Posted by: Johnold Strey | June 14, 2009

Sermon on 2 Corinthians 8:6-12

This weekend’s sermon was a part of Gloria Dei’s observance of “WELS Walking Together Sunday,” an annual celebration of the common confession of faith, the fellowship, and the commitment to a common mission that we share with other member congregations of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

NOW FINISH THE WORK!

Text: 2 Corinthians 8:6-12

Introduction

Several weeks before my youngest daughter was born, I decided to organize all our family photos from the time my wife and I were married until now.  The project was going along fairly well, but then our daughter arrived into this world, and the task of organizing all those pictures was brought to a screeching halt.  Now it is almost two years later, and there is still a table in the dining room with pictures stacked chronologically, but not yet completely organized and stored.  With summer here, it seems like now is the time to finish that work (I’m sure my wife will agree!).

Several months before Paul had written 2 Corinthians, the Christians in ancient Corinth began to collect a special offering for needy Christians living in and around Jerusalem.  But then distractions came along, and just like the picture organization project in the parsonage, the offering came to a halt.  In our reading for today’s service, the Apostle Paul urges the Christians in Corinth to complete the offering for their needy Christian brothers and sisters.  As we talk about this section of Scripture this morning, we can’t help but think about the opportunities that lay before us as a church and synod—opportunities that any believer would want to support, but opportunities that are often never realized because we can easily forget about the need to support them or the zeal we first had to support them.  Paul’s ancient message to the Corinthians is a timely message for us as well: Now finish the work!

Exposition

A little background will help us understand the issue that surrounds today’s reading.  The apostle Paul had been organizing a special offering.  We already noted that the offering was for Christians near Jerusalem.  We know that a famine struck that region, and perhaps that was the reason for the Jerusalem Christians’ dire needs.  Persecution may have also played a factor.  So Paul coordinated special gifts from the churches he had founded for these needy believers.

Second Corinthians chapter eight begins with a record of some other Christians’ participation in this special offering.  Christians in ancient Macedonia had given generous gifts for the Jerusalem Christians—and this was even more noteworthy because the Macedonians were facing their own poverty at the time.  Their gift was a remarkable act of faith and love that went far above and beyond the call of duty.

The offering efforts among the Corinthians, however, lagged behind.  We know from Paul’s earlier letter to the Corinthians that they were a trouble-filled church needing quite a bit of correction.  Was it their internal problems that distracted them from carrying out the offering?  That seems fairly likely.  But distractions or not, the Jerusalem Christians needed help from their brothers and sisters in faith, and so Paul now urges them to finish the work they had begun. 

Look at Paul’s encouragement.  We can’t help but notice that he does not badger them into giving.  No, Paul has a very brotherly encouragement for his readers.  “We urged Titus, since he had earlier made a beginning, to bring also to completion this act of grace on your part.  But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.”  Paul sent his ministry coworker Titus to Corinth to encourage them to finish the gracious offering they had previously started but never completed.  In spite of their turbulent past, he points to their past lives of faith—their words, their knowledge of the gospel, their sincere love for the ministers of the gospel—and then urges them to bring their offerings in line with these other aspects of their Christian lives.

You cannot force someone to love.  Forced love is not love.  At very best, it is something done purely out of a sense of obligation.  And Paul did not want them to give out of mere obligation.  He wanted them to give out of love for Jesus Christ.  And so he points them to the love that Jesus Christ first had for them.  “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”  Jesus’ love for the Corinthians and for the world led him to put aside the glory and prestige of heaven and exchange it for over three decades of lowly life in a sinful world.  Jesus’ love for the Corinthians and for the world led him to put all his divine riches aside and exchange it at the cross for the verdict and punishment of a world’s worth of sin.  And Jesus’ love for the Corinthians would be the very thing that inspired their love for him and for their fellow Christians in Jerusalem.

Paul wanted to make it quite clear that there were no demands here, only an invitation to attest to their faith by finishing the same work that others had also participated in.  “I am not commanding you, but I want to test the sincerity of your love by comparing it with the earnestness of others.”  Notice that he doesn’t want to compare their gifts with others; he wants to compare their love and earnestness.  He’s not concerned about the specific amount, because they can only give from what God has given them.  But he does want them to finish the work they had eagerly started some time ago.  “And here is my advice about what is best for you in this matter: Last year you were the first not only to give but also to have the desire to do so.  Now finish the work, so that your eager willingness to do it may be matched by your completion of it, according to your means.  For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.”

Application

You may recall that last fall our congregation (and all the congregations in our Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) kicked off a special offering called the “Year of Jubilee.”  This offering was designed to pay down the $22 million debt of our synod so that more of our annual budget can be designated for actual ministry rather than debt repayment.  Since the start of this offering last fall, you have heard occasional mentions of it here at church, and you’ve received regular updates in email and print communications from the WELS.

When we first announced the “Year of Jubilee” offering last fall, the initial response was quite positive.  I know that our weekly offering report listed several Jubilee gifts given by members and forwarded to our synod.  We had an eager start.  But has our eagerness waned?  I fear that this has been the case both locally and across our synod.  Based on developments over just the last few months, it appears that our synod is facing massive budget cuts that will leave us no choice but to close ministry-training schools, bring back dozens of world missionaries, and slash an already bare-bones administration.

Do we lack the eagerness to support the ministry of our church body?  I don’t think that’s necessarily the case.  I think there was an eager response to the initial offering request.  You heard last fall’s presentation and you probably thought about making one or more special gifts; perhaps you did.  But we know what happens.  We head home, and though we had the best of intentions, we forget.  Bills arrive in the mail, expenses rise in a rough economy, and we forget the good gifts we wanted to bring to support the Lord’s work.

Our sinful nature doesn’t help matters.  I was reminded of this last weekend at a meeting of WELS congregations from Northern California.  The meeting was to prepare for this summer’s upcoming synod convention.  One of the presenters at our meeting was a WELS pastor who recently left our mission field in Brazil to take a call back here in the States.  I sat near him at lunch time, and he shared an interesting piece of information with those of us seated near him.  Apparently our Brazilian brothers and sisters in faith sent a message to us in America through their former pastor.  They said, “Please tell our American brothers and sisters to watch out for the sin of materialism.”

Is there something to be said for that observation?  Compare your vacation budget to your annual offerings.  Compare your entertainment budget, or the money you spend on lease payments for your new vehicles, or the money you spend dining out, or whatever else may be your personal interest—compare that with the offerings you give each year.  Would our Brazilian friends’ observations be proven correct?  I hesitate to say it, but I think they would be!  Even though our New Man is very eager and willing to support the Lord’s work and the Church’s mission, our Old Adam’s greediness is right there to wrestle away those gifts and offerings.  Our Old Adam would rather seek after temporary pleasures that have no lasting, eternal value.  But such earthly treasures are no treasures at all, for they have no ability to forgive sins and erase guilt and reconcile us to God the Father and redeem us from eternal death.

But then remember the words of Saint Paul: “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”  God does not demand that you love him.  Instead, he desires that you see how much he has loved you.  God has put a price tag on you that far surpasses anything else in this world.  The price tag God placed on you was the life of his own Son, Jesus!

Why would Jesus leave the riches of heaven and descend into this hell-bound world?  He did it because your soul is precious to him!  Why would Jesus interact with a world that is so spiritually impoverished and clueless?  He did it because he wanted to take away your spiritual poverty and replace it with his holy righteousness.  Why would Jesus shed his precious blood on the cross for a world that had utterly rejected him?  He did it because he did not want you to face eternal rejection in the fires of hell.  Why would Jesus, eternal God, endure death and burial?  He did it because by his resurrection he would destroy — and now has destroyed — death.  Through his Spirit’s work in the Word and Sacraments, he has put a price tag on your soul that declares you to be his priceless son or daughter.

With such a rich treasure from God—a treasure we could never repay and a treasure he does not expect us to repay—is there any doubt that we will gladly respond in love?  Is there any reason not to go home and commit to giving to the Lord in proportion to his gifts to us?  Is there any reason why we should let others handle the “Jubilee” offering and not take part in it ourselves?  Is there any reason why we shouldn’t go forward now and finish the work?

Conclusion

That’s the beauty of Christian stewardship and the Christian life.  Christ doesn’t force it.  Rather, he inspires it!  So now, let’s finish the work!  Amen.

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