Sunday, June 05, 2016

Gift Day Sermon: Acts 4:32 - 5:11 & Mark 12: 38-44

I wonder how you prepared for today’s Gift Day. Perhaps you were all set a few weeks ago, when the first reminder appeared on the notice sheet. Or maybe you remembered this morning when you found the different envelope in the FWO envelope box. Or, it might be that you’ve just discovered it there now when you arrived at church and saw it on the service sheet. (And that’s ok too!).

When it comes to giving, how do you decide how much you’re going to give? Do you have a routine that you follow - the same amount goes into each weekly envelope, as it always has, and probably always will? Do you look up in last year’s annual report how much you gave and do the same again? Or do you carefully consider what you’ll give as the opportunities arise?

Let me say right away that money isn’t something that we find easy to talk about. And yet Jesus talked about it time and again. So on this Gift Day, let’s think about money and offerings for a few minutes together. In both of our Bible readings today, we find an offering taking place. In one, the amount seems impressive, and yet the offerers are condemned; in the other, the amount seems miniscule. and yet the offerer is commended. You see, it’s not the amount that’s given that seems to matter - but the heart attitude behind the giving; that’s the important factor. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Let’s look first of all at the reading from Acts. Now Acts, as you know, follows the story of the early church from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, to the ends of the earth, bringing the good news of Jesus. And every so often, Luke writes a little summary statement, summing up what’s been happening. The first comes at the end of Acts 2, and now in Acts 4, we read the next one. ‘Now the full number of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common.’

There was no one in need among them - but this isn’t a socialist set-up. No one was forced to give up all they had. People still hold private property, but some were selling lands or houses and bringing the proceeds to the church, to be distributed to the poor. An example of that is seen in this man called Joseph, also known as Barnabas. It means son of encouragement, and we can see how he was so encouraging. He sold a field, brought the money, and ‘laid it at the apostles’ feet.’

As we move into chapter 5, we hear of another offering being made. Ananias and Sapphira sell a field and bring along some of the money. It seems to be just the same as what Barnabas had already done. And yet, it was entirely different. By the end of that Gift Day, both Ananias and Sapphira would be dead. So what went wrong? Why was their offering condemned?

Follow along in the story. Acts 5:1. They sell a piece of property, and they decide to keep back some of the proceeds for themselves. The rest, they bring to lay at the apostles’ feet. That’s not the problem, the bit they kept back. As Peter says when he confronts Ananias, ‘While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?’ He could do with the property and the money what he wanted.

The problem was that they were saying that they were giving away the full price. So if they sold it for £80,000, and kept back £20,000 for themselves, they said that they sold the land for £60,000 and were giving the full amount to the church. It’s not so obvious with Ananias, but very obvious when Peter asks Sapphira about the whole thing. ‘Tell me whether you sold the land for so much’ and she says, ‘Yes, for so much.’

On the surface, they looked very impressive, just like Barnabas, giving away all they had. But they were holding something back, secretly saving for themselves. And Peter calls it for what it was - ‘You have not lied to men but to God.’ (5:6).

Now whether it was the shock of being found out, or the swift judgement of God, (or both), but both Ananias and Sapphira fell down and breathed their last, about three hours apart. Look at verse 11: ‘And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things.’

I think there’s a great challenge here with Ananias and Sapphira. Do we give our offerings so that others will think well of us, to boost our reputation? So that people will say, oh, they’re great givers? God sees the attitude of our hearts, and knows the details of our finances better than anyone else. And in Ananias and Sapphira’s case, he condemns. He sees through their pretence and their posing. Perhaps some of us need to be challenged, to have this great fear come upon us as well - that God is not to be toyed with. The challenge is there, plain for all to see. And yet, others of us, as we give our offerings, need to be comforted and reassured.

You would love to be able to give more, and yet your offering seems so small, so insignificant, that you wonder if it’s worth putting on at all. Well, just as God saw the attitude of Ananias and Sapphira (despite their sizeable gift); God also sees your heart, no matter how small your gift.

In our first reading, in Mark 12, Jesus is in the temple. It’s during the days between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. And he sits opposite the treasury, where people offer their gifts. Imagine one of those large glass bottles you see at Flower Festivals. And the rich, they put in large sums. The rattle of the bags of coins makes a lot of noise. Every is aware of the big offerings they’re giving.

But Jesus singles out one person in the crowd. The one person no one would have noticed. She puts in two small copper coins, which make up a penny. Not much noise from her offering. And just a penny? Was it worth her while? Yes, says Jesus. And why has he singled her out? Look at verse 43. ‘Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box.’

Surely not, Jesus? Just a penny? Compared to large sums? But look at what Jesus focuses on - her heart attitude. ‘For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.’

If push had come to shove, she could have kept one coin, and put the other in. But she put in both coins, all she had to live on, as an offering to her God. An expression of worship, and dependence, and trust in the God she loved. Everyone else might have looked down on her, but Jesus noticed her, and commended her for her giving.

So how will you approach your giving. God sees and knows your heart. Do you need to hear the challenge of Ananias and Sapphira, to avoid following their example of pursuing a good reputation while holding something back? Or do you need to be comforted that though others might look down on your giving, God is delighted with your generosity of grace-inspired giving. There’s a verse in a newish song by Keith Getty which gets me every time. ‘Now Jesus sat by the off'ring gate As people brought their money: The rich they filled the collection plate; The widow gave a penny. "Now she's outgiven all the rest - Her gift was all that she possessed." Not what you give but what you keep Is what the King is counting.’

Not what you give but what you keep
is what the King is counting.

As we’ve been reminded already this morning, everything comes from God; we can only give what he has already given to us. God knows our needs, and he knows our hearts. Will we keep his good gifts for ourselves, or give them away to those who need them?

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church at the annual Gift Day service on Sunday 5th June 2016.

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