Paul was a wordsmith.
While other biblical artists draw word pictures, Paul’s specialty is word “pile ons.” He explains his words with more words. He adds to his arguments with more words. Words are his currency and he spends them well.
And yet in 2 Corinthians 9:15, he runs out of words. At the conclusion of a section where he is supposed to be talking about money but instead sings about Jesus, Paul says emphatically:
Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.
“Indescribable” there suggests that the story can never be fully told; the Savior can never be fully explained; that any human effort to put words to his glory will inevitably fall short.
The word guy is stumped for words.
So that was a jumping off place for the realization that Paul’s no words when it comes to the risen and coronated Christ influence his teaching on generosity in this way:
When you love the Giver more than his gifts, you can’t help but give.
Well, I just want to start out by pretty much ruining the Thanksgiving you just had. Isn’t that nice of me, to wreck your holiday after the fact? I mean, a lot of you gathered with your family on Thursday and a lot of them hung around and now you’ve brought them to church for some more family time at a service called ThanksLiving and you figure, “that’ll be good, that’ll be nice, it will continue what we’ve had.” And then I take you back to Thursday when a lot of you (a lot, but not all), sat around a table and before you launched into eating went through that excruciating but necessary exercise: what are you thankful for.
And kids mentioned toys, and teenagers were barely audible, and young adults mentioned new jobs or new loves and hosts mentioned family & legacy & history. It’s a WHAT are you thankful for and that’s right & that’s good & that’s helpful because few things are more annoying that children & families who feel ENTITLED & so are never grateful. They think they deserve what they got & really, ultimately are thankful for THEMSELVES. So a WHAT ARE YOU THANKFUL FOR exercise is a nice corrective that, so that’s good. But I’m going to ruin your Thanksgiving by letting you know that as good as it is … it’s still wrong. I’ve got something so different; so much better.
Because in this ThanksLiving project, we are hoping to turn gratitude from an event into a lifestyle; from an occasion to a habit; from something you do to someone you are. An in that, I think, we have something in common with Paul. See, in his 2nd letter to the Corinthians church, Paul is all about stirring up in the Cors the twin spirits of gratitude and generosity. And his strategy to do that is an offering, something that seems normal to us but was kind of revolutionary to them. And this offering was not for the Corinthians themselves but for the beleaguered, impoverished church in Jerusalem, a city the Cors regarded as backwaters. And the donors live, as you know, in the cosmo city of Corinth, a coastal beauty of a place. The parallel today would be if Paul was getting donations from people living in the glitz of L.A. to be shared with coal mining families in Appalachia or the impoverished inhabitants of the MS Delta.
So Paul – like a good development officer – pulls out all his stops in this appeal, both psychologically and theologically. It is as if he knows he can’t insist on the Corinthian generosity; he can only inspire it. He can’t EXHORT; he can only EVOKE. And this whole part of the address is where we get gems you may have heard of like “God loveth a cheerful giver (but he’ll taketh from a grump)” and “What you sow so shall ye reap.” Classic stuff. And as Paul winds up his lengthy, emotional appeal TO A GENTILE PEOPLE NOT FAMILIAR WITH THE CONCEPT OF A TITHE, he says this in 2 Co 9:12:
12 This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.
So really, he anticipates modern economics: your generosity has a multiplier effect. The results are ASYMMETRICAL to the gifts.
He moves on in 9:13:
13 Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.
Now notice there in the middle: the obedience that accompanies your confession of THE GOSPEL OF CHRIST. He points back to the center of everything. This offering of money is about neither offering nor money; it’s about the radical awareness that you are a sinner in need of salvation & Jesus is the rescuer providing redemption. With that, Paul piles on more in 9:14:
14 And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you.
See that? Grace. God giving you better than you deserve. He keeps bringing it back to the core, way bigger than and “before than” the gift itself. And then, with a perfect dismount, he lands it at 9:15:
15 Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!
Indescribable. Inexpressible. Really, a story that can never be fully told. There’s too much there. Think about that: the guy whose legacy is built on WORDS … runs out of words. The wordsmith is at a loss for words. The interesting thing about that is that Paul and others in the NT have devoted the greatest words ever written to just this subject: OFFSTAGE, have read Col 1:15-17; John 1:1-3; Philippians 2:5-11, Hebrews 1:1-3. Anthemic, visual
There is too much there. All those, along with 9:15, is Paul’s way of saying what we would call today NO WORDS. There are no words. Why not? Because the person of Jesus, his character, his forcefulness, his intimacy, his power, is too much to be contained in our descriptions. He is anthem AND ballad, thunder AND lighting, vengeance AND love. He is too much, Paul is saying, and I have no words that can accurately capture his too much-ness. And then I remember: this is the culmination of a section on giving and gratitude and yet his aim is to point away from the gift and towards the giver and summarize: NO WORDS. Which makes me realize that our Thanksgiving WHAT ARE YOU THANKFUL FOR list is wrong. It’s not a list of WHAT but a laser focus on WHO. Ponder him & it leads almost inevitably to praise. Carried away.
So that’s Paul. And in the middle of a fund raising letter, he gets distracted by Jesus’ rescue and he runs out of words. But what about us? What if we don’t get it? How does any of this connect to ThanksLiving? You know why it matters? If you lose the ability to thank, you heart will grow dark (Romans 1:21). I don’t want the ppl of this church to succumb to an entitlement mentality OR to become blasé, ho-hum about what Jesus has done for us.
I don’t want y’all to be like the woman who was walking with a little boy and got caught in a sudden tornado & before she knew it, WHOOOOMP! the boy had flown away. So she prayed while holding on to her tree: “Lord please bring him back! He’s all I have! If you bring him back safely I’ll serve you all my days!” Suddenly, improbably, the boy landed back at her feet, kind of tossled and stunned, but overall not too much worse for wear. She brushed him off, looked him over, and then looked up at the sky: “He had a hat, Lord.”
No, I don’t want y’all to be like that! Where more than enough is never enough. Where entitlement clouds your mind.
You waste an opportunity to thank and you’ll squander your ability to think. Nope. Instead, I have taken you through these NO WORDS, seeing how it connects with gratitude & generosity because here it is: When you love the Giver more than his gifts, then you can’t help but give. When you value the BLESS-ER more than his blessing, you’ll stop hiding and start giving. When you choose the SOURCE over his Resource, giving becomes effortless. That’s what I’m talking about. NO WORDS because words can’t contain him … when you allow yourself to be caught up in that, whew!, giving is easy.
It makes me think of the author Nathan Hill who wrote an incredible novel, all the rage last year, called The Nix. Anyway, there is a particular scene in the novel (involving a red wagon & 8 other toys) at which his wife always cries. So she loves his novel. (I cry at the scene, too.) But when asked, does she love the novel more than you? Which does she choose, novel or author? Nathan Hill answered, “Me.” Well, that’s what it’s like. All the gifts and all the blessings and all the WHAT ARE YOU THANKFUL FOR are subordinate to HIM. When you get that – or let it get you – then advancing his work so that more will know, well that’s natural. When you love the Giver more than his gifts, then you can’t help but give.
It’s even like our cat. Now cats are selfish. SELF-ISH. They love food, but not the feeder. They love care but not the caregiver. Except ours! We feed her and she licks us. Sandpaper tongue, not slobbery like a dog. Her heart is so full – in cat terms – that she loves feeder more than food; caregiver more than care. And so giving to her becomes almost a compulsion. In the middle of the world’s most selfish species she is a four legged miracle. REFRAIN There are NO WORD that adequately capture the gift of Jesus. Images help. Songs help (In Christ Alone) But my heart longing is that the people of this church would be smacked with that, with him, with THE GIVER, and the result is that giving is natural. Like Mittens’ licking which in instinctive & spontaneous. When you love the Giver more than his gifts, then you can’t help but give.
See, if your life focus is on what you’ve done, on how hard you’ve work, on all that you have accomplished, bitterness & resentment is inevitable. Followed closely by stinginess. Hey: do you know any pleasant greedy people? Any happy ones? Nope. They’re grumpy. By definition! On the flip side, if your focus is on all the doors that have been opened in your life, all the ways in which your blessing outweighs your obedience, all the times you have gotten not WHAT you deserve but BETTER than you deserve, all the ways that Jesus is not one of many he is the one and only, ahhhh contentment & the generosity that flows from it are automatic. When you love the Giver more than his gifts, then you can’t help but give.
It’s like the guy I know who knows both what a wreck he was without Jesus and what a reclamation project he is in Jesus. When he was informed that he got a raise, the first thing he told his wife was, unprompted, “Great! Now we can give more.” When you love the Giver more than his gifts, then you can’t help but give.
So here’s why we invite you to give well and to promise well next week: we invite all people into a living relationship with Jesus Christ. Not with Good Shepherd. With THE Good Shepherd. Not with this church. With Jesus Christ. Not with our denomination. With our Lord. I think the reason we have been able to have so many nations represented here on a Sunday is because we keep that at the forefront. People rally around a cause, like Jesus, and not a result, like diversity. If we paraded diversity as our first goal, we’d die. But we parade Jesus as our only goal and so diversity lives. Interesting how that works, isn’t it?
When you love the Giver more than his gifts, then you can’t help but give.
Because I have a great dream that when you and yours gather for Thanksgiving 2018, and as the meal is beginning, you’re able to around the table with the right question, not the wrong one. Instead of being grateful for what you have, you’ll express thanks for who has you. Soak him up, drink him up, love him as the Giver more than any of his gifts, and watch your giving get unleashed.
(Close with communion)