This is a copy of my talk given on Sunday 12 June at Christ Church, Billericay.  My Bible Readings were Malachi 3.8-12 & 2 Corinthians 9.6-10.

After attending church one Sunday the mother commented ‘The choir was awful this morning’. The father moaned ‘The sermon was too long’ and their seven year old daughter added ‘But you’ve got to admit it was a pretty good show for 50p!’ How true is that?

I’m aware that you’re following a series on stewardship and I can’t help but notice I’ve been given a very challenging passage to speak on today. I’m not aware of what has been said thus far and I hope I don’t repeat what you’ve already heard. But even if I do, you may be surprised to learn that about 30% of Jesus’ teaching had to do with money and material wealth. I wonder if that’s because money, and how to deal with it, messed up as many people’s lives then just as much as it does today.

Video: God’s Pie!

It was certainly true that the people in Malachi’s day had treated God badly. They had become bored with God. Their worship had turned from relational to ritual. As a result of this they offered blemished sacrifices (1:6-14); the priests had become unfaithful (2:1-9); divorce was commonplace and easy (2:10-17); their words wearied God (2:17); businessmen were defrauding their workers, cheating their customers and taking advantage of widows, orphans and aliens (3:1-5).

But the most concerning thing about treatment of God was that they were robbing God (3:6-12). How? By withholding their tithes; by giving their worst instead of their best; by giving the least and not the most. They had an attitude of: “How little can I give and still keep God happy?” The people proclaimed their innocence, but Malachi, like a prosecuting barrister, presented the evidence to back up the indictment with five statements!

1) The tithe is the minimum, vs8
“‘Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing Me!’ You ask: ‘How do we rob You?’ ‘By not making the payments of the tenth and the contributions'” (Mal. 3:8). The tithe comes from a Hebrew word that means one tenth. If you make £100 today, a tithe would be £10, 10%.

However, it gets more complicated, because in Old Testament Law there were actually three tithes. The one to which Malachi referred was for the priests. A second tithe helped celebrate the annual sacred feast – the people used these funds to throw a party in honour of God. And then every third year the people would give another ten percent to help the poor. When you add all that together, it amounts to about 23% of a household’s income.

Tithing has always been the floor, not the ceiling, of giving to God’s work. In other words, tithing is the place to begin, not the place to end in supporting God’s kingdom business.  Larry Burkett: “As best as I can tell, God never asked less than 10% from anyone. But if that bothers someone, I can see no reason why they couldn’t give twice as much if they desired.”

Unfortunately tithing is often mistakenly used for all giving. People talk about tithing £50 pounds when they make £2000 a month (a tithe of which is £200 not £50). If you give 2 percent or 4 percent of your income, that’s a donation not a tithe. The tithe was recognized as God’s. We should always refer to it as God’s tithe not my/our tithe. People in the Old Testament didn’t give a tithe but repaid it to the Owner of all things.

The Bible rarely speaks of giving a tithe, but rather of “taking,” “presenting,” or even “paying” tithes. No one ever said, “I feel led to tithe.” The tithe was explicit and objective. It required no heart response. It was expected. Offerings, on the other hand, are given from the heart when touched by God’s grace.  Before you ask, I tithe and have always done so since I became a Christian. I’ve often said that we give in tithes and offerings: tithes to our church and offerings to mission and other causes.

2) The curse came from disobedience, vs9.
“You are suffering under a curse, yet you – the whole nation – are still robbing Me” (Mal. 3:9). The Old Testament was written to the nation of Israel and because God’s people robbed Him, they have put a curse on the whole nation. They did that to themselves.

In the play, “The Will,” by James Barrie (the JM Barrie of Peter Pan fame!) a newlywed couple visits a lawyer to make a will. The groom had just inherited some money. He insisted, lovingly, that it all go to his wife. The wife protests: “No, let’s include your cousins and that convalescent home that was so nice to your mother.” And so they did.As they were leaving, the lawyer said to them, “You are unusual people, so giving. Please don’t change.”

Twenty years later, they come to make another will. The estate is now rather large. They hassle about leaving the cousins in the will and cut the convalescent home out. Each of them talk about the money as “my money, my estate.” Then, twenty years later, the man comes alone. His wife is dead. His children have become spoiled. He can’t think of anyone to leave his money to. He says, “I don’t want my family to have it. Here’s a list of six men that I fought and beat to get my money. Give it to them, and let them have the curse of it.”

Remember, partial obedience is no obedience. No one benefits from a tithe he or she holds on to. But I want to make one thing clear: While there are spiritual and financial consequences for failing to give to God, we should never make the mistake of thinking that we will be “cursed” if we haven’t tithed. “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written: Everyone who is hung on a tree is cursed” (Gal. 3:13 HCSB). We rest in the new covenant that Jesus finished in His blood. He freed us from the curse of keeping the law. And it’s because of what He did for us that we should willingly and gladly obey.

3) The storehouse represents God’s work, vs10
“Bring the full tenth into the storehouse so that there may be food in My house” (Mal. 3:10). The people of Israel brought their tithes of grain, olives, wine, and meat to be stored in the Temple. These goods supported the priests and Levites, those serving God vocationally, since they didn’t have other jobs or the means to support themselves. The goods also met the needs of the poor in the community. And, thirdly, these goods met the expenses of the ministry of the Temple.

Giving has always been God’s way of financing his church. I believe God never intended for the church to be funded by bingo and raffles and the national lottery – though I know that could be seen as a controversial view for some of you.  God expected his people to return to support the church with part of their income. The purpose of the tithe is to support God’s work, but the primary purpose for the tithe is to put God first in our lives. The tithe was not a legalistic regulation. It was more than the Old Testament income tax.

God had a special purpose in asking for the tenth. It was to teach his people to put him first.  “Each year you are to set aside a tenth of all the produce grown in your fields . . . so that you will always learn to fear the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 14:22-23).

The truth is that our giving to God is not a financial issue: it’s a spiritual issue.  When the Crusades were taking place in the 10C to Christianise the Muslim countries, many mercenaries were drafted in to the Holy armies to bolster the numbers. However, because they were a supposed ‘Christian’ army, they would ensure that the mercenaries were Baptised before they went into battle.  But as they did so, those mercenaries wouldn’t let go of their swords and would hold them up out of the water whilst the rest of their body was covered. It’s almost as if they were almost saying to God: You can have my body/soul but you’re not going to have my sword.

For the mercenaries it was their sword which they held back. What might it be for us?  It may well be our wallet/purse, our talents, our time, our heart? It may be making our own decisions about how we want to serve but not actually doing what the Lord is asking us to do. It may be holding back because the road ahead looks a bit rough.  You may be saying here I am Lord but don’t send me there?  I’m sure you know what it is for you.

When we put God first in our giving, He will be first in every area of life. This simple truth is the heart of giving. We pay God first. Too many reverse this process. If there’s anything left, they give some to God. This is what was happening in Malachi’s day. They were giving God the leftovers and, as a result, robbing God.

4) The test challenges God to bless, vs10
“‘Test Me in this way,’ says the LORD of Hosts” (Mal. 3:10). God challenged His people to give according to the Law so that He could bless them. This is the only time in Bible where God puts out that kind of challenge.  Too often we get hung up on the amount and miss the promise.

It’s amazing to me that people who trust God for their salvation, their eternity in heaven, won’t trust God with their finances. What’s the logic in that? If we can trust God for our eternal destiny, don’t you think we can trust God with our careers, our finances, and our giving?  It means surrendering our life to him.

God doesn’t want our commitment so long as it’s comfortable for us. He wants complete control. I recognise this is an uncomfortable proposition. Jesus never promised a comfortable life for his followers. In fact, Jesus said it would be difficult. He said that we have to take up our cross and follow him. Surrender is never easy. It involves giving up control of our lives to God: that means finances, personal life, as well as our gifts and talents.

5) The blessings are out of this world, vs10
“‘See if I will not open the floodgates of heaven and pour out a blessing for you without measure'” (Mal. 3:10). This is an amazing passage of Scripture.  When we give what we have, and commit it all to God, great things happen. When we are contributing to something that is of God, no matter how much we give it will be multiplied for the benefit of God’s Kingdom. We see this in 2 Corinthians 9:10 too.

When a young boy went to see Jesus, he took his lunch of five loaves and two fish. When he heard they were looking for food, he approached one of Jesus’ disciples and offered his lunch. I guess some people laughed. Who would believe that a little lunch could make a dent in the hunger of thousands of people? However, Jesus honoured the gift of that young boy. He multiplied what he gave and it fed a crowd of five thousand men plus women and children. The twelve basketfuls that were leftover were more than what the boy had given to begin with.  When we give our all to God, he multiplies it. It becomes bigger than what we had in the beginning.

A young lad went shopping with his mum to the corner shop! The owner passed him a large jar of sweets and invited him to help himself to a handful. Uncharacteristically, the boy held back. So the shop owner pulled out a handful for him. When outside, the boy’s mother asked why he had suddenly been so shy and wouldn’t take a handful of sweets when offered. The boy replied, “Because his hand is much bigger than mine!”

6) Giving should be Generous
The apostle Paul teaches that generosity is not measured by the size of the gift but by the motive and sacrifice behind the gift. Our giving must not be grudging. We shouldn’t say: “Well, I guess I’d better put my offering in.”  It’s something we shouldn’t moan/groan about because, 2 Corinthians 9:7: “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.”

You may look at the wealthy who give large sums of money to charities and think, “ I’ll never be able to match that kind of contribution.” You’re left to think about what we would do if we had large sums of money. You think, “I would give some to the kids’ school, the Red Cross, the church …” and the list goes on. We think that we can’t do anything because we don’t have much.

You may be tempted to say that your money doesn’t amount to much, but the pounds mount up and they make a significant difference somewhere in God’s world. You’ve supported the mission and ministry of Christ Church, Parish, Deanery and Diocese in many different ways – but there is always more you/we can do and a regular income is always needed to ensure you meet your current commitments, and a greater income, if you wish to plan new initiatives for the future. Such as an amazing building project!

The Wall Street Journal quoted an anonymous wit who defined money as: An article which may be used as a universal passport to everywhere except heaven, and as a universal provider for everything except happiness.  He might have wanted to add something about money being a wonderful servant but a terrible master.

We cannot serve two masters. We cannot serve both God and money.  If God is our master then money will be our servant.  But if money is our master, then we become the servants of money and money is an unforgiving master.  We waste our lives instead of investing in them. Creating wealth can, for some, become an all consuming passion that overshadows all that we do. It begins to take precedent over our families; over our relationships; over our marriage; over active church involvement; over our Christian faith; even over God himself. Just as in Malachi’s day.

In the end, when we rob from God we are actually robbing from ourselves. We are robbing ourselves of spiritual blessings, of God’s provisions, of a church that can meet the needs of others. We are left with a choice: Will we rob God by not giving our tithes, or will be faithful in giving to God what is His?  The choice, as they say, is yours!  But let us never forget that God’s hand is bigger. His wallet is bigger. His generosity is bigger. His love is bigger.  His plans and purposes for our lives and for his church are bigger too!