You Make a Difference: Promises To Keep
November 1, 1992 | First Presbyterian Church Orlando | I Corinthians 15:51-16:3
True story. Some years ago, Edward Spencer was a theological student at a seminary in Chicago. One night, he had retired early because of an exam the next day. In the middle of the night he was awakened by the shouts of his classmates at the seminary. It seems that two ships had collided on Lake Michigan about a mile off shore. The accident was particularly serious because one of the ships was an excursion vessel with nearly 400 passengers on board.
When Edward Spencer heard what had happened, he ran down to the shores of Lake Michigan. It was a stormy night and both the air and the water were very cold. Because of the waves and the undertow, most people were afraid to try to swim out and rescue those who were perishing. But Edward Spencer had grown up on the banks of the Mississippi River, so he was adept at swimming in strong currents. Without any hesitation, he plunged into the icy water and for six hours he swam back and forth between the shore and the sinking vessels. He was battered by the waves, chilled to the bone by the water, and cut repeatedly by the sharp edges of floating debris. He made seventeen trips from the shore out to the accident site, and each time pulled another person to safety. In that terrible accident 287 lives were lost; 98 were saved, 17 of them by Edward Spencer.
Edward Spencer never went on to become a minister because the injuries and the exposure he endured that night destroyed his health and left him an invalid. Years later, when he was living in California, the Los Angeles Times sent a reporter to interview Edward Spencer for a retrospective story on the accident. One of the questions he posed to Spencer was this: “Is there any particular memory you have of that terrible night of disaster?” Edward Spencer replied: “Yes, there is one. Of the seventeen people I saved, not a single one of them ever thanked me.”
That’s hard to believe, isn’t it? I mean, someone saves your life and you do not offer them even a single “thank you.” Then again, maybe it’s not so hard to believe. As Christians, we have been saved from death and hell by the sacrificial self-offering of Jesus Christ, yet many of us have never really expressed our gratitude to Him. That’s what Paul was driving at here in I Corinthians. He began by describing the terrible sinfulness of humankind. Then, he tells how Christ came into the world to save us, how he was done to death, and how He was then raised from the dead. Paul goes on to describe how the effect of Jesus’ resurrection was to give us that same death defying, death-defeating power. He concludes his recitation with a soaring word of affirmation: “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Then assuming that all those who have been rescued from sin and death would want to express their appreciation, assuming that in the face of such astounding and saving love we would all want to demonstrate our profound gratitude, Paul goes on to say: “Now concerning the contributions…” Paul is convinced that true Christians will want to say: “Lord, in response to what you have given to me in Jesus Christ, I promise to give of what I have to You and to Your work in the world.” Paul then outlines for us three ways we can keep our promises to God. Here they are…
Paul writes: “On the first day of every week, each of you is to put something aside and store it up as he may prosper…” Underscore the word “first.” In other words, we are to promise God that our giving to Him will take priority.
To put it bluntly, God doesn’t want our leftovers. Our giving to God must come first. It must take priority. So Paul says: “On the first day of every week, on Sunday, on the day of Christ’s victory over death, on the day when God gave to us the gift of eternal life, on the first day of the week, we are to give of what we have to the God who saves us.
In the Old Testament it is expressed like this: “Honor the Lord your God with the first fruits of all you produce.” That simply means that we are not to come to God with our leftovers. We are not to come to God after all our other bills have been paid, after all the other demands on our income have been satisfied, after all our preferences and desires have been met. We are not to come to God with whatever is left after we have done all that we want to do. No, Paul says, promise God that you will come to Him first, that your giving to Him will take priority.
I was stunned when I heard it. Last winter as I preached in India and traveled through the villages there, I remember one missionary telling me a story that shook me to my shoe tops. A woman whom he had won to Jesus Christ came rushing up to him one day and asked him to come and help her next-door neighbor. The neighbor had two sons—one of whom was quite healthy and one of whom was very sickly. She told this Christian woman that she was going to take her sons down to the Ganges River and she was going to offer one of them as a sacrifice to her Hindu god—the one called Shiva the Destroyer. The Christian woman could not dissuade her so she rushed to see the missionary for help. As soon as the missionary heard the story, he bolted into action in an effort to reach this Hindu mother. By the time he found her it was too late. She had already held the head of her healthy son under the filthy water of the river until he was dead. The missionary, with tears streaming down his face, said to her: “Why did you do it so quickly? And why did you offer the one who was healthy?” She replied without hesitation: “All that I do for my god I do first and all that I give to my God is my best.” Now if that woman, motivated by fear, could make that kind of commitment to her cruel god, then how much more ought we as Christians be willing to give our first and our best to the God who loves us to the uttermost in Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul says that one way to keep our promises to God is to be sure that our giving to Him takes priority. “On the first day of every week…”
Look at Paul’s words again. “On the first day of every week each of you is to put something aside as he may prosper…” Now highlight the word “every“—On the first day of every week…” That is, we are to promise God that our giving to Him will be persistent.
It’s a rather strange fact that when life gets tough a lot of people suddenly become more religious. No doubt you have heard the expression: “There are no atheists in foxholes.” You know what that means. A lot of people who never take the time to pray suddenly wear calluses on their knees when they get sick or when they are out of a job. A lot of people who attend worship only sporadically suddenly become downright regular when trouble comes. Yes, when hardship comes people tend to run to the Almighty. And that’s true of every dimension of their spiritual lives except one—the giving of their money to the work of the Lord. When they encounter hard times, that’s the first thing they try to cut out. I checked it out. Back in those weeks leading up to and during the Persian Gulf War, our church attendance here went up but our giving went down. So if there are no atheists in foxholes, there are no stewards there either.
Now Paul wants us to understand that those who give even in the midst of adversity and hardship, those who give regardless of the circumstances in their lives, those whose giving is persistent, those are the ones who are truly keeping their promises to God. Of course, that’s why we encourage people to make pledges so that they can give persistently no matter what their particular circumstances might be. I have heard people say: “I don’t believe in pledging.” What they really mean is that they don’t believe in pledging to God. They are only too willing to sign a pledge which obligates them to pay off the mortgage on their home or the note on their car—and those pledges which they sign are legally binding. But it’s an altogether different matter when it comes to making a pledge which will call for persistent, consistent giving to the church and which will enable the church to have some idea of the resources available to it for the coming year. Strange, isn’t it, especially in light of the fact that the church pledge isn’t legally binding. It’s the only pledge which can be altered or even done away with if the anticipated blessings do not materialize.
Shortly after the Battle of Bull Run in the Civil War, one of the commanding generals in the southern Army sent a letter back to his Presbyterian Church at home. Now because communications were so poor in that day, everyone was anxious to hear news of the battle, especially from one who had been the commanding officer in it. So they all gathered around with the minister to read the letter. The minister opened the envelope—inside were two pieces of paper, one large and one small. On the larger piece of paper were written the words: “Reverend Sir: When I got to my tent last night during a lull in the battle, I was ever so tired. But suddenly I remembered that I had not paid my pledge to the work of my Lord at our church. Please find my personal check enclosed. Respectfully yours, T. J. Jackson.” T. J. Jackson was, of course, “Stonewall” Jackson. Insofar as military tactics were concerned Stonewall Jackson was known primarily for his unstoppable persistence. That’s what made him a great general. And that same persistence he practiced on the battlefield, he also practiced in his giving to Jesus Christ. That’s what made him a great Christian as well. Persistence is what leads to victory. That’s why Paul says: “On the first day of every week…”
Look once more at what Paul wrote: “On the first day of every week each of you is to put something aside and store it up as he may prosper…” Focus on the phrase “as he may prosper.” We are called to promise God that our giving to Him will be proportionate.
I think it is significant to note that in the New Testament Jesus commended only two people for what they gave to the Lord. (It is not incidental to note that both were women. Tuck that away in your heart.) One was the widow who gave her mite—the last coin she possessed. The other was a woman of the streets who had only one real treasure—a vial of precious oil—and she gave it to Christ. Jesus commended both of them, not for the amount they gave, but for the way they gave in proportion to what they possessed.
You see, the Bible does not set up any financial standard for our giving. If it were to set an amount, poor people might not be able to reach it, and for the rich it might be no challenge at all. So the Bible establishes the principle of proportionate giving. We are to give as we prosper. We are to give a percentage of what we possess. And what is that percentage? 10%. The tithe. 1/10 of one’s income, net or gross. In my family, it is 1/10 of our total income before taxes. We sit down and figure out what our anticipated income is going to be for the next year, take 10% of that figure, and write it on the pledge card. If you are more comfortable taking the 10% on your net income after taxes, fine. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is the principle. We are to give in proportion to the way God has given to us.
I was talking the other day with one of our deeply committed lay leaders. He said: “Preacher, when it comes to tithing I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is that when I started to tithe two years ago, my charitable contributions figure rose so much that it triggered an IRS audit. The good news is that I beat the IRS and I have lived quite well off the remaining 90%!” Well, I don’t want you to get the IRS on your back, but I also don’t want you to miss the sheer joy of tithing. If you don’t feel comfortable taking the full leap to 10%, then at least start at 5% and commit yourself to boosting it 1% a year. Remember, please, that on one occasion when Jesus was asked about tithing, He said: “This you ought to do.” That’s not Howard Edington saying that. That’s the Lord Jesus Christ saying it. That’s the principle of proportionate giving and that’s what Paul is encouraging when he writes: “On the first day of every week each of you is to put something aside and store it up as he may prosper…”
Were you, by chance, watching the recent Olympics at Barcelona when they ran the men’s 400 meter race, and Britain’s Derek Redmond went down on the backstretch with a torn right hamstring? The impaired runner, despite excruciating pain, struggled to his feet, fended off medical attendants who rushed out to help him, and set out hopping in a determined effort to finish the race. When he reached the final curve, a large man in a T-shirt bolted out of the stands, pushed aside a security guard, ran to Redmond and embraced him. It was Derek Redmond’s father. He told his weeping son: “You don’t have to do this.” Derek whispered through his pain: “Yes, I do. I promised I would do my best and give my best.” His father then declared: “Well, then, we’re going to finish this together.” So they did. Fighting off security men, the son’s head sometimes buried in his father’s shoulder, the two men stayed in Derek’s lane and crossed the finish line, as the crowd gaped, then rose and cheered and wept.
That is a parable of how it is with us when we keep our promises to God and run the race of life for Him. When we encounter the tough times, when we want to quit and give up, if we persist, if we keep struggling on, if we keep giving God our best, then we suddenly shall sense the presence of God beside us, lifting us up, staying with us, and leading us to victory.
That’s His promise to us—and God always keeps His promises…