messenger:Pastor Jim Allison
“A Sweet-Smelling Offering”
Today’s message is the last in a series of 10 I have given on “Re-discovering God’s Vision for Open Door.” I want to talk with you today about one part of the vision that we put in print several years ago. We were talking at a meeting of the church recently about our vision, long-term prayer requests, and so on. So as a reminder I put the English and Japanese versions of our vision on the bulletin board. By keeping them before our eyes, let’s also keep them in our minds and hearts and before the Lord in prayer.
One section says we believe God wants us to be “a church where we . . . stand on our own feet, independent and able to actively spread the gospel and serve in Christ’s name.” Behind those words is the reality that many churches in Japan face of being a small group without little financial strength. Pastor Iwanami of our Hokkaido Baptist Association partner church in Otaru talked about this at an Associational meeting over Golden Week. He noted that one key turning point for many churches as they grow is to become strong enough to provide a salary for the pastor that allows him or her to work full-time for the church. Until that happens, the pastor will have to work another place part-time or have a family member or someone who provides for their needs. Otherwise, the church will not have enough money to hold activities to carry out its mission. Even if it has a building and no debt, the church will have to constantly be choosing between paying for either staff or activities. To have a stable arrangement in Japan today, he said, takes a budget of roughly \6,000,000 per year. (Some have said \5,000,000, but perhaps \6,000,000 is more realistic in today’s economy.)
Open Door after struggling for 25 years has in the past five years passed the \5,000,000 level and this past year for the first time passed \6,000,000 and reached almost \7,000,000. Praise God for this progress. Thankfully, we have a building in which to meet, with no debt. That has come through the offerings of our members, along with a “B-Type Support” grant, which we received when we bought this building in 1999. It was a matching-funds arrangement that paid for half of this church facility. In other words, we began as largely dependent on the churches who sent the missionaries who first started holding worship services for this group. Since then we have moved from dependence slowly toward independence. We have become not only receivers but slowly learned to be givers, as well. We are still learning.
As we do, we become better able to answer God’s call to be His hands and feet and do His work of love—of peace-making, truth-telling, and more—in this world. For example, in the Open Door
Chapel Mission Policy we agreed on a few years ago, there is a section that reads as follows.
We, both pastors and lay members, will cooperate in actively and willingly telling the message of Christ. We hold that actively telling the gospel, in a realistic, healthy, and balanced way
which does not put excessive pressure on church members and is in proportion with the strength the church possesses, is a matter of importance.
Beneath this policy is the understanding that to give Christ’s message to our community and world in the best way we can takes some money. There is also the understanding that we can only reach this goal together. Taking the gospel to Sapporo and beyond only becomes possible through multiplication. We have a limited capacity to do this alone, and to expand our capacity takes more people. As each of us obeys God’s call to spread His teachings, it will naturally also become possible for us to both reach that goal and be in a more stable financial condition. (That does not mean we should tell the gospel so that we will get more money for the church. If we do that, we can expect God’s punishment!) I cannot imagine that God’s greatest dream for Open Door is for us to just settle into a comfortable situation and then hang on to the members and financial strength we now have. He is looking ahead. He has more in mind for us. We need to join Him in finding the people He wants to raise up as brothers and sisters on whom He will build the future Open Door.
Our growing pains and joys of seeing progress are points of connection we have with many groups of Christ-followers around the world today. The brothers and sisters in Philippi (in today’s Greece) also had their own set of difficulties and victories when Paul wrote to them. Some of these related to money. So he is teaching them about a very practical matter, yet one with great spiritual meaning. That is because, as Jesus said, money is never just about money. The way you use money shows what is important to you. “Your heart will be where your riches are,” He taught us in Matthew 6:21. So the message Paul gives is not aimed just at keeping the bills paid so the lights will stay on, the staff will get a salary, and a new building can be built from time to time. It goes far deeper, into the hearts and souls of those people Paul loved so deeply as his brothers and sisters in Christ.
Paul sees in them a need to give. He sees that they are concerned for him and says (v. 9), “That makes me very happy.” It’s not that he just wants to get their stuff, he explains in vv. 11-13. He’s not worried about having his own needs met. God is taking care of that. What Paul is focused on is the beauty of a growing life of active faith he sees in the people from Philippi. They have given to God’s work before, as he describes in vv. 14-16. But for some reason they could not continue for some time. Maybe they didn’t have enough to give, or maybe they did not have a reliable person to deliver their gift, or whatever.
But they have not let that stop them, and that is enriching their life together as members of God’s family. It is a sign that their belief in God is not just nice ideas and words. Supporting the Lord’s work financially gives shape to the faith in their hearts and brings it into focus. They have accepted by faith the teaching that God will meet their needs as they trust Him to do so. And now they are living out that belief as they let go of some money and wait for God to return to them whatever they need. They are getting practical experience at living by faith. That is of the greatest importance in living as a Christ-follower. It helps not only Paul but them also, far more than keeping the money would.
There’s another thing he has in the back of his mind when he says (v. 17b), “I'm looking for what is best for you.” That is God’s habit of rewarding His people who obey His teaching. Please don’t get me wrong. Paul is not teaching a prosperity gospel message of “name-it-claim-it.” If you only say the right words and do the right things, God promises that you will have a lot of money? No, that’s not the message. Our Lord in His wisdom sometimes brings rewards quickly, sometimes slowly, sometimes not in this life but in heaven. But in His own time and way, our loving Father chooses to pour out His blessings on His children who willingly obey Him.
God has taught His people to make the habit of giving to support His work. The traditional amount to give as the Bible teaches it is 10% of one’s income. Many of us believe He still wants us to give at least that much, but when it actually comes to arranging our personal finances, we often take a whole different approach. One pastor explains it as you can see on this video.
12:11 to 13:43
15:10 to 15:48
People who actually have the custom of giving 10% are acting out of this belief: 90% of my income with God’s blessing is better than 100% of my income without God’s blessing. In the mathematics of faith, that makes good sense. The point is not the numbers so much as the heart of God. Our Father loves to give because His heart is overflowing with love. He is committed to providing for the needs of His children as we continually put our lives in His hands and wait for Him to lead and empower us. Another way to say it is, You can’t out-give God. No matter how much you give Him at His leading, He will always find a way to give you more in return. It may not be in the time or form that you expect, but God’s blessings will come back, “pressed down, and shaken together, and running over,” as Jesus said it (Luke 6:38).
Paul makes the well-known promise in v. 19, “My God will meet all your needs. He will meet them in keeping with his wonderful riches that come to you because you belong to Christ Jesus.” That promise is not there for just anyone. It is for people like the Philippians who are trusting God to meet our needs, not trying to meet them all by ourselves. Paul can make that bold promise because he has many experiences which have taught Him the simple truth that God can be trusted to keep His promises. He knows our needs and how best to meet them. He can do it a lot better that we can. So in the end, we are far better off placing our needs in His wise and loving hands.
When Paul talks about the benefits to the Philippians of giving, he is seeing their lives from an eternal perspective. Again, he knows that the generous, overflowing love of God in the end will bring them far greater rewards than the short-term benefit of holding on tightly to their money. But he also sees the obvious thing that we somehow so often forget. That is, no matter how much money we manage to get, we are going to lose it all. Death is the great equalizer, we say. We might keep money and possessions for a number of years at most, but we can’t take any material goods with us into the next life after we die, and that life is far, far longer than our short time here in this world.
But there are things we can take with us. For one, we take ourselves, including our character. If we allow God to teach us to be people who are at peace, content with the things we have, able to truly enjoy giving, we have something incredibly valuable, and no one is going to take it away from us. We also have the unchanging love of God, and that includes His promise to reward His people. Paul knows this, and he wants the best for His friends in Philippi. That is why he rejoices to see them living with one eye on heaven, arranging their lives with the values of the Kingdom of God in mind. It’s why he calls their gifts “a sweet-smelling offering” and “a gift that God accepts.” “He is pleased with it,” Paul says in v. 18. Did you know that God feels that way about you? He does when you put money in an offering box, or give your time to listen to someone who needs to talk, or use your teaching skills to hold a Sunday school class, or anything you do to make Him number one and give your best to Him. Isn’t that good to know?
All this I’ve said is another way of saying that giving to God’s work is a form of worship. It has a spiritual meaning, not just a financial one. In our church as you know, from the earliest days, we have chosen not to pass the offering plate, as many churches do. Keeping the boxes by the door has its plusses, including showing clearly that we do not want people to give because of pressure. “God loves a cheerful giver” (II Corinthians 9:7), and if giving is not done freely, it changes into something besides true giving.
But our approach to handling the church’s money has some minuses, too. For one, it can make it easy to forget that offering our possessions and our hearts to God is a very meaningful part of worship. It is a way to say thank you to God for giving us what we have, recognizing that we depend on Him for everything, even the basics of life. It is also a healthy thing for our spirits to make a regular commitment to say, “I’m not going to be just a taker. I’m going to be a giver.” That brings a smile to God’s face, and it helped move Paul to write, “Give glory to our God and Father for ever and ever” (v. 20).
There’s more for us to learn here, and I hope we can continue on another day. But let’s first take what we have heard from the Lord today and commit ourselves to following these teachings in our daily lives. Let’s ask God now to help us do that.
Our God, giver of life itself and all we have, you have taught us, “Do everything you say or do in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17). Well, choosing how to spend or keep money is one thing we do. So please help us to do it in Jesus’ name. Help me to spend my money as Jesus would if he were Jim Allison. Help each of us to make our choices about making, keeping, and giving money in Christ’s way. Help us to do it to thank you for the many, many times you have shown us your kindness. Help us to do it as an act of trust in you, and in that come to know you more and more as our Provider, the source of all we need, our loving Father. In Jesus’ name, amen.
Ortberg, J. (October 19, 2014). “Live to Give: The Test.” Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. Retrieved May 5, 2015 from http://mppc.org/ sermons/live-give-test