they did, among other things, I would be two inches taller, a whole lot shapelier, and without a wrinkle or any arthritis. Our faith doesn’t promise to give us what we want; our faith allows us to trust in a loving God who will give us what we need.

It is God, not us, who chooses when and how to bless us or, as in the case of Job, afflict us with trials. Job didn’t suffer for lack of faith; the man was filled with faith and yet he endured the loss of everything but his life. As baffled as Job was by his troubles, he knew that blessings and misfortune are not a measure of faith; the faithful can suffer and the wicked can prosper.

Not every promise made by God in the Bible is a wholesale across-the-board promise to us. That promise to Abram was a specific promise about a particular piece of land. God said nothing about seeing and having boyfriends, better jobs, new businesses, babies, healing, bigger paychecks, larger houses, or freedom from debt. Jesus came to save us from our sins and not from bankruptcy, infertility, illness, bad marriages, poor choices, difficult in-laws, unemployment, demanding bosses, or a host of other life challenges. Moreover, He calls us to sacrifice and deny rather than want and get.

Although God wants our love, worship, faith and obedience, He doesn’t need any of those to operate the universe. As Christians, we believe in the power of faith and prayer but we must remember the real power lies in God and His plan. We’re not God’s customers who can order what they see; we’re His children who thankfully accept what He gives us. Much of what we envision never will be ours simply because it’s not in God’s plan. When we become so intent on seeing what we want, we may miss seeing the blessings we’ve been given or different ones waiting in another direction.

I will continue to have faith and claim God’s promises—the promises of His presence, unfailing love, strength, wisdom, comfort, forgiveness, salvation, eternal life, the power of Holy Spirit, and the peace of God. What He hasn’t promised me is that if I see it, believe it or name it, it will be mine.

 Faith is not the belief that God will do what you want. It is the belief that God will do what is right. [Max Lucado]

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7 (NIV)]

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