Do keep that passage from Matthew open in front of you. This is the first of the two weeks of our Giving Review for this year. Each year we take time out to think through our use of money as individuals and as a church.
There are around the place at the moment massive posters for a certain new car. It's a glossy picture of a mean machine. Across it, printed upside down, are the words 'Conventional Wisdom'. The message: this new car turns conventional wisdom upside down. Memorable advert. It's just that I can't think what the car was. It looked so much like all the others.
What really does turn conventional wisdom upside down is the teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount about how those who follow him should live. It's all so mind-blowing that it takes a lifetime to absorb, but this evening we're just going to look at three verses – Matthew 6:19-21. They're there on p 971 in the pew Bibles. These verses turn upside down the conventional wisdom about money and possessions – that is to say, the more the merrier.
This conventional wisdom was illustrated when a man from Leicester (as it happens) took his grandson to church for the first time. The lad was surprised when the collection plate came round. 'You don't have to pay for me, Granddad', he whispered. 'I'm not five yet!' Canny lad. No doubt his parents had already taught him to be tight. They can't have taken on board these verses.
There are three simple lessons here, which I've put in the outline on the back of the service sheet. If only we'd learn them, for own good. The first is this:
First, EARTHLY TREASURES GET DESTROYED.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.
Money and possessions don't last, and we need to break the cycle of accumulation. What Jesus says might be better translated 'Stop storing up treasures for yourselves'. In other words, 'You're in the habit of doing this, and you need to break the habit'. You need a radical change of attitude and action if you're not going to come a cropper.
And the word translated 'rust' has the more general meaning of 'that which eats away'. Nowadays it could quite readily applied to inflation for instance. Or a fall in the stock market. But it's amazing how quickly our possessions do corrode away, let alone our money.
Mental corrosion can take place even more quickly than physical corrosion. We long for something new, which becomes the one thing we simply must have. It may be that unconventional new car. Or a holiday to an exotic location. Or a new CD. Or a pair of shoes. It gets a kind of mystical aura around it while we wait. This thing will satisfy us. But no sooner have we got it than the aura corrodes away. It doesn't satisfy us after all. And then before long it begins to look tatty and faded. And we start to long for the next thing.
I heard about someone who is the child of a family that won the lottery in a big way. After the win, they all moved into a very expensive and much larger house. Apparently she now says that she preferred the small house that they used to live in before.
The other day Chris Evans was talking about the proposed sale of his Ginger media group, from which it was said he would benefit personally to the tune of about £70 million. He said that the money would make no difference to him. There is a limit, he said, to how much money you can spend on yourself. And, he added, often when you buy things you realise that they don't give you what you had hoped for, so you very quickly sell them again.
In one way or another earthly treasures get destroyed. We need to learn that they're not all that they're cracked up to be.
That's not to say that wealth in itself is wrong. The Bible elsewhere says we should provide for relatives, and make provision for the future, and enjoy the good things that are the gifts of our Creator. It's the love of money which is a root of all kinds of evil, says 1 Timothy 6:10. And note what Jesus says here: 'Don't store up treasures on earth for yourselves'. It is the self-centred pursuit of wealth that we must turn our backs on.
As John Stott puts it, this verse doesn't prohibit … "being provident (making sensible provision for the future) but being covetous (like misers who hoard and materialists who always want more)."
Serious giving protects us very effectively against falling into those dangerous traps. Even at a basic level, letting go of our money now encourages a healthy realism. After all, we can't take it with us. 1 Timothy 6:7:
For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.
Giving's a good reminder of what really lasts and what doesn't. Giving is also, in a rather topsy-turvy way, a very effective protection against recession. If you're not leaning heavily on money, then you don't fall over when it goes.
One person who learned this lesson very deeply was John Laing, the founder of the major construction company. And he learned it from Jesus. In his later years John Laing would speak to his employees of 'a very valuable thing in my life – quite early in life I took a step of accepting the Lord Jesus as my Saviour and Master'. When he was 30 years old, John Laing wrote a 'programme for his life' which he summarised in this way: 'First, the centre of my life was to be God – God as seen in Jesus Christ; secondly I was going to enjoy life, and help others to enjoy it.' He kept the paper with this programme on it all his life. At the same time he drew up a 'financial plan'. It said:
If income £1,000 p.a. give £200, live on £300, save £500
If income £3,000 p.a. give £1,000, live on £500, save £1,500
If income £4,000 p.a. give £1,500, live on £500, save £2,000
To this he added the proviso that, once the savings brought in interest of £500 per annum, he would live on £500, give away half of the remainder of his income and save the rest. He was following closely the example of his parents, who had made a principle of giving away a substantial part of their income. This radical plan of giving enabled John Laing to evade the trap that his growing wealth laid for him. He broke the cycle of accumulation. He stopped storing up treasures on earth for himself.
Moth. Corrosion. Theft. Whatever. Let's be under no illusion. Something will get it in the end. Earthly treasures, financial or physical, get destroyed. In the short term, the pursuit of them for ourselves is a high-risk strategy. In the longer term, they are a dead loss. Only our giving really indicates whether we've understood that. The second thing for us to learn is this:
Secondly, HEAVENLY TREASURES ARE INDESTRUCTIBLE.
But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.
Heavenly treasures are the eternal rewards that come our way when we put Christ before money and possessions in our lives. They are way out of reach of, for instance, whoever it was who broke into our house and stripped it of the things that we were most inclined to treasure a few years ago, thereby subjecting us to a lifetime of pestilential alarm codes and bleeps. Hyperinflation devalues treasures in heaven not a jot. Stock market crashes simply serve to emphasise how utterly secure and untouchable they are.
What are these eternal rewards? The bible is not explicit. But we do know that the apostle Paul's great eternal goal was simply to know Christ. Any other rewards will be bound up with that. And beside knowing Christ, anything else will pale into insignificance.
How do we store up this heavenly treasure? Obedience to Christ; suffering for Jesus; forgiving those who sin against us: all these things are promised rewards in the Bible. And so is a willingness to share what we have in order to meet the needs of others. So here's 1 Timothy 6:18-19:
Command [those who are rich] [– that's almost all of us] to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.
I've been impressed by the testimony of a retired couple - let's call them Robert and Susan - living in North West London. Robert used to be a train driver. Susan said:
"Back in 1956 I was earning a nice little salary as a nursery nurse. But I gave it up so I could spend time working for the church - for nearly 40 years I've been doing visits, Bible studies... it takes a lot of my time, but I enjoy it immensely. Robert's salary meant we were never in want, and we could still covenant to the church. When he retired, we had to stop the covenant because he wasn't paying any tax, but we still gave the same amount. Our income dropped right down, but we got by."
Both of them feel that their regular giving in good times and in bad has brought them great blessing even in this life. They say: "People ask us, why do you do it? And we just say, it's because God's been good to us, so we want to give back."
At the other end of the earthly financial spectrum, I told you about John Laing's commitment, made when he was thirty. Thirteen years later, as his business expanded rapidly, he had come to feel that his earlier dedication was insufficient. So he gave almost forty per cent of his capital interest in the business to a Christian charitable trust, saying that he wished the income to be applied for missionary work abroad and for evangelistic work in Britain and Ireland, for relief of the poor, and for relief of the sick. Before another twenty years had gone by he was giving away £20,000 a year, many times the modest income he kept for himself.
His giving was strategic for the development of both the Crusaders' Union, and also the Inter-Varsity Fellowship (now UCCF) which supports Christian Unions in universities and colleges all over the country, often matching other giving with an equal amount of his own. And all, so his colleagues in those organisations said, without manipulative undertones or any attempt to control proceedings by financial strings.
He once wrote to a friend: 'Everyone should have a house just big enough to serve its purpose, as to have more than that causes such a lot of work'. Indeed at one point he had built a smaller house beside his larger one, and moved into it with his family. A friend who visited while it was being built asked if it was for the gardener! John Laing was a man who knew how to store up treasures in heaven. Do we know? Where our money goes indicates clearly whether we do or not. Put those first two lessons together and then the third is the obvious conclusion:
Thirdly, INVEST IN ETERNITY.
Why? Verse 21:
For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
In the words of John Calvin: "If honour is rated the highest good, then ambition must take complete charge of a man; if money, then forthwith greed takes over the kingdom; if pleasure, then men will certainly degenerate into sheer self-indulgence."
I remember hearing a man who spent every moment of his time dressing up as an American Civil War soldier and acting out battles. His wife got so fed up with it she said that he had to choose between the dressing up and her. He let her go. He said: "The whole meaning of my life is the American Civil War Society – if it were not for the society I could not survive."
Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. If we think that our lives depend on something, we won't let go of it. If we think that our lives depend on money above all, then we won't let go of money. But when we know that our lives depend on Christ, we won't let go of him. Money will come way down on our list of priorities.
Investing in the Kingdom of God doesn't mean that if you give £1,000 one day you will get an anonymous cheque in the post for £100,000 the next day. God is not a cosmic lottery machine with odds of one to one. He wants to bless us, not spoil us. But the blessing is real, here and now – let alone in heaven.
So if we decide we're going to invest the money that God has given us in eternity, how do we go about it? For a start, what should it go to?
There are various kinds of need that we are specifically told to give to in Scripture. There's, full time Christian workers. As Paul puts it so delicately in 1 Corinthians 9:9, quoting Deuteronomy:
'Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain'.
Then we should give to the poor. For instance 1 John 3:17:
If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?
We should not neglect family in need. 1 Timothy 5:8:
If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Then according to Jesus (and this is just a touch disconcerting!) we should give to 'the one who asks' us (Matthew 5:42).
Giving is powerful. Target your giving strategically to where there is need, and to where you are well placed, maybe uniquely well placed, to help. How are we to give? Here are three guidelines for giving, all to be found in the teaching of the apostle Paul.
First, our giving should be carefully considered. 2 Corinthians 9:7:
Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give.
The Lord is not seeking spontaneous extravagant gestures prompted by some tug at the heartstrings. We should sit down and think it through in the presence of God. And what we should consider primarily should not be the size of our bank balance. Nor should it be what other people do. We should consider Christ's giving for us. 2 Corinthians 8:9:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
The purpose of this Giving Review is to point us to Christ, and get things in perspective.
Secondly, our giving should be regular. 1 Corinthians 16:2:
On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income …
Regular giving builds the habit in us, and it enables those to whom the money is given to plan.
Thirdly, our giving should be proportionate to income and wealth. The money we set aside for giving should be, as Paul says, 'in keeping' with our income. We should work on the principle 'the more you get, the more you give'. 10% - a tithe – was the starting point in the Old Testament, endorsed by Jesus. But we shouldn't feel we have to stop there. There shouldn't be any ceiling on giving to God. A ten percent target is a great start. It should not be the limit of our ambition.
In his early seventies John Laing said in a letter to his son: "We have our part to play in the world, although we are men, like Abraham, who 'look for a city whose builder and maker is God, eternal in the heavens', and while empires rise and fall the truths enunciated in the Old Testament, but pronounced most clearly by our Lord Jesus, stand eternally true."
That's called investing in eternity.
Some years before Sir John Laing died, his advisors had reckoned that his personal estate would consist of little more than his house and insurances. In April 1978, after his death, his net estate was published at £371. As his biographer comments: "The man who had handled millions had given them all away."
Never mind if no one is writing your biography. What would be Jesus' comment on how we use our money? Will it end up being destroyed? Or are we investing it in eternity?