Saturday, 4 January 2020

The Joy of Generosity (Eccles. 11)

Do you get more pleasure from getting or giving?  Do you get more joy from playing it safe or taking risks?  Can you say that you are living life in all its fullness?  Do you fear that your best days as a Christian are behind you?  Do you want more from life than simply gathering stuff?  Do we want to live with a sense of purpose?  In this morning’s reading Solomon speaks to us about the joy of generosity.

Give generously (1-2 and 6)

What does it mean to ‘cast your bread upon the water’?  There is debate about exactly what this means.  The reformer, Martin Luther, suggests that Solomon is telling us to ‘be generous to everyone while you can, use your riches wherever you can possibly do any good.’

Remember the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30).  A talent was a momentary unit worth twenty years wages.  The master went away and left his servants in charge of his finances.  When he returned, who was the servant that he was angry with?  The master was angry with the servant who had played it safe.  We don’t want to have a big bank account when Jesus returns.  We want to be able to show him how we used our money generously.

I am not saying that we should be reckless.  We should be making provisions rainy days.  But we should not be overly cautious.  We are called to step out in faith.  We should be sacrificially generous.  We should even be willing to take prayerful financial risks in our giving.

Not only are we called to give away our money; we are called to give away our faith.  It takes courage to take about Jesus.  It may cost us in terms of popularity and reputation.  We may be laughed at and called superstitious.  We may be misunderstood as do-gooders.  We will always be able to find reasons not to speak about Jesus.  In one of the first churches I worked with, the people resisted the idea of doing mission because they said that they were not ready.  They said that they needed to work on strengthening the fellowship within the church.  You actually strengthen the community in a church by doing mission together.  Nothing binds people together like having a sense of shared purpose.  I wonder if they ever felt ready.

‘Give a portion to seven, or even eight …’ (2a).  Seven was the number of completeness.  Solomon is telling us to give to the nth degree.  Stretch your sense of generosity.  When it comes to giving your faith away, remember that talked of scattering the seed of the gospel on all sorts of ground (Mark 4:1-20).  The end of verse one implies that you may have to wait many days (or even years) before you see any return. 

‘In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good’ (6).  The Bible has a theology of rest, but not a theology of retirement.  What we call ‘retirement’ should be seen as an opportunity to enjoy new ways of giving for God.  If you have planned well, you will have more time on your hands.  You are no longer burdened by having to earn your crust.  You are available to explore new ministries.  Even at the very end of your days, you have the opportunity to show faith in the face of death and time to pray with the deep insight.

With regards to holidays.  The summer break may be a time recharge the batteries, but it is also a time when you will meet new people who may know no other Christians but you.  People who have been on mission trips will tell you how much they were stretched and grown.  Think of your holidays as rest and mission.

Don’t hesitate to give (3-5)

Some things are inevitable.  When the clouds are full of moisture, it will rain (3a).  The tree will lie where it falls, for it has no power to move (3b).  It is inevitable that when we speak about Jesus, some will take offense, but don’t let that keep your mouth shut!  It inevitably tests us to give generously, but don’t let that make you tight-fisted.

While some things are inevitable, others are uncertain.  Often, we don’t have a clue how things will turn out.  But don’t let uncertainty cause you to procrastinate.  The picture, in verse four, is of a farmer observing the wind because he hopes for a more suitable day to sow or looking at the clouds wondering if there would be a better day to reap his harvest.  There won’t necessarily be a more opportune time to give or share than now.

I have waited too long to talk to my friends about Jesus.  I hope that they will bring up the topic.  But they don’t.  So, I wait!  However, we need to take more initiative.  We need to asking leading questions about what they believe in order to open up the conversation.  Don’t keep putting off giving away your faith.  You might forever miss the opportunity.  Who knows, they might die this very night.  I am not telling you to be overly pushy.  We are told to share our hope with ‘gentleness and respect’ (1 Peter 3:15).  If you can see that they want to change the topic away from religion, don’t steel-roll them.  But don’t be afraid to take the initiative.

We used to live in a house with a study at the front.  That was where I prepared my sermons.  One evening a neighbour called because they were leaving to live in Australia the next day or two.  That neighbour said to me, ‘I often saw you in your study and thought about coming to talk to you about God.  But I never got around to it.’  I had missed a great opportunity because I waited on him to make the move.  Some of your family and friends are wanting to talk to you about Christ, but they are scared to bring it up.  What might happen if you were to take the first move?

‘As you do not know the way that the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything’ (5).  Who knows how God is going to work as you give and speak?  We speak, but the Spirit blows where he wills (John 3:8).  We can’t convict people of sin and their need for God’s forgiveness, but the Holy Spirit can (John 16:8).  We can warn people that without holiness you cannot see God (Hebrews 12:14), but it is only the Holy Spirit how can motivate them to strive for purity.  ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, the labourers strive in vein’ (Psalm 127:1).  ‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord almighty (Zechariah 4:6).  There is a wonderful freedom in realising that the success of mission or the fruitfulness of our giving does not depend on us.  Our job is to sow, his is to grow.  We cast our bread upon the waters, his responsibility is for its return.  We may see no other fruit other than the great delight the Lord takes that we were willing to take a risk and step out in faith.

Giving is the source of joy (7-10)

Our passage ends with Solomon telling us to enjoy life.  No matter how many years you live, enjoy them (8).  Be happy while you are young (9).  ‘Banish anxiety from your heart’ (10).  It is not that there will be no dark days.  Nor do we live recklessly, for our lives are the evidence of God’s grace within us on the day of judgement.  God wants us to be happy.  I am telling you to share money and faith to rob you of joy, but to fill you with joy.  Jesus said that ‘it is more blessed (or joyful) to give than receive’ (Acts 20:35).  

A woman was leading a ladies’ Bible study where she shared what she had learned about the happiness of Jesus.  One woman, who had grown up in church circles, was startled.  This woman thought that it was wrong to think of Jesus with a smile.  Do you believe that Jesus was the happiest person who ever lived?  The book of Hebrews tells us that God has anointed Jesus with the oil of joy beyond his companions (Hebrews 1:9).  He is gladder than the angels of heaven!  We read of Jesus rejoicing in the Holy Spirit (Luke 10:21).  He tells his disciples that he wants his joy to be in them (John 15:11).  We know that he was a happy person because children are not drawn to grumpy adults (Matthew 19:13-15).  Yes, he was a man of sorrows who was familiar with grief (Isaiah 53:3), but sorrow and joy can live together.

Jesus is our model in what we are learning through this passage.  No one gave more generously than he did.  He gave his life for us.  He died that we might be forgiven.  That giving was costly.  He cried out from the cross, ‘my God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 26:46).  He was abandoned that we would never be forsaken.  He was rejected so that we could be accepted.  Greater love has no man than this (John 15:13).  But that costly giving was soaked in the joy he took in winning our salvation.  That costly giving led to joy.  ‘For the joy that was set before him, he endured the cross’ (Hebrews 12:2).

Giving can be costly.  Sharing can hurt.  But it leads to joy.  So, do you get more pleasure from getting or giving?  Do you get more joy from playing it safe or taking risks?  Can you say that you are living life in all its fullness?  Do you fear that your best days as a Christian are behind you?  Do you want more from life than simply gathering stuff?  If you want to be happy cast your bread upon the water—be generous with your money and give away your faith. 

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