Displaying the selfless generosity of God

Basic RGB“We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity” (2 Corinthians 8:1-2 ESV).

“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare” (C.S. Lewis).

This coming Sunday we are beginning a new sermon series entitled, “Generosity: An Exposition of 2 Corinthians 8-9.” In this series, we are moved to communicate the truth that the apostle Paul sought to give to the church in Corinth, that those who have received the generous grace of God are to joyfully overflow with generosity towards others. Paul hoped to inspire the wealthy Corinthians by sharing the story of how the impoverished and persecuted Christians of Macedonia had received and responded to God’s grace by overflowing “in a wealth of generosity” themselves.

The kind of generosity displayed in the believers of Macedonia is unlike the so-called generosity of this world in at least three ways:

1. It was a generosity that resulted from first receiving God’s grace. 

newtons-cradle-1Like the device know as Newton’s cradle, the kind of crazy, self-emptying generosity that the Macedonians displayed, came from an external power source. Named after Sir Isaac Newton, the device uses a series of swinging spheres to demonstrate the third law of motion— that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When one of the spheres on the end is lifted and released, it strikes the stationary spheres and a force is transmitted them that pushes the last sphere upward.

In similar fashion, Paul said that the “grace of God” that had been “given” to the Macedonians had caused them to overflow with joyful generosity in spite of their poverty and affliction. The generosity seen in the Macedonian believers was in fact, the generosity of God flowing to and through them to others.

This is not the kind of generosity that the one desiring to win the lottery expresses, saying, “If I win the Power Ball, I promise I will give a lot of it to help the church!”

No, the truth of the matter is that someone who is not generous before winning the lottery, will not magically become generous afterwards. The Macedonian Christians gave out of their poverty, not their wealth. They were so full of God’s grace that they emptied themselves in generosity.

2. It was a generosity that surprised others in its sacrificial extravagance.

When Bill Gates gives away a million dollars people are impressed with the amount, but no one worries how Bill will live without that million. Everyone knows that he is a billionaire. He’ll probably be able to struggle by with the amount he has left.

But the apostle Paul was astounded by the offering that the Macedonians gave to help the hungry and hurting in Jerusalem. He doesn’t name the amount, but it must have been more than seemed humanly possible for such an impoverished people. Paul described their giving as being “beyond their means” (2 Cor. 8:3).

How is this possible? How can one give “beyond their means?” The only way this can happen is when one is willing to do without something in order to give more. The Macedonian believers decided to live on less in order to give more. I’m sure this meant more than just going without their daily “Starbucks” mocha latte. They sacrificed in order to give generously.

3. It was a generosity that held nothing back in reserve.

Generosity in the worldly sense usually points to the one who is willing to give from their surplus. Even the word, “generosity,” originates from the Latin, meaning of “noble birth.” Those born into nobility, with their lands and titles, were expected to be generous.

But the generosity of the impoverished Macedonian believers exceeded this expectation. They not only gave more than they were able, they ultimately offered their whole lives as an offering to God. Paul said that they “gave themselves first to the Lord and then by the will of God” (2 Cor. 8:5) to him as well.

They said, “My ‘Yes’ is on the table! Whatever God wants from me, it’s His! And whatever you [Paul] as our spiritual leader, ask of us, we will do.”

It was God’s selfless generosity displayed in the Macedonian believers that Paul wanted the Corinthians to see. He wanted them to intentionally pursue the excellence of generosity as God had displayed it in Macedonia.

This is what God always wanted when He created us, that we would be His image-bearers in this world, displaying His character to the universe. He wants us to display His selfless generosity in our lives.

This is why He generously gave us His Son, Jesus, so that receiving this grace, we might be born again and become the generous image-bearers that God always intended.

Do you display the excellence of God’s selfless generosity in your life? What would it look like for you to start intentionally depending on God to grow in this area today?

Rank strangers

WBQ

This album made in 1969, was one of their later recordings. (Pictured from L to R) Tommy Hall, J.C. Leonard, Wilda Combs, Ettie Dillon and (seated) Ralph Bays

“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:1-3 NKJV).

The older you get, the more you realize that author, Thomas Wolfe, got it right when he said, “You can’t go home again.”

That’s what the old song, “Rank Stranger,” written by Albert E. Brumley of Powell, Missouri, in 1942, was about. The lyrics describe a man’s visit to his childhood home where he could no longer find anyone that he recognized. Everywhere he looked around his old home place, the people he met seemed to be “rank” (“complete”) strangers to him, “no mother or dad, not a friend” did he see.

The song was included in a Stamps-Baxter gospel songbook that my mother and her gospel quartet often used. The name of her group was the Willow Branch Quartet, named after the Willow Branch Baptist Church which my great, great grandfather planted and where I was later baptized. The original group included my teenage mother, Wilda Dillon, singing lead; her mother, Ettie Dillon, alto; J. C. Leonard (the barber who gave me my first haircut), tenor; and Harold Shaffer, bass. The first three members formed the core of the group for nearly 40 years. But Shaffer, the original bass singer died and was replaced by several bass singers through the years. Among them was Howard Overbey and finally, during the last 20 years of the group, Tommy Hall (my 7th grade history teacher), who in addition to his bass voice, also played piano and guitar. As the group moved from its acapella origins, it also added another guitarist, my Uncle Ralph Bays.

Willow Branch QuartetThe quartet was based out of Bristol, Virginia and was well-known at churches and radio stations throughout the surrounding states of Tennessee, North and South Carolina, West Virginia and Kentucky. They recorded several 78s, albums, 8-tracks and cassettes through the years. They were often heard singing live on a radio station in downtown Bristol on Sunday afternoons.

According to Ralph Stanley’s autobiography, it was on one of these Sunday afternoons that he and his brother, Carter, drove through Bristol and first heard the song, “Rank Stranger” on the radio, being sung by my mother and the Willow Branch Quartet.

I was actually contacted by one of Stanley’s book researchers a few years ago about this very story. I was able to confirm to him that my mother had recorded “Rank Stranger” in 1956 (on an old 78) and that her quartet was often asked to sing the song.

Here is what Stanley’s autobiography says about this:

“I remember back in the fifties, we heard a gospel group called the Willow Branch Quartet. They played around the Bristol area… We were driving to a show, listening to the radio, when we heard the Willow Branch Quartet doing a song called “Rank Stranger.” There was something there that grabbed Carter and me. We’d never heard that term “rank stranger” before. The song was all about feeling a stranger in this world, even with your own family and friends and neighbors, and how the next world would make all that right… I reckon it became the most popular song the Stanley Brothers ever sung” (Ralph Stanley, Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times, Penguin Books, 2009, p. 384).

IMG_1445I was able to attend a Ralph Stanley concert in Rocky Mount, North Carolina in October of 2013. I got him to sign his autobiography and I gave him a CD of some of my mother’s recordings, including “Rank Stranger.” He thanked me and handed it to his son, saying, “Here, put this on the bus. We’ll play it on the way home.”

“Home.” That’s where my mother, my grandmother, my uncle and everyone else in the Willow Branch Quartet are now. They are at home in heaven with the Lord Jesus. He’s the One who has prepared a place for all those who believe in Him.

And this is why when I go “home” to Bristol, things just aren’t the same. Here are the lyrics and a recording of the Willow Branch Quartet doing “Rank Stranger.”

I wandered again
To my home in the mountains
Where in youth’s early dawn
I was happy and free.
I look for my friends,
But I never could find ’em.
I found they were all
Rank strangers to me.

Everybody I met
Seem to be a rank stranger;
No mother or dad,
Not a friend could I see
. They knew not my name
And I knew not their faces —
I found they were all
Rank strangers to me.

“They’ve all moved away,”
Said the voice of a stranger,
“To that beautiful shore
By the bright crystal sea.”
Some beautiful day
I’ll meet ’em in Heaven
Where no one will be
A stranger to me.

Everybody I met
Seem to be a rank stranger;
No mother or dad,
Not a friend could I see.
They knew not my name
And I knew not their faces —
I found they were all
Rank strangers to me.

What do Muslims think of us?

Istanbul“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind… Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:1-2, 5 ESV).

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 ESV).

Yesterday, I spent an hour on a Facebook Messenger video call with my great friend and former college roommate, who now lives in Istanbul, Turkey. It was great catching up with him and hearing how God is blessing his gospel ministry among the Muslim majority people in Istanbul. When we talk, it’s as if we have not been separated by time and geography because of the deep love and brotherhood that we share in Christ for one another.

Speaking of time and geography, he spoke of the strategic time and place of living in Istanbul during one of the most massive human migrations in modern times. He said his church has been inundated with Syrian refugees streaming into Turkey on their way to Greece and Europe. He said that it’s not just Syrians, but Iranians, Iraqis and other Middle Eastern peoples who are coming across Turkey’s porous border seeking to find a safer and more peaceful home for their families.

One of the ministries that he and his church offer is an English club. Both the resident Turks and the migrating Middle Easterners want to learn English to improve their opportunities in the world economy. English is the language of the world’s marketplace.

The English club that he leads offers a place to learn and practice conversational English with members of his church. It is not outwardly Christian, but they do not “bait and switch” people into coming in for English learning and then, surprise them with a high pressure gospel appeal. They really just teach English.

Yet, according to the Arabic and Turkish speaking peoples who attend there to learn English, “There is something special, something loving and peaceful about the teachers who facilitate the club.”

My friend reported that several have asked to learn how to become Christians after attending the club.

“Why?” I asked him. “If you’re not doing evangelism and explaining the gospel, why would they be asking about how to become a Christian?”

He said, “They tell us it’s because of the way we treat one another. And because of the way we treat them. One mother and her son attended together and she said that they have never felt such peace and love as she and her son feel when they are with us. She wants to have what we have.”

“But did you say something about the gospel or being Christian?” I asked.

“No, I think it was the loving and peaceful presence of the Holy Spirit in our gathering that caused her to ask. Of course, we were more than ready to tell her about Jesus when she expressed her interest. We live for these gospel opportunities.”

As my friend and I said our goodbyes, expressing the deep love and affection that we have had for one another for the last 38 years, I was reminded of how that was the very love that was attracting the people in Istanbul to his English club.

Many of us are quick to say what we think of Muslims. We are often motived by fear and distrust, so we express ourselves accordingly. But do we ever ask, “What do Muslims think of us?”

For that matter, do we ever wonder what anyone thinks of us? What do our neighbors, co-workers, fellow students, family members and others think of us? I suppose the answer has a lot to do with what we think of one another, with what kind of attitude we have towards fellow believers.

The apostle Paul challenged the Christians in Philippi to have the same mind as Christ, towards one another, to be like-minded, loving, and serving the same purpose together. Jesus described it even more simply by saying, “People will know you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

My conversation with my friend in Istanbul reminded me that the community of Christ-followers, living, loving and serving together in unity, is the best and truest apologetic for those who would consider Christ.  Ultimately, what Muslims and others, think of us, will affect what they think of Christ.

That we might become His righteousness

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV).

How is this possible? How can we possibly be called the “righteousness of God?” The truth is, it isn’t possible through human effort, but God made it possible through Christ.

This is the great exchange. We were sinful, separated, and dying, but Christ took our sin, our separation and death, that we might become  the righteous children of God having eternal life. The sinless Savior became sin that we might become God’s righteousness.

Receiving Christ, we receive His righteousness. Our spiritual account was overdrawn and accumulating service charges, but receiving Christ, our account was reconciled and paid in full.

Yet, this reconciliation is not all that results from receiving Christ’s righteousness. The Scripture says that “we might become.” The Greek word for “might become” has the sense not only of “possibility,” but also of “growth.” God has already made it possible, but we must receive this righteousness in order to obtain it. And having received it, we are also to “grow” in His righteousness. As Paul told Timothy, we are to pursue it.

“But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (1 Timothy 6:11 ESV).”

Why “pursue” that which has already been given to us? We were given a body at birth, yet it still needs to grow. Receiving Christ, we are given His righteousness, yet we are to continually yield our lives to Christ, so that we grow in displaying God’s righteousness in our lives. This is the sanctifying work that God is doing in us. He has made, is making, and will make us His righteousness!

As you listen to an old favorite recording of mine by the group Acappella, consider what it means that “we might become His righteousness.”

Do you have a generosity plan for 2016?

Baseball“He who has a generous eye will be blessed” (Proverbs 22:9 NKJV).

What does it mean to have a “generous eye?” The Hebrew word translated “generous” might also be translated as “bountiful, merciful, or good.” A generous eye is a good eye.

When I played Little League baseball as a kid, and stood fast at bat on a bad pitch, the coach would yell, “Good eye Combs!” Referring to the way I didn’t swing. You see, to have a “good eye” in baseball means that the batter is looking for a good pitch to swing at.

But what does it mean to have a “generous eye?” I think it means to be looking for an opportunity to be generous. It means to live with a predisposition for intentional generosity. Just as a good batter visualizes the type of pitch he wants to hit, so the one with a generous eye has a plan for being generous.

A generosity plan?

Who ever heard of having a generosity plan? Plans to save, plans to pay off debt, plans to buy a house or fund your children’s college education… these are plans we’ve heard of and hopefully made. But a plan to give stuff away? That’s crazy!

Yet, God’s Word promises that the one with a “generous eye will be blessed.” Those with a predisposition towards generosity will experience the blessing of God. It is God Himself who promises to generously bless the one, who in generosity, blesses others.

So, how might we make a generosity plan? Here are a few questions to consider that may help:

  1. How much did you give to your church, to missions and other charities last year?
  2. Did you give what you think you should have given?
  3. What would a generous amount have been? (Keep in mind that 10% of our income belongs to God as a tithe to our local church. This is an expression of faith and obedience. So, generosity has an eye to exceed this amount in giving.)
  4. Where do you need to reduce spending on yourself in order to make margin for generosity this year?
  5. Do you have a plan to keep some money on hand for those moments when God stirs your heart to give or help someone in need? (I try to keep some cash on hand with me that I call my “Jesus money.” When Jesus stirs my heart, I give it away.)

Those who desire to receive God’s blessing have to stop blessing themselves so much to make room for blessing others. This won’t happen by accident. We must be intentional about it. As the apostle Paul said, “… arrange in advance for the gift you have promised, so that it may be ready as a willing gift” (2 Corinthians 9:5).

I’m evaluating my 2015 generosity and asking God to enable me to be more generous in 2016. I want to experience the blessing of God that comes through having an eye for intentional generosity. I’m making a generosity plan.

Will you join with me in praying to have a more “generous eye” in 2016?

Do you know the grace of generosity?

Christmas Missions Offering“You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9 NLT).

“Generosity is what keeps the things we own from owning us” (Anonymous).

Many of us begin thinking and planning what we will give to our families for Christmas months before the day arrives. Gift giving is the climax of Christmas. Certainly, this practice must originate in the greatest gift of all, which is the gift of Christ. Did you know that God planned to give us the gift of His Son not just months before, but centuries before His birth?

“Jesus gave his life for our sins, just as God our Father planned, in order to rescue us from this evil world in which we live” (Galatians 1:4 NLT).

With all the time and money we spend preparing to give gifts to those we love, have you considered what you’re going to give to Jesus this Christmas?

This coming weekend we are offering four services, two on Saturday evening and two on Sunday morning. I don’t know which service you’re planning on attending, but I hope you’re also planning to bring two gifts:

  1. Your tithe. This is your regular giving back to God of a tenth of your income  which expresses your belief that God is both the Source and the Owner of all things. Your tithe goes towards the church’s ongoing gospel ministry work.
  2. Your Christmas offering. This is a sacrificial gift given above and beyond your tithe. Pray about an amount that would stretch you in your generosity. Our church is giving this entire offering away to help support our international mission partners.

Generosity doesn’t come naturally. It is a grace we receive from Jesus. Having received this grace, it is a spiritual habit that must be developed by planning and then acting with generosity.

What are you planning to give Jesus this year? After all, it’s His birthday!

Why we’re doing “Rockin’ Christmas”

Rockin' Christmas“All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’” (which means, God with us)”(Matthew 1:22-23 ESV).

Some have been wondering why we’re doing an event that has such a secular feel to it. With a promotional title like “WCC’s Rockin’ Christmas,” a tagline saying, “A Holiday Experience That Will Rock Your World,” and well, the program itself, that begins with secular Christmas music and feels so performance driven… Some are saying, “This doesn’t feel at all like church!”

Our answer: It’s not supposed to feel like church.

We’re not trying to reach “church people.” We’re trying to invite people who celebrate Christmas, but don’t go to church. We want this event to be something that WCCers can invite their family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers to as a gift to them at Christmas. We promise that they will hear Christmas music that is both popular and familiar, all presented with excellence. We hope to entertain and inspire. But most of all, we hope to offer them the greatest gift of all…

… a clear presentation of the gospel within the Christmas story.

Which, by the way, includes the reality that God sent His Son as Immanuel (God with us). Christ Jesus left the eternal worship service taking place in heaven and came to us. He revealed the Father to us by becoming one of us. He communicated the love of the Father to us in a language we could understand. So, now we’re hoping to communicate the love of Christ to our community in a language that they can understand.

Our “Rockin’ Christmas” event is our way of offering the true gift of Christmas to our community. So, when you’re thinking about who to invite, consider that person who celebrates Christmas, but doesn’t go to church. That’s who this event is really hoping to touch.

 

Reprinted from December 2014.

I don’t feel any different

Checkin“And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:11-13 ESV).

My wife and I married when were very young. When we arrived at the hotel to check-in to the honeymoon suite that I had reserved for us on our wedding night, I was very nervous. I had never been in charge before. The few times I had ever stayed at a hotel some grownup had always checked in for me. But now, I was supposed to be the grownup. As we approached the check-in desk, the lady behind the counter said, “May I help you?”

Even though I had been mentally rehearsing my response from the time we pulled into the hotel parking lot, my voice croaked as I replied, “Yes, um… we’re Mr. and Mrs. um… Gary Combs and um… we have reservations…”

I don’t know if it was my imagination or not, but the clerk looked at me like she thought I was lying. I felt like she was going to ask for proof or something. Like she might want us to show her our rings or produce our marriage license. But she simply said, “Ah yes, we have it right here. Yes, the bridal suite for Mr. and Mrs. Gary Combs for three nights. And by the way, congratulations!”

“Thank you.” I muttered, relieved that she had actually believed me.

Right after our wedding day, I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t feel married yet. Intellectually I knew that I was married. I knew that we had taken all the appropriate steps of commitment together. We had said the “I dos.” But my feelings took a little longer to catch up.

Sometimes new believers express a similar sentiment. Right after they commit their lives to Christ, they have doubts about their salvation, saying, “But I don’t feel any different.”

Perhaps they expected to have an experience like the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. In their minds, they wonder, “Where was the bright light and the audible voice?”

Yet, God calls us to walk by faith and not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7). We are to put our faith in His promises, not in our feelings. Feelings are fickle, but God’s Word is firm. When we trust God’s Word, our feelings will eventually follow.

Perhaps the recipients of the apostle John’s first letter were struggling in the same way. They needed assurance of their salvation. So, John wrote to them to give them confidence. He said they could “know” that they had eternal life because they had “believed” into the name of God’s Son. They didn’t have to worry or work to be sure. They could “know” that they were saved because they had believed in Jesus.

In many ways, getting saved is like getting married. Have you given your life to Jesus? And do you believe that He has already given His life for you?

Good. Now, stand on that profession of faith. Walk it out. For some people, the feelings will wash over them like a flood in the very moment they commit. Yet for others, the feelings will follow later.