WE GIVE FIRST TO HIM WHO GIVES ALL.
In the name + of Jesus.
The prophet Haggai preached to the Israelites at what should have been one of the great moments of their nation's history. After 70 years of captivity, a remnant of the Israelites returned to the Promised Land. This return was almost as miraculous as Israel's deliverance from Egypt. They began to rebuild their temple, reconstruct the city of Jerusalem, and to resume faithful worship of the Lord. All were eager to restore what had been lost.
It did not take long, however, before they were distracted. The work on the temple stopped. Each family dedicated their time to making sure that they had decent places to live. Well, better than decent. Panels that were to overlay the temple were re-purposed to their own homes. Who could fault them for wanting to enjoy a little comfort and luxury, right? The Lord did; that's who. Each family made a confession as they dedicated their time, money, and efforts to their own home. That confession was: “God comes later.”
God knows human hearts. He knows that “later” keeps getting pushed later and later, until it finally turns into: “God comes never. We always meant to get there, but we just never got around to it.” In Haggai's day, eternal concerns were giving way to pretty yards, decorated houses, happy bellies, and personal gratification. Therefore, the Lord stepped in to demonstrate that all that they loved would not satisfy them. Haggai admonished them: “You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes.” (Haggai 1:6) If they were going to love their wealth, the Lord was mercifully going to take it away from them so that they could learn that it was untrustworthy.
We live in a different age and culture and economy than those Israelites did. Our age benefits from much better technology. Our culture enjoys much more leisure. And our economy is far more robust than they ever knew. If those Israelites saw us today, they would insist that we are all kings and queens. God has chosen to bless us with much. Just as he was interested in what the Israelites did with their wealth, so he is interested in what we do with ours. And while the Israelites may have had a different culture and economy than we do, we all have the same sinful hearts. Consider this: When you are working on your budget or your bills, where does God's honor first show up? How far down the list is it? Like the Israelites, we also like pretty yards, decorated houses, happy bellies, and personal gratification. And so, God comes later. Another of God's prophets, around the same time, urged them to consider: “If I am a father, where is my honor? If I am a master, where is my fear?” (Malachi 1:6) Can we really honor God only with words and not with actions? Repent.
It is pretty easy to come down on those Israelites whom Haggai rebuked. They left the house of the Lord in ruins while each labored to improve his own property and increase his wealth. It is even easier to boast, “If I had been there, I would have faithfully given to the Lord's work. I would not have skimped on gifts which would bring honor to the Lord.” But the facts are these: You were not there; you are here. And you have been blessed with wealth; even more than they had. Rather than credit yourself with what you might have done, give careful consideration to what you are doing.
Now, the point of any stewardship focus is not just money or even worse—that all the Church is interested in is money. Mark this well: God does not need your money. This is what the Lord says: “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:24-25) Sinful hearts reply, “Amen! God does not need my money. Therefore, I will keep it, thank you very much!” It is true: God does not need your money, but stewardship is not about what God needs. It never has been. If you want to be contentious about these things, then mark this well, too: God does not need you. God did not need to give you money, nor did he need to give his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for your sins. But he did, and he did.
God has given all things because he is good and gracious. He sent Jesus because he did not want you to live with guilt or shame. He sent Jesus because he did not want you to be claimed by the devil or consumed by death. He sent Jesus because he wanted to deliver you from a deceitful, dying world. He sent Jesus because he does not want you to perish with the world and its wealth. He wants to show you faithful love, to give you a peace that cannot be bought, and glory that will never fade. Therefore, Jesus paid a price that no man could pay. He substituted his holy life for yours. He shed divine blood to ransom humanity. Rather than let you think that life is about investing seven decades to accumulate creature comforts which you must forfeit when you die, he provides an amazing alternative—life everlasting, heavenly glory, and peace unending. He did this not because he needed to do it, but because you needed it. He gave his all for you, and continues to give all that you need.
Stewardship recognizes that all we are and have is a gift from God. Therefore, we put God first—not just by throwing money into a collection plate, but also by using our time to show the mercy to others that he has shown to us and by devoting our talents to the well-being of our neighbor—whether that is doing our job well, preparing meals for our family, being a responsible citizen, or donating to a charity. This is how we put God first. This is how we honor the God who saved us and supplies us with all we have. We give first to him who gives all.
The prophet Haggai did not tell the Israelites to quit their jobs or abandon their homes to live in the streets. He told them to put the First Commandment first: to fear and love and trust in God above all things. And so it is today. When we honor God first, we learn not to love our money or our possessions or this world. It is not sinful to have a pretty yard, a decorated house, a happy belly, and to enjoy a hobby, but these do not come first. They will all pass away. Ultimately, you don't need them. What you do truly need, God gives. And that is why we give first to him who gives all for us. Not because he needs it, but because we need to fear and love and trust in him above all things.
If God truly loves you—and he does—he will never abandon you. If God is truly trustworthy—and he is—he will always supply you with what you need. He surely has provided much more than you need! He is not cheap or chintzy. If God is to be feared—and he is!—you need not fear anything; for he is on your side. He has saved you. He desires you to be his forever. He gave up all things to have you. If he has done that, he ought to be first in our hearts, minds, and even wallets. Our bodies, souls, lives, and all things are gifts of God. He does not need us, but he does love us and desires us to be his. Nothing on earth can do or will do what God does for us. Therefore, we give first to him; for he gives all to us and for us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.