Sermon by Rod Benson, 2 Dec 2001.
Proverbs 18:10-11; 28:6
There are only 23 days to Christmas. Yesterday, in one of our annual rituals, our family installed our Christmas tree, weighing down its branches with tinsel, balls, beads and other decorations. As he has done every Christmas, when all is ready, Michael is lifted aloft to place a silver star atop the highest branch. Already he has trouble sleeping for excitement; already carefully wrapped gifts are mysteriously assembling beneath the tree.
Australia is a wonderful place in which to live and work. We enjoy democratic freedom, regional security and relatively high standards of living. Australia ranks seventh in the world on the UN’s human development index of life expectancy, infant mortality, income and health.
Generally stomachs are full, wardrobes are overflowing, department stores are over-stocked, already sumptuous houses are renovated and enlarged, even our freeways are clogged with late-model cars. We have difficulty finding a gift for the man or woman who already has “everything.” When we feel stressed or depressed we indulge in a little “retail therapy.” We understand slogans like “I shop, therefore I am,” and “She came, she saw, she did a little shopping.” We live in the “land of the spree.”
Consumption is not bad or sinful. We all consume to live. But many of us are focused not on consuming to live but on living to consume. Our consumption is becoming all-consuming, encouraged by a commercial culture of planned obsolescence, sophisticated advertising strategies designed to create and increase demand, and easy credit.
Material possessions are not evil, and they do not by themselves corrupt vital spirituality or lead us away from God. But as Rodney Clapp argues in an article titled “Why the devil takes visa,”
In a fun-house world of ever-proliferating wants and exquisitely unsatisfied desire, consumption entails most profoundly the cultivation of pleasure, the pursuit of novelty, and the chasing after illusory experiences associated with material goods … modern consumers are perpetually dissatisfied. Fulfilment and lasting satisfaction are forever just out of reach … Insatiability itself is as old as humanity, or at least the fall of humanity. What is unique to modern consumerism is the idealization and constant encouragement of insatiability – the deification of dissatisfaction.
In 1955, during the postwar boom, retailing analyst Victor Lebow revealingly declared,
Our enormously productive economy … demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction, in consumption … We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate.
And so millions of people, including Christians, have blindly surrendered to the pervasive and ever-increasing demands of modern capitalism.
Christianity and capitalism are not the same thing, but they can coexist. From our birth we are all spiritual, and we are all participants in economic life. But when my behaviour as a consumer fosters values that are antithetical to Christian virtues like patience, contentedness, self-denial and generosity, I have a problem. What I am experiencing is a clash of opposing ideologies, a collision of incompatible worldviews, a choice between Christ and culture.
Where my desires are corrupted and rendered insatiable, I have a problem. The Bible advocates only one form of insatiability: the insatiability of relationship with God through Jesus Christ. The psalmist said, “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. Where can I go and meet with God?” (Ps 42:1-2). Augustine was right when he said, “The heart is restless until it finds its rest in [God].”
The trouble with contemporary global culture is that enormous resources and skilful strategies perpetuate our restlessness and insatiability, while convincing us that money is our Messiah and shopping is our salvation. The trouble with you and me is that we too easily swallow that lie. Most of us have not chosen to live in Australia, or participate in the global capitalist economy, or adopt the lifestyle we enjoy. We were born into these things.
But now we have been born into God’s family, we have Christian values to live by and moral choices to make. Christ has set us free from all the bondage and weight of our sins, but every day we risk enslaving ourselves to materialism, and surrendering to the powerful seduction of consumerism.
We need to ask, in this “land of the spree,” “Am I truly free?” We risk becoming addicts not to things themselves but to our power to purchase, acquire, amass and constantly replace consumer items.
The greatest tragedy is not that we will spend all our income and savings and get caught in the credit trap. The greatest tragedy is not that we will obey the advertisers and spend our money on what is unimportant. The greatest tragedy is that this economic slavery and seduction will evict God from the centre of our existence.
“The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run to it and are safe.
The wealth of the rich is in their fortified city; they imagine it an unscalable wall” (Prov 18:10-11).
Am I truly free? Do I use my income and investments to pursue my God-given purpose in life, to promote Christian values and the Christian gospel, and to help those in need? Or do I use my income and investments to feed an unconscious addiction to spending and a subtle slavery to material possessions?
Our local community is becoming a fortified city: deadlocks, security doors, security lighting, security alarms, security guards, surveillance cameras, tall fences, concrete walls, imposing gates, entire gated communities. Money buys security, but it has the potential to insulate us from God. Possessions not prayer become our priority. Security not spirituality becomes our passion.
It is so easy to do well in our own eyes and in the eyes of others only to experience a crisis of the heart or discover a poverty of the soul. “Better a poor man whose walk is blameless than a rich man whose ways are perverse” (Prov 28:6). Or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “It is better to be poor and honest than rich and crooked.”
No amount of wealth can buy salvation – we know that. Salvation is a free gift from God (Eph 2:8). But neither can any amount of wealth assure blessing, success or honour when integrity is absent. Wealth and wealth creation has a legitimate place in our lives. It delivers legitimate rewards (cf Pro 19:4; 22:7). Wealth seems far preferable to poverty in so many ways.
But Proverbs 28:6 ironically declares that a poor person can be better off than a rich person! Poor and honest is far better than rich and crooked. Poor and honest provides a better attitude, a better example, and a better outcome (cf Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus, Lk 18:19-31).
Jesus understood the corrupting power of money and its potential for spiritual seduction. He said, “You cannot serve both God and money” (Mt 6:24). Jesus understood the strong allure of material possessions, and I am sure he understands the contemporary obsession with consumerism and its deification of dissatisfaction. He offered a simple solution that applies just as well today as it did 2000 years ago: “Where your treasure is there your heart will be also” (Mt 6:21). So decide what is worth living and dying for, and pour your heart into it.
In Peter Weir’s movie The Truman Show the hero, Truman, is born into and brought up in the artificially constructed town of Seahaven, unaware that it consists merely of actors and movie settings and is being televised live worldwide. The story consists of Truman’s efforts to realise his entrapment in his televised unreality, and to escape into the reality outside the movie set into which he was involuntarily born.
From time to time we see Christof, the mastermind creator of Truman’s world. At one point we see him trying to justify Truman’s hyper-real life to a critical caller on a talkback show. Christof says,
He can leave any time. If it was more than just a vague ambition, if he was absolutely determined to discover the truth, there’s no way we could prevent him from leaving. What distresses you, really, caller, is that ultimately, Truman prefers his ‘cell,’ as you call it.
Can you leave any time? Does money hold no power over you? Are you truly free from the culture of consumerism that pervades contemporary culture, and the contemporary church? Or are you, like Truman, at home in your cell, comfortable in your chains, happy to enjoy the bliss of ignorance?
This Christmas, in this “land of the spree,” don’t stop giving and receiving gifts, but do it thoughtfully and with Christian motivation and purpose. Consider doing something different with your money, and live and breathe the steward’s prayer: “God, help me to handle possessions with a light touch.”
Copyright © 2001 Rod Benson. All rights reserved. Sermon 432, Blakehurst Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday December 2, 2001. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).
 Patrick Johnstone & Jason Mandryk, Operation World (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2001) 83.
 Rodney Clapp, “Why the devil takes visa: A Christian response to the triumph of consumerism,” Christianity Today, October 7, 1996, 25-26.
 Quoted in Clapp, 27.
 Dave Collis, “The abuse of consumerism,” Zadok Paper S101, 1999, 13.
Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.