01/02/2009 at 6.30pm
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Jonathan Pryke
David Jones, the chief executive of an organisation called ‘Stewardship’, wrote this a few days ago:
Can the Body of Christ flourish in time of famine? Recent developments in the world’s economic systems have clearly revealed how shaky is their foundation. No new news there for followers of Christ who take his words seriously. But where are we investing? And what will be the church’s response to the present times? Could there actually be a resurgence in time of recession?Well my title this morning is Giving Generously, and as we look at this incident, the question we want to be asking ourselves is this: What exactly is the place of money in our lives? If we think that our lives depend on money above all, we won’t let go of it. But when we know that our lives depend on Christ, we won’t let go of him.
Now I have two simple headings as we look at this incident: first, ‘What Jesus Sees’ and secondly, ‘What Jesus Says’.
First, WHAT JESUS SEES
Listen again to what happened. Verses 41-42:
Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.Our Bibles call this incident “The Widow’s Offering”, but it’s as much about the offerings of the rich as it is about her meagre contribution to the coffers of the Jerusalem temple. And there is a series of contrasts that Jesus saw.
First, there were many of them. There was one of her.
Secondly, they were rich, she was poor.
Thirdly, they gave a lot, she gave a tiny amount. They put in “large amounts” while the widow put in “two very small copper coins worth only a fraction of a penny.”
That’s what Jesus saw as he sat there watching the giving going on. What does he see as he watches us? Taking a long close look at our own finances can be hard. What’s even harder is to expose our finances to the gaze of someone else. But the truth is, we have no choice about that. Jesus watches our every financial move just as surely as he sat down opposite the place where the temple offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury.
On the whole we don’t have the kind of public and professional scrutiny of our personal finances that, say a charity such as the Jesmond Trust has. We don’t have to give account to anyone else. Or so we easily think. But we do. We’re accountable to the one who gave us the money we have in the first place, and to whom it ultimately belongs. We’re accountable to Jesus. He’s watching what we do with it more closely than any auditor.
We mustn’t think, though, that he’s waiting to catch us out. No, his purpose is to bless us. He wants to guide and help us. He wants to protect us from disaster and to set us free from the deadly bondage of money. He wants us to be able to use the money he’s entrusted us with to further his plans for the world and for our lives and for the ministry that he calls each one of us to.
So as you sit down with a piece of paper in front of you to do your own personal giving review, think of Jesus at your elbow, as it were. Let him be your financial adviser. Let his presence with you by his Spirit be a gentle reminder that every penny you have at your disposal really belongs to him. Ask him to show you how he would like you to use that income over the next year. Because Jesus sees us just as surely as he saw those rich people and that poor widow. What does Jesus see? He sees how we use our money.
Secondly, WHAT JESUS SAYS
Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on”J. C. Ryle comments:
There are few of our Lord’s sayings so much overlooked as this. There are thousands who remember all His doctrinal discourses, and yet contrive to forget this incident in His earthly ministry.And I think we understand why. Because Jesus changes our basis of financial measurement and that’s profoundly challenging. He asks his disciples to look at what is going on through the eyes of God rather than through the eyes of men who are dazzled by wealth. According to the value system of the world, the bigger the gift, the louder the applause. But Jesus effectively says that God’s scale is different. God looks at the proportion that is given, rather than the pounds and pence.
On that basis there is indeed a massive contrast between the giving of the rich and the giving of the widow. And it’s the widow who gives much more. The rich, says Jesus,
“all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on.”Think proportionately. What proportion of their wealth were these rich people giving? Impressive as it looked to the eyes of men, in fact they were only giving a tiny proportion. What proportion was the widow giving? 100%. On Jesus’ scale, the widow’s gift is far bigger than those of the rich.
"I tell you the truth”, says Jesus, “this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others.” And that could well mean “more than all the others put together.”So there is a straightforward lesson that we need to take on board: God measures by proportion, not by absolute amount. Or to put it another way, God looks at how much we keep, not how much we give away. If we take just that on board, that’s enough totally to transform our approach to giving.
But it’s not just the amounts which are so different here. It’s the attitudes. These verses are very matter of fact. Who gives more, who gives less? But scratch the surface and there is a stinging rebuke to these rich people lining up and making a show of their apparent “generosity”.
Who are these people? They’re very religious. Indeed they’are leaders in the church. They know their Bibles inside out. In fact they spend much of their time teaching the Bible to others. They have the best seats in church. They wear long robes. This is beginning to make me feel very uncomfortable.
But surely the point is this: to other people, and even to yourself, you can look very spiritual. You may even intimidate others by the apparent depth of your devotion. But inside, where it counts, your heart may be as hard and cold towards God as stone. What mattered most to these people was reputation, wealth, luxury and status. God and people in need mattered least.
What a contrast there is in the amounts that different people give! What a contrast there is in their attitudes. And what a contrast between the way the world sees things and the way Jesus sees them!
How then does Jesus see this poor widow? Some people, rich or otherwise, will go to considerable lengths to avoid giving anything at all. Not so this widow. Just think for a moment about what she does here. She throws in a couple of coins, that’s all. But what do they represent? As Jesus commends her to his disciples he says:
“but she, out of her poverty, put in everything--all she had to live on”- that is, the whole of her livelihood.
In our home groups we’ve been studying 1 John together. May be you remember that 1 John 3.17 says:
If anyone has material possessions [that is livelihood again - same word] and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.
If we love others, then their needs will come before our own. How can we become like that? Through faith in Jesus. Immediately before that verse, John has said:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.
Jesus laid down his life for you and for me. Jesus spent his whole livelihood on us.
Surely we can’t sit down to do our financial review, and say to Jesus as he watches at our elbow, “Here’s the bit you can have. You gave your very life for me – and I’m giving this bit back to you, and keeping the rest for myself.” All we have and all we are has to go back to Jesus. Surely all we can say is: “Lord, you have it all. You gave me all I have. It’s all yours. Now, what would you like me to do with it?” We have to give the whole of our lives and our livelihoods back to him.
And the evidence is that we have at least begun to learn that. An encouraging piece of research was done a while back. It found that in total, and on average, evangelicals give away 12% of their income. That’s equivalent to about £3,000 a year in after-tax income for the average household, and about nine times higher than the average level of charitable giving by the UK population as a whole.
It’s pretty clear that the faith of evangelical Christians has a profound effect on how they use their money. And that’s been our experience. We’ve seen wonderful outpourings of generosity through this fellowship over the last few years. That isn’t blowing our own trumpet – or it mustn’t be. But it is cause for thanksgiving and rejoicing in such clear evidence of the work of the Spirit of God in the hearts of his people.
However, the example of this widow who is observed and commended by Jesus can leave no doubt that we have a lot further to go. We need to respond to the challenge of this widow’s example not just once in our lives, but throughout our lives.
And what happens when Jesus sees someone giving everything back to God? Blessing happens.
Do you realise what the fruit of that woman’s giving has been over the centuries? She has had a significant impact on world history. Why? Because Jesus saw what she did, and he held it up and he used it for his purposes, and it’s been the inspiration that has challenged and changed countless lives.
She wasn’t even aware of it. But one day we’ll see what God has done. We’ll see all our missed opportunities. But we’ll also see the opportunities for generosity that we took. And we’ll see how Jesus took the seed we gave and multiplied it a hundredfold and then a hundredfold again. And even though we don’t always see it now, we can trust God for that fruit. We can be confident that when we give back to God, we’re making the best investment of all.
I thank God for all that Jesus has already taught us at this church about being generous, and laying out our resources for gospel causes. But we have a long way to go. My hope is that we will increasingly become the kind of church that Jesus can watch, and commend, and hold up as an example. Can you imagine any greater blessing than that?
I quoted David Jones of Stewardship. He also says this:
We encourage all the givers whom we serve that this is the time to invest all the more strongly in an eternal kingdom. The needs and opportunities are greater than ever and the return incalculable and guaranteed. Some of us will lose jobs and income, but for most of us, our outgoings are coming down and many Christians have managed their finances well. Could this be a time of an outpouring of generosity that insists the Kingdom must continue to advance – to flourish in a time of famine?One Christian woman puts what she’s learned like this:
God’s got me to the point [where I say to myself]: It’s all a gift from Him; use it for Him. The biggest lesson I’ve learned is this: I’m not a generous giver when I give God a bigger percentage every year. I’m a generous giver when I put my hands out and say: “God, it’s from you. What do you want me to do with it?”
Lord Jesus, we thank you for all we’ve learned so far from you about giving. We want to learn more. Help us to learn from that widow. Help us to give generously. Amen
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