“The Grace of Giving”
2 Corinthians 8:1-9, 9:6-8
August 16, 2009
All of us, unmotivated to give, need grace abounding.
I. Grace like theirs – the gift of willingness (2 Cor. 8:1-5)
II. Grace like His – the gift of excellence (2 Cor. 8:6-9)
III. Grace like yours – the gift of cheerfulness (2 Cor. 9:6-8)
Ebenezer Scrooge is one of the great characters in English literature. Or maybe he’s one of the great caricatures. Charles Dickens was a master at taking a character quality common to many and amplifying it and distorting it, so as to get the humor out of it and to drive home a message. My favorite film version is the Muppets Christmas Carol in which Michael Cain plays Scrooge and Muppets play most of the other characters. Dickens, played by Gonzo, explains the caricature: “He was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone Scrooge! A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching covetous old sinner.”
Talking to his nephew Scrooge says “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.” When a couple of gentlemen seek a gift to the poor he says "Are there no prisons?" "Plenty of prisons." "And the workhouses? Are they still in operation?" "They are," returned the gentleman. "I wish I could say they were not. A few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. What shall I put you down for?" "Nothing!" Scrooge replied.
"You wish to be anonymous?" "I wish to be left alone," said Scrooge. "I don't make merry myself at Christmas and I can't afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned - they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there." "Many can't go there; and many would rather die." "If they would rather die," said Scrooge, "they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population.
I’ve often said that we need to identify with the flawed fallen people in Scripture. We’re all Abraham, struggling to learn trust; we’re all Jacob, walking with a limp from our sinfulness; we’re all Peter, impulsive and unreliable. And though he’s not in Scripture, I think we’re all Scrooge. Our fallen nature is selfish and greedy. We want money for what it can buy, for the power we think it gives, the freedom we think it offers, the security we think we gain.
So we may be a bit like Scrooge. He’s a caricature of me. I don’t want to give my money away; I need this money, to pay my bills; I need this money, in case something happens; I need this money to take care of the future; I need this money to do a something for myself. I’m Scrooge, “a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, clutching covetous old sinner.” And I wonder, if you really look at yourself, whether you have some Scroogey reluctance too.
The Apostle Paul knew people like that, who may have wanted to give but weren’t doing it. He brings this up in 2nd Corinthians 8-9, and gives a stirring call to generosity. This morning as we examine that call, we’ll find a wonderful thing: giving is by grace. It’s not something we do ourselves; it’s from God’s generosity. I believe all of us, reluctant to give, need abounding grace.
I. Grace like theirs – the gift of willingness (2 Cor. 8:1-5)
Let’s begin with chapter 8, verses 1 to 5, where Paul points to grace in giving the Corinthians an example of the giving of others. 2 Corinthians 8:1
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. 5And they did not do as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will.
Paul uses the word grace six times in these passages. In verse 1 the giving of the Macedonian church is described as God’s grace to them. If grace is God’s free gift, God’s generosity, Paul is saying that God was graciously at work so that the Macedonians were able to give. When they saw the grace of God toward them their natural reluctance to give was overcome, overwhelmed.
And they had every reason to be reluctant: Verse 2: Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. The churches in Macedonia, the northern part of Greece, were born in trial: Paul was persecuted from the beginning, as were the churches of Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea. What’s more, these northern churches seem to have been made up mostly of slaves and the poor, living in extreme poverty.
So there was no good reason for these people to be generous. Yet, by God’s grace their overflowing joy overflowed in generosity. What a tremendous word this is to us: not about generosity, but about joy. Could it be we’re reluctant to give because God’s grace doesn’t awaken in us an overflowing joy? Don’t we realize how much he loves us? Don’t we realize how much he gave us?
It’s like a love story. If the Prince, the King’s wonderful son, had stepped down from the throne, and sought us in the most forsaken corner of his kingdom where we dwelt miserably in a pigsty; if he’d given his all to free us from our pig-keeping and brought us back to his father; if he’d set us beside him on the throne and devoted himself to us every day, would we not love that prince with overflowing joy? The reality is greater, yet our joy is less. If we want less reluctance to give, we need to cultivate the joy of our salvation.
The Macedonians, Paul says, out of God’s grace to them, out of overwhelming joy, despite trials and poverty gave as much as they were able and even beyond. They went above and beyond the call of duty. Common sense is the enemy of generosity: it always says ‘You can’t afford to give that away.” But like the widow who put in all she had, the Macedonians gave beyond their means. Do we ever do that? Wouldn’t it be foolish? And would we have a different answer if we received God’s grace with overwhelming joy.
So desirous of serving God in this way were the Macedonians that they “urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints.” They begged for the grace of addressing this need. They had received grace from God that compelled them to no longer be Scrooge. Now they were overflowingly joyful at the thought of giving, but they need Paul’s grace, his favor, his gift of permitting them to do so despite their own poverty.
I heard a story about a poor lady, a new believer, who wanted to give a gift to Jesus at Christmas. She had few skills, but she went to the market and asked at the produce stand if there was anything she could do. The man told her if she’d take old newspapers and stitch up them a certain way, he’d buy them for less than a penny to bag fruit. The old lady had arthritis; she could only work very slowly. On Christmas she came to church clutching her offering. She turned it in, beaming. “Guess what I did? I earned 58 cents to give to Jesus!”
So the Macedonians begged for the privilege of helping the poor believers in far off Jerusalem. The offering was to help relieve a severe famine. As early as Acts 11 the church in Antioch, the first major Gentile church, had begun giving to believers in Jerusalem. Now Paul is gathering gifts from a wider group of Gentile churches to meet those ongoing severe needs in the body.
Finally, the example of the Macedonians culminates in their submission “they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God's will.” What this means is they recognized that the financial giving in this set of circumstances was the will of God, expressed through Paul. So in giving they were submitting to God, to do his will in the body, and to his Apostle, who had established the particulars of that will.
What I’m saying is that our generosity is not only in response to God’s grace, but in response to God’s will, and the specific things we give to are a submission to the leaders who have tried to discern God’s will in requesting those gifts. Sometimes our reluctance to give uses the excuse ‘they don’t spend my money well.’ And we do have to use discernment, but we the example of the Macedonians is joyful response to the need God had laid on Paul’s heart.
So all of us who are reluctant to give – or reluctant to give more, or reluctant to give beyond – need grace abounding. We need the joy that overflows from a true recognition of grace. We need the willingness that can only come when we recognize that we are already utterly dependant on grace. We need the love that flows because we’ve been graciously rescued.
II. Grace like His – the gift of excellence (2 Cor. 8:6-9)
We need grace like theirs. Even more, we need grace like His – his selfless giving. Verses 6 to 9: So we urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part. 7But 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. 8I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others. 9For 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.
This collection for the needs in Jerusalem took a long time, by our standards. The year before, when Paul first wrote to the Corinthians he’d given instructions that they set aside money week by week so that the offering would be ready when Paul got there. But Titus apparently found that this beginning had not been sustained. So now Paul says to them ‘finish what you started’.
Paul says their task is an act of grace. We’ve already used this great image: God pours grace into us, and we pour it out to others, through the very practical approach of collecting money week by week and giving to those in need. This is still how we do it. One of the joys of my job description is distributing the giving you give to benevolence. Nothing could be more joyful or satisfying than the privilege of representing you in helping others.
And Paul isn’t shy about urging his readers to give. He compares this to the other expectations of the Christian life, and says ‘be good at this one.’ “Just as you excel in everything: faith, speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us - see that you also excel in this grace of giving.”
On the one hand this is a stirring report: they excel in these things; their faith and their love and even in their words and their knowledge. But it’s also a challenging exhortation: “excel in giving.” You can be highly proficient in the other areas of the Christian life, and because your pastor never preaches it, or because you’re reluctant, or because you’ve never tried, you can be mediocre or poor in this area of giving. Paul says to excel in this grace, this gift from God. Cultivate the gift, not to earn favor with men or with god, but as the overflow of your joy and love for God, expressed in practical caring.
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 isn’t embarrassed in his approach to motivation: ‘compare yourselves to the Macedonians.’ The believers in Macedonia poor. By comparison the believers in Corinth were quite well off: living in a center of trade and worship, it was easier to be financially secure in Corinth. So if the poor people could give abundantly out of their poverty, how much more could the rich give out of their riches.
I believe if Paul were here, he might do what I did this week, which was to glance through our giving records, covering the names, so that we might compare ourselves to the earnestness of others. What I saw was that there are some regular givers to this body who are giving above $20,000 a year. Other regular givers appear to be in the $600 a year range. And I know much of that difference is due to differing economic circumstances, but I share the range intentionally so that you can prayerfully evaluate your giving.
Next, Paul holds up Jesus as our example: “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.” Jesus’ love was expressed in selfless giving. Paul isn’t saying that Jesus had earthly riches and gave them up so we might have earthly riches. No, the riches of Jesus were in majesty and honor, glory and dominion and he gave these things up that we might have redemption and renewal and eternal life.
Paul explains this in the familiar words of Philippians: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 6Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 7but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross!” For our sake he became poor. This is the grace that gives itself away to save. We are to show love in the grace of giving, because Jesus expressed his love in the grace of salvation, in the grace of substitution. We should long to be even a little like him.
There’s an old story about a young man named Paul who got an automobile as a present from his brother before Christmas. On Christmas Eve, Paul found a street urchin walking around his shiny new car, admiring it. “Is this your car, mister?” he asked. Paul nodded. “My brother gave it to me for Christmas.” The boy looked astounded. “You mean your brother gave it to you, and it didn’t cost you nothing? Boy, I wish…” Paul knew what he was going to wish. He was going to wish he had a brother like that. But instead, the boy said, “I wish I could be a brother like that.”
III. Grace like yours – the gift of cheerfulness (2 Cor. 9:6-8)
That’s us – we should wish we could be a giver like Jesus: deeply desiring to be like him can go a long way to overcoming our reluctance. Finally, we can overcome our reluctance to give if we have the grace of cheerfulness through confidence in God.
These verses are near the end of the section on giving, chapter 9, verses 6 to 8: Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. 7Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. 8And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work
Paul begins with a familiar metaphor. In any agricultural society people know the tension of setting aside enough seed for next year. If you consume the seed this year, you are dooming next year’s crop. But if you keep the seed and don’t sow it, you’re also dooming the crop. If you sow just a little, you’ll get a meager crop, but if you sow much, you might get a great harvest.
So it is, Paul says, in this matter of giving. The reluctant part of us might consider it wise to give only from our excess, to hold back all that we judge essential because we’re going to need it later. But that’s not the way God’s economy, a grace economy, works. God is asking us to sow generously what we have now, trusting he will provide what we need later. He’s asking us to have confidence in His grace even as we open our wallets and our check books.
When you sow generously in material things, you reap generously in spiritual and even material ways. I’m not preaching prosperity gospel: you know that. But giving does have its rewards, its blessings. I remember in the years I worked at Exxon, we were able to budget a surplus in our giving plan. It was a great joy to be able to see a need and, with prayer, chose to help.
Verse 7 describes this kind of thinking about giving: “Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” The decision to give is rational, not implusive. Paul is giving the Corinthians time to think and pray. If the grace of giving comes from confidence in God, it’s a confidence of heart and mind acting together, knowing the numbers and choosing to trust in the generous creator.
And this grace giving is not to be done reluctantly. We’ve said we’re all Scrooge. We’re all reluctant to give and likely to look out for our own interests above the interests of others. But the flow of God’s grace, the joy overflowing in our lives, the confidence we have in his goodness, the love we want to express to him, the hope he gives, these thing overcome reluctance.
If I can speak personally for a bit, I want to tell you I love my wife. And one day while we were in Nova Scotia in July, I had the great joy of really making her happy, a happiness I could see in her face and her eyes and hear in her voice. Now I spent a good deal of money to get to that moment, though not extravagantly. But I didn’t care how much I’d spent when I saw it gave her joy. Any reluctance to give was overwhelmed by the desire to express love. All of us need God’s abounding grace, not because of the resources it gives us, but because of the freedom it gives us to express our love to him.
So our giving is rational, but not reluctant, and not under compulsion. No one can make you give by grace, no one can make you overflow. If you’re an empty vessel, I can shake all I want, and nothing comes out. Only God by grace can fill you to overflowing. Only God can make you a cheerful giver.
It’s all about grace, and the last verses applies it to all of our lives. “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” If you want a verse to memorize, do this one – or these three.
The word abound is fantastic: grace ‘abounds’ to you. The Greek means super-abundant in quantity or superior in quality. It implies an excessive amount, more abundant than expected. It implies having enough and to spare, to exceed, to excel, to increase. God’s grace abounds. He has supplied all we need and to spare in Jesus. He is miserly in nothing toward us. And he wants to pour that out every day so that we will have all we need, and so that we will overflow in joy toward others. God’s grace abounds so that we abound.
The other fantastic thing is the layering of this promise: in all things, at all times, having all that you need. Its three phrases stacked on each other. God’s grace is sufficient all the time and in every circumstance. Because God is caring for you in every circumstance, 24/7, you can give generously and cheerfully.
This is what we see in ‘A Christmas Carol’. Ebenezer Scrooge is convinced of the rightness of generosity and instantly begins giving. Dickens ends by saying “Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew.”
Our reluctance can change, by the overflow of God’s grace. In fact, God’s grace is sufficient for every good work. We’ve called this series ‘faith works’. We said the first week that the expectations of the Christian life are met not as a result of what we do from ourselves, but are God’s work in us, re-creating us in Christ Jesus for good works which he prepared in advance for us to do.
This verse brings that argument full circle: God’s grace is sufficient for generous, confident, cheerful giving, but also for all the other expectations we’ve studied. God’s grace abounds to give us compassion; God’s grace abounds to give us lives of prayer and praise. God’s grace abounds to transform us by his Word and by His Spirit. God’s grace abounds in the fruit of his Spirit. God’s grace abounds so we can love one another.
God’s overflowing grace abounds to you so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.