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God First

A sermon delivered Howard Batson, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Amarillo, Tx., on November 14, 2010.
Proverbs 3:9

What would it look like if you put God first in your life?  If a passion for following Jesus was your number one priority, how would your life change?  How would life be different from how you are living today?

We look at several texts today:  Proverbs 3:9, our stewardship theme passage for this year, as well as Matthew 6:33 and 2 Corinthians 8.

Proverbs 3:9

Honor the Lord from your wealth and from the first of all your produce, so that your barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will overflow with new wine.

Matthew 6:33

But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.

Two passages that share the word “first.”  Seek “first” His kingdom and honor the Lord from the “first” of all your produce.

God first.  What would God first look like for you?  If you were to give God the number one priority in your life, what would it look like?

Doak Taylor, who attended this church during the time he was growing up, wrote these words about seeking the kingdom of God.

Seeking the kingdom is God’s purpose for us, wherever our boundaries are and wherever we spend our time.  Our life is to be about seeking him, not who we work for, where we live, what our age is, or our race.  We are to spend our days seeking him in the hope that we get deeper and deeper into his character.  It is not about geography or decades, but it is only about seeking God.  Only about seeking him.

What if you had a whole different set of goals in life?  Goals other than the American Dream?  What if you and I worried as much about people who didn’t know Jesus Christ as their personal Savior as we did about dips in the Dow?  To worry about kingdom issues – people who don’t know Jesus – is an entirely different focus from worrying about the western agenda.

We’d have a whole different set of questions to ask.  We wouldn’t ask so much “What is my occupation going to be?” but, rather, we’d ask, “How can I be the best follower of Jesus I can possibly be?”

If you really had kingdom priorities, you would know that your true vocation in life is to be a follower of Jesus Christ.  Now, you might be a pharmacist by day, in order to earn an income to support your family and to support your church.  But that’s not who you really are.  Being a pharmacist or a teacher or a banker or a doctor or a lawyer or custodian or a mechanic – that’s not your primary concern.  Those professions, in themselves, are something of a mission upon which God might send you.  But in reality, that’s what allows you to provide for your family so that you can focus on the larger concern of being a disciple, of being part of the people of God, of being part of a church. 

That’s a radical new way of seeing things, but it’s the way God sees them.  It’s the biblical perspective. 

If you want to have something of which to be fearful, I’ll give you something to really be afraid of, something that’s really scary.  You could live your life as a middle-class American, or upper-class American, only to realize at the end of your life that you had a completely distorted set of priorities.  While you had one life to live, one life in which to give Him your best, you gave Him the leftovers.  Your passion really was somewhere outside of God’s passions.  Your focus was somewhere outside of the church – that is, outside of being part of God’s people.

Ultimately what we have to understand is that we’re not playing games at 12th and Tyler.  We’re trying to change the world with the power of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the preaching of the omnipotent word of God.  We’re not here so you can drop your kids off to give them a general education in the stories of faith, to instill in them a sensible Judeo-Christian ethic.  And, we do not have Sunday morning church so you can go home and eat lunch, knowing that you have made God and His house a part, albeit a very small part, of your very busy and hectic week. 

We’re not selling feel-good down here.  We’re calling you to be radical followers of Jesus, part of a 2,000+ year movement across this globe.  We’re asking you to put God and His people, the church, in the first place of priority in your life.  God and His church go hand and hand – by the way.  You cannot both love God and reject His people.

Let me give you something to worry about.  You really ought to worry about it.  Worry that you will live your life paying your bills on time, raising your kids, getting your mortgage paid off, begin to collect your Social Security check (if there is any around by the time you retire), coast into the golden years only to realize that all you’ve been doing is running the American race, like a hamster on the wheel, chasing goals that your culture set before you that were all the wrong goals in the first place.  You ought to be terribly frightened of that because it’s a plague.  It’s so deadly and so subtle that most people who have it, though they show the symptoms, are not aware of the malady that ails them.

Of course it’s a good thing to work.  It’s a good thing to raise a family.  It’s a good thing to have a retirement account.  But those are all secondary goals in life, not the real goal.  God first in living and in giving.  The goal of being a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.  The goal of being a responsible member of His family.

Instead of asking, “What am I going to be?”, what if you asked the question, “How can I most effectively practice my devotion to Jesus?  How can I be more Christ-like?  How can I live a life that exudes the fruits of the Spirit – joy, peace, kindness, goodness, and self control?” 

How can I best serve His church?

What if you had as a primary goal in life loving other people as much as you love yourself?  Or better yet, or likened unto it, what if you had the goal of loving the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and body?

The one thing you ought to worry about is that you will come to the end of your life and realize that it was so self-focused, so caught up in the ways of the western world that you missed the way of God.

Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.  And everything else – everything else – will fall into perspective, into place.

During your lifetime, a lot of different people are going to challenge you to do a lot of different things.  I’m giving you the greatest challenge you’ll ever hear in the entirety of your lifetime.  I’m challenging you to put God first, to seek the kingdom of God.

I know you like it better when we preach sermons that make you feel good about who you already are rather than call you to an entirely different way of life.  But the call of Proverbs is to honor the Lord from your wealth, the first of all your produce.  If you’ll honor Him, the proverbial sage concludes, He’ll bless you for it – as we’d say in modern language.

You cannot put God first in your life and it not affect your pocket book.  You can’t.  You can pretend.  You can convince yourself you are putting God first.  But you won’t convince me.  And you wouldn’t convince Solomon, the wise sage, who said a real way to honor God is to honor Him from your wealth, from the first all of all your produce.

God first.  Seek ye first the kingdom of God.  God first in the gift of your produce.

It reminds me of the missionary who heard a little humble knock at the door.  In answering, he found one of the boys of the village holding a fish in his hands.  The boy said, “Reverend, you taught us what tithing is, so here…I brought you my tithe.”  As the missionary gratefully took the fish, he questioned the young lad.  “If this is your tithe, where are the other nine fish?”  At this the boy beamed and said, “Oh, they’re still back in the river.  I’m going to catch my fish now.”

He gave God his first fruits, even before the other fruit came to harvest.  With some, God gets the first fruits.  With others, he just gets excuses.  For some of you, you have bought in to the imaginary “catch-up point.”  When the kids are out of the house.  When the college is paid for.  When the remodeling is done.   When…when…when.  Then…then…then we’re going to honor God with the first.  The reality is that catch-up point will never come.  You don’t honor God now – you won’t honor God then.

In 2 Corinthians 8:1-7, Paul writes,

Now brethren, we wish to make known to you the grace of God which has been given in the churches of Macedonia, that in a great deal of affliction their abundance of joy and their deep poverty overflowed in the wealth of their liberality.

For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability they gave of their own accord, begging us with much entreaty for the favor of participation in the support of the saints, and this, not as we had expected, but they first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God.

Consequently we urged Titus that as he had previously made a beginning, so he would also complete in you this gracious work as well.

But just as you abound in everything, in faith and utterance and knowledge and in all earnestness and in the love we inspired in you, see that you abound in this gracious work also.

In this passage Paul makes clear that many of the myths we have about money are misguided.  Paul’s emphasis is not that we should give because of guilt – because we have to.  Not with a grudge – because we ought to.  But with grace – because we want to.  Paul tells those in Corinth to look at the Philippians, the Bereans, the Thessalonicans.  Look what they’ve done.  The Macedonians.

(Following ideas from “Modern Money Myths” by O. S. Hawkins, www.preaching.com)

I.  The first myth we have is that only people with money should give.

In verse 2 of 2 Corinthians 8,  Paul says, “…their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality.”

Our church budget is not just Bob’s responsibility or Bill’s responsibility.  It’s not just for those who have money.  It’s your responsibility.  It’s my responsibility.

We often say, “If I had their money, I would give; I would tithe.”  That’s a myth.  If you tithe when you have little, you would tithe if you had much. 

The people gave out of great trial and great poverty.  The word “poverty” here means “rock bottom destitution.”

Myth number one is destroyed when Jesus meets the widow, and she gives her last coins.  A lot of people would have counseled her to keep it, to store it.  They would have robbed her of a great blessing and us of a great example.  If God can’t trust you to give out of little, He certainly can’t trust you to give out of much.

The reality is that every study shows that people who have little are better tithers than people who have much.  So it’s not true that only people with much can tithe.

And I’ll also add the tithing of the poor is a great indictment against people with much.  You see, as your income rises, your expenditures shouldn’t rise at the same rate.  As your income rises, you’re able not only to tithe, but to do more.

A pastor friend of mine was having a conversation with a very, very wealthy man.  This guy had the enormity of wealth that would even allow him to own a major sports team. 

“I don’t tithe to my church,” the multi-multi-millionaire said.  “It would just cause confusion and havoc to my church’s budget if I tithed.”

Immediately my pastor friend said, “Well, I couldn’t disagree with you more.”

Not used to being challenged, the wealthy man said, “Oh, what do you mean by that?”

“Did you ever think that God put you in that church to empower that church to do some special work for His kingdom?”

“I never thought about it that way,” said the wealthy man.

“Let me put it to you this way,” my pastor friend replied.  “I’ve just never been comfortable rewriting God’s plan with my own plan.  And that’s exactly what you’ve done.  Don’t sell your church short.  They would know how to handle your gifts, and they could do great things, if just for a season, with your gifts.  You have no right to impose your plan over God’s plan.”

To which the wealthy man replied, “Well, one thing I appreciate about you is that you always shoot straight.”

II.  The second myth is that it is unpleasant to give.

In 2 Corinthians 8:2, it says, “…that in a great trial of affliction their abundance of their joy and their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality…”

Jesus destroyed this myth.  Paul speaks of their joy, the abundance of their joy in giving.  And Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.”

At Christmas time, when it’s time to open the gifts, who do you watch?  Most of you watch the person opening the present.  But watch the giver of the gift.  That’s where you find true joy.  It’s fun to receive, but it’s not near as much fun as it is to give.  That’s why parents get more joy at Christmas giving to their children than they did receiving from their parents when they were small.

If you want to have the joy of God, you must have an open hand in regard to His people, His church, His work.

III.  The third myth is that giving will take away your resources.

I’m not telling you it won’t cost you to give or you won’t have to change your lifestyle.  The reality is that if most of us in this room were tithing, it would change our lifestyles.  You might live in a smaller house.  You might drive an older car.  Why, for many of you the tithe of your monthly income would be about a second house payment or car payment.  That’s okay.  That’s God’s plan.

Here he says, “…their deep poverty abounded in the riches of their liberality…”

Jesus disposed of myth three when He said, “Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, they will pour into your lap.  For by your standard of measure it will be measured to you in return” (Luke 6:38).

Some of the richest people I know are poor.  Some of the poorest people I know are rich. 

Jesus destroyed myth number three one day in Galilee when He took a little lad with a little lunch and taught a lesson.  The little boy’s giving started a chain reaction.  He gave to Christ, Christ gave to the disciples, the disciples gave to the crowd, the crowd gave back to the disciples – all because the boy gave beyond his ability.  He abounded in riches.

God will never allow us to be the loser if we are faithful to His word and obedient to His will.  Proverbs says give first to God and your barns will be full, your vats will be overflowing. Somehow, some way, God will honor you in return.

IV.  The fourth myth is “just do what you can.”

2 Corinthians 8:3 says, “…and beyond their ability, they were freely willing…” – not just doing what they could.

I know what happens.  You sit down and pay the bills, pay the mortgage, pay the car payment, pay the utilities, pay the unexpecteds.  And if there is anything left, then maybe, maybe the church.  Does that sound like you’re honoring God with the first of your wealth?  From the first of all your produce?

He never asks for leftovers.

V.  Myth number five is that we have to be coerced to give.

In 2 Corinthians 8:3-4, Paul says, “…they were freely willing…”

Stewardship is voluntary.  We’re never going to send you a bill.  In fact, it’s a privilege.  It’s a privilege to be a part of this great church (I say that as a member), to join the great cloud of witnesses in all the mission work and endeavors that this place has undertaken through a century plus of missions and witness.  The church budget is your budget. These ministries are your ministries.  There is no Plan B.  We must pay the bills of First Baptist Church.  We must undergird the missions and ministries of our church family.  But it is a privilege you and I enjoy, to give.  Our church has no financial power outside of the free and liberal gifts of her people.  None.

Stewardship makes us partners in God’s ministry.  Whenever we give to the church, when the pastor or staff preaches or witnesses or goes to make a hospital visit – we’re there with him or her when we give.  When the minister of music leads the choir, you’re standing right next to Dan as he leads – if you give.  When Kyle cleans the buildings, you’re there with him as he sweeps, mops, and or prepares the set up.  Kyle may be walking behind the big vacuum, but you’re right there with him. 

When the missionary preaches or teaches the gospel on the foreign field, you’re right there beside our missionaries.  You’re there with Anthony and Misti Shelton in Uganda.  And you’re right beside Sky Chaddick Scott in Zambia as she shares the story of Jesus with a neighbor.

When one of our Baptist children’s homes takes in a parentless child from Guatemala or Russia, you’re there, providing that child a loving home.

Whenever someone in our student ministry understands the sacred nature of human sexuality and saves himself or herself until marriage, you’re there – part of that sacred decision.

With every warm coat and bag of groceries given out at the Perkins Community Center at Buchanan Street Chapel, you’re there – handing the bag and providing the coat – because you gave.

When someone attends our ESL classes from Europe or Asia or Africa, you’re there.  When the van driver drives the van, you’re the one who put the gas in the tank.  And you bought the tires.

When Elaine goes to the hospital with a new Bible for a brand new baby, it’s you giving that baby her first word of God.

And yes, with our mission board partnerships, you are supporting thousands of missionaries in over 100 countries.

You’re there with the Gideon when he places a Bible in a hotel room or the school house.

When missionaries come back to the States, after a long stint on the foreign field, to be with their family in the Panhandle, you’re there – putting shelter over the missionary family’s head.

Next week, each one of us – as an act of our worship – is going to turn in a commitment card to say this is what we’re going to do, this is my family’s tithe, this is what I can give next year to support my church and the ministries through my church.  Don’t let this be routine.  Don’t let this be mundane.  Don’t let this be just a cycle of the season.  It’s the word of God.  It’s the plan of God.  Take it seriously.  Respond in obedience with a joyful and grateful heart.

God first.  What would it look like if you began to put God and His people first?