In 1919 an anonymous donor gave £500000 to the British government. The donation was in response to a letter in The Times that was signed FST. It became clear that the initials stood for First Secretary to the Treasury and the appeal was being made by the government to the wealthy to help Britain’s national debt after the First World War. (As an aside, perhaps a government minister should make such an appeal today?).
The huge donation – over twenty-six million pounds in today’s money – was put into a trust fund, on the basis that it could be drawn down if the nation was ever in serious trouble. It has never been touched. Not during the depression of the thirties or during world war two or in the economic crises of the seventies. Today, the fund is valued at three hundred and fifty million pounds – seven hundred times as much as was originally invested.
It takes some vision, not to say courage and self denial to make that kind of investment even if you do have the money. Let’s face it, the donor never became famous. Nor did he or she ever gain from the investment.
Tales like this are a healthy corrective in an age that has been driven by short term thinking. They also challenge the whole celebrity culture that has affected even charitable giving.
It isn’t always easy to think long term, mainly because most of the things that take up our time require immediate attention. Managing and or fixing problems can consume huge tracts of our lives.
One story of long term thinking recorded in the Bible concerns the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah 32 tells how God instructed Jeremiah to buy a field at Anathoth. It wasn’t the best time in the world to be buying property. Hundreds of people had already gone into exile after King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon had annexed Judah. Judah itself was run by Nebuchadnezzar’s puppet, King Zedekiah. And Jeremiah himself was in prison.
So what motivated Jeremiah to buy the land?
There were good personal reasons. The land belonged to his extended family and it was now up for sale. Buying it would keep it in the family. Jeremiah’s wider family – and the future of his extended family was clearly of interest to him and God. If it hadn’t been, God wouldn’t have instructed him to buy this land in particular.
The main reason, however, was prophetic:
14 “This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: take these documents, both the sealed and unsealed copies of the deed of purchase, and put them in a clay jar so that they will last a long time. 15 For this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.” (Jeremiah 32.14-15)
When we invest in the work of God by giving our time or our money, we are saying effectively that the future belongs to God. We are stating that God’s original intentions for His people and His world will prevail, even though all the signs from the culture seem to be pointing in a very different direction. Although Jeremiah’s instruction to buy land at a time of national crisis might not be a direct command to the church today, when churches invest in property with a view to future expansion it makes a huge statement to the world, especially in a time of national challenge or crisis. It sends out the message that, if Jesus doesn’t return, God is going to be powerfully at work in the futures of our towns and cities.
When God told Jeremiah to buy the land, it wasn’t as though he picked the best moment for the prophet. He was in prison. His own future was uncertain. Out of that uncertainty he found the courage and faith to testify to the certainty of a God who is never finished, even when His purposes seem to be thwarted.
There’s never a good time to invest for the future. There are always pressing needs and good causes. And yet it’s always a good time to make a statement of faith in the God who has a future for His people. Whatever projects and plans we have had to shelve because of the needs of the present, it’s good to remember that God hasn’t shelved any of His plans for the future.