I took the title of this sermon from Bob Dylan. “Gotta Serve Somebody” is the best song on a great album, Slow Train Coming, which unfortunately has been largely forgotten because of its explicitly Christian character; and while I think Dylan’s reputation as a poet and thinker is somewhat overinflated, his song makes a pretty important theological point: no matter who you are, how low or how high, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” That’s a truth we don’t often want to hear. In the Bible, those closest to God are described as his servants, but it’s easy to see that as a negative thing, in part because we see it as serving God versus being free, serving no one.
What Scripture understands, and Dylan saw, and we too often don’t is that this is a false picture, because everyone is serving somebody; it’s just that some know it and some don’t. Without God, we aren’t free—we’re slaves to sin. That might look like freedom, because the desires which enslave us are in some sense our own; but just try to break a habit, just try to rein in one of those desires, and most people discover just how free we aren’t. If we vaunt our independence and our freedom to do whatever we please, it just shows that we don’t realize that “whatever we please” is really running the show—which means we’re at the devil’s mercy, because we’ve given him lots of strings to pull.
This is just as true of money as it is of anything else—and maybe truer, since money is essential to the fulfillment of most of those desires. That’s part of the reason Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 6:10 that “the love of money is the root of all evil”—yes, that’s hyperbole, but still: between evil acts committed to gain money, and evil acts which require money, that’s a pretty high percentage of the evil that people do. And then you get into the rest of life, because there’s not much these days that doesn’t require money; I know they say “the best things in life are free,” but whether that’s true or not, the basic things sure aren’t. Food, clothing, shelter, gas, none of that is free. The result of all this is that most people’s lives are dominated by money; the great poet William Wordsworth wrote in 1807, “Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,” and it’s at least as true now as it was then. Too often, it’s money that drives our decisions and sets our priorities.
Over against this, God calls us to serve him with our money, and with all the other gifts he’s given us. We talked about this two weeks ago, that everything we have, we hold in trust for God, and he has instructions for us as to how we’re to use it. I suspect that a lot of the time, we don’t take that very seriously, as the Israelites didn’t; but God did, and does, and we need to remember that. It’s easy to think that what we do with our money isn’t a spiritual issue, but it is, because of what Jesus says in Luke 16:13: “You can’t serve both God and money.” In the last analysis, either following God is going to be a higher priority than having, making, spending money, or money will be a higher priority than God; and for us as Christians, it had better be the former.
Tithing is a way of making sure that that’s the case, disciplining ourselves to make sure that we put God first in the use of our money by setting aside part of it for his use before we do anything else with it. If we don’t do that, if we don’t give at all or we just give whatever is convenient—which is to say, whatever amount doesn’t affect all the other things we want to do with our money—then we’re really putting money, getting it and spending it, ahead of obeying and serving him; which means that in the last analysis, we’re serving money, not God.
The irony in all this is that God wants to take care of us and bless us, if we would just trust him to do so and be faithful to put him first; if we aren’t willing to take the “risk” of tithing because we don’t feel we can afford it, then we don’t give him that opportunity. It’s not easy to depend on God to provide; I spent long enough making little or no money, I know how hard it is. I confess, to my shame, that I didn’t tithe then, because I was afraid of not having enough. I still believed up here that God would provide for us if I did, but I didn’t believe it down here enough to act on that. I trusted him, but not that much, and I still regret that. God provides for the ravens, who were the most despised of all birds, and he provides for the grass, which is here today and gone tomorrow; why didn’t I trust him to provide for me? Why didn’t I have the faith God gives the flowers?—they don’t conserve themselves, they simply bloom, spending their beauty extrava-gantly on all who pass, and trust him to take care of them. That’s the sort of faith God wants us to have, that we will give beyond what’s convenient, even beyond what seems safe, and trust that he will provide for us—and that we will live richer lives as a result.
It should also be said that God will not reward unfaithfulness and disobedience; if we decide to use the things he’s given us to bless ourselves, rather than being faithful to use them as he calls us to use them, he’s not going to bless that. If we remember that everything we have is God’s and use it accordingly, if we’re faithful with worldly wealth, then he’ll give us the riches of the kingdom; but if we aren’t, he won’t. This doesn’t mean we won’t be saved, but it seems clearly to mean that our reward will be less than if we had used our gifts faithfully to serve God rather than ourselves.
Now, since God calls us to tithe for the sake of the work of the church, this all places a heavy responsibility on me, on our elders, and on all those whom God has chosen to lead his people. We are accountable, not just to you but to God, for how we use your gifts. We’re responsible to pray, to seek his will, so that we use the gifts you give in ways that honor his name and build up the church—which is to say, each of you, and all of you together; and if we were to spend the money you give unwisely, or in ways which were counterproductive or dishonoring to his name, then we would be guilty of sin and accountable to God for our actions. It’s a heavy responsibility indeed; and while we aren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, I’m proud of our elders for the way they carry it out. We want to do more than we’re doing, of course—there is always more to be done, and we could always do it better—and as we have more resources to work with, we will do more; but though like all people, we make mistakes, in general, to the best of our ability, I believe we’re faithful to the charge God has given us.
If that sounded like a commercial for this church, I suppose it was; but note well, if it’s a commercial for this church, it’s a commercial for each of you—and for good reason. I believe in you. I see what you’re already doing and how much more you have the potential to do; I see what you have the ability to accomplish in your lives and in the life of this community. And if I tell you I believe in this church, it’s for exactly that reason, that I believe in you; I’m calling you, as God is calling you, to open your hearts, to take risks, to trust him enough to give freely—of your money, of your time, of your gifts, of yourself—because I believe you’ll be amazed at what will happen. You’ll be amazed, and maybe you’ll even amaze me, at what you can accomplish for the kingdom of God, and what an absolute blessing that will be; but you know what? God won’t be amazed, because he already knows what you can do, and what he can do in and through you, if you’re only willing to let him.
Of course, to take that step, you have to believe that God is going to act; that’s where the Israelites of Malachi’s day fell short. They had already made up their minds that whether they kept his commands or not, it didn’t matter, because he didn’t do anything either way. They thought his commands were irrelevant and obeying them was useless. From that perspective, it’s no wonder they didn’t tithe—why would they, if they didn’t think it would make any difference? They didn’t even understand why they were offending God, because they weren’t talking about him at all; they failed to realize that that was precisely why he was offended. God said, “Test me—bring in your tithes, and watch me bless you,” but they had already concluded that he wouldn’t. I suspect that often, when we don’t give, it’s for something of the same reason: we really don’t believe that God will keep his promises if we do. To that, he simply says, “Try me. Try me and see what I will do”; and we need to step forward and do just that.
We need to do that, because the bottom line here is simple: are you serving God with your money, or are you serving your money? Jesus tells us there are only the two choices. Are you building up treasures for yourself in heaven, where they’re eternal and you’ll enjoy them for eternity, or are you storing them up here on earth, where a flood could wash them out and you’ll have to leave them behind when you die anyway? No, there’s nothing wrong with having things; God commanded the Israelites to give 10% of their income, not 100%; but is that where your treasure is? Because if it is, then that’s where your heart is, and that’s what you’re serving. Store up treasures for yourself in heaven, in the coming kingdom of God, for it is the Father’s pleasure to give you the kingdom—the whole thing; store up an unfailing treasure in heaven, with him, by giving freely of all that you have and all that you are, by serving him freely with your earthly treasure, your time on this earth, and the talents you have been given; for where your treasure is, there is your heart.