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Sunday, November 11, 2007

Stewardship as Worship (Gn 2:15-17, Josh 22; 24)

November 11, 2007

Sermon by: Robert Austell


Today is Stewardship Sunday, but I am not going to talk about tithing. Today is Stewardship Sunday, but I am not going to ask you to pledge. Today is Stewardship Sunday, but I am not giving a budget-funding speech. I’m not going to talk about any of those things because that’s not what biblical stewardship is.

Essentially, stewardship is an act of worship. That’s right… worship. Like singing hymns and praying to God. Also like listening to a sermon and responding to God’s Word, like experiencing the Good News of Jesus Christ and sharing it with another person. Stewardship is one of the essential worship-acts of those who trust in God.

I’d like to look at two scripture passages with you, and then I’ll share briefly about how we are going to approach stewardship this year in light of this teaching.

The Beginnings of Stewardship (Genesis 2:15-17)

We’ll begin in Genesis 2. After God made the heavens and the earth and then made the first human being, do you know what He did next? He put Adam to work! For some reason I always pictured life in Eden as lazing around in hammocks and having everything I needed at my beck and call. But work is part of creation! God made Eve so Adam wouldn’t be alone, so he would have a suitable helper in that work. What was Adam’s work? It’s there in verse 15:

The Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.

Realize that this is the creation story. Everything is important here! What was the relation of the garden to Adam and what was his role? It’s where he lived; it’s where he worked; he ate the produce of the ground. But was it Adam’s garden? No, clearly, this was God’s garden, entrusted to Adam for care.

This verse is the heart of biblical stewardship. For though much time has passed and we no longer live in paradise, the earth is the Lord’s and all it contains. Though we built or paid for our homes and the land they are on, are they not the Lord’s? Though we work and produce goods and services, are they not the Lord’s?

That sounds right when you’re in church with your Bible open, doesn’t it? But what about when we’re not? It’s like we read v. 15 and put the accent in the wrong place. “God put the man in the garden to cultivate and KEEP it.” Woo-hoo! I get to keep it. God gave me this place and it’s all mine! God gave me this job, this body, this life – and it’s mine, all mine.

Two things are problematic with that. One is that is not the meaning of ‘keep’ in v. 15. The second is that is exactly the problem that arose with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam grasped after what did not belong to him.

First, let’s look at what “cultivate and keep” really means. I normally don’t speak Hebrew to you, but it’s worth peeking behind the English this time. The word translated ‘cultivate’ is the Hebrew word ABAD (pronounce with a cultured English accent – “I must take A BATH” and you’ll be close). This is one of the most frequently used words in the Old Testament. Why?... because it is the word that usually is translated ‘serve’ as in the Second Commandment that says “Thou shalt not make an idol; thou shalt not worship or SERVE (ABAD) them.”

What Adam was doing in the Garden was tending the ground, but in doing so, he was rendering an act of service to God. Serving God is at the heart of worshiping God. Adam’s work in the Garden was really worship in the Garden, because it served God’s will and purpose in the young world. Likewise, our work and our service is to be an act of worship to God, serving his will and purpose in the world. That we earn a livelihood from our work is a blessing and by-product of serving God. Indeed, ‘serve’ isn’t the only form of this word ABAD. The noun form, ‘servant’ (ABODAH), is used to describe those who worship and serve God with their lives.

The other word in verse 15 is ‘keep’, which is a translation of the Hebrew word SAMAR. Far from meaning “have possession of”, it means ‘obey’ throughout the Old Testament. Here, in reference to the Garden, it means that Adam will obey and honor God’s command by tending diligently to the garden. As used throughout the Old Testament, it is another worship word, describing obedience to God’s Word. You would also find it in the Fourth Commandment, which literally reads: KEEP the Sabbath day, keep it holy. The first ‘keep’ is SAMAR, the second is a synonym. It means obey. Hear God’s Word and keep it. Do what God says… SAMAR.

So, in the very first instance of God entrusting humanity with something, we find that it belongs entirely to God, and our purpose is to serve and obey God through its use. That is the essence of stewardship, and it is essentially an act of worship to God.

But does that describe everything in our lives? Are there things that do not and cannot serve God? Are there things that we want to keep for ourselves?

It should be no wonder that the story turns there next:

The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” (vv. 16-17)

As you know, this was the very thing that the first human beings grasped for. This was the first illicit property, grasped against the explicit will and Word of God. It was the first violation of the stewardship of the Garden. God had entrusted them with the Garden and said, “Here you have all you need; cultivate and keep this for me.” But then God marked off the Tree and said, “This is not for you; this is death; stay away from this.”

Last week, I distinguished between personal property that God has ordained and blessed, even provided for in the Ten Commandments, and that which we would grasp after and clutch from another. It is in our fallen nature to grasp after that we do not have. But it is in our image-of-God and redeemed nature to be entrusted with that which belongs to God.

This is the task of stewardship: to serve God and obey God’s will and Word with all that we are and all that we have, and to renounce and turn away from sin and all that we would grasp after. That’s not the stuff to give to God; that’s the stuff to flee from! All the rest belongs to God and we are only tending God’s garden.

That’s the biblical definition of stewardship, established in the very beginning and enduring until now and into eternity. Stewardship is serving and obeying God – that’s worship.

A Second Chance (Joshua 22:1-6)

Let’s look at one more passage. This is in Joshua 22, when God’s people had come to the Promised Land. In this passage, Joshua is sending several of the tribes to their part of the Promised Land. And he praises them for their faithfulness and obedience to God. Listen:

You have kept (SAMAR) all that Moses the servant (ABAD) of the Lord commanded you, and have listened to my voice in all that I commanded you. You have not forsaken your brothers these many days to this day, but have kept (SAMAR) the charge of the commandment of the Lord your God. And now the Lord you God has given rest to your brothers, as He spoke to them; therefore turn now and go to your tents, to the land of your possession, which Moses the servant (ABAD) of the Lord gave you beyond the Jordan. Only be very careful (SAMAR) to observe the commandment and the law which Moses the servant (ABAD) of the Lord commanded you, to love the Lord your God and walk in all His ways and keep (SAMAR) His commandments and hold fast to Him and serve (ABAD) Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” So Joshua blessed them and sent them away, and they went to their tents. (vv. 2-6)

Why do I highlight all these ABADs and SAMARs? Because Joshua was commending the people of God for tilling and keeping the garden of God’s Word… for serving God and obeying His will and Word. And God was now entrusting the Promised Land to them. In many ways, this was a “second Eden” – a second chance at stewardship, a new start. They were to serve and obey God through their stewardship-worship of this land blessing.

It is a lesson for us in what proper perspective looks like. We have been entrusted with God’s will and Word, and all that we have is entrusted by God (except that which we have grasped after as our own, which we need to turn away from). What God deserves – and again, this is what worship is – is that we honor Him through serving and obeying Him with all we are and all we have.

Nuts and Bolts

Only two chapters later, everything comes to a head. It turns out many of the Israelites have brought along or picked up foreign idols and are worshiping or serving (ABAD) them. Joshua stands up before the people and makes that famous declaration:

Choose this day whom you will serve (ABAD); as for me and my house, we will serve (ABAD) the Lord! (Joshua 24:15)

Joshua wasn’t asking for pledge cards; he was calling for a restoration of the covenant with God. He was committing publicly to a life of stewardship through serving and obeying the Lord. When Israel followed him in this covenant, they committed afresh to be a worshiping people who served God with hands and hearts, and who obeyed God’s will and Word. That is the call of stewardship – to a renewed covenant between each of us and God.

This week you will receive two things in the mail. One is a letter from Duncan Witte, who chairs our finance ministry team. Duncan and the other members of the finance team wrestled through these concepts with me and he writes to explain in his own words how we want to serve and obey God in the New Year. In the newsletter, which should arrive mid-to-late week, there is a letter from me lifting up this theme of stewardship as worship. On the back of that letter is not a pledge card, but a covenant form. It doesn’t ask how much you are going to give each week; it says this:

Covenant of Stewardship

I understand and believe that all I have and all I am belong to the Triune God. Understanding stewardship to be an act of obedient service and worship to God, I commit and covenant to honor God, not only with heart, soul, mind, and strength, but materially and financially.

As an act of worship, I commit and covenant to regularly pray to discern what God is doing in and around me, and participate in God’s work with the time, talents, resources, health, and strength God has entrusted to me.

In keeping with the practice of God’s people since the creation of the world, I commit and covenant to offer God my “first fruits” – returning the first and best of what God has given me for His glory and work.

As I participate in the life and work of God in the expression of the body of Christ that is Good Shepherd, I commit and covenant to turn and return to God as my first priority, my first love, and first goal. I praise God for choosing to work in and through me!

Recognizing my own limitations and frailty, I nonetheless strive, by God’s grace, to live a life glorifying to my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit.

I want to stand before you and commit, me and my house, to this covenant of stewardship. I don’t know what it means in dollars and cents. I know where we start in our giving, but I believe God may challenge me to an entirely new perspective on what is mine and what is His. I do know that I want my life, our family, and our decisions to serve and obey God’s will and Word.

Duncan’s letter will explain the mechanics of not taking pledges. I think it will be okay. In fact, I think God will do far more than we can imagine at this point. Know that we will be wise and not spend money we don’t have. But, more importantly, I think by stepping out in faith, we will hear God’s voice with new ears and new hearts.

I invite you to prayerfully consider this covenant act. If you want to still pledge to help hold yourself accountable, we’ll receive that and include it on your statement. But, we are not asking for it. We are asking for a renewal of worship of the family of God at Good Shepherd.

I invite each family member to sign the covenant and bring it to church next Sunday to lay on the Table. We’ll consecrate that offering of faith as a church body next Sunday. And we’ll send a copy of the covenant back to you at the first of the year as a reminder of your covenant before God.

All glory be to God in His Church! Amen.

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