Joy to the mall (sermon)

Sermon by Rod Benson, 9 Dec 2001.

Proverbs 10:3; 15:16-17

In 1992 Mark Buchannan, a pastor in British Columbia, Canada, found himself in a small town called Wairacka in Uganda.  Every Sunday evening, about 100 Christians from the neighbouring area gathered to worship.  They met under a tin roof lean-to set at the edge of a cornfield.  They sat – when they did sit – on rough wood benches.  The floor was dirt.  The instruments were old.  Some of the guitars didn’t have all the strings.

 But could they worship!  They made hell run for shelter when they got loose.  One Sunday evening, the pastor asked if anyone had anything to share.  A tall, willowy woman came to the front.

 “Oh, brothers and sisters, I love Jesus so much,” she started.

“Tell us, sister!  Tell us!” the worshippers shouted back.

“Oh, I love him so much, I don’t know where to begin to tell you how good he is.”

“Begin there, sister!  Begin right there!”

“Oh,” she said, “he is so good to me.  I praise him all the time for how good he is to me.  For three months, I prayed to the Lord for shoes.  And look!”

She lifted her leg so everyone could see one foot.  One very ordinary shoe covered it.  “He gave me shoes.  Hallelujah, he is so good.”

The Ugandans clapped and yelled and shouted back, “Hallelujah!”

“I didn’t,” says Buchannan.  “I was devastated.  I sat there hollowed out, hammered down.  In all my life I had not once prayed for shoes.  And in all my life I had not once thanked God for the many, many shoes I had.”[1]

The book of Proverbs is intended “for giving prudence to the simple, knowledge and discretion to the young”; through its pages the wise may add to their learning, and the discerning find guidance (Pro 1:4-5).  One main strand of timeless wisdom in Proverbs concerns how to acquire and manage money and possessions.  Today, as the Christmas shopping rush moves into overdrive, I want to focus on our spending patterns and ask, “Do I really need these things?”

 “The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry but he thwarts the craving of the wicked” (Prov 10:3).

Mark Buchannan may not be “wicked,” but he felt rebuked by that Ugandan woman’s gratitude and experience.  Here in Sydney we feel so many cravings for food, material possessions, services, innovations, experiences.  Of course, we don’t call them cravings, but we are literally trapped in the “cult of the next thing” – not least when it comes to cars and computers.

Consumerism is all around us, “shaping attitudes, bending behaviours, grinding an endless series of lenses through which to see and experience the world in a particular way.”[2]  Consumerism is not a force of nature.  It is not part of creation.  It is a human creation developed over centuries and perfected in the twentieth century.  We live so close to it – or we are buried so deep in it – that we easily lose historical perspective.  Let me give you a little history lesson.

Through most of the last 2000 years it was a sin in Christian countries to charge interest.  Stock market speculation as we know it would have been denounced from pulpits and opposed as profligate gambling.  Many evangelical Christians in previous centuries viewed the consumption of goods and services solely for relaxation and amusement as sinful indulgence.

Today the church and the world are marching much more uniformly.  The average young adult Christian in Sydney today graduates from university, chooses the highest paying job available, marries and buys a house with a mortgage just beyond the means of two professional incomes, then says, “Here I am, Lord – send me!”  Or, “Now, which church will I attend this week?”

We are so easily deluded and seduced by the spirit of this postmodern age.  Consumerism and postmodernism are intimately related.  There are many theories of postmodernism, but Alan Storkey suggests that

Postmodernism is consumption.  The deconstruction and fragmentation which is often identified with changes in approaches to text and philosophy is actually buying, advertisements, TV culture, in-your-face entertainment, shopping, pressure, thing-filled living – in a word, consumption.[3]

But, as we all discover sooner or later, purchases can’t deaden the pain of existence.  Money can’t buy lasting love or emotional wholeness or spiritual fulfilment.  The acquisition of things can’t guarantee happiness or significance or peace.

Hear the timeless words of Scripture: “Better a little with fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil.  Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred” (Pro 15:16-17). 

The proverb invites us to imagine two houses in different parts of the city.  In one house there is a sumptuous table laden with prime roast beef, a galaxy of vegetables, condiments, gravies and rice.  No expense has been spared on beverages either.

This is the main course, but the diners have already consumed their appetisers, soups and entrees, and there will be rich desserts, nuts, fruit and coffee to follow.  And then there will be piles of leftovers.  In the other house is another table – not much on it, only garden vegetables, plain bread and water.  There won’t be any leftovers from this meal.  But this is more than a house: this is a home.  Here there is love, laughter, acceptance and genuine community – qualities that are painfully absent from the other house.

“The spirit in which a meal is shared is far more important than the kind of food that is eaten.”[4]

Do you put your faith and hope in people, or possessions?  Is it possible to be content with what you already have?  Do you really need any of these things in the ubiquitous advertising brochures and television advertisements in order to live a fulfilling and joyous life?  Is there a time when you will have enough?

There is an Indian parable about the feeling that we don’t have enough things.  A guru had a disciple and was so pleased with the man’s spiritual progress that he left him on his own. The man lived simply in a little mud hut, begging for food.  Each morning after devotions he washed his loincloth and hung it out to dry.

One day he came back to discover the loincloth had been eaten by rats.  He begged the villagers for another, and they gave it to him.  But rats ate that one, too.  So he got himself a cat.  That took care of the rats, but now when he begged for his food he had to beg for milk for his cat as well.

“This won’t do,” he thought.  “I’ll get a cow.”  So he got a cow and found he had to beg now for fodder.  So he decided to till and plant the ground around his hut.  But soon he found no time for contemplation, so he hired servants to tend his farm.

But overseeing their labours became a chore, so he married to have a wife to help him.  After a time, the disciple became the wealthiest man in the village.

The guru was travelling in the region, and stopped in to see his disciple.  He was shocked to see that where once stood a simple mud hut there now loomed a palace surrounded by a vast estate worked by many servants.

“What is the meaning of this?” he asked his disciple.

“You won’t believe this, master,” the man replied.  “But there was no other way I could keep my loincloth.”

G.K. Chesterton said, “There are two ways to get enough.  One is to accumulate more and more.  The other is to need less.”

In a sermon titled “The use of money,” John Wesley said, “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.”

You and I don’t need all these things we buy.  Spare a thought this Christmas for people like that Ugandan woman who celebrated God’s gift of shoes, and half the world’s population who have never made a phone call, and the millions who will die never having had enough to eat.

Learn to value and share the more intangible things in life: wisdom, grace, hospitality, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, self-denial, generosity, contentedness (cf Gal 5:22-23).  These are things you will never find in the supermarket or department store.

“Better a little with fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil.  Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.” 


Copyright © 2001 Rod Benson. All rights reserved.  Sermon 433, Blakehurst Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday December 9, 2001. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).

[1] Mark Buchannan, “Trapped in the cult of the next thing,” Christianity Today, September 6, 1999, 65.

[2] Rodney Clapp, “Why the devil takes visa: A Christian response to the triumph of consumerism,” Christianity Today, October 7, 1996, 20.

[3] Alan Storkey, “Postmodernism is consumption,” in Craig Bartholemew & Thorsten Moritz, Christ and Consumerism: A Critical Analysis of the Spirit of the Age (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000) 115.

[4] Roland E. Murphy, Proverbs (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998) 113.

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