"Graced by a Provision Beyond Ourselves"
by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts October 31, 2004
Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church
Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts
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Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 8:1-5
1 We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; 2 for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. 3 For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, 4 begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints- 5 and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us.
Today's sermon is called, "Graced by Provision Beyond Ourselves." My point, simply, is that God provides more than we need, not only for ourselves, but so that we might participate generously in his work in the world.
The form of today's sermon is a little unusual. What I want to do is to tell several stories, stories that illustrate the lavishness, and sometimes the surprise, of God's provision. I'll add a few editorial comments along the way. But mostly I pray that, in these stories, you'll hear God's Word for you.
The Lord Will Provide
Our first story is one of the most poignant and, I would confess, unsettling of all the stories in the Bible. It happened to Abraham, after God had called him away from his homeland, after God had promised to bless him beyond measure, and after this blessing took the very specific form of a miraculous little boy named Isaac. Years after Abraham and his wife Sarah couldn't have children, God promised that they would have a son, through whom God would grow a great nation in Abraham's honor. Then the Lord delivered on that promise, much to the delight of Abraham and Sarah. Through Isaac God would fulfill all that he had pledged to do for Abraham.
But then we come to Genesis 22. God spoke to Abraham in words that must have chilled the old man's soul: "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you" (Gen 22:2). We can only imagine how this must have distressed Abraham. Not only was God telling him to sacrifice his beloved son, but also God was apparently abandoning his promise to Abraham. Unfortunately, Genesis doesn't allow us to peer into Abraham's soul during what must have been his darkest hour. All we know is that he packed up what he needed for the sacrifice, took his son, and headed off in obedience to the Lord.
Along the way, Isaac, who was old enough to realize some of what was going on, noticed that they had most of what they needed to sacrifice to the Lord. Yet they lacked a sacrificial animal. So Isaac asked his father, "Where is the lamb for the burnt-offering?" Abraham answered, "God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt-offering, my son" (Gen 22:8). I wonder: Did he say this in anguish? Or with hopeful faith? Or with some mix of the two? The text doesn't tell us. All we know is that Abraham resolutely continued to do what God had told him.
When they got to the place of sacrifice, Abraham tied up Isaac and placed him on the makeshift altar. He took his knife and lifted his hand to kill his beloved son, but at that moment the Lord intervened through an angel, stopping Abraham from sacrificing Isaac. God said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me" (Gen 22:12). At that moment Abraham saw a ram caught in a nearby bush. So he sacrificed the animal to God, calling that place, "The Lord will provide" (Gen 22:14).
In the Pastor's Study last Thursday morning we wrestled for an hour with this story. It's a tough one, raising many, many questions, not all of which we could answer. We can only speculate exactly why God did this with Abraham. Yet two implications emerge clearly from this story.
First, sometimes God asks us to make costly sacrifices. In fact, God asks us to give to him that which we most value in life: our children, our marriages, our homes, our careers, our possessions. Now in many cases once we've surrendered something to God, he gives it right back to us as a gift. This happened in the case of Abraham and Isaac. But sometimes God asks to give up something major for the sake of his kingdom. I think of Paul and Barbara Siaki, our dear friends and mission partners in South Africa. They had a comfortable life here in the United States. But they heard God's call to South Africa and obeyed, selling their home, giving up a highly paying job, financial security, and many human comforts.
Second, from Genesis 22 we learn, as Abraham said, "The Lord will provide." When God asks us to do something hard, something scary, something far beyond our own ability to pull it off, he provides what we need to accomplish his will. Yet the daunting part is that God rarely gives us what we need in advance of our stepping out in faith and obedience. Even as God didn't supply the ram for Abraham's sacrifice until he really needed it, so God often works this way in our lives. But if we trust God, he provides, graciously, generously, not only what we need, but far more. God graces us with provision beyond ourselves.
A Macedonian Miracle
Our second story comes from the New Testament, from 2 Corinthians 8. It's one of the most amazing stories in all of Scripture. It's a tale of the Christians in Macedonia, who were going through a rough time, experiencing both material poverty and social persecution for their faith. They were suffering what Paul called "a severe ordeal of affliction" (2 Cor 8:2).
As this was happening, Paul himself was working double-time as an apostolic church planter and a fund-raiser. He was seeking to raise money from churches he had planted for the poor Christians in Jerusalem. Not only would the money meet the material needs of the Jerusalem believers, but also it would demonstrate the unity of the church of Jesus Christ.
It seems likely that Paul didn't ask the Macedonians for money at first. He knew of their affliction, not to mention their poverty. But soon they were "begging him earnestly" for the chance to share in his ministry for the saints in Jerusalem. So Paul allowed them to participate in his collection. The result was astounding! The Macedonians contributed far beyond what Paul had expected (2 Cor 8:5). Here is his description of what took place: "During a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part" (2 Cor 8:2). In fact they gave "beyond their means" (2 Cor 8:3). Talk about "beyond ourselves"!
What in the world can explain this exceptional generosity? In 2 Corinthians 8:5 it says that the Macedonians gave themselves first to the Lord. In other words, they committed their whole lives to God first and foremost. Their exceptional generosity was simply an outflow of this fundamental, life-changing commitment.
My friends, this is what matters most of all: your commitment to Jesus Christ. I do not care, primarily, whether or not you give one penny to this church. But I care profoundly that that you give yourself to Jesus Christ. When this happens, other commitments will follow as Christ works within you.
This is not to say, however, that all faithful Christians have an easy time with financial generosity. Some of really struggle to part with our possessions or the money that allows us to buy them. I'd freely confess to being in this group. In fact, during most of my early life as a believer, my commitment to Christ was quite solid, but I gave little or nothing to his work. But, over time, God has been working on my heart, teaching me to be more generous, and even to give with joy.
Another reason why the Macedonian Christians were able to give so freely is paradoxical: The Macedonians were exceptionally generous because they were poor. Now I'll admit that sounds almost impossible. But if you've ever spent much time with poor Christians, especially in the third world, you'll confirm what I'm saying. People who have very little are often more than willing to share what little they have. Why? Because material possessions have no power over them. They can't serve Mammon because they don't have any Mammon to serve!
This helps to explain why we who have so much are often enslaved to our possessions, even though we truly believe in Jesus. We are trying desperately to do what Jesus said was impossible, and serve two masters at once. Yet here's the good news. God is working in us to set us free from Mammon's power. By his Spirit, he's giving us generous hearts. Many of us in this room would confess that faithful and even sacrificial giving to God's work is one of the ways God has set us free from our bondage to money. The act of obedient generosity leads to a joyously generous heart.
Many people, when they first come to our church, have little experience in generous giving. Did you know that Orange County is one of the wealthiest counties in our country, yet the average household gives just a bit over $200 per year to all charities? Not very impressive. So that means that many of the folk who are new to our church don't begin with a personal history of financial generosity. But as they grow in Christ, as they experience the abundance of God's blessings, as they learn what God expects for their fiscal lives, as they step out into the disciplines of tithing and giving, they discover along the way that they're actually able to give with greater freedom, and even joy!
Before leaving the Macedonians behind, I want to make one other comment about this text. In a nutshell, it's full of grace. The Greek word for grace, charis, appears five times in the first nine verses of 2 Corinthians 8, though it's hard to see this in the English translations. The last instance is crucial. Verse 9 reads, "For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich" (replacing "generous act" with the more literal "grace"). What motivates our giving, more than anything else is the giving of Jesus, who gave his all -- his very life -- for you and for me. And he did this, not because we deserved it, but out of grace. So the more we let the grace of Christ pervade our souls, the more we'll be people who practice gracious generosity, just like the Macedonians. We'll realize that we have been graced with provision far beyond ourselves so that we might graciously give it away.
More Than We Think We Are
My next story and those that will follow come not from the pages of Scripture, but from the pages of the history of Irvine Presbyterian Church. They illustrate how God continues to pour out his provision upon our church through people in this fellowship who are faithful to his call. I've changed the names to protect the anonymity of the people involved. Otherwise the stories are completely true.
In 1993 we did a capital campaign called More Than We Think We Are. The purpose of this campaign was to help pay for this sanctuary. This church had already had one capital campaign with this purpose before I arrived as pastor. Yet we had a long, long way to go financially if we were to move forward with building. It was a scary time for us, partly because the economy was weak in 1993, and partly because negative feelings from the previous campaign clouded the air. "We didn't make our goal last time," one man said to me in a skeptical tone of voice, "so what makes you think we'll make it this time?"
The Financial Goal of More Than We Think We Are was $1,353,000. That's exactly what we needed, bottom line, to start building the Sanctuary. Now that was about a half-million more than we had ever raised in a capital campaign before, so we prayed like mad that God would provide.
Two weeks after the campaign concluded, we were going to announce the results in worship. On the Friday afternoon prior to the announcement, I stopped by the business office to find out how much had been pledged.
"So," I asked "Jean," our accountant at that time, "what's our pledging total. What number should I announce on Sunday?"
She looked at her figures and answered, "The number is $1,353,000."
"No, not that number," I answered. "I mean the amount pledged, not the amount needed."
Jean looked at me with a twinkle in her eye. "I know what you're asking. The amount pledged is $1,353,000."
"But that's exactly the amount we need!" I responded, incredulously.
"I know," she said, "It must be God!"
God, indeed, I thought to myself, as I walked back to my office and shut the door. I fell on my knees before the Lord, full of wonder. He had given us exactly what we needed. Exactly. Now of course he could have given us more, which would have made financing this building easier. But I sensed that God was making three points. First, he wanted us to know that he would provide what we needed. Second, by making the numbers balance so perfectly, God made it clear that the results came from him, not from our cleverness or persuasiveness. Third, by giving us exactly what we needed to go forward, but not a dollar more, God ensured that we would have to trust him all the way. We couldn't rely on our bank balance, but on the continued outpouring of his grace.
As most of you know, God was faithful, all the way. We were able to open this wonderful Sanctuary and Youth Center in 1996. That year we had another capital campaign, which enabled us to retire the debt on this building, as well as to pay our mission pledge.
I want to add one last comment before moving on to the next story. The miraculous pledge total in More Than We Think We Are did not come from one or two big givers. If I remember correctly, our top pledge was $100,000. No other pledge came close to this. In other words, God provided what we needed to build, not from one exceptionally generous source, but from the persistent faithfulness and generosity of our whole congregation. In the life of any church, including this one, God's provision usually comes, not like manna from heaven that appears mysteriously from heaven, but through the faithful, sacrificial giving of his people. God provides you with what you need and much more, so that you have the blessing of providing this church what we need together. In the process, we get to experience the joy of giving and of seeing our gifts contribute to God's kingdom.
Windows from Heaven
My next story also concerns this Sanctuary. When we built it, we had only enough money to do what was absolutely essential. The balcony was simply an empty shell and the windows were completely clear. We knew we'd have to wait on God for the resources to finish the building.
One day a woman came up to me after church. "Edith" said she wanted to make a very special gift to the church. She had recently inherited $100,000. But, as she explained, "I really don't need that money. I want to give it to the church in honor of the person who left it to me. I want to do something he would appreciate." As we talked through the options, she decided that she wanted to use her inheritance to pay for stained glass windows in the Sanctuary. Well, one thing led to another, and now we have these wonderful windows.
I'm telling Edith's story, not only as an example of God's "beyond ourselves" provision, but also to plant a seed in your heart. Some of you will be inheriting money in the years ahead. When you do, will you please ask the Lord if you should share any of your bounty with our church? It may just be that God will lead you to give a portion to our ministry or building funds. Special gifts like this, above and beyond our ordinary capital campaigns, will help us to build out our Master Plan more quickly, and, as we do, grow in our generosity with other ministries and missions as well.
Because we had exactly what we needed to build this Sanctuary, but not a penny more, we had to economize wherever possible. As I mentioned earlier, this meant that we were unable to finish the balcony. And, with a major capital campaign ahead, we weren't sure when we'd have the money to do it.
Yet, not too long after this building was finished, a man in our church sold a substantial chunk of his business. "Cliff" came to us and said he wanted to pay for the completion of the balcony - the whole bill! Moreover, because he had an extended break from work, he wanted to get physically involved in the project. So Cliff hired a contractor and the two of them literally built out the balcony, which was a major piece of work, taking several months.
There's much that I love about this story. Of course I'm glad that Cliff wanted to share the profits from his business with the church. This was especially poignant because, in previous years when his start-up firm was struggling to stay solvent, and when Cliff was receiving absolutely no salary from the business, I got to pray with him again and again for God's help, both for the business and for his family's well being. But I also love the fact that Cliff wanted to give, not only his money, but also himself to the project. This is so typical of people in this church, by the way. Your financial giving reflects your personal involvement in our ministry. And this is just the way God would have it.
I truly believe that one of the reasons God so blessed Cliff's business was that this was how God had planned to finish the balcony. Of course none of us, even Cliff, knew this at first. But God was generous with Cliff and his family, so they were generous with this church, and God's plan was completed. Another example of "Beyond Ourselves" provision.
The Miracle of Barb
My last story happened twenty months ago. As you may recall, Barbara Buck (yes, her real name) had been an intern with us as she was finishing up her training for ordained ministry. She did a fantastic job, and quickly won the heart of this church. But in January 2003, Barb had to leave. It was time for her to pursue a full-time call to ordained ministry. She said she would love to serve at our church, but we had nothing available. In the previous year we had actually begun a process to call a female pastor, but we just didn't have the money to make the call. As frustrating as it seemed at the time, God was saying: "Not yet."
In our January Session meeting, soon after Barb's goodbye, several of the elders spoke up. "Can't we find a way to call Barb to IPC?" "She's been great, isn't there a way to keep her?"
I got to be the bearer of bad news. "No. Barb really needs a full-time call. And we just don't have the money. So unless God does something spectacular, we're out of luck."
During this time I was also working hard to help Barb secure a good position. I was aware that Regents Point, a Presbyterian retirement facility near Mason Park, was looking for a chaplain. But the job was only ten hours a week, far less than what Barb needed. Yet I encouraged her to talk with the Regents Point folks, figuring that it couldn't hurt. Well, they were so excited about Barb that they started scrounging around to find more money for her. Before long they were able to offer her a half time position.
Barb was elated. "If I work half time for Regents Point, maybe I can work the other half for IPC?"
"That would be fantastic," I said. "I'd love it. But right now I don't see how we could afford even half of you. So we'll just have to pray big time."
At the February 2003 Session meeting I shared with the elders what had happened with Barb. Once again we all agreed that it would be wonderful to have her on our staff. A shared arrangement with Regents Point seemed ideal. But, we didn't have the money. In order to call Barb, we'd need $30,000. And no matter how we tried to squeeze our budget, we couldn't come up with such a large among. We left that Session meeting with a commitment to pray for God's provision, a far "beyond ourselves" provision, I might add.
Two days after that meeting I received a call from a woman in this church, whom I'll call "Lisa." "I want to tell you that I'm moving," she began. "I've just sold my house. And I want to make a gift to the church from what I've made in selling my house. I want to say thanks for all this church has meant to me."
"Thank you for telling me," I said. "I really wish you weren't moving, of course. But, since you are, it's very kind of you to make a special gift to the church."
Lisa was a single mom who had been struggling in her business during the past few years. The fact that she wanted to give anything to IPC touched my heart. I figured it might be $500, maybe even $1,000. This would be generous and wonderful. I thought of a couple great ways to use this money.
Two days later a letter for me arrived in the mail. It was from Lisa. Along with her short note there was a check . . . for $30,000. Exactly. I can still remember my hand shaking as I kept looking at that check in utter disbelief. I was filled with gratitude to God, not only for what Lisa had done, not only for the money we needed to hire Barb, but also for God's incredible grace in letting me and our leaders know that his hand of blessing was upon us.
In case you're wondering, Lisa had absolutely no idea what we had been discussing in Session. She had no idea that we needed $30,000 to bring Barb on board. She simply gave what God had put on her heart. I think, in fact, that she tithed on what she had made in the sale of her house.
Her gift still blows me away, both the timing, the amount, and the fact that this was such a giant gift for a person of Lisa's means. Though not quite a "widow's mite," it gets close. Lisa's generosity both encourages and challenges me big time.
And maybe it will do the same for you too.
I have no idea exactly how God is going to provide what we need to build out our whole Master Plan, not to mention what we need to continue to grow our ministry next year and in the years ahead. But if God's history with our church gives any clues, and I believe it does, God will provide through you - through your faithfulness, through your obedience, through your generosity, through your love. As the Lord blesses you materially, you will contribute to his work. Along the way there may be special gifts, as God pours out extra blessings upon some of us. I hope and pray that there will be such surprises, because I would love to move ahead in our Master Plan as quickly as possible. We've got tremendous tools for ministry waiting to be built.
But, though I don't know the details, I do know one thing. I know it from my experience as your pastor. And I know it, most of all, from the truth of God's Word. Here's what I know: God will provide. In his way, in his time, God will provide. He will provide abundantly in our lives, so that we might also give in abundance. Through Christ, we are graced with provision far beyond ourselves, so that we might provide for his work, far beyond ourselves.