What Shall I Render to the Lord?
The Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Our Lord
February 2, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church—Chicago, IL
In the name of + Jesus.
Psalm 116 asks, “What shall I render to the Lord, for all His benefits to me?” This should be the same question you ask yourself when you open your checkbook or wallet, or pull up the giving page on our website or mobile app, to prepare your offering. You do prepare and plan your giving, right? While we are grateful for all contributions, and God accepts such offerings given from a posture of faith, the mature Christian sees giving as a discipline, something that doesn’t catch you off guard. Like other financial matters, planning helps you control your money and other possessions rather than letting them control you.
Most financial advisors, whether they’re Christian or not, would probably agree that it’s good practice to give some of your money or possessions away, to support a cause. And each one has a strategy they’d like to suggest (or sell) to you. But what does God have to say about what you give back to Him, and how does that help you plan your gift?
If you’ve heard one stewardship sermon, you’ve probably heard them all. If this is your first, then there are certain “biblical principles for Christian stewardship,” which is another way of saying “fundraising campaign.” Each stewardship sermon is a variation on the themes of, “God loves a cheerful giver,” or, “You reap what you sow.” And inevitably the call to action is to give a tithe. And I think that the biblical principles for stewardship have done more harm over the long term than they have done good. Why? Let’s take a look at the tithe.
A tithe is a ten percent gift. It’s a simple way of preparing an offering because we count in tens and you can simply remove one to give to God, or move the decimal point one place to the left and you’ve calculated your offering check. But the problem is that people don’t do that. I read a while back that the average regular church attender gives four percent of his or her income. So very few people are meeting the ten percent benchmark.
But the problem is even worse, because God did not command His people to give a tithe, but several different kinds of tithes, some yearly some over the course of several years. This means that for the Israelites obeying God’s laws, they were giving somewhere north of twenty percent.
But what do you tithe? Should it be what’s left after paying the bills? Should it be net income? Should it be pre-tax income? If we go back to the original tithe—the gift that Abraham gave to the priest Melchizedek, we read that Abram gave him a tenth of everything. So if you really want to get in the spirit of tithing, it’s time to calculate your net worth—savings and stocks and house and retirement. And then we could end our church budget woes today. And we haven’t even mentioned the occasional sacrifices of the Old Testament, the above-and-beyond gifts. But I’m willing to bet there’s a limit at which each of you would put your foot down and refuse to obey God. No more.
There is a more insidious problem with biblical principles for Christian stewardship, and that’s the suggestion that if you follow them—if you give ten percent of your gross pay with a cheerful heart and sow some good for your Church—that you’ve done enough. What shall I render to the Lord, for all His benefits to me? Eh, ten percent. Less than you tip your server at IHOP, at least I hope that’s less than you tip your servers.
What shall I render to the Lord, for all His benefits to me? That question can only be answered when you realize that all that you have is a benefit from God. When you give an offering to God, you are not initiating a transaction by which your wealth decreases and His increases. God owns it all.
Now I anticipate that you’re beginning to think that the preacher snuck a stewardship sermon in on a feast Sunday where we observe a significant event in the life of Christ with a little extra umph in our liturgy. And you’d be kinda right. But The Feast of the Purification of Mary and the Presentation of Jesus (the longest title of any day of the Church year, BTW), really has everything to do with answering the question, “What shall I render to the Lord, for all His benefits to me?”
The first part of this feast day has to do with Mary’s ritual purification after childbirth. The Levitical law required women to offer a sacrifice for ritual cleansing after childbirth on the fortieth day for sons and the eightieth day for daughters. This was to ensure full post-partum healing before a return to the social life of Israel. And if you count back 40 days from today, you land on Christmas Day. That’s why we celebrate this feast on Feb. 2.
We could spend all of our time on the significance of Mary’s ritual purification, but for our purposes today we should only note that Leviticus 12 prescribes the sacrifice of a young lamb and a turtledove, or in the case of a poor family, two turtledoves. The Holy Family was a poor family because they offered the latter.
The presentation of Jesus, though, is an entirely different matter, even though the two events coincided. When the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, [Mary and Joseph] brought [Jesus] up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons” (vv 22–24).
Why a presentation? It is written in the Law. Exodus 13 to be precise. For those of you keeping score at home, this is the chapter directly following the account of the Passover. The Lord said to Moses, “Consecrate to me all the firstborn. Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel, both of man and of beast, is mine” (Ex 13:1–2).
But God also gives a rationale: “When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to you and your fathers, and shall give it to you, you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your animals that are males shall be the Lord's. Every firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. Every firstborn of man among your sons you shall redeem. And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. For when Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of animals. Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord all the males that first open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.”
Now, if you were thinking to yourself as we were going over God’s tithing requirements, “What more does He want, my firstborn son?” the answer is yes. Everything—even your life—is God’s gift, and belongs to Him. The offering and gift God requires of you is your whole self, your entire life.
But at the presentation of the firstborn, God did not claim his life by breaking his neck like a donkey; the firstborn were redeemed by a substitute’s death. The blood of a lamb freed the firstborn from all obligations before God.
And this is the key to living a life of generosity. Jesus was presented at the temple as a sign that He would present His whole self and His entire life as the substitute for you. He does not give only ten percent, or somewhere north of twenty percent, or any other fraction of Himself. He gives it all, down the last drop of blood drawn from His thorny crown.
You are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb. And that means you have nothing left to lose. What shall I render to the Lord, for all His benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.
Your generosity begins by taking up the cup of salvation, which is filled with the blood that redeems you. And when you get home, you can plan what of God’s benefits would be a benefit for others. That’s generosity that comes from Jesus, because
Jesus’ Generosity Led Him to Give Himself for You
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard
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