Did You Bring the Right Offering to Church?

Did you bring the right offering to your church? Perhaps pastors such as myself will be tempted to say “no.” That may be based on organizational number crunching for 2019 and a realization that red is not just a Christmas colour. As Christmas fades into the past, an event following that first Christmas will help us reflect on our offering.

Let us consider the Magi. We usually think of the Magi as being at the manger along with the shepherds on the first Christmas Day. However, based on Herod’s killing of Bethlehem’s 2-years-old-and-under infants (see Matt 2:16), they likely arrived later.

On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:11 (NIV)

Being non-Jewish, the Magi do not bring an offering according to any religious rule, but rather from of a spirit of generosity. It is an interesting exercise to read through the entire New Testament, taking note of how often religious rules for giving are promoted in contrast to how often generosity is taught and modelled, especially by Jesus.

It is an interesting exercise to also consider the difference between giving out of religious duty and a spirit of generosity. For example, it is possible to earn millions of dollars, tithe a tenth of all that is earned to a church, and yet be completely lacking in a generous spirit. We would be left with incredible wealth, yet could still be stingy to everyone and every need that crosses our paths. Even though we have given much to our church community, we can be Scrooge-like in sharing our gifts of time and talents. Are our offerings of time, talents, and treasures an expression of a growing and generous spirit, or merely an expression of how religious we are? Our offering is not just a matter of accounting and number crunching, but a matter of the heart.

Further, let us consider that the Magi bring their offering, not to the temple, but to a person. Are our offerings focused on Jesus? Are they focused on Jesus when they are given to an organization we call a church? It is more important that churches help people connect and walk with Jesus, than simply keep churchy and religious things happening. Since our offerings are part of personal devotion and worship, we would bring them as an act of worship, even if we were asked by God to be burn them on an altar.  But God has not asked for that. He has directed us to help people connect with Him.

Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. 20 Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20 (NLT)

Do our offerings help people connect with God and walk with Jesus?

There is another offering for us to consider as we bid farewell to the Christmas season. Let us go back to the temple, to the moment Simeon held the infant Jesus in his arms and said to Mary:

“This child is destined to cause many in Israel to fall, and many others to rise. He has been sent as a sign from God, but many will oppose him. 35 As a result, the deepest thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your very soul.” Luke 2:34-35 (NLT)

sword would indeed pierce Mary’s soul when Jesus was opposed by his own people, who should have known better, and hung on a cross by the Romans, who should have done better. We are barely beyond Christmas and already we are hearing about Good Friday. While we think of the offerings of the Magi, the offering brought by God for outsiders like the Magi is the real news here. God’s generous spirit is on full display! Have you brought the right offering to church? Come to Jesus, see the gift he has for you. Then see where generosity leads you.

Herod’s Messed Up Christmas

The Christmas Story as told by Matthew does not end like it does in the more sentimental telling of it we are used to. It ends in tragedy.

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Matthew 2:16

Technically speaking, the magi were likely not present with Jesus along with the shepherds as commonly portrayed in manger scenes. They arrived later. In fact the Church calendar encourages us to reflect on the arrival of the magi at the end of Christmas, on January 6th, with a celebration called Epiphany. Nevertheless, in the popular and sentimental celebrations of Christmas the magi are there at the manger scene and everyone is happy but Herod. However, in the Biblical account Christmas ends up going horribly wrong. What are we to make of Herod’s messy Christmas?

First, the unhappy ending of the Christmas story is a reminder from the get-go that we need a rescue.  While we tend to think Herod was a particularly evil person, the fact is that any one of us could have ended up being a Herod. People we think of as evil are usually ordinary people who have been swept up in evil. It could have been us. Hitler may have been particularly evil, but many regular folk committed evil deeds because they were too easily swept up with his evil. Charles Manson may have been particularly evil, but those who committed murder for him would likely have had very different lives had they become involved with a better crowd. That could have been us and not them being swept up in evil. Humanity has a sin problem. Even the most “naturally nice” of us have the potential for great evil. Therefore the sad ending of the Christmas story found at the beginning of the New Testament is a reminder of something we learned from the Old Testament, namely that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). The massacre at Bethlehem reminds us that we need a rescue.

Second, the unhappy ending of the Christmas story is not the end of the story. Matthew goes on to tell us about the teaching of Jesus, pointing us toward a righteousness that is far better than that of the rule-focused Pharisees. There is a God-given and Spirit-driven righteousness ahead. Matthew goes on to tell us about the miracles of Jesus, reversing the effects of sin and curse we know about from Genesis chapter three. Matthew goes on to tell us about the death of Jesus. We learn early on that Mary “will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) The death of Jesus deals with sin in a way neither we, nor anything nor anyone else, ever could. God Himself brought His grace and justice together in rescuing us from the end result of sin. Matthew goes on to tell us about the resurrection of Jesus. Where Herod failed, the religious and political leaders finally seemed to succeed when Jesus was put to death at the cross. Only that didn’t last very long. Death could not hold him and the story goes on! Matthew goes on to tell us about the great commission of Jesus:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. Matthew 28:18-20

Here is a new beginning, a revolution. The implication is that the Herods of the world, if they become obedient disciples of Jesus, could not commit the kind of atrocities that we find in the Christmas story. Instead of being people who are swept up in evil, we are to become people swept up in goodness and godliness, a people swept up in God Himself.

Matthew goes on to tell us, in the final words of his book, some final words of Jesus before his ascension: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) There is an age to come after this age. In other words the ending of the Christmas story is not the end of the story. Far from it! The Christmas story is the beginning of a new beginning which will lead to a new beginning. The story goes on and it ends well! While Christmas has a sad ending, the story of Jesus ends well. In Christ your story can have a happy ending too!

(All Scripture references are taken from the NRSV)