This morning we begin our journey toward Christmas. Most years we would be looking at an Old Testament prophecy like the one read earlier in our worship service. (Jeremiah 23:5-6). But this year I want to set a different tone for our Advent passage to the Christmas manger. I want to offer an invitation to a different way of living that will shape our Christmas celebrations and grow our walk with God. This morning I invite you individually, and as a church family, to embrace a life of generosity. It is a way of life on display in the Christmas story and lived out in front of us by people we love and cherish.
Not long ago I attended the memorial service for Jim Denton’s mom, Rachel. I listened to person after person describe the impact her life of generosity had on them and on seemingly countless others. I asked Jim to share how her story inspired him to become the person he is through Christ.
THE EXAMPLE THAT KEEPS ON GIVING – by Jim Denton - I was delighted to finally get that package had finally come in the mail. Income taxes are due on April 15 and it’s a busy time of year at my CPA firm. Since my father passed away more than 15 years before, each year I have handled my mom’s federal and state filings. I rapidly shuffle through her envelope seeing familiar with her accounts, properties and payments; but I notice substantial and consistent gifts to her church and a long list of gifts to missions, faith-based organizations, TV preachers as well as a few local charities. Seeing the TV preachers, my face flushed, I lurched for my cell phone to call my brother who lives in the same town to complain that she was being frivolous and he needed to control her payments. You see she had just moved to a nursing facility and being a true accountant, I was considering how long I projected that she would live, the potential for expensive care that she would need, and how the stock market had dropped and with a fixed income she keeps on giving these large amounts! Especially those to her TV preachers!
But something stopped me from hitting the speed dial. I looked back at the previous years’ tax returns and saw that she had given similar amounts to her church and to missions. She gave gifts to the organizations and the TV guys as well. This was her pattern. This was her belief and commitment. Most importantly, it was her life! Her contributions list told me what was important to her. I put the phone down, smiled to myself as I was beginning to understand her beliefs, her commitment and unwavering devotion to God’s work in the world today. As usual, my reflex was more than a few degrees off.
My Mom had a disease. Specifically, she had what I term as the “generosity gene.” She wasn’t exactly born with it. She developed it through circumstances along with some great examples, a few learned behaviors and an open heart. Countless times she would see someone truly in need and she would make something happen. I think it came from the fact that she grew up in a meager setting herself and a handful of kind people constantly reached out to her. Later on when she had some means, her overriding desire was to keep giving back.
She also understood the commitments she had made and was true to them. More than anything she loved the Lord and was highly devoted to her local church. She showed that through her giving of money and her time. Best of all she and my dad instilled in me the importance of consistent generous giving. We lost her in October of this year but I believe that her legacy lives on.
At First Baptist Church we have some amazing examples just like her. I see these legacies from the choir on Sunday, teaching our Bible Study and in the kitchen on Wednesday evening. They give faithfully because of their love, their beliefs, commitments and their broken hearts for a broken world. They have the generosity gene. I cherish each of them. I know that their gifts to the Lord are their life!
My belief is that the generosity gene can be passed along to the next generation and the next and the next. But the key is that it must be consistently demonstrated, taught and exercised or it just lays dormant and stops. If we want our next generation to be selfish, that example is prevalent in our popular culture and we just let the world do the teaching for us. If we want the next generation to be generous then we must show them the way by being generous ourselves and talking about our love for God and our mission here on earth. It’s time to take them by the hand and show them how generosity fits into everything we do. You never know who you might inspire!
Thank you, Jim. Your mom’s story – and the story of others like her – calls us toward a generous life. I believe that this way of generosity is at the very heart of the Christmas story. The gift of the Christchild is the ultimate act of God’s generous nature.
We hear it in Paul’s instructions to Titus, the 3rd Chapter, Verses 4 through 7: 4 But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
When you look at the range of the way dictionaries try to describe “generosity” we discover that it is an open-handed, selfless, ready, abundant, substantial way of giving. I think it takes the full breadth of this kind of definition to begin to wrap our arms around the depths of God’s love and generosity reflected in the birth of the Christ child. The very act of God’s incarnation – of God coming in flesh through Jesus – and God’s gift of salvation through Christ is God’s generosity on display. God’s redemptive act of grace shown in the birth, crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus that we could be forgiven and become heirs of eternal life is the ultimate open-handed, selfless, abundant, and substantial act of giving. It is a Christmas gift of scandalous proportion. Generosity is a manifestation of the very nature of God. Simply said, generosity is at the heart of God, and as His children we are to mirror this same kind of selfless generosity.
There is a great Old Testament passage that describes the kind of life of generosity that can grow our walk with God. It is text we looked at once before but I think speaks uniquely to this moment as we begin our Advent journey and as we face God’s bold future as a congregation. Look with me at I Chronicles 29: 14-18. It reads; 14 “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand. 15 We are foreigners and strangers in your sight, as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope. 16 LORD our God, all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you. 17 I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things I have given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you. 18 LORD, the God of our fathers Abraham, Isaac and Israel, keep these desires and thoughts in the hearts of your people forever, and keep their hearts loyal to you.
This passage emerges from Solomon’s dedicatory prayer for the grand temple in Jerusalem. At the time of its construction, Solomon’s Temple would have been one of the most beautiful and remarkable buildings in the world. The construction of the grand temple, that was to serve as God’s earthly home, had been his father’s, David, dream. But David’s choice to claim the wife of a married man and then arrange for the death of the man, one of his loyal soldiers, so he could then make Bathsheba one of his wives, was a stain on David’s legacy and the cause for God to deny David’s dream and allow his son to build the temple. So with this story, at once very personal and profoundly religious, in the background, Solomon comes to dedicate this remarkable structure. Instead of focusing on his own story or seizing the moment for his own glory, he offers a prayer that celebrates a generosity flowing from complete dependence on God. The abundance of their gifts for the temple begins with God’s generous gifts to them. Our culture of self sufficiency stands in sharp contrast to a theology that begins with the belief that everything belongs to God and all we have comes from God. Solomon had no doubt. He understood that God has made the means for him and his people to be the people of God. We see this even more profoundly because we are a people made the children of God through God’s great act of love and grace through Jesus Christ. We are called to a generous life because of God’s generosity in our lives.
It is important to hear that a generous life is an expression and reflection of the whole of who we are. It is not choosing a category of our lives where we give of ourselves. Our stewardship is a life stewardship. It means giving of our time, returning to God a portion of the time he has given us. It means giving of our talents. God has uniquely gifted and equipped you for the work of the Kingdom. The kind of giving I am talking about is not just about generous gifts of money, because while money is important it is about more than money. Money alone is not enough. The kind of giving I am talking about is not just about the generous giving of our time, because while the giving of our time is important it is about more than the giving of our time. Giving time alone is not enough. Living a generous life means giving of the whole of us - an open-handed, selfless, ready, abundant, substantial way of giving of ourselves for others and for the Kingdom of God. At some level we know that this is the kind of way of life God desires of us, but it is hard to image what that might actually look like in our lives.
Early in my ministry I had a friend that loved to work with horses. One afternoon I watched him working a young horse and it blinders like these on. I could not understand why he was using them and he explained that sometimes a young horse can be easily distracted by what other horses, or even people, are doing. The blinders, he explained, was to help limit the horse’s vision to only what was directly ahead of him. I believe the greatest single obstacle for us to live a generous life is that we are harnessed with spiritual blinders. We are so defined by what we have witnessed before, and so laser beam focused on the future we think we see in front of us, that we simply do not see all that God is doing in our lives and in the world. We are so focused on the demands of the day, the tugs of the monthly bills, our already stretched schedules, and our theology of limited resources, we cannot see anything beyond what is in front of us. As a congregation, we can be so wounded by the failures and frustrations of another season, so shaped by the long season of decline, so anxious about the survival of the church, so consumed by a theology of limitation and limited resources, that we cannot see beyond what is in front of us. By allowing our vision to limited by spiritual blinders we miss seeing God at work in our lives and in the world around us. By allowing our vision to be limited by spiritual blinders we remove God from the throne in our lives. By allowing our vision to be limited to be limited by spiritual blinders we cheat ourselves from experiencing the bounty of God’s love, grace, and generosity.
It is time to let the failures and the frustrations of yesterday go. We have to look up. We have to throw off our blinders and intentionally look to see where God is at work in our lives, in the life of our congregation, and in the world around us. When we begin to see the wonder of God’s works and a glimpse into God’s bold future for us, our walk with God will be changed. We will begin to understand that it really all does belong to God and that God is incredibly generous in our lives. I know that there are times you must hear me like a used car salesman as I describe where I see God at work in our midst. So, decide to open your eyes and your heart wide and see for yourselves. Eagerly seek the signs of God’s generosity in your life and the life of our church family so that your heart and faith will be strengthened. Seek the signs of God’s generosity so that you might find the courage you need quit holding on in fear and release yourself to a generous way of life that reflect the heart and the way of God. It will change how you give of yourself and the resources that God has given you.
May our prayer – our very life song echo the words of Solomon; “But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand….I know, my God, that you test the heart and are pleased with integrity. All these things I have given willingly and with honest intent. And now I have seen with joy how willingly your people who are here have given to you.