Some of you will remember my first car. It was a custard yellow Vauxhall Cavalier and the butt of much humour. I once told a friend it had just passed its MOT and she said, ‘I’d have thought, if nothing else, they’d have failed it on colour.’ But it taught me rule no.1 for owning an old banger: don’t invest in it. Don’t spend money on what will soon be on the scrap heap. Treat it as if it’s on its last legs.
And that’s how many see the church in this country today. On its last legs. Today in the UK under 4 million people will be in church and on present rates of decline, by 2020 it’ll be half that. We look like a minority that’s losing its influence in the culture. And all the time the culture is moving further from us and against us - so that reaching people for Christ seems increasingly hard. And it would be easy to think that the cause of Christ is on its last legs. Easy to get demoralised and demotivated, and not invest in it.
And the part of the Bible we’re looking at this morning speaks to exactly that situation. We’re actually looking at the book of Chronicles this morning but we’ll start in Nehemiah to get the background. So would you tunr to Nehamiah 13.
We live in so-called ‘post-Christian’ Britain. Chronicles was written for ‘post-exile’ Israel.God’s Old Testament (OT) people had become so faithless and disobedient that God had judged them by sending them into exile. In our terms, he had let the church be virtually wiped off the map. He’d then allowed his people to return and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. And Chronicles was written after that – maybe in Nehemiah’s time or a bit later.
And it was a time when God’s cause looked on its last legs. His people were now a minority who’d lost their influence and moved back into a culture which was now miles away from them and against them. They were demotivated and demoralised. And one indicator of that was the state of the ministry of the temple. The temple was the building that both represented God’s presence and was the centre for the teaching of his Word - because the Levites (the church staff of the day) weren’t just there to run the sacrificial side of the temple, but to teach the Bible – or what they had of it so far. So now look at what Nehemiah says in chapter 13, v10:
I also learned that the portions assigned to the Levites [ie, their financial support] had not been given to them, and that all the Levites and singers responsible for the service [ie, the ministry of the temple] had gone back to their own fields. So I rebuked the officials and asked them, ‘Why is the house of God neglected?’ (Nehemiah 13.10)
Ie, giving to support the temple ministry was so low that ‘staff’ were leaving. And we know from another part of the Bible – Malachi – that the result was a vicious circle: 1) The people weren’t giving to support the temple ministry, so 2) The teachers of God’s Word either left or did a mediocre job, so 3) The people were spiritually malnourished and lost all vision of their purpose for God, so… they didn’t give to support the temple ministry. And so on, in a downward spiral.
So to restore their vision(and ours), God inspired the book of Chronicles to re-tell his peoples’ story so far. To restore our vision of who we are and why God has called us to be his people. So would you turn back in the Bibles to 1 Chronicles 1, to what appears at first sight to be a rather uninviting genealogy. Where do you begin any story? At the beginning. So, 1.1, first name in the genealogy:
[That’s a reminder that God’s people in any generation are central to his plan for the whole world, for every descendent of Adam. We’re not a minority, ethnic religion for just some people. Then look on to 1.27:]
and Abram (that is, Abraham).
[He was the one to whom God had said, ‘All nations will be blessed through you’ (see Genesis 12.3) – ie, ‘People from all nations will come back into relationship with me through your witness.’ And that’s a reminder that God’s people are central to that. If we keep quiet, then no-one gets to know the one, true God.]
Then turn on to 9.1:
The people of Judah were taken captive to Babylon because of their unfaithfulness. Now the first to resettle on their own property in their own towns were some Israelites, priests, Levites and temple servants. (9.1)
So the writer ends his genealogy with the post-exile generation – the very people he’s writing for. And what he does next is to re-tell the story of Israel’s time as a kingdom – from king Saul to king David to king Solomon and so on. And what dominates the rest of the book is the story of how David and Solomon planned, then built, the temple. And he majors on that because, as we saw in Nehemiah, the problem was the lack of financial support for the temple ministry. They’d lost their vision of their role as God’s witnesses in the world, and therefore they’d lost their vision for the temple ministry. They’d lost the vision that as unbelievers looked at the state of the temple and the ministry going on through it, so they would judge the credibility of God and his cause. And they’d lost the vision that as believers they needed the temple ministry if they were to be built up by God’s Word so they could live and witness for God in an anti-God culture.
Now that was 400 (plus) years before Jesus. So how should we read this as New Testament (NT) believers? Well 1 Corinthians 3 provides the clue. Since Jesus’ first coming, God is no longer working through one nation centred on a temple-building to represent his presence. He’s now working through an international body of believers centred in local churches – like local branches of a world-wide bank. And look at how 1 Corinthains 3.16 describes a local church:
‘Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you?’ (1 Corinthians 3.16)
Ie, Jesmond Parish Church, do you not realise that, just as the temple building used to represent God’s presence and be the centre for the teaching of God’s Word, the place where people could come to find out about God and then grow in knowledge of God... now all those functions are yours. And not just when we’re gathered on Sunday. It’s saying: Jesmond Parish Church, do you not realise that seven days a week, you represent the presence of God to everyone on Tyneside with whom you rub shoulders; and that you have the Word of the one, true God - without which they will live and die without him?
So let’s go back to 1 Chronicles and as we read about the temple, we need to think, ‘This is about us - the church - and our ministry.’ And I hope it doesn’t need saying, but I’ll say it anyway: the word ‘church’ in the Bible never refers to a building but to the local body of believers in Christ. So we (people) are the church and this building is what keeps the church warm and dry and uncomfortable. (that’s not to say buildings are unimportant; it’s just to rescue the use of the word ‘church’ for its Biblical purpose – not the building, but the people.) So let’s turn to 1 Chronicles 29. And I’ve got two points to make from this passage.
First, REALISE THAT THE CHURCH IS CENTRAL TO GOD’S PLAN FOR THE WORLD TO HONOUR HIM (v1)
The re-telling of the story has got to the time of David. He’s planned the building of the original temple and is now handing over responsibility to his son for actually doing it. So, 29.1:
Then King David said to the whole assembly, ‘My son Solomon, the one whom God has chosen, is young and inexperienced. The task is great, because this palatial structure is not for man but for the LORD God.’ (v1)
Just listen again to David’s vision – to his God-centredness: ‘this is not for man, but for the LORD God.’ Ie, ‘We’re not doing this for ourselves, just to meet our own needs. We’re doing this for the honour of God in a world that owes him everything and yet dishonours him on a daily basis by not even acknowledging that he’s there.’ ‘This is not for man, but for the LORD God.’
Now when the church looks like a minority that’s lost its influence, when the culture moves away from it and against it, God ends up looking marginalised and irrelevant. So just the other day, a Muslim international student said to me, ‘Watching your British television it’s as if no-one thinks God is relevant in discussing any of the issues of life.’ And he’s right – our culture thinks that God (if he even exists) is totally unimportant.
And we easily get infected by that attitude. We easily shift from saying (in our best moments), ‘No, God is absolutely important for everyone in this life - not to mention life after this life,’ to just saying, ‘Well, God is important for me.’ Now, if we make that shift, we’ll still want some things to happen. We’ll still want a Bible study group, to nurture our faith. And some youth work to nurture our children. And maybe the odd, easy evangelistic event that the culture’s still friendly to – like Carols by Candlelight once a year. But that’s a desperately limited vision. It’s a vision of just ticking over, just meeting our own needs. And it comes from reducing God from being the rightful Lord of all, to being a privatised belief that ‘helps me’. It’s a vision that says, ‘This is not for the LORD God but for me.’
So as we review our financial support for our ministry here and the ministry of our mission partners, we need to ask, ‘Is this for us, or for the LORD God?’ Are we just going to tick over and meet our own needs in a fairly uncostly, unambitious way? Are we simply aiming to survive? Or are we central to God’s plan for the world to honour him? Because if we are, we have to keep planning to grow - and praying and working towards reaching more people for Christ. Because the question, ‘Is the Lord Jesus sufficiently honoured in this part of the world?’ has a pretty clear answer. And we have to keep planning to send people out to reach more for Christ elsewhere. Eg, sending Christian graduates out as ready-made leaders for churches in the UK; sending internationals back to their own countries; sending more people from among ourselves up the track of full-time ministry here or overseas; and creating more places to send them to, in the form of church plants. Because the question, ‘Is the Lord Jesus sufficiently honoured elsewhere?’ has a pretty clear answer, as well.
I hope you believe that the giving at JPC over the last year - to world mission, the Gateshead project and the ministry here - has been miraculous. To me, it has been awesome and humbling to see God at work among us. And I guess many of us have moved well out of our comfort zones in giving. And that’s what happens when you sit down and at the top of your piece of giving review paper you write the words, ‘This is for the LORD God, not for man.’
That’s the first of my two points from this passage: realise that the church is central to God’s plan for the world to honour him.
Second, RESOURCE THE CHURCH AS IF IT’S CENTRAL TO GOD’S PLAN FOR THE WORLD TO HONOUR HIM (vv2-9)
To put it bluntly, if we believe the church is central to God’s plan for the world to honour him, we’ll resource it as if it is. To put it the other way round, if we don’t resource the church as if it’s central to God’s plan for the world to honour him, then we don’t really believe it is. Look at v2:
[King David speaking] ‘With all my resources I have provided for the temple of my God - gold for the gold work, silver for the silver, bronze for the bronze, iron for the iron and wood for the wood, as well as onyx for the settings, turquoise, stones of various colours, and all kinds of fine stones and marble - all of these in large quantities.
[Now earlier in Chronicles we’re told that David had picked up a lot of this as the spoils of war. It was national, rather than personal treasure. And it would be tempting for hard-pressed readers to think, ‘Well, that’s all very well for you – giving that doesn’t come out of your own pocket.’ But read on:]
Besides, in my devotion to the temple of my God I now give my personal treasures of gold and silver for the temple of my God, over and above everything I have provided for this holy temple: three thousand talents of gold (gold of Ophir) and seven thousand talents of refined silver, for the overlaying of the walls of the buildings, for the gold work and the silver work, and for all the work to be done by the craftsmen. Now, who is willing to consecrate himself today to the LORD ?’ (vv2-5)
So he knew what it was to give out of personal income and assets, as we have to. And then comes his question, at the end of v5. And since the Bible is God’s Word to us through human beings, we need to treat its questions as God’s questions to us. So end of v5:
‘Now, who is willing to consecrate himself today to the LORD?’ (v5b)
‘Consecrate’ was the OT word for someone starting as a priest in the temple. It meant being set apart totally to serve the LORD with all your time and energy and resources. So David’s saying, ‘Are you willing to think of yourself like that? To say, ‘I am set apart to serve God with all that I am and have?’ Because believers in Christ are set apart for him: we belong to him twice over. Once because he created us. And twice because he died for us on the cross. As Paul wrote:
You are not your own; you were bought at a price. (1 Corinthians 6.20)
So the reality is that there’s no such thing as ‘my’ time, ‘my’ possessions, ‘my’ life, ‘my’ money, ‘my’ anything. Our income before tax, our pensions, the interest we earn, the return on investments, anything we inherit, any money gift we receive - they’re not ours, but Christ’s. So the question is never, ‘How much of my money will I give him?’ But, ‘How will I steward his money for his purposes?’
Now one of his purposes for his money is to meet our needs and our dependents’ needs. And those of us here will vary hugely as to how much, if anything, we have left to give after that’s taken care of. But one of his purposes for his money is also the financial support of the ministry of his church – here and elsewhere. And remember that was the background to Chronicles: the temple had long since been rebuilt – that one-off push of giving for putting up a building wasn’t the issue. The issue was that the ongoing temple ministry – in our terms, the staff and plant and ministry costs – wasn’t being financially supported. So the writer of Chronicles wasn’t just using David’s example to inspire one-off giving (like for the Gateshead project). He was using it to inspire regular, year-in, year-out giving for the growth of the ministry of God’s church.
Let’s finish by looking at v6:
Then the leaders of families, the officers of the tribes of Israel, the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds, and the officials in charge of the king’s work gave willingly. They gave towards the work on the temple of God five thousand talents and ten thousand darics of gold, ten thousand talents of silver, eighteen thousand talents of bronze, and a hundred thousand talents of iron. Any who had precious stones gave them to the treasury of the temple of the LORD in the custody of Jehiel the Gershonite. The people rejoiced at the willing response of their leaders, for they had given freely and wholeheartedly to the LORD. David the king also rejoiced greatly. (vv6-9)
Just notice two things as a ‘postscript’. ‘P.S. no.1’ is: that they gave willingly. So this Giving Review is an opportunity and an encouragement to give. It’s not a ‘beat-up’ or an exertion of pressure to give. Because God only wants willing giving. And he can move in the hearts of as many of us as necessary to give as much as is necessary without anyone giving unwillingly. Only give willingly.
‘P.S.no.2’ is that they gave corporately. Did you notice how in v7 it says, ‘They gave…’ and then it describes this huge sum of money. But there’s no individual breakdown of who gave what. Because that’s not the point. The person sitting next to you may be able to give twice or ten or fifty or a hundred times the amount that you can. But that’s not the point. We’re not to think of others or wonder what they’re giving or compare ourselves with them, because, as God alone knows, our incomes and circumstances are all different. But God reaches his targets as you willingly give what you’re able to and I willingly give what I’m able to.
So this Giving Review, let’s realise that the church (here and elsewhere) is central to God’s plan for the world to honour him. And let’s resource it accordingly – willingly, and together.