November 7, 2021 Malachi 3:16-18, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 22:34-40, 28:16-20
Generous people of a Generous God
The great Old Testament scholar, Gerhard von Rad pointed out that the oldest creed of ancient Israel is to be found in our OT Deuteronomy 26:5-9: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with terrifying display of power, and signs of wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey”.
This ancient affirmation of faith captures the actions and nature of the God of Abraham: God chooses a homeless man, the wandering Aramean Abraham, an old man and his barren wife Sarah to establish a great nation, when they were oppressed they cried, and God heard their cry, God intervened and liberated them and brought them into a land flowing with milk and honey. From this ancient creed we learn that God is a surprising, trustworthy, compassionate, and liberating God. We also learn that God is an extraordinary, divinely generous God.
And as God’s story with ancient Israel unfolds, and as it continues with the Gentiles in the NT, it becomes clear that this extraordinary generous God, calls people to be a giving, forgiving, loving, and compassionate people. And yes, the extraordinary, divinely generous God wants an extraordinary generous people!
I recently was asked by the Synod of Albany to teach an OT class to people who want to become preaching elders. As we were discussing the various parts of the OT, the Torah, the prophets and the writings, I was once again struck by God’s willingness to side with, and to abundantly and generously provide for people who are vulnerable, weak, unimpressive, young, and flawed; from the aging Abraham and the barren Sarah to the young and diminutive David, from the tongue-tied Moses to the young and guilt-ridden prophet Isaiah – God shows Godself as a gracious, merciful, forgiving, patient, and generous God. God gives blessing upon blessing, and God does so abundantly: an offspring, liberation from Egypt, a land, enough food to eat, even a king, and prophets to guide and correct them, liberation from their mortal enemies, and perhaps the most profound evidence of God’s generosity, God always gives another chance! All God apparently wants in return is for human beings to respond to the generosity shown to them by being generous themselves.
God, for some reason, in God’s divine wisdom, chooses to be associated with human beings – in spite of the accompanying risks. As a matter of fact, God links God’s holiness to human beings: In Leviticus 19 we read: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God is holy”. In the same chapter the author spells out how God’s people should show the world and their neighbors that their God is holy: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest – you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. You shall not defraud your neighbor, you shall not steal, and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until the morning -I am the Lord. When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. You shall love alien as yourself for you yourself were aliens in Egypt – I am the Lord your God. You shall love your neighbor as yourself – I am the Lord”. And on and on it goes.
Now we know that Israel did not always live as generous people. Their prophets had to point out that they and their leaders were greedy, selfish, lacking compassion, they were forgetful, and unkind. This, as the prophet Hosea teaches us, saddened God for ….. a generous God wants a holy and generous people – “I am the Lord!”
The earliest Christian creed was concise and short: Jesus is the Lord. In Romans 10:13 the Apostle Paul says that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” and in Philippians 2;11 he says: “every tongue should confess that Jesus is the Lord…”.
The affirmation that Jesus is the Lord acknowledges that Jesus is God-with-us. God in Christ, the Lord is a loving and compassionate God. God’s love, compassion, and generosity are shown in the words, actions, death, and resurrection of Christ. In other words, Jesus died for sinners and was raised by God to give us abundant, joyful, and meaningful life. And this gift of abundant life is not diminished by anything in life and even in death. That is why it is called eternal life! And, as in the OT, Jesus the Lord wants a holy and generous people.
The letter of the Apostle Paul to the Romans is divided into 3 main parts: Sin, redemptions, and gratitude. The Apostle Paul conveys to the Christians in Rome that human beings are sinful, broken, and they need redemption. He spends most of his letter showing that God is a forgiving and generous God. Listen to these words: “Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered, blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.” And then he says: “It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus from the dead who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification”. The Apostle rejoices in the fact that God in Christ is pouring out God’s divine blessings over humankind. God’s rich generosity is shown by God’s forgiveness of our sins. In theological terms the Apostle informs us that we are declared righteous for Christ’s sake. God’s generosity and love shown in Christ are now ours! Now and forever – nothing in life, or death, or things present or things to come, powers or anything else will be able to separate us from god’s divine love.
God’s generosity is there for all! In chapter 12, the Apostle shows what our response to God’s love and generosity should be. Now that the Holy One showered us with abundant grace, mercy, love, and generosity, how should we respond? The answer is simple and clear: “By the mercies of God, present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God..” The image of sacrifice of course is from the OT. And what it means is that our response to God’s generosity should be one of gratitude, of compassion, love, and generosity so that the world can see that we are the people of a Holy and generous God! Or in the word of Leviticus we ought to be holy for the Lord our God is holy! By the way Peter in his first letter says this: “Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in your conduct for it is written, ‘you shall be holy for I am holy.”
The question then is how do we show the world that we are the people of a holy God? How do we live as a people who worship a generous God?
The short answer is to live as a generous people. But then we have to see generous in a broad and inclusive way. A generous people love God with all they have, all their heart, soul, and mind. They affirm God as Lord, they seek God’s kingdom in all aspects of their lives, they look for God’s will, and they share God’s goodness. They are a holy people who realize that their words, actions, conduct, and relations reflect God’s holiness. They let God determine their priorities and they bend the knee before God. They know that the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live it (Ps. 24). They give their whole self as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God (Rom. 12:1).
Generosity includes our whole self, what we are and what we have, that is our possessions – our finances! This is not always easy. However, a number of studies have underlined the benefits of being generous in giving:
1. Greater satisfaction with life. High-generosity respondents were more than twice as likely to report that they were “very satisfied” with life.
2. Generous people have more friends.
3. They have stronger relationships with the people they know.
4. They are happier with their careers,
5. They have a more positive outlook. A full 81% of highly generous people believe life is meaningful — that’s 21% more than those who are not so generous.
6. They have better physical and mental health. High-generosity people were less likely to feel a range of negative emotions, including hopelessness, depression, apathy, and anxiety.
7. They are more satisfied with what they have. Generous types are more satisfied with their homes, cars, and other possessions. They were also less likely to believe that having more money would make them happier.
8. They have higher self-esteem.
Someone once said that true giving is not an economic exchange; it is a generative act. It does not subtract from what we have; it multiplies the effect we have in the world. The greatest way to change the world, Gandhi once said, is to be the change we wish to see in the world. And here is an interesting fact: generosity is contagious. When we are generous, it creates an experience that leaves both the giver and the recipient different than they were.
In their book “Contagious Generosity”, Chris Willard and Jim Sheppard write about generous churches, like ours, begin with a foundational belief that we serve an all-powerful, all-knowing, and always-present God who creates resources when they don’t exist. The paramount question is not, “What do we need to cut to survive?” It is, “What is God calling us to do next?”
God calls us to share God’s generosity! For God is never limited by scarcity. Jesus gave everything for us, his life, and God raised him from the dead.
The Apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 1:6, 2:14 urges us to be live as imitators of Christ. Now that means that we too have to be generous in everything. In our living, in our trusting God, and in our giving. Faith in God’s future after all empowers us with hope and life that we can share with others.
Let me share with you a quote from the book by Willard and Sheppard: “When we freely give, we have access to a deep well of life that offers us many things in return. Sometimes our act of giving offers freedom from our deepest fears. Sometimes it gives us great joy”.
We live, we share, we give for we have been transformed by an extraordinary generous God. We are generous because a generous God has a generous people. Amen.