Monday, January 5, 2015

Aligning Our Giving with the Heart of God: Made in the Image of a Giving God

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (Genesis 1:1–3)
In the evening quails came up and covered the camp; and in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, “What is it?” For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given you to eat.” (Exodus 16:13–15)
For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy… (Ecclesiastes 2:26)
He Himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. (Acts 17:25)
“So I say to you, ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9–13)
For God so loved the world that He gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. (John 3:16)
In case it has escaped your attention, you need to realize something very important about the God we come to worship. Our God is a giving God! “Giving” is in God’s nature. We read about God’s giving nature all through the Bible. God gave us light, God gave us life, and God gave us food. God gave us His Son! And God did not quit giving us gifts when the last page of Scripture was written. God gives you life, God gives you food and shelter, and God gives you material and spiritual blessings today. God gives you meaningful relationships in your life… with friends, parents, and children.

I want you to hear one more passage, and this passage is so important. Listen to what we are told in the first chapter of the Bible…
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in Our image, according to Our likeness…” (Genesis 1:26)
We were made in the image of a giving God! So, it is not only in God’s nature to give, it is also in our nature to give! Humans were made to give!

But it doesn’t always seem that way, does it?

Yes, God created us with the nature to give, but as you know, we are a fallen people. In other words, we do not always look like the image that served as our model! When sin entered our world, everything changed. Our world became something God never intended. We began looking less and less like that image all the time. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in our unwillingness to give.

I think selfish is a better adjective than giving to describe us on most days, don’t you? There are so many examples I could use… but how about Alex Rodriguez? Most of you know the name Alex Rodriguez, but some may not. He was a professional baseball player, a REALLY good professional baseball player. Some say he could have been one of the best that ever played. Which brings up an interesting question… Why would an athlete who has reached the pinnacle of success risk it all by taking anabolic steroids? By 2001, Alex Rodriguez (or A-Rod) had been awarded the biggest contract in the history of professional sports. He was guaranteed a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. At the peak of his career, he had more money than he could spend in ten lifetimes. He could out-hit, out-run, and out-play practically any player in the game. According to New York Times columnist David Brooks all of this success wasn't enough. Brooks offers a warning that could apply to any one of us, not just a famous athlete:
Self-preoccupied people have trouble seeing that their talents come from outside themselves and can only be developed when directed toward something else outside themselves. Enclosed in self, they come to believe that their talents come from self, and are for themselves … Locked in a cycle of insecurity and self-validation, their talents are never enough, and they end up devouring what they have been given.
I’m not sure if David Brooks is a religious man or not, but he made a pretty theologically astute comment there! We were made to give our gifts away, and when we do not, when we hold on to those gifts, when we are selfish rather than giving, the results are always bad! Selfishness in marriage leads to divorce. Selfishness with money can lead to dishonest business decisions. Selfishness with our time can lead to isolation from family or friends. Selfishness with our talents can lead to a church or a family deprived of God-given gifts. The gifts God has given you were meant to be re-gifted! That may not be proper protocol for a Christmas gift, but is perfectly acceptable, even expected and intended, with God’s gifts to you!

Each year at Glenwood, we focus in on a certain part of our vision. In January of each year, I preach a special series of lessons that help move us in that direction. We also offer Sunday morning adult classes that help us focus more intently on that part of our vision. We also have a closing benediction that helps us remember each week this special emphasis. Last year, our focus was on one of the values of our vision: A Love that Reaches. All year long, we emphasized that God’s love was not given to us to horde for ourselves. God’s love was meant to reach out beyond our walls into our community and into our world. The sermons I preached throughout last year had a special emphasis on God’s love that reaches beyond our walls. Each week, we heard the same text from Isaiah:
It isn’t enough for you to be merely my servant. You must do more than lead back survivors from the tribes of Israel. I have placed you here as a light for other nations; you must take my saving power to everyone on earth.
God expects us to help His love reach to the entire world! As we begin this year, we will not turn our backs on “A Love that Reaches,” but we want to begin to hone in on another part of our vision.
This year, we will focus on one of our measures. Instead of measuring our spiritual growth through church attendance and contribution (as most churches do), we think there are better measures of our growth. Are you Seeking God in a Quiet Place? Are you Taking God into Your Living Rooms? Are you Nourishing Your Relationships in the Body of Christ? Are you Discovering God’s Mission Beyond Our Walls? The leaders (ministers and elders) here at Glenwood intentionally structure our ministries to help you grow on those areas. Because we believe if you are growing in those areas, you are growing more and more into the image of God all the time.

But there is another measure that I failed to mention: Aligning Our Giving with the Heart of God. That will be our focus this year. I know that when most of you hear that statement, you immediately cringe…“Oh my goodness…an entire year on stewardship! I think I need to start looking for a new church home!” What I hope that I’ve shown you this morning is that giving is about much more than money. There is a money component to giving, certainly! We need to hear that, and we WILL this year. Let it never escape our attention: we are rich people, and with so much wealth come tremendous responsibility. But that is not the only gift we need to give. We also need to give our energy. We need to give our time. We need to give our ears and hearts. We need to give our wisdom and our faith. God did not put us here to bask in the glory and the blessing of our many gifts. God put us here to model His character by giving those gifts away and blessing the world around us.

I’ve known about this emphasis for a couple of months now, and I’ve been searching for a text that gets to the heart of it. I finally landed on my favorite text in the entire Bible. I think there is not a better text that gets to the heart of God’s giving nature. Listen to these words from Philippians 2…
You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.
Though he was God,
  He did not think of equality with God
  as something to cling to.
Instead, He gave up His divine privileges;
  He took the humble position of a slave
  and was born as a human being.
When He appeared in human form,
  He humbled himself in obedience to God
  and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Therefore, God elevated Him to the place of highest honor
  and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
  in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
  to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5–11, NLT)
As I said, our God is a giving God. This year, I want to remind you that you too are a giving being. That is what God created you for. Allow this passage to remind you each week of the glorious image into which you were made!

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