II Corinthians 8:1-15 (click to display NIV text)
Sept. 2, 2012
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“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 the grace of giving.”
The story of generosity in the Bible begins with the grumbling of Israel in the wilderness. These people who had just experienced the grace of God in their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, who had just seen God part the Red Sea, who had been redeemed by the powerful hand of God, now begin to grumble because they are hungry and wonder why God does not feed them as their slavemasters in Egypt had. The experience they had with the grace of God did not connect with faith in God’s provision. They wondered if the one who saved them from the hands of the Egyptians might now abandon them to starve in the wilderness. But the Lord heard their grumbling and provided manna and quail. Every day they would know the gracious provision of God. But when did the generosity of God make them generous? Did they connect the grace of God with their own response of compassion for the poor?
In many ways Israel did become compassionate. They had laws about forgiving debts every seven years, and about returning land to the original owners, and about the treatment of the sojourners and aliens among them. In remembering their deliverance, Israel was to forgive all debts. This generosity needed to be reformed and renewed as time went by. The prophets spoke to them about their treatment of the poor. Jesus also spoke very directly about their need to give to the poor. Scot Hafeman says that the church was to practice daily what Israel was doing every 7th year. “In giving freely to the poor, the church continually celebrates her own ‘year of remission’ by remembering her deliverance at the cross, while at the same time anticipating her final redemption on the Jubilee when Christ returns.”
In II Corinthians chapters 8 and 9, Paul is calling the church to be generous in giving. He is asking them to participate in an offering for the church in Jerusalem, which is going through a time of severe poverty. He encourages them to give freely and willingly. But the offering is to be an expression of their living faith; it is to show that when they receive grace in Christ, they also pass it on. Giving to help the poor is not to be done reluctantly or under compulsion, but it is clearly an obligation of the Christian life, a necessary part of life in Christ.
The cause of the poverty in Jerusalem is not clear, but there was a need, and there had been some tension between the more traditional church in Jerusalem and the newer, more Gentile churches located at some distance. So this offering would have sent a strong message of unity between Jewish and Gentile believers in the one church.
It may not have been easy for Paul to sell this offering to the Corinthians. But Paul is ready to call for the offering. He is in a much better relationship with the church since their repentance. He does not have to speak in a corrective way to them. He is ready to ask them to express their faith in this opportunity. Hafeman writes, “Paul’s concern is to show that giving is not a way to stay in the church under the threat of punishment, but a way of demonstrating that they belong to the church because of their continuing trust in what God has done, is doing, and will do for them.”
The Corinthians were asked to model their giving on the grace of Christ. “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.” The cross of Jesus is to be the model for our giving as well. Having experienced the grace of God in redemption, do we connect his offering to our giving? I know we are truly thankful for the forgiveness Christ has given to us. But do we connect what we have received from Christ, to our giving in the cause of Christ?
One of the main obstacles we face in giving generously is that we live in a culture of materialism. Materialism tries to create two convictions in us. The first is a sense of deserving what we have earned by our hard work. If we believe that we have earned what we have, then we feel the need to reward ourselves by spending our money on possessions. That makes generous giving difficult, because it makes us feel less than what we feel we deserve.
The other conviction that materialism gives us is that what we give away will be a loss to our future. The more possessions we have, the more secure we feel our future is. Whatever we give takes away from an already insecure future. “I better hold on to what I have, because I might need it in the future.” So whenever I am asked to give, I feel tense. I might give, but I don’t want to let go. It feels like I am losing too much. But generosity says, “the faithfulness of God is my future.”
Generosity is the opposite of materialism. Generosity says we live by the grace of God and what we have has been given to us. Generosity says we live by faith in the faithfulness of God. He is the God of the future. Generosity says that we give with a willing spirit. Verse 12: “For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have.” My security does to come from the possessions I reward myself with, it comes from God.
So, Paul says, when he took the offering for Jerusalem in the Macedonian churches (in Philippi and Thessalonica and Berea), they did not give out of their excess, because the economy was going good and they had extra discretionary funds. No, they were going through a time of hardship as well. They did not give because they had a close relationship with the Christians in Jerusalem. They felt some tension too, and Jerusalem was half a world away.
They gave themselves to God and there they found the connection between His grace and their giving. They gave themselves first to the Lord. Hafeman says “Notice that it was the Macedonians’ joy that led to their giving, and not the other way around.” Sometimes you hear that giving will make you joyful, or maybe rich. But when we give ourselves first to God, then it is his redemptive work in us, the joy of the Lord in us that leads us to give. Hafeman says “Only the greater treasures of the Kingdom of God can free us from clinging to the competing treasures of this world.”
So Paul calls the Corinthians to follow the example of the Macedonians, and to give willingly, giving themselves first to God. He calls them to see Jesus as the model for their giving, and to allow the grace they received in Christ to be shared, that receiving leads to giving. He says they already excel in some of the more outward gifts of the spirit, like tongues and prophecy and miracles and knowledge. To that, in their repentance, they have added love. Now they need to discover the grace of giving. And I wonder if by giving to the poor in Jerusalem, they might also have come to a new relationship between rich and poor in their own church.
In coming to the Lord’s Table today, we remember Jesus Christ and the grace we have received from him, through the cross and resurrection. Today at the table we receive grace from Christ. Today at the Table we ask the Lord to renew the grace of giving in us.
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