Grace, Generosity, and Equality.

Two men stand at the border of the province of Macedonia. Years have passed since this missionary and his companion have visited this area. As they gaze across the land, memories of the first time God called them to this place play on the screens of their minds. Many people had turned to Jesus then, but it came with angry mobs and nights in prison.

Come to think of it, the past few years had been filled with ups and downs too. Beautiful births, rampaging mobs, growing saints, disappointments and lonely, cold nights have filled their church planting journeys. Yet they pushed on, heralding the good news, the gospel of the Kingdom of God, to anyone who would listen.

But now, on this visit, a burden is weighing on their shoulders. It is inextricable from their gospel message. It rings in their minds as an echo of the voice of an elder from home, now far away, saying, “Remember the poor.” How could they forget the poor at home? Even if they are a thousand miles away across the Mediterranean Sea, their images are seared in their minds like the outline left after glowing metal is pressed in to flesh. The wheat fields are scorched and barren. There is no baker’s bread cooling in the morning air. Women, whose husbands died many

days ago, are left barren in womb and in food. Through the streets they stagger under their loads, like dead sticks bending under the weight of sand bags. The cry of parentless children never leaves them. Under nourished, under grown, their bones look to tear through their thin skin. How could they forget the poor?

So church after church, Paul and Timothy have encouraged believers to help their brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. They have appealed to them to extend a hand of kindness to their distant family.

But not this time, as they stand on the borders of this province, how can they ask them this time? Fearful news reaches the two missionaries: The fines given by insecure Gentile rulers and ostracism from jealous Jews are taking a toll on the Macedonian churches. There is no baker’s bread cooling in the morning air at the Macedonian church.  How can they ask them?

With this weight on their shoulders, the two missionaries head west, over the border, into the province of Macedonia. Down the dusty road, the pair makes its way to the city of Philippi. Here the pair is welcomed by the church and news is shared among them. Paul listens as they tell of their hardships. Their gaunt faces tell the tale of hunger. Yet even in this depth of poverty, they have an abundance of joy!

Eventually, the topic of home comes up. An elder asks, “How are our brothers and sisters doing in Jerusalem?” Paul tells them everything about the plight that the famine had brought on the church, especially to the widows and orphans. But he does not ask them to help. Suddenly, the elder takes Paul’s hands and begs him, “Please let us have the grace of taking part in the relief of the saints! They have given us the overflowing wealth and spiritual blessings of the Gospel; how can we not serve them with our material blessings?” Before Paul can say anything, the Christians begin to empty small bags of coins into his hands! They are small bags, for they are poor people. This is all they have to live on! From the deep pit of their poverty and their abundant joy, the Philippians overflow in a wealth of generosity; giving even beyond their means!

But this is only the beginning! With one last word of encouragement, Paul and Timothy head to Thessalonica and then Berea and throughout Macedonia and the same thing that happened in Philippi happens throughout the whole province. The Macedonians’ deep poverty and abundant joy overflows into a wealth of generosity! The grace of God has been given to the Macedonians!

After a few days, Paul and Timothy decide to write a letter to Corinth. The Church there has struggled over the years. They never seem to understand the glory of suffering for Christ or that prestige in God’s eyes is not found in wealth. Paul has appealed to them for the sake of the poor in Jerusalem as well, but the Corinthians’ giving is stalled. Suddenly, an idea pops into his mind. “Maybe this story of the Macedonians generosity can spur on the Corinthians to resume giving to Jerusalem.” So Paul includes it in a letter, carried by Titus, hoping that this story of the Macedonians will stir up the same grace in the hearts of the Corinthians.

 How has this story stirred your heart?  Does your heart, filled with the Holy Spirit, resonate with this grace of God?  Do you wonder at their overflow of wealth from deep poverty? Do you wonder at what could cause such generosity? Paul makes it clear what our desire should be after hearing this story. Look at verse 7.

“But as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in your love for us – see that you excel in this act of grace also.”

Brothers and sisters, as beloved children in the Kingdom of God, be generous. Excel in giving all you can to the poor. Overflow in this gracious act of generosity.

But maybe you find it hard to be generous, like the Corinthians. And in your mind you are asking, “Why should we be generous?” “What made Macedonians so generous?”  “Is God commanding us to be generous?” “Is He forcing us to give?” Today you will not hear a simple command to follow. We are not called to simply follow a moral code. This is not a rote ritual!  Paul makes this clear in verse 8:

“I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine.”

The example of the Macedonians is to test us. It is to prove us. It is to hammer us like the forgers hammer. Banging at us to show what we truly are. As the hammer of the Macedonian’s story falls on us, those filled with true love, the love of Jesus, will emit the grace of generosity. This generosity will overflow out of us because it is the same grace that flowed out of Jesus himself. Look at verse 9:

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.”

In my imagination, I see Jesus standing in his pre-incarnate glory in heaven. All around him are millions and millions of angles, lit up like flaming torches. “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God almighty! They sing for eternity. Every shadow is driven away by the light from the glory of the Father! The power of the Holy Spirit fills and gives life to everything.

And Jesus stands in the middle of it all. His clothes shine whiter than the brightest light of the sun. His face flashes like bolts of lightning. His eyes burn like flames of fire. His skin shines, reflecting the light like polished brass. And his voice sounds like the shout of a million voices; like the deafening roar of a waterfall. He is rich in glory!

But for our sake, he becomes poor. From the riches of glory, I see Jesus descending into the corridors of history; born into the poverty of a naked baby. He experiences the temptations of Satan. He feels the realities of starvation, thirst and exhaustion. He has no place to live and no bed to sleep in. He is poor.

His family disowns him. His community rejects him. His enemies hate him. His friends betray him. He is poor.

Kings mock him with a crown of thorns and a purple robe. Soldiers hit him with a rod and tear out his beard. Blow after blow, they punch him in the face saying, “Prophesy who hit you!” though he is blindfolded.  He is whipped 39 times and carries his own cross. Three nails hold him to it and a spear is shoved in his side. And then he dies. He became poor!

So that we through his poverty, we might become rich. You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Brothers and sisters, our generosity should be driven by God’s grace (v. 8-9). If we are filled with the genuine love of Jesus, born again by the Holy Spirit, citizens of the Kingdom of God, we will overflow in the grace of generosity.

Perhaps though, this example stirs up more questions in your mind. “What is an acceptable amount to give?” The Macedonians gave beyond their means and we can barely comprehend Jesus’ gift so, “How can we give something that is acceptable?”

 

These questions also came up in the minds of the Corinthians, but not out of their genuine desire to grow. Being wealthy like us, their culture measured prestige in hoarded wealth. Because of this they struggled with giving away their money. But Paul knew that a year ago the grace of God gave the Corinthians the desire to give to the poor saints in Jerusalem. They committed to it and even began to set money aside. But then the Corinthians delayed giving their gift. False teachers had crept into the church. They appealed to their desire to hoard money. They said, “It is fine to keep your money.” And out of spite for Paul, they spread lies saying, “Paul only wants you to give so he can steal from the gift!” So Paul urges the Corinthians in v. 10-12 to finish what they had committed to do. He also explains to us what an acceptable amount to give is. Look at verse 10-12:

“An in this matter I give my judgment: this benefits you, who a year go started not only to do this work but also to desire to do it. So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. For if readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.”

The acceptable amount to give is the amount that is given from what we have and backed by a true desire to give. God has not laid out a fixed amount for us to give. Any fixed standard would either:

(A) – Make it impossible for the poor to give an acceptable gift because they would be unable to pay the amount

  • or

(B) – Allow those who could afford it to deceive themselves into thinking a gift back by no genuine desire, a lifeless ritual, could earn God’s favor. Instead, God looks for true generosity driven by His grace and done in proportion to what we have! It is about genuine desire and sacrifice, not about amount!

 

One woman knows the grace of generosity. Living in Rwanda, Africa, she is HIV positive. Abandoned by her husband, she is a widow and her two children cry for her to feed them. Infected, alone and in poverty, shame has curled her head down into despair and hopelessness. “There is no way out” she thinks.

But one day, Pastor Tertullien Nsabimana sees Maria at the back of his church. Pressed against the back wall, she won’t even look up to the front of the church because of her shame. The Pastor eventually convinces her to join a discipleship group, and by the grace of God she turns to Christ. As God takes away Maria’s shame, she begins to understand she is a child of the Kingdom. Through the help of other believers she learns to earn money and saves enough to buy goats, land and things she needs.

As the December celebration of God’s Blessing approaches, Maria desires to give something to God. But what can she give? She doesn’t have any money. So she gives the biggest pumpkin in her garden. As the church sees her lay her offering, people are inspired to give even more! People join in the celebration and Maria’s pumpkin ends up inspiring the largest offering ever given in this Rwandan church: $1300!

As children of God’s kingdom, excel in the grace of sacrificial generosity. Our generosity should be proportionately sacrificial (v.10-12). Our giving is acceptable if it is sacrificial in proportion to what we have.

After all this, we may still have another objection to this generosity. The Corinthians did. “Does God want us to make ourselves poor so that others can be rich?” “Does He want others to sit in ease on our hard earned money while we are driven into a deep pit of poverty?” God answers us in verse 13-14:

“For I do not mean that others should be eased and you burdened, but that as a matter of fairness your abundance at the present time should supply their need, so that their abundance may supply your need, that there may be fairness.”

The goal is not to ease others and cause ourselves to suffer. The goal is equality. When we see the poor in need, we should give generously to them. Then when the roles are reversed and we are poor, they will give to us. This will bring equality.

Do you think this is really God’s way? Does God really desire fairness? Does he really, dare we say it, desire equality? Yes! This has been God’s way since the beginning! In the Kingdom of God there is equality! Even in God’s dealings with the Israelites this is proven true!  God desires equality among his people! Look with me at verse 15.[Paul says there should be equality,] “As it is written, ‘Whoever gathered much had nothing left over, and whoever gathered little had no lack.’” (Ex. 16:18)

 

This statement comes from Israel’s Exodus from Egypt. The people, sleepy eyed and yawing, poke their heads out of their tents. The sun is just beginning to peak over the eastern horizon. As their eyes clear, they notice there is something covering the face of the wilderness. A fine, flaky thing, like the first frost that whispers of winter. “What is it?” they whisper to each other. “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat” says Moses, “in response to your complaining.” The Lord had commanded the day before each person could collect one omer or 2 liters each day, but no more.

So, the people remembering the word of the Lord begin to gather the manna. Some gather more and some gather less. Miraculously, those who collect a lot find there is nothing left over after everyone in their tent has eaten an omer. Those who only collect a little never have too little. Everyone’s needs are met.

As the people finish eating, Moses says to them, “Do not leave any of it till the morning.” But they do not listen to Moses. Without him knowing, some of the people hoard a little extra manna for later. The next morning, as the hoarders open the lid of their jars, the extra bread is full of little worms and its smell fills the air with rot.

God ensured that greed would not raise its ugly head in Israel. He ensured that each person got what they needed by limiting the manna of those who collected much and by increasing the little that others had. God reached out his hand and stuck all the hoarded manna so that it rotted! He enforced this equality among the Israelites.

Today, God calls us to equality. It does not mean that everyone will have the same but it does mean that in the Kingdom each person is to get what they need. It is ok for the rich to dwell with the poor, but it is not ok for the rich to dwell with the starving. God moves by the power of His grace to cause us to create this equality through our generosity. We are free to give as we choose, but remember that hoarding will have its consequences. Treasure hoarded here on earth, will not give us treasure in heaven. It will leave a bug-infested, rotting mess before the eyes of God.

Brothers and sisters let God’s grace drive your generosity until you see the equality of the Kingdom in your “Jerusalems.” Seek this equality of the Kingdom of God by excelling in the grace of generosity. (v.13-15).  

Conclusion

Far across the oceans, above the rippling waves

We hear the call of people, formerly called slaves.

Darkness had called them, its chains held them tight

Like ropes hung on the gallows, death was the end in sight.

But light has burst upon them, and life has set them free.

Christ left his glory in heaven, and died on Calvary

From unknown heights of riches, He descended to our world.

Poverty was his companion, among the poor he dwelt.

But through his destitution, He has given us wealth.

His cross has brought forgiveness; in his stripes we find health.

His grace overflowed upon us, like a mighty rolling sea

He has given us redemption, and taken our poverty

So now we hear the Haitians call, Japan is close behind

People made in God’s image, people loved by the divine

Many are our brothers, in communion we are joined

They also are our sisters, by God’s grace reborn.

But Sin has raised its ugly head; the curse still stands as strong.

We see their endless suffering, and we ask God, “How long?

There is no baker’s bread today; it’s not cooling in the morning

And their husbands are dead, as wives sit in mourning

Fatherless children search for food, their hunger calling in the night

While evil men kill and steal, questing for power and might

But in God’s kingdom there is hope, the just and righteous stand

We make up its citizens, and God’s grace is in our hand

Will you seek equality, through giving what is not your own?

Generosity seeking equality, that we will make our own!

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