Rich Generosity

Are you generous or are you mean? Which version of Scrooge more resembles you: the early version before the visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future; or the later version who dispenses turkeys left, right and centre? This is the early version:

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted, hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster.

By the end of the story, the transformation is complete: He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew ... Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; ... His own heart laughed, and that was quite enough for him. I don't suppose that many of us are inclined to think of ourselves as Scrooge Type I's. I know nothing about who gives what at JPC, and I don't want to know. But my observations from beyond this fellowship would suggest that thinking of yourself as generous, and actually being generous, are far from being the same thing. We need to be honest with ourselves: Are we generous or not? It is an important question. In fact it is a matter of spiritual life and death. Well, let's look in the mirror of God's Word and see what we see. I want to speak on 2 Corinthians 8.1-15. As you know we are using this two week period to take stock of our giving here at Jesmond Parish Church. Over these two Sundays we are looking at what the apostle Paul has to say about giving to the church in Corinth. My title for this passage is "Rich Generosity", and I intend to tackle it in three chunks. Verses 1-5 I have headed THE MACEDONIANS' EXAMPLE OF GENEROSITY; verses 6-9, GENEROSITY AS A TEST OF LOVE; and verses 10-15, PAUL'S ADVICE TO THE GENEROUS. But before we get into that, we need to take a step or two back and look at the big picture. This morning David took us through the beginning of 1 Corinthians 16. In verses 1-4 of that chapter, Paul is encouraging the Christians in Corinth to collect money towards a gift that he is organising for the impoverished Christian church in Jerusalem. As he tours the young churches of Asia Minor, he is working hard to encourage each church to make their own contribution to that gift. When the money is in, he is going to send a delegation, properly authorised and accountable, on the long trek to Jerusalem. He is quite prepared to go himself, if that seems the right thing to do. The Christians there are in great need. Paul wants to do something about it. He is confident that his brothers and sisters in Christ will feel the same. He gives them some guidelines on the practicalities. 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, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.

That, at least, was what he hoped and intended would happen. But, in Corinth, things did not turn out quite like that. Maybe Paul harboured some secret doubts about whether the collection would be straightforward. By the time of the first letter, it was clear that the church in Corinth was in danger of going seriously off the rails. In fact some of the members of the church already had. In that first letter, Paul is passionately and patiently trying to avert a spiritual disaster. Some scepticism about how sensible, committed and self-disciplined they would be when it came to the godly use of their money would have been understandable. But if it's there, he does not let it show in that first letter. By the time Paul comes to write this later letter, the situation has gone from bad to worse. Paul is having to fight to maintain his place in the hearts and minds of the Corinthian Christians. He is fighting not for his own sake but for theirs, because if they turn their backs on him, they are also turning their backs on the gospel. It is not possible to reject Paul's apostolic, God-given authority and still remain faithful to God's gospel. Paul is God's spokesman to the Gentiles. The same battle over whether Paul is going to be listened to or not is at the root of most of the conflict in the Western church today. And that is true as much in the area of our use of money as in any other area. What we do with our money is not a matter of indifference as far as Paul is concerned. It is a gospel issue for each one of us. It goes to the heart of our understanding of God and of all that he has done for us through Jesus. For two chapters it is as if Paul wrestles verbally with the Corinthians, struggling to get them to take seriously this link between their wallets and their faith in Christ. We have to remember as we read these chapters that this is not just a matter of some take it or leave it financial advice. We cannot afford just to skip over these chapters as if they were like largely irrelevant background colour in an overlong Victorian novel. This is not the biblical equivalent of junk mail that most of us can safely bin, even if it is useful for a few. What we do with our money shows whether we have understood and responded to the gospel. Paul is effectively saying: "Please, please, be generous. Because if you are not generous, that can only mean that you are not Christians. My worst fears would be realised: you would have lost the gospel. And if you hang on to your money but lose the gospel, you have lost everything." So how does Paul go about encouraging generosity in the Corinthians? He begins by telling them about what God has been doing in the lives of their fellow Christians in Macedonia. And this is my first heading: First, THE MACEDONIANS' EXAMPLE OF GENEROSITY (8.1-5). Paul has been telling the Corinthians about his own experience of God's grace at work in his life. He has been urging them to commit themselves to Christ, and to stick with him - not to receive God's grace in vain. He tells them about the hard times that he had when he was in Macedonia, and about the encouragement that he got when Titus arrived to see him from Corinth. And then he seeks to share that encouragement. Verse 1:

And now brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.

The outworking of that experience of grace is the rich generosity that the Macedonians display, and which Paul speaks of at the end of verse 2. But their generosity is all the more remarkable because of their situation. Verse 2 is glorious and really puts in a nutshell the whole experience that Paul is talking about in these two chapters. Look at it:

Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.

I was reading the other day about a Christian man who was working in a Muslim area of the world, assisting Christian agencies doing humanitarian work, though he was himself a refugee who had nothing of his own. He was also taking what opportunities he had for evangelistic work. A British missionary described him as "a sort of person you never forget, he never compromised in following the truth and saw to it that the aid goes to the needy people." The authorities did not like his evangelism, and he was arrested. For two weeks he was interrogated day and night, kept in very bad conditions in a cold and dirty prison cell. Then he was locked in a cell with twelve other men, all very hostile to him because of his Christian faith. He is now in a detention centre on trumped up charges. That is the kind of thing that Paul describes as "severe trial" and "extreme poverty". It is clear not only from this letter to Corinth, but also from Paul's letter to the church in Macedonia, in Philippi to be precise, that life was extremely difficult for the Macdonians as a result of their allegiance to Christ. Philippians 1.27 and following:

I know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you... For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had ...

That is the sea in which they are swimming: a sea of harsh poverty, persecution, opposition and suffering. And yet... and yet, they are not preoccupied with their own needs. Out of this severe trial their unstoppable joy flows, and bursts out into rich generosity. That is an astounding testimony to the power of the Holy Spirit to change lives. But what is our own experience? Is our generosity, such as it is, a fair weather phenomenon? How does our sinful nature operate when times get a bit hard? Do we batten down the hatches on our generosity and apply all our resources to looking after number one? It was quite the reverse with the Macedonians. Verse 3:

For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability.

So what kind of attitudes in the hearts and minds of the Macedonians produced that kind of giving? We have already seen that their hearts were filled with overflowing joy. And that affected their whole approach to giving. Look at the end of verse 3 and verse 4:

Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.

That is to say: they took the initiative in giving financial support. They didn't sit back and wait to be persuaded. They knew giving was a privilege and not a burden - Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive, and he meant it. And they also had their eye on the purpose of their giving, which they saw as an act of service - a way of building up the body of Christ. In other words, they had an overwhelmingly positive attitude to the whole business of giving financial support to their fellow believers. They did not need a letter like this one to get them off their spiritual backsides and get them giving. No wonder Paul sets them up as an example, not just for Corinth, but for us too. What kind of attitudes do we detect in our own hearts to the idea of giving away money that we could otherwise spend on ourselves? Would we plead for the privilege? We must realise, though, that Paul is not boasting on behalf of the Macedonians. Cast your eye back to verse 1:

And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches.

So what is the root of this rich generosity? It is a work of the Holy Spirit. It is the grace of God. It is the gospel, liberating the Macedonians from the self-centredness with which we are so familiar, and which makes real generosity so surprising, even shocking, when we see it. Verse 5: "...they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will." What did their lives display? Commitment to Christ, commitment to his apostles (which for us means commitment to their teaching in the New Testament), and commitment to obedience. Without this gospel root, this work of God's grace in our lives, we will never discover for ourselves the fruit of the freedom of rich generosity. Generosity is a gospel issue. Which brings us on to the next section, and to my second heading: Secondly, GENEROSITY AS A TEST OF LOVE (8.6-9). We have seen what the Macedonians did. So what? What is that to us? Verse 7: "... see that you also excel in this grace of giving." You also. As with the Corinthians, so with us. We are to be like the Macedonians. We hardly qualify as undergoing the most severe trial, or suffering extreme poverty, but could a modern day Paul write about us: "And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given to Jesmond Parish Church. Their overflowing joy has welled up in rich generosity."? The fact is that words of commitment can come easily. We say and sing about our love for Christ. One test of whether we mean it is what we do with our money. Verses 8-9:

I am not commanding you, ...[Paul is, of course, in any case, in no position to force them to give. Anything they do (as also for us today) is entirely voluntary. But he does not even use the apostolic authority that he has from God to command a contribution. He does not want contributions that are begrudged.] I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others [that is, the poverty-stricken but abundantly generous Macedonians]. 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 implication of what Paul says is clear. If you know - if you really understand, deep down - the grace of Jesus, then you will inevitably be generous. Or to put it the other way round: if you are not generous, then you have not grasped what Jesus did for you. The Reformer Martin Luther famously said that we all need two conversions - one for our heart and the other for our wallet. But if our so-called Christian faith has not affected the way that we handle our money - and the way that we give - then there has to be a question mark over whether we have really been converted at all. Jesus told a story about an unmerciful servant. This man was on the point of being sold into slavery to repay a massive debt that he owed. But his master listened to his pleading, took pity on him, and cancelled his debt. And immediately the servant, relieved of his own burden of debt, sought out a fellow servant who owed him money, half strangled him, refused to listen to his pleas, and had him thrown into prison. When the master heard about it, he cancelled his cancellation of the man's debt. Giving begins with the heart and the will. It begins with a recognition of how great our debt to God is - until Jesus clears it for us. It begins with a recognition of how much Jesus gave in order to set us free. It begins with knowing the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor. When you've been humbled by just a glimpse of the generosity of God to one such as you, then your attitude changes. It is no longer a question of "what is the minimum that I can get away with giving". Instead, there is an inner desire to give which makes it more satisfying to give money than to keep it. That was the simple testimony of one couple, speaking about their own giving: "People ask us 'Why do you do it?' We just say, 'It's because God's been good to us, so we want to give back.'" Is that how you feel about giving? If it is, then rejoice and make the most of the privilege you have. But if that isn't how you feel, then begin by asking God to make more plain to you how desparate your own plight is without Jesus. And ask him to show you how great are his love and generosity in coming to save you. Then when he shows you, respond first by giving yourself in commitment to Christ, in obedience to the teaching of the apostles. Then you too can show your love for Christ by freely giving money away with rich generosity. But when we have come to that point, how do we go about it? That is what Paul comes on to in verses 10-15, and that brings me to my final heading: Thirdly, PAUL'S ADVICE TO THE GENEROUS (8.10-15). We have to get the fundamentals out of the way before we get onto any practicalities, when it comes to giving. There's not much point in talking about the mechanics of giving to someone who, under a well cultivated caring exterior, is really an unreformed Scrooge. There's no point in dispensing wisdom about covenant forms or gift aid, or how to make your giving tell and be as effective as possible, to someone who is inwardly clinging on for dear life to every last pound coin that they possess. Those who want to give will find a way. But for those whose hearts have undergone God's wonderful transformation, for those who have had the "rich generosity transplant", Paul here makes three preliminary comments. First of all: We must be sure to carry through our good intentions. Verses 10 and 11:

And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it...

Far too much genuine rich generosity has simply got clogged up somewhere in a pile of papers on the desk, or on the kitchen worktop, or in the letter rack. The work of the gospel is not carried forward by heartfelt intentions. It is carried forward by money, and all the time and energy and resources that money represents. To be sure money is not sufficient. More, much more, is needed. But money is necessary. In this context, it is not the thought that counts. It is the cheque. An obvious point. But Paul felt it necessary to make it, and if I'm anything to go by, we need to keep hearing it. What is Paul's second piece advice? It is this: Give according to your means. This is the end of verse 11, and verse 12. Complete the work, he says:

... according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.

This is where attitude does matter more than the size of the wage packet. When you are deciding what to give, compare your gift with your own resources, and give a decent chunk of them away, in recognition that its all God's anyhow - its all a gift of his grace. Do not compare your gift with the size of someone else's bank balance. They may be able to give a far bigger gift than you and hardly feel it financially. That is irrelevant. What counts here is not the noughts on the cheque. It is the richness of the generosity. Give according to your means. Then finally, one last point: Giving should flow from those who have much to those who have little. That's there in verses 13-15. And that's so obvious it's as easy to see as a finger in the eye. But putting it in to practice - well that's another thing all together. Those who have three square meals a day should give for the sake of those who do not. Those who have the gospel should give for the sake of those who do not. There is no virtue in poverty. But there is most certainly a virtue in generosity. A God-given virtue. A grace-produced virtue. As we review our giving this year, let's remember, those Macedonians.

Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.

Let's ask Jesus to give us that same spirit of rich generosity. And let's turn good intentions into hard cash, for the sake of the one who, though he was rich, yet for our sakes became poor.

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