Raven Cannon, Children's PastorAugust 19, 2019
How can we live more generous lives? Guest Speaker David Brickner illustrates how by using the early church as an example.
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It’s good to see you all on this 4th of July weekend and to continue in our series on Rise, where we’re asking the question and finding out how this small group of Jews for Jesus, Peter, James, and John and their friends, grew to become the most global, far-reaching, amazing transformative power in the history of humanity. We’ve been looking at different characteristics. If you notice, one of them is the title of my talk, Rise Up in Generosity.
On a weekend where we’re celebrating freedom and liberty, I would like to suggest that it is in fact generosity as a characteristic that is the pathway, the key to a life of freedom, to a life of liberty, to a joy-filled existence. After all, have you ever known an unhappy generous person? I think it was Anne Frank who said “No one ever became poor from giving.” In fact, cultivating generosity in our hearts enables us in the end to have a much broader impact than we would otherwise because it enlarges our hearts to care for others and to experience even greater the generosity that God wants to give.
Think about our unity with Jesus. He is the most generous person that ever lived. He gave it all. Because of our connection to Him, we can be generous. It’s an amazing thing that one of the characteristics of the early church was amazing generosity. Historians and social scientists have wondered why did the church, this little group of Jewish people, become so quickly scattered, impacting the Roman world. In fact, one of the reasons that they’ve landed on this idea of generosity is Christianity spread because it was a generous group of people in contrast to the lack of generosity that was the norm in the Roman world.
Roman Emperor Julian wrote about the early church. He said, “The impious Galileans, they support not only their own poor but ours as well.” Think of that. They became known as people who ran toward the plague. There were often plagues that would hit because of sanitary conditions in cities. The cities would become hotbeds of plague. But the Christians often at early points were blamed for starting plagues, and they were persecuted as a result. Ultimately, that charge didn’t hold, because people were saying, “No, these are the guys that are going there to help people who are suffering.” Historian Rodney Stark wrote in his book, The Rise of Christianity, that “Christians stayed in afflicted cities when pagan leaders, including their own physicians, fled.”
We see that to this very day. When the Ebola crisis hit Africa, who were the ones that went? You see it in Time, Newsweek, and all the papers, these Christian missionaries and medical doctors going to where the plague is. This kind of generosity has marked the church. Helmut Tester, who’s the New Testament Professor at Harvard Divinity School, wrote this. “Christianity really established a new community and a realm of mutual social support for the members that joined the church. I think that this was probably, in the long run, an enormously important factor for the success of the Christian mission.” We’re going to see and look at that and think about the implications for us here in 2000, in the 21st century in the Bay Area.
You’ll remember where we’ve been the last few weeks. We’ve been sitting with a miracle that happened and that drew a lot of attention. Peter and John walking in the temple saw the man who was lame from birth, they healed him. Everybody started paying attention because the guy was jumping up and praising God for what was happening. It also drew some unwanted attention from the Sanhedrin. That’s the 70 elders, leaders, and priests who had the power of life and death. They could impose punishment. They could jail Peter and John who were called in to appear before this august body.
Recently, we’ve seen pictures where the high-tech leaders from Silicon Valley have been called before Congress because of problems that have happened. They sit there meek and mild at this table. You know, it’s the kind of scrutiny you really don’t want to have, But Peter and John responded with tremendous power, and no doubt they were afraid. This kind of scrutiny from the leadership at the early stages of the church presented a problem. That’s where we pick up in our reading in the handout, Acts 4:23. “As soon as they were freed from the Sanhedrin, Peter and John returned to the other believers and told them what the leading priests and elders had said.” Remember what they said, “Don’t talk in Jesus’ name,” “Don’t teach in Jesus’ name again. And when they,” that is the believers, “heard the report, all the believers lifted their voices together in prayer to God, ‘Oh, sovereign Lord, creator of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them, you spoke long ago by the Holy Spirit through our ancestor David, your servant, ‘
Now he’s going to quote from Psalm 2, a very ancient key messianic psalm, “Why were the nations so angry? Why did they waste their time with futile plans? The kings of the earth prepared for battle. The rulers gathered together against the Lord and against his Messiah. In fact, this has happened here in this very city, for Herod Antipas, Pontius Pilate, the governor, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel were all united against Jesus, your holy servant whom you anointed.” That’s what Messiah actually means, anointed one. “But everything they did was determined beforehand, according to your will, and now, oh, Lord, hear their threats and give us your servants great boldness in preaching your Word. Stretch out your hand with healing power. May miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” After this prayer, the meeting place shook and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they preached the Word of God with boldness.
What an amazing experience that brings tremendous unity among the believers, for sure. The first thing that I wanted to notice is how they reacted to the situation. Trouble’s brewing. The Sanhedrin are kind of scrutinizing us. We were no longer flying under the radar here in Jerusalem. Whenever I have a problem, it’s my tendency to sit down and try and solve it myself. Okay, what are my options? What should I do? Blah, blah, blah. That’s not what they did.
Their first reaction in facing challenges and difficulties is to go to the Lord in prayer. Oh, I want that for myself. We are so prone to try and use the things that we have at hand to solve our problems. When, in reality, God, who is a generous and loving God, has given us enormous resources. So why should we tap into the human resources when we have the divine available through prayer? So they pray, and they pray. The first thing that they do in their prayers is acknowledged that God’s in charge. We need to remember that, especially when challenging times come as it was for the early church. They knew. In fact, they were so immersed in the Word of God that they actually prayed the Word of God into their situation, praying Psalm 2 and saying, “Hey, guess what? The Lord predicted this hundreds of years ago and it’s happening now, and we’re a part of it,” because they were identified with Jesus.
They were Jesus people. Jesus, the most generous in human history, invited them into His life. So what happened to Him was happening to them. They weren’t surprised by that. The whole world, the Gentiles, Pontius Pilate, they’re all opposing Jesus. Guess what? We get to be a part of it, too. We’re entering. We have this amazing prayer that identifies this ancient psalm as being fulfilled in that very season, and this demonstrates the source of the generosity of the early church. It was sourced in Jesus. They identified so much with Jesus that they saw the scriptures being fulfilled in their lives. Paul would later on, in writing to the Colossians, talk about this reality, which is the same for us as it was for the early church. Paul says, “For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God, and when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in His glory.”
That’s what real life is all about, being tied into, identified with the generous Jesus. We’re generous Jesus people. Jesus died, we died. Jesus rose, so will we. Jesus is going to receive glory, and so will we. So we have the riches of God’s incredible resources available to us. Notice when they prayed, they didn’t pray, “Oh God, please protect us. Oh God, please keep us under the radar. Oh God, please hide us from the intentions of the Sanhedrin.” No. They said, “God, give us boldness to preach. Work miracles. Do something that people will notice and bring glory to you. We want to be used by you.”
That’s a good prayer to pray because look what happened. Bam. The whole place starts shaking. We had some shaking. I was down in Southern California on the 4th of July visiting my family. We had a whole lot of shaking going on down there, but this is kind of a different shake because this is the power of God, the power of God. They were filled with the Holy Spirit, and they did preach with boldness. They entered in. They were filled. Their whole worldview was shaped by the Word, by prayer, and by being a part of this community of generosity. That’s the source.
What are we shaped by today? It’s so easy to get shaped by the forces that are all around us. We spend so much time in front of the screens of our lives, that we don’t allow the screen of God’s perspective to come over. The more we spend in the Word, the more time we go first to prayer and not last to prayer. It’s not the last resort. It’s the first resort for us. When we have that worldview, life changes.
I have a friend who, together we’re reading through the Chronological Bible. It takes all the different passages and puts them in order. I want to tell you, it changes the way you end up talking to people. If you’re in the same place, reading the same Bible, getting the same input, you’re basically experiencing life together with the resources of Jesus. We’d rather have consumerism of God’s Word than of the other prevailing sentiment around. The early church was experiencing opposition. They were facing it by moving closer to Jesus. We’re going to see not only this but in future examples in this Rise series, what I call the second law of spiritual thermodynamics. The greater the heat, the greater the expansion.
God uses challenging times like this, scary situations like this, to move us out in boldness. What would that look like for us here in San Francisco? Yeah, I’ve had that experience, and I know it works. A while ago, Jews for Jesus, were at that time a primarily North American organization, but I was invited to take a group of us over to South Africa for a season of ministry. This was a time when South Africa was in so much turmoil because of apartheid and everything. We were invited and going to do an event at Wits University, right in Johannesburg, which is like the Cal Berkeley of Johannesburg, with a lot of unrest and upheaval going on. Then we were going to do an evening event at The Market Theater, which is right downtown Joburg, one of the best event sites in the city.
We get there and we’re all excited about it. Pressure is brought to bear on the administration, and we find out at the last minute that they canceled it. The guy who was responsible for the opposition that led to the cancellation at Wits, said, “And you watch out for Market Theater.” Well, I didn’t know what that meant, but I thought maybe it might be good to hire extra security guards. So we did, but nothing would prepare us for what amounted to a human chain of protestors all around the whole theater, blocking people who wanted to come to the event. The police arrived, the riot squads. After trying several times to see if we could make this thing happen, he basically said, “You got to cancel it.”
So here we were having come all this way with no opportunity, and I was so bummed out. Everybody was kind of depressed. We’re packing up our equipment, and this woman comes over and says to me, “Hey, what was going on here?” She says, “I’m a reporter with Reuters. I was down here for another reason, but let me know what happened.” I sat down with her for five minutes and told her. Wouldn’t you know it, the very next day, all over South Africa there were banner headlines, posters on kiosks. I even saved one of them. Look at this.
You couldn’t look anywhere and not see this. Uproar over Jews for Jesus group. The phone started ringing off the hook. We were invited to go to a different university that was happy to have us. I still remember the name of one of the girls, a Jewish girl, who came and prayed to receive the Lord. She’s still walking with the Lord today. Memories like that are so amazing. When we finished, we had all these opportunities that we didn’t expect to have. We were getting on the plane to go to Australia, and the flight attendants looked at us and said, “Oh, you’re famous. Here, we’re going to bump you up to first class.”
That was pretty good. But the best part of it was that we were just a North American organization at that point. Then Johannesburg became the first overseas branch. Now Jews for Jesus is in 14 countries around the world. The second law of spiritual thermodynamics, it works. When pressure comes, the good things that God has put into His church rise. We run to the problem. We face the challenge. We pray for boldness, and God gives it to us. What’s God going to do for us and with us here in San Francisco?
I was taking a group of people up to wine country, visitors from out of town. They said to us, do you know what the best vintage is recently here in Napa? 2015. Why? Because that was the year of the drought. The drought stressed the grapes, which made them become better, more fruit-forward, and delicious. I thought, wow, what a picture of how stress and challenge properly aligned in our lives. It’s not that stress and drought are good on their own, but rather when we get in tune with what God is doing, He makes a beautiful aroma, a fruitful, flavorful group of people that reflect the generosity of God towards His people.
The source was Jesus, but let’s see how it showed up, this generosity in this early church. We’re going to continue reading from verse 32. Right away, you see the fruit. What’s the fruit? “All the believers were united in heart and mind.” Was that because of the persecution? No, it was because they were united as a family in Jesus. Jesus is the generosity of God to this world. Now through His people who are united in heart and mind, it says, “and they felt that what they owned was not their own.” They shared everything they had. The apostles testified powerfully to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and God’s great blessing was upon them all. There were no needy people among them because those who owned land or houses would sell them and bring the money to the apostles to give to those in need. For instance, there was Joseph, the one the apostles nicknamed Barnabas, which means son of encouragement. He was from the tribe of Levi and came from the island of Cyprus. He sold a field he owned and brought the money to the apostles.
We have in this passage a picture, if you will, not only of Jesus the generous, but of His people now united in Him, showing that generosity themselves. First, generosity rises up when we acknowledge what belongs to God. The text says, “They felt that what they owned was not their own.” Okay, if it wasn’t their own, then who owned it? God. The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the scriptures tell us. There were three guys who were talking about how they decided to give to God. One of them says, “When payday comes, I draw a circle on the ground, I take the money in the hand, and I throw it up. Everything that goes outside the circle goes to God, and everything that’s in the circle, I keep.” The other guy says, “Well, that’s interesting, because what I do is on payday I take all my money and I draw a circle on the ground, and I throw it up in the air, and everything that falls in the circle belongs to God and everything else I get to keep.” The third guy says, “What circle?” He says, “I just throw everything up in the air, and God takes what he wants.”
That’s kind of how we look at giving and generosity. It’s what we have to do. When we recognize that everything belongs to God, it’s not what we have to do, it’s what we get to do. Think about this. How big is your checking account? How big is God’s? He has unlimited resources and wants us to have some of it so that we can give it away so that we can be like Him in a world that needs to see generosity in action.
Recently, I was reading a brand new study by the Barna Group. It’s called The Generosity Gap. It basically talks about how Christian perceptions here in America are, what the practices are of giving, how they’re changing in this 21st century, and what that’s going to mean for the church going forward. It’s full of all kinds of information. I wanted to share a few things that I thought were very interesting. First, we think about generosity as, I have to write a check, or click a mouse on a GoFundMe or something like that. But generosity is so much more than that. It’s sourced in Jesus. So it’s based upon the resources of God Himself. It’s not just about money. In this survey, they said that there are five areas where Christians practice generosity. Maybe you’ll identify with one of these as something that you like to do.
For example, volunteering. That’s the top of what Christians see as a way of showing generosity. Being emotionally supportive to someone in need is another one. Certainly giving money. It’s the most common, but it’s only one out of five. Giving gifts such as food, clothing, or work. Then hospitality, it was a mark of the church. We read when we were back in Acts chapter 2, that “every day they continued to meet. They broke bread in their homes, and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all.” So this was a mark of the church’s hospitality. Some of you may love to welcome people into your home, and you know how to do it, and you know how to make people feel at ease. This is generosity.
Time, treasure, and talent are all gifts from God. Everything belongs to Him. So let’s not be like that guy who threw the money up in the air. Let’s recognize we have a unique opportunity to be generous in all of these areas of our lives. Somebody says, “Yeah, well I do hospitality, so I don’t have to give money.” No. These five really are a full-orbed picture of what the generous heart really is. In Hebrew, the word for charity is Tzedek. Actually, it is the same word for righteousness or right standing with God. Unfortunately, there’s been a big misunderstanding not just in the Jewish community, it’s in the human heart, and that is that I can somehow gain God’s favor by giving. In reality, giving flows out of who I already am in God. The more I am in tune with the Lord, the more I’m going to reflect His generosity in my life, in every area of my life. We get to do that. We get to be Jesus to other people who need to see the generosity of God, who want and look for the generosity of God. Time, treasure, talent.
The church is still an example. In America, the study talks about how the average American volunteers. 27% of Americans volunteer; whereas 45% of practicing Christians volunteer. 65% of practicing Christians gave money or goods to the poor, whereas the average for all Americans is 41%. Last year, the average individual Christian gave $2,935 on average, where the average American gave $704. Why? Why is this still a reflection of the church, even when there’s been so much that perhaps doesn’t reflect who God is? It’s because generosity flows out of a life connected to Jesus. How generous we are will be equated with how connected to Jesus we are. What a wonderful thing that we can show His generosity in so many different ways.
Some of you are going to be gifted. But where does the motivation for that generosity come from? Certainly, it’s sourced in Jesus. It begins when we recognize that it all belongs to God anyway, so why not? But it flows, I would say it rises, out of our gratitude to God. A secular mindset is okay, you have to have a social and safe network. We’re going to pay taxes so that the government can help poor people. Walk through the Tenderloin today and see how that’s working out. Not very well. God gave instructions to ancient Israel that we were supposed to leave the corners of our field ungleaned so that poor people could come and feed themselves. We see that so beautifully in the story of Ruth and Boaz. Boaz gets more out of the deal than Ruth, I think, don’t you?
God has always been concerned for the poor. He wants to meet those needs through His people and the church. So while many in the church give for different motivations. Some give because they feel guilty, oh, I’ve got so much, I got to give something. That’s not a good sustaining motivation. Or in this Barna study, they said the biggest motivation was compassion. That’s good. Compassion is really good. But sometimes we don’t feel compassionate. So why be generous? Because we really have to acknowledge our gratitude to God.
God has given us so much. Should we not likewise be generous people in giving to others? People see that generosity, and it becomes contagious. It becomes contagious. Generosity rises up through godly examples. That’s what we see in this last little paragraph about this guy named Joseph. We didn’t know him as Joseph, because we know him better as Barnabas, which means son of encouragement. How did he get that name? Was it just because, as the text says, he sold the field and gave the money? No. I mean, that was generous certainly, but the son of encouragement became even better known by something that he did when he took a risk.
Barnabas took a risk on this guy who was persecuting the church, who everybody was afraid of, remember? Saul of Tarsus was going around making life miserable, throwing people in prison. Then God got ahold of him. The word started to travel around, “Paul’s a believer.” “No, he’s not. He’s using this as a ruse. Stay away from the guy.” There was a point, I am quite sure, that Paul felt very much alone. He had been part of the Sanhedrin. He was a big name. Now as a Christian, not only was he losing his social circles in Judaism, but the church said, “Whoa, this guy is trouble. Let’s stay away from him.” It was Barnabas who reached down into that black hole that was the life of the Apostle Paul and pulled him out and brought him back to the church and said, “This guy is legit. He’s legit. Let’s help him.”
Of course, the world was changed by that simple act by the son of encouragement, that generosity. I can testify to that as my own personal experience. Ten years ago, I was in a black hole. My wife of 25 years walked away from the Lord, and then from me. Because I am in a position of leadership in the organization, it was not clear that I was going to keep my job. Talk about a black hole. It was in that black hole that I looked up and I saw a hand coming down, someone here. Actually two hands, two brothers reached down, slowly pulled me up. They took their time and gave me hope. They helped me to see the generosity of God. That’s enabled me to become a more generous person, as well, in every way, because I’ve experienced it.
I don’t know where you’re at today in this issue of generosity. My hope is that you have already experienced the generosity of God that you’ve seen in Jesus, the one who died for you and rose again so that you could have life, forgiveness, and the hope of heaven. That’s the greatest gift that God has ever given. He’s so generous, and He wants that for each and every one of us.
Maybe you’re one of those that’s sitting down in the hole saying, “How am I going to get out of this?” Well, if you’re looking up and you see Jesus, look around you, and you may see some hands extended to you, as well. Because we’ve got sons of encouragement here. We’ve got daughters of encouragement here at Cornerstone, and we want to be that kind of help. You say, “Well, David,” you know, “I’m doing pretty well right now. Life’s going good.” Well, good. Praise the Lord. What about a hand from you to be that encouragement, to be that person who reaches out to somebody else who’s not doing so well? Generosity, it’s connected to how well we’re connected to Jesus.
May God speak to us about the areas of our lives where we can more faithfully reflect the generosity of our Lord Jesus. Let’s pray together. Lord, because of our selfishness and fear of being in want ourselves, because of a lack of attentiveness sometimes, we aren’t reflecting your generosity, but we want to. We want to experience it and then we want to give it away. I pray, Lord, that you’d take this word and picture that we have in this passage of scripture and speak to our hearts even now. Lord, even at this moment, that we would have a longing for a generosity that flows out of our acknowledgment that it’s all yours and that you’ve been generous with us. Help us to look around and see the good examples that are here at Cornerstone, that we might be inspired, that Cornerstone’s generosity would be contagious and shake the Bay Area with the reality of a great God who has been generous to all in the person of Jesus. It’s in His name we pray. Amen. God bless.