Sermon by Rod Benson, 16 Dec 2001.
Proverbs 11:28; 30:8b-9
Here are ten rules that might govern a small child’s view of the world:
1. If I like it, it’s mine.
2. If it’s in my hands, it’s mine.
3. If I can take it from you, it’s mine.
4. If I had it a week ago, it’s mine.
5. If it’s mine, it must never appear to be yours in any way.
6. If I’m doing or building something, all the pieces are mine.
7. If it looks like mine, it’s mine.
8. If I think it’s mine, it’s mine.
9. If it’s near me, it’s mine.
10. If it’s broccoli, it’s yours.
These are appropriate rules for a toddler, but some people manage to carry them through to adulthood! You probably know someone who lives like that.
Generating wealth is good. We all need money and possessions to function well in our society. But an over-emphasis on material things is dangerous.
Two weeks ago we reflected on consumerism and I asked, “Am I truly free?” – or am I in some subtle way trapped in unhealthy patterns of behaviour and bound by unhealthy ways of thinking? Last week we explored popular culture’s powerful message that we all need more and more things, and I asked, “Do I really need these things?” Today I want to conclude by focusing on the spiritual aspect of consumerism, and ask, “Is my lifestyle pushing God away?”
“Those who depend on their wealth will fall like the leaves of autumn,
but the righteous will prosper like the leaves of summer” (Prov 11:28, GNB).
The book of Proverbs acknowledges that wealth is neither good nor evil; wealth has its legitimate rewards (19:4; 22:7). But it also teaches that righteous people enjoy prosperity (13:21; 21:5; 22:4), and that prosperity necessitates generosity (3:9-10, 27-28; 22:9; 28:27).
In the December 2001 National Baptist Arthur Payne of Karratha laments that there are only nine Baptist Churches in the northern half of the huge state of Western Australia. “Most of the people in the north,” he writes, “have the view: ‘We’re here to play and make money and we have no need of God.’ ”
He adds, “Many Christians come up north with the same attitude.”
There is the problem: Christians fall into the consumerism trap for the same reasons as other people. As prosperity increases in Australian society there seems to be a corresponding decline in spirituality and activism in the church. It is almost as though poor people have basic and painfully obvious needs and learn to rely daily on God, whereas rich people lack so little materially that they don’t practically rely daily on God – and quickly lose sight of the great truth that they too depend on God for all they are and have.
Isaiah 59:2 says, “Your sins have hidden [God’s] face from you.” It might be true to add, “Your things have hidden God’s face from you.” And that is tragic, and it has tragic results. I have suggested that the spirit of this age is consumerism. Those who are wedded to the spirit of this age are destined to be widowed in the next age.
Jesus understood the corrupting power of money and what it can buy, and its potential for spiritual seduction. He said, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Mt 6:24). Have you ever stopped to think what it means to serve money? You serve your master; you are subservient, in servitude, in slavery to it.
Jesus divides humankind into those who serve God, and those who serve money. You live for money, or for God. You trust in money, or in God. You rely on money, or on God. Whom do you serve? Which master is your master? Which master is really worthy of your allegiance?
To pray the Lord’s prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a prayer against consumerism (Mt 6:10).
I struggle with this strong tension between the material and the spiritual every day. It is not an easy struggle, especially for those of us who grew up knowing nothing but incredible prosperity and isolation from poverty and deprivation. But I learn to recognise the struggle, and the essential opposition of the values of God’s kingdom to the values of this world’s kingdom, and the undeniable truth that my Father in heaven meets every need I have.
I said earlier that generating wealth is good, and that we all need money and possessions to function well in our society. But wealth can be deceptive, it can generate spiritual poverty, and poverty can lead to sin. So it seems we face spiritual ruin whether we are rich or poor! The good news is that there is a biblically endorsed middle way:
“… give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I might have too much and disown you and say, ‘Who is the Lord?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonour the name of my God” (Prov 30:8b-9).
You could say this is the biblical justification for a modest middle class lifestyle! But I am not saying that. What I will say is this: moderation brings blessing (cf 23:4-5).
The teaching of Proverbs as a whole “protects against extremes of wealth and poverty and commends an intersection ‘somewhere within the boundaries of an adequate standard of living.’ This still allows for a variety of lifestyles of wise accumulation and disbursement, so long as prosperity is yielded to devotion.”
That last phrase is all-important: it is the key to faithfulness and fulfilment. Yield yourself first to God, then do your work and develop your lifestyle. Surrender yourself first to Christ, then make and spend your money. See also Col 3:5; 1 Tim 6:9-10; Heb 13:5; Jas 5:1-3.
The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less. We buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.
We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.
We have learned how to make a living, but not a life. We have added years to life, but not life to years. We have been to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbour. We have conquered the atom, but not our prejudice.
We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We have done larger things, but not better things. We have learned to rush, but not to wait. We conquered outer space but not inner space. We have cleaned up our air, but polluted our soul.
Like the Christians at Laodicea, many of us are living amid plenty but are really “wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked” (Rev 3:17). If that makes you feel distinctly uncomfortable, or angry, it may be a word for you. It is time to take God seriously; it is time to take your commitment to Jesus seriously; it is time to shine the clear, steady light of Scripture on your money, possessions, patterns of consumption and heart attitudes.
It is my prayer that these three sermons on consumerism will help order your life according to biblical principles, and encourage you to follow Jesus Christ more faithfully in a faithless world. “God help me to handle possessions with a light touch, and to honour you with all my life.”
Copyright © 2001 Rod Benson. All rights reserved. Sermon 434, Blakehurst Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday December 16, 2001. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).