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, in the light of what God has to say on the subject.
And what he says is so mind-blowing that it takes a lifetime to absorb. This morning we're just going to look at three verses – Matthew 6:19-21. They're there on p 811 in the pew Bibles. These verses turn upside down the conventional wisdom about money and possessions – that is to say, the more the merrier.
There are three simple lessons here. If only we'd learn them, for own good. The first is this:
First, EARTHLY TREASURES GET DESTROYED
"Do not lay 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. Jesus says we're in the habit of accumulating, and it's a habit we need to break. We need a radical change of attitude and action if we're not going to come a cropper.
The word translated 'rust' has the more general meaning of 'that which eats away'. And it's amazing how quickly our possessions do corrode away, let alone our money.
Mental corrosion can happen even more quickly than physical corrosion. We long for something new, which becomes the one thing we simply must have. It may be that new car, a holiday to an exotic location, a phone, 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. Later she said she preferred the small house that they used to live in before.
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 lay up for yourselves treasures on earth'. 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 cannot take anything out of the world.
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 famously 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'. If his income rose beyond a certain level that allowed him to live reasonably well, he would 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 laying up for himself treasures on earth.
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 next thing for us to learn is this:
Secondly, HEAVENLY TREASURES ARE INDESTRUCTIBLE
but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys 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 some years ago. An economic crisis devalues treasures in heaven not a jot. Stock market crashes simply serve to emphasise how utterly secure and untouchable are treasures in heaven.
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:
They [those who are rich – that's almost all of us] are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, 19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.
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 business to a Christian charitable trust, saying that he wanted the income to be used 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 many times the modest income he kept for himself.
His giving was strategic for the development of what is 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 any attempt to control proceedings by pulling financial strings.
John Laing was a man who knew how to lay 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.
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 £2,000 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:
"You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain."
Then we should give to the poor. For instance 1 John 3:17:
But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?
We should not neglect family in need. 1 Timothy 5:8:
But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.
Then according to Jesus (and this is more than a touch disconcerting!) we should give 'to the one who begs' from 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 one must give as he has decided in his heart …
We should sit down and think through our giving 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 sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
The purpose of this Giving Review is to point us to Christ, and to help us get things in perspective.
Secondly, our giving should be regular. 1 Corinthians 16:2:
On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper…
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, 'as [we] may prosper'. That is, 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. Ten percent is a great start. The Bible promises that God blesses us when we do that. But that 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 our 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?