Fear Factor

Acts 20:35

For the past few months I’ve been preaching a series of sermons from I Peter. We’re taking a break from that series for the next two weeks so we can focus on Christian giving. That fact is noteworthy for two reasons:

1) We rarely take time to address the issue of giving from the pulpit. I last talked about it in an extended fashion in September 2003. You’d have to go back quite a few years to find the time before that.

2) This is the right time to do it. When we started the Legacy Campaign in 2003, we set a goal of paying the $3 million cost by Thanksgiving 2005. So far we have given over $2 million toward that goal. At the present moment, we still owe about $893,000 with 32 Sundays left between now and Thanksgiving. This is a good time to stop and think about the challenge before us.

But there is an even bigger issue involved than finishing the Legacy Campaign. We need to understand what God says about Christian giving. We need to invite the supernatural to invade the natural. When you understand what God says about your money, and when you begin to believe it and put it into practice, you will be inviting God’s supernatural power to invade and occupy your natural life. And when that happens, you’ll never be the same again.

A few days ago, Pastor Howard Duncan sent me a copy of an email he sent to Gail Tornow, our Deaconess of Prayer Ministry. The first part of his email contained the best summary I’ve seen of what we’re trying to do at Calvary this year. Our 2005 theme is “The Church in Many Places.” Here’s how Howard explained it:

To accomplish this theme we are seeking to:

§ Establish multiple sites, led by Pastor Bob and the task force – Let us grow by calling out.

§ Enroll 500 people to learn how to share the gospel – The Calvary 500 – Let us grow by converts.

§ Eliminate the debt from the Legacy Campaign – Let us grow by cash available.

§ Extol our 90th birthday – November banquet – Let us grow by celebration.

The congregation needs to be led into a serious time of prayer to the Lord. They need to seek God’s wisdom, listen for his calling, boldly share the message of the Gospel, consider their rate of giving, and celebrate their heritage.

For the next two Sundays, we’re focusing on the third major priority—"Eliminate the debt from the Legacy Campaign.” For those who don’t know, we recently completed a major renovation of our Portico and West Wing. We added two floors of classrooms and offices, completely remodeled the gym, added new electrical service, created a new nursery and a new Adult Bible Fellowship room, and expanded and enclosed the Portico. All of the renovations have greatly expanded our ministry capacity. Now we hope to finish paying for them by Thanksgiving.

And that brings us to the topic of money. Deb Lawrence, an extremely insightful mother, penned the “Property Laws of a Toddler":

1. If I like it, it’s mine.

2. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine.

3. If I can take it from you, it’s mine.

4. If I had it a little while ago, it’s mine.

5. If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.

6. If I am building something, all the pieces are mine.

7. If it looks just like mine, it’s mine.

8. If I saw it first, it’s mine.

9. If you are playing with something and put it down, it automatically becomes mine.

10. If it’s broken, it’s yours.

I think these laws illustrate what we all know to be true. From an early age, it is human nature to stake out what’s ours, and even what’s not and get a white-knuckle grip on it. We all tend to act like toddlers when it comes to money and things that money can buy. I have two pieces of good news for you: First, God understands our struggles with money. Second, God blesses us when we let go of our death grip.

Folks, we need to get free! As individuals and families, we need to get free. As a church, we need to get free. There’s a big world out there filled with people we need to reach for Christ. We’re dreaming of establishing multiple sites for our worship services. Our first step in that direction is to finish paying for the Legacy Campaign.

Let me share with you two key principles that apply to this sermon and the one next Sunday:

It’s not about money. It’s about God.

It’s not about what God wants from you. It’s about what God wants for you.

My text comes from the last part of Paul’s farewell message to the elders of the church at Ephesus. Knowing that he would never see these men again, he reviews his ministry among them, and exhorts them to continue serving the Lord and to be on guard after his departure. He ends with these stirring words:

“Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified. I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’” (Acts 20:32-35).

Where in the gospels do you find that quote from Jesus? The answer is, nowhere. This is a rare example of a quotation from our Lord that was remembered by the early church and recorded by Paul under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Even though it was not recorded by Matthew, Mark, Luke or John, it is authentic and very true to the spirit of Christ.

On the surface, it appears to be a paradox. Certainly it runs counter to the wisdom of the world, which tells us that if you give something away, you lose it. And if you keep something, it’s yours forever. Gaining is winning; giving is losing. Jesus turns the world’s wisdom upside down when he tells us that “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” We gain by what we give away.

It’s important for us to understand that Jesus is comparing relative values. The most important word is “more.” It is “more” blessed to give than to receive. There certainly is a blessing in receiving gifts and acts of kindness from others.

If you are thirsty and someone gives you water, you are blessed.

If you are hungry and someone gives you food, you are blessed.

If you are tired and someone gives you a place to stay, you are blessed.

If you are broke and someone gives you money, you are blessed.

If you are out of work and someone gives you a job, you are blessed.

If you are discouraged and someone lifts your spirits, you are blessed.

Some people struggle mightily in this area because they don’t want to feel beholden to anyone. Sometimes our misplaced pride keeps us from receiving acts of kindness from those who love us. It takes a certain spiritual maturity to receive from others with a grateful heart.

But as blessed as receiving is, giving is even more blessed. As I pondered these words of Jesus, I kept thinking about the question why. Why did Jesus say this? And how is giving more blessed then receiving? Here are three answers that help me understand what Jesus meant.

I. Giving delivers us from ourselves.

In the first place, giving delivers us from the bonds of selfishness. Receiving keeps the focus on us, but giving forces us to think about the needs of others. Receiving meets my own needs, but giving opens my heart to the whole wide world. You can give from selfish motives, but I don’t think you’ll give selfishly for very long. Either your selfishness will choke off your giving, or your giving will quench your selfishness. Second, giving frees us from the grip of materialism. Consider the words of I Timothy 6:9-10. “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” It’s not your bank account that gets you into trouble. Money by itself is morally neutral. A dime is neither good nor evil. It’s what you do with it that matters. When I read the first part of verse 10, I say to myself, “I don’t love money,” but then I read the phrase “eager for money,” and I’m stopped in my tracks. It reminds me of the man who said, “If money were a woman, I wouldn’t say we were in love, but we’re definitely dating heavily.” I understand that. The odd thing is, money in the end can’t satisfy. I’ve never heard a man on his deathbed say, “Thank God for my money.” Dying men give thanks for family and friends, but a dying man doesn’t have time to worry about money. According to an Italian proverb, “the last shroud has no pockets.” Sometimes we ask about the departed, “How much did he leave?” The answer is always the same: “All of it.”

Third, giving frees us from the burden of depending on money to make us happy. As I thought about that principle, my mind drifted back to a story I remembered from Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline. The interesting thing about this is that I haven’t read the book in almost 20 years. But while preparing this message, one passage drifted back to my mind. I pause here to note that I am an avid bike rider. Last year I rode my bike 3,400 miles. I try to ride every day on an 11-mile route through Oak Park, River Forest and Forest Park. If I have extra time, I may ride the Prairie Path or one of the other bike trails in our area. Very often, my bike ride is the best part of my day. That’s when I can relax, get my exercise, unwind a bit, and sing or pray or just enjoy the passing scene. Here’s the story from Celebration of Discipline. It comes from a chapter on the discipline of simplicity. This is Richard Foster’s third suggestion on how to develop a simpler life:

Third, develop a habit of giving things away. If you find that you are becoming attached to some possession, consider giving it to someone who needs it. I still remember the Christmas I decided that rather than buying or even making an item for a particular individual, I would give him something that meant a lot to me. My motive was selfish: I wanted to know the liberation that comes from even this simple act of voluntary poverty. The gift was a ten-speed bike. As I drove to his home to deliver the gift, I remember singing with new meaning the worship chorus, “Freely, freely you have received; freely, freely give.” Yesterday my six-year-old son heard of a classmate who needs a lunch pail and asked me if he could give him own lunch pail. Hallelujah! (p. 79)

Richard Foster gave his bike away. I guess that’s why I remembered that story after 20 years. Before I add anything else, let me go on to quote his next paragraph:

De-accumulate. Masses of things that are not needed complicate life. They must be sorted and stored and dusted and re-sorted and re-stored ad nauseum. Most of us could get rid of half our possessions without any serious sacrifice. We would do well to follow the counsel of Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify” (p. 80).

His meaning is very clear, and we need to consider what Foster is saying.

It is not wrong to own a bike, but if your bike owns you, give it away.

It is not wrong to own a motorcycle, but if your motorcycle owns you, give it away.

It is not wrong to own a new car, but if your new car owns you, give it away.

It is not wrong to own a summer home, but if your summer home owns you, give it away.

It is not wrong to own nice jewelry, but if your jewelry owns you, give it away.

It is not wrong to own a big house, but if your big house owns you, give it away.

He is certainly right that most of us could easily part with half of what we own, and we would be better off for it. The best way to break the idolatry of things is to give them away. Then we, too, like Richard Foster, would walk away singing.

II. Giving unites us with our brothers and sisters.

When we give through the church or to a Christian ministry, we unite our resources for the common good. There is only so much one man can do. I can give and give and give until I have given all I have, but even if I give 100%, I cannot feed all the hungry of the world. But when I give what I can give, and you give what you can give, and when we are joined with others, we can do far more together than we could ever do separately. But that’s not all. Mutual giving inspires others to acts of sacrifice. When I see you give and you see me give, my example lifts you and your example lifts me. And as others see you and me giving, our example inspires them. It doesn’t matter whether or not they know how much we give. Sometimes they do; most of the time they don’t. Not only do your gifts matter, your act of giving itself inspires others to join in. But even that’s not the whole story. When you give and I give, and when others join with us, together we create an enormous stockpile of resources. As we see that mountain growing for God, we begin to pray about it and over and because of it, asking God’s blessing for the sake of the gospel around the world. That rising chorus of united prayer resounds in heaven to the glory of God. So what happens when God’s people unite in giving, praise, worship and united prayer? Answer: The windows of heaven open up and God blesses those who give so that the gift itself is blessed beyond all human expectation, and the givers are blessed more than they dreamed possible.

I give … you give … we give … others give … the mountain begins to grow … resources multiply … we rejoice and we pray … God moves from heaven to bless the gifts and the givers.

After I preached this message on Sunday, a friend told me that when God blesses us because of our giving, his blessing is more, different and better. He went on to say that when we hoard what we have, our hands are full and God cannot give us anything else. But when we give away what we have, God then is free to bless us in ways we would not be able to receive otherwise. Simply put, when we give, God does things for us that he does not do when we don’t give.

There is another way in which giving unites us with our brothers and sisters. When we give, we are united with those who came before us. 2005 is the 90th birthday of Calvary Memorial Church. In our archives, we have an old church record book from 1915, written in longhand, which records the various meetings that led to the founding of this congregation. A small group of believers met for the first time in a home in Oak Park on February 15, 1915. They held their first public worship service on March 21. They approved the church constitution on April 5. Compared with church life today, they moved at the speed of light. It takes most churches six months to pick a committee that in six more months will appoint a task force that will study the possibilities for a year, and then it takes another year to choose the right one. Our founders didn’t dawdle around. After that small group had met for a month or so, they started talking about how much it would cost to start a new church. The notes from the fourth meeting say that they decided to purchase 100 chairs and 60 songbooks. Then they decided to pay from $30-$35 rent for the store that they had chosen for their first meeting place at Home Avenue and Harrison Street. The money was either to be donated at once or to be advanced by the group. Here is the next sentence: “It was decided that $100 would be necessary to start on.”

Can you imagine that? They decided they were going to buy chairs and songbooks and that turned out to be our first church budget. They could afford $30-$35 for rent for that first building and they decided if they could come up with $100, they could get the church started. These days $100 doesn’t seem like very much, but back then it was real money. They didn’t know if they had it or not. The fifth meeting of the church was held March 15, 1915, at the Bretall home. Mr. Robert Rensch acted as chairman. He read the minutes of the meeting and then Mr. Bretall stated that the store building at Home and Harrison—the one they could rent for $30-$35 a month—"could not be secured for less than $45-$50 a month and for this reason it was out of the question.” He further stated that “a store building could be secured at the corner of Madison Street and Clinton Avenue in Oak Park for $20 per month. This change in the situation was looked upon as an act of God’s providence and it was decided that this building be investigated and secured if deemed favorable.”

That’s an amazing way to start a church. They’re trying to start a church on $100, and they’re not sure they can even raise that much. They have a rental budget of $35-$45, but when they find a building for $45, they suddenly realize they can’t pay it so they turn it down. Later on, when they find another building for $20, they are sure it is a sign of God’s providence on their behalf.

Now, that’s still not the good part. The good part is this. They said they wanted to start the church with $100. I heard that as soon as I came to Calvary. As I read through this book, I found a yellowed page written in beautiful copperplate script. It is entitled “Donations to cover the starting expenses.” Here’s the money they had on hand:

James Graham $5.00

Walter Bretall $10.00

J. W. McCarroll $12.00

S. J. McCarroll $12.00

D. Nixon $2.00

Charles Porter $4.00

Peaslee and Porter $2.70

Total $53.70

Down below on the same page is the expense side of the ledger:

Rent $20.00

Song Books $12.00

60 Chairs $35.00

Stove $2.00

Express Chairs $3.00

Brushes, etc $2.00

Total $74.00

This is fairly easy to figure out. Our church started out with $53.70 in the bank and bills totaling $74. We were in debt from the day this church started. We couldn’t make our first budget. We’ve been missing that $21 for 90 years and we are still looking for it today!

Let me say something about the faith of our founders compared to our faith. They thought they needed $100 to start a new church, but they ended up starting with barely half that amount. Our budget this year will be $1.8 million. And we hope to pay off the $900,000 we owe on the Legacy Campaign by Thanksgiving. Here’s the way I see it. God has poured so many resources into our church. I’ve never been around any church with so many gifted and talented people as we have. We are by no means a church of millionaires, but compared to the folks who founded this congregation, we’re doing just fine. God has blessed us in many ways. It will be easier for us to raise $900,000 by Thanksgiving than it was for the founders of this church to raise $100. I’m not asking you to do something new. I’m asking the congregation to rise up to the level of our founders, to have that kind of faith and be willing to make that kind of sacrifice.

III. Giving brings us nearer to God.

There is one final reason why it is more blessed to give than to receive. Our giving draws us nearer to God. How so? First, by making us imitators of the God who gives. Nothing is more natural to God than to give. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son” (John 3:16). Giving lies at the very heart of who God is. If God did not give us food to eat, water to drink, and air to breathe, we would not be here. If God did not give us life itself, we would not be here. If God had not given us his Son to die for us, we would perish eternally. You will never be more like God than when you give. Second, giving causes us to share in his delight. We know that God loves a cheerful giver (II Corinthians 9:7). You’ve heard it said (based on a Greek word in that verse) that God loves a “hilarious” giver. God takes great delight in being God. I think he enjoyed creating the universe, fashioning the stars, and forming the creatures of the earth. How could you not enjoy making an armadillo? When we give, we join God in the delight he takes in giving to us. Third, when we give, we put ourselves in the place where God can bless us. Think of all the benefits of giving: We relieve the needs of others, we inspire others to join with us, we improve our own soul, and we establish habits that bring eternal rewards. Our generous giving brings glory to the Lord. These are all great blessings that come to us when we give.

Consider the power of money. The man who has it is better off than the man who does not have it. That is, he can buy certain things a man without money cannot buy. It can buy knowledge, rank, position, favor, privilege and possessions. It cannot buy the things of the spirit—love, joy, peace, hope, forgiveness. It cannot buy courage or loyalty. But most men think money is the measure of all things. We live to make it, to earn it, to invest it, to multiply it, to spend it, and to make some more so we can spend some more. But the desire for money becomes a passion and then an addiction. First a servant, then a master. First a desire, then a disease.

What eagerness to get rich!

What desire to have more and more!

What dreams we have of becoming wealthy!

We will never truly enter this text and it will not enter us until the Spirit of Christ enters us first. As long as we look at this verse from the outside, it will do us no good. It was Christ who said it. We must have Christ himself in us to make it part of us. We need Christ who spoke the words to speak them to our hearts. Without Christ we will be both greedy and fearful.

When we see the earth as it is, and heaven as it is …

When our vision is transformed, when eternity becomes real to us …

When we see that Christ left heaven for us, and that he purchased us at so great a price …

When these thoughts fill us and grip us …

Then the wealth of the world will see it for what it is—a tool for relieving misery and spreading the Good News. Everything else is secondary.

Somewhere I read the story of Maxey Jarman, longtime president of the Genesco Shoe Company. Before his death in 1976, Mr. Jarman was a well-known Christian layman who loved to give money to support God’s work around the world. He served for a time on the board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. At one point in his career he suffered a series of financial reversals that cost him nearly everything he had. As he struggled to put his life back together, a friend asked him if he regretted all the money he had given away over the years. “Oh no,” he replied, “I only lost what I kept for myself.”

What is it that holds us back? I believe the answer is fear. We’re afraid to become generous givers because what happened to Maxey Jarman might happen to us. The truth is, it might. No one knows what the future may hold. Six years ago the stock market was going straight up. Suddenly the market collapsed and dot.com fortunes vanished overnight. The future is uncertain for all of us.

The real issue is one of trust. Here are two questions for you to ponder.

A. Can God trust me with money?

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10). We all like to play the “what if” game. “What if I had a million dollars? Think of all the good I could do.” What we mean is, “If I had more, I’d give more.” That reminds me of a bumper sticker I once saw, “Lord, please give me the chance to prove that winning the lottery won’t ruin my life.” I’m sure we all could be very generous if we had millions of dollars in our checking account. Note that I said “could,” not “would.” What we “could” do and what we “would” do are quite different. In any case, God isn’t concerned about the million dollars you don’t have. He’s concerned about the $500 in your checking account. What are you doing with what God has given you right now? Anyone can be generous with hypothetical money. I think there are some Christians God simply cannot trust with money because he knows they will waste it on trivialities.

B. Do I trust God more than money?

For some people, all this talk about trusting God with our money reminds them of a bad dream. They feel that if they dare to trust God in a big way, something bad is bound to happen to them, as if God is out to get them somehow. My answer is, it all depends on the God you serve. Good theology can help us greatly at this point. The Bible says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). But you’ll never know until you taste by faith and see for yourself.

And remember, it’s not about money. It’s about faith in the living God who challenges us to trust him and then pulls us way out of our comfort zone. He calls us to follow him on a great adventure of faith. You may ask what you should do in light of this sermon. Here is my challenge: Ask God to take you out of your comfort zone and into the realm of freedom. It’s really as simple as that.

At the start of 2005, I began to pray, “Lord, do things I’m not used to.” That prayer has already been answered in many ways, including the fact that all three of our boys have been called to China, at least for the short-term. That was completely unexpected. But he is the God of Great Surprises.

As I wrapped up my sermon on Sunday, I asked the congregation to stand and we repeated this prayer together. I encourage you to pray it out loud right now.

O Lord,

Deliver me from fear.

Teach me to trust you.

Do things I’m not used to.

Bring me to the place where

I will trust you more than ever before.

In Jesus’ Name, Amen.


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