Sunday, January 24, 2016

Dying to Give

It’s one of those bizarre stories in the Bible that make you scratch your head and say:  Huhh?  And it’s one of those stories that people sometimes ask me about, it really seems more fitting in the Old Testament than as one of the first stories about the early church in the New Testament. 

This is week three of our Skeletons in God’s Closet series.  We are looking at some of the stories in the bible that sometimes cause people to question the character of God.  In week one I looked at the reasons we need to open closet door.  For some they would just as soon not have to explain or look deeper than they have to, perhaps afraid of what they might see, or afraid that it might challenge how they view God.

So that first week we looked the fact that we need to open the closet door in order to better understand the story, in order to better understand God and to better understand ourselves.   Too often we cherry pick from the bible picking the stories we like and ignoring the ones we don’t like or don’t understand, and that leads us to developing a caricature of God instead of seeing his true Character.  And until we understand God we can never understand what he wants us to be as we follow him.  And perhaps we need to heed George Bernard Shaw’s advice because he said. “If you can't get rid of the skeleton in your closet, you'd best teach it to dance.”

Last week Rob McDowell looked at one of the most problematic stories in the bible and it involves when the Israelites entered into and conquered the promised land after their Exodus from Egypt.  And Rob told us that we Need to Understand the Backstory, God is seeking Justice not Genocide, Realize that God punishes sin and offers grace to sinners, The Solution to War is The Cross.  If you missed the service last week you should check out the message on our website.  It was excellent.

And now we are going to jump into the New Testament and a story from the early church that sometimes confuses people. 

The church is seeing astronomical growth, thousands of people are coming to the faith and with that come practical problems and practical solutions.  The apostles are working full time to administer and teach this growing group of people, which means they are no longer fishing, farming and doing whatever else it was they did for a living prior to this.  And so there is now a need for providing for the leaders monetarily so they could provide for the needs of their families. 

There were also needs of those within the community of faith.  The widows, orphans and others had needs that had to be met.  And the church responded.  We read in Acts 4:32 All the believers were of one heart and mind, and they felt that what they owned was not their own; they shared everything they had.   And then if we skip down a little further it says Acts 4:34-35 There was no poverty among them, because people who owned land or houses sold them and brought the money to the apostles to give to others in need.  Now we don’t know if the Apostles had preached on giving or money, don’t know if they passed the plate or had an offering box.  We don’t know anything other then the people were generous and the needs were met.  And then was even an example given, Acts 4:36-37 For instance, there was Joseph, the one the apostles nicknamed Barnabas . . . He sold a field he owned and brought the money to the apostles for those in need.

Cool.  And if that was all she wrote we would marvel at the generosity and unselfish nature of the early church and that’s how many people view the early church.  But the story continues and gets a little confusing.

There was a couple in the early church by the name of Ananias and Sapphira and they were obviously impressed with what Barnabas did and so they attempted to replicate his actions.  They sold some property they had and brought a portion of the money to the apostles for the church.  So far so good.  But that wasn’t all the story, we don’t know how much they sold their property for, let’s say it was one of the lots behind us in Kingswood North, in which case they sold their land for $100,000.00. 

I’m sure they were looking at the money and thinking, “This is a lot of money, the church probably doesn’t need it all”.  And so Ananias brought part of the proceeds to the church, let’s say it was half, or $50,000.00  A pretty good chunk of change.  And I’m sure it could have been used for a lot of good.  The problem came because when Ananias came to the disciples he said, “Hey guys, I sold my property down on Gatehouse Run and got fifty grand for it, and here it is, aren’t I a great guy?”

Whoa, fifty grand is pretty awesome gift, there was no problem with that aspect of what he did. 

But listen to what happened, the story was read earlier.   Acts 5:3-4 Then Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart? You lied to the Holy Spirit, and you kept some of the money for yourself. The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished. And after selling it, the money was yours to give away. How could you do a thing like this? You weren’t lying to us but to God.”

 I don’t know how Peter figured this out, maybe he had seen the MLS listing and knew what Ananias was asking for the property, maybe he knew the guy who bought it or maybe, God told him.  We don’t know, but we read what happened.  Acts 5:5 As soon as Ananias heard these words, he fell to the floor and died. Everyone who heard about it was terrified.  I guess.  And they bundled him up and took him out and buried him. 

Guess that shows how tight they were in the early church, what is it they say “Your friends will help you move, your best friend will help you move bodies.”

Three hours later his wife arrived, and Peter asked her if what they had given was what the property had sold for and she confirmed that it was and he told her what had happened to her husband and she dropped dead and they buried her as well.  And I love the power of understatement because the entire story is summed up in Acts 5:11 Great fear gripped the entire church and all others who heard what had happened.

And so it’s easy to see this as a skeleton in God’s closet.  After all here was this church couple who sold their property and when they only give a half of it to the church instead of all of it, then it appears that an angry and greedy god strikes them dead.  And when someone brings it up then we shrug and say “I don’t know” or if we are real spiritual we say “God works in mysterious ways.” 

But perhaps instead of pushing the door shut and ignoring the bones maybe it’s time we dusted this one off and taught it to dance.

Now a couple of thoughts here, don’t you love how the word of God doesn’t cover up the tough situations?  If I was writing the Bible, I think I’d skip that part.  Think about it, it showed that the early church wasn’t nearly as perfect as we sometimes think it was and the entire thing about them dying, like who wants people to know about that?  That’s not the best PR, “Hey come to our church and drop dead.” 

It is said that Oliver Cromwell the British politician from the 1700’s was disfigured by facial warts and at one point was commissioning a portrait of himself and told the artist, “I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me ... warts and everything.”

And the word of God paints the picture of the early church with warts and everything. 

The other thing is, do I think God struck these people dead?  No, William Barclay summed it up when he wrote, “This story shows two things about the early church, the expectancy of men’s minds and the extraordinary respect in which the apostles were held.  It was in that atmosphere that the rebuke of Peter acted as it did.”  In other words, Barclay is suggesting that both Ananias and Sapphira died of guilty consciences and the fear of God.  The mere suggestion that they had in fact lied to the Holy Spirit literally scared them to death.

It all began when they started talking about money in church isn’t that always the way?  And the story may be about a lot of things but the truth is that is isn’t about money, at least not much.  And this morning we aren’t going to talk about money, at least not much.  If you are new at Cornerstone I really only preach about giving in April during our stewardship emphasis time, so if you were hoping I’d be speaking about giving today you are out of luck and you’ll have to come back in a couple of months.

So if the story here isn’t about money what is it about?  Well first of all 1) It’s About Pride.  There are all kinds of reasons for serving God and for giving to God and most are honourable but some aren’t.   But there is never a right reason for doing the wrong thing.

If we go back to the end of chapter four we see the example had been set by another guy who sold a field that he had and gave the money to the church.   We are told that his name was Joseph but the apostles had given him a nick name and that was Barnabas.  When we think of the name Barnabas we think Barnabas or maybe Barney, but in the original language Barnabas meant “Son of Encouragement.” 

And Barnabas keeps showing up in the story of the early church and he keeps living up to his nickname, he is always coming along side of people, whether it be Paul, or Timothy or John Mark with just the right word at just the right time.  Whenever someone seemed a little blue or a little discouraged, the encourager shows up.  It was Henry Ford who said. “The ability to encourage others is one of life’s finest assets.”    

And so it was Barnabas who saw a need in the church and sold a field he had and gave them the money.  Probably didn’t make a big deal out of it, didn’t expect any accolades, just doing what he had always done, encouraged people.  In this case he happened to use money.  And I’m sure people started to talk about what a great guy Barnabas was.  And it was at that point that Ananias got thinking, “Boy it would sure be nice if people talked about me that way, maybe if I sold my property and gave the church the money people would talk about what a great guy I am and how much I do for God.”  Maybe he was like Louis XIV who once stated “Has God forgotten all I have done for Him.” 

Two gifts, one given for the right reason and one given for the wrong reason.  And at this point Ananias was still safe, pride might not be a great characteristic but it is part of being human.  T.S. Eliot said “Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people wanting to be important.”  And I guess in a way Ananias got his way, he wanted people to know about him and talk about him, and they have been for the last two thousand years.  My Dad used to tell me, “Everyone is good for something even if it’s being a bad example.”

But it wasn’t just about pride Acts 5:2 He brought part of the money to the apostles, . . .  2) It’s About Greed  I don’t know what happened at this point.  Maybe he didn’t know how much the property would bring, or maybe when he had the money in his hand he got thinking about the new chariot he saw in the showroom window earlier, or the Mediterranean cruise that Sapphira had been wanting to go on. 

Whatever it was somewhere between the thought “If I sold some property and gave the money to the church” and actually selling the property and giving the money to the church something changed.  And instead of it being “giving the money to the church” it became “giving some of the money to the church and keeping the rest for myself.” 

Often we hear people quote Jesus in saying “Money is the root of all evil”  but it wasn’t Jesus who said that it was Paul and what he said was 1 Timothy 6:10 For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. And some people, craving money, have wandered from the true faith and pierced themselves with many sorrows.  So I guess in a way it’s about money, but there are all types of greed.

We can be greedy for stuff, we can be greedy for recognition and we can be greedy for acceptance.  Psychologist and author Erich Fromm said “Greed is a bottomless pit which exhausts the person in an endless effort to satisfy the need without ever reaching satisfaction.”

But you know he was probably still safe, when he brought the gift to the church Peter commented Acts 5:4 The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished. And after selling it, the money was also yours to give away.

But let’s go back to the story Acts 5:2 He brought part of the money to the apostles, claiming it was the full amount. With his wife’s consent, he kept the rest.  3) It’s About Honesty  So Ananias struggled with pride?  I have and if you were honest you probably have to.  And he was a little greedy.  You ever suffer from a little greed? I mean maybe just once. Want a bigger paycheque, a larger house, a nicer car, better clothes? Maybe just once.  It happens, am I right?  “Well yeah sure, but Pastor that’s not greed, that’s just ambition.”  Fine we’ll leave it at that.

Let’s go back to the story, he sells his property decides to keep some of the money, so far so good.  And he brings the money to the church and says, “Hey guys I sold my property just like Barnabas and here’s all the money.  Aren’t I great?”

And then listen to Peter’s response, we heard part of it earlier.  Acts 5:4 The property was yours to sell or not sell, as you wished. And after selling it, the money was also yours to give away. How could you do a thing like this? You weren’t lying to us but to God!”

― They say that honesty pays but obviously not enough to suit Ananias.  I wonder if Ananias had even stopped to think about the fact that he was lying to God?  I’m sure that he had already worked through the process of the apostles never knowing how much he had gotten and how much he had given.  But had he stopped to work through the fact that God knew?  I’m sure that he had at least read Numbers 32:23 But if you fail to keep your word, then you will have sinned against the Lord, and you may be sure that your sin will find you out.

This goes back to the premise that we have gone over again and again through the years.  You ready, you might want to write this down because it’s deep.  Here we go “You will get caught.”

Understand that you cannot lie to God.  You can’t lie to Him about your giving, you can’t lie to him about your behaviour and you can’t lie to him about your motivation. 

You think it’s a secret, because your spouse doesn’t know the truth and your friends don’t know the truth and Denn doesn’t know the truth.  But the reality was spelled out almost three thousand years ago when David wrote in Psalm 44:21 God would surely have known it, for he knows the secrets of every heart.  God knows the truth.

If you lie to God than chances are you probably won’t drop dead, but what will it do to your spirit, to your conscience and to your relationship with God?   

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who said, “I'm not upset that you lied to me, I'm upset that from now on I can't believe you.”

Jesus promised in John 8:31-32 “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 

So here are the questions:  Do you know the truth? Are you living the truth?  Has the truth set you free? 

It can if you want it to and if you are honest, honest with your self and honest with God. 

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