“The Greatest Thank You Note Ever”
November 25, 2007
Let God be at the center of your receiving, your giving and your thanks-giving.
I. The secret of contentment. (Philippians 4:10-13)
II. A history of generosity. (Philippians 4:14-16)
III. An offering to God. (Philippians 4:17-20)
I’m truly glad to be able to share with you today an unexpected and comforting discovery: the blogosphere is filled with stories of God’s provision. For those not into the internet, the blogosphere is the universe of blogs, and a blog is a web page where a person posts their personal opinions and accounts.
I have a pastor’s blog, and many of you have read it. Well, this week I used Google to search for the phrase ‘God’s provision’, and many of the results were links to blogs where individuals had recorded God’s goodness to them. Some were just classic.
Kathy writes: “We were a young married couple and I was very pregnant. My husband was not well and I guess it showed – this was when he was having many problems from the muscle disease. We went to eat at a local restaurant after church. When we finished I started looking for money in my purse, fearful that I might not have enough to pay for it.
But when the waitress came back to our table she didn't have a bill. She told us someone eating there wanted to pay for our meal anonymously. Wow! We couldn't believe someone who didn't even know us would pick us out of a crowd and pay for our meal. It was really a great blessing. Our meal was provided for us at just a time when we needed it most.
This blogger has a clear understanding of God’s provision. She writes: “Isn't this what Jesus has done for us? He does know us, each of us, and he has picked us out and paid the price that we owe for our sins.” Exactly: God’s small provisions for each of us should cause us to praise and glorify him for all of his provision, especially his provision in Jesus.
This blog, and others we’ll see, and Paul’s teaching in Philippians 4:10-20 have one common characteristic - that God is at the center of the celebration. In fact as we look at this text I think it encourages us to let God be at the center of our receiving, our giving and our thanksgiving.
I. The secret of contentment. (Philippians 4:10-13)
God is at the center of our receiving when we learn the secret of contentment. Philippians 4:10-13: I rejoice greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you have been concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13I can do everything through him who gives me strength.
We’ll be looking at excerpts from Paul’s letter to the Philippians all through the holidays this year. So you have to know a little background. Paul is in prison in Rome, almost certainly the imprisonment recorded at the end of the book of Acts.
Philippi is a city in northern Greece, Macedonia, where Paul first brought the Gospel to Europe. The church he planted in Philippi has often sent him missionary support. Hearing of his imprisonment, they took a special offering. One of their members, Epaphroditus, carried the gift to Rome and has returned with Paul’s thank you note.
But Paul, being Paul, can’t limit himself to a simple thank you. He spends the first three chapters praying for the Philippians, telling them his circumstances, celebrating the work of Jesus and encouraging them to pursue the Christian life with peace and joy. Only now, ten verses into the last chapter, does he get to the thank you part. And even this is not a traditional thank you because it is so focused on God.
So he says ‘I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you have renewed your concern for me.’ Paul rejoices, which is characteristic of this letter, but he rejoices in the Lord. This is not mere human happiness driven by circumstance: this is godly joy driven by our relationship with our Savior. Experiencing this blessing from the Philippians warms Paul’s heart in the presence of God, for his own sake and for their sake.
I rejoiced in the Lord that ‘at last’ you have renewed your gift. The ‘at last’ troubles some because it sounds a bit like ‘well finally’. That’s not what Paul means. He’s simply saying that because of the distance and circumstances it had taken a while for the gift to reach him. But the delay is not their fault: “Indeed you have been concerned but you had no opportunity to show it.” It’s likely that they didn’t know where Paul was during his long imprisonment in Syria and erratic journey to Rome. They had no opportunity to provide for him until they found out his circumstances.
Paul doesn’t want them to think it’s their fault, and he doesn’t want them to think he despaired because no gift came. Verse 11: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” Paul is telling us the great secret of God centered receiving: he sees all his circumstances as an opportunity to practice contentment. One of the best definitions of contentment is ‘being satisfied with things as they are’. Paul is saying ‘I’ve learned to be satisfied with things as they are’. I don’t blame God or others even when I am in need; instead I am at peace with God and others.
Verse 12: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.” ‘To be in need’ is literally ‘to be humbled, to be brought low’. Paul reluctantly catalogued his many seasons of need and deprivation in 2nd Corinthians. But he’s also had times when God gave him plenty: abundance, fullness. It’s cornucopia: ample provision from God’s unlimited supply.
The Greek word is at times translated ‘left overs’, like the abundant left-overs when Jesus fed the five thousand, or maybe after your Thanksgiving dinner this week. As you pushed away from that table I hope you knew how to be in abundance: that is, to be God centered, to see it all as graciously provided by God, not because you deserve it but because he lovingly gives it.
Paul says “I’ve learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” The word Paul uses for contentment is one normally associated in Greek culture with stoic self-sufficiency, but Paul isn’t using it that way: he’s saying ‘God has shown me the secret of self-sufficiency: it’s God dependence’: I can do all things through him who gives me strength. I can be in need and not have it devastate my faith or my living because God strengthens me to deal with it without worry, frustration or despair.
This was a lesson Paul had learned in his need that he wanted to share with the Philippians who had reason to be concerned and anxious about their own needs.
So this is a lesson on receiving. Whether receiving a gift from a generous benefactor, or simply receiving what seems to come to you in the normal course of life, we need to be God centered about it: plenty and need both come from his hand and he is the one who strengthens us in either circumstance. One of the blogs I read was by a mom named Deb. Her husband’s real estate work was very slow one summer, and by August they were way behind. Then Deb got a call to fill in at a day care center.
At first she thought this an interruption to her end-of-summer plans, but “suddenly it came to me: God was providing for us--through me! That wasn't at all what I expected (or desired, to be truthful.) But there was the answer, and just in the nick of time too because we were nearing the end of the month and things were not looking good. I changed my attitude and took this job with gratitude.”
God is at the center of all the ordinary and extra-ordinary provision in our lives. And God’s provision is truly cornucopia - it cannot be exhausted. Human means can be exhausted: you may not know where the next dollar is coming from. But God knows and he cannot run out of means. The secret of contentment then, is dependence: I can do all things through him who gives me strength. God is the central focus of our receiving because ultimately all good comes from his hand.
And remember, even if we have trouble and hardship, we have already received the ultimate good in trusting Jesus: our sins have been forgiven, our souls cleansed, our selves adopted by a loving Father and our future revealed: eternal life together with him. No hardship of the moment can compare with the good things we have already received and with the promise of eternal goodness to come. We endure all things here and now because he gives ‘strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow’.
II. A history of generosity. (Philippians 4:14-16)
Given all this truth, it makes sense to be generous. And the Philippians have a great track record. Verses 14 to 16: Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. 15Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; 16for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again when I was in need.
Paul never actually uses the word ‘thank you’ in this thank you note, but he communicates the idea clearly. In Verse 14 Paul admits that though he is content in every situation, it was good of them to share ‘in his troubles’. Their gift helped him in a time of affliction and stress. And they have a history of generosity, which is the best evidence that God is at the center of their giving. Verse 15: “In the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only.”
Paul arrived in Macedonia on his second missionary journey, and stayed in Phillipi until driven out. From there he went to Thessalonica, Berea and ultimately Athens and Corinth. Reflecting on that time, he remembers “for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid again and again.” The church at Philippi, young though it was, already had the mind-set of giving, and made it a habit.
Paul testifies about them to the Corinthians twice. Listen to what he says. 2 Cor. 8:1-4 “And now, brothers, we want you to know about the grace that God has given the Macedonian churches. 2Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. 3For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, 4they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.”
Whoa: in the midst of affliction, they gave. In the midst of extreme poverty, they gave. That word poverty means poverty; they were poor people; dirt poor by any standard in this room. And yet in overflowing joy they overflowed with generosity. They gave more than reason said they should; they gave beyond their ability. Anybody looking at their individual finances would say ‘you’re crazy!’ but they gave anyway. They begged for the opportunity to give.
Again, in 2nd Corinthians 11, Paul testifies to another occasion of Philippian generosity when he first preached the Gospel in Corinth: “Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge? 8I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you. 9And when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed.” There they are again, those generous brothers from Macedonia - those Philippians.
And there is still generosity like that out there. One of the best stories I found was about a church in Techiman, Ghana. A missionary church planter named Steve Volante writes: “We have been praying for over two years now that God would give us the means to build a building in Techiman. Our church has given sacrificially to missions knowing that we could not afford to build our own building so we might as well give all we have to push the mission works and trust God for a miracle.”
“During the conference in Mexico, a dear friend of our ministry told me God had laid it on his heart to give the first $50 towards the building in Techiman. Knowing this man and God's hand on his life, I was just a little disappointed; and it showed in my eyes. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Steve, what's the problem? You don't look too happy with the $50 gift!" I responded, "Well brother, it is going to take a lot of $50 bills to build the building. He laughed and asked, "Steve, would it matter to you if the $50 I have promised was a gold coin?" In ignorance I replied, "Well, Brother Phil; gold, silver, copper, or paper – 50 bucks is 50 bucks."
His smile was from ear to ear. "You don't know much about gold coins, do you Steve?" "No," I replied. After a five minute class on "coins for dummies" I learned that this coin was minted in the 1800's during the California gold rush before the U.S. mint could catch up with the growing needs. So the Californians began to mint their own. Phil said that this $50 coin was the rarest and most valuable of all territorial coins. He’d bought it for $80,000 a few years back, and hoped it had increased in value, so it could be worth $100,000. Hearing this, I suddenly became disoriented.”
Steve's Followup - April 2007; Easter Eve as I was preparing for a great day of worship in Techiman, I received a phone call from Dr. Mike Patterson assuring me of his prayers for the coming day. He also told me I needed to call Phil, "the coin man". Over the next few minutes, Phil told me the whole story, how God had answered our prayers and a buyer came before the coin even went to auction. If I heard Phil right, and I hope I did, he told me the coin sold for $150,000. Cement in Ghana has gone from just over $6 per bag to about $11 per bag. We knew the $100,000 would not be able to finish the building, but so did God! Please praise the Lord with me.”
I love that story, partially because I was able to verify that these beautiful coins do sell for between $100,000 and $250,000. But you don’t have to be rich to have a history of generosity. The Philippians were poor. And when Trinity set out to buy this building we were poor: we had zero dollars in our building fund on September 30th, 2001. But on November 18th, 2001 we took a special offering not too different than the offering we’re taking today, and on November 19th we had cash gifts and pledges totaling $170,000 dollars. Trinity has a history of generosity.
Now obviously part of the reason I’ve chosen this passage is because of the special offering today. We’re only trying to raise about a tenth of that historic gift, but the purpose is just as noble. As I said in my thank you note from that offering “My prayer is that we would all grow to maturity in Christ, and share his love with more and more people who need to know him and to grow in him.” That’s the same vision the Oak Creek core group is attempting to carry outside these doors. It was a worthy vision in 2001 and it is a worthy vision in 2007, and my prayer today is that God would again be glorified as another chapter is written into the history of generosity here at Trinity Fellowship.
III. An offering to God. (Philippians 4:17-20)
God is glorified when we are God centered in receiving; he’s glorified when we’re God centered in giving; he’s glorified when we’re God centered in thanksgiving. Look at Paul’s example in Philippians 4:17-20 Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. 18I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. 19And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. 20To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Generosity is not only a good thing for those who receive - it is also good for those who give. Paul says that in this giving there is a profit which accrues to their account. He’s using the language of accounting to describe a spiritual transaction. Jesus did the same thing, saying “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal. 20But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
There is a benefit to giving. I disagree with those who say giving is a business contract in which God is obligated to give you more than you’ve given. But I don’t dispute that there is a benefit to giving - it’s just often spiritual. What could be more of a blessing than becoming more like God who loved the world so much that he gave?
In verse 18 Paul expands on his thankfulness: “I have received full payment and even more; I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent.” ‘Hey guys, you’ve really made a difference - you’ve been God’s cornucopia to me in my need: I’m amply supplied; I got an abundance.”
But instead of saying “you guys are wonderful he says ‘you guys have pleased God’. It’s a God centered thanksgiving. Your giving, he says, using the language of the Old Testament is ‘a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God’. A literal translation is quite stacato: odor; fragrance; sacrifice; acceptable; well pleasing to God. It’s almost like Paul is being a cheerleader here, but instead of shouting out his thanks to the Philippians, he’s telling them how God feels about it.
It’s all about God, verse 19: “And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” Paul does not say ‘man, I’m going to do something nice for you sometime’ - which is what we would be tempted to say. No, he says: ‘God to whom you’ve given is the inexhaustible cornucopia of your life. He will supply your every need, large and small. Not necessarily your every want, because wants can be misplaced: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to my children: “stop wanting”. But even there, God as a loving father will often out of sheer kindness give us not only what we need but also what we want, if it’s good for us.
But he definitely supplies our needs, with a huge priority on meeting our spiritual needs- our need for dependance, trust, Christlikeness and growth in grace. He himself meets those needs. He meets our physical needs. He meets our emotional needs ‘according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.’ Who can exhaust God’s riches? Who can exhaust God’s glory? Who can exhaust Christ Jesus? Not you, friend, not me. We can give with confidence because we can’t out give God. Moreover, we can live with confidence because we can’t out give God. If we measure things by human standards our needs and the needs of those around us and the needs of ministry will overwhelm us. But if we measure by God’s cornucopia standards, our needs are minuscule by comparison: God effortlessly supplies them all.
It’s all about God. Verse 20 “To our God and Father be glory for ever and ever.” God is at the center of our receiving, our giving and our thanksgiving.
I’ve had one story of extraordinary provision - I want to close with two stories of very ordinary provision. The first involves a young couple going to seminary - and no this is not from my past, it’s from a current blog by Josh and Rebecca:
“I am astounded by God's provision! Granted, He is King of the Universe and He is good and He is completely capable of keeping any promise (in spite of circumstance). And He DID promise to take care of us. Still . . . the way He works out the details doesn't cease to amaze me! During our recent cross-country trip the "check engine" light came on in our vehicle. The timing was less than ideal and we simply couldn't do anything about it where we were. So we drove on home and hoped for the best.
“As you know, we're a seminary student family; not going to be making any appearances on "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" any time soon. I'm not complaining but simply stating the obvious: that fixing the car presented a serious monetary inconvenience. More than that, we hadn't planned for this trip (most funerals are like that) and had missed a great deal of work. So . . .
We arrived home and found several "interesting" pieces of mail. Among them was a warranty coupon from the car manufacturer saying we could take it to any certified dealer to have x, y, and z done for free. So we did. Turns out "x, y and z" fixed everything! Isn't God's timing incredible!? He had solved the problem (put the coupon in the mail) before He gave it to us. We can trust Him with anything!
God centered thanksgiving. The last story focuses on God centered giving and receiving, at a very basic level. It’s a reminiscence by a blogger named Paula Moldenhauer. She writes “I remember squirming in my seat at church as the usher collected an offering. I only had one dollar, and didn’t know when I could get another. I wanted to give something to God—but I had no change, nothing but that bill.”
“I fought with myself as the usher drew closer to my seat. It was all I had! Surely, God didn’t want me to give it up! But in my little girl heart I wanted to be bigger than my selfishness. I wanted to trust God with all I had. I fought with myself until the last minute, then dropped the money in the plate just as it passed me.
“Later that day, my grandma took me “out back” behind her house. I remember the creak of the screen door and the coolness of her covered back porch. “Now you don’t need to tell anyone about this,” she whispered, as she slipped a dollar bill into my hand. I remember looking down at the bill, wondering if she knew I’d given my last one at church that day, or if God had just whispered into her heart that He wanted me to have one. I never asked her—just took her gift, wrapped her in a hug, and thought about how you couldn’t out give God.”
You can’t out give God - he’s the cornucopia. Let’s make him the center of our receiving, and of our giving, and of our thanksgiving.