Thanksgiving Sunday - 2 Corinthians 8:1-15
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
There is the story of the Pope showing the great mediaeval theologian, Thomas Aquinas, the immense, mouth-watering treasures of the Vatican. And with more than a hint of smug self-satisfaction the Pope remarked, ‘The Church can no longer say ‘Silver and gold have I none’. And Aquinas who picked up on the partial quote from Acts 3 replied, ‘Yes, that is true, but neither can it say, ‘In the name of Jesus of Nazareth rise up and walk’! When you think about it; that can apply just as much to the individual Christian as it can to a vast institution. Maybe one of the reasons some of us seem to be lacking in spiritual power and zeal is because we have become too distracted by our wealth and the means of securing it.
However, all of that stands in marked contrast to the church in Macedonia whom Paul cites as a wonderful example to be emulated by the proud, self-sufficient Corinthian church. I guess to some degree Paul is wanting to shame the Corinthians into making good on a promise they had made earlier to give to the needy Christians in Jerusalem. But Paul will not stoop to bullying or cajoling in order to get them to give for that is not the Christian way. The desire to give to the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way arises not out of guilt, but out of gratitude. It is a truism that generous, joyful giving flows out of joyful grateful hearts. And, as we shall see, we have so much to be grateful for.
The first thing to notice in this passage is an unexpected source: v 1, ‘And now, brothers and sisters, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.’ (2 Cor. 8:1-4)
You see, there are three levels of giving to the church: regular giving, generous giving and sacrificial giving. Here is a moving example of sacrificial giving from these churches in the north of Greece who were themselves going through a time of ‘severe trial’: churches such as those at Philippi and Thessalonica. They knew poverty in ways we could not even begin to imagine, and in the case of the Thessalonians, this was coupled with persecution; in fact it may have been that persecution resulted in poverty as Christians lost their jobs or were prevented from trading. But the thing is this: out of the fire of testing came gold and what gold!
When these Christians heard about the collection for the poor of Jerusalem they insisted on sharing in the relief effort. They ‘urgently pleaded with us’, says Paul. Paul didn’t beg them; they begged him would you believe?!
Let’s just think for a moment of how this might connect with us.
Take the matter of ‘tithing’. The practice of tithing is centuries, even millennia, old. A tithe is an old word for a tenth. Tithing is giving away 10% of your income. In the Old Testament the tithe was the base line and one was not considered to be giving until that amount was exceeded. Ten pence in the pound doesn’t sound much, ten pounds taken from one hundred suddenly seems a bit more serious.
A good number in our church do practice tithing and give by standing order. Of course it would completely transform the finances and ministry of this church if everyone did it. Well, this Thanksgiving Day is an opportunity for you to start doing that if you don’t already. It’s also a God-given opportunity to adjust that (up-wards if your earnings have increased or you want to give more generously). It would be a great idea this week to check your tithe to make sure it really is still a tenth; after all, it’s so easy to slip back. You may give your tithe by cheque or using an envelope, the important thing is that it your giving is planned, regular and realistic.
It’s surprising the people who can’t afford to tithe - and it’s also surprising the people who can! I have mentioned this example to some of you before but it is well worth recounting. One leader in his denomination visited Albania when the doors were open after forty years of total isolation under Communism. Albania was the world’s only officially declared atheist state and since 1967 it had allowed no religious activity of any sort. This leader found an elderly woman from his denomination who for fifty years regularly set aside the tithe from her meagre income. Cut off from the outside world, first through World War 11 and then through the Marxist repression of churches, she had no way to channel her tithe to her church. Finally, she, by chance, met this denominational representative and presented her accumulated tithe to him the accumulated tithe of half a lifetime! Isn’t that something?
She didn’t have much but she wanted to give what she had to the wider mission of the church; and nothing and no-one was going to stop her- including a communist government. It’s all a matter of devotion and vision you see. That was ‘Macedonian giving’ the woman showed.
Secondly we have an astonishing model, for Paul goes on in v 7ff, ‘But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you see that you also excel in this grace of giving. I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 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 through his poverty might become rich.’ (2 Corinthians 8:7-9).
From one point of view this church seemed to have everything in spades- but you can have all the best preaching, all the best gifting, even love and still fall short in this vital area of giving. Paul wants to spare them and us from that and so he offers a model for us to look to in order to begin to penetrate the true nature of giving.
Where do you look for the model of supreme giving? Well, the same place where we are to look for every example of all that is good and noble and true-the Lord Jesus Christ.
We have just been celebrating Christmas and the incarnation. It is precisely this, together with what the incarnation was to lead to-the cross, that Paul draws our attention to as the superlative model of self-giving. I just love the way St Augustine, pondering this deep truth, puts it, ‘He lies in a manger, but contains the world. He feeds at the breast, but also feeds the angels. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, but vests us with immortality. He found no place in the inn, but makes for Himself a temple in the hearts of believers. In order that weakness might become strong, strength became weak.’ Isn’t that sublime?
He came from heaven to earth that we might go from earth to heaven. He was lifted up on a cross so that we might be lifted out of our sin. He took our place that we might inherit his place. Only his poverty could make us wealthy, only by giving up his comfort in glory could we be released from our discomfort and shame. And you know what? He thought it was all worthwhile. And are we not glad that it is so?
God kept his promise to send a Saviour for the wrecked human race, a promise made way back in Genesis 3:15. And so Paul urges the Corinthians to fulfil their promise, v 11, ‘Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.’
Notice how Paul stresses what matters first of all is not the amount that they give (though that is not unimportant) but the spirit in which they give, the “willingness” with which they finish the work, which brings us to a beatitude attitude.
Some years ago David Howard of The Bible Society visited Madras, India. While there he was told of a local sweeper woman who earned twenty rupees a day by sweeping the streets. To avoid the risk of spending her tithe for personal needs, she took two rupees to the treasurer of the Indian Evangelical mission every day as her contribution to missionary outreach. The tithe only equalled a few pence but, like the widow’s mite, it was worth far more in God’s sight and relative to her income it was a massive amount. Don’t get me wrong, it is not that God insisted on having his two rupees from that woman; the astonishing thing is that she insisted that God have his two rupees.
In this passage we hear Paul’s call to some very different people- Christians who are at the other end of the scale. But we also have his challenge to the prosperous and prestigious church at Corinth to match the generosity of the poorer churches in Macedonia to the north. So he urges this more talented and prosperous church in Corinth to match their prosperity with appropriate generosity: “Remember this, whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly and whoever sows generously will also reap generously”. (9: 6)
One of the encouraging features of St Johns over the last few years especially is the generosity of its members to give to the Lord’s work. It thrills this pastor’s heart I can tell you. We have just heard two testimonies to that and it is a cause for thankfulness to God. And the lovely thing about today is that God is giving us all this wonderful opportunity to sow generously and so be like our Saviour in this regard
Paul is speaking of the use made of their money but we can apply the picture of ‘sowing generously’ to other things besides money.
It can be applied to careers. We have people from here who have forsaken promising careers to go abroad as missionaries, work in lower paid Christian positions, and enter into the ordained ministry simply because of their love for the Lord Jesus, his people and the lost. Without embarrassing them, think of our own parish assistants and staff workers. They are sowing generously. They certainly won’t be seeing any trade off in terms of financial remuneration in this life, but one day in glory they are going to be astounded at the return of their labours as they see men and women, boys and girls overjoyed because of their sacrifices which led them to being saved and discipled. Then they won’t need to ask: Has it all been worth it? The question won’t even arise- how could it?
We can also apply the sowing of the seed in our own lives to relationships formed in which we have invested hours of patient counsel, generous love and perhaps nursing care for the old and sick, serving in different areas of the church- sowing generously but still sacrificially.
We can apply it, as Paul does here, to our regular giving levels, week by week, month by month. We have been thinking of our needs, but beyond those are so many potentials for more gospel work here and beyond if only more of us would be willing to give not simply generously but sacrificially.
Here’s a question: have you ever thought of accepting promotion or receiving a legacy not merely to move into a better house or buy a bigger car but to support a work on the mission field abroad or to sustain a strategic ministry at home, or to give to the poor and needy among the persecuted church? Are you sowing sparingly or generously?
I’m afraid that even among Christian believers there are some who ‘sow sparingly’: they never take risks, they never give till it hurts, they live a life enclosed, walled off from crying needs; their peace, their plans, their comfort have always come first.
There is a story of an ambitious young man who told his minister he’d promised God one tenth of his income if he blessed his business plans. They prayed for God to bless his career. At that time he was making £1,000 a month and tithing £100. In a few years his income increased dramatically and he was making £4000 a month. The time came when he spoke to his minister asking if he thought he could be released from his promise to tithe his income quite so strictly; giving £400 each month sounded just too much. The minister replied, “I don’t see how you can be released from your promise, but we can ask God to reduce your income back to £1000 a month, then you’d have no problem tithing £100”!
Paul tells us that faithful giving must come from a cheerful heart, a heart rejoicing in God’s goodness not calculating how much it has to give.
‘Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.’ (verse 7)
This is a consistent emphasis in the Bible. God is not a demanding dictator, he doesn’t threaten his people into service. Tithing plus is not a legal obligation it is a grace opportunity- an opportunity to receive grace and to give it. Isn’t it something to think that we can actually cheer the heart of God when we give generously and cheerfully? It’s quite a test of mature spirituality too: to give through clenched teeth is one thing; to give with a smiling face is another. If someone were to give you a gift, with which of these two would you prefer them to be given- a grimace or smile? Why should we think that it would be any different with God?
There is a wonderful scene in the Book of Revelation- chapter 4 where the 24 elders fall down before God’s throne in worship. And then they do something very simple but very significant, they lay down their crowns before the throne. The symbol of rule and rights –the crown- is simply surrendered before the overwhelmingly generous, pure and holy God who had surrendered his Son for these people. Well, in a very small way we have an opportunity to mirror that scene in heaven on earth by laying down our finances- a symbol of our own self- rule and rights in the service of the King. Let us pray.
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