April 27, 2014

Living in a Big World

How big is your world?  When we lived in Colorado we made several trips to the top of Pike’s Peak.  It was always a beautiful drive on the way up there and the view was stunning.  There was one picture I took on the way up on one particular trip that really captures the experience for me.  Standing at the top of the mountain in the fall there is an uneven sea of green stretching out in front of you.  Punctuating the green landscape in the background are pops of brilliant yellow where the Aspen trees are at the peak of their color change.  There is also a clear mountain lake in the distance beautifully reflecting the crystal blue sky.  From the picture itself it looks like it was taken from the top of the world.  I can tell you that standing there the sense was even more humbling.  I remember feeling tiny in a huge world.

The reality is even more pressing than that.  The area at the top of Pike’s Peak comprises probably two acres, maybe three.  Not so big.  Pike’s Peak National Forest in which the mountain resides covers 1,106,604 acres.  That’s a lot bigger.  To give you some perspective, that’s about the size of the state of Delaware and twice the size of Rhode Island.  Depending on what you’re doing with it, an acre can be a lot of land to manage.  A million acres is huge.  One person in the face of a million acres seems awfully small.  But, things are even more extreme than that.  That 1,106,604 acres is only 3 one-hundred-thousandths of the total acreage of the planet.  In other words, the planet earth is 36,724,240,000 acres.  That’s really, really big.  Let’s put that into perspective.  An average person when sitting down takes up about 5 square feet of space.  That 1,106,604 acres translates to 48,203,670,240 square feet.  Divide that by five to make sure people have room to sit down and you have 9,640,734,048.  In case you’re not up on the latest global population figures, that’s enough room for everybody in the planet to sit down with enough room for another two-and-a-half billion to squeeze in with us!  Did you catch that?  The whole planet’s population would fit into a single (if large) national forest.  Now, I’ll grant you that would probably feel rather cramped.  But we’d fit.  And, again, that’s only 3 one-hundred-thousandths of the total planet.  Now, I’ll grant you further that about 26 billion acres of the planet is ocean and uninhabitable, but still, we live in a big place.

Let me make you feel even more insignificant.  As big as the earth is, it’s not so large compared to some of the other planets in our solar system.  You could fit almost 60 Earths in the planet Neptune, the next largest of the bunch.  You could fit 63 in Uranus, 763 in Saturn, and a whopping 1,321 Earths in Jupiter.  Jupiter is actually so big that the famous Great Red Spot alone is more than double the size of our whole planet.  Imagine how long the average plane ride would take on a planet that big.  There probably wouldn’t be any wars because it would take too long to move an army big enough to do any damage.  Of course, Jupiter’s gravity is so strong that we’d all be pancake people which would probably cut down on crime too, but that’s for another time.

That all being said, though, have you ever felt like the world is really small?  Have you ever had one of those small world experiences?  I remember the day soon after I had gotten settled in at college when I was sitting in my dorm working on some homework and there came a knock on my door.  I opened it to find two girls whom I had never seen before in my life standing there.  I just was starting to wonder exactly what I was in for when one of them introduced the pair: “Hi.  We’re Lindsey and Tarrah.  Are you Jonathan?  We’re your cousins!”  As it turns out, Lindsey’s great-grandma, and Tarrah’s and my grandmas were all sisters.  I knew the grandmas all well but had never met my cousins.  They had only recently met in fact in spite of attending the same high school.  This only happened because a family member discovered that they had sent graduation announcements to some of the same people.  Then, through the grapevine, they both discovered that the three of us had all happened to attend the same college.  Small world.  Just a few weeks ago I had to place a call to our StateFarm agent.  In chatting with the agent who answered the phone she mentioned that she had recently moved from Kansas.  Always interested in meeting a fellow Midwesterner, I mentioned that I was from Kansas City.  She was too.  Intrigued, I pushed a bit further.  She was from Independence…like me.  In fact, she had graduated from the same high school I attended…just 15 years before me.  Small world!

Let’s push this just a bit further.  Have you ever felt a bit cramped by the world?  Sometimes technology can make this happen.  I mean, if you have flipped on the news this week there’s a good chance the story was either about the Malaysian jet, the cruise ship in South Korea, or the ongoing situation in Ukraine.  When I got on Facebook the other day the first message I saw at the top of my news feed was in Thai.  The second was in Japanese.  If I scrolled a bit further I suspect I could have found messages in Spanish and Norwegian.  At Target the other day as we were walking into the store I saw license plates from about seven states other than Virginia.  I was driving near Ft. Lee one day and saw a license plate from Guam on the road.  There was some seaweed hanging off the antenna, but the car looked to be in pretty good shape otherwise!  Seriously, though, there are times when it feels like the world is closing in on you and you just want to get away to some open space and hide out for a while.  Are you with me?  Introverts in the room…well, I’d say unite, but we don’t like people so…just feel really internally smug that somebody else thinks like you do.

It seems to me that we have uncovered a paradox here this morning.  On the one hand, the planet is huge relative to you and me.  There is more than enough space for everybody on the planet to have some serious elbow room.  Fears of the place getting overcrowded are unjustified.  And yet, there are times when we feel cramped; like the world is closing in on us.  In fact I dare say that we feel like that more often than we don’t.  And as the world continues to shrink in feeling as technology brings further and further reaches of the globe into the palm of our hand there will be a growing hunger for space; a growing hunger to feel once again like the world really is as big as all the geological statistics tell us it is.  You can see this hunger expressed on television these days.  National Geographic seems to have no end of shows featuring a single person or a small group of people traveling through some barren land or another all by themselves.  As the popularity of HGTV’s House Hunters has grown it has launched several spins-offs including shows featuring people buying private islands, buying houses in Alaska, the Last Frontier, and most recently buying houses that are simply off the grid.  One of the popular Discovery Channel shows out right now is called The Legend of Mick Dodge.  It’s about a guy who lives off the land in the Pacific Northwest.  He basically wanders around in the forest mostly by himself.

All of these increasingly over-the-top efforts to expand our ever-shrinking world by distancing ourselves from society or simply other people suggest they are perhaps not working like we expect.  People are pushing further and further out into the frontiers of the world in order to feel like they live in a big, open world and yet must continuously push further because they never seem to be able to find the object of their searching.  It’s almost like their world has shrunk down to just them and thus no matter how far from other people they get, their world isn’t going to feel any bigger because a universe that doesn’t extend beyond the end of our arms is going to feel crowded no matter where it is located.  Have you ever known somebody whose world was limited to just them?  Have you ever found yourself in such a place?

It sure seems like it would be nice to go back to the big world of a century or two ago when our comparatively abysmal lack of knowledge about how the world works left much to be explored, but we can’t.  We won’t.  The volume of information out there about the world and how it works will never get smaller.  As our communication technology improves news from around the world will be accessible at an even faster pace.  We will continue to find points of commonality with people who are not only located in different places from us, but who are in fact generally very different from us.  The world is going to continue to shrink in this sense whether we like it or not.

But, what if I told you that there was a way to keep your world big that has nothing to do with where you live, what kind of conveniences you are able to enjoy from the comfort of your living room, or how much you know about the world.  What if I told you that in spite of how small the world seems to be getting you can still live in a universe that stretches beyond your fingertips, beyond the walls of your den, beyond the edge of your property on out into the farthest reaches of space.  Would you want to know how to have it?  This morning we are embarking on a new series called “How Big Is Your World?”  For the next few weeks we are going to look at how to live in as big a world as possible regardless of what our current circumstances may seem to allow.  How big is your world?  Is it big enough to suit your fancy or would you prefer to live in something entirely more spacious?  How big is your world?  How big do you want it to be?  If there was a way to keep it spacious and open in spite of what was going on around you would you want to know it?

I submit to you this morning that there is and I’d like to tell you about it.  For help here we are going to turn to a pretty reliable source: The wisest guy who ever lived besides Jesus.  Solomon was the third of Israel and the second king of the line of David.  He was pretty much a superlative guy in every category.  If you think you’re good at something or know something pretty well, Solomon didn’t just know more about it, he knew the most about it.  He had more money than you’ll ever have.  He was smarter than you’ll ever be.  He was better looking than you’ve ever been.  He had more wives than you have.  He was also wiser than you’ll ever be.  Thankfully, he wrote down a lot of his wisdom in order to be able to share it with us.  Most of these sayings take the form of proverbial wisdom and are gathered in a collection of proverbial wisdom called Proverbs.  The proverbs are basically sayings that describe what wisdom is or how the world should work all things being equal.  Now, all things are not equal and the world often does not work world like Proverbs describes, but that’s not a fault of the proverbs themselves, it’s a fault of the sin keeping the world from working like it should.  That being said, adjusting our lives and lifestyles to take into account the wisdom of Proverbs is a pretty wise idea.  If you want to enjoy as peaceful and pleasant a life as possible, the proverbs are a good place to start.  And thankfully, there are proverbs on almost everything.

Well, a few months ago I was reading through Solomon’s collection as part of my devotional time and I came across a verse that reached out and slapped me in the face.  Have you ever had that happen?  In any event, when I read this, I thought, “That’s so true!”  Immediately I knew that I was going to have to preach on this idea because it was too powerful to keep to myself.  The proverb is found in Proverbs 11:24, which you can find on the front of your bulletins, and the Message translation puts the verse in terms that ring right on the pitch we need to hear this morning.  Look at this with me: “The world of the generous gets larger and larger; the world of the stingy gets smaller and smaller.”

“Whoa there!  Hold on, Preacher.  Here I was tracking with you, thinking you were going to tell me how to live in a big world and you’ve made a sneaky pivot to talking about money.  This was all just some clever ploy to guilt me into giving more.  I’m already giving all I can so you can just take your hand out of my wallet and start preaching about Jesus or something again.”  And hey, I understand that reaction.  When preachers start talking about money, people start getting nervous.  The church must be hurting.  Pastor just wants a bigger salary.  Why can’t they get by on what they already have?  Somebody must not be managing the money very well.  The reactions flow on and on.  But let me clear a couple of things up right out of the gate here and then we’ll talk about what Solomon was saying.  First, as we’ll talk about at the business meeting here in a few minutes, the church is doing fine.  It’s early in the year still, the bills are all paid, we’re living within our means, and there’s money in the bank.  Fear you not, God is working through you guys to make sure that we’re in good shape.  This is not going to be a sermon about giving more, don’t worry.  Second and more importantly, I don’t want something from you anyway.   I want something for you.  Let me draw that sentiment out just a bit: God doesn’t want something from you.  God doesn’t need your money.  As we’ll look at next week, everything is His anyway.  Instead, God wants something for you.  And what He wants for you is for you to live fully to the potential with which He created you when you are tapped into His power.  But, because that’s a lot of potential given the scope of His power, you’re going to need as big a world as possible to achieve it with Him.  Anything which helps to expand your world, then, is a good idea to embrace because you’re going to need the space.

With all that said, look with me a bit more closely at the wisdom of what Solomon wrote here.  The world of the generous gets larger and larger.  In order to understand what Solomon means here, we need to understand what being generous means.  A quick dictionary search on Google turns up this definition: “Showing a readiness to give more of something, as money or time, than is strictly necessary or expected.”  Among included synonyms are “openhanded,” “free-handed,” “bountiful,” “unselfish,” and “ungrudging.”  That’s pretty helpful, but what did the folks who contributed to the Bible think about when they were thinking about generosity?  Well, in Hebrew one of the main words that gets associated with the concept of generosity is the word barach, which is more literally the word for blessing.  The idea is that in being generous with someone else we are being a blessing to them.  In the Greek there are a couple of relevant words.  The first is aplotes which literally means “singleness.”  When Paul talks about being generous givers in 2 Corinthians 8 this is the word he uses.  The connotation leans in the direction of people who give without ulterior motives.  They are singleminded givers.  The other word is eulogia which is, of course, where we get our word “eulogy.”  This word contains the idea of doing good for someone else.  Paul uses this word in the same context in 2 Corinthians, but later, in chapter 9.  The sense we get from all of this is that generosity is a lifestyle in which we live intentionally for the benefit of the people around us in order bless them from out of our abundance and with no more motive than to see God receive the glory He is due by the things that we do.

Well, now that I’ve mentioned it, this passage in 2 Corinthians is actually really instructive for where we’re going.  Listen to what Paul writes to the Corinthian believers about the results of being generous in 2 Corinthians 9:10: “He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness.  You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.  For the ministry of this service is not only supplying the needs of the saints but is also overflowing in many thanksgivings to God.  By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others, while they long for you and pray for you, because of the surpassing grace of God upon you.”

Do you see what Paul is describing here?  The generosity of the Corinthian believers was intended to meet the physical needs of fellow believers in Jerusalem who were struggling to get by.  But, as Paul points out, the results of the generosity didn’t stop there.  Instead, once planted, they grew and expanded.  The people whose needs were met praised God.  So now, instead of one group of people glorifying God by using the stuff He provided to help someone else, thus demonstrating their trust in Him to provide more when they needed it, there are two groups praising God.  Their world has doubled in size.  It gets better still.  When Paul notes that the believers in Jerusalem now long for and pray for the Corinthian group, the world has grown larger still as they have adopted a spirit of returning the favor.  Guess what the best way for them to return the favor will be?  By paying it forward to still others.  Thus, the world of the Corinthian believers which originally included just them has grown by their generosity to include not only the Jerusalem group but also any further groups who they support.  And, given Paul’s promise that God intends to increase the harvest of their righteousness, the great likelihood is that they will do this same sort of thing for other groups of people thus expanding the scope of their world even faster.  This is not merely a world growing by multiples, but by exponents!  Indeed, generosity expands our world.

Actually, Paul’s illustration at the beginning of this little passage using gardening and sowing seeds as a metaphor rings with sparkling clarity in light of the more literal rendering of Proverbs 11:24.  Listen to this: “One gives freely, yet grows all the richer; another withholds what he should give, and only suffers want.”  The Hebrew word for “gives freely” is the world pezer which literally means “to scatter seed.”  The idea here is that being generous is like scattering seed.  When you plant a field, the more seed you put down, the bigger your harvest is going to be.  The seeds all cost you something, but the return outweighs the cost and you end up with more than when you started.

Well, when you practice generosity what’s happening is that you are sowing seeds. You are sowing Gospel seeds.  You are planting the seeds of your world.  Now, it may not look like much at first, but neither does your garden when you first plant it.  But, give it some time.  Eventually the seeds are going to take root and begin to expand.  And as they grow, so will your world.  The more generous you are, the bigger your world will become. Generosity expands our world.  It increases our borders beyond us out to encompass every person who is affected by our generosity.  There is literally no end to how big our world can become when we live like this.  Generosity expands our world.  When you take the things God has given you—time, talents, and treasure—and use them for the benefit of others, giving out more than is expected in order to bless with no strings attached as an expression of your trust in God to provide more as you need it to bless still others, your world is going to grow beyond what you think is possible.  Generosity expands our world.

The opposite of this, of course, is to live with a small world.  When we take the blessings God gives us, regardless of the form they happen to take, and treat them as if they are there purely for our consumption we shrink our world down to just us.  There are no connections to anyone else.  We are living essentially for ourselves.  There is not even a meaningful connection to God.  We may give lip service to Him, but the evidence of our lifestyle reveals what we really believe.  We become what one author calls Christian atheists.  We can and probably will run hither and yon to find ways to feel like our world is big, but that sense of universal claustrophobia is not going to go away.  This actually becomes a vicious cycle wherein we begin frantically collecting more stuff and holding tightly to what we do have in order to give ourselves the opportunities we think we need to feel like we live in a big world.  The feelings don’t play out (because that’s not how to live in a big world) and so we collect even more and hold even more tightly to what we do have.  All the while the world continues collapsing down around us.  In another one of the books Solomon contributed to the Bible (Ecclesiastes) he tells us that he knows this is true from experience.  He had all the money, time, opportunity, and experience in the world and yet as long as it was all focused on him his world continued to shrink.

 

We desire to live in a big world.  The way to do this was recognized almost 3,000 years ago by the wisest man who ever lived.  If you want to live in a big world the way forward is clear: be generous.  Generosity expands our world.  This doesn’t mean just giving money, but rather adopting an entire lifestyle that looks to use what we have for the benefit of others and the glory of God.  But, if we’re honest, most have us have more trouble being generous with our money than with anything else so that’s worthy of some special attention.  In the next few weeks we are going to explore this idea in a lot more detail.  If you want to enjoy a big world, you won’t want to miss it.  So then, how big is your world?  How big do you want it to be?  You were made to live in a huge world.  If you want it, generosity is the way to go.  Generosity expands our world.