With this post we at Bethel Church begin not only a new sermon series but also a new season—a season in which we pursue living above and beyond the material slavery that too often dominates our lives, above and beyond the spiritual complacency that beckons our souls toward a slothful existence, and above and beyond the limited eternal vision and impact that keeps us perpetually looking at our navels, generally disengaged from things of timeless import, and people whose eternal destiny hangs in the balance.
We begin with a brief reminder. In the autumn of 2010 we at Bethel Church entered into an important experience called Momentum, during which time we partnered with Dave Ramsey and his Financial Peace University to empower scores of men and women in our community to not only pursue freedom from financial indebtedness but to enter into the joy of lives defined by generosity and grace. Over the past two to three years over 500 families at Bethel Church have participated, and the results have been staggering. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in personal debt have been eliminated. The number of families who financially support Bethel Church has increased, as has the overall income to Bethel Church. Notably, as families are finding themselves less enslaved to debt, they are discovering greater margin in their hearts to lead generous and joyful lives that offer a contagious portrait of the compelling love of Jesus Christ. They are less distracted, more spiritually agile, and more enthusiastically available to the unique promptings of the Holy Spirit. And many of these folks have rightly asked the question, “Now the we families have embraced this challenge, when will Bethel Church as a whole do so?” Good question!
The time is now! Just like over 500 of our families have allowed the Lord to reprioritize the value they place on material things, so we as a church are committing to do that. Just as over 500 of our families have worked hard to create an emergency fund for those times when something breaks or a strategic opportunity captures their attention, so we as a church are committing to do that. Just as over 500 of our families have found themselves freer to invest generously and joyfully in their respective realms of influence, changing lives in ways both great and small, so we as a church are committing to be more aggresive along those very lines. And on it goes. For us as a church, the place to start is with the 2.3 million dollar loan we have for our building. On the surface that seems so large. But considering it began as a 10 million dollar figure, and has already been reduced by 80% by the generosity of many people throughout the last few years, 2.3 million is really quite doable.
But we need to be focused. And the focus we wish to put forward will allow us to do far more than merely pay off the loan. It will allow us to live above and beyond the status quo, above and beyond an eternal vision too easily limited by material debt and the related ministry constraints. It will allow us to be far more available to a robust God on the move in our region and beyond.
How we stimulate this focus is absolutely critical, and it begins in the middle of a sermon preached by a man in the ancient days. His name was Moses, and his sermon is, in fact, the entire Old Testament book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 26 is the passage the captures our collective attention, for within this passage Moses offers insight into how to respond in a focused and robust way to a very good and gracious God for whom we should desire to live far above and beyond the mess that too easily defines us. The chapter begins by anticipating the festive season of the wheat harvest, normally around May or June for the ancient Israelites, and typically a time of great celebration. It is also, incidentally, the time of year that the people of Israel commemorated the presentation of the Law by God at Mt. Sinai—a covenant experience that affirmed God’s salvation-commitment to the Hebrews. The celebration of the wheat harvest, coupled to the celebration of God’s salvation-gift to Israel, made this season an especially powerful and joyful time. God’s goodness set the tone, and the people were invited to respond.
“And you shall make response before the LORD your God,” they were told by Moses in Deuteronomy 26:5. And the response, essentially a credal statement reflecting an active generosity and humility, followed. Consider the rest of verse 5 and following:
A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 26:5-9 ESV)
Within this credal statement at least two considerations are affirmed. It goes along these lines: God is good, therefore I must respond by remembering who I am and from what I have been rescued, and I must respond by remembering what I have been generously given. For the Israelites of old this was a somewhat formal rite affirming their special relationship with the LORD God. For followers of Jesus today, it serves as a helpful template with which we might focus ourselves on living above and beyond complacent Christianity with its small vision and superficiality.
Remembering Who I Am and From What I Have Been Rescued. The Hebrew word for “wandering” in verse 5 can also imply “perishing.” It is helpful here to think of someone who is lost—not necessarily spiritually, though that may be, but generally; a wanderer, someone without bearings or moorings; someone living a life of randomness. The Hebrew people trace their lineage back through a man named Jacob who married an Aramean woman (cp. Genesis 24:10). Much of Jacob’s life found him substantively and spatially lost. He was one who scrambled to make his life work, often conspiring deceitfully. This created no end of problems for Jacob and his progeny. And when they did find success, such as becoming “great, mighty, and populous” in the land of Egypt, an emptiness still remained. All of their effort gave way to enslavement under the heavy hand of oppressors. Their so-called greatness was not sufficient to foster for them internal peace. Moses invited them to not forget this reality, and as we consider our own origins, our own wanderings and futile efforts—our own sinfulness and shame—nor should we.
Remembering What I Have Been Generously Given. When they recognized the desperation of their situation the Hebrew people “cried to the LORD” (Deut. 26:7), and when they did he responded and rescued them from the harsh conditions in which they found themselves. But he did not merely rescue them, he lavished upon them blessing after blessing. He was generous with loving-kindness, revealing great measures of his power and wonders, and providing a place of safety and security for his beloved people. For the ancient Israelites this would become known as the land of promise, the land flowing with milk and honey. That land embodied for them a tangible expression of God’s benevolence and protection. For us who follow Jesus our rest comes not so much in a tangible material expression such as land, but in the assurance of our salvation through Jesus’s work at the cross, and the companionship with Jesus that his work purchased for us. Whether it was the land for the Hebrews, or an intimacy with the Lord for us believers today, the primary gift given was new life and a new identity as one redeemed by God. This new life elevates us to places far higher than whatever our broken world can offer. Our shame gives way to honor, our impurity to cleanliness, our fear to power and peace, and our guilt to righteousness and rest. The people of old were to be very mindful of this and affirm this. We must affirm this gift as well.
In addition to recognizing from where one comes and what God has given, Moses invites the ancient people to bring a tangible gift to the Lord as a celebration of God’s goodness to them. It is an expression of their sincere gratitude, one that on the surface is material, and yet reflects something much deeper. They are, according to verse 10, to “bring the first of the fruit of the ground” which the LORD God had given them. They are to “set it down” before God. In effect, the best that they have they are to give to the Lord (“first fruit” implies “best”). And while we will investigate this more in our next message and posting, it is important for us to understand that because God is good we bring him our very best, motivated as we are by our recognition that he has rescued us from our lostness and blessed us with his very best.
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“Write This Down…” provides a restatement of selected points or observations from various teaching venues at which Pastor Matthew speaks. The preceding material is from Pastor Matthew’s message entitled, “Living Above & Beyond the Mess,” and part of the sermon series “Living Above & Beyond,” presented on the weekend of January 8, 2012, at Bethel Church.