Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Will of God: Abundance

Psalm 132 (call to worship)

John 10:1-18 (children)
Philippians 4:4-20 (message)

There is an interesting map that was on display in the British Museum in London. It’s an old mariner’s chart, drawn in 1525, outlining the North American coastline and adjacent waters. The cartographer made some intriguing notations on areas of the map that represented regions not yet explored. He wrote: “Here be giants,” “Here be fiery scorpions,” and “Here be dragons.” Eventually, the map came into the possession of Sir John Franklin, a British explorer in the early 1800s. Scratching out the fearful inscriptions, he wrote these words across the map: “Here is God." (Courtesy of Rev. Tom Salsgiver in the Lewisburg District Newsletter)

Today’s theme, Abundance, takes us into that realm of giants, scorpions, dragons and, yes, God. It is a theme that often confuses us. Typically, we would understand the word in terms of resources – an abundance of food, of money, of time, of clothing – anything we can measure. And, the Bible uses the term in that way. However, most of us have experienced lean times – and those who have gone through recent periods of unemployment may be living those lean times now. And, we know that there is a spiritual dimension to abundance. So, we tend to slide between reading it as a material, measurable thing and reading it as a spiritual thing (as if matter isn’t spiritual and spirit doesn’t “matter”).

I include Abundance in our series on the Will of God because it is clear, biblically, that abundance is God’s will in our lives. And, because we struggle to understand it.

Prosperity: Material Abundance
Deuteronomy 30.9 – God will make you abundantly prosperous in the work of your hands, the fruit of your womb, the fruit of your livestock, the fruit of your soil
Jeremiah 29.9-11 – plans to prosper you and not to harm you

In Deuteronomy, the word for abundantly prosper is parallel to a word for “good”, the same “good” that is routinely contrasted with “evil”. In Jeremiah, the word for prosper is “shalom”, also translated peace, well-being, wholeness .... It is a comprehensive term for all that is good and holy, and it is also contrasted with “evil”.

Psalm 50.10 – Every animal of the forest is mine and the cattle on a 1000 hills. That’s material abundance! But financial prosperity is not an adequate or complete view of the biblical story. In addition to financial prosperity, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor”. (He also said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit”, but when he said “Blessed are the poor” he also said “Cursed are the rich”. He was talking money, resources. Those preachers that tell us that material abundance or financial prosperity is God’s will for every follower of Jesus are, quite simply, incorrect.

And, if the concept of abundance is limited to its material dimension, then God becomes a vending machine . . . and, if we don’t get the abundance we want there is either something wrong with us or something wrong with God. Kick the vending machine, or recount your change. It’s a hard way to live.

And, if the concept is limited to its material dimension, we find it difficult to connect abundance with hardship, and hard work with abundance. In the psalm for the day (132), we read references both to the "hardships" David suffered and to God's promise to abundance.

And, if the concept is limited to its material dimension, we have a strange problem – how much is “abundant”? We understand it materially, so we measure it and we decide that abundant means that we have “more”. More than what? More than what we had last year? More than what our parents or grandparents had? More than our neighbors? More than God? Pretty soon, instead of noticing how blessed we are, we become fixated on all the things we don’t have, we live in a world shaped by scarcity rather than abundance.

So, how can we do justice to this theme of abundance as the will of God, “good, pleasing, and perfect”, acknowledging its material dimension and expanding our concept to include the fullness of God’s shalom, of our larger welfare? Paul provides a marvelous example from his own life in his thank-you letter to the Philippians. He’s been under extreme stress, in prison, and in great need. Yet the letter is full of joy, gratitude, abundance.

Contentment: Choosing Abundance (Philippians)
If God has everything, and we have God, then we’ve got everything! He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? (Ro 8.32). No matter whether we are rich or poor, in prison or free, we’re surrounded by and living in God’s abundance. In Philippians, Paul describes that lesson as “contentment”. Eat, Pray, Love. (Never seen, but we’ll use Paul’s words Think, Pray, Learn.)

THINK – on such things (count your blessings)
perspective: We were poor, but I never knew it
PRAY – turn worry into prayer
LEARN – “the secret” of being content is . . . “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me” (3:13)

Giving: Experiencing Abundance (2 Corinthians 8-9)
2 Corinthians 8.2 – abundant joy and extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity
2 Chronicles 31.5 – brought in abundantly the tithe of everything

When we give abundantly, we sense abundance all the more
It forces us to trust God to a higher degree

Saint Juniper (one of the original followers of St Francis of Assisi) was known for his radical generosity. Franciscans gave away everything, but he often came back from a trip having given away the clothing right off his back. It became such a problem that his superior expressly forbade it. The next time he was asked for his clothes, he responded by saying, “I am under the burden of obedience and may not give away my clothes. But if you were to take them off my back there is nothing I could do to prevent it” (Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals; 2010; Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Enuma Okoro; Zondervan ... could not find the page).

“The Gift of the Magi” by O’Henry
Giving lavishly to Robin
This is what abundant giving does in our relationship with God

Abundance is not simply a measure of our material possessions but the lavishness of our generosity. “Giving, faithful, real” (Bethany spirituality).

Blessing: Comprehensive Abundance
John 10.10 – came that they may have life, and have it abundantly

Ephesians 3:14-21 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. 16 I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, 17 and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. 18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 20 Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

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