Some of you will remember my first car. It was a custard yellow Vauxhall Cavalier and the butt of much cruel humour. I once proudly told someone it had just passed its MOT. She replied, 'I'd have thought, if nothing else, they should have failed it on colour.' The art of owning an old banger is to live on the basis that it's on it's last legs. Why treat the rust or pay for a new gearbox when it'll soon be on the scrap heap? The right attitude is: have little faith in them. And invest as little as you can in them. And when Chronicles was written, that was the attitude God's people were tempted to have towards God and his cause.
It was written 400 years or so before Jesus. 200 years earlier, God had judged his people for their chronic unfaithfulness. He'd let them be invaded and exiled. But then he'd let them return, rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, and make a new start. But it was nothing like the golden days of the past. The book of Ezra says that when they'd built the new temple, the folk who could remember the old one wept at the contrast. Nehemiah tells us how they felt like a disgraced minority. And the prophet Haggai had to ask them:
'Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses while this house [ie God's temple] lies in ruins?' (Haggai 1.4)
Ie, they'd adopted the 'old banger attitude' to God. Little faith, and invest as little as you can. Decline had led to discouragement which led to doubt, which led to non-commitment. 'Why invest in something that looks destined for the scrap heap?' they thought. 'Better to concentrate on ourselves, our families, our homes, our futures.' That was post-exile Israel.
This is so-called 'post-Christian Britain'. And spiritually, the situation's the same. The giving review literature has the figures for church decline in Britain. Numbers in the mainline churches have shrunk by 20% in the last 10 years. A recent article in The Journal said this: "Fewer adults [now] go to church regularly - 7.5% compared with 10% in 1989 and 12% in 1979. The German philosopher… Nietzche may have declared God to be dead in the 19th century, but it would appear that his prediction is becoming more and more accurate for the 21st."
And our temptation today is to have the 'old banger attitude' to God. To be faithless, and invest in ourselves rather than in God and his church. And Chronicles tackles that temptation reminding us of what God is doing in the world. And calling us in our generation to be part of it. So my two headings are simply: 1) What is God doing in his world? and 2) Will you be part of it?
First, WHAT IS GOD DOING IN HIS WORLD?
In chapter 28.1, you'll see that David summons the leaders and people of Israel, for a giving review of their own. And firstly he reminds them what God is doing, and where they fit in. 28.4 - David says:
the LORD, the God of Israel, chose me from my whole family to be king over Israel forever.
That's a reminder that God's plan from the start was to choose out from a world that had turned its back on him a group of people (Israel) who would recognise him as their God. Who would live for him, speak for him and be a witness to him in a world that was ignoring its Maker. It's also a reminder that God chose to rule over his people through a deputy - a king whose job was to keep them living up to God's word. And God promised David that one of his descendants would occupy that job forever. And his first successor was Solomon. Verse 5:
Of all my sons - and the LORD has given me many - he has chosen my son Solomon to sit on the throne of the kingdom of the LORD over Israel.
Notice it says Solomon is to 'sit on the throne of the kingdom of the LORD'. Which emphasises that God was their real King; Solomon & Co were just deputies. And to make that clear, God planned for Solomon to build him a temple. Verse 6:
[God] said to me, 'Solomon your son is the one who will build my house and my courts…'
And that temple in Jerusalem was basically a gigantic visual aid. It was a sign to everyone that God was the real King in Israel - rather like Buckingham Palace stands for the Queen. 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 [literally, 'this palace' ie King's residence] is not for man but for the LORD God.'
So that's where David starts his giving review. What is God doing in his world? He's chosen a people to live for him, speak for him and be his witnesses. And in those days, they had an earthly king, plus a temple building as a sign that God was their King.
What's that got to do with us? God's plan has unfolded much more since David and Solomon. Israel went into decline and then into exile. They returned, rebuilt Jerusalem and the temple. But they had no king and it all looked so insignificant. Hardly a great witness to a great God. But God had promised that one of David's descendants would rule his people forever. And the faithful ones held onto that promise. And then Jesus came. Saying things like, 'Now one greater than Solomon is here.' (Matthew 12.42; see also Matthew 12.6, 22.41-46) Ie, 'I am the King - and more than just a human king.' And whereas David or Solomon could only reign for a lifetime and then die, Jesus rose from the dead and reigns forever(see Acts 2.22-36, 13.32-37). So earthly kings have been superseded by a king in heaven. And the temple building has been superseded -by us. Listen to the apostle Paul writing to the church in Corinth:
'Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?' (1 Corinthians 3:16)
So we Christians, the church, are now the flesh-and-blood 'sign' that says to the world, 'God is there. God is King. And you should be living for him, too.' And what God is doing in his world today is building his church (see Ephesians 2.19-22, 1 Peter 2.4-5). And in the Bible the word 'church' always means the people, not the building they meet in.
So, that's the one thing of ultimate significance in the world today: God is building is church. He's building it by adding to it numerically, through our evangelism (our spreading the gospel). He's building it as individual Christians grow through the ministry of his word. And he's building it as whole congregations become models of how life was meant to be, under God. That's the one thing of ultimate significance in the world today.
And I was impressed by a Christian friend who'd understood that well. He's academically very able; he did a PhD, then post-doctoral research, and he's now a university lecturer. But in one of his Christmas letters after detailing his year he simply wrote this: 'Running the 10-14 year-old's group at church remains the most significant thing I do.' He understood what God was doing in his world. What ultimately matters; what ultimately lasts eternally; what is ultimately worth investing in. It's that God is building his church. And the danger as someone once put it is that 'Most of us are ultimately concerned with things that are not ultimate.'
The church across the world is growing. But in our neck of the woods there is rapid decline. So that here, the church doesn't look significant in the eyes of the world. And sometimes even we find it hard to believe its significance. It's hard to believe that 3,500 people coming to Millennium Carols by Candlelight is more significant than 50,000 (or whatever it was) on the quayside on New Year's Eve. It's hard to believe that in this square mile, with its two universities and however many schools, the most significant, life-changing learning that goes on is as the Bible is opened here at JPC. What is God doing in his world? Then,
Secondly, WILL YOU BE PART OF IT?
'Will you be part of it as David was?' the book of Chronicles asks us. Verse 2:
'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 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… (vv2-3)
And perhaps that phrase in v3 is the most striking thing of all: 'my devotion to the temple of my God.' Doesn't that make you a bit uneasy? Shouldn't he be devoted to the Lord, rather than devoted to the Lord's temple? But the answer is: he can't be one without the other. Because God was building the temple. So being devoted to God meant being devoted to that.
The lesson for us is this. In our day, God is building his church, and being devoted to God now means being devoted to that. Devoted to the evangelism and the Bible ministry and the life of a local church. People sometimes say to me, 'Of course you can be a Christian without going to church, can't you?' The Bible's answer is: no, you can't. Going to church doesn't make you a Christian. But being a Christian - being devoted to Jesus means being committed to the church he's building. And the question is: does that describe us?
In our last two home groups we've read the beginning and the end of Paul's letter to the Philippians. He begins by saying:
I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel… (Philippians 1.4-5)
And the rest of Philippians spells out what 'partnership in the gospel' means. It means evangelising together; being committed to one another in more than merely superficial relationships; praying for one another; getting involved with one anothers' needs and troubles. And… it means money: financial partnership in supporting the work of the gospel - in our own church and in all the missionary work that spins off from it. That's the New Testament (NT) equivalent of what David is talking about in v3.
So the question is: if you're a Christian here, are you a passenger or a partner? Do you treat JPC like a public amenity - like a library or an art gallery? Something you go to and use, but not something you belong to or commit to? I know it takes time to settle in a church. But maybe for some us, this giving review is a good time to ask, 'Is this the church I now belong to?' That decision is the first step towards giving.
But then let's remind ourselves: we don't simply give to church because of what we will then get out of it in return. Eg, we're not simply to think of giving because then the preaching will hopefully be good for me, or the youth work will be good for my children, or the pews might one day be comfortable for me to sit on. That, at the level of attitude, is actually devotion to myself. But God calls us to be devoted to his whole work through the church. Which is bigger than my immediate needs. So, I have no children; but God calls me to be a giving partner with those of you who do, for that part of God's work. Many of us are not students, but God calls us to be giving partners for this massive mission field on our doorstep. And we're also talking about work way beyond JPC. Supporting our missionaries. Not to mention 'exporting' a stream of leaders (staff and non-staff) nurtured and trained here, who then move on to serve other churches. And so to the question at the end of v5:
'Now, who is willing to consecrate himself today to the LORD?'
'Consecrate' is the word the Old Testament (OT) used for someone starting their role as a priest in the temple. It meant being set apart to serve the LORD with all your time in that role. And David is saying, v5, 'Who is willing to think of himself like that? Who is willing to say, 'I am set apart to serve God with all that I am and all that I have?'' Because if we're believers in our Lord Jesus, we are set apart for him. We belong to him twice over - once because he created us. And twice because he paid to get us back from sin and judgement when he died on the cross for our sins. The apostle Paul says to believers:
You are not your own; you were bought at a price. (1 Corinthians 6.20)
And v5 is asking us: will we actually live out that truth today? Will we live out the truth that we don't belong to ourselves any more? That, in reality, there's no such thing as 'my' time, 'my' possessions, 'my' life, 'my' money, 'my' anything. I don't own myself or anything I have. 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: You are not your own; you were bought at a price. So the question is not, 'How much of my money will I give to the Lord?' The question is, 'How much of his money will I give him access to?'
The giving literature letter mentions that just 390 of us are regular wage earners out of about 1000 in church on a Sunday. Let's say the average of those 390 incomes is the national average - ie £20,000. For JPC, I guess that's an underestimate, but let's run with it to make the point. 390 times £20,000 is £7.8 million. (And that's just our incomes - forget savings, investments, and what we could sell.) God has given us a great deal of his money to steward. The question is, v5:
'Now who is willing to consecrate himself today to the LORD?'
Again, doesn't that make you uneasy? Isn't it really a bit manipulative to say something like v5 in the middle of a giving review? Can't you be consecrated to the Lord independent of what you do with your money? To which, again, the Bible's answer is: no, you can't. Throughout the Bible, God tells us that what we do with our money is one of the most accurate measures of our real commitment to him.
We don't like talk of what we do with our money for the same reason we don't like our passport photographs. They both show us what we're really like. But then the question arises, 'So how much should I give?' The answer is: that's between you and God. Verse 5 is addressed to each of us as individuals. And in vv6-9, there's no hint of what any individual gave. But as different individuals respond to the call of v5, according to their different incomes and situations and capacities to give, God sees to it that the total is what he needs for the next step of his work. And so he does here at JPC, today. The Bible doesn't tell us what to give, but how to give. It says:
Each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income. (1 Corinthians 16:1)
Ie, don't give to God last, out of the fag-end of what's left from spending on yourself. But plan a percentage of your income to give first out of your income. And we encourage one another to do that during this giving review. The Bible also says:
The gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have. (2 Corinthians 8:12)
So, you may be able to give 2, 5, 10 or 50 times as much as the person sitting next to you. Or only ½ or 1/5 or 1/10 or 1/50 as much as the person sitting next to you. God knows that. And the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one doesn't have. He's not calling you to be like them. He's calling you to be consecrated to him. And 'what one has' depends on our income minus our spending and saving. So it's obvious that the more we spend above what we need to and the more we save above what we need to, the less we have from which to support God's work. So again we encourage one another during this giving review to budget. To ask ourselves, 'What am I spending? What am I saving? And is that more than I need to? Can I justify those figures in the light of the fact that God is building his church and wants access to his money?' Verses 6-9, to close:
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)
That's what this giving review is calling us who are partners here to do. And it is a joy. I count it a real joy to be in partnership with the rest of you. Seeing God at work in things like a Mission week is a highlight. But so is seeing him at work in these giving reviews, as he supernaturally brings money out of our wallets and into action for his purposes. What is God doing in his world? Building the church. And the question for David's generation, for the generation who first read Chronicles, and for us in our generation is the same. Will we be part of it?