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Better than Pokemon

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8:1-15

Pokemon was invented in 1996 in Japan by Satoshi Tajiri. It was launched as a video game in the United States last year. Since that time, it has made $1 billion in America and $6 billion worldwide. This week it made headlines in USA Today, and was the cover of Time magazine. Mike Luckovich, cartoonist for the Atlanta Constitution, captured the craze well: “When a Fad Turns Dangerous,” with a spokesman for the Federal Reserve saying, “Alan Greenspan remains unavailable. He’s trading Pokemon cards.”

What if you knew to invest in Pokemon two years ago?

Well, I have an even better investment strategy to present to you today.

This missions month, our focus has been on changing a changing world. I want us to close the series by examining the cost of changing a changing world. I want to give you some straight talk from God’s word on the subject, and show you the incredible investment strategy our Father offers us today.

God’s word presents three basic reasons why we should invest our possessions in his kingdom. Let’s explore them for ourselves.

God has given us everything we have (1)

First, Paul claims that everything we have has come from God. He talks about the “grace” God has given the Macedonian churches, and claims that everything they have comes from him. Let’s examine this idea for a moment.

The Wall Street Journal recently described a mythical conversation between God and a biologist, competing with each other to see who could best create life. God said, “Let’s start the way I did, with dirt.” The biologist said “fine” as he reached down for some dirt. God said, “No, get your own dirt.”

The Bible claims, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). In other words, he alone is creator, and thus owner. And the second law of thermodynamics agrees: we can neither create nor destroy what exists. All we can do is move God’s creation around a little. It all belongs to him, by rights of creation.

Now, let’s be as honest as possible about this idea. You work hard for your money, your possessions, your accomplishments. So do I. But did we earn the abilities we possess? The opportunities which have come our way? The privilege of being born in America instead of Ethiopia or Haiti? The health we enjoy today?

This week’s Newsweek quoted a grocer in Turkey after the latest earthquakes: “We are just glad to be alive. It makes you realize how little material things mean.” He’s right. All we have, including our very lives, comes by the grace of God.

And so, giving to God is simply returning what was already his. Tithing is a little like Christmas shopping when our boys were small—Janet and I would give them some of our money so they could buy us a present. So with God.

This text is not about how much money we’ll give to God—it’s about how much of God’s money we’ll keep for ourselves.

God expects us to give to him (2)

Paul’s second fact is just as blunt as his first: God expects us to give to him. Giving is not an optional “extra credit” for God’s people. This is “Faith 101,” basic, essential. No matter our circumstances. Listen to verse 2: “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.”

What’s going on here?

“Trial” translates the Greek word for a weight which grinds us down. At one time their area had been rich, but the Romans seized their gold and silver mines, throwing them into a severe depression.

They are in extreme “poverty”—the word describes a person who has nothing at all.

But their Jewish Christian brothers and sisters in Jerusalem are facing a famine. And so Paul set out on his third missionary journey to take a collection from the Gentile churches to help them. He saw this as bringing the two sides of the church to unity, and even fulfilling the prophecy that after the Messiah arrived Gentile gifts would come to Jerusalem (Isaiah 2:2-3; 60:5-7; Micah 4:1-2).

So now these impoverished Macedonian Christians have given “even beyond their ability” (v. 3), because they wanted to: “They urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the saints” (v. 4). Paul didn’t beg them to help—they begged him.

They did not give out of guilt, as though they were repaying God for their salvation.

They did not give out of greed, for what God might give them in return. This is no “health and wealth” gospel.

They gave out of gratitude for God’s grace in their lives. They knew full well what Jesus has done for them: “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (9).

And so “they gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us in keeping with God’s will” (v. 5). Out of their rock-bottom poverty, in gratitude. If they could, so can anyone.

This is why Paul now challenges the Corinthian Christians to do the same. They had begun their own collection the year before, but failed to complete it. Soon the Macedonians would be through Corinth, on their way to present their offering to the Jerusalem church, and they would expect the Corinthians to have their collection ready to take as well. Time is short. They are called by God to give.

So with all God’s people today. No matter our circumstances, everyone can give. God wants us to give what we can, not what we cannot (12). He wants equality of sacrifice, not necessarily amount (13-15).

And his standard is still the tithe. Abraham tithed to God (Genesis 14:20), as did Jacob (Genesis 28:22) before there was a Law; so this is not legalism. Leviticus 27:30 calls for a tithe from all God’s people; so this is not optional. Jesus commends tithing in Matthew 23, as does Hebrews 7, and early Christians expected all to tithe. So, this is not merely an Old Testament requirement. God expects his people to tithe.

C. S. Lewis said it well (as usual): “I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare…If our charities do not pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditure excludes them” (Mere Christianity).

God expects us to give sacrificially.

God needs our gifts (6-7)

So God’s word calls us to “excel in this grace of giving” (v. 7). Because God has given to us, and we want to respond in gratitude. And because God needs what we can give.

This is where my mind has been changed. I used to believe that God calls us to give of our time, talents, and possessions only for our sake—not for his. After all, he owns the cattle on a thousand hills, and all creation is his. What does he need of mine?

But this week as I have immersed myself in this subject biblically, I have come to see that God has limited himself at the point of our obedience. From the very beginning, he created a kind of “divine partnership” with us. He has chosen to make our hands his hands, our bodies his bodies, our resources his own. All across Scripture, God needs his people to give to him obediently, that his Kingdom might be built on earth.

God called Cain and Abel to make sacrifices to him, and Abel’s was pleasing to him (Genesis 3:4). All across the Old Testament, God’s people are called to present sacrifices to him, and when they are brought in faithful obedience they please him.

God needed a Noah to build an ark. He who has power enough to flood the entire earth surely possesses the ability to build a boat. But he chose to limit himself here to human obedience and partnership.

God needed an Abraham through whom he could create a nation. He had the physical ability to do so without Abraham, but he limited himself to human obedience and partnership.

All across the Scriptures this is so.

Think of Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, David and the kings, Isaiah and the prophets. God needed someone to do what each one did. He has the ability to do it all himself, but he chooses to use us.

Turn to the New Testament. Jesus called men to help him “fish for men”; he called Saul to reach the Gentiles; he called John to receive his Revelation. If he had found no one to do each job, how impoverished would our world be today!

And so with our text. If these Corinthians do not give, the Jerusalem Christians will suffer as a result. God’s Kingdom would be limited. God needed what they would give.

God could have found another way to finance his Kingdom work than through the gifts of his people. There are other options. For instance, Siesta Telecom of Sarasota, Florida has announced a deal with the Vatican to sell Pope John Paul II phone cards. Each card will carry a photograph of the pope, a copy of his signature, and a blessing. The Vatican will receive $1 per card.

Somehow I don’t see such a scheme in our future. God’s plan for his church is still his church.

The average church member in America gives 2.5% of his or her income to God through the church. If that were true for us, and we all began tithing, our ministry budget would increase by $24 million per year. Think of what we could do to feed the hungry, care for the homeless and the sick, sponsor missions ministries around the world, and reach our community. God needs what we will give.

I once saw a cartoon where a man says to God, “Why don’t you do something about all the hunger and suffering in the world?” And God replies, “I was just about to ask you the same question.”

Conclusion

Why give to God? I’ll close by asking some of our members to answer the question. I don’t want to know what a single member of our church gives, so I asked our finance office to speak with some of the largest contributors in our church, asking them why they give as they do. Here are some of their answers:

“I give because I believe the Bible clearly teaches that we should at least tithe. A tithe is a minimal response. Our church, which is the bride of Christ and for whom he died, should be our primary channel for furthering the Lord’s kingdom.”

“God commands it in his word. And God doesn’t give any exemptions based on how much money you make. For this reason, I believe that the tithing system that God has established is extremely fair. If I believe in and am committed to a ministry—like the church—why should I go turn over every stone looking for a cause to give my money to? Hasn’t God placed a ministry right in front of my eyes that I should give to?”

“Our lifetime experience is that 90% after the tithe is literally more and better than 100% would be absent the tithe.”

“God wants me to do it. It makes me feel good.”

“My wife’s family had instilled in her the habit of giving to the church. When we married, this became a natural habit that we have continued for forty-three years. We cannot imagine not giving to the church; it plays such a pivotal role in our lives and the community.”

“Tithing is commanded. It predates the law and is New Testament as well as Old (Luke 11:42). How can we say we trust God with our souls if we don’t trust him with our money?”

“My parents taught me that stewardship is an attitude of the heart, mind and soul, and it became more real to me as I understood that such persistent love could only come from the Father. Jesus is my Savior; whatever I have belongs to him. I think it was Jim Elliot who said: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.'”

Why invest your resources sacrificially in God’s Kingdom? Because everything you own is his already; he expects you to give sacrificially to his work on earth; and he needs what you can give.

Is this the best investment strategy you’ll ever find? The creator and owner of the universe says it is. Will you agree with him?