It's not that long ago that many of us would have been pulling one of these… a Christmas Cracker! And as you did so out would tumble a wafer-thin paper crown, a naff toy and… the dreaded cracker joke. Brace yourself people!
There were two cats swimming across the English Channel: one was called 1-2-3, the other was called un, duex, trois – guess which one won? 1-2-3, because un, deux, trois, quatre, cinq.
I know, I know – it's terrible! And you're probably wondering what on earth this has to do with giving and our passage today from 2 Corinthians 8!
Well just as every joke has a punchline – a key to help you unlock and understand it – in the same way, there is a key... a punchline to the New Testament. And without it, the book is locked and bolted… and we just don't get it.
And the key is one word: Grace – the free and undeserved favour of God.
The New Testament is all about "Grace". God is the God of "Grace". The gospel is the gospel of "Grace". We start reading the letters in the New Testament and the writers don't begin by saying "hail!" or "hello" – They say "Grace to you..." And they finish not by saying "farewell" or "yours sincerely", but "grace be with you".
Grace is the key that unlocks the work of Christ for us. And if we don't understand it then we will never get what the Christian life is all about. Every aspect of our lives should be underpinned by the truth of this one word and that should therefore also include our giving.
This brings us to 2 Corinthians 8 – As the Apostle Paul is launching into two chapters about the issue of giving here. He had written to the Corinthians about a collection he was organising for the impoverished church in Jerusalem – and they had agreed to give. But they hadn't followed through. So Paul writes to encourage them to get on with it.
But interestingly, he never uses the word money here. Instead, Paul uses the word "grace" – over and over again:
Verse 1 – "the grace of God"
Verse 4 – the word "favour" (ten charin) can actually also mean "grace"
Verse 6 – "this act of grace"
Verse 7 – "this act of grace"
Verse 9 – "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich."
You see true generosity is a work of grace that God does in us. He moves our hearts in response to his unbelievable and undeserved generosity towards us in giving us His son Jesus Christ.
So here's our first point…
1. The Motivation: Give Generously because Jesus Has Given Generously to Us
As I say that, we need to know that Jesus' giving to us doesn't begin with him coming as a baby in Bethlehem. No, it begins much further back than that – in the beginning. As Colossians 1 tells us that amazingly "all things were created through him and for him." Everything!
So when Jesus made the title deeds of the world were given to him. And that makes you and I his tenants. Do we get that?! Made by him, everything we have – given to us by him.
I don't know if you've ever come across The Sunday Times Rich List – Every year for the last 30 years or so the Sunday Times publishes a list of the richest people in the world. I've stopped reading it because whenever I did I just found it too upsetting to find that my name was never on it. Never. Not even once.
But if you do read through it – do we see this? 2 Corinthians 8.9: "…he was rich…" – do we see that the wealth of these rich people: the Bill Gates', Roman Abramovichs', Mark Zuckerbergs' – it's but a drop in the ocean, a speck in the universe in comparison to Jesus' wealth? Jesus owns everything, the planets are his, the stars are his, the world is his.
I wish the rich list would begin like this:
Number 1: Jesus Christ
And then in brackets: (Actually it's all his, so this is just a list of his loans!)
Do you see what we need to get into our heads? "He was rich..." And yet… "though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor…"
Literally, the word here means: "…he impoverished himself." It didn't happen to him. He chose to become a beggar for us.
Leighton Ford the American pastor and writer sums up the poverty of Jesus life well – he once wrote: "Jesus was born in a borrowed manger. He preached from a borrowed boat. He entered Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey, he ate the Last Supper in a borrowed upper room and he was buried in a borrowed tomb."
And we must see the size of the step Jesus took in particular as he died on the cross. He went from the highest rung on the ladder – heaven... to the lowest rung – hell. On the cross he allowed the sword of God's judgement to fall on him instead of us – as he cries out in anguish: "My god, my god why have you forsaken me?"
He is in physical agony on the cross, yet most of all he mourns the loss of his relationship with the Father. Even that he gave away – He gave up everything! It is the very depths of poverty.
And Christ did not have to do it – it was all by grace.
We have no excuse as far as God is concerned – It's us that deserve death, not Christ. But the reason Jesus became poor – is not because we were so lovable, it's not that we have so much potential – It's that a fountain of undeserved, unconditional, unrepayable, generosity lay in Christ's heart for us.
And so: "…for your sake he became poor, so that you… by his poverty might become rich."
- Rich in forgiveness.
- Rich in a clear conscience before the Living Lord.
- Rich in friendship with God.
- Amazingly rich in the presence of the Holy Spirit who indwells and seeks to transform us from the inside out.
- Rich in God's strength to cope with each day – there are some of you here today and I know you are hanging on by your fingernails. And the way you do it is by crying out: "Lord help me again today" – well we can be rich in that.
- And rich in the certainty of eternal life.
- Rich in knowing Jesus – for he is the treasure of all treasures!
Folks if you turn your back on these riches and pursue anything else but God – then that is terrible poverty. Jesus said if you gain the whole world, but lose your soul… you lose everything.
And that is why we are here as a church – so that through the grace of Jesus we might "seek and save the lost". That we would open our arms and say: "Please come and investigate and understand this. Please see the riches you can have in Christ."
That's what should motivate us for everything we do as a church.
So of course the question is: How then should we respond to these riches – to this grace? Well here it is, here's…
2. The Response: Give Like the Macedonians and Live Like Jesus
Have a look at 2 Corinthians 8.1, Paul writes: "We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia…"
What did these Macedonian believers do? Well unlike the Corinthians they weren't all talk and no action when it came to giving:
- Do you see that in the verses that follow – verse 2: They gave in "affliction" – in extreme trial.
- Verse 2 again: They gave even though they were in "extreme poverty."
- Verse 3: They gave "beyond their means."
- Verse 3: They gave of their "own accord" – without coercion.
- And then verse 4: Even though they didn't know these Jerusalem saints from Adam – They practically begged to have the opportunity to give to meet their needs!
The Macedonians had five solid reasons for being financially super cautious – but instead, they were insanely generous.
Why? Well it's grace, isn't it?! Look back to verse 1 – there's that word again: "…the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia…"
Paul is not telling us how wonderful the Macedonians are, he's telling us how wonderful the grace of God is – that it would take selfish, sinful people like you and me and make us open our hands in abundant generosity to those in need.
Which I guess is why Paul goes on to say in verse 5 that the Macedonians didn't do what was expected.
What had Paul expected? Well most of the folks in the Macedonian churches were mostly new Christians. And I wonder if Paul was worried that he might have put them off? Asking these new Christians to contribute money to an offering for people who they didn't even know.
I have to admit that every time I stand up here and talk about money I worry that some of you – especially those of you who have only recently started coming back to church or who haven't yet or have only recently become Christians – I worry that you might think we want you, that God only wants you for your money.
But God first and foremost doesn't want our money – he wants us. Which is why the Macedonians in verse 5: "…gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God to us."
They gave themselves first to the Lord, because God had first given himself to them in Christ. So they had Christ's grace – the DNA of his generosity at work in them.
We were talking at our monthly Staff Team lunch the other day about how much my wee lad Jamie is like me. You may not have met him, but those who have often say to myself and Fiona how much he's like me – Not so much in terms of looks, but in mannerisms and the way he talks. And Jamie knows this! Which is why when I try to chastise him for taking a joke too far at the dinner table he just turns around and says: "Well I can't help it, it's in my DNA. It's really all your fault."
Folks – where do you go with cheek like that? In my case, you just look in the mirror and say: "Fair point – he's a cheeky chappy just like his dad."
But folks, when we come to Christ – when we give ourselves to the Lord one of the things we should find is that our lives start being marked by his characteristics. And that we should therefore also be growing in generosity.
Which is why Paul encourages the Corinthian believers in verse 7 to not be content to be excelling: "…in faith, in speech, in knowledge, earnestness, love…" Without also excelling in the grace of giving too.
Which is why I'm going to wrap up with three pieces of advice Paul gives here on how to give like Jesus.
3. The Advice: How to Give
i.) Here's the first piece: Make Sure Intentions Become Actions.
Which is in verse 11 isn't it: "So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it…"
Far too much genuine rich generosity is simply clogged up somewhere on the kitchen worktop or in a pile of papers on a desk. Any desire to give is useless unless we sit down, review our finances and do something about it.
The evidence of generosity in our lives is not to be found in our thoughts or our feelings. It's to be found on our bank statements. Our intentions need to be channelled into action.
ii.) The second piece of advice: Give in Proportion to What the Lord Has Given You.
Verse 11 again – Complete the work, he says: "…out of what you have. For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable (i.e. acceptable to God) according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have."
As I said earlier: "ten per cent – a tithe – is the biblical base-line." Which is why our Giving Literature suggests giving "5% of our income to the work here at St Joseph's and 5% to World Mission."
But for some of us, that's simply not possible. We're too stretched by our circumstances to do that.
But for others of us – we wouldn't miss 20% or 30%. And so our thinking needs to start there. The Lord knows all about you and your situation.
So the aim is not to hit a magical tithing target – Paul simply encourages each one of us to give… "out of what you have." Give in proportion to what the Lord has given you.
iii.) And then the final piece of advice: Give To Meet Others Needs.
Whenever we part with our money we tend to want some kind of return. "What's in it for me?" we ask – even sometimes when we're thinking about our giving.
Now I hope we all benefit from being a part of this church. But I wonder if you've ever thought:
- About how all the kids work that goes on here doesn't benefit you – if you don't have any children?
- Or for those of us with children – that our after-school children's club Kids Zone or Fri-Up youth club don't tend to benefit us because they are mainly serving children whose families don't come to church.
- Then again you might worry that because our money is all in the same pot as another church across town – that anything extra we raise this year might get spent meeting their needs rather than on ours.
Well Paul's point in verses 13 to 15 is this: Giving should flow from those who have much to those who have little. Those who have three square meals a day should give for the sake of those who don't. Those who have the gospel should give for the sake of those who don't. Generosity costs us. That's what generosity is. That's what generosity does.
"And who knows," says Paul, "as we give to meet needs – whether it's the needs of individuals or other churches – maybe sometime in the future we might find "their abundance may supply our needs." Whether physical needs – like food and shelter… or spiritual ones – like Bibles and Bible teachers.
The bottom line though is: Give like Jesus. Give because his grace – his free and undeserved favour – has captured your heart… and opened your hands in such a way that you want to live like him – pouring out not only your money, but your whole life in sacrifice and service of others.
Why don't we talk to him about all this now? Let's have a moment of quiet to pray in response to his word on our own…
Lord in Your Mercy… Hear our prayers.