Sunday, March 17, 2013

Selfish Generosity (a sermon on 2 Corinthians 9:6-15)

2 Corinthians 9:6-15: March 17th 2013
‘Selfish Generosity’

Our theme this Lent is the joy of Christian generosity. Our text is two chapters from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians – chapters eight and nine. In these chapters Paul is writing to his Christian friends in the Greek city of Corinth, encouraging them to get involved in a giant fundraising project he’s organizing for the benefit of the poor in Jerusalem. If there is one phrase that sums up the theme of these two chapters, it would be ‘God loves a cheerful giver’ (9:7). We’re sinful human beings and so our natural tendency is to be grudging givers; Jesus, on the other hand, is working on renovating our hearts, and so he wants us to learn that one of the great secrets to a joyful and happy life is generosity. That’s been our theme all through Lent.

We started on the first Sunday of Lent by looking at Jesus as the greatest example of gospel generosity. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 8:9 ‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich’. Grace means unconditional love, and so as we follow the example of Jesus, our giving will be unconditional, not dependent on the worthiness of the recipient. We also noted that Jesus’ giving to us made him poorer, and so we should expect as Christians to have a lower standard of living than others who make the same income we do, because we are learning the joy of generosity.

On the second Sunday of Lent, Susan helped us look at giving as a part of the balanced Christian life, of Christian commitment. Paul talks about his Christian friends in Macedonia who were poor themselves, but who were also very generous. The secret was their commitment to Christ: ‘They gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us’ (2 Corinthians 8:5).

On the third Sunday of Lent, we talked about the principle of Kingdom equality. In chapter 8:13-15 Paul reminds us that equality is what God wants: a world where everyone has enough and no one has too much.

Last week, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, our theme was poverty and generosity. Paul used the example of the Christians in Macedonia who were very poor, but their joy in Jesus led them to be generous in giving to help the Jerusalem Christians. From this we learned that if we wait until we’re rich before we give, we’ll probably never start, because we’ll always be able to find a good excuse why we need ‘just one more thing’, and all the time the false god of wealth will be wrapping his chains more securely around our hearts. No: the time to learn the joy of generosity is always now.

Today our series comes to an end, and I want to focus on the payoff of Christian generosity. I’ve called this last sermon ‘Selfish Generosity’, and my tongue is only partially in my cheek! There’s an obvious payoff for the Jerusalem Christians in the Corinthians’ generosity, but is there a payoff for the Corinthians, too? Is their giving for their benefit as well as Jerusalem’s? Paul thinks it is, and he spells out that payoff in our passage for today.

Look with me at the first few verses from today’s reading, verses 6-9:
The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work. As it is written, ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor, his righteousness endures forever’.

Now I would suggest that this is not the normal way we think of ‘giving to charity’. Suppose I get one of those phone calls from STARS ambulance or cancer research or whatever, asking me for a donation of $100. Now I’m a selfish human being like anyone else, so my first thought is going to be ‘What had I planned to spend that $100 on?’ I’m in competition with the charity, you see? If I keep the money, it can be of benefit to me. If I give it to them, it will be a benefit to them, which will probably be a good thing, but I won’t get anything out of it.

Paul challenges this way of thinking. The farmer who plants seed in the ground isn’t making a donation, he’s making an investment. The food he’s able to grow will be a benefit to others, yes, because they’ll be able to eat and so not starve. But it will also be a benefit to the farmer, because it will bring him an income. Paul is challenging me to rethink my perspective on generosity. My gifts to the poor are not a donation; they’re an investment in the work of God’s kingdom. That work will benefit others, but it will also benefit me. I’m not just giving gifts, I’m sowing seeds, and in good time I’ll be able to reap a harvest.

So what exactly are those benefits? Paul points out three things. First, he promises that if we are generous to others, God will provide for our needs as well. In verse 8 he says,
‘And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work’.
And in verses 10-11 he goes on to say,
‘He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way for your great generosity’.

Note carefully what Paul says here. He doesn’t make an unconditional promise that God will give us everything we want. In fact, in other places in the New Testament Paul works hard to reduce the list of things we want; in 1 Timothy he says that godliness with contentment is great gain, and defines contentment as being happy with food and clothing (I think if he’d lived in Alberta he would have added ‘a warm house’ as well!).

So Paul isn’t saying, ‘If you give generously God will reward you by pandering to your materialistic lifestyle’. Rather, as the New Living Translation puts it in verse 8, ‘God will generously provide all you need. Then you will always have everything you need and plenty left over to share with others’. Do you see God’s priority here? It’s not that I’ll be able to buy an even nicer and more expensive Larrivée guitar! It’s that I’ll always have enough to provide for my basic needs, and then to continue to be generous to the poor. So it’s not an extravagant payoff, but it is a payoff! I mentioned last week the couple in our first parish in the early 1980s whose net income for the year was about $1600, but who told me ‘We can’t afford not to tithe!’ Their attitude was that this promise of God was worth more than any worldly wealth. God is no one’s debtor; he will always honour generosity and make sure that we aren’t the losers for it.

So the first benefit is a promise that God will provide for our needs too. The second benefit is the enduring benefit of a righteous character. In verse 9 he quotes from Psalm 112, which talks about the righteous person:
‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor;
His righteousness endures forever’.

The Bible has a lot to say about the difference between a benefit that is only temporary and one that lasts forever. We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can take nothing out with us – nothing material, that is. You’ve heard the story of the two millionaires who were discussing a friend of theirs, also a millionaire, who had died recently. One of them said, “I wonder how much he left?” The other replied, “Everything!” When we stand face to face before our maker, the size of the bank account that our relatives are fighting over won’t make a blind bit of difference. What will make a difference is our righteous character.

And what does righteousness mean? This quote from Psalm 112 makes it clear that it includes generosity to the poor. ‘He scatters abroad, he gives to the poor; his righteousness endures forever’. It’s not just about doing our best never to harm anyone; a fence post can be a good Christian by that standard! It’s about practical love for those who really need it. If we allow the Holy Spirit to shape us into the kind of people whose greatest joy is to be generous toward those who are in need, that is a benefit that will be with us forever.

Think about it for a minute; everyone thinks that when they die, they want to go to heaven. But what sort of a place is heaven? Heaven is a place where there is no selfishness, no greed, and no ownership of any kind. What kind of person can enjoy that sort of place? Can a selfish and greedy person enjoy it? Isn’t it more true to say that a selfish and greedy person who went to heaven would find it to be hell? So shouldn’t we consider it to be a matter of urgent priority to ask God to change our hearts so that we can be the kind of people who will find heaven to be heaven, and not hell?

Are you beginning to see how generosity can be a real benefit to us? I hope you are!

Paul has pointed out two benefits to us: God will provide for our needs, and we will have the lasting benefit of a righteous character, which will make us the kind of people who can arrive in God’s eternal kingdom and actually enjoy it! But there’s a third thing: the benefit of the prayers of those we have helped. Look at verse 14:
‘…while they (that is, the Christians in Jerusalem) long for you and pray for you because of the surpassing grace of God that he has given you’.

Actually, there are two sides to this. In verse 12 Paul refers to prayers of thanksgiving, and in verse 14 to prayers of intercession. It’s not hard to imagine what he has in mind. This wonderful gift arrives in Jerusalem, and the poor Christians there are filled with joy, because they realize that they aren’t going to starve after all. “Thank you, God, for those wonderful Christians over in Corinth!” they say; “Thank you for their love and generosity. Please bless them, and give them all they need, and help them to grow as followers of Jesus too”.

That’s the most wonderful gift anyone can give to us, you know - to pray to God for us, to constantly bring our names before the heavenly Father. As I sit at the front of the church week by week, I listen to our intercessors leading the prayers of the people, and they all do such a great job. I’m especially grateful to those who pray for me and for my family as part of their prayers. And I’m grateful for my Mum and Dad, who pray together every night; I send them my calendar every week, and I know they use it in their prayers and ask God to bless the specific things I’m doing. You can’t put a dollar value on that; it’s priceless.

So, here are three benefits Paul points out to us: this is the payoff for our growth as joyful givers. First, God will provide for our needs too, so that we can continue to be generous. Second, we’ll be growing in righteous character, so that when we finally arrive in God’s Kingdom we’ll be the kind of people who can enjoy it, rather than finding it to be hell on earth! Thirdly, when the poor receive our gifts their hearts will overflow with thanksgiving to God and with prayers for us, and those prayers are worth more than a million dollars in the bank.

So, sisters and brothers, what is our response? Let me close by pointing out to you the three things that Paul recommends to us.

First, he recommends that we give generously. Verse 6 says, ‘The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully’. This is obvious: if the farmer wants a big crop, he has to scatter a lot of seeds; if he only plants a little, he’s only going to have a small crop.

A word of caution here, though – let’s remember last week’s passage. A rich person may give more dollars than a poor person, but the gift is no sacrifice to them, because they’re still giving from their spare change. The point is not how much we give, but how much we have left over. Generous giving is sacrificial giving, giving that means there are things we’d like to do that we can’t do because of it. That’s what Paul is recommending.

The first guideline is to give generously. The second is to give freely. Verse 7 says, ‘Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion’. It’s possible to give generously with the hand but to continue to grasp the gift with your heart, and to wish you’d never given it. That sort of generosity may be a benefit to the recipient, but it won’t be a benefit to the giver. Note what Paul is saying here: no one can judge another Christian for how much they give. It’s true that in the Old Testament 10% is the standard, but what’s important is not a legalistic attachment to percentages: what’s important is that my heart is transformed so that I become the sort of person whose greatest joy is generosity. When that happens, percentages will be unimportant; I’ll be giving all the time, because I love it, because it brings me joy.

And that leads to the third guideline: give generously, give freely, and give cheerfully. Verse seven says, ‘God loves a cheerful giver’. That’s what this entire Lent series has been about. God isn’t trying to make us all into miserable people who can’t even buy an ice cream cone for ourselves without feeling guilty about all the poor people who could have been helped by that $3.50! No – God is longing to increase our joy! He wants to make us happier, more cheerful people, and he knows that generosity is an infallible way to do that!

Do you want to have more joy in your life? Do you want a sense of satisfaction? Do you want to be able to go to sleep at night with a sense of joy in having made a real difference in the lives of people? Well, sisters and brothers, God wants that for you as well. Here’s an infallible rule: misers are miserable (funny how the two words are related!), but generous people are full of joy. So not just for the benefit of the poor, but for our own benefit too, let’s pray that God the Holy Spirit will change our selfish hearts into generous hearts. Will you pray that for me? I’ll pray it for you, too, and then we can continue to work on it together!

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