As some of you know, in this season Laurie and I are devoting most of our ministry efforts to a family expression of church which has clarified around us locally. And with all that’s going on, writing blog posts has fallen a few notches on the priority list. But don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten our friends far and wide. In fact, I thought you, our readers, might enjoy a peek into some of what we are teaching these days, so as an experiment, I ordered a transcript of a teaching I gave recently at one of our Sunday gatherings, and after light edit for some needed additions (and subtractions!) I am posting it here as a plainly spoken long-form post. If you can, I’d love to hear what your thoughts on both content and format–if you’d find it valuable to see more like this, or if it’s just too much and you prefer Hemingway-esque distillations, or something in between. Laurie and I are honored that you are keeping up with us and want to serve you how we can in your journey with Jesus. I hope this post will help you engage the normal things of life in a way that’s joyfully in harmony with God! – Tim
STEWARDSHIP AND SURRENDER ALLOW JOYFUL GENEROSITY
We’ve been going through the book of Acts, and so far we’ve covered the disciples’ submission to the commands and mission of Jesus, their life of prayer together, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, and the preaching of the Gospel, as well as their devotion to fellowship with one another. Soon we’ll get to the Lord’s supper. I’m preparing to talk about one of the most beautiful outflows of what the church had together in God: generosity.
I’ve realized that there’s some ground that has to be covered before we start talking about biblical generosity, and that’s the ground of understanding surrender and stewardship. My goal today is that we would all have a sense of surrender to God and what it means to be God’s steward, because if we go straight to generosity without understanding surrender and stewardship, I’m going to find myself in the unfortunate position of trying to negotiate on behalf of God for a slightly larger sliver of your resources, whether time, money, energy, etc.. That would not do you justice and it would be awkward for me, and God would ultimately still be like, “Hello? I own all of it.”
STEWARDSHIP IN THE FIRST CENTURY AND EDEN
So how do we arrive at that place that the early church enjoyed of generosity overflowing and welling up in their worship? They were in awe of what God was doing among them. And the devotions–the other elements of the life of the church were online, so it wasn’t in a vacuum. They understood the sacrifice of Jesus and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and their destiny.
So for us to really understand the whole story in a comprehensive way like them, as usual, we have to go back to Eden. In Eden a few things happened that are very relevant to our journey as a people and to this particular conversation.
One, God said in the Trinitarian “we” voice, “Let us make man in our image.” We’re image bearers of God by our very nature. Which means there is a sense in which we “stand in for God” as a representative in the world. Often we apply the idea of image-bearing to just one thing, like creativity. Creativity is one way we bear the image of God, but first, to be an image bearer of God means what you say and do counts for God.
It’s a magnificent, stunning privilege that God would make us his image bearers. Not just one man at the top of the pile, but man and woman together in relationship and all of the children they have.
Two, God commands them to rule and subdue the Earth. And Three, He commands them to be fruitful and multiply.
Ruling and subduing the Earth means bringing not just the garden, but the whole Earth that was wild and crazy, into submission to the order of God. Which sounds a lot like, “May your kingdom come on Earth as it does in heaven,” doesn’t it? And then to be fruitful and multiply means we’re multiplying the image of God. We’re multiplying those who represent God and in whom God dwells throughout the whole Earth.
So by our very nature, from the very beginning, we are owners in a way, but it wouldn’t be really true to say the Earth is exclusively ours, because our rulership or dominion over it is as image-bearers of God.
Which means it’s a representative rulership. And that’s a pretty good way to understand stewardship. It means it’s not mine, ultimately, but I’ve been put in charge of it. And that’s how we should understand–really, I think the bible bears this out–our relationship to this whole Earth. God has given us rulership and this dominion over it to expand the way of God–which we call the kingdom of God–throughout the whole Earth, and it’s the way of love, it’s the way of justice. Everything that God values, we are to walk it out on Earth.
STEWARDSHIP STARTS SMALL
We also have to understand that if we’re going to do it on the world-wide level, then we better be able to do it in the small things. Because often it’s in the small, in the little one thing that you’re given where you demonstrate your faithfulness so that you can be given more.
It might not make sense to expect to participate significantly in the kingdom coming on Earth as it is in heaven in the city or in the world if it’s not coming on Earth as it is in heaven in your house.
We start with our time, our money, our attention, our energy, our strength, our will, our dreams our goals, our life plan, our emotions, our service, our sense of security, our study, our giftings and our talents, the way we conduct ourselves at work.
When we pray “may your kingdom come on Earth as it is in heaven,” we are pledging all of our personal resources to God for that purpose. We’re telling God “let it start with me and what’s mine.”
We’re asking him to bring His rule into each of those places I just mentioned. So our task becomes not one that’s outside of us; our task becomes receiving God’s grace to reign as his representative in what’s already within our grasp.
How can you bring the rule of God into what you have stewardship and influence over now?
Well if we can do that, then He’s going to give us more. “For whoever has, to him more shall be given; and whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.” (Mark 4:25)
If we don’t know how to rule our soul, maybe we don’t need to be asking for the city yet.
We need to ask for the grace to rule our soul first, and have that overflow in love and justice and health and peace and generosity in the way I view myself, the way I talk in my own head about myself, and then the way I treat my wife, and the way I treat my kids, the environment of my home, the way I am with my guests, the way I am with my extended family, the way I am with my friends and at work and on and on.
Stewardship starts when we rule what we have for God’s sake. That’s where all this happens. This understanding gives us some really practical stuff to do with all of our deep-seated, heavenly passions.
STEWARDSHIP OFFERS ITS RESOURCES
Ok. Turn to Luke 20.
And then he began to tell the people of this parable, a man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants and went into another country for a long while. When the time came, he sent a servant to the tenants so that they would give him some of the fruit of the vineyard. But the tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent another servant but they also beat him and treated him shamefully and sent him away empty-handed. And he sent yet a third, and this one also they wounded and cast out. Then the owner of the vineyard said, “What shall I do? I will send my beloved son, perhaps they will respect him.” But when the tenants saw him- they said to themselves, this is the heir, let us kill him so that the inheritance may be ours, and they threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. What then will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others.
So the landowner, the nobleman who represents God, sent someone in to take care of his vineyard. The vineyard represents Israel. Or I should say, the vineyard represents the Earth, and the steward that God sends into place to take care of it represents Israel. Jesus is telling a tale about the way that Israel has been given stewardship over this thing on behalf of the master. Again, representative rulership.
Jesus is giving us a provoking story about the mismanagement of the vineyard, and although it’s spoken to Israel in this context, it’s not a stretch for us to take this parable and apply it to ourselves for the vineyard that we steward, because we all steward a vineyard, don’t we?
Think about your vineyard. What has God given you and entrusted to you as an image bearer of Himself that you would rule it as a representative of Him?
Paul asks this question, in 1 Corinthians, “What do you have that you have not received? Why then do you act like you didn’t receive it?”
When we act like we have anything of our own that we didn’t receive, we become bad stewards of the vineyard because we are at odds with the owner.
God sends emissaries and says, “Give me some of my harvest,” and we say, “oh no this is mine.” We cling to the vineyard. We misappropriate what He gave us. To the point where He would actually send his son, Jesus himself, to say, “Hey, I’m ready now to have what’s mine,” and we go “oh no no no, that’s not part of the deal. This stuff is mine.”
We misunderstand the whole thing. Because what’s really ours? I’m not just talking about our money or our belongings. I am talking about that. But also, I didn’t give myself breath when I woke up this morning. I didn’t create food to eat on this Earth.
Laurie and I just recently put seeds in the ground and they came up and produced way, way, WAY more seeds than we needed last year, and now there’s enough that we can take just a little portion and start them in there for this year’s garden.
The design of fruits and vegetables that produce exceedingly more then needed isn’t a human idea. I’m not that good. That’s God’s kind of thinking. He provides abundantly. We just steward what he’s given.
I didn’t come up with my next idea for a painting, I observed what God made and participated. Do you give yourself the ability to come up with your next idea for a business? No, you apply yourself and you try to maintain an environment where you can be effective, but you really don’t have anything to do with the fundamental elements that allow that. We don’t come up with the energy that we have to get up and do something with our days.
Anyone who has had a baby knows that they participated, but they didn’t make the child. The process is miraculously beyond all of us, yet in and through us.
Everything that we have is a gift. Everything that we have is a vineyard that was given to us so that we will be representative rulers. And so, the question becomes, when God sends an emissary and says, “I would like some of that harvest now,” will we say yes? Will we honor the King? Will we honor the Owner? Or will we forget and think that it’s ours?
And if the Son himself comes to our vineyard and says, “I would like the fruit of the harvest,” will we recognize Jesus? He might come to us in many ways. He might come to us as a priest. He might come to us as the poor. He might come to us as a pilgrimage. To attend to any of those things is costly.
If we do recognize Him, do we negotiate with Him? Or do we say, “What do I have that I have not received? Of course, Jesus. Everything I have is yours. Including I my very self!”
That is the kind of sacrifice that the fire of God can come onto. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters,” I quote this everytime I preach, “in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.” (Romans 12)
It’s not just when we stand and sing that we worship, it’s when we make everything in our vineyard available for God’s dominion, available for God’s kingdom. So then when we go to work, when we go to parent, when we go to spend time with a stranger, when we go to do the mundane things.
While I was cleaning gravel off my driveway, which I need to do again, God came to me. In the middle of the job I thought, “I don’t have time for this, why in the world am I sweeping gravel off my driveway which is so old it is eroding and falling apart anyway?” And I felt like the Holy Spirit said, “You could just do it because you love me,” and I found myself invited into a moment of worship.
You could look at it and say “man, that driveway isn’t worth it. It needs to be torn up and a new driveway poured there,” and in one sense that’s true, but it doesn’t matter, because to take care of what’s mine is my act of worship to the Lord. It has to be manifested in all things small and large. There’s a chance to worship in every moment of life.
Once Laurie and I were playing music at a worship night in a living room and someone’s need was brought up. A girl was moving to another country and needed a significant amount of money. I thought, ‘I don’t have any money, Lord, but I will give her the offering at the end of the night.’ And then the offering came in at $1,500 which was quite a bit more than expected and would have really helped us, but it wasn’t a problem to give it away, in fact it was a thrill, because I had already made it available to God before it came in.
There’s a chance to be a representative ruler and to yield ownership of everything to the King and in every single part of your life. And it’s fun.
STEWARDSHIP YIELDS TO GOD IN THE PROCESS
Some of you might be thinking what I’ve sometimes thought when presented with the encouragement to surrender everything to God which is, ‘well, God already gave me a bunch of priorities and a bunch of stuff to do, and so don’t ask anything of me, I’m already tapped out doing those things.’
That’s almost exactly what the stewards of this vineyard did. They said, “God gave us this job to take care of this vineyard, so don’t bother me, I’m doing my job.” But they failed to recognize God showing up in the middle of it.
Some of us have something we know God gave us to do. But Paul would say, “Are you going to finish in the flesh what started in the Spirit?” (see Gal 3:3)
If God commanded you to do it, are you checking in with God about the process and His evolving design for it? Is he allowed to change His mind? Can he modify his plan as the conditions change?
If it’s something God wants done, is he allowed to decide to reallocate His resources differently at any point? Or has it crystallized in your brain: this is my thing I have to do and I’m just going to keep my head down and power through it?
Well that’s not going to work, because the Son might walk into the vineyard at any time, either through an emissary or through coming Himself. So whatever it is that we know God’s given us, we make this error of the vine growers if it’s not continually submitted to God.
When you’re on a mission, it’s ridiculous to not ever check in with mission command. If I’m in the army, one of my most important pieces of equipment is my radio.
The further I get from the place that I receive the last communication from headquarters, the more likelihood there is that I’m not in sync with the actual battle anymore.
I can start bringing all of my effort and passion to something that’s not going to yield a victory. You guys with me? Are you seeing how this might apply to life and stewardship?
Some things God gives me to do–Christian things; ministry things–and I go off and try to do and do and do and do and then I realize, oh wait, I don’t think God’s in this anymore. I think this is just me now. That’s what I was singing about in our song Falling Backwards, which is about repenting of self-made religion and returning to the First Love.
“I used to think it was all mapped out
But while I stayed the course you rethought the route
And when I lost you good tried to sort it out — alone”
– Falling Backwards, on the album Reckless
And in fact, when we hear God the first time about an assignment, we hear through the grid of our own minds, wills, and emotions, and we have to recognize there is a chance we might have even misinterpreted what God meant.
And so it makes sense to check in constantly, and not just in theory but in reality, because that will allow us to grow in our understanding of the original assignment. I don’t think God holds back from us at first, but as we grow and show ourselves faithful to the task and submitted to Him, He is able to reveal more about both us and our assignments.
In my own life, God restored my heart to make visual art. I must be able to say, “God, you gave me an invitation to paint as an act of worship. Am I stewarding this in a way that honors You? Is this is an act that includes You? Or have I gone off and decided to use this for my own fleshy purposes? Have I made my gift, my mission, my calling accessible to You? Or am I trying to finish in the flesh what started in the Spirit?” If I am, it’s time to reorient myself.
I’ve had the habit of doing this very intentionally with all of my work, all of my ministry, all of my creative expressions once a year. Usually, I set aside three or four days in January and I just go and lay everything at the feet of God and go, “Ok, this is all the stuff I’m doing and I think it’s important, but You’re mission control, so You get to give me a new order right now if You want. If You want to take these things and entrust them to someone else, or You want to shut them down, or You want me to do them but with a different heart, or with a different purpose, or in a different way, this is Your time to make sure I’m aligned to the Spirit.”
It’s good stewardship to make sure we’re engaging in the Spirit the things that start in the Spirit, so that we don’t get out of sync with God, even though our desires are good.
Which would be a pretty good way to understand “religiosity” or dead works. That’s when we do good things for the wrong reason; we do good things from the flesh instead of from the Spirit. We try to fulfill the command of God by our own strength instead of by the Spirit of God.
But here’s some good news.
God wants to empower us to fulfill everything that he commands us to do.
We see an error all over the Bible. The first thing Abraham did when he received the promise was come up with a way to fulfill the promise in the flesh. And that became a curse. Do you want the vineyard you’re stewarding to become a curse? Of course not. The way to make sure your vineyard remains a blessing is to always submit it to the Spirit. Always make sure it’s God who works in us to will and to act according to His good purpose. That’s Philippians 2, work out your salvation–with fear and trembling. We should have a sense that this is a very serious business. We must not take God’s gift that he gave us to steward and turn it into a curse by trying to fulfill it in the arm of flesh. (see Jeremiah 17:5)
So stewardship means that we understand that everything that’s ours is God’s, and that we are His representative rulers. The practice of stewardship means that we submit the vineyard of our life–our emotions, our mind, our will, our time, our money, our attention, our energy, our strength, our dreams, our goals, our relationships, our life plan, our service, our sense of security, our study, our giftings and our talents–to God for His spirit to move through us in them.
We’ve talked about the vineyard which is sort of a scathing story, but before that, when Jesus is about to come into Jerusalem, there’s a magnificent story about surrender and stewardship and what it looks like. Luke 19:28 if you’d like to read along:
After he had said these things He was going on ahead, going up to Jerusalem, when He approached Bethphage and Bethany near the Mount that is called Olivet, he sent two of the disciples saying “go into the village ahead of you. There, as you enter, you will find a colt on which no one has ever sat, untie it and bring it here. If someone asks you why are you untying it? You shall say, “The Lord has need of it.”” So those who were sent, went away and found it just as He had told them. As they were untying the colt, its owners said to them, “Why are you untying the colt?” They said, “The Lord has need of it.” They brought it to Jesus, threw their cloaks on the colt and put Jesus on it.
This is a picture of what representative rulership looks like. Just as in the vineyard the Son sent emissaries to say, “I want some of the harvest,” here he sends disciples to say, “The Lord needs this colt.”
But this time, just like He said it would happen, it doesn’t appear they made any fuss at all.
This is amazing. Imagine someone comes to your driveway and starts driving away in your new car, and you ask them what they’re doing.
“The Lord has need of it.”
And then imagine saying yes!
I tend to imagine this might have been a painful surprise for the person who had the colt, but what if they had planned for generosity and had already set it aside? They would simply rejoice that it was being put to use by Jesus!
How do we move in this kind of stewardship? Only one way.
Stewardship becomes joyful if we’ve decided ahead of time that our resources already belong to the Lord. Otherwise, you have to do battle with your soul every time the God asks for something.
There’s still a process of discerning or choosing who and what to give, how to recognize God in the moment, and what activities to engage, but that’s a far more beautiful and fun process than giving begrudgingly, or refusing him. If you decide now that it’s all the Lord’s and it’s all available for him, then when the Son or one of his emissaries shows up to get some of your harvest you’ll say, “Well of course, it’s already His.”
There’s a beautiful example of this I have in my dad. He lives out that Romans 12 truth that says “in view of God’s mercy, offer yourselves.” You ask him for help, he’s there. He’s cooking for the youth group. He’s welding something for that guy. He’s bringing his truck and he’s moving this lady. He’s taking that kid fishing. He’s the guy who shows up early; he’s the guy to stay late. He asks nothing in return for this.
One time I asked him, “Dad, why do you do all this stuff? You’re always going further than anyone I know just to serve and help other people, and you never ask to be thanked for it, you never try to be recognized. Just tell me. How did you learn to do this?”
And he got a little teary and he said, “Well, God has forgiven me a lot. And I understand that this is part of the deal. When I gave my life to God, I said if anything needs to be done, I’ll do it. So if there’s any way I can make myself available to serve the people are around me, I do.”
His stewardship is a choice to surrender made in advance, then realized in the actions that he takes every day. When opportunities are presented, he’s already decided it’s a “yes.”
GETTING THE VINEYARD READY
So here’s the application. It’s one thing to say, “Lord I give you my heart. I give You all my money. Lord I just give You my time, I’m just available for You. Lord I want to serve you.”
But it’s another thing to give it when he asks.
I can say “Lord I give You my heart,” but do I give it when He asks for it? I can say, “Lord, all my money is Yours,” but do I make my money available when the need presents itself?
I can say “my time is Yours,” but how much time do I actually set aside to waste on God in worship? Or serving God through someone else’s need? Or loving a stranger?
We must begin with “Lord all these things are Yours.” We have to say it with intention. And then we must also give, do, and adjust along the way according to God’s word and and leading.
This is stewardship: First God gives a thing to us. Then we give it to God when He asks, even though it may be in any number of mundane or humbling ways.
“Why are you untying that?”
“The Lord needs it.”
“Oh yes, then please take it. It’s already the Lord’s, of course.”
Let’s take a few moments, somebody strum something. Let’s not miss the chance to say yes to God in a new way today.
Prayer: Holy Spirit, we as a church, as a family, as stewards, representative rulers of your vineyards, ask you to minister to us now and bring clarity in our hearts. Tell us what You’re calling for.
Show us who your emissaries are in our lives so we won’t miss them and so miss you.
What are You arriving in our hearts and asking for?
Make some notes on the pages of your journal about what resources God is asking you for. If there’s something you’re holding back from Him, he’s asking you not to let this become an idol that will break your heart. “He who seeks to save his life will lose it, but he who loses it for my sake will find it.” (Luke 17:33)
It makes no sense to ask God to bless us in an area we are holding back from Him. If we are going to receive his blessings it’s under his authority.
This is your moment to give that property over to God as part of your worship. Whether it’s your pride, your finances, your thought life, a certain part of your days or nights, your time in prayer. If there’s something you’ve given God permission to come and take but you’ve not yet given it over, go ahead and give it and remember these words:
“Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:23)April 8, 2016