June 4, 2012

Step Up: The Widow's Mite Mark 12:41-44

In March of this year, the MegaMillions Jackpot reached a $640 million dollar payout. That is a lot of money, and people responded in droves. The odds of winning were one in 175 million, but people in New York alone spent $1.6 million in a 24 hour period for a chance to win.

One man interviewed by a local paper said, “The Lottery and games of chance are a stupidity tax and the more we all buy into this, the less rational we are as a society," then he stepped forward and bought his lottery ticket.

Most people realize they are not going to win, so the lottery is a chance to dream big. The Huffington Post quotes Sean Flaherty, a video game tester in New York City, "I knew when I bought the ticket, I wouldn't win. But I did it anyhow. The whole notion of `what if' still has some currency with me."

For $1, for just a little, people bought a few minutes of hope.

I read post after post on Facebook from those playing, many for the first time.  They certainly bought into the idea of buying hope for buck. They repeatedly mentioned how they and their spouse spent the evening dreaming of ways to spend the money and all the good things they could do.

“I would buy a new house, a car, quite my job, travel!”

Many were charitable...

“I would take care of my family!”
“I would donate to my church or a charitable organization.”
“I could help all kinds of people if I could just win that money!”

There is so much good this money could do...if I could only win it!

But this is a little misleading. You see winning the lottery just like gaining fame or wealth by any other means doesn’t build character. According to a study by Michael Begin and Darl Lepage,
“[Winning large amounts of money] reveals character and magnifies all of the good and weak traits the winner lives by.” 
What they mean is when someone wins money they don’t instantly become a more generous, loving, caring person...They are the same hot mess they were before, only now they have a couple million dollars in the bank.

The best indicator of how we would spend the millions if we were to win is to look at the current levels of generosity and compassion exhibited in our spending habits.

Those who are generous with their money before they win...will be generous with their money after they win. Those unwilling to help a struggling neighbor out now...will not help them out when they actually have money. Those who help family out now will be generous when they win. Those who give generously to their church, to charitable organizations, to help the needy before they win...will help. How generous and giving we are now...with little the money we have now...is the real indicator of how we would respond later.

This morning we are continuing our message series titled Step Up. We are looking at ordinary men and women...men and women who may not even have their name mentioned in the Bible...but their faithful obedience to God extended the Kingdom. These people demonstrate there is no such thing as a small act of obedience.

Today we are looking at the story of a woman simply known as a widow, but her example of extravagant giving to God caused even Jesus to stop and take notice.

So many times the church talks about generosity and giving of money just before they ask for more. That should not be, and will not be the case today. But we should talk about money, wealth, and the accumulation of possessions because it has a profound impact on our spiritual lives.

Jesus talked about money more than He talked about heaven and hell combined. One-third of his parables were about money and wealth. 1 out of 7 verses in the Gospel of Luke is about money and wealth. The only thing Jesus talked about more than our relationship with our money and wealth was the Kingdom of God. And He did this because He knew the powerful spiritual impact money has on our lives.

 Mark 12:41-44
41 Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. 42 But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a few cents.

43 Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
This unnamed widow, a woman looked down upon by all around her, gives us an example to follow...in the words of Jesus, “she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.” In the culture she lived, widows were looked down on. They depended on the generosity of their children to take them in, and when that failed they resorted to begging or prostitution.

And Mark puts this story in direct tension with one right before it. The Teachers of the Law who were supposed to represent God instead liked “to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers...”

So as Jesus observed this widow’s actions, he was blown away because He saw in her a heart surrendered to God. The Gospel is a call to give EVERYTHING to God. We don’t get to hold on to anything. We surrender it all to Him. She “put in everything...”

For too long, the American church has preached two conversions. There is the one we make where we say a sinners prayer and get our passport to heaven. Then there is this other one where we really get serious and start putting into practice all that stuff we find in the Bible. The problem is that getting into heaven, not going to hell, all that sounds pretty good. But that obeying stuff...that call to grow in the character and competencies of Jesus Christ...that stuff is hard...and sounds too much like work...so most people stop after the first one.

The reality is Jesus never gives us a two-stage option. Jesus’ call to Peter, James, John, and Andrew was to drop their nets, leave their old lives behind them, and follow Him. Jesus’ call Matthew was to step out from behind his tax collectors table, leave it all behind him, and follow Him. Jesus’ call to us is to leave the old way of life behind us, and follow Him. His call is for us to have a heart committed in absolute trust and surrender to God.

So how do we surrender and trust in God? There are several ways:

1. We look at what it means to be a god.
What I mean by this is that we understand, at least generally, what it means for a being to be God. It means He understands everything. He knows everything. He can do whatever He wants. If there is a god, He is the ultimate reality, and that alone should make him deserving of our trust.

2. We look at our God as revealed in Scripture.
Throughout Scripture, we see a God that is intimately involved in His people’s lives. And not just involved, but actively working on their behalf. He is a faithful, loving, present God who, though not working in my way and with my timeline, works to the good of those who love Him. That certainly leads us to place trust in Him.

3. We look at God’s track record in our lives.
Time after time after time God has proven himself faithful and worthy of our trust just by the events in our own lives. I can look back to a particularly bad patch in my life. Money was tight. Bills were not getting paid. But each time, God provided for our needs in an unseen way. A check at just the right time. Someone giving me money at church. God proves himself faithful if we just look at his track record in our lives.

This widow saw God’s goodness. It certainly couldn’t be measured in finances because she only had two small coins to give; less than a penny in today’s currency. But in the midst of it all she lived in complete trust and surrender to God. It was something Jesus didn’t see in the lives of the Teachers of the Law and those who were giving large sums of money.

Which leads us to something else...A surrendered heart leads to sacrificial living.

As followers of Jesus, our lives are to be marked by a spirit of generosity and giving that meets this widow’s example...a tough call to be sure, but it is not one we can meet out of duty. We cannot be obedient to it out of guilt. It can only come through a surrendering of our heart to God.

The Teachers of the Law and the wealthy were dropping in large sums of money. They had enough in reserve that giving to the Temple was not that difficult. But when we read this story we have to be careful to understand something...they were meeting the biblical requirements set out in Scripture.

Let me repeat that...they were fulfilling all that was required by the Bible. They were obedient to the letter of Scripture, and yet Jesus is saying they are missing the mark. What they gave, though it met the biblical requirements, was falling short of what was required.
Did you know it is possible to obey every word in the Bible and still be disobedient to God?
How confusing is that? God sets out these laws...and yet when we meet them...it still isn’t enough? I am doing exactly what I’m told. I am obeying every law set out for me to obey.  That seems a little bit like bait and switch.

What Jesus understood is you can never transform a heart with a set of rules and laws. Laws can set out an expectation of what someone should do. They can help us see when someone has broken a law. But laws, even Laws given directly from God, are not enough to change a heart. Laws can only mandate behavior, and even then you cannot create enough laws to cover all the bases. That is why there are always loopholes.

This is why the debate between works and grace often misses the point. It isn’t about working our way into salvation...It also isn’t about simply receiving a grace that permissively allows anything because God always forgives. What God desires is a people who obey Him not out of compliance to a set of laws, but out of a heart transformed by His love and grace.

Legalistic religion misses the mark because they focus on meeting the standard. Permissive religion misses the mark because in the name of grace they fail to meet His standard. God’s desire is found in Jeremiah 31:33, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.”

That is what really changes the discussion about works and grace and forgiveness and obedience...All we do should come from a heart surrendered to God that results in obedience.

Let me give you an example. Lori and I have our 18th wedding anniversary coming up in a few weeks. I know...I don’t look old enough to have an 18th wedding anniversary. I was 8 when I got married. Imagine with me though, that I went out and purchased a box of candy, a card, and bouquet of roses to give her. And when I gave them to her I said, “Here are your gifts. I’m giving them to you because this is what expected of a husband on an anniversary.”

We all know that in that moment I would need to have police and medics on standby, Crossroads Vineyard would be looking for a new pastor, and Brianna would be mourning the loss of her father. The goal is not to just meet outward criteria and expectations for an anniversary gift. No, out of a heart so in love with her I willingly give all that is expected and more.

That’s what happens when we fall in love with Jesus. It isn’t about obeying a set of laws. Out of a heart of love for God and all He has done we meet the expectations and more. No one has to tell us to love our neighbor, to worship God, to read our Bible and spend time with Him, to meet regularly with His people, to serve others, to give to support His ministry, to not covet, kill, or hate...we are not obeying a set of laws and expectations as proof that we love him or to earn our salvation...we are obeying them because we do so out of love for Him; out of a surrendered heart.

I got an email yesterday from someone describing how God was challenging them to make a change in what they watch on television. They ended the story with, “I heard the small voice; "What about that show you watch?" I knew right away what He meant. I won't tell you what, because that's not the point. The point is that I love this Person so much that I want to please Him with the choices I make.”

This widow didn’t give to support God’s Temple because she had to...because it was expected of her...She had two coins. She could have kept one for herself. Giving one of those coins would have been 50% which goes well beyond expectation. It was from a surrendered heart she gave both coins; everything she had.

We shouldn’t give and serve and push forward the vision here at Crossroads Vineyard Church and in our personal lives because of expectation...we do so because we believe in what God is doing through our church and want to be part of expanding His Kingdom in Huber Heights!

There is one last principle for us to see...our little with God’s much can change the world.

In the practical world of church finances, it is a reality that if we are to accomplish the vision God has laid out for us as a church, we need people to give financially and to give of their time and their abilities.

It is also a reality that by withholding our time, our abilities, our financial support for the ministry things can be hindered and slowed...just like sin and disobedience hinders God’s work in our personal lives so disobedience can hinder what God wants to do in and through our church. God’s ultimate purposes will never be completely stopped, but our disobedience can disqualify us from being a part of what God wants to do in our world.

So in a very human way, it is easy to want the large financial gifts, but that is not how God’s economy work. When we give sacrificially out of a surrendered heart then God adds his much to our little and changes the world.

Let me return to the lottery for a moment. For the March MegaMillions lottery Americans spent $1.5 Billion on a chance to win $640 million. If there was a way to convince people to pool this money they could...feed 238,000 households for a year...fill the gas tanks of 685,000 people for a year...pay rent for over 104,000 families for a year...or give someone a $50,000 a year job for 30,000 years. Most of it was spent $1 and $2 at a time...but could have changed our world.

So when we give out of a surrendered heart...God can change the world.

When we step up and give of our time to serve others, God does some great things to change people’s heart and lives. One of the sayings I live by is, “Small things done with great love can change the world.”

If you don’t believe me, you haven’t been to one of our outreaches. It is amazing to see the change come over someone who receives groceries, or gets their coffee paid for, or receives quarters at a laundromat, or gets candy during our reverse trick-or-treating, or gets a popsicle on a hot day, or receives prayer in a place where prayers are not normally prayed...the list could go on and on. Just simple, practical acts of kindness can open the door to someone’s heart and allow God break in with His grace.

A few months ago, Carrie took her children with her and chased people down in the Kroger’s parking lot to give them $5 gift cards. That so impacted one woman that she told her mother all about the lady in the parking lot giving her card that she wasn’t sure if it was good or not. Her mother was so surprised she told all her friends that came over for dinner that night. A couple weeks later, I’m buying coffee for people at The Heights, and the mother is my waitress. God uses our small acts of Kindness to change the world around us and pull it a little further into the Kingdom.

It is so easy to discount the little we can do, but this widow’s “little” was all she had to live on, and she gave it. Imagine what a difference our life would make if instead of giving what was expected, instead of focusing on the smallness of the gift we could give, we simply surrendered our heart and gave out of love all we had to God.

It really starts with that. It starts now. Giving what we can. Being generous and loving and caring and giving now. We have to stop fooling ourselves that we will give or get involved when we things get better, when we have more time, when we have more resources, when we have more whatever... God asks us to step up now...but not out of guilt or legal expectation...the first step is surrendering our hearts completely to Him, and then working out from there.

This is not out of guilt. Not expectation. It is strange, but it doesn’t work that way. That is why I never want to guilt trip people into giving. I don’t want to beg and plead on behalf of a church for money.

The ultimate goal is to help lead us deeper in our discipleship to God...to lead us closer to Jesus...and that is never accomplished with guilt and begging. Our goal is to develop a church where people are taking their next step closer to God resulting in a fully surrendered heart and then giving of their time, talents, and treasure for God...and I believe that if we are willing...God wants to change our lives, our homes, our neighborhoods, and our world through us.

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