I’m sure most of you have heard of an oxymoron. It’s a Greek word that means pointedly foolish. You make an oxymoron when you put two words together that are complete opposites. They contradict each other. Some of my favorite oxymorons are: clearly confused, act naturally, open secret, and jumbo shrimp.
What’s even better than an oxymoron phrase is an oxymoron statement. Artist Andy Warhol was famous for the statement, I am a deeply superficial person. Samuel Goldwyn, a famous movie producer from the early 20th century, was also famous for his totally contradictory statements. He said things like, Give me a smart idiot over a stupid genius any day and Gentlemen, I want you to know that I am not always right, but I am never wrong. And one of my favorite oxymoron statements comes from entertainer Dolly Parton, who once said, You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap.
I wonder if the apostle Paul laughed when he wrote these words that introduce our Bible passage today. He wants to tell the believers in the Corinthian church about the incredible spiritual work God is doing in the Macedonian church. He says, In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity. (vs. 2) This statement has got to be the Mother of all Oxymorons! The Macedonian believers were undergoing a severe trial yet experiencing overflowing joy. And even though they lived in extreme poverty, their overflowing joy resulted in rich generosity toward other believers who were in need. How often do severe trials and extreme poverty go hand-in-hand with overflowing joy and rich generosity?
Let’s make it even more difficult to understand. Let’s put it in a word problem: Severe trials plus extreme poverty equals what? It equals overflowing joy and rich generosity. What did the Macedonian believers know that we don’t?
In 1847, during the Great Famine in Ireland, the Choctaw tribe here in the U.S. raised $147 (which would be equivalent to $5,000 today) and sent it to Ireland. The Choctaw tribe certainly wasn’t rich back then. But they were generous anyway. They saw others in need, and they sacrificed what they could to help.
In 2020, in response to COVID-19 deaths in the Navajo Nation, the Choctaw and Hopi tribes set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for clean water and medical supplies for Native Americans. Donations to the fund have flooded in from the people of Ireland. One Irish donor wrote on the GoFundMe page, Returning your kindness 170 years and 4,000 miles later.
So, if generosity doesn’t depend on resources, what does it depend on? And why do we keep using the excuse that once we have more money, then we will give more to the work of God?
In our lesson from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, Paul praises the generosity of the church at Macedonia. He uses their giving as an example to challenge the church at Corinth. He says gently to the Corinthians, But since you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in the love we have kindled in you—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.That’s pretty tactful. Then Paul adds, I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.
Paul is not demanding that they increase their giving. He hopes that they will see that giving is a natural consequence of Christian devotion. Giving is a natural expression of our love for God. In Paul’s terms, it is a test of the sincerity of our love for God. I want to offer some reasons this morning why generous giving is critical to the devotional life of a Christian.
The first reason concerns the seductive nature of wealth. This is not a sermon against money. In just a few moments we are going to be talking about some of the wonderful things money can do. There is something very dangerous about money, however, and that is this: the more you have, the harder it is to share. That’s true.
A Gallup poll sometime back confirmed what many of us have observed for years. Donations to charity decrease as income increases. The survey found that low- and moderate-income Americans, especially churchgoers, are more generous than upper-income Americans.
But that’s not true for everyone. Pastor Brian Kluth tells of his friend Don, a wealthy businessman who gives generously to those in need. When Brian questioned Don about his giving, Don responded, It helps me to slay the dragon. He went on to explain that our greatest temptation is to believe that our happiness or identity can be found in buying newer, better or more stuff. He pictures materialism as a dragon that he has to fight against every day. And the only way to fight the dragon is to be a faithful and generous giver. Every time he wrote a check to fund the work of the church, it was like wielding a sword to slay the dragon.
Country music star Ricky Skaggs and his wife believe in tithing, giving 10% of their income to the church and charities. As he said, If I believe anything about the Bible, I have to know that God wants my money because He knows my money wants me. He doesn’t need my money but he wants whatever I want more than Him.
God doesn’t need your money, but He wants whatever you want more than Him. That’s a really good reason to challenge believers to give generously. Giving generously helps us slay the dragon of materialism, of pride, of greed, of self-centeredness that stands between us and finding our true happiness and identity in God.
John Wesley, the preacher who created the framework of the Methodist church, used four criteria for measuring any purchase. Before spending any money, he would ask himself:
Am I acting as a steward of the Lord’s goods?
Am I making this purchase in obedience to the Word of God?
Can I offer up this expense as a sacrifice to God through Jesus Christ?
Do I have reason to believe that this purchase will bring me a reward at the resurrection of the just?
Those are some tough questions! How many of us are picturing our latest credit card bill and squirming in our seat? The dragon of materialism is getting larger and larger in our society’s value system. It’s not easy to live by God’s value system in a society that values image and appearance and status symbols. It should work the other way. It should get easier to give as our wealth increases, but it does not. There is something about money that hardens us. As attractive and wonderful as money is, that is its nature. No wonder Jesus talked more about money than any other subject. No wonder he warned that we could not serve God and mammon too.
So, you see, giving is a spiritual question. For some of us, our very souls are at stake. The second reason generous giving is critical to the devotional life of a Christian has to do with the wonderful things money can buy. I’m not going to be a hypocrite about it, I like having money.
Regardless of our circumstances, we have to admit that there are some things only money can buy. Like braces for your children’s teeth and a good education. Like quality health care and a worry-free retirement. Like dependable transportation and a warm house on a cold night. In a society such as ours money is a very valuable commodity.
British pastor C. H. Spurgeon was one of the most famous and influential preachers of the late 1800s. In addition to his church ministry, Spurgeon founded an orphanage in London. He preached a special service once each year to raise money for the orphans. One year at this special service, a man approached Spurgeon and asked accusingly, Why, Mr. Spurgeon, I thought you preached for souls and not for money! Spurgeon answered, Normally I do preach for souls and not for money. But my orphans can’t eat souls and if they did, my brother, it would take at least four the size of yours to give one of them a square meal!
Our giving is a spiritual matter simply because there are some things in this world only money can do. Money can help house the homeless and feed the hungry. Money can send Bibles to new Christians in developing countries. It can provide for people at our border. It can build a your wallet right now to feed a hungry child for several days. Think of the power that gives you. You can make a difference in whether or not a child survives! I wish that child could be fed with our prayers and best wishes, but without money it will not happen.
Giving is a spiritual matter, first of all, because of the seductive nature of wealth. Secondly, because there are some things only money can do. Finally, it is a spiritual matter because we worship a giving God. St. Paul follows the two verses we have already read with these words: 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 through his poverty might become rich. Jesus gave up everything he had and took on the form of a man to show us the unlimited, overwhelming riches of God’s love for us. We worship a giving God and He says to us there is only one way that we can become truly rich. That is by giving—all we have and all we are.
Christian author Randy Alcorn writes, Jesus said it is more blessed to give, but He never says why. Here is my why behind his statement. When you keep what you have, you will be blessed. The more you keep/ the more you have /the more you have/ the more you can spend on yourself, etc. If you give, on the other hand, two people will be blessed by ‘your’ money—you and the recipient. Keeping blesses one—giving blesses two. . . People never discover the second blessing until they actually do it, and I have learned the more they do it the more addictive giving becomes.
God is love, and out of that overflowing love God is continually giving good gifts—blessings—to us. And God wants us to share in the joy of giving by giving generously to others. Love is the true sword that slays the dragons of materialism, greed, pride and self-centeredness. Love sets us free to be a blessing to others. We think more money will set us free, but that is rarely the answer. Love for God and trust in God’s blessings set us free to be a blessing to the world. That’s the answer to our word problem at the beginning of this sermon: Severe trials + extreme poverty + love for God = Overflowing joy and rich generosity.
How about you? St. Paul said to the Corinthians that they were doing great in every area except one. If they wanted to really excel—if they wanted to know what rich really is—they would need to learn to give.
So the question for us becomes not, How much shall we give, and to whom, and how often, and how can we be sure they’ll spend it wisely? The question finally becomes, How much room in our lives have we made to be filled with Jesus? After all, he has emptied his life to be filled with us.
In the end, our heads, our hands and our hearts are given to us for one reason above all: that we may open them out to others, in such a way that they may be filled with Jesus Christ.
Let us pray:
Put us in the midst of what you are doing;
Make us acutely mindful of your passion for us and for the world;
And help us to bless what you are creating here and now.
We pray this in the presence of Jesus, our life and hope….Amen