Category Archives: Hebrews

Is This Elder Abuse?

Stumbled across this. There is a church that believes exactly what Garry Wills is saying here. It is called the Baptist Church. He wouldn’t even make a good Lutheran with some of those answers, let alone a Roman Catholic. Colbert really smacks him around. And they wonder why the Pope is claiming he’s exhausted.

Stewardship 5: The Tithe – where it comes from and what it means

This is a link to post #1 in this series.
This is a link to post #2 in this series.
This is a link to post #3 in this series.
This is a link to post #4 in this series.

In our prior posts we talked about three things:
1) Stewardship or how we use our possessions is part of the sanctified life. Christians strive to be faithful in their walk with God.
2) A key part of faithfulness in stewardship is the concept of “firstfruits”. The offering to God comes from the first part, not the remainder.
3) The final goal of stewardship is for Christians to recognize and trust God’s providence.

Now in this post I promised to look at some brass tacks. One of the toughest words to mention in many churches is tithe. What is a tithe and why is it so contentious? Simply put, a tithe is a tenth or 10% of the income or increase in any given period. As we will see, in its original usages, the time period was usually a harvest season. Probably your grandfathers, could still relate to that. I remember my grandfather’s stories of bringing in the tithe at harvest season. For him that meant dropping a large check into the plate once a year after he had delivered the crop to the mill. He would joke about 90% of his rural church’s offerings coming in on three Sundays. By the end of his farming career with the advent of futures much of that had changed. More so with regular salaried work, but I do wonder given the increase in freelancing and other forms of self-employment if the next generations will look more periodic in income.

But none of that explains the source or purpose of a tithe. The Ur-stories or deep bedrock stories of the tithe come from Genesis. Abraham in Gen 14:20 is reported to have given a tenth of the spoils of war to Melchizedek – the priest of God Most High from Salem (Ur-Jerusalem). It is interesting the writer of the book of Hebrews in the new testament also mentions and interprets this story in Heb 7:1-10 where Melchizedek is a picture of Christ. So, the first recorded tithe is from Abraham – the father of all the faithful – to an obvious Christ figure. It was given as a recognition of victory and who the victory came from. The second Ur-story of the tithe is Gen 28:22. Jacob, on the run from Esau after tricking his Father, sees his vision of the ladder. But the real import is not that image but the promise and the response. God promises Jacob the same thing he had promised the other patriarchs – descendants, land, and blessing. When Jacob awakes he is a new person in regards to God. A boy who had grown up in the tents of the Patriarchs declares – “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it”. Jacob has received the promise and now believes it. The first thing Jacob does in the morning is build an altar and make a vow to return a tenth a tithe. The response of faith is worship and faithful stewardship. A tithe or 10% becomes a symbol of that faithfulness.

Now that isn’t the only place a tenth or a tithe appears. In Leviticus 27:30-34, as part of the Sinai covenant, God claims a tithe or a tenth of the grain and the tenth of the herd. Since everyone was a farmer or a herdsman that is a tenth of all produce. This tithe was given to the Levites – the priest clan. Levi did not receive an allotment of land when Israel entered, but instead lived dispersed as the local priests. (This is found in Numbers 18:20-32). The Levites themselves were not spared the tithe. They gave 10% to the Aaronic (what would become the Temple) priesthood. Also look at Deut 14:22-29 where some regulations regarding the tithe are put in place. At the initial gift all Israel shares a festival meal. The remains (i.e. the majority) is for the Levites. But, every third year, from that tenth the Levites were to care for the aliens, the fatherless and the widows. Unlike the tithes of Abraham and Jacob, these tithes were part of the Law of Sinai.

None of that mentions the offerings commanded as part of the sacrificial system. Those are listed in the first 5 chapters of Leviticus: Burnt offerings, grain offerings, fellowship offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings. Those were in addition to the Levitical tithe and were given directly to the temple. They were also largely consumed in the altar fire, although parts would be saved for the temple priests.

So, that is an OT overview of tithes. When stewardship is being talked about, churches talk about tithes because it is deeply grounded in the Old Testament. We take the law as the way that God intended things to be. We cannot fulfill the law, but it is still good and wise. The law demands a tenth of the income for God. Read Malachi 3:1-12 to get a glimpse, even at a late prophetic date, what God felt about those tithes. Not bringing them in was stealing from God. So the tithe was a part of the law, but it was also a part of the gospel. Abraham was not commanded to give 10%, nor was Jacob. Both freely brought 10% as a response to the grace of God.

There are a bunch of smaller questions regarding the tithe that often get asked. A popular one: Is it on the gross or the net? That makes sense in a modern salary world. And you can read about God warning about a second tenth being taken by the government in 1 Samuel 8:15-17, but that Kings’ tithe doesn’t remove the responsibility for God’s tithe. The OT tithe is clearly talking about the full harvest or the gross. 10% would be given to God, some would be taken in taxes, some would need to be set aside as seed for the following year and the rest consumed.

I’ve gone exceedingly long here, so I will continue next time with a new testament view. Review Acts 5 and the story of Ananias and Sapphira, take a quick look at Matt 23:23, but focus on 2 Cor 8-9, with the core passage being 2 Cor 9:6-11.

Stewardship 1: The messy side of the gospel

One of the planks of our vision statement says that we grow and engage the faith. The church has many euphemisms. It also has many fine words. Too often what I have found is that fine words also have euphemistic meanings. And the church has worked to promote the euphemism because it is easier than the hard work of teaching the good word. It is easier until it isn’t. And when it isn’t, things have stopped working. We are teaching the good words and wrestling with them.

One of those fine words with a euphemism is stewardship. The euphemism that we all know is: 1. It is budget time and the pastor’s salary is at risk. 2. A pet project needs some money. 3. We will talk about time, talent and treasure, but what we really want is your treasure.

The good word is much more complex. Something like: the proper use of what is not actually yours.

Good stewardship is a theologically deep and complex problem because it lies on the messy side of the gospel. Lutherans like to talk about law and gospel or one big theological word – justification. The entire reformation split was over justification – how God makes us right with himself. The reformers answer was pure grace. The law shows us our sin and the gospel pronounces the grace of God over that sin. So, there is a sense that we can say that we are saints. We are baptized, and in baptism God has connected us to His son Jesus Christ. We are justified, declared righteous, in Jesus Christ through baptism. End of story, right?

Well, it would be if at baptism God also decided to rapture you. But then there would be no one left to baptize the next person. No, we live in tension that we are now saints, but not yet fully realized. Christ has already won the victory over sin, death and Satan, but we still struggle. One little word can kill them, yet they seem so strong. Welcome to the messy side of the gospel.

The big theological term for this is sanctification. When Luther would write in the small catechism his explanation to the 3rd article of the creed, “…the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified, and kept me in the true faith…” he was compressing the Christian life. All too often the churches of the reformation fight the last battle. Constantly on the lookout for anyone who might be teaching works righteousness we miss that fact that if surveys are to be trusted – nobody is worried about God being judgmental and having to appease him or thinking they can. In other words they’ve accepted the gospel, but it is not the costly gospel of Jesus Christ but a cheap gospel substitute. We get scared away by the messiness of sanctification and retreat back to the bright line justification. In the words of the writer of Hebrews – we stay with the milk. (Heb 5:11- 6:3)

Stewardship is squarely on that messy side. We confess the creed. We believe our justification. How then do we live? Stewardship is really a word that describes how we use money (and other good things from God) in a sanctified way. Our entire lives are a form of stewardship.

I promise to get more concrete as we move into this series, but before that I’d ask you to read two biblical stories: either Matt 25:14-30 or Luke 19:12-27 and the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4.

Christmas Eve – “Reveiving”

Text: John 1:1-14, Heb 1:1-5
Trouble in the World
The presents are all bought, if not all paid for by now. St. Nicholas is busy putting stuff under the trees. We are all at that point of the gifting season where it is what it is. Boyfriend and girlfriend will exchange and find out who likes who better. Husband and wife will find out if the spark is gone or still there. The kids will find out who mommy really likes better.
I suppose I’m only partially kidding. Because we know those thoughts come along with our gifts. Those thoughts are probably the real driver behind most Christmas angst. How will everything measure out? Can I make it through one more year without a major faux paus…or one more year of guarding my heart from breaking.
Jesus once told his disciples that you had to receive the kingdom like a child. Christmas is a great time to see some of what that means. The kids do most of the receiving. They are happy about it – unless it is socks. They are not immediately weighing how to repay the gift. They are not attempting to hide disappointment. They will shout for joy.
After a certain age and enough good training, all kids turn into adults. And as adults we are better givers than receivers. We have a phrase – ‘it is better to give than to receive.’ The naïve take is just that we should be generous. The deeper reading is that as long as you are giving, you are never in anyone’s debt.
Charles Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge probably has influenced our ideas of Christmas more than the Biblical story. Scrooge learns “the real” meaning of Christmas. The real meaning to Ebenezer and his three ghosts is how to be a generous giver. Don’t be a Scrooge, that way you never rack up the eternal chains of debt that poor Marley carried around. A Dickens’ Christmas is about balancing the scales. About finding the power within us to make things right.
Gospel – Section 1
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God– (John 1:11 NIV)
The Gospel story is not about balancing the scales. And it is even less about guarding hearts or learning how to give. And it is not about the power within. The Gospel is about learning to receive.
The Father loved his Son, and the Father and the Son loved their creation. The creation that constantly broke their collective heart. “Long ago, at many times and in various ways, God spoke through the prophets.” And Israel would refuse to listen. They wanted a king like other nations. They wanted gods like other nations. They wanted to balance the scales. They wanted to be free and independent. They wanted their power. They wanted to be like God.
“but now, in these days, He has spoken to us by His Son…” For God so loved the world that he gave his only son. God sent the true light into the world knowing that the world would not get it. Knowing that even though everything had been made through this light, the world would not know him…that the world would not receive him. The cross was born for all mankind, knowing that some would not receive it. Didn’t matter…God would empty his heart. God would not guard his heart in his giving. He would open and reveal himself fully – in a child in a manger…in a peasant on a cross. One last gift given – no give backs…no possible way to payback.

Gospel – Section 2
The Gospel is about receiving. It is about understanding our own powerlessness.
The world looks at that baby and sees helplessness. The world looks at that cross and sees defeat. God looks at those and sees the son He loves. The son who willing put all the glory aside. Put aside the glory for a manger, for a cross, for us. And in the light of that gift, God sees us – he gives us the right to be his children.
But we have to receive it. We have to open our eyes. We have to understand that we are more helpless than that baby in the manger. We have to understand that there is nothing inside of us that can save us. We can’t bootstrap our way to heaven. We can never balance the scales. We have to receive it. We receive it like a little child. We receive Christ like the gift from the Father who loves us.
The gospel is about receiving. Receiving eyes to see our true state. Receiving the love of God for us. Receiving the adoption as sons and daughters. Receiving the light that the world can never understand. Receiving the baby in manger, as a mirror of our state before God, and yet so much more than what these eyes can see. Amen.

This sermon owes a debt of gratitude to William Willimon whose theme I stole and reworked in a way I could deliver it.

Scriptures & simple reason…

That title was Luther at Worms. He would not recant (what he as being commanded to do) unless someone could show him from the Scriptures and simple reason why he was wrong or where he had made error.

The thought comes up as Reformation Day is coming up and I was reading something out of the normal way by C. S. Lewis from Christian Reflections.

The authority of many wise men in many different times and places forbids me to regard the spiritual world as an illusion. My reason, showing me the apparently isoluable difficulties of materialism and proving that the hypothesis of a spiritual world covers far more of the fact with far fewer assumptions, forbids me again. My experience even of such feeble attempts as I have meade to live the spiritual life…forbid me again.

A mid-20th century Oxford Don well schooled in logic and reason concludes that reason has shown him “the isoluable difficulties of materialism” and employs Occam’s Razor to rule in a spiritual world. How different than today!

His central argument is that our fight, the struggle of the Christian life, is not between faith and reason, but between faith and sight.

When once passion take part in the game, human reason, unassisted by Grace, has about as much chance of retaining its hold on truths already gains as a snowflake has of retaining its consistency in the mouth of a blast furnace.

Reason has its starting points. It is always a minister and never the master. The question moves to what do you see as real. Are the passions or dis-passions of this world what are real, or the revelation of Jesus Christ. Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. (Heb 11:1) We do not get reasoned out of faith. We get scared by what it means if our religion is actually real – if we saw the reality in all its glory.

A question I left with the Sunday Bible Class

Text: Hebrews 4:12-13

We are studying the book of Hebrews for about 6 weeks on Sundays. Last Sunday we read Hebrews 3:1 – 4:13 which is one sermon or section of the book. The theological start by the writer of Hebrews was an assertion of the superiority of Jesus as the son and heir compared to Moses as a faithful servent in the entire house. The implication was that if disobeidience to Moses brought 40 years in the wilderness and eventual death of that generation, don’t ask what disobeidience to Jesus would bring. Today! if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.

The last line is that the Word of God is living and active. The question I left the class with was how is the Word of God living and active in your life? Maybe I’m wrong, but the more I pondered my own answer to that question that more I thought that this is the key problem of the modern American Church. Too much secondary theology. Too much talk about the Word, and not enough Word itself. The Reformation understanding of preaching and teaching and the interaction of disciples was right there (Today!) was the Word of God. The Desert Fathers sought to apply the Word directly to themsleves. We moderns talk about the Word. We talk detached from it and at a distance. We are comfortable talking about the Word, but we rarely read it ourselves. That Word is living and active. The Spirit asks us to do hard things. We don’t like hard things. In this world where trust has been drained from almost everything, that is the challenge. Open up the Word and don’t read it at a distance. Put yourself in the story. Let the Word read you. Today! Don’t hardern you hearts.

The edge of the cliff

Text: Hebrews 6:1-12

Hebrews is not a book for the lighthearted or the new Christian. Its argument is the centrality and sufficiency of Jesus Christ and it assumes a large background of knowledge about the OT and How God interacted with his people. The ultimate purpose as I’ve read it is to argue apathetic or stagnating Christians to a fuller living of the faith. Our text quickly reviews just what the writer takes as basics of the Christian faith: 1) Repentance, 2) Faith, 3) Baptism (i.e. ablutions), 4) Laying on of hands (ministry?), 5) resurrection of the dead and 6) eternal judgement. When you think about those things, they can all be intellectualized or made point in time events. A person can give assent to them (i.e. express belief in them) without attempting to live out that belief.

The background to the next portion is Israel on the verge of the promised land. They send out 12 spies. These are people who witnessed the Exodus and who stood at Mt. Sinai. They expressed belief in God and took part in the ritual life of the community, yet when they came back from spying out the land, they did not live out what God intended. (Numbers 13 – 14) And the punishment was death in the desert. Not a single person of that generation would enter the Promised land. The writer of the Hebrews says be careful that you do not receive the same fate. If you have been to the promised land, tasted the heavenly gift (forgiveness of sins), and turned away, there is no restoration.

This does not speak of sin and repentance, but the sin against the Holy Spirit – calling God a liar in his promises. Just how far can one go in apostasy before committing that sin? We don’t want to know. If you walk up to a cliff, do you want to find out where that tipping point is that throws you over it? Instead son’t be sluggish,”but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Press on in the faith. Live and grow in the faith. Don’t map out that cliff edge.

Transmission of Faith

Text: Hebrews 2:1-10

How is faith passed on? That is not the main point of this text, but the writer of Hebrews summarizes how faith came to him and to those he or she write to.

So what makes us think we can escape if we ignore this great salvation that was first announced by the Lord Jesus himself and then delivered to us by those who heard him speak? And God confirmed the message by giving signs and wonders and various miracles and gifts of the Holy Spirit whenever he chose. (Heb 2:3-4 NLT)

First this great salvation came by the Word of the Lord Jesus himself. We find this Word today in the sacraments – baptism and the Lords supper. We also find this consoling Word in the absolution offered by the fellow disciple of Jesus. These are direct experiences of the Lord’s proclamation. Second our great salvation was delivered to us by those who heard him speak. The writer of Hebrews is talking about the apostles. We have their accounts for us in the Gospels and in the Scriptures. We also find it in the prophets of the Old Testament – those who originally heard the Word of God. And God – the Father – confirms the Word – the testimony of Jesus and the apostels through the Work of the Holy Spirit, signs and wonders and gifts given whenever He chooses.

So, the transmission of Faith is an active thing. It requires being told. It requires someone to proclaim or present the claims of Jesus and the apostles. And it requires the confirmation of the Holy Spirit. Someone may hear the Word, but is the Holy Spirit does not deem it time, they are just words. But the opposite would also be the case. We might have a wonderful spiritual experiece, but if the Word is not present, it will not lead to correct faith. The Word calls and the Spirit testifies and confirms. The Son and the Spirit work together in the transmission of Faith. And we should not overlook either. What we who have accepted this great salvation can do is move others in the path of the Word and pray for the Spirit’s movement.

May the Lord grant you both the hearing of the Word and the confirmation by the Spirit.