Thanksgiving Sunday - Luke 12:13-21
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Thanksgiving Sunday 2004 SJN. MP.
Maybe a game show isnt your idea of fun, but the kids want to go and so you give in. When you arrive it isnt as bad as you thought, in fact you soon begin to enjoy it. The studio frenzy is contagious, the warm up man is funny, and the music is decidedly upbeat. What is more, the stakes are high. Higher than they have ever been enthuses the host- Welcome to Whats your Price? Without any prompting, the audience immediately explodes with rapturous applause. Today someone will walk out with one million pounds the host beams. You mutter to your children, It wont be me. That sort of luck doesnt run in my family. Shhh your daughter whispers, They are about to pull out the name from the hat. And would you believe it, the paper has your name written on it. And so down you go in the full glare of the lights and cameras to play the game. The rules are extraordinarily simple. You only have to answer the simple question: What is your price? That is, you have to agree on one condition and you receive all that money- one million pounds. Think of all the things you could do with that amount of money-says the host- pay off the mortgage, buy a new house, have that well earned holiday-why you could donate some of it to your local church if you wanted to." Take your pick. just choose one option and the money is yours." A deep, invisible voice begins to read from the list: Put your children up for adoption. Become a prostitute for week. Leave your church. Leave your family .Give up your citizenship. Change your sex. Change your race. "Thats the list", explains the toothy host, Now, make your choice. The clock starts ticking, members of the audience shout out their advice, you increasingly get hot under the collar and your mind is in a swirl. What do you do? Well, I dont know what you would do. But I can tell you what others would do, at least in America, because a few years ago a national survey asked that very question-but for 10 million dollars not 1 million pounds. Here are the results: 25% would abandon their family, 25% would abandon their church, 23% would become a prostitute for a week, 16% would give up their citizenship, 16% would leave their spouse and 3% would put their children up for adoption. I am not convinced that in Britain the results would be that much different.
Now we may never be put in a position where we have to make such stark choices but we are all in positions where we do make such choices on a daily basis about what matters to us the most as reflected by our attitude to money. You see, anything that costs us in terms of our faith or family is simply too high. And yet we live in a society where such pressure is being brought to bear , even upon Christians, to pay it. And that, it seems to me, is the point of the parable Jesus told in Luke 12. The man has made a windfall profit off an investment. The land has produced a bumper crop and he has excess cash and he asks, What will I do with my earnings? It takes him about five seconds to answer his question. He will save it, store it and live off the proceeds-wining and dining. But then comes the heart attack and he dies only to hear another voice, not his own, but Gods, and what he has to say isnt very kind, although it is honest- You fool. How much does he take with him, according to verse 20?- absolutely nothing. He was busy building a house of cards and he didnt even see the storm coming. But that wasnt the only thing he didnt see, because he didnt see God. Did you notice what was his first question was in v 17? What will I do? That was the wrong question asked of the wrong person. What if he had gone to God and asked: Lord what do you want me to do? You see, his sin wasnt that he planned for the future. His sin was that his future didnt include God. In fact he didnt even have to ask that question, because God had already provided the answer in the OT Scriptures, for it was already laid down there that at least a tenth of an Israelites income is to be given over to the Lords work, let alone underscoring the generosity that is to be shown to the poor. In other words, as we see in the punchline of v 21 , he was not rich towards God. And yet one of the blessings that the Lord wants for his people and why in his kindness his showers good things upon us, is that we should be rich towards him as we in turn can give it back. Now this morning I want to suggest to you that the question of being rich towards God is in fact a Gospel issue, in three senses.
First of all, it is a Gospel proof. Let me ask: How will someone know whether you or I am a Christian? By what we say we believe? Well, in part yes. But then again as James reminds us in his letter, even the devil believes, so believing the right things is not sufficient proof of a genuine conversion. Just listen to what the apostle Paul writes of the sign of an authentic spiritual regeneration in his first letter to the Thessalonians chapter 1 and v9. He speaks of them having, turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven. What is the negative proof of these peoples faith? They turned from idols. Now when we think of idols we imagine little clay statues painted with gold, tucked away in a shrine with a candle stuck in front of them dont we? But what is it that makes that little statue so special? After all it is only painted clay. Well, it is the belief that its has some sort of power, that it can bestow good fortune or a sense of well being and happiness on the person who possesses it. In other words, we accord to an idol the attributes of God. It is what we live for, which gives us a buzz ,that which gets us out of bed in the morning. That is why our society is actually littered with idols, things we feel we cant live without and in which we will invest our time and our money at the expense of God-that is idolatry. It is living for the holiday, the night out, the sex, the entertainment, the sport. And if you think that is overstating it then consider how much people are willing to pay the sportsman, or the singer- more in one year than many of us will see in a lifetime. But the mark of a Christian is that he or she has been set free from that sort of thing, from going along with what the crowd thinks is important and valuable. Money and time once spent on those things becomes redirected. Where to? Well, to serve the living God. Visible proof that you have been touched by the Spirit of God is that you will be willing to sit light to these things and be more concerned about Gods kingdom-so that our children, our old people, the folk on the estates will hear about Jesus. That is what we will be investing in.
But it is also proof that we are properly converted because one of the effects of the Gospel, as Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians , is that we are being renewed in the image of our Creator. And what is the supreme mark of the character of God but that he is a generous God. We are so used to experiencing this that we fail to see it for what it is. You know, God could have left the world flat and gray but he didnt: He splashed the orange in the sunrise and cast the sky in blue. And if you love to see the geese as they gather, chances are youll see that too. Did he have to make the squirrels tail furry? Was he obliged to make the birds sing? And the funny way that chickens scurry or the majesty of thunder when it rings? Why give a flower fragrance? Why give food its taste? Could it be he loves to see the look upon your face? But of course the Christian does not simply look at the glorious variety of creation as evidence of divine generosity, he looks to the cross where God gave up everything in the one who being rich became poor so that we who are poor should become rich-the Lord Jesus Christ. And so as we are gripped by the Gospel we are changed by the Gospel in that we become generous for the Gospel.
And following on from this, our attitude to giving is a Gospel witness. In fact we see that in 1 Thessalonians as well, because it is not Paul who is saying these things about the Thessalonians but the non-Christians in the area- v 8 The Lords message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achia, your faith in God has become known everywhere... then v 9 They tell how you turned to God from idols. Someone ,somewhere must have seen the difference becoming a Christian made and it bowled them over. How would our turning from the idols of money and materialism effect our Gospel witness? Well, here is an imaginary conversation between two work colleagues: Joe: Youll never believe what I saw this morning! Peter: What was that? Joe: I saw our general manager catching the bus to work last week. What gives? I though profits were up and we have all just had a pay rise. I mean a bus! Peter: Hes a Christian. Joe: Ohhh, I see ( that is a very knowing oh of the I get it variety. There is a pause. Joe: What do Christians do with their money then? I mean our boss must be on to a good thing. And you know that surgeon, he must be earning heaps but you couldnt tell by his house. In fact he doesnt live in the suburbs he lives in walking distance of his church in the city. What do they do with their money? Peter: Rumour has it, they give it away. And you have not even had to give them a tract or offered an invitation to a guest service! I guess the challenge is this: It is not whether we catch a bus or walk to work-that isnt the point. It is whether there is any perceptible and significant difference between the way we use our money and our unbelieving neighbour. Do we have the same number of cars, same quality of clothing, make the same demands regarding our holidays or the size of our homes? In which case there is no difference. Or is that a willingness to downsize on some of these things so that more of our money can be freed up for genuine Gospel work? Because the moment that happens, it will be such a witness that it will be a Gospel work in itself. Which brings me to our third point, giving is a Gospel activity.
This comes out especially in Pauls letter to the Philippians where Paul begins by thanking God with prayers brimming with joy because, as he puts it , of their partnership in the Gospel. 1:5. For Paul Gospel business was in some ways like any other business made up of a partnership to get a job done. And one of the most moving ways in which this partnership was expressed was by the Christians at Philippi taking collection to help Paul out in his ministry- all very down to earth stuff. This is how he puts it in Chapter 4: 14, Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need. Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. Not everyone can be involved in ,what is for the want of a better term, front line full-time Gospel work, but everyone can be involved in supporting it and therefore sharing in it. The alternative is a stark one in that without that financial support Gospel workers will be lost, and as I mentioned in my letter, for us that could well be Nathan- although some of you may want to put it to the vote and suggest its me!. But, you know, one of the most wonderful and thrilling things of my time here at St Johns is to see how through peoples generosity, ( and folk here are generous- you are a delight to work with-honest)- through generosity we have been able to take on more work, which in turn has led to more growth in every area- Riverside, Newland Avenue, Student work, young peoples work, seniors, schools. The point of this weekend is simply to encourage us on in the same direction, and maybe for those who are new to the church to discover how you can be part of this Gospel partnership too through regular, planned giving.
But let me move on to deal with some of the problems and practicalities we face.
Why is it that some of us have problems in the area of giving? If we are honest there are two basic reasons. The first, if I may put is so boldly is greed. It is a basic human failing common to us all that we always want more and sometimes that is at Gods expense as we saw in that parable of Jesus. I am sure that it was emotionally very difficult for those Thessalonian Christians to take hold of their idols and throw them in the bin- very difficult. But it is the only way to break its power and experience the liberating power of Christ. And so it is with money- the way in which we counter our tendency to greed is simply by being generous- giving the stuff away.
But for some of us, the real problem is fear. We are frightened that we will leave ourselves short if we give it away, maybe not now but in the future. Does that sometimes bother you? Well, the counter to fear is faith, trusting in Gods promises and provision for the future. It was following his warning against choosing mammon over God that Jesus went on to say this : Therefore, I tell you do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or what you will wear. Is not life more important that food and the body more important than clothes? And he concludes Seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be given to you as well.( Mtt 6:25ff). Now I take it that no one will say that Jesus was a liar or that he was being naive. So lets believe him at this point. He is not promising everything we want -thats greed. He is promising all that we need, thats faith. But when you think about it, who is to say that having the nest egg will provide security anyway for the future? Shares and pensions have been wiped out before. Wars do occur, accidents do happen. Why should we put our trust in things so uncertain, rather than the God whose promises are certain? For the worriers amongst us let us here again the words of Jesus : O you of little faith. Do not worry saying, "What shall we eat?", "What shall we wear?" For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.
So what are the practicalities? How can we get caught up in this wonderful grace of giving?
One day there was a notice in the church bulletin which read: A number of buttons have been found among the coins in recent collections. In future, please rend your hearts and not your garments. That is what our Lord wants- our hearts, hearts full of love, hearts overflowing with gratitude which overflows into our lives. So the first thing we need to work towards is contentment. In that passage we read from Philippians, Paul says that he had learnt the secret of contentment - living with plenty and living with less. And I believe that as Christians in our society we need to be content to live a few steps behind our peers in terms of our material aspirations- making do with less in order that we can give more. That sort of talk will sound mad to our friends, and will jar even with ourselves, but that is what following the Lord Jesus is all about.
Secondly, we need to sit down and do the sums. If we are married then we need to work out with our spouse what ceiling we will put on the family budget and see how much we can and should give to the Lords work. So let us set time aside this week to read through the booklet, pray and then fill in our response and commit ourselves to giving regularly, and certainly for some of us, if not most of us, to actually increase our giving this year, and then return the forms in the envelope provided. But let me encourage you not to put it off, or put the booklet to one side and forget about it, resolve in your mind to go home and sort it out this week, I know how in the business of life it is so easy to forget as other things soon crowd in.
Thirdly, let's talk amongst ourselves as a church. Giving is done in secret, but we can still encourage one another on when we meet in the homegroups, TNT, over coffee, Wednesday at 10 and wherever- I need encouraging and reminding in this area of Christian living and I really do look to you to help me.
Now I am going to do something I dont often do from the pulpit as a rule and that is to make a personal reference to my family. But I remember some years ago when one of our sons was very small, I wont see which one, being very moved by a talk he heard at church. And in that simple, genuine openness that children often have, he came up to Heather and myself and said that he wanted to give all that he had saved in his piggy bank to some Christian cause. Our immediate thought, was , Well, isnt this going too far? All of it? Why not just some of it? But then I thought of Jesus commending the widow in the temple who gave everything she had, although she could ill afford it. And since Gods Spirit had so moved in his little heart who were we to quench it? And you know, maybe that is something of what Jesus meant when he said that it if we are going to enter the kingdom of God, then we have to become like children in this regard too- being simple, joyful, spontaneous and generous.
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