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Sunday, February 1, 2015

1 in 10 - Tithing (Deuteronomy 14, Matthew 23.23-26)

Sermon by: Robert Austell
February 1, 2015
Text: Deuteronomy 14:22-29; Matthew 23:23-26

:: Sermon Audio (link)
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:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: Linda Jenkins, piano
Hymn of Praise: "God Whose Giving Knows No Ending" (BEACH SPRING, arr. Austell)
Song of Praise: "The Beauty of Holiness" (Robin Mark)

In the beauty of holiness we see You, Son of righteousness
So we bring all that we possess to lay at Your feet.
In the place where Your glory shines, Jesus, lover of all mankind
You have drawn us with love divine to make us complete

So I pause at Your gates once more as my heart and my spirit soar
And I wish I could love You more, my God and my King.

Is there tribute that I could bring; was there ever a song to sing
That could ever express, my King, the work that You've done.
Could I ever conceive of this, all the depths and the heights and breadth
Of the riches I now possess because of Your love.

Offering of Music: "As I Trust" (Sarah Klute, singer/songwriter)
Hymn of Sending, "We Give Thee But Thine Own" (SCHUMANN, arr. and chorus, Austell)
Postlude: Linda Jenkins, piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf): 
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.

Talk about sermon re-writes… I had a few this week! As you know, I do not hesitate to tell you when I have to change course on a sermon – sometimes even right in the middle of a service!    Well, I thought I had a handle on today’s topic coming into it. I picked it out at the end of December as part of this series on how God continues to bless us through the Old Testament patterns of worship and obedience. And we’ve all heard of tithing. Really, what more was needed than to describe it and make the connection to how God blesses us through it today. No shaming or guilt – just a great practice that really is God-given for our benefit.

And all that is true, but I sure learned much more than I expected along the way. Let’s take a look!

Woe to You! (Matthew 23)

First, let’s look at tithing gone wrong. In Matthew 23, Jesus is getting onto the scribes and Pharisees about a number of hypocritical behaviors. And he uses tithing to highlight one of those behaviors. Jesus presses, “You tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness.” In other words, the scribes and Pharisees put a lot of time and energy and attention into setting aside a tenth of everything… even the smallest and most insignificant herbs; and they miss the great big whopping command of God to show justice, mercy, and faithfulness to those around them.

Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t dismiss tithing. He says, “These are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.” But they have missed the forest for the trees, as the saying goes. And I think as we dig into the passage in Deuteronomy 14 about tithing, we will see exactly what that “forest” was that God had in mind with this spiritual practice.

Tithe for Worship (v. 23)

Let’s start with WHY God commanded the tithe. There are some practical and logistical reasons, such as supporting the Levites – the priests who did not hold or farm land. But vv. 22-24 are even more foundational spiritually: “You shall surely tithe… so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always.” It is an act of obedience that results in proper reverence of the Lord. That’s what “fear” means with respect to God. It’s not cowering in the corner afraid, but is a healthy reverence and respect for the Lord of all. And it makes sense, right? If you make a regular practice out of setting aside a tenth of everything you make or produce to give to God, that acknowledges the authority and Lordship of God.

Do note that it’s not automatic. Tithing is not equated with proper reverence and respect for God. Indeed, the Pharisees had turned it into a hypocritical form of legalism that missed the heart of God for justice, mercy, and faithfulness. But, it is a spiritual practice that TEACHES us reverence and respect for God; it is “so that you may learn.” It teaches us how to prioritize and arrange our life and time and finances in order to put God first. And that was the gist of my understanding of the tithe and what I was going to talk about this morning.

Setting aside 1 in 10 (the tithe) is like setting aside 1 in 7 (the Sabbath), which we’ll talk about next week. For a while, you can get by on sheer rules and duty and law, kind of like a no-carb diet or most New Year’s resolutions. But for these spiritual disciplines to really stick, like anything else, they need to become a lifestyle and part of who you are. That’s what a discipline is – it is something that teaches or trains us… in this case to respect God. How does that work? Well, setting aside a tenth of what one makes or sells is hard to do. It requires thought and commitment and more than a few hard decisions. It invokes priorities – is it more important to buy this or to set aside the tenth? Is it more important to eat out here or grow in this discipline? And I know it gets hard sometimes. It’s like that decision at 1am to go on to sleep or study one more hour for the big test. Which do I need more – the extra cramming or the night of sleep? Early on, I always thought cramming was the answer; I’ve come to realize the significant value of regular sleep (esp. if one has been keeping up with class!). Sabbath is kind of the spiritual equivalent of good, healthy sleep. Likewise, tithing is kind of the spiritual equivalent of good, regular exercise. I also remember thinking, “I don’t have time to exercise.” I have come to realize that I can’t afford to NOT exercise! So it is with tithing; it teaches and trains us… shapes our life and priorities and decisions toward knowing, loving, and respecting God.

But wait, there’s more…

Enjoying the Presence of God (v. 26)

Verses 24-26 describe how to tithe if the distance is too far to bring the actual produce from the field. One is to exchange the produce for money and then go to the place of giving the tithe and spend it for an offering of “whatever your heart desires.” This is extraordinary! It tells me that the tithe is not so much about checking off a ritualistic action, but about the enjoyment of God. The list even includes wine and strong drink – can you imagine? That’s about as far from the Pharisees (or modern legalism) as I can imagine. Can’t get a tenth of your crop to the Temple because it’s too far? Go sell it, travel to the city, buy some fine wine and go toast to the glory of God! Now certainly that sort of thing could also be abused, but do you hear the amazing idea behind it? The tithe is not a tax; it is a habit that is supposed to be wrapped up in enjoying the presence of God.

I’ve done some traveling lately and we’ve hosted some travelers. One of the conventions of travel is giving your host a gift. That’s kind of like the tithe. So my friend Kelly comes once a year to take a class at the seminary and he stays with us for the week. He loves our family and DELIGHTS in bringing us gifts of chocolate or coffee. It’s not a tax given in exchange for room and board; it’s something he delights to give and share with us as he “toasts” our time together.

Think about tithing and ponder THAT for a bit!

Love of Neighbor (vv. 27-29)

And close in to that is one other amazing dynamic of tithing. Look in v. 27: “Also you shall not neglect the Levite who is in your town…” and in v. 29, “…and the alien, the orphan and the widow who are in your town.” Not only does the tenth of what we produce and make honor and reverence God, it also leads us to enjoy God, and it is one of God’s provisions for the priests and those in need. This is one of the connections between tithing and the local church. It’s why we support the local church with tithes and offerings. But even more noticeably, it is the tangible expression of the Great Commandment. Not only does the tithe reverence or love God; it is directly intended to care for – to love – our neighbors.

And that is precisely what the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were missing. They were carefully counting out a tenth of their smallest herbs and spices, but they were missing the connection with showing justice and mercy to those in need. That was one of the foundational purposes of the tithe. They were missing the whole point!

So, put all this together and you truly get a holistic picture of this particular spiritual discipline. Far from being a legalistic spiritual tax, giving a tenth was intended to teach the reverence of respect of God, the enjoyment of God, and to provide for those in need. And that’s not something that went away with the Old Testament laws. It is a spiritual practice given by God for the blessing of His people. Both the Micah passage and the Deuteronomy passage end on that note, that through this discipline, we come to know God better, and through that to be blessed by God. That’s not winning the lottery, but it is where we need most to be – in line with God’s will and Word and following after Jesus our Lord.

So, two takeaway questions:

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