Throughout history, there have always been people who saw in the worship of the gods an opportunity to make money. In ancient Egypt, in Greece, in Rome, there were men and women who saw in the hopes and dreams of people a chance to make a fortune by declaring that such and such a god or goddess required a great temple to be built, with a large statue of the god or goddess to be built in the temple. In Athens, there was the temple of Athena with a huge statue of the goddess. In Ephesus was the beautiful temple of Artemis, and an entire industry of silversmiths who made small replicas for tourists – when the population of Ephesus began to convert to Christianity through Paul’s preaching, the silversmiths went to the town leaders and had Paul thrown in prison. And in the great Temple of God in Jerusalem, there were so many men who ran businesses selling sacrificial lambs, changing money, and other such things that Jesus turned over their tables and chased them out with a whip.
Other people have seen in the worship of gods – even in the worship of Jesus Christ – an opportunity for money and power, a chance for prestige and celebrity, a chance to be greeted with “respect in the marketplaces”. There have always been people who announce boldly their worship of a locally popular god, such as Apollo or Baal or Jesus and then strive for political power – and then there are those who work quietly to advance the cause of God or Christ. Our two readings today show the difference between those who would become known in this world for their mention of God – and those who would be great in the kingdom of God for their humility and quiet devotion to God, to Christ, and to the Holy Spirit.
Our first reading speaks of the prophet Elijah. Elijah comes upon the scene in the Book of I Kings, in chapter 17. He walks into the throne room of King Ahab of Israel, who’s wife had brought into the country several hundred priests of the Lebanese god Baal. Elijah then announces, ““As YAHWEH, the God of Israel, lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except at my word.” Then, Elijah leaves town, goes into a ravine east of the Jordan, and stays there, with the ravens bringing him food, and he drank from the brook in the ravine. No great following, no great prestige – Elijah was a quiet hermit. He stayed there until the brook dried up because of the lack of rain.
Then, the word of the Lord came to Elijah, telling him to go to the village of Zarephath near Sidon in Lebanon where a widow would supply him with food. He met the poor widow gathering sticks to cook the last meal for herself and her son, for they were about to run out of flour and oil. Elijah told her not to be afraid, for God will provide. And miraculously, there was always flour and oil during the time Elijah stayed there. God had honored God’s word.
Notice that although Elijah was very opposed to King Ahab because Ahab’s wife Jezebel had supported the worship of Baal, a Lebanese god, instead of worshiping Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Elijah did not seek the public spotlight. One visit, a short announcement which directly confronted Ahab’s god Baal – since Baal was the Lebanese god who controlled the weather and storms – and then Elijah disappears for several years – over three years, in fact. This is in marked contrast to those preachers today who strive to stay in the spotlight when they oppose a particular politician, like yapping small dogs who irritate the mailman as he walks by a house. No, Elijah delivered God’s words and then let God handle the day-by-day effects. Elijah understood that it is God who must be glorified, not the prophet.
Well, eventually, God told Elijah to directly challenge priests of Baal to a battle of the gods on the top of Mount Carmel in front of tens of thousands of spectators. Each side built an altar and prayed to their god to light the fire on the altar sacrifice. Hundreds of priests of Baal prayed and danced and chanted all day long to no effect. Elijah then built his altar, poured water on it, and prayed to God. God lit the sacrifice with fire from heaven. Elijah took advantage of the situation to have the large crowd kill the priests of Baal. Then, because Ahab’s wife Jezebel vowed revenge upon Elijah, Elijah ran into the desert, to the mountain of God where Moses had brought down the tablets of the Law, once again disappearing from the spotlight and listening to the quiet whisper of God speak to him.
Upon his return, after finding and training Elisha, Elijah’s replacement, Elijah was taken into heaven by a fiery chariot, out in the middle of nowhere. For, you see, God is due the glory, not those who speak for God.
When God came to earth personally as Jesus Christ, God the Son who walked upon the earth, he specifically spoke about a group of Jewish teachers of the law. Jesus said, “Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39 and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 40 They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. These men will be punished most severely.”
Let’s look carefully at what Jesus is critical of. He is not critical of those who teach – but of those who teach for prestige, to develop respect and honor. He is not upset because these men wear nice clothes – but because they wear these clothes for prestige and so they will be greeted with respect. Jesus is not upset that they make long prayers, but because they make lengthy prayers “for a show.” He is upset that they take money from poor widows, that “they devour widows houses”. You see it is the motive – they act good, doing things which are good and holy – teaching, praying, etc. – but they do these things not because they are good and holy, but because they want respect and places of honor and money, they want the SHOW of being good and holy. Thus, according to Jesus, these men will be punished most severely. Jesus says that God does not like people who do things for show.
It was in the Middle Ages that this problem reached its peak. In Germany, in the 1400’s and 1500’s, entire county-sized areas were controlled, not by counts, but by bishops. The land was actually owned by the bishops – and families competed to buy these lands when a bishop died. This was one of the issues which upset Martin Luther, the man who 504 years ago launched the Protestant Reformation of the church.
Don’t do things for show. And this applies to our purchases today – how much of what we buy is for show, to impress neighbors, to impress family, to gain respect of people rather than God.
To draw a contrast, after pointing out the duplicity of the teachers of the law, Jesus takes his disciples to sit near the money box where people put money into the temple treasury. There was no collection – simply a large box with a slot where people could drop coins in.
Jesus and the disciples watched and saw some rich people putting in large amounts. Then, a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, essentially a pair of pennies.
Jesus pointed this out to his disciples. “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.”
It is from this teaching of Jesus that we get the idea that giving of treasure is to be in proportion to our income. Let me put it into today’s situation:
Imagine watching. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk and Jeff Zuckerberg come to the church, each of them billionaires worth between fifty and 200 billion dollars. They each put a billion dollars in the box.
Then, here comes great aunt Sally, who lives on minimal social security, and puts her last $20 bill into the box, all she had left for the month. Jesus would commend great aunt Sally, for she had put in everything she had to live on, saying she had given far more than the billionaires, because she chose to depend upon God rather than her money.
So how much should we give?
In the ancient law of Moses, each person is to give one-tenth of the harvest – the first tenth of the harvest – to the temple. This was to support the entire tribe of Levi, who were the temple priests and local priests. But in fairness, that tenth was also to support the judges, as well as the army and police and the king. Ten percent – one tenth – and notice it was to be the first tenth, before you actually had a good feel for what the season’s harvest would be.
From this, many churches have adopted the idea that the ideal is for everyone to give a tenth of our income to the church. But should that be 10% before or after taxes. If you have to ask that question, you’ve missed the point.
For the point is that we are to assume that God will take care of us, just as God takes care of sparrows and mice and wolves and porpoises. But shouldn’t we save money for a rainy day? Only within reason, for the more money we save for a rainy day, the more likely it is that we will depend upon our savings rather than upon God.
I’ve told the story of my devout Christian friend who lived very frugally. They tithed to their church. He and his wife paid off their home very early, in about ten years. They paid off their vehicles. They set aside money for college for their children and money for retirement. Eventually, my friend’s retirement account was topping a million dollars – and he was just reaching 50 years of age. His company down-sized – and he was laid off. A quick look at the math showed that he could have lived comfortably for the rest of his life off his retirement savings. No mortgage, no car payments – and over $40,000 a year, just from the interest from his retirement savings.
But he panicked. His savings account was no longer growing! So he took an out of town temporary job, and then another, because his security revolved around the growth of that retirement account. Eventually, his wife left him and his children rejected him. He had transferred his need for security to the account, rather than to God.
Another view of giving is that rather than give 10% of our income, we should all be like the widow, giving away whatever we have left over. Probably not, although the Franciscan order of monks operate on that as a daily principle – one of their guiding principles is that they will never take a payment for work that would result in money kept until the next day. They are to hold onto nothing except a change of clothing, a place to sleep tonight, and food for the next few hours, depending upon God for all daily support. Of course, this sets us up for trouble when we break a leg, an arm, or get sick.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, famously said, “earn all you can, save all you can, and give all you can.”
But here’s a practical guide for today. Attempt to give about 10% of your monthly income to the church. This is a long goal. But if you are new to this idea, don’t panic. Instead, gradually start with a small amount – say, $5 a week – and then, as you are able to give up the useless, frilly, luxuries of life, increase what you are giving over a period of months and years. For example, if you are spending $4 on coffee a day, consider making your own for a dollar a day, and you’ll find that in a five-day week, you’ve saved $15.
Pay off your debts and then divert that money toward being generous to your church. Don’t buy on credit for Christmas this year and in January you’ll be pleasantly surprised as what you have available. Trust God, not your credit card. Each year, see if you can increase your giving until you reach the 10% target. And then – you might give even more for special projects.
A large part of Christian growth is turning from a selfish look at ourselves to gradually opening up to others. When we give, we are actively saying to ourselves, “Self, let’s be less selfish!”
Another large part of Christian growth is a growth in our faith, in our trust that God will take care of us. Many times in my life, I’ve seen where we’ve given $20, $50, $100, even $300 to someone generously – and God has repaid us over the next few days or weeks. As we give more to God and others, we are actively saying to ourselves, “Self, let’s trust God more!”
As we move into the holiday season, every day you’ll be given choices to make. You’ll be choosing whether to give a child a toy – or a Christian video such as a VeggieTales video. You’ll be choosing whether to give a sweater or a Bible or a devotional book or a Billy Bass singing fish. You’ll be deciding whether to give your family a set of matching pajamas or the Angel tree a gift. You’ll be deciding whether to go in debt or pay off debt. Will you eat at a restaurant or at home? Each time you make this decision, you’ll be making a decision between what the world would have you do – and what Christ would have you do.
You may be nearly broke. And if you cannot give to the church – pray. Pray together as man and wife. God will grant your prayer that you can give to the church and to other people. For you are turning to God, learning to trust God, wanting to trust God. And so God will help you to overcome that barrier. But never let your finances stop you from coming to this church. We’d rather see you every week for a year without you giving a single penny – or two pennies – than not see you at all.
After all, as a church, we’ve been through COVID and God has been good. Today, we have several more people with us than before the first lockdown. God honors those who do God’s will – and we expect that to continue. Remember to pray and ask God for God’s will before you make your decisions about what to buy and what to give, when to go in debt and when to pay off debt, whether to go for the show and whether to go for sacrifice.
And if you are one who has been listening to us on Facebook or on the radio or receiving our sermons, consider a small donation to support these ways we have been reaching out to you. On our website, cedargroveunitedmethodist.org, you’ll see the word “give” in the top middle of the screen. Click on that and you’ll find a page where you can give a one-time or recurring donation of an amount of your choice.