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Obedient to the Last Command

Sermon by David Meredith on Feb 26, 2006

Acts 1:8

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MISSIONS CONFERENCE

The Lord's Day Morning

February 26, 2006

Malachi 3:10

“God's Dare”

The Reverend Mr. David Meredith

Friends, it is a great pleasure and privilege for me to be here this morning. I do hope that you can follow my strange accent. You’ll all be familiar with I Corinthians 13; most New Testament scholars believe that the “tongues of angels” refer to a Scottish accent, so I feel that I am on extremely solid ground.

It is a great pleasure...and, as you are all gathering...I am not a wildly emotional man, but I have to say that a tear formed in my eye just to see so many of you here. Scotland is a barren land in many ways with regard to the gospel, and to see the second large congregation gather — and if I thought about home, much more our missionaries must have thought how they long for a similar congregation. The bottom line is do not take your privileges for granted. There was a time when the church in Scotland was larger and stronger than the church in the USA. The parish in Ettrick where Thomas Boston was is now destitute of the gospel, and you would probably have to drive for an hour in the southwest of Scotland to find a gospel-preaching congregation. So enjoy what you have, and give God the praise and all the glory.

Let's bow our heads as we pray.

Our gracious Father, we thank You for bringing us together this morning. You are the potter and we are the clay, and we ask that as we are molded by Scripture this morning that we would be obedient to Your word. Change us, help us not to be hard-hearted; give us tender hearts and a love for the Savior. Forgive our sins. Amen.

Friends, would you please open your Bibles in the last book of the Old Testament, the Book of Malachi, chapter 3. I'm reading at verse 10.

“‘Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house. Test Me in this’, says the Lord Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven, and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it....Test me in this,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

An author called William Willimon and Thomas Naylor of Duke University have recently written a book called The Abandoned Generation. They did a survey at the Duke Business School, and they asked their students, “What do you want out of life? What do you want to do when, as it were, you ‘grow up’ and leave Duke Business School?” And William Willimon wrote this:

“With few exceptions, they wanted three things: money, power, and things — very big things, including vacation houses, expensive foreign automobiles, yachts, and even airplanes. Primarily concerned with their careers and the growth of their financial portfolios, their personal plans contain little room for family, intellectual development, spiritual growth, or social responsibility. Their mandate to the faculty was, ‘Teach me how to be a money-making machine. Give me only the facts, tools, and techniques required to ensure my instantaneous financial success.’ All else was irrelevant.”

Friends, the same thing was said at the Business School in Jerusalem University in the time of Malachi. These people themselves were saying, “Make us a money-making machine.”

Now at the very outset this morning, I would love if First Pres Jackson were full of money-making machines, and indeed, the more the better! That is not the point, but the ultimate gain, the ultimate goal, rather, of our financial production is not simply to feed our own egos or our own petty and small horizons. Surely God has given us so much, every single one of us, so that we would give for the glorious expansion of the kingdom of God.

This passage is not just a stewardship passage. This is a mission passage. Look at verse 12. If you give, then “‘...All the nations will call you blessed, for you will be a delightful land,’ says the Lord Almighty.” So let me open up this passage first of all, before we get to the meat, by looking at two preliminary things.

God is saying to us ‘Before we go any further, there are two things you must know — two things which are extremely significant. First, there is a thing you must know about Me,’ God says, ‘and secondly, there is something you must know about yourselves.’

I. What must you know about God?

So first of all, what is it that they must know about God? They must know, according to verse 6, that God is immutable; that God is unchangeable. Look at verse 6: “I, the Lord, do not change.”

Before we go out with the gospel, before we witness to the gospel, we must know who God is. We must have this vision of who God is. You see, one of the problems in contemporary missions is that we have forgotten what the Great Commission is. The Great Commission is not to produce decisions; the Commission is to produce disciples, and that is why that even in the United States and in the United Kingdom the great goal is not to fill up communion rolls, membership lists, but our goals are men and women and boys and girls who are disciples of the Lord Jesus, and one of the key elements of discipleship is that we know who God is. Those who know their God will do great exploits, the word of God says. And so the word says of God, “I, the Lord, do not change.” He cannot change for the better, because He is already perfect! And being perfect, absolutely He cannot change for the worse. And so we see here “I, the Lord,” the covenant keeping God, does not change.

Some years ago we in the United Kingdom heard of a movement in the USA. I don't know if it's still going strong. It's called Promise Keepers, where people ostensibly, allegedly keep promises. I don't know who the promises are made to; I know nothing about the movement apart from the name. But it struck me that it's a little bit wrong. Sure, we're to make promises to God, but fundamentally God makes promises to us! That's what covenant is about, and the Book of Malachi has covenant all the way through. The messenger of verse 1 is the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the messenger of the covenant.

These dear friends who are missionaries, we — Ligon, everyone here on staff — we're missionaries of the covenant. We’re bringing the message of God to a needy world. And Malachi says (or God says) ‘You must know this: I am immutable. I do not change.’ And that means that the promises for Malachi are the same yesterday, today, and forever. What we are reading this morning is fresh. This is God's promise to us today: “I, the Lord, do not change.”

People today glory in change. And let's hold on to the fact that God never changes. And it kind of takes a little bit of the risk (if I may use that word) out of a sermon titled God's Dare, because it is not so much a big dare as we can trust the One who never ever changes. And all this is tied up with the promise given to Abraham. “I, the Lord, do not change.” Remember the promise given to Abraham that his descendents would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. So God says that's one thing you must know about Me: I do not change.

II. We are fundamentally radically unreliable.

The second thing is something we must know about us, and that is that we are fundamentally radically unreliable. We’re untrustworthy. “All have sinned,” the Bible says, “and come short of the glory of God.” Look at Scripture. He's saying in verse 7:

“Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from My decrees, and have not kept them.”

I was raised in the Hebridean island of Skye, and there's an amazing phenomenon in Skye. We grow lots of sheep up there, and we find that we have big fields, and we put fences around the edges of the fields, and all the sheep are supposed to be in the fields. But if you drive across verge1 waiting to be knocked down! And it seems to be in the very DNA of a sheep to go astray. And that is exactly like us, even those of us who are redeemed: there is a war within us...the good we want to do, we don't do, and that which we don't want to do, we find ourselves doing that! “O wretched man that I am!”

So God is saying ‘Point One, I am reliable. I am absolutely reliable. Point Two, You must know about yourselves; you are fundamentally unreliable.’

So it is to these unreliable people then and these unreliable people now God begins to speak His word. So He's saying ‘Now is the time to return to Me.’ “Return to Me,” He says, “and I will return to you,” says the Lord Almighty.

But they’re astonished! They just don't see it! And so there they are at First Pres/Jerusalem after the exile. There they are. They’re saying ‘Hey! This preacher is saying...this Malachi guy, he's saying ‘You've got to turn.’ But we're doing fine! Everything in the garden is rosy,’ as we say. And he says, “How are we to return?” What's the deal? What's going on here? I want us to go to three things.

The first thing we notice here is a specific sin, and the specific sin is robbery from God. You know, sin is not big and general. In Scripture, and especially with the prophets, the prophets say exactly what the problem is. And so that's the first thing we see here, a specific sin: robbery from God. Look at it again in the passage, verse 8: “Will a man rob God? Yet you rob Me.”

Now, I shan't say it's humorous, but there's an element of humor in that. It is kind of black humor; it is solemn humor, because the Hebrew word for rob there is not the same, for example, as is used in the Ten Commandments — “Thou shalt not steal.” The idea here is like mugging, like someone gets God and mugs God. It's almost comic, and the verb is ongoing. It is repeating. He's saying ‘Can you not see it? You guys, all of you, you are constantly mugging God. You are taking God and you’re just robbing Him. You’re taking forcefully from Him.’

Now, the presenting problem was not the real problem. This morning if you are, as we say in the UK, tight-fisted...if you are someone to whom every penny a prisoner...your problem is not financial. Your problem is spiritual. We have not understood the grace of God. They had not realized that God does not change, that He is a covenant-keeping God; that God had kept His people - a stiff-necked and rebellious people; that He had been with them, although they like sheep had gone astray; yet He loved them, and yet they treated God with contempt.

My dear beloved! What is the problem this morning? We all appear...we look alike, we're well dressed...ladies in pretty frocks, the guys in coats and ties or whatever...yes, we look respectable. Here we are, the very epitome of Southern respectable evangelical culture. On the outside it looks great! But I wonder what about our hearts...for us, is our pocketbook locked? Yes, everything else is subject to the sovereignty of God, but in terms of what we give to the kingdom, that is out of bounds! And we say to God ‘Do not touch.’ Christian giving is an expression of whether we've “got it” or not, whether we've understood the grace of God.

Paul speaks of the grace of God. He speaks of one particular church, the Macedonian church. It was a small church. It was a deprived church. Poor, poor people; not a lot of high-earning folk. And yet Paul says to the Corinthians ‘Hey, you guys in Corinth...there's this church back up there in northern Greece, in Macedonia, and they are a wonderful people. They have experienced the grace of God. They have seen the generosity of God, and God has been....’ I hesitate to use the word generous — He's given His own Son! He so loved the world, the world that hated Him, the world that despised Him...we, who hated God! And yet, God, out of His riches has given us His only begotten Son.

Their specific sin was they robbed God. And where were they robbing God? We read at the end of verse 8: “...in tithes and offerings.”

Let's just spend a little minute on this tithe. You guys...taxation seems to be an issue in the US. A couple of hundred years ago, y’all had a great relationship with my country! We looked after you, we set you up, and we ...OK, we took a little bit of money from you, but that was the deal...and ever since then, you don't like paying taxes. And that's OK. Maybe that same philosophy, which has a degree of legitimacy in it (and I have to say, you've done reasonably well as a nation in the last 200 years! You've really done quite well!), but yet there is the same philosophy sometimes comes into our giving in the church. We think that when we give to the church, it is the same as writing an IRS check every single year. Folks! If you give out of a taxation mindset — and I hope the financial folk will forgive me here — do not give! If you give with a grudge we would rather not have it. If you give out of a spirit of just grudgingly giving...God loves a cheerful giver! God loves a hilarious giver! God loves someone who thinks to himself, “I am blessed that God has prospered me with so much money that I can help the gospel.”

Dave here spoke of ministry in Bangkok, Thailand. You know, these guys are desperate for people to help them. The harvest is plentiful; the laborers are few. What do laborers live on? They do not live on fresh air. Laborers need food. Laborers need transport. Laborers need all the things that we have. I have heard it said (I don't know this is true) that missionaries also need three meals a day! I don't know...maybe they’ll confirm it later. But sometimes we think that these folk are from another dimension. They’re not! And when we withhold our tithes and offerings... which, incidentally, in Scripture ten percent was a baseline. Arguably there were three sets of tithes. One lot was dedicated as part of the praise offering to God, another lot was given to the priests and the Levites, and another lot was given purely for mercy ministry. Really, nothing has changed. And in reality the tithe could have been as much as 25-28 percent of what the people in Israel had. So don't be a minimalist!

You know, in the UK just now the great thing if you have an apartment, if you have a house, is minimalism. And so there is very little furniture in many UK houses. Young folk have these stark white walls with nothing on them. Minimalists! And yet, God doesn't want us to be minimalists in any way. He wants us to give of what we have.

So we see here first of all a specific sin: it was robbery from God. Now, is this tithe taught by Jesus? I think it's John Piper that teaches very well on this. He says Jesus didn't command a tithe. No, Jesus didn't command a tithe, because He wanted to emphasize willingness rather than constraint. We do not give reluctantly or under compulsion. God loves a cheerful giver.

Secondly, he didn't use a command to tithe because He wanted to emphasize liberality rather than limitation. Now I was a little bit taken by surprise when I heard that the Missions Committee was looking for a million dollars. I really was surprised when I heard that figure. Why so little? What is a million dollars? In this church a million dollars is nothing! What could a million dollars do in the mission field? Money goes a long, long way. It could get a new worker in Bangkok, Thailand. It could finance students in Uganda...Liberia. You know, the level of the average African pastor, remember...academically is very limited. What's our mission? To disciple the nations. We need men in who are taught, men who can rightly divide the word of truth, as the Bible says; men who know the great nuances, the themes of Scripture, men who have been satiated in the great doctrines of the faith, men who can take time out from employment...and you know, folks, people in Africa are living very often from hand to mouth. They just can't take three years off and go to seminary! Many of these guys are farmers, and a couple of days under teaching is precious to them. We can enable them to do more. Folk, we are not talking here about luxuries in the mission field. Your money — no, no, I was wrong — God's money — it's not yours. God's money is used here in this church in frontline mission work, and Jesus didn't emphasize the tithe because He wants to emphasize that all our getting should be designed for giving. And so God is saying here that as a specific sin, you are robbing God.

I wonder is that a sin that is prevalent here in First Presbyterian. Are some of us also robbing God, and it's an indicator of a deeper malaise within our lives? We see here then very clearly and very obviously a sin; we see a specific sin.

But then we see a simple solution. Most big problems — or rather, many big problems — have got simple solutions. My general practitioner, my doctor, is also a member of my congregation. And I said, “Doc, how can I lose weight?” She said, “Eat less, exercise more.” Simple, isn't it? And I will save you a fortune in going to a dietitian if you want to come and ask me the same question. Most — many — solutions of problems are simple. And so we have here a specific sin, and, secondly, a simple solution.

He says here (verse 10), “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in My house. Test Me in this....” God's dare: “‘Test Me in this’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Bring [them] in, and see if I will not also open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.’”

I say it is simple, but it is unusual. In Scripture God tests us. The boldest, most dangerous prayer you will ever pray is, “Lord, test me. Examine me. See if there is any bad thing within me.” It's a bold prayer. Pray that today: “Lord, test me. Examine me.”

But here God is saying ‘I want you to test Me. I want you to trust Me. I want you to say do you really believe Me, or do you not? Are you just nominal believers, or do I mean absolutely everything to you?’ Very simple, the word of God is saying here, but it's unusual.

It's simple, secondly, but it's also risky. At least that's how it seems to me. We usually work the other way round. And the other way round is ‘Bless me and I will give to You.’ That's the way we work. But the way it is here, as with Peter walking the water...when Peter got out of the boat, he began to walk on the water.

Now, Malachi's fascinating because the socio-economic situation is not dissimilar to the one which we find ourselves in today. The people of God were in the midst of, or had just finished, a big building project. And economically things were, you know, reasonably challenging. Now many of us would say ‘Yeah. I get what the guy is saying...or rather, what Scripture is saying here.’ The great thing about Christian giving is that it's not just mega-rich people it applies to. It applies to all of us, because it's proportionate giving that is the great thing; and ironically, you often find that those who have less give proportionately more. That is a strange, weird thing, but that's the way the deal goes.

And yet God here is talking to every single one of us. And now many of us say ‘Yes, I will give when the mortgage is paid off... Yeah, I will give when this new deal comes through and I get a bit more money.’ God is saying ‘No, no, no! Test Me in this!’ Can I say that there is no greater enterprise to put your money in? There is no greater venture.

I love entrepreneurial spirits, and I love being amongst men and women who are involved in business. I find it incredibly stimulating. And a good businessman will want to put his money into something where it's going to work, it's going to grow. Folks! There is nothing which is going to produce greater results than kingdom work! This is not prosperity nonsense that you get in the television from white-suited charlatan evangelists. This is not “Why drive in a mini when you can drive in a Rolls-Royce?” This is God saying ‘I will bless you. The returns may not be financial. They could be, but they may not be. But what is sure, I'm going to give you sure and certain return.’

What is God saying here? There's a guideline first of all about focus. We have to give to what? “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse.” That was for the ministry of the church. Let's forget that there are hermeneutics, but nevertheless see here that our contemporary equivalent is the church. As one of the great emphases this week, all these ministries have been church-based. Church planting in Bangkok.... It's what God wants: remember He's called us to be disciples. You are discipled within a church. A church, a presbytery down there that...it's pretty weak, but it's there in Acapulco, Mexico; churches working together in Africa; that is what our tithe is to go to, so as to be focused.

But there's a guideline also: the urgency. In the original it says “Trust Me now in this. Trust Me now in this. Do it now.” Procrastination is the thief of time.

What have we seen? We have seen then a specific sin; we have seen (God is speaking to us in many ways here) a simple solution. A specific sin, a simple solution.

But then, thirdly, a sure result. What will happen if we take God at His word? What does it say? “Test Me in this, and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.”

I love the story of the building of the Hoover Dam, and I would love to see that one. I'd love to go there and see it — not perhaps in the flesh, but in the concrete. This vast dam, holding back...I think it's the mighty Colorado River. And can you imagine when these gates are opened, and the whole river flows out — the whole river flows out in that magnificent torrent of power?

Look at what it says here. Look at the Scripture. It says, “I will pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.” A similar expression is found in Psalm 72. And you know what the literal translation is. The literal translation is ‘until the moon is no more.’ God is saying ‘I’ll pour out such a blessing that you’re not able to contain it.’

Can you imagine next week Dr. Duncan saying ‘Folks, we've got a special announcement of the Faith Promise. We have had so many cards coming in that the administrative people in the church office simply cannot cope. Will you please hold them back for another week? We want them, but we're getting so much, and there's so much blessing...and the Missions Committee have to have extra meetings because they've got to decide where all this unallocated money is going. They’re saying ‘What can we do with ten million dollars? We didn't expect this!’ and so there's a crisis meeting in the Missions Committee. There are letters going out to missionaries pleading for ideas to give funds to!’ Can you imagine that? Letters to missionaries about funding! ‘We've got a problem here in Jackson. We've got all this money. Can you give us suggestions?’

That, folks, that is not what I am saying. Are we taking God at His word? It's not a selfish thing. See, it's a mission thing. In verse 12, “‘...Then all the nations will call you blessed, for yours will be a delightful land,’ says the Lord Almighty.” There is a great and challenging chapter!

Now, I hate asking folk for money. It is something I think any minister of the gospel simply does not like to do, but this morning I take refuge in the fact that...don't shoot the messenger! Malachi! “Malachi” means the messenger of God. This is God's word, and we're all under it. I see these Faith Promise — oh, put an extra zero on! Test God in this. Put an extra whatever you feel — test God in this!

C. T. Studd in 1885 sailed to China to join Hudson Taylor as a missionary. C. T. Studd was a member of the English aristocracy. Now y’all don't have aristocracies, but if you had, C. T. Studd would have been one of them. And while in China, he turned 25 years of age. His father was extremely wealthy, and under the terms and conditions of the will, C. T. Studd was to inherit some serious money. Reading the Bible and praying, C. T. Studd felt convicted that he should give his fortune away to show that he did not rely on money but on the living Lord. The Lord was sure, he wrote, that He would bless him a hundred-fold in non-monetary ways and provide him with sufficient funds to live on. And you remember that quote — every one of you knows this quote:

“If Jesus Christ be God and die for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for Him.”

January 13, 1887, before he even knew how much he was to inherit, he sent several large checks to George Mueller's orphanages and for missions, and he still had some money left. There was ₤3,400 left, and he was about to be married, and he gave that ₤3,400 (which again was a lot of money in 1887) as all good husbands did: he gave it to his wife. Priscilla Livingston Stewart was about to marry him, and she was as sure of God as her husband was, and she determined to “start clear” at her wedding, and she gave away ₤3,400.

We are of a generation where many of us have inherited vast amounts of money. Because of property prices it really is not unusual to be a millionaire, and a US millionaire a lot easier than a UK millionaire. Many of us are inheriting money , and in one week the value of what we're worth can treble, quadruple. Many of us have paid off mortgages. Many of us have had raises in our pay. All of us have been blessed. All of us here — there are no poor people in this church! None! In world terms! God has blessed us, and above all we've been blessed with the gospel. This is the big thing! Forget the money. I think you forget the privilege that you have. God's dare: “Test Me in this.” Beloved, please, put Him to the test.

Let's bow our heads.

Father, help us to be obedient to Your word. Speak to us and convict us. Thank you for the cause of Christ. We pray that the day will come when all the nations will call First Pres, Jackson, Mississippi, blessed. Amen. [Dr. Duncan]: Take out your hymnals and turn with me to No. 438, and look closely at the third stanza. We’ll sing it to God's praise.

[Congregational Hymn: All Lands, to God in Joyful Sounds]

.

[The Anthem: We’ll Shout and Give Him Glory]

[Mr. Meredith:] Beloved, let's receive the benediction of God.

Now may the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us now and always.

And the people of God said: “Amen.”

1. Road verge. The grassy shoulder along the edge of the road.

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