As the country sinks further and further into a time of recession, financial issues will be weighing heavily on the minds of listeners. Here is an example of how to encourage people to discipline themselves to give what they can in light of their circumstances. Through his use of stories, personal testimony, and statistics, Russell finds just the right way to be both tender and direct about a subject that is always touchy—now more than ever.
Are you a risk-taker or a security-seeker? The idea of taking a risk can excite and strike fear into our hearts at the same time.
Some people just love taking risks. U.S. News & World Report says 150,000 people a year risk their lives riding the rapids of the Colorado River. Since 1970, 45,000 people have taken up the hobby of hang-gliding. Think about the thousands who are bungee jumping—leaping off an 80-foot tower with just an elastic rope strapped to their backs. Think of all the sports where the primary appeal is risk: skydiving, auto racing, scuba diving, snow skiing, and horse racing. One of the newest sports fads is to swim with sharks.
Each morning about 30,000 Kentuckians risk their lives driving the Waterson Expressway. Research shows that 4,000 new people a day are entering the stock market, risking their money to make more. In the state lotteries, you risk a little with a chance of reaping a lot.
Some people just love taking risks. They like the rush of adrenaline and the feeling of escaping the ordinary. But most of us are not risk-takers. Most of us are security-seekers committed to a lifestyle of playing it safe. We hedge our bets, cover our tracks, and touch all the bases. From being over-insured to eating low-fat diets, most of us want to minimize the risks. We don't mind the idea of taking risks, as long as somebody else is doing it. We'll watch the Bud Light daredevils jump off trampolines and do double somersaults and dunk a basketball. We'll say, "Wow, that's crazy!" But we want a life that is free from pressure and uncertainty.
It may surprise you to discover that in the Parable of the Talents, Jesus encourages his followers to take a risk with their money. Most of us are so familiar with this parable that we have lost the challenge of it. We know that God has entrusted us with a variety of talents. We know if we don't use it, we lose it. We know that one day we have to give an account of ourselves before God. But in this parable Jesus is challenging us to be willing to live a lifetime of risk for his sake.
In the story Jesus commends the two servants who doubled their investment, making it clear to us that to follow Jesus, we must embrace a lifetime of risking, adventure, expansion, and action. The two servants put their money to work. They invest it in real estate or cattle or hotels or something, and the Lord commends them. But the one-talent man takes no risk. He secures his money in the ground, and the Lord chastises him for being overly cautious.
So, how do you make five talents become ten? How do you make two, four? You have to risk the base of what you have. Learning to take proper risks with our money may be one of the hardest but most-needed lessons that comfort-conscious Christians need to learn. It's a lesson that carries with it the potential for astonishing growth and spiritual excitement, if we dare.
Let's look at these three characters in the Parable of the Talents from Matthew 25. One of them speaks directly to every one of us about the need for taking appropriate financial risks.
Risk for the five-talent person
The five-talent man doubled his trust; he put his money to work, and it gained five more. Some of you are five-talent people. Everything about you is more: more money, more responsibility, more expectations, more pressure, more opportunity, more scrutiny, and more temptations. Scripture warns about the danger of wealth: "It's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Here's a parable that should be a source of encouragement to you, because the rich man is the hero, not the villain. The owner said to the man who had doubled his talents and now had ten: Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into your master's happiness.
God entrusted you with wealth not to hoard it, but to put it into circulation where it does some good. There's a slogan in the investment world: "Weigh the risk versus the reward." I don't think this five-talent man took a wild investment in wheat futures. I don't think he went to the casino and said, "Put all five on red!" He took a calculated risk, and he multiplied that which was entrusted him over a period of time.
I do find it interesting, though, that when the master returned, he did not say to the man who now had ten talents, "You've got ten talents, and there's a man over here who only has one and is struggling. You should have shared your wealth with him." No, he said: "Well done, good and faithful servant!"
I know a wealthy man whose son went to college at Georgia Tech. Rather than putting his son in a dormitory, this man bought a large house in Atlanta and made part of it an apartment for his son. He rented other rooms to other students. The rental fees paid for the mortgage payments, and when the boy's college was over, the man sold the house for almost double what he had invested in it. He almost financed his son's education through that house. Here I am, still paying off my son's student loans from college several years ago, and that guy made money. That's the difference between a five-talent man and a guy who doesn't know what he's doing! Was he wrong? No! He was smart. He was a wise investor. Proverbs 14:23 says, "Hard work brings profit. The wealth of the wise is their crown."
If you're a five-talent person, the Lord's challenge to you is to risk long-term—to risk in eternity, and give a big chunk of it away. Jesus said not to lay up treasures on earth where they will be destroyed. Lay up treasure in heaven where it can't be destroyed because "where your treasure is, there would your heart be." It isn't all that risky for a five-talent person to put money in the ordinary investments of this world. That's normal. We can monitor the progress of it daily. The real risk is to give it away and to trust that without visible, immediate evidence, God's Word is true—that you're laying up treasure in heaven.
I should add that a five-talent person can be a tremendous blessing to the kingdom of God. In Acts 4:26, we read how Barnabas sells a field he owns and buys the money to put it at the apostles' feet. Barnabas was a five-talent man financially. He enables the church to minister to the poor because he gives his money away. No wonder his name means "Son of encouragement."
Just a few years ago the largest individual bequest ever made to a college was given to Asbury Seminary. The Beeson family—who made their money in insurance—gave $40 million to the seminary because they thought it was faithful in training preachers. A five-talent man or woman can be a tremendous encouragement to God's kingdom if that person loves the Lord enough to take the ultimate risk with his or her money.
Risk for the two-talent person
I keep telling the Lord that if I would win $10 million from a clearinghouse sweepstakes, I would give $9 million dollars away in a minute. But there's a humbling phrase in this story that says, "The Lord gave to each person according to their ability." He knows what you can handle.
I can more readily identify with the two-talent man in this parable, and I know I'm talking to a lot of two-talent people. You're not wealthy by the standards of this culture. You don't have hundreds of thousands of dollars stored up. But you've been blessed. You're able to pay your bills, and you have a comfortable life.
You have two strong temptations. The first temptation is to resent the five-talent man. Instead of being grateful for God's gifts to you, you can compare and be envious. You can be bitter because you don't live in a $400,000 house. You don't drive a $50,000 car. You don't fly to exotic places for vacation. In the church you can be intimidated and refuse to make any contribution because there are others who could do so much more.
The Bible says simply, "Rejoice with those who rejoice." Jealousy and resentment are signs of greed and immaturity. Proverbs 28:25 reads: "A greedy man stirs up dissension, but he who trusts in the Lord will prosper."
The other temptation is to have a condescending spirit toward the one-talent man, and to feel that because you have a little bit more, you're better. Jesus Christ owned nothing except the coat on his back. He's the greatest person who ever lived. Proverbs 28:6 says, "Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse." God does not measure your worth by your wealth but by your character.
I find it very interesting that in this parable the same commendation was given to the two-talent man as to the five-talent man. The master doesn't play favorites because the five-talent man had earned five more. He said the same thing to the two-talent man as he does to the five-talent man, because God measures us by opportunity and ability and effort. If the one-talent man had doubled his investment, there would have been the very same accolade, verbatim.
If you are a two-talent person, you have the responsibility to make the most of what God has entrusted to you. If you work for 40 years and you average $35,000 a year, you'll have earned $1.2 million during your lifetime. You're not to indulge yourself. You're not to hoard it up. You're to be a wise manager.
The first risk God asks you to take with your money is not a huge, lump-sum donation, but a weekly tithe of your earnings. Malachi 3:8–10 was written to people who lived with modest means. Malachi writes: "Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, 'How do we rob you?' In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse … because you are robbing me."
The Jewish nation did not give God one-tenth; they owed God one-tenth. That automatically belonged to him. The next verse reads, "Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. 'Test me in this,' says the Lord Almighty, 'and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.'"
God promises that when we give a tithe to him, he will open up the floodgates of heaven and pour out a blessing so great we can't receive it, and the needs of the church will be met. Second Corinthians 9:6 reads, "Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will reap generously."
If the average family income in this church were $35,000 a year, and if every family tithed, we would have $5 million more per year to do the Lord's work. A Gallup survey once reported that only 25 percent of evangelical Christians tithe, while 40 percent say that faith in God is the most important thing in their lives. Those who make between $50,000 and $75,000 a year give only an average of 1.5 percent to charity, total. This same group spends 12 percent of their income on leisure pursuits.
I know it's risky to tithe—particularly for two-talent people. You are probably overwhelmed by bills, and you just don't see how you can afford to tithe. Your intent is to begin to tithe when you get all the bills paid. Then there will be no risk. Then it will require little faith. "Besides," you say, "I don't know what's going happen to my job or to the economy!"
After church one Sunday, a man came up to me and said, "Bob, I'm wealthy, but I'm really tempted not to give, because the economy is so unstable. I was reading the Book of Psalms this past week, and I read a passage that really convicted me that I ought to give anyway." He read this passage in Psalm 37:16: "Better the little that the righteous have than the wealth of many wicked; for the power of the wicked will be broken, but the Lord upholds the righteous." And then he read verse 19: "In times of disaster they will not wither; in days of famine, they will enjoy plenty."
God promises us that if we give and a famine should come along, he will see to it that our needs are met. Now that's risky! Most of us don't have a strong enough faith to believe that God is going to honor his word and provide for us.
A handful of our people went on a mission trip to Eastern Europe a while ago. When they came back, they told me they were really impressed with the dedication of the Christians in Romania. Christians there don't have very much, but they believe they should tithe. They think that's God's standard. But the government of Romania is repressive, and they are allowed to give only 2.5 percent of their income to charitable organizations. They're trying to minimize the opportunity for any anti-government organization. So Romanians are searching for loopholes in the law, so that they'll be able to give ten percent. The Romanian Christians have less, and they're looking for a way to give ten percent. We have more, and we're free to give as we please. In fact, we get a tax break by doing so, and we're looking for loopholes in the Scripture to avoid doing it. What an indictment.
I'm a two-talent man financially, and frankly, it has been easy for me to tithe, because since I was a boy I was trained to live on nine-tenths. A while back I was convicted that I ought to give more than a tithe. The Bible speaks of tithes and offerings. The tithe is what belongs to the Lord, and the offering is over and above the tithe. A noble goal for those of us who have been a Christian for a long time is to give more to the Lord every year than I spend for any one item for myself, including my house or the IRS. I really want to put the Lord first and honor him in that way. When I stand before him, I want to hear him say, "Well done, good and faithful servant, not just in preaching, but in your finances."
No risk for the one-talent person
The one-talent man took no risk. He buried his talent in the ground. Of course, he did one thing right: he acknowledged it was his master's money. But he made some serious mistakes. First of all, he was fearful ("I was afraid."). Secondly, he was lazy ("You wicked, lazy servant," said the master. "You just didn't want to work."). Third, he was unimaginative ("At least you could have thought to put my money in the bank!"). Finally, he was self-pitying ("I knew you were a hard man. It's really not my fault that I can't give. I'm the victim here.").
Because of these mistakes, the one-talent man was condemned for poor stewardship. The master took the one talent from him, gave it to the one who has ten, and threw the wicked servant outside in the darkness. Most of the gospel is compassionate to the poor, but here's an example where the indigent man is the goat, not the hero. I think Jesus wanted to teach us all a lesson about accountability. No one can say, "This doesn't apply to me."
I want to speak to those of you who consider yourselves poor. Maybe you are elderly, and you're on a fixed income. Maybe you're just starting out. Maybe you're unemployed. Maybe you have a job teaching somewhere, and your income is low. This parable teaches you that being poor does not exempt you from the need of making the most of what God has entrusted to you. You're to work hard to earn; you're to spend wisely; you are to give something.
In the Book of Leviticus it says that people were to bring, when they sinned, a calf or a goat to the temple for a sacrifice. Leviticus 5:7 reads, "If he cannot afford a lamb, he is to bring two doves or two young pigeons to the Lord as a penalty for his sin." If he can't afford a lamb, it doesn't say not to worry about it. You still bring something. First Corinthians 16:2 says, "On the first day of every week, each of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income." If you're a one-talent person, don't be intimidated by those who have more. Don't rationalize that since you can't give much, you won't give anything. Give something.
Jesus stood at the temple and watched what people were dropping money in the plate. He watched with the eye of forgiveness, but he also watched with the eye of expectation. A widow came by who owned two mites to her name. She dropped both mites in the offering plate. Jesus didn't stop her and say, "Madam, you shouldn't give anything you can't afford." He commended her, pointing out that she gave more than everybody because she gave all that she had, while the others gave out of their abundance.
When you give you remind yourself that God is in charge. When you give you enable the Holy Spirit to flow through your life and fulfill his promise to provide for you. When you give you contribute to the spirit of revival in the church. When you give God multiplies your gift and uses it for the building of the kingdom. One little boy brought a lunch of five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus took that little lunch and multiplied it to feed 5,000 people.
In our previous building program we asked people to give valuables to the church. I'd always heard that if you could get people to donate what they had stored away in their attic, you could probably finance the kingdom of God. So people brought valuables. They brought guns, silverware, oriental rugs, musical instruments, furs, and china. They were stored up in our gymnasium. The only way we could get rid of those items was to have an auction. So we had an auction that netted us about $75,000. I was impressed with the sacrifice of some one-talent people. One school teacher rode up on a motorcycle, got off, and just walked away. A reporter stopped him and asked him why he was giving the motorcycle, and he said it was the most valuable non-essential item that he had. He said "I love that motorcycle. I just want to demonstrate I love the Lord more."
These people may have been one-talent people, but their sacrifices were meaningful to them and inspired others to give generously. Our church is a five-talent church. You know that. Our responsibility is not to preserve it. Our responsibility is to multiply it. Jesus commissioned us to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations. The church exists primarily to grow and to win the lost to Jesus Christ. Our mission has remained unchanged from our inception: to win the lost and to edify them in Jesus Christ.
I understand from one survey that 70 percent of our county is unchurched. I think it would be safe to say 70 percent of this county is lost. As a church we're not commissioned to pay off buildings and live comfortably. We're commissioned to seek and save the lost.
Let me ask you how to do that if you don't take some risks? Zig Ziglar said, "It's risky when a plane leaves the runway, but that's what planes are for. It's more risky for the plane to just sit there and accumulate rust." It's risky when a ship leaves the harbor, but that's what a ship's for. It's riskier when the ship sits in the harbor and collects barnacles. It is risky when a church launches out and seeks to expand, but that's what the church is for. It's riskier to sit on our laurels and imagine that things will always be the same.
When the Declaration of Independence was signed by 56 men, they knew they were taking an awesome risk. They knew if the revolutionary forces did not win, everything they owned was at stake. They pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. Let me ask you if there is anything in your life you love enough to give up your life for. Anything important enough to you that you'd risk your fortune? Your sacred honor? Your life?
I believe with all of my heart that the church of Jesus Christ is the only hope for the future of this nation. But more importantly, it is through church that people hear about Jesus Christ, and he's the only hope for eternity. The Bible says Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it. If you're a multi-millionaire and you're lost for eternity, you're a failure. If you've got nothing, and you live forever with Jesus Christ, you're a great success. It doesn't begin with your pocketbook. It begins with your heart.
To see an outline of Russell's sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?