Overflow - Challenging Generosity message by Lead Pastor Terry Brisbane. For more information, visit cornerstone-sf.org
The series, Generosity, is an overarching six-part series. My particular desire was to take the larger theme of generosity and gratitude and narrow it down to the idea of Christian giving. It was something I wanted to talk about. It’s part of the reason why I selected the passages that we looked at last week, we’ll be looking at this week and the week ahead. It was in my heart to create a bridge and talk about giving in relation to its blessing and opportunity, particularly as it pertained to giving within our church community. I want to be upfront about that. I don’t want to be ambiguous in any way. My purpose is essentially twofold, and I’ll just lay it out.
One is to encourage those who are followers of Jesus and committed to this as their home church, to continue to be faithful when you’re giving. Especially if it’s in relation to tithes and offerings to continue to exercise that. It makes a huge difference for God and the people that we’re trying to help and reach for Jesus. This is my deep conviction for ourselves and our life with God. I see this as connected to our wholeness and wellbeing. Secondly, it’s my desire to lovingly challenge other followers of Jesus. Those who don’t know about Christian giving and what the Bible teaches about it. Or have some idea of it, but have chosen not to make it a priority in our Christian life.
I think I need to make this equally clear is what I’m not trying to do is get anybody who is not yet a follower of Jesus or made a commitment, and I know there are some of us who are right there and just beginning to explore this, to commit to giving. I’m not interested in anybody who’s not made that leap or decision yet. If you’re a guest here, or a friend and you have no connection directly to our church, I’m not trying to get anybody to give any money to our church. That’s not my motive. I do have a sincere motive. There are certain principles that I do want to explore. I think they’re fantastic principles that are for all of us. I’m going to just mention three different places. The principles we’re going to look at are true, whether we’re a committed follower of Jesus, a nominal believer, or an inquiring seeker. When I say committed believer, I do not mean a perfect follower of Jesus. I don’t mean that there aren’t struggles. Anybody who’s serious about following Jesus is going to realize after any amount of honest time, that we’re going to need the Lord’s help in areas of our lives. We don’t even have our own capacity and strength to honor Him the way we should. We need grace.
We are wrestling, sincere, authentic, and honest. We have a desire, even if it goes against the grain of culture, and a sincerity about our faith that characterizes how we build our lives. It’s part of the reason why we come to the Lord’s house, as Jesus modeled. It’s part of the reason why we are giving attention and room to Him in our lives because we have committed ourselves to our beliefs. In other words, we have doubted our doubts and believed our beliefs. You ask, “What’s that other category? Did you mention committed believers? What’s a nominal believer?” Nominal means in name only, or in a small amount. Imagine we come to church and have our greeting time, and instead of saying our names as a way of introduction, you just tell them, “Just introduce yourself and then mention whether you’re a committed Christian, committed believer, or you’re a nominal believer.” “Oh, how you’re doing? Yeah, I’m a nominal believer.”
“What do you mean?” “I mean, it’s in name only, just a small amount.” “Really?” “Yeah, and I’m telling you the really cool thing about being a nominal believer is you don’t have to serve. You don’t give anything. You only show up when you want to if you’re interested. The other thing is it’s the way to go. You go to heaven and it doesn’t have to affect your life at all. You don’t even worry about it the rest of the week. I’m telling you being a nominal believer is the way to go.” The thing is, Jesus said He wants our heart even more than our sacrifice. One of the things He said was quoted from Isaiah. He said, “You honor Me with your lips, but your heart far from Me.” Before the Lord ever wants anything from us, He wants our heart. He wants us to engage His love. At the end of the day, without that, it’s just religious life insurance. “I’m covering my bases. I got it sealed on that end too.” I’m semi-jesting. I contend that we commit ourselves to integrating our faith and take seriously this life with Jesus. We do not let ourselves simply be a nominal Christian or believer in Jesus. We contend for something better than that because God created us for something far more than that. To do that is to reduce its meaning almost to something that has no value. It will not affect anyone for good, not for God. Let’s get into the teaching.
Last week we talked about this. So let me reset here. Paul was trying to get the Corinthian church to contribute to a fund he was raising for the beleaguered church in Jerusalem. It’s helpful to remember Jerusalem is still in the world. The area of Greece where the early church was planted is what we call Asian Minor in Turkey. Corinth was in the Southern part of Greece and was a prosperous church. They were blessed. They were a port city with all kinds of material blessings. There are churches in the north, Berea, Philippi, and Thessaloniki. Two of those are names of the epistles in the New Testament, Philippi or Philippians, and Thessaloniki or Thessalonians. They were the churches of Macedonia that Paul referred to. They were not well off. They were poor. The word we used last week was Bathos. In Greek, it means rock bottom part, they were poor.
Macedonia was so poor that when Paul initially was trying to create this fund to help the church in Jerusalem, who had been the mother church, thought they should not contribute to the fund. Jerusalem was predominantly Jewish, almost exclusively Jewish believers in Jesus. Whereas the other churches in Greece were mixed churches, predominantly Gentile. They had been coming into existence because the Jerusalem church sent Paul and a team to spread the message of Jesus. Now years have passed and Jerusalem’s suffering. They’re under persecution. The economy’s very bad. Paul says, “It would be a great expression of unity and generosity if the churches would rally together. All of those who were affected because of what Jerusalem did years ago. If we all rallied together and create a fund to help take some of the pressure they’re under off.”
Paul begins to appeal to the churches. His primary appeal goes to the more prosperous churches. Corinth is one of them. He doesn’t appeal as much to the churches in the north Macedonia area because he knows how poor they are. Part of his desire is not to add to their problems. Paul’s not trying to guilt them into giving more than he feels they can. That sets the table for what we looked at in the eighth chapter. We can see that in 2 Corinthians 8. Now, I have decided to approach what we read last week from a different translation. At least the opening piece from The Message translation. It is a lot more expansive and very gritty. It may not always be as precise, but it characterizes certain things about the passage that we explored last week in depth.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians about the fund. Notice what he’s doing. Corinth started to give, but then started dragging their feet, and wasn’t following through on their promise to help. Paul was a little bit frustrated with them. You can hear it. Paul refers to the fact that “Were you guys aware that the churches up in the north, who have nothing, have been amazingly generous? While it seems like for whatever the reason, you who have so much, are having a hard time responding. I don’t understand.” Let’s read it through what Paul says, “Now, friends, I want to report on the surprising and generous ways in which God is working in the churches in the Macedonian Province. Fierce troubles came down on the people of those churches, pushing them to the very limit. The trial exposed their true colors,” that’s what trials did. Then this phrase is almost paradoxical. It doesn’t make sense. It’s incongruous. He says, “They were incredibly happy, though desperately poor,” incredibly happy though desperately poor, how does that work? Incongruous? He’s writing to these followers of Jesus who are much more well-off, very urbane, and cosmopolitan, and says, “The pressure that they were under actually triggered something totally unexpected, I’m going to be honest with you.”
Even though they were in such dire straits, it triggered something totally unexpected, an outpouring of pure and generous gifts. “Now I’m telling you I was there and I saw it for myself. They gave offerings of whatever they could. They gave far more than they could afford. Pleading for the privilege of helping out the relief of poor Christians in Jerusalem. This was totally spontaneous and entirely their own idea. It caught us completely off guard. We weren’t prepared for it. What explains this is that they had first given themselves unreservedly to God and then us. That’s the truth. The other giving simply flowed out of the purposes of God working in their lives.”
What Paul was saying was they gave their hearts to the Lord and responded. That’s all, “It caught us off guard because honestly, we didn’t want them to give. We didn’t ask them to give. If anything, we were trying to shield them from feeling like they were obligated to give. We wanted you to give, but not necessarily for them to give. They’re the ones that ended up volunteering and said to us, ‘Do not leave us out of this blessing. We believe in what you’re doing, we want to get behind what you’re doing. Please don’t use our poverty as an excuse to cut us off from the blessing of giving.'” Paul says, “So that’s what prompted us to ask Titus,” Titus was a key member of his team, “to bring the relief offering to your attention. So that what was so well begun, could be finished up.” What Paul says at the bottom is, “You do well in so many things. You’re an amazing church. You trust God. You’re articulate. You’re insightful. You’re passionate. You love us now. Could you do this one thing? Could you do your best in this area too? Can you also be generous?” That’s what he’s getting at right now. Another parallel paragraph is in 2 Corinthians 8. Paul says, “I’m not commanding you to do this, but I’m your spiritual father. I planted this church. Do you remember that?”
Paul says, “I’m not saying you have to do this. I am asking you to do it. I’m testing you at some level about the genuineness of your faith and love by comparing it to the eagerness of the other churches. I think you need to hear that.” Watch what Paul does. It would seem as if Paul was saying, one, “You’re an amazing church. You’re very gifted and blessed, now follow through and be a blessing.” Two, “Just in case you haven’t noticed it, as an extra motivation, the churches who have so much less than you up north, they’ve already finished and given.” But you would think he would say, “Okay, that’s enough. Just follow through.” Paul doesn’t stop. He plays one more card. He anchors his contending love and argument towards them. His exhortation and encouragement are anchored with one more thing. He says, “Do I need to remind you about something? I think I should. You know, the generous grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ.” Paul is pointing to the ultimate example of gracious and sacrificial giving. He says, “You know the generous grace of our Lord, Jesus Christ. Though He was rich, yet for your sakes, He became poor. So that by His poverty, He could make you rich.” I love this verse.
It’s like Paul is saying, “I need to remind you that everything we have in Christ, from God, is a result of His astonishing graciousness towards us. I need to bring that up. I need to remind you of His astonishing generosity. Never forget that the Lord was rich. He came from above. God with us laid aside His glory.” If you read about it in Philippians 2, “He laid aside His glory, the privilege that was due Him, the deity that was His, and took upon Him the very nature the accouterments of His deity. He lays aside and takes upon Him the very nature of the creatures He came to save. He clothes Himself in the comparative poverty of humanity.” That’s what Paul says. Do you see that phrase, “Became poor?” That phrase can almost be translated as? “He beggared Himself.” That is compared to who He was and where He came from. He was like a beggar. That’s not even referring to the condition of His birth and the modesty in which He lived. He owned nothing. It doesn’t refer to how He dies, which is utterly shameful, naked on the Criminal Hill, totally taken advantage of. Paul is saying, “He became poor, that we, through His poverty was meeting us at our level. We might be given the enormous spiritual wealth that only He could give. God did for us what we could never do for ourselves. We couldn’t get to Him. He came to us. God gave His life for us. He pays it all, so that we might have that life.”
This ninth verse is the center of the gospel and not to be exaggerated, but Paul doesn’t stop. He says, “Based on who you are and the examples of the churches up north who have so much less, based on the extravagant generosity of Jesus, here is my advice.” Verse 10, “It would be good for you to finish what you started a year ago. Last year, you were the first who wanted to give and you were the first to begin doing it. Now you should finish what you started. Let the eagerness that you showed, in the beginning, be matched now. By your giving, give in proportion to what you have.” In other words, finish what you started. “Whatever you give is acceptable if you do it eagerly, and give according to what you have.”
Verse 12 says, “Not what you don’t have. I don’t mean that your giving should make life easy for others and hard for yourself. I only mean that there should be some equality. Give what you can in relation to what you have.” I don’t expect you to give what you don’t have. I’m asking you to do your part as your brothers and sisters in Macedonia did. Verse 14, “Right now you have plenty. You have a lot. You’re blessed. You can help those in need. Later, maybe they will have plenty, can help, and share when you need it. In this way, things will be equal.” Paul is saying, “Right now you’re blessed. Okay. Who knows? Maybe, later on, you’ll need some help. I would expect nothing less from them if you were in the need and had the resources to spare.”
Paul is reminding them, “This is the kind of church you are, live up to who I think you are. Follow the example of churches in the north who have so much less and gave. Don’t forget the extravagant example of Jesus. It’s the right thing to do.” Paul does one more thing. He anchors it back in time. Not all of us will know this, but many of us will, but in the older Testament, in the book of Exodus, there’s this moment where Israel has just been delivered out of Egypt under the leadership of Moses. This nation of slaves was freed for the first time in generations, out of Egypt, on their way to the Promised Land. They’re in the wilderness, wandering. They get to this place where they have no food. It looks like they might die. God says, ‘I’m going to provide.’ He gives them something called manna. It was a seed grain that they could make into bread. One of the things that happened there is Moses said, “Those of you who are strong, younger, and more physically able, make sure that you gather more than you need, so that you can help out those who are sick, older, and can’t do it on their own.” That’s why Paul says what he says. In verse 15, Paul says, “As the scripture says,” he’s talking about manna, “Those who gathered a lot, had nothing left over, and those who gathered only a little had enough.” Paul was trying to remind them, “remember what happened with Israel and the church in the older Testament. When it came to God’s provision, they all worked together.”
Paul says, “Do you realize that when the manna was sent, God said, ‘When you get that food, just remember no matter how much you get, the next day whatever’s leftover will be rotten. There’s no need to hoard it. It won’t last anyway.'” Be a blessing with what cannot last anyway. Let it speak. These are some of the things I was wrestling with. I’ll put them out, take it as we want. Here’s one thing I want us to consider in the few minutes we have left. A willing obedience is always better than an obligated one. There are some things we should do not because we have to, but because we get to. Paul is reminding them of what they should give. He’s giving them examples. I just laid them out for you. One, two, three, four, five, finishing up with the provision of working together. He’s just giving them examples. He’s appealing to them to act of their own volition, “I’m not going to make you do it. You’ve got to choose to do it.” It’s like he’s saying, “Love that is forced isn’t love. You’ve got to decide. You’ve got to jump in here.”
In verse 10, Paul goes out of his way to point out that the contribution to the relief fund is not something they’re required to do, but he is asking them to do it. It’s an overt appeal. Many of us get a lot of, if you’re like me, you get different kinds of newsletters, E-letters now, from a wide variety of ministries or nonprofit organizations asking for donations. Many of whom are doing great work. Especially once you’ve given, you tend to keep getting the letters. They’re asking for financial support. Sometimes it’s hard to know what we’re supposed to give to, in addition to our own local church, the family that we belong to. As I mentioned last week, I was taught as a boy by both Sunday school and my grandfather, “This is how you are to live your life son.” He taught me that for every dime you give a penny. When I had my first paper route, I tithed, I gave a 10th of my money. I’ve been doing it my whole life, based on Malachi 3, the Older Testament, and what Jesus taught us in Matthew 23:23. Also, on the basis of what Paul talked about, bringing our first fruits to the Lord’s house. I say that because now many times we have our giving time, and I understood that my first responsibility was to give to my home church. We have a very modest giving time in our church. That’s our tradition.
Now, more and more people are giving. This is something that’s a trend in the culture period, giving online directly. Many of us are doing that. A lot of you use a mobile phone app now. It is becoming the way we give. It’s in this real transition period that the offering time at the end of service is interesting. Not all of us are going to relate to this. But I still remember back when I was a teenager, as a youth pastor, hanging out with my grandfather in the late ’60s. I was in my early twenties. The tradition he came from and I was raised in, was very different than the tradition we have here. We’re a non-denominational Christian Church, built around a San Francisco expression missional. It is what we do. We try to represent His heart as part of His witnesses with many other churches in this city. We try to create a safe place to bring friends and family members, to at least talk about the Lord and hear things. At the same time, equipping us for our everyday life with God so that we can live out our faith and not be just a nominal Christian believer.
I grew up in a different tradition. It was what we call Pentecostal. I know not everyone would know what that means necessarily, but it’s highly emotive. It’s still part of who I am, to be honest. One of the things that happened was I would go with my grandfather to these camps. The only thing I can equate to what I would hear is if you’ve ever seen these tent revival camps, sometimes you’ll see them, from days gone by in the early days of Billy Graham and stuff. I would go to these camps and hear these people preach. One of the things I was struck by, even early on, is I couldn’t get over how long they would take with the offerings. I was shocked. I’m not joking. There’d be times where it almost equaled our entire service. I remember one time I was with my grandfather because my grandfather was old school. He had this principal, he said, “Terry, whenever you go to a church or a camp, anything you go to that represents the Lord,” he said, “Whenever there’s an offering time, you give.” That is what he told me and taught me. He modeled it. I was sitting there listening to this guy go on and on. He’s doing back flips was almost like an auction.
I’m listening to him and I say, “Gramps this is killing me.” Finally, the plate is passed. I’m watching my grandfather, thinking, “What are you going to do?” He pulls out money and he’s putting this in. My grandfather had this sense of humor. He turns to me, threw the money in, and he says, “I was going to give more. But the guy talked me in the giving less.” I was like, “Gramps, man, that was so good.” That’s so good. It reminded me of something Mark Twain was said to have said when he was dismayed by the long appeal for the offering. He said, not only did he, like my grandfather say, “I’m not going to give what he planned to give.” But Twain said, “The guy wore me down so much that when the offering plate went by, not only did I not give what I was planning to give, I decided I had to take some money out of there because he owed me for what he put me through.”
Number two, there are going to be times we’re going to be challenged to expand our trust base and our commitment to Jesus. The church at Corinth was really good. We all have strengths. We all have weaknesses. Anybody who’s sincerely trying to follow Jesus will find that there are areas in our lives that we struggle with. Then other areas come easy to us. We’re not all the same. It’s fascinating because the Corinthian church did some things well. Paul was saying, “But you guys have a weakness. For some reason, you struggle with generosity and your commitment to the Lord.” He says, “I don’t understand.” Paul was pointing out, “The churches who have far less than you have and the people there have such Liberty.” As a reminder, there are times when God will bring us into seasons where He is calling us to upgrade our life with Him. I tell my kids, at different times, I just had this conversation with one of them. I said, “Try something. I think one of the keys here is the Lord is trying to get you to address and manage your weakness so that you can soar with your strength. You’ve got gifts. Let’s manage these weak zones and try to get them into a place of stability so we can soar with the things God’s given us that come easy.” Sometimes God wants us to address things in our lives.
Last thing, number three, I’ll be honest, that’s what my grandfather used to say “Terry, don’t ever forget. You can never out-give God, ever. Don’t you ever forget that.” That’s what Paul was telling the church of Corinth, “Do you understand what Jesus did? Do you understand what we believe? For God to love this world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever would believe in Him would not perish, death would not be the final word but would have the gift of everlasting, eternal, overflowing, and the undying life of Jesus, now, and yet to come. That would be our promise and our heritage.” Jesus says, “In light of that reality, do not get consumed in this life. Only remember everything we give away in His name is not lost, but everything hoarded here out of selfish means is not going to be carried ahead. It’s what we do in Christ’s name that is sent ahead and our love for Him.”
It’s important that we listen, we doubt our doubts, and we believe our beliefs. We act as people who construct our life in such a way that it reflects what we say we believe about what Jesus taught us. What means something in life, is to disconnect from that and sometimes miss the point. Let us doubt our doubts and believe our beliefs. Let’s pray. Lord, I thank you for the time we’ve been able to share. I ask this word would grow in our hearts. I don’t know what you want to say, and You know what you want to say to us. We all have our weak areas. We all have areas You’re trying to challenge us in. You also have areas in our lives You’re trying to break us out into. Many times it’s our smallness that’s holding us back, or our doubt, our unbelief in You. It’s crunching Your ability to break us into new things. Sometimes it’s the obedience in one area that sets the table for the breakthrough in another. It’s how it works. The Corinthian church was responsive. In this, they were struggling to be responsive. May You help us, Lord, to respond to the promptings of Your Spirit. Give us an increased sense of faith so that we may, as we’ve been praying and talking about, doubt our doubts, and believe our beliefs. This is what I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.