Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"GOD THE SON’S SELF-EMPTYING AT CHRISTMAS PROMPTS GOD’S PEOPLE TO ENJOY GIVING."
II Corinthians 8:1-15
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Hymn 21:1; Ps 73:8
Beloved Congregation of our Lord Jesus Christ!
Later this afternoon we receive an opportunity to read together the "Form for the Ordination of Elders and Deacons". That Form will draw our attention first to the work of the Elder, then to the task of the Deacon. When br Heerema was ordained nearly two months ago to the office of elder, I asked your attention for the work of the elder as it comes to us in Heb 13. Elders, we learned, watch over our souls and that’s why we need to obey them and submit to them. As we receive a deacon today (as well as two elders), I want to ask your attention today for the work of the deacon.
I do so in the context of Christmas. We are, after all, a mere three weeks away from Christmas Day. The thought of Christmas Day raises in the minds of many of us notions of having a good time, of gift giving, of sharing and togetherness. It’s the season to be jolly, the season to sing. That, we say, is the Christmas spirit.
It belongs to the task of deacons to set before the people in their homes what the true Christmas spirit really is. I draw this out this afternoon at the hand of Paul’s word to the Corinthians. I summarise the sermon with this theme:
GOD THE SON’S SELF-EMPTYING AT CHRISTMAS PROMPTS GOD’S PEOPLE TO ENJOY GIVING.
The Gospel of Christmas
The apostle Paul relates the gospel of Christmas in graphic terms. "Though [Christ] was rich," he writes, "yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich." The phrase "He became poor" is first of all a description of what happened at Jesus’ birth. To appreciate how remarkable that birth was, we need to consider first what Paul meant when He wrote that Christ "was rich".
The term ‘rich’, particularly in the context of ‘poor’, leads our minds to think of material abundance, wealth, gold. We understand right away, though, that that’s not the point with respect to Christ Jesus. That He was ‘rich’ describes in this instance not the millions He had tucked away in a Swiss bank account, but describes instead that from eternity Jesus was true God, and so possessed the fullness of Godhood. That is also to say that Christ from eternity was with the Father and the Spirit; triune God delighted in the fullness of company that comes from the togetherness of the one true God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. So He knew the Father as none else knows the Father, and He knew the Spirit as none else knows the Holy Spirit (cf Lu 10:22). In their company was fullness of love and of glory, a richness we cannot begin to comprehend. Add to that too that all the world was made through Him, and so angels in heaven and animals on earth sang His praise. He but spoke –He was true God- and the servants of heaven hastened to do His bidding. Truly, He was rich, rich beyond human understanding. And that richness had been His from all eternity; there never was a time when He was not rich as only God can be rich.
But He gave it all away. When He become a man He laid aside His Godly glory. He was born in no hospital, nor in a palace; He crib was a manger, His nurse His mother, His first clothing but swaddling clothes. The angels that from beginning of creation sang His praises in His hearing sang His praises in His hearing no longer; the shepherds in the field far off heard the angels –briefly- but the infant in the feeding trough did not. Nor could He in the stable delight in the company of Father and Holy Spirit; there was only His tired mother and an impoverished carpenter from Nazareth to whom His heavenly Father assigned the role of stepfather. So poor were Joseph and Mary that when the time came for them to present the sacrifice required by the law for a first-born son, they could afford nothing more than two young pigeons…. Truly, how poor had the Son of God become!
Yet that physical poverty of Bethlehem’s stable is not all that’s to be said about the apostle’s description of Jesus as ‘poor’. John wrote that "all things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made" (Jn 1:3). Paul wrote to the Colossians that "by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers" and he adds that "all things were created … for Him" (Col 1:16). But in the crib Jesus was in no position to rule, in no position to issue commands; this privilege He laid aside, for He took on Himself the form of a servant, a slave. No longer was the world at His feet; instead, He was Himself trodden upon…. As a helpless infant the baby Jesus had to flee to Egypt to escape the deadly hatred of murderous Herod and his soldiers….
And what shall we say of the Preacher’s commentary on human life as such…. The Preacher calls this life nothing but vanity, all tears and groans, and the end of the matter is that we die like the beasts…. The Son of God set aside the glory of heaven for … that! And still that’s not all. For Bethlehem was significant only because it was the first step that led the Son of God to the cross of Calvary. In the hellish agony of the cursed cross He cried out His anguish, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?!" The thought is so staggering, so incomprehensible; He who was Himself true God, who had been with the Father from all eternity, was now rejected by God! No, I cannot comprehend how God the Son could be abandoned by God the Father…, but this is the terrible reality of Good Friday – a reality that began at Christmas…, and began because the Son wilfully laid aside the riches that were His…. "You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet … He became poor…." Truly, how staggering the words of Paul in our text!
And why? Why did the Son of God lay aside His glory and subject Himself to such radical poverty? Paul gives the glorious answer; it was "for your sakes … that you through His poverty might become rich."
"For your sakes", says Paul. He speaks of the saints of Corinth. They –like all men- were of themselves so poor. O yes, God had created them and all men in His image; the place we received in God’s world in Paradise was rich, glorious. But we threw it all away when we disobeyed God, and we became slaves of Satan. That slavery was no picnic; the devil is a most cruel master. One need but look at the suffering people inflict on themselves around the world today when they give themselves to the service of idols. Well does the Preacher call life vanity; all our days are but toil and tears, and we return to the dust from which we were taken. Talk about poor….
But the Son of God, says the apostle, "became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich." It’s what the angel said to Joseph before the baby was born: "You shall call His name Jesus for He will save His people from their sins" (Mt 1:21). Those sins that stood between us and God and provoked God’s anger so terribly - God the Son laid aside His heavenly glory and became one of us in order to take those offending sins away. By so doing He gave to all who received Him "the right to become children of God" (Jn 1:12), "and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ" (Rom 8:17). In a word: all the wealth of God becomes our inheritance; "for all things are yours: whether … the world or life or death, or things present or things to come - all are yours. And you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s" (I Cor 3:21ff).
How marvellous, beloved. The Son of God laid aside His riches…, so that sinners might become children of God! The matter is beyond human words; how glorious that God Himself should become the heritage of those who benefit from Christ’s impoverishment! No wonder the saints throughout the ages join in David’s song of exaltation in Ps 16:
"O Lord,You are the portion of my inheritance and my cup;
You maintain my lot.
The lines have fallen to me in pleasant places;
Yes, I have a good inheritance" (Ps 16:5f).
The Spirit of Christmas
This gospel of Christmas, Paul continues, produces a unique spirit of Christmas. We hear much said about the ‘Christmas spirit’, and the point is that this is the season to be jolly, to buy each other gifts (and so to receive gifts), and generally to have a good time. But that’s not the atmosphere Paul desires in response to the gospel of Christmas. He has something much more profound in mind. For the wonderful words of our text, brothers and sisters, are placed in a particular context, yes, they form the reason why Paul wrote what he wrote in chap 8.
Paul writes in chap 8 (as well as 9) about a collection. The matter is this. Years ago, when Paul’s work as an apostle first began, the church in Jerusalem asked Paul to "remember the poor" in Jerusalem when he brought the gospel to the Gentiles (Gal 2:10). We don’t know why there were more poor people in Jerusalem than that church could care for, and it’s not important either. But help was needed, long-term help, and Paul was happy to do what he could to provide that help.
So it was that after Paul had proclaimed the gospel to the Gentiles, and after churches had been established and the saints grown in faith, that Paul raised with these Gentile saints the matter of providing help for the brethren in Jerusalem. In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul had already told the saints of Corinth to do as "the churches of Galatia" had done, ie, to set aside money on the first day of the week as a collection for the saints (16:1f). In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul comes back to this matter of the collection. For it appears that the Corinthians picked up on Paul’s instruction in I Corinthians and began to collect for the needy in Jerusalem…, but –for whatever reason- dropped that collection. That’s why Paul says in our chapter, vs 10f:
"It is to your advantage not only to be doing what you began and were desiring to do a year ago; but now you also must complete the doing of it."
But to pick up and complete a project you’d begun and then dropped, takes effort and encouragement. How did Paul intend to motivate these saints of Corinth to continue their weekly collection for the poor of Jerusalem? Paul first holds up the churches of Macedonia as an example; that’s vss 1-7. The churches of Macedonia include at a minimum the congregations of Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea. Paul says in our chapter that the churches of Macedonia were poor, and we know why; both in his letter to the Philippians as well as in his letter to the Thessalonians Paul makes reference to the persecutions which the Christians of Macedonia faced on account of their faith (Phil 1:27-30; I Thess 1:6; 2:14). Yet, says Paul in our chapter, their poverty did not stop them from giving freely. Like the widow of Jesus’ parable, these Gentiles-become-Christians gave their everything to the Lord and so gladly deposited what they could into the collection bag to help the needy Jewish Christians of Jerusalem – though they’d never met these needy people and never would in this broken life. This is the example Paul sets before the saints of Corinth; they ought to go and do likewise – though they too had never met the poor of Jerusalem and never would in this life.
Now, I need to add that there was considerable friction between Paul and the church of Corinth; the first chapters of Paul’s second letter are devoted to affirming his authority as an apostle. But that friction meant that Paul could not speak with the same authority as He could otherwise speak. That appears to be the reason why Paul says in vs 8 that he speaks "not by commandment." Instead, he says, he is "testing the sincerity of your love by the diligence of others." These Corinthians maintain that they love the Lord. Very well, then the Lord’s love for them should receive some echo in their love for Him. And what is God’s love for them? This: our Lord Jesus Christ was rich in His eternal divinity and glory, but He emptied Himself for the benefit of the unworthy, so that these unworthy might become children of God Most High. Well then, given the self-emptying love displayed by God the Son, shall these redeemed Corinthians live for themselves? Or shall they give expression to their love for God by emptying themselves as the Saviour did for the benefit of others? That is the challenge for the Corinthians in this chapter. Paul will not command that they open and even empty their wallets for the sake of the needy elsewhere, but he will remind them of Christ’s example of self-emptying – an example that God’s people both need to follow and want to follow as an expression of their gratitude and love for Him. Equally, he reminds them that they are now rich, not poor, are children of God and heirs of God, and so this God will surely supply their daily bread – as He did for the people of Israel in the desert long ago. Need they fear for tomorrow then? Not at all, for they are rich, rich in that they have for Jesus’ sake a Father in heaven who cares for them very well day by day (cf II Cor 9:8).
It comes down, brothers and sisters, to this: God has shown great ‘grace’ in giving His Son to pay for our sins. Because of that grace, the Christians of Macedonia considered it a privilege –and not a burden- to give, freely – to the point of imploring that they receive the privilege to participate in helping others. Yet that willing spirit amongst the Christians of Philippi and Thessalonica and Berea and the other churches of Macedonia was itself again evidence of God’s grace. As God bestowed grace in sending His Son to earth, so He bestows grace in making His people willing to give. Yes, His grace prompts His people to see the opportunity to give as a privilege – and so they give, freely, cheerfully.
This, beloved of the Lord, is the true spirit of Christmas. The Christian’s reaction to what happened in Bethlehem is not like the world’s ‘Christmas spirit’. Rather, the child of God is so taken by the grace displayed for Him in the self-emptying of the Son of God that the Christian in turn empties himself, yes, he considers it a privilege to give, to give freely, to give willingly. He knows: "God loves a cheerful giver" – because God the Son Himself gave so very, very much for the unworthy.
The monitors of the Christmas Spirit
Where, now, does the deacon fit into all of this? It is striking, brothers and sisters, that the churches of the Macedonians gave freely, willingly, eagerly for the support of the needy in Jerusalem – even while the saints of these churches were financially so poor. Why might that be?
In the whole of the New Testament we read of deacons in only three places. The first is Acts 6, that chapter which tells us that the apostles were so busy preaching the gospel that they did not have time to organise that nobody was overlooked in the daily distribution. So, together with the congregation, they appointed seven men to put in charge over that business. Those seven were not mandated only to make sure that everybody had enough to eat; they also had to make sure that everybody freely gave of the abundance they’d received in Christ. And that means that these deacons had to teach, had to be busy in the congregation drawing out the riches of the gospel. That is why the deacon Stephen, for example, knew his Bible so well that he could defend to the Sanhedrin the riches of the gospel – and show from the Bible the stubbornness of the Jews in the face of the gospel (Acts 6:8ff; 7).
We read of deacons also in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. In the qualifications Paul requires for deacons he says that deacons are to "hold the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience" (I Tim 3:9). And that’s to say that the deacons are to have the doctrine straight in their minds. Now why might that be? That can only be, congregation, because it is for the deacons to speak of the doctrine of Jesus Christ. In their efforts to encourage the congregation to be the communion of saints the Lord wants them to be, in their efforts to encourage the congregation to give freely for the advantage of the other, the deacons need to hold clearly and purely the great mystery of the faith as Paul captures it in our text: this "is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich." And that glorious gospel of Christmas is the catalyst prompting the children of God to give freely, willingly, to help the needy - whether they know the needy or not.
And the third place where deacons are mentioned in the Bible is in the letter of Paul to the Philippians – one of those persecuted and impoverished churches of same Macedonia of which Paul writes in our chapter. In read in Phil 1:1 Paul’s greeting: "Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons." Why might it be that the deacons get a special mention in this introduction? None other of Paul’s letters is begun this way. Surely, that will be because the deacons of Philippi held the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience, and so repeatedly laid before the congregation how much the Son of God had given in order that the elect of Philippi might be made rich. And the results was there; the Philippians, as well as the other churches of Macedonia, were keen to give, to reach out to others in their need. That’s II Cor 8: "according to their ability, yes, and beyond their ability, they were freely willing…" (vs 3).
Shall the deacons of this congregation do nothing more than collect monies for the poor and distribute what is collected? No, brothers, your mandate extends far beyond that. You receive the privilege to set before the congregation the gospel of Christmas, how "our Lord Jesus Christ, … though He was rich, yet for your sake … became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich." You will not command the brothers and sisters to give freely of their money and their time and their energy, but by speaking of Christ’s love you will certainly provide the catalyst to increased evidence of the congregation’s love for Christ and therefore for each other.
And you, congregation, may expect to hear not only from the elders but also from the deacons about the love of God in Jesus Christ toward you. Receive their encouragement, and then demonstrate "the sincerity of your love" for the God who gave so much for you. Demonstrate that love eagerly, willingly by embracing the privilege God gives in being allowed to share your time, your wallet, your gifts with those who have need – whether near or far.
Remember: "God loves a cheerful giver" – as He Himself demonstrated when God the Son, though He was so rich, became poor so that we might be rich forever.
May that Christmas spirit be rich in us this Christmas – and all the time. Amen.