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Christmas [2000]: God’s Gift, Our Response (2 Corinthians 8 and 9)

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December 24, 2000

Special Christmas Message

Some years ago at my church in California, our secretary was preparing the December church newsletter. She asked me if we had any special family Christmas traditions. Not being a traditional sort of person, I replied, “We give gifts to one another.” But she didn’t put that in the newsletter. Apparently she didn’t think that giving gifts was unique enough to qualify.

Everybody who observes Christmas gives gifts, don’t they? More accurately, we don’t give gifts—we trade them. Someone gives me something, so I think, “Now I’ve got to give him something.” So I run out and get him something comparable in exchange. It feels uncomfortable just to receive without balancing the scale.

But at the heart of Christmas is the never-old story that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, born in a humble stable, born to give His life for us on the cross. We cannot possibly even the score by giving back to God. His gift was too great, too precious. And yet, out of gratitude for what He did for us, we should respond from the heart by doing all that we can for Him—not to pay Him back, but to say thank you for such an indescribable gift.

I’m going to violate normal protocol today and talk about an offensive subject. Normally on Christmas Sunday, when there may be more visitors than usual, a pastor takes a safe course and talks about something everyone is fairly comfortable with, like love, peace, and joy. Everyone goes home feeling warm and fuzzy.

As I mentioned in a recent sermon, Jesus took risks in social situations to jar people into facing the truth. He was invited to a Sabbath dinner party with the leaders of the Pharisees (Luke 14). First Jesus offended them by healing a man, challenging their Sabbath rules. As if that were not enough, next Jesus watched the invited guests jockeying for the most prestigious seats. Rather than keeping His thoughts to Himself, Jesus proceeded to teach everyone to do exactly the opposite of what these vain leaders had done!

One of them tried to relieve the tension by exclaiming, “Blessed is everyone who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Everyone nodded, “Amen!” They all assumed that they would be in God’s kingdom. But Jesus proceeded to tell the parable of the slighted dinner invitation, which showed that outcasts would get into the kingdom before these self-righteous leaders would. Jesus wasn’t your average, polite dinner guest! He knew that unless He jarred people, they wouldn’t face the truth.

So I’m going to breach protocol on this Christmas Sunday and talk about how much money you give to the Lord’s work. The ushers have locked all the exits! I may offend some who will say, “Of all the nerve, to talk about money on Christmas Sunday! I’m never going back to that church again!” If that’s what you’re thinking, you may need to wrestle with the issue that Jesus put to all of us: Are you serving God or mammon? My hope is that I will motivate some of you first to receive God’s indescribable gift to you and then, out of gratitude, to become a generous giver in response to Him.

My text is 2 Corinthians 8 & 9, two chapters where Paul says more about giving than in any of his other writings. He was trying to raise money from the Gentile churches for the poor in the Jerusalem church. Behind his appeal was his deep desire to see the church be united and not split along Jewish-Gentile lines. While I can only skim these chapters, I want to focus on two verses where Paul gives the motive for his appeal. In 8:9 he says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” And, in 9:15 he exclaims, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” Paul is saying,

In response to God’s indescribable gift, we should become generous givers.

God is a giving God. He gave the most astounding gift imaginable when the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal second person of the Trinity, gave up the splendor of heaven and came to this earth, took on human flesh, and bore our sins on the cross. Earlier in this letter, Paul described it: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:20). What a gift!

1. God’s indescribable gift is the person of His Son.

How can I begin to describe such an indescribable Person? If the heavens could open and we could all get a glimpse of Christ in His glory, we would be struck speechless and would fall at His feet as if we were dead (Rev. 1:12-17). We cannot begin to imagine the splendor, the glory, and the riches that Jesus Christ gave up to come to this earth. We can rightly say,

A. None was richer than Christ was.

He was rich in power: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on the earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:15-16).

He was rich in glory: “And He is the radiance of His glory, and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3). He is one with the Father, having shared His glory before the creation of the earth (John 10:30; 17:5). He receives the worship of myriads upon myriads of angels, who bow before His throne proclaiming, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:3). Of Isaiah’s vision John wrote, “These things Isaiah said, because he saw His [Christ’s] glory, and he spoke of Him” (John 12:41). We cannot begin to imagine the riches of Jesus Christ before He came to this earth. Yet,

B. None became poorer than Christ became.

Jesus Christ did not lay aside His deity for the simple reason that God cannot cease to be God. As Charles Wesley wrote in the familiar carol, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’ incarnate Deity.” And again in the same song, “Mild He lays His glory by, Born that men no more may die.” When Christ came to this earth, He did not empty Himself of deity (see Phil. 2:7). That is not the meaning of His poverty.

Rather, Christ’s preincarnate glory was veiled. Contrary to the Christmas cards with baby Jesus with a halo, Jesus looked like any other little Jewish baby. As a child, other kids didn’t look at Him and say, “Hey, that’s a neat Frisbee on your head! Where’d you get that thing?” His glory was veiled during His earthly life.

There were two exceptions. One was on the Mount of Transfiguration, when Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, with His face and clothes shining as bright as lightning. The other occasion was in the garden when the soldiers got a flash of His glory and fell backwards to the ground before arresting Him. This was to prove that He went to the cross of His own will, not because of the evil schemes of the Jewish leaders. He could have called legions of angels to deliver Him if He had chosen to do so.

Also, Jesus became poor in that He voluntarily gave up the use of certain divine attributes during His earthly life. He did not cease to have these attributes; He simply gave up His use of them. He could have struck His persecutors dead on the spot. He could have done many other things as God, but He chose not to.

Instead, He took on human flesh and became a servant, obedient to death on the cross. He could have been born in a palace; He was born in a stable. He could have been born with a superhuman body, not subject to pain, hunger, and tiredness; He was born with a body like ours, except for sin. He could have come to earth as an adult, strong and ready to assume power; He was born as a weak infant, who had to be rescued from Herod’s murderous threats. He could have been born into wealth, where His hands would never be rough from calluses; He worked as a carpenter. He could have begun His ministry as a miracle-working child or young adult; He waited until He was about thirty. He could have been waited on by a contingent of servants; He became a servant. Good men rightly should have died for Him; He died for sinners.

Who can describe the chasm between the glory of heaven and the humiliation of the cross? If billionaire Bill Gates were to give up his wealth and possessions and go to Calcutta, clothe himself in rags, eat meager food and serve the poor, it would not compare to what Jesus Christ did in giving up the riches of heaven to take on the poverty of our sinful humanity through His birth and death on the cross! From highest heaven He descended to the shame and agony of Golgotha. From the glory of perfect holiness, He was made sin on our behalf. None was richer than Christ was! None became poorer than He did for our sakes so that we might become rich through Him! He is God’s indescribable gift to us!

But part of the wonder of the gospel is that Christ became like us so that we may become like Him. He took on our humanity so that we may partake of His divine nature and be conformed to His image. Being rich in Him, like Him, we are to impoverish ourselves out of gratitude. Since Christ is the giver, par excellence,

2. We should become generous givers.

Here’s where things get sticky (remember, this hits my pocketbook just as hard as it hits yours)! But the blow is softened by the motive that permeates these chapters, namely, God’s abundant grace toward us in Christ (the Greek word for “grace” appears 10 times—8:1, 4, 6, 7, 9, 16, 19; 9:8, 14, 15). Keep God’s grace in view and you will be motivated to give, even though it’s not always easy.

There are two ways you can tell that you’ve lost sight of God’s grace. The first is if giving is more of a duty than a delight. Grace means that God has blessed us abundantly when we deserved His judgment. Grace motivates us to abound in generosity in response to God’s abundant gift to us. So if your response to a biblical appeal to give is, “I’ll do my duty,” you aren’t focused on God’s grace.

The second sign that you’ve lost sight of grace is when you give inconsistently and insufficiently to the Lord’s work. Ten percent was the bare minimum under the Law of Moses, although probably it was much more, since there were several tithes. But if under grace you do less than you would have been required to do under law, then you’re probably not responding to God’s grace. Grace is never a license for sloppiness. True grace motivates us to abound in obedience out of love for God. With that as a backdrop, let me briefly mention seven marks of generous giving:

A. Generous giving applies to all, even to the poor.

Paul says that the Macedonians gave “in a great ordeal of affliction” and out of deep poverty (8:2). Giving is more a matter of mindset than of income. If you have a giving attitude, you’ll find a way to give no matter how much you make. Studies show that the poor give more proportionately than the rich. A 1981 Gallup poll found that households making between $50,000-100,000 gave between 1-2 percent, whereas families earning less than $5,000 gave nearly 5 percent of their income to churches and charities.

So if things are tight and you’re not giving and you think, “Someday, when we have enough, we’ll give,” you’re playing games with God. Your problem is not an insufficient income; it’s incorrect priorities and poor spending habits.

B. Generous giving is sacrificial.

They gave “according to their ability, and beyond their ability” (8:3). It dug into their lifestyles. They had to do without some things and postpone other things in order to give. Jesus applauded this kind of giving when He called attention to the widow who gave all that she had to live on (Mark 12:41-44). Not many of us have ever given sacrificially in that sense of the term.

A few years ago, the U.S. Center for World Mission was desperately trying to raise the money needed to pay off their campus so that they could be freed up for the task of mobilizing mission forces to reach the unreached peoples of the world. One young woman sold her car, gave the money to the center, and started taking the bus to work. That’s sacrificial giving! The center encouraged people to adopt a missionary lifestyle by living on one-third less for three months and giving the difference to missions. To their surprise, many who did so were missionaries or pastors who already made far less than the average American!

I struggle with the balance between being prudent in providing for the future (a biblical principle) and giving sacrificially. But I know that sacrificial giving puts you out on a limb where you have to trust God to provide and it brings great joy when you see Him do it. If you aren’t doing with less because you’re giving more, then I encourage you to try it the coming year.

C. Generous giving is voluntary, not pressured.

“They gave of their own accord, begging us with much entreaty for the favor [lit., ‘grace’] of participation in the support of the saints” (8:3b-4). The Bible speaks very directly about money, as Paul does here. So in that sense it “pressures” us. But the motive is not guilt or gimmicks, but sincere love for Jesus Christ. As Paul writes in 9:7, “Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver.” Paul made the need known and challenged the Corinthians to give; but he wanted the money collected before he arrived so that there would be no human pressure.

In this church, we publish financial information for the same reason that you keep track of how much is in your checking account, so that you can be informed and act accordingly. I teach what the Bible says about giving and encourage you to respond to the Lord. If we need a certain amount for facilities or for missions, we inform you of the amount and pray that you will be faithful to the Lord. None of the staff know the amount that anyone gives. We want you to give of your own accord in response to the Lord.

D. Generous giving is based on a commitment to Christ and His people.

“They first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God” (8:5). Tithing can foster the notion that you give ten percent to God and spend 90 percent as you want to. Biblical giving is based on the premise that God owns 100 percent; you manage it for Him and someday will give an account for what you did with His resources. Underlying the concept of biblical giving is that you have submitted to the lordship of Jesus Christ and that you are committed to furthering His work through His people.

The Lord isn’t after your money; He’s after you! But He knows that you are so tied to your money, that He really doesn’t have you until He has your money. So in order to follow Him, you’ve got to sign everything over to Him (Luke 12:33; 14:33).

E. Generous giving involves planning and faithful follow-through, not impulsive promises.

The Corinthians had promised to give a year before, but they had not followed through (8:10). Paul here is saying, “Follow through on your promise.” The promise should be made purposefully, not impulsively (9:7). Prayerfully plan how much you can give. But then once you’ve promised God and planned to give a certain amount, you’ve got to be careful to follow through or greed will gobble up your giving.

From talking with missionaries, I found out that Christians who are faithful givers are rare. They tell a missionary they will give a certain amount, but they don’t follow through. Put yourself in the missionary’s shoes: How would you like your paycheck to fluctuate because your employer forgot to pay you every so often? If we promise a missionary that we will give a certain amount, then we should give it every month and make it up if we miss.

Or, what about your giving to the church? Do you give a set amount off the top, and if you miss a week, do you make it up? It’s a matter of faithfulness to the Lord, who entrusts you with everything you have. Giving God the leftovers or dropping a few bucks in the plate to ease your conscience isn’t biblical giving. The biblical way is to give to the Lord regularly off the top, as a matter of planning, not to give just when you feel like it.

F. Generous giving looks to God for money to give.

“God is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed” (9:8). Five times in that short verse Paul uses the words “all,” “always,” “everything,” or “every.” Twice he emphasizes “abound” and “abundance.” He’s saying that God will supply you with all you need to give and more if you will look to Him for it and give it to His work when He gives it to you. In other words, as long as you keep the bottom of your funnel open, God keeps pouring in the top. But if you close up the bottom in greed, God stops pouring in the top.

As you probably know, George Muller supported over 2,000 orphans through prayer, without making his needs known. But Muller didn’t just ask and receive from God. He also gave generously to the Lord’s work. At one point he fully supported ten missionaries in China. Over a 54-year period, he gave away 86 percent of what he received for his personal support. He could have become wealthy and lived in luxury. Instead, he kept the bottom of the funnel open and God kept pouring in the top. Ask God for money to give and watch Him supply it!

G. Generous giving reaps bountiful results.

There’s a basic principle: If you sow sparingly, you reap sparingly; if you sow bountifully, you reap bountifully (9:6). Give generously and you’ll see God use you in a greater way. He will use you to meet needs (9:12). Thanksgiving will overflow to God. Those to whom you give will glorify God and pray for you as they yearn for you (9:13-14). You will be enriched in everything (9:11)! God’s work will prosper because of your faithfulness.

Conclusion

A four-year-old boy asked his father, “Daddy, what does ‘ignore’ mean?” His father explained that it meant not to pay attention to someone. The boy responded, “I don’t think we should ignore Jesus.” Puzzled, the dad replied, “I don’t either.” Then the boy explained, “But that’s what the Christmas carol says, ‘O come let us ignore Him.’”

Many people really sing it that way, don’t they? They ignore God’s indescribable gift while they furiously pursue exchanging and collecting expensive junk that nobody really needs. Meanwhile, churches often need funds, missionaries lack support, and opportunities for the gospel to penetrate unreached people groups are missed. We need to seek first His kingdom and righteousness!

Could you be ignoring Jesus this Christmas? You need to receive Him as God’s provision for your sin. God freely offers you His indescribable gift of eternal life. If you’ve received His gift, He wants you, because of His grace, to follow Jesus in impoverishing yourself so that others can become rich through Him.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we know where to draw the line on luxury (hot running water is a luxury in many parts of the world)?
  2. Is it right for a person behind with creditors to give to the Lord’s work? Should he get out of debt first?
  3. How can we know the balance between saving for our own future needs and giving to meet present needs?
  4. With all of the appeals for funds, how can we prioritize our giving?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christmas, Finance, Soteriology (Salvation)