Last week at here at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, we began a series on Generosity. And generosity is important because God has called us to be generous. When Paul writes to the young pastor Timothy to instruct and encourage him about how to shepherd the people under his care, he writes “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” (1 Timothy 6:18) And so, because generosity is important to God, then it is also important to us.
But if we are going to consider being generous, then one of the first things that we will have to confront is a Big Idea that is very powerful in our culture which works against generosity. And that Big Idea is “More stuff is better.”
And we can actually do a little survey to see if this Big Idea is true. So, this question is for all of you who are parents with children at home. Did any of you have any of your kids come up to you a few days after Christmas and say, “Mom, Dad, things are so much better now that I have all of these Christmas presents. I can’t see how things could be any better than they are right now. So I tell you what, Mom & Dad, you don’t have to give me anything next year for my birthday, and you don’t have to give me anything next Christmas either. In fact, you don’t have to get me any gift ever again. I am so happy with what I have.” Did any parent here today hear anything like that from any of their kids? …I didn’t think so. Let me tell you what happened in our house.
My youngest son Ben has a birthday on Dec 18. And he loves Lego. So on his birthday, he got Lego. Then a few days later, Susan and I realized that we forgot to give Ben a gift from us and from my parents. So we got him some more Lego. Then on Christmas Day, Ben opened his Christmas gifts and found that he had both been given … more Lego. And all of these Lego packs were different. So here we are on Christmas Day with this plethora of new Lego to add to the humungous amount of Lego that we already had. And all of the younger kids are busy playing with it and enjoying it and making new and wonderful things with it. And three days later, what do Susan and I hear? “I want to get another package of Lego!”
And I am not telling you that story to make fun of my own children in public. You see, my children are exactly like me. No matter what I have, I find myself wanting more. When I moved to BC from Saskatchewan, I switched from a regular cell phone to a smart phone, …and now I find myself wanting a Blackberry. I love books, but what happens is I buy a book and, before I have read it, I want another. No matter how much I have, even though all of my needs have been met and there is much, much more left over, there is within me this hunger to keep buying and keep getting and keep consuming to try to satisfy a desire that is never really fully quenched. And if I let that inner desire have free rein in my life, it will be so destructive for me and my family.
In Luke, chapter 12, someone calls out to Jesus and asks him to tell his brother to give him his share of his father’s estate. On the surface, this looks like a legal issue. And the person who called out to Jesus may even have a valid complaint. But Jesus looks beneath the surface and sees what is at the root of the request: greed. And then Jesus goes on to tell a story about a rich man who thought that “more stuff was better.” He had good land that produced good crops, but his life was focused on gathering as much as he could up for himself. And just at the point when the man felt like he had enough gathered up for himself that he could retire and enjoy the rest of his life, God said to him, “You fool! I will demand your life from you tonight! Now who will get what you’ve accumulated? (Luke 12:20)
And the point of Jesus’ story is this: if you are going to live your life, whether it is your working life or your retirement life, if you are going to live your life with “more stuff is better” as your main focus, there will come a day when you will deeply regret the way that you have lived your life. Not only will you have wasted your life, working for things that will be torn from your grasp, you will also come face to face with the God whom you rejected when you chose to live your life for stuff instead of living your life for him, and that same God will determine your eternal destiny, either heaven or hell.
And Jesus’ warning to that young man is a warning to us too! “Don’t do it!!!” Don’t live your life focused on getting more money and a bigger house and the nicest clothes and a fancier car and the latest electronic toys. And don’t judge others by what they have or what they wear or the house that they live in. This is a matter of the heart and you and I cannot see into a person’s heart, only God can. And we shouldn’t be trying to do God’s job. Also, the poorest person in this room is rich by comparison with more than 90% of the world’s population. So the warning applies to everyone here. Don’t live your life focused on “more stuff is better” because you will deeply regret it in the future.
About 3400 years ago, as God was leading the Israelites through the desert, he was also teaching them to be generous people. First, he taught them to fully rely on him. Each morning, God would provide manna from heaven. And the Israelites were only supposed to gather enough for that day. On the day before the Sabbath, they could gather enough for two days, so they wouldn’t have to gather on the Sabbath, but that was all that they could store up ahead. And what each Israelite gathered was enough for each day. So they had to learn to trust in God completely to give them what they needed for life for each day.
Second, just before bringing the Israelites into this productive land that he was giving them, God told them, (and I am saying this in my own words), Now when you get into this land that I am giving you, you need to know that it will be different than back in Egypt. There isn’t any irrigation there with man-made dikes and canals to apply the water when it is needed. The moisture is going to come from the heavens and you are going to have to trust in me to provide it when it is needed. And when you harvest the first crop that I give you from the land that I give you, I want you to give the firstfruits, the first and best portion back to me in thanksgiving for what you are about to receive. You are not to eat any of the new harvest until after you have offered the first fruit of the harvest to me.
Now think of the situation the Israelites would be in. They are giving the first and best of their crop to God, and if they have a hailstorm or some other natural disaster that night, their crops will be ruined and they will run out of food in the coming year. And yet they come and they give their first and their best to God. By their act of worship they are saying, “Thank you God for all that you have done for us! Thank you for freeing us from slavery! Thank you for giving us this land and this harvest! Thank you for giving us all that we need for life! Thank you for giving us food and clothing and homes and families! Thank you for loving us and providing for us and protecting us each day! And because you love us so much, because you have already done so much for us in the past, we love and trust you in return. We trust in your promise to provide what we need for tomorrow and all the tomorrows that follow. Thank you Lord! In response to your great love for us, we willingly and gratefully give back to you the firstfruits, the first and best of all that you have given to us. Bless us we pray. And bless all the gifts that we retain for ourselves. Help us to use them to properly care for ourselves, our families and our community. Thank you Lord!
You see, the problem we humans face in life, and this is going to be revealed in the tough economic times we are facing these days, is not that we don’t have enough. Our problem is that our focus is in the wrong place. And our lives will be much more fulfilling and more meaningful and richer, in the truest sense of the word, if our focus is not “more stuff is better,” but “more God is better.”
You see our God is a generous God. He not only abundantly gives us all that we need for life. God also gave his first and best for us. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16) God’s Son, Jesus, gave up his life for us. It is Jesus’ blood that washes away our sin of greed. It is Jesus’ death on the cross that sets us free from our slavery to selfishness. Only Jesus can take away our self-centred craving for more and more stuff and replace it with a spirit of self-less generosity.
And God’s generosity continues. For Jesus is both God and human. And as a human being, Jesus is the firstfruits, the first and best of the whole human race. He represents all of us. And when our heavenly Father raised Jesus from the dead, he accepted the firstfruits of all humanity. And because Jesus represents us, just as Jesus was raised from the dead to live forever with our Father in heaven, so also all of us who are connected to Jesus by faith will also be raised from the dead to live forever with our Father in heaven. The first part of the harvest was accepted by God, so the rest will be too.
So how are you going to respond to God’s love and care in the past? How are you going to respond to God’s promise to provide what you need for tomorrow? How are you going to respond to Jesus’ gift of forgiveness and everlasting life with him?
One of the hardest things for me to learn while I was going to school was how to accept a generous gift. My inherent tendency was to want to pay the person back. But I couldn’t. We just didn’t have the resources to do that. Susan was at home with the kids. I worked part-time when I could but the costs of education and living took all that I earned and consumed our savings besides. I was forced into merely accepting the gift and saying “thank-you!” And I learned that was for me an amazing revelation! That was all that God or the people who gave expected of me! I didn’t have to pay them back. I could just graciously accept the gift and say, “Thank you!”
And then I discovered something else that was mind-boggling for me. I could give turn around and give a generous gift to someone else without any expectation of anything in return. People have been so generous to us in so many ways. Over the years, we have been given 4 vehicles and most of the purchase price for a 5th vehicle too. And we have been doubly blessed by those gifts, because we have now given 4 of those vehicles away to others. And the joy that I continue to have to this day from being able to be generous to others far outweighs any pleasure I would get from a pocket full of Blackberrys or a whole library full of books.
And so Susan and I make it a practice to be rich in our relationship to God. We give our firstfruits to God. That means that we calculate our tithe, our proportional gift, based on our gross income, not on our net income. The firstfruits principle suggests to us that the first portion belongs to God, and that means that God’s share is calculated and given before the tax man takes his portion. And it is hard to write those cheques sometimes. There are a lot of Blackberrys and books in the world and there is a part of me that really wants those things. But I know, as Pastor Karl told us last week, that God owns it all. I know that God has given me so much and he calls me to live a life of generosity in response. And so this is what I do. And this is how I live. The first fruits belongs to God. The first and best is his. And the rest is made better as a result. Amen.
(presented at Faith Lutheran Church, Surrey BC and Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 18 January 2009)
Thanks for pointing out the importance of tithing from the gross not the net. Walking in obedience of tithing is so important to my husband and I and we feel the Lord has taught us so much in regards to this. I had never realized the tithe should come from the pre tax amount! I found your site doing a search for “firstfruits.” A concept that God has been pushing in front of me again and again lately. Glad I stumbled upon this, thanks!
You are welcome! Tithing on the pre-tax amount is not easy, but I think that it is the biblical way and I have a much greater sense of peace about my giving when I calculate my tithe on a first-fruits basis.
God’s grace, peace, courage and strength as you and your family continue to recover from the damage caused by the tornado!