This sermon is part of the sermon series "Generosity". See series.
The Dead Sea is called the Dead Sea for a reason: it's dead. This is because of its salt content. It is the saltiest body of water on the planet, nine times saltier than the ocean. It is so salty that no fish can live in it. It is so salty that sailboats don't sail on it—and this is a big body of water, 10 miles by 50 miles. If you look out over the water, you'll never see a skier. You'll never see a wave runner skimming along the surface of the water. You will never see people building vacation homes on its banks. It's desolate. The only people who like the saltiness of the Dead Sea are first-time tourists to Israel, because they can bob in the Dead Sea. It's impossible to sink in water that is that salty. So tour buses drive there, people don swimsuits, and they go bobbing.
I've bobbed before in the Dead Sea. It's a lot of fun until you try to rinse off the salt. It gets in every nook and cranny of your body. You're miserable for a day or two afterwards. The last time my wife Sue and I went to Israel, our tour bus dropped everybody off to go bobbing. I told the bus driver, "I'll cook hot dogs for lunch with you for everybody." It was 106 degrees, and I was happier working over a grill than bobbing in the Dead Sea.
Interestingly, there is fresh water flowing into the Dead Sea continuously. The Jordan River and several other streams feed into the Dead Sea. But the Dead Sea has no outlet. And because it has no outlet, the fresh water comes in and sits there idly, and the hot desert sun evaporates it all.
Our goal in this series is to keep you from becoming a Dead Sea person. What's a Dead Sea person? This is a person who receives fresh blessings, fresh resources, fresh provisions from God on a regular basis, but has no outlet. Dead Sea people never channel any of those resources to other people in their lives. During the course of this series I'm going to challenge you to become a generous person, to become more like a river than a dead sea. Rivers take the water from upstream and channel it downstream. I'm going to challenge you to take blessings from God's hand, to take resources that God puts in your lap, and channel that downstream into the lives of other people.
Dead Sea people are dead-end people. Are you more like a river or more like the Dead Sea?
Jesus is our role model.
We're going to take a look at three brief verses in 2 Corinthians 8, and we're going to look at them backwards. The title of this sermon is "Stand in the River of Grace." If you're going to stand in the river of grace, you have to trace this river backwards, upstream, so that you can find its source. We'll learn that the source of this river is God himself. The source of generosity is God. Our role model for generosity is Jesus Christ. Looking at 2 Corinthians 8:7-9, we're going to go to the headwaters of the river, verse 9, and work our way backwards.
The apostle Paul says in verses 7 through 9,
But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving. I'm not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
Why does Paul say "For your sakes he became poor"? Why did Jesus become poor? Did Jesus become poor at a specific event, a particular point in his earthly life? Paul has Jesus' entire incarnation in mind, his entire life. He divested his resources and became poor for our sake. Paul spells it out in greater detail in Philippians 2:5-8: "In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing …." That's where it all began. Jesus is in heaven enjoying comfort and glory, and decides to give it away, so to speak, to leave it all behind to come to planet earth. This is the first point at which he makes himself poor. The passage continues: "by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness …" This describes Jesus at Bethlehem. Jesus was laid in a manger in a dirty, smelly stable, born to a poor, teenage peasant girl. But he's not yet done becoming poor.
"And being found in appearance as a man …" He lived a 33-year life as a Palestinian peasant, first as a humble carpenter and then as an itinerant Jewish rabbi. He healed people, taught people God's words in an oppressive society dominated by Roman tyrants, all the time having no place even to lay his head. That's what he told potential followers in Matthew 8:20: You want to follow me? I have no place to sleep at night, and you won't either. Do you still want to follow me?
But he's still not done giving up his riches on our behalf. "He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross." Jesus finally reaches the place where he lays down his very life to pay for our sins.
So in what sense did Jesus become poor for us? He did it again and again. He divested himself of his wealth, laid down his riches on our behalf.
Returning to 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul tells again why Jesus did this: "so that you through his poverty might become rich." He did all this so that you could become rich. You might ask, "Rich in what way?" Most importantly, spiritually rich. Rich in terms of a relationship with God. If Jesus ultimately hadn't given up his wealth by laying down his life at the Cross to pay for your sins, God would not have been able to offer you the gift of forgiveness. If Jesus hadn't laid down his riches on the Cross, God wouldn't be able to offer to you the opportunity to receive the gift of his salvation today—membership in his family with brothers and sisters, the Holy Spirit living in you, an eternal home in heaven, a clear path of answered prayer with a heavenly Father. All these spiritual riches are yours through Jesus, who purchased them by divesting himself of his wealth.
But God doesn't just give you spiritual riches. In Romans 8:32, Paul writes, "He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not, with him also, graciously give us all things?" I have no idea what Paul means when he says "all things." I just know that this God who wants to bless my life by giving me Jesus has a whole lot more in store for me as well. He wants to pour out his wealth on me. God is tremendously generous.
How do we respond to the generosity of God, the generosity of Christ, who gave it all away for our sake? Are we living life with an overwhelming sense of gratitude? The more consistently we express our gratitude to God, the more likely we are to follow in Jesus' footsteps, treating him as our generous role model. The opposite of that is also true, unfortunately. A lack of gratitude will result in a corresponding lack of generosity.
When my three kids were younger, one of our favorite summer evening activities was to jump on our bikes and ride over to Dairy Queen. We would order a hot fudge sundae, a cookie dough Blizzard, and a cone dipped in chocolate. I would always get the same thing: a hot fudge sundae. And I was always the first one to finish. I'd look around to see who was not done yet, and I'd say, "Can I have a bite or two of that cookie dough Blizzard?" Some of you parents know the instinctive reaction of your child. They pull back and say, "You already ate your ice cream." At this point moms and dads say, "You ungrateful child. Who gave you that cookie dough Blizzard? If I wanted a cookie dough Blizzard, I'd buy 12 of them. I don't need yours. I just want you to show some gratitude by giving me a bite or two."
There is a huge connection between expressing gratitude and generosity. If we want to become more generous people, we have to stand in the river of grace, recognizing that the headwaters of this river come from God. God has been, and continues to be, extraordinarily generous with us. The more we remind ourselves of that, the more consistently we express our gratitude to God, the more generous we'll be with others.
One of the best books I've read in the past five years was written by a 30-something-year-old farmer's wife, who was raising 6 kids and crops of corn in Ontario, Canada. This book became an immediate New York Times bestseller. It's called One Thousand Gifts. It's a book about gratitude. I made my grown kids read it in order to come on our family vacation last year. When they were younger, I used to pay them 20 bucks to read a good book. They read a good book and wrote a one-page report, and I gave them 20 dollars. Now I have to bribe them with family vacations. But I'm willing to pay to get them to read something like this.
So we read the book and discussed it together. Ann Voskamp, the author, explains her theme this way:
All my growing up years I was taught it's important to be grateful. I mean I heard it from my parents. I heard it from my teachers. I heard it from the pastor of the church I went to. But it never made me a more grateful person till finally one day I realized I got to do something about it. I got to work at being grateful.
She decided to start keeping a journal, a list of everything she saw in the course of a day for which to give God thanks. It could be the snow falling on a pristine winter day. It could be something in the life of one of her kids. I think most people who have read the book have been impacted by it. I've started keeping my own thousand gifts list.
We have to work at being gracious. If we'll work at expressing our thankfulness to God on a more regular basis, recognizing that the headwaters come from God, it will make us more generous in flowing some of those blessings downstream to others in our lives.
Our motivation is love.
Our role model for generosity is Jesus; our motivation is love. In verse 8, Paul says, "I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others." Paul is challenging the Corinthians to be more generous, but he doesn't do it by demanding things of them. Look again at the opening line of the verse: "I'm not commanding you." Paul knows you can't force people to be givers. Generosity has to come from within. People have to be motivated to give. Concerning motivation, Paul says: I'm going to test the sincerity of your love. Love is the motivation for generosity.
When he was writing this, Paul was collecting a famine relief fund. He was aware of the fact that there were destitute Christians in Jerusalem. They were dying of hunger. They didn't have the basic necessities of life. So Paul was traveling from city to city as he normally did, visiting churches, many of which he started himself. At every church he came in contact with, he collected an offering for those destitute believers in Jerusalem. He was collecting one big fund. He was about to come to Corinth and take an offering, so he wrote to them in advance. Why should they give generously to this fund? Paul supplied them with an answer ahead of time: Do it for love's sake.
But love for whom? Verse 8 doesn't say. Maybe he's talking about love for Christ. If you really love Jesus, then you'll give to other people. Maybe he's talking about love for himself. I'm the guy who pointed you to Christ, so if you really love me, you'll participate in my offering. But I think he has in mind the destitute Christ-followers in Jerusalem. If you really love these brothers and sisters—even though you've never met them—and you see how desperate their need is, then you'll give. The motivation for giving is a love for people who have both physical and spiritual needs.
A couple of years ago, we held a year-end campaign called Living Water. We raised money to dig clean-water wells in parts of the world where people are dying of thirst. This past year our project was called Proclaim, and we raised money for audio Bibles so people in West Africa, Sierra Leon, could hear the good news of Christ, because they're dying spiritually without a Savior. Which of those two campaigns do you think was sexier? Which had the most natural appeal: raising money for clean water wells or raising money for audio Bibles? The water, every time. Just show a picture of someone who looks like they're dying of thirst. But the more desperate need is for a Savior, because if you die without him, you go into an eternity without God.
We don't want people dying without Christ or dying without water. So our love for them motivates us to be generous givers. If we're motivated by love, we'll be givers.
Many of us assume that we would give more if we had a bigger income. But in truth, we would give more if we had a bigger love, because income never drives giving. Love does.
A few weeks before Christmas, there was a Republican presidential candidates debate in Des Moines, Iowa. In the course of that debate, Mitt Romney said something he regretted as soon as it came out of his mouth. And the newspapers made a big deal of this. One of the other candidates was heckling him on his record, and Mitt Romney felt that this other guy had his facts wrong. So he said to him, "I'll bet you $10,000 you're wrong." Immediately everybody was wondering, Who has ten thousand dollars to bet? This is Iowa where the average salary is $38,000 a year. You don't have people walking around saying, "I'll bet ya' $10,000." Nobody's got $10,000 to bet. We were tempted to write Romney off because he's so wealthy he can't identify with us regular people.
We do the same with generous givers. We're tempted to write them off. Our excuse is that people give generously because they have a lot of money to give away. If I had more money, a bigger income, then I'd do the same thing. But that sort of reasoning is absolutely mistaken. There are stingy people and generous people at every pay grade. The difference is love.
In fact, the apostle Paul drives home this point in verse 8 with a not-so-subtle comparison between the Corinthians, who were leaning towards stinginess, and folks who had already displayed great generosity. Look again at verse 8: "I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others." Who are the others that Paul has in mind here? The opening verses of 2 Corinthians 8 tell us who these folks are. They're believers. They're Christ-followers in Macedonia. Paul has already been to Macedonia. He's already collected an offering there, and they were extraordinarily generous with him. So now he's using them as an example to goad the Corinthians into giving. The Corinthians were relatively affluent. Corinth was an upper-scale city. The Macedonians were dirt poor. If you don't understand that, you won't understand the subtle dig in the opening verses of 2 Corinthians 8.
In verse 1, Paul says, "Brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches." Paul is bragging on the Macedonians here. Verse 2 says, "Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity." What do you get when you mix joy with extreme poverty? You get generosity. Verse 3 says, "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 saints." Can you imagine a church where people say, "Hey, don't skip the offering?" Wouldn't that be great? I'd love a church like that. "Drop any other part of the service, but make sure we have a chance to give."
With that in mind, we see in verse 8 Paul's not-so-subtle taunt. He's basically asking the Corinthians: Are you affluent Corinthians going to let the dirt poor Macedonians out-give you? If you let that happen, it won't be because they have bigger incomes. It will be because they have bigger love.
If we want to stand in the river of grace and channel some of the resources we've received from God downstream to others, if we want to become generous people, then our motivation must be love. Don't pray for more money to give away. Don't even pray that you'll become a great giver. Just pray that God will enable you to love other people. Then you won't be able to keep yourself from giving to meet their physical and spiritual needs.
Our goal is to excel.
I love watching people who have worked hard to excel, whatever their field. It may be a surgeon doing a delicate operation. It may be Tiger Woods sinking a birdie putt. It may be Leo Ahlstrom playing a lick on his guitar. I love classical music, and one of my favorite contemporary classical composers is a guy named John Rutter. John not only writes great music; he's also a highly respected conductor. He was conducting an orchestra playing one of the numbers that he composed. They finished the first movement, and the entire audience was digging it. They loved every note. But John Rutter turned around, faced the crowd, and said, "Do you mind if we do this again? I think we could do better." I've never been at a concert where a conductor did something like that. That's a guy who wants to excel.
Paul wanted the Corinthians to excel at something. We're now back at the opening verse of our text, verse 7. He says, "Just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness, in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving." He's saying: You Corinthians are good at a lot of stuff. Unfortunately, giving isn't one of them, so I want to challenge you to put as much effort into excelling at generosity as you put into excelling at other stuff.
If Paul spoke to you today on this topic, what would he say? "You're really good at tennis, but you're not that great at giving." Would he say that? Would he say, "You're really good at business? You're a great manager, but you're not really great at giving. Would he say, You're really good at homeschooling? or, You're really good at computers. You're really good at photography. You're really good at throwing a party. You're really good at watching football. But you're not that great at giving." I bet that you put a lot of time and effort into excelling at something. In fact, I'd be willing to bet "$10,000" that you do. How much time and effort have you put into excelling at generosity?
I teach on this topic from time to time at Christ Community Church. You will be happy to know I don't teach on this topic as often as Jesus did. If this topic makes you uncomfortable, just be glad Jesus isn't your pastor, because 16 out of Jesus' 38 parables have to do with people's possessions and money and how they use them. So if I taught on this as often as Jesus did, just about every other sermon would be on the topic of generosity and giving. I think that would thin the ranks pretty quickly.
When I've taught on generosity in the past, I've done so in a binary fashion. I've taught, you're either a giver or you're not a giver. And if you're not a giver, you should start giving. You're either in or you're out. But I was doing some reading in preparation for this series on the topic of generosity, and one author in particular struck me with a new thought. He gave me four steps to becoming a more generous person. Immediately I thought to myself, What a great idea—four steps. This isn't an in-or-out, on-or-off, give-or-not deal. This is something at which you become progressively better. This is in sync with what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 8:7: "I want you to excel at giving."
Four steps to generosity
I want to give you four steps to becoming a more generous person. You may not be ready for step four or step three or step two, but everybody is ready for one of these steps. So start wherever you are now.
1. Become a first-time giver.
if you want to excel at this grace of giving, start by becoming a first-time giver. Throw your hat over the fence. John D. Rockefeller was a wealthy man who gave away millions of dollars. He was one of the wealthiest men of his day. He was once asked, "How have you been able to give away so much money?" He said, "I could never give away millions of dollars unless I'd given away my first dollar." An old Chinese proverb says, "The longest journey begins with the first step." If you've never given a significant church gift, do it. What do I mean by a significant gift? If you think I'm going to put a dollar amount on this, you're nuts. I mean something beyond a loose change offering, something beyond a couple of singles that you pull out of your wallet. At least something as significant as what you spent on the two Blu-ray DVDs you purchased this week, or your visit to the hairdresser, or what you spent for this month at the health club.
I want to challenge you to make such a gift today. I thought about saying, "Do this next week," because we've already taken the offering. But if I send you home and let you think about it too long, you'll argue yourself out of it. So if God's prompting you and you're thinking, He has been pretty generous with me, and I want to love other people. I want to meet their physical and spiritual needs, and I've never been a giver, make this the day. Break the ice. Become a giver. If you're thinking, I didn't bring my checkbook—which is a safe thing to do, because if you bring your checkbook to church, you'll be tempted to give—use an envelope. You can take it home, write a check out in the next 24 hours, and send it in. Become a first-time giver.
2. Become a regular giver.
Most people who have half a heart feel generous from time to time. So maybe in spite of themselves at weak moments they scribble out a quick check, especially for special giving projects like Feed My Starving Children or for an earthquake relief in Haiti or Go Team trip to Appalachia. But then it may be months before they give again. I'm challenging you to stand in the river of grace. The river of grace is always flowing. You are constantly receiving blessings from God. Blessing may come in the form of a regular paycheck. To keep the river flowing with regularity, you need to continuously channel your gifts downstream.
If you've given on occasion but you're not yet a regular giver, begin giving regularly today. Not for forever. Not even till Jesus comes. But give for the next three months, until Easter. If you get paid once a week, give weekly. Twice a month, give twice a month. Once a month, give once a month. Whatever regular is for you, then do it. And if you get to Easter and decide this has been a waste of your money, then stop. If you haven't sensed any blessing from God in this, if you haven't sensed that it's kind of cool to be a generous person, then when Easter comes, you're off the hook.
3. Become a tither.
If you're a regular giver, bump it up to become a tither. Tithe means tenth—the minimal percentage of our income that the Bible says we're to give back to God. God says in Malachi 3:8 that if we give God anything less than a tenth of our income, we're robbing him. Those are strong words. I don't want to be in a position of robbing God. If I'm praying about anything in my life, if I want God's intervention in the smallest possible way, I don't want to come to God on my knees in prayer and hear God say, "You're robbing me right now." Two verses later, Malachi records God saying, "'Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse. 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.'" This is God's challenge. He's essentially saying: If you're giving two percent or four percent or seven percent, bring the entire ten percent in, test me, and see if I don't bless you with such abundance.
That doesn't necessarily mean that God will give us material wealth. There are other ways in which God blesses us. He says he will bless us to the extent that our lives won't be able to handle it all.
So my challenge to you is the same as to those who need to become regular givers. For the next three months, between now and Easter, tithe from your income and give it to the Lord. If Easter comes and God hasn't fulfilled his promise and your life doesn't seem better and you feel no closer to God, then give it up. And one day you'll be able to stand in God's presence, look him in the eye, and say, "That tithing thing didn't work."
I think tithers are the unsung heroes of the church. I want to brag on tithers for a moment. Someone sent me a link to a CNN video this past week, a news link to a big stadium event that took place in Atlanta, Georgia. Forty thousand young people, mostly college students and Christ-followers, gathered for this big crusade to stop sex trafficking in our world today. They were excited about justice and caring for people who have become virtual slaves. There are more slaves in the world today than in any previous time in history. So these young people wanted to do something about it, and the CNN report was highly complimentary as they showed young people lifting their hands in worship. They had these knockdown, drag-out worship times. They listened to speakers who addressed the topic of trafficking. And then they gave. This really impressed CNN. They said some of these young people gave about 50 dollars. They showed a cash register ringing up 50 dollars. And I thought to myself, Compared to their secular friends who never give anything to anybody but themselves, this is pretty cool.
Then I did a little math. Imagine two fictitious characters. We're going to call the first guy Luke. He's 27-years-old and has a job, but he spends most of his money on himself, on Starbucks and on jeans and on music from iTunes. He goes to the stadium event and feels the Spirit of God moving and thinks to himself, I need to give. He writes out a check for 50 bucks. CNN says, "Can you believe that?" And they splash it on the news.
There's another guy, 27-years-old, named Jason. Jason wasn't at the big event because he teaches second-grade Kids' World at his church. Jason is a tither. Suppose he makes $36,000 a year. I'm picking a number that's going to be easy to work with. And he tithes on that, which means he gives $3,600 a year. That's about $300 a month, about $75 a week. But Jason gives the money week after week because he's a tither. He gives it because he knows his church is doing all sorts of cool stuff. They have a youth pastor who needs to be paid, who hangs out with a bazillion middle school kids, shaping their young lives. He knows they have a Go Team trip that just left, a medical team that left for Nicaragua for a week. He knows that his church has a Celebrate Recovery program on Friday night that's trying to free people from their addictions. And he knows that his church does these bang-up Christmas Eve services where thousands of people from the community hear the good news of Jesus. Jason is never going to be on CNN. And that's too bad, because Jason is a hero. Tithers are people who make things happen at churches, so people's physical and spiritual needs are met.
4. Become an extravagant giver.
If you really want to excel at this grace of giving, become an extravagant giver. There are actually people who give over and above tithe. I can vouch for that. This is where the fun begins. This past year, with every check Sue and I got, we made a tithe to Christ Community Church, but during the course of the year we had a great time giving over and above that amount. We gave to a Christian camp in Northern Wisconsin that's having a huge impact in the lives of children, and we gave to Voice of the Martyrs, an organization that helps persecuted believers around the globe, and we gave to a friend of ours who has astronomical medical expenses because of his fight with cancer. We gave to an orphan in Haiti and two orphans in Bangladesh on a monthly basis, and the year-end giving opportunity came, for Proclaim, and we thought, Wow, we can take the good news of Jesus to Sierra Leon, villages that have never heard the gospel. Every check we wrote was a joy. We got a bigger kick out of those checks than any other check we wrote during the course of the year. Certainly it was more fun than writing a check for our electrical bill. But it was even more fun than writing checks to stuff we were purchasing for ourselves. There's no greater joy than giving.
If you're already a tither, my challenge to you is this: do something crazy. Some business owners in our church have decided to give not just on their own salary, but they tithe on their company profits. The Bible never tells you to do that. The smart thing to do is to take all the profits and channel them back into the business. I love seeing people go over and above because they're looking to excel in this grace of giving.
This is the first of a four-week series, and typically I like to ramp up week after week until the final week, when I issue the big challenge. But for some reason as I was preparing this sermon, God seemed to say, "No, bring it out at the beginning. Come out of your corner swinging." This is the biggest challenge you'll hear during this series. So if I've blown you out of the water, if I've made you extremely uncomfortable, I promise I won't challenge you again the rest of the series. (That was a joke. I probably will challenge you at some point.) But if we're going to look at this topic from different angles for four weeks, let's take on the challenge right at the get-go. I'm going to be praying for you as you take steps to excel in this grace of giving—for you to recognize the generosity of God toward you, for your heart to be filled with love for other people, so much so that you want to meet their physical and spiritual needs, and that you'll want to grow. You'll want to get better and better at this so that we can say, "Christ Community Church, you're good at a lot of things. And you know what? You're also really good at giving, every one of you."
Jim Nicodem is founder and pastor of Christ Community Church in St. Charles, Illinois.