Sunday, 18 May 2014

Giving for joy



Today I am going to speak a little bit more about giving

The passage we had read is Moses’ instructions to the people of Israel, telling them what they must do when they enter the Promised Land.

Now I am rather cautious about basing teaching on giving from the Old Testament.

In the Old Testament there are laws about giving. There are instructions about how much you must give, what you must give and when you must give. The most obvious law that we know is the law of tithing. The people were called to give one tenth of what they receive to God – although we are not sure whether that is once every year, or every three years (v12).

But as Christian believers we are not under the law.

It is significant that when Paul or the other apostles speak of giving, they at no time mention tithing. Tithing may be a good principle, and it is one that Alison and myself, and many people in our church, try to follow, but it is not a rule. Some of you will not be able to afford a tithe, and that’s OK. Others of us should be able to afford to give significantly more than a tithe. I remember when John Sentamu, the current archbishop of York, was made Bishop of Stepney – his salary increased. And so he pledged that he would twithe, give 20%

It is significant that in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 where Paul speaks most clearly of giving, at no point does he talk about tithing. Instead he speaks about the desire to give: ‘Last year you were the first not only to give to also to have the desire to do so. Now finish the work so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion.. For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what one does not have’ (v10ff)

We are not under law.  We are to be guided by the Spirit of God. And as a person grows in Jesus, as we allow the Spirit to speak to us, we will give more.

However, although there are big differences between the Old and the New Testament, there are several principals here which I think are important for us as we consider our giving.

1.      We give as a response to the goodness of God

The people make a declaration when they give. They say, ‘And now I bring the first fruits of the soil that you, LORD, have given me’. (v10)

The people give to God because they recognise that it is God who has first given to them. It is God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt, who has brought them through the wilderness, and who has brought them into the Promised Land.

And that has not changed. We give out of gratitude to God for all that he has given us.

What have we got that is not gift? Today we see the beauty of nature, bathed in light? What did we do to deserve that? We have life. We did nothing to deserve life. And what did we do in order to merit being born here and now, with the family background, opportunities and resources that we have? And if we have inherited money or property, how did we deserve that? And if we have worked hard and done good – who gave us the gifts that we have?

As Christians we believe that everything we have belongs to God and has been given us as gift – even our ability and our desire to give.

And Paul writing to the Corinthians reminds them of the goodness of God in not just giving us physical life, but also of the goodness of God in then giving us eternal life in Jesus.

‘For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that through you through his poverty might become rich’.

I really would recommend that before we decide what to give, we take time out to list down some of the blessings that God has given us in Jesus.

·         Acceptance and forgiveness – God knows us as we really are, and because of Jesus we are forgiven. We don’t need to prove ourselves to God, to other people or to ourselves
·         The liberation of confession – we can be absolutely real
·         New identity – as sons and daughters of God, as members of a new family.
·         New desires – I don’t know whether you have noticed this as you grow in your faith, but the things that you desire change. You begin to hate some of the things that you have done or are doing. You begin to hate some of the stuff that you are looking at or spending your time and money on – and instead you find that you are beginning to love the things of God.
·         New way of living – which is very different to the sort of lifestyle presented to us through social media, magazines or films. And yet we discover that as we live his way, there is a rightness about it which means that both we are blessed and others are blessed
·         New presence with us – growing consciousness not only of God the Father and of the Holy Spirit, but also of the Lord Jesus not only as my Lord and leader, the one who I seek to follow, but also as the one who calls me friend. There is a growing relationship with him.
·         The gift of praise
·         The privilege of prayer, of being able to call the eternal God our heavenly Father – and we can spend time with him. I was talking to a colleague who was a vicar who has now retired. She said, ‘One of the really great things is that now I am retired I have more time to pray’
·         The most amazing purpose now. Yes as Christians we may find ourselves doing boring and repetitive jobs which don’t really seem to be bringing blessing to others. But we have a second task, which is far more significant: your job is to make your enemies, or people you have never known, your friends for eternity by bringing them to Jesus
·         The most incredible future – of life with God. There are moments when that future breaks into the present: when we see miraculous healings, or relationships that we thought were hopelessy broken are restored, or the door to heaven is opened and we have moments of astonishing clarity

We have so much. And it is all gift. And we give to God because we recognise that all that we have is gift – It is a response to the goodness of God. 

David prays a famous prayer when people have given with incredible generosity for the building of the temple: ‘But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. Lord our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand and all of it belongs to you’ (1 Chronicles 14-16)

2.      We give the first fruits to God

Moses says, ‘Take some of the first fruits of all that you produce  ...’ (v2)

This is important.

In Genesis 4, Cain and Abel both offer gifts to God. Cain worked the soil. Abel kept flocks. They both bring a sacrifice to God. Cain brings some of his produce. Abel brings some of his firstborn as an offering. God accepts Abel’s sacrifice, but not Cain’s.

The NT tells us why. Abel’s offering was given by faith. In other words he gave it as a response to God’s gift. Cain gave for a different reason. We’re not told what it was. We are told that it came from a wrong heart: maybe he felt he ought to give, or maybe he was trying to bargain with God.

But there is another difference between the two gifts. Cain gives some of his produce. Abel gives of his first born.

Time and time again the command of the bible is that we are to give God the first fruits of our labour. [Ex 23:16,19; 34:26; Lev 2:12,14; 23:10,20; Num 18:12; Deut 18:4; 21:17; 2 Chr 3:5; Neh 10:35; Prov 3:9; Ezek 44:30]

The first child belongs to God – and a sacrifice needed to be offered to redeem the life of the child
The first colt, or lamb, or calf of any mother belonged to God
The first fruits of the harvest belonged to God.

It is a way of saying that if God is God then he must be first.
  
And I think that principle is carried on into the New Testament.

Believers are instructed that, on the first day of the week, when they gather ‘each of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with your income, saving it up ..’ (1 Cor 16:2)

I like that. You put something aside at the beginning of the week; you set it aside and you say that is for God.
It is the exact opposite of what many of us do: At the end of the week we think how much have I got left - and we give that.

Brothers and sisters, we claim to put God first in our lives. So could I urge us to consider our giving as the first of our items of expenditure. At the very least it should be up there with paying the rent or mortgage, the utility bills, paying off any debt and the pension provision.

And in our day when we can pay so much by standing order, and have internet banking, I would encourage you to sit down and think what you wish to give to the work of furthering the gospel here in this place, and to other Christian work, and then set up standing orders – so that it is done. Or if you use envelopes, decide how much money that you wish to give at the beginning of each week and month so that your giving to God is what comes first.

So that it is a first fruit and not an after-thought

3.      What we give is a token of ourselves

I note that at the end of this little ceremony of giving in Deuteronomy 26, the giver places the basket before the Lord and bows down before him.

In other words, the giver and the gift are one.  What we give really is a token of ourselves. When you place the offering in the basket, when you set up the standing order, you are offering yourself.

What we give is a window into our soul, and a picture of what God means to us.

In the book of Malachi, God challenges the people. He tells them you are giving me the rubbish animals in the flock, the ones that nobody wants to buy. I hate that, he says, because you are treating me as a fag-end God.

We’ll take the best out of life, and if there is a bit of rubbish that we don’t want, we’ll give it to God. It is a bit like our giving to charity shops. In most cases that is not really giving. It’s a useful and a good way of getting rid of the stuff that we don’t want anymore, but it is not usually giving. It costs us a bit of time and not much else

And when we give God our loose change, or when we give him our left overs, then it really is saying something quite significant about the part that God plays in our life.
If it is true of our money, it is probably true of our life.

4.      We give for the sake of joy

‘Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the LORD your God has given to you and your household’ (v11)

There is a fruit of giving.

It is not that we will get rich. I often quote the vicar who said to his congregation, and he was talking about tithing: ‘If you give 10% of your income to God then I can guarantee you this. You will be 10% poorer’.

No, the fruit of giving which comes from gratitude to God for what he has given, and which comes from a desire to put God first in our lives and to give him the best, is joy

It is the joy of beginning to see our money and our possessions in a completely new way.
It is the joy of seeing all things as gift
It is the joy and freedom of knowing that you do not need money to prove yourself; you do not need to put massive burdens on yourself and others in order to get more
It is the joy and freedom of knowing our heavenly Father’s provision – especially when we really do throw ourselves on him.
It is the joy and freedom of being content if we have much and content if we have little
It is the joy of being set free from the slavery of the pursuit of money and stuff.
It is the joy of knowing that we have a far greater security, than the security of money

The fruit and joy of giving is that when we let go of the things of this world, we see the things of that world far more clearly.


So could I again urge you to think very seriously about what you give to the work of the church. Yes, we do need an increase in general giving by at least £24k if we are to get a second minister. But I am asking you today to consider giving for your own sake 

-          Because everything you have comes from God
-          Because we want to give God the best
-          Because what we give is a token of ourselves

-          Because we need to learn to let go of the things of this world for the sake of the joy of the next. 

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