Our plot wasn’t huge but it had to feed our family for the whole year as well as several other older relatives. The early and late rains had come on time and the crop was indeed rich. We’d worked hard to gather in the barley and now it was time to turn to the wheat fields. This was always tricky because our farm had two areas. One was usually good and the other was so-so but we needed both to make it all year.
The other danger with farming was the weather. We could gather all the grain in a week or so but it only took one afternoon hailstorm to destroy months of God’s great work. It had happened before, too often for my liking. So we worked long and hard hours and everyone helped.
We harvested the best grain first. It would provide the most food. It would provide the best seed grain for next year. And it was the crop that our God said was to be given to him. So we cut, we tied, we hauled and we threshed day-after-day. And soon the grain was gathered. We took the best, that first 10% and took it to the temple as an offering for our Lord. The rest we used to bake bread, and to feed our family.
This was the life of a first century farmer. But it was also the life of most first century potters, carpenters and the like because everyone had their own family plot on which they grew crops to feed themselves. Working the land wasn’t unusual. It was normal, hard and hot work. And the threats of weather or a sudden arrival of pests was as real then as it is for North American farmers with the exception that they didn’t enjoy air conditioned combines or 24 hour weather channel.
As normal as working the land was so too was giving one’s first fruits, the best of the best, to God as an offering for His kindness. Modern tools and techniques have changed farming forever. And our modern life has changed the way we respond to giving whether we are talking about giving to a church, Loaves and Fishes or the local Girl Scouts or Public Television. People give for a number of reasons.
· They give because they like what the group or organization does
· They have a vested interest in it such as a child on the team or in the band
· Giving eases their guilt feelings
· Giving gets rid of the one asking for money
· They give because they believe that they are doing good and that their giving will make a difference
· They give from a sense of duty or obligation
· They give because they want to pay their “fair share” of the costs
· They give because they want to be a part of a bigger dream, a vision, a future that they know will only become real when they are a part of it.
Macedonia knew what it was like to give from this last reason. They had heard about the need that was facing the church in Jerusalem and these Gentile Christians had thought about it and acted on what they had heard. And their gift took Paul by surprised and was more than he’d ever thought possible. In chapter 9 of this letter Paul is telling the “big steeple” churches in Corinth what a marvelous example these smaller churches had been.
Imagine for a moment that Hermiston, Bend, and Redmond Oregon had put together a gift of 250 million dollars to help the state in financial woes. Now imagine that someone came here to Portland with a challenge to the 1.2+ million people in the metro area to do something on the same scale. Hermiston vs. Portland; Bend vs. Hillsboro; Redmond vs. Tigard…these are the type of comparison that one would have to make between the churches in Macedonia and Corinth. The cosmopolitan, highbrow culture of Corinth vs. the rural, backwater views of the others places. Yet Paul tells us what an example the Macedonians had been to him. Here’s how Eugene Peterson says it in The Message “This was totally spontaneous, entirely their own idea, and caught us completely off guard.”
He then goes on to write of their response, “What explains it was that they had first given themselves unreservedly to God and to us.” Notice how giving to others is based on giving of oneself to God and then to the apostles, that is their teaching and direction.
What does it look like when someone gives himself or herself to God? Does it mean they only where Christian tee shirts, listen to K-Love, or have their car covered in Christian bumper stickers? Does it mean that they only watch G-rated movies, attend church twice a week and carry a big black leather bible everywhere they go? Does it mean they pray for conversion each time the preacher prays just in case it really didn’t take the last time? For some folks these types of things are how they would define someone who had given him or herself to God.
But Paul shows us something completely different. Did you notice the quality of their giving? It was unreserved. They didn’t hold back anything from God. That would mean that they would have given over control of their jobs to Jesus. It would mean that their families were now being trusted to Jesus to take care of and to bless. IT would mean that the relationship with their next door neighbors as well as their relatives would be the Lord’s and it even meant that their money was God’s as well. Praise the Lord we don’t have to worry about jobs, families, and neighbors. We don’t have to let God take the lead in those areas do we? Because after all we’ve got all that stuff together right? I mean, we don’t know anyone with family problems who are members or a church. We don’t know anyone who has had problems with a boss or employee, who have suffered abuse from a relative, or who have made a mess of their lives with drugs, sleeping around and the like? And since we have all these things handled we’re a lot different than those Christians back then. Right?
Here’s part of what Paul wants us to understand. The Macedonians and others gave because of what Jesus gave to them. It flowed out of their lives the way water flows over a too full dam. It was the natural outcome letting God have complete control in their lives.
Let me suggest that the amount we pledge to God is not as important as the way in which we determine that amount. The actual dollar amount isn’t as important to God as whether or not those dollars come from the first check written after payday or the check written after all the bills are paid. The Bible calls it “first fruits”. They are given when their no promise that the rest of the harvest will come in. Here’s what I’ve discovered as I visit with other pastors, church members around North Portland and elsewhere; that there is a direct correlation between a life that has been “given unreservedly to God first” and the life that gives first fruits. When one gives the first. When one gives the best. When one makes Jesus and the work of the Body of Christ first place. You can take it to the bank that their life has been given over to God without reservation.
Likewise when a person gives God the leftovers and remainders, even with the best of intentions, they hedge their life in other areas as well. They hold something in reserve. They hold back letting God have their love life, their work life, their school life, or the like. They sing “I Surrender All” and lie all the time they’re singing. Although they say they’re born again, washed in the blood, bound for the glory land, saved, and all the rest their actual trust is in Jesus and something else; Jesus and work, Jesus and savings, Jesus and retirement…
If you want to dream God’s dreams let me suggest that the first step is to take your pledge card and NOT fill it out. The second step is to read verse 5 again and ask yourself, “Self, am I given totally, unreservedly over to God?” Here are a couple of question to help you think this through.
· If Jesus were taken out of our life right now how would it change the way you live?
· How would it change the way you do your job, relate to your spouse, close friends and co-workers?
· How would it affect your recreation and investment strategies?
If you come to the conclusion that you are totally given to God ask what is the evidence of it in my day-to-day life? If you end up certain that you’ve not given yourself to God totally or if the whole idea of giving yourself to God is strange to you then consider taking this first step in a new life. Because the rest of our lives will never get any better until we let the Lord of Life lead us daily.
How do you do that? You simply look at your life and the “great” job you’ve done of messing up and tell God you’re done being in charge. Ask him to take over the job of running your life. You may ask him to take over your love life, your work, family, and even your finances. You might ask him to take the places of bitter disappointments, of mistakes, and horrific choices of our past and deal with them. You may well ask God to come and clean out the dark, dirty, dingy corners of your mind where you’ve stacked all the nudie magazines, gossip, and bigotry. When you’ve asked him to take control and be the boss of your life, you can thank him for doing so because it’s a done deal.
After you’ve given yourself to the Lord then go back to your pledge card and ask what’s my response to what God’s done for me? How do I go about demonstrating to the world around me that I am Christ’s person? How do I cement in my mind and soul that I’m placing my hope, trust, and future squarely on the person of Jesus? Let those questions guide you as you fill out your cards.