Money: Your Idol or Gift of God (2)

Copyright © 2015 HarperCollins Christian Publishing.
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“And Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, ‘How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’” (Mark 10:23).
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
One of the advantages of being a liturgical church is that we follow a lectionary, a three-year series of Scripture readings arranged according to the Church’s calendar and used by churches all over the world. This encourages pastors to not just ride their own hobbyhorse or avoid uncomfortable subjects but to preach the full counsel of God. And it’s not easy to faithfully preach on at least two of today’s readings without speaking about money. Dare I say it? It’s almost as difficult as a camel going through the eye of a needle.
But let’s face it: Though there are some exceptions, most pastors don’t like to preach about money. It feels a bit self-serving. After all, your offerings are used to help pay our salary. And certainly most of you don’t like to hear sermons about money, either. It makes you feel uncomfortable, manipulated, or maybe even guilty. So, what should we do? Should pastors teach what God’s Word says about money and how we use it to support His Church? Should pastors preach about money and its relationship to faith? Or should we just remain silent so as not to offend anyone or give the impression that “all the Church cares about is money”?
Well, suppose a pastor knew that about 80% of his parishioners were brazenly breaking the Sixth Commandment, that they were openly committing adultery. Wouldn’t it be reasonable (even expected) that he would spend some time addressing that particular sin with God’s Word and insisting upon repentance? Of course, he should speak up! That is what he’s called to do. And that applies to the First Commandment, too. God’s called and ordained servant must teach and preach repentance when it comes to idolatry as well.
So today, by God’s grace, that is what I am going to do. I’m going to give it to you with both barrels—God’s Law and Gospel. The Law of God, so it might convict you of sin and lead you to repent so that you might receive the comforting Gospel of forgiveness won by Christ for all sins. Toward this end, we will be looking at our Old Testament reading, Ecclesiastes 5:10-20, and our Gospel, Mark 10:23-31. We will do so under the theme: “Money: Your Idol or a Gift of God?”
Imagine the shocked look on the disciples’ faces. They’ve just watched an earnest, religious young man turn away with a long face. He wanted eternal life, but Jesus’ price tag just seemed too high. But Jesus isn’t finished upsetting religious sensibilities. As He meets with His disciples privately, Jesus lobs a theological hand grenade that shakes them to the foundation of their faith: “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples are astonished at Jesus’ word. It’s no wonder. They’re in danger of losing their religion—or at least a major component of it. They live in a culture where wealth is considered to be a sign of God’s blessing. When you “count your blessings,” the more you can count, the more blessed by God you are.
And there is an element of truth to this, isn’t there? Money is a gift from God, right? The book of Ecclesiastes says as much. The Old Testament is chock full of the notion that if you play by God’s rules, you will generally prosper. But such a view ignores another reality: sin. When money falls from the good hand of a generously giving God into the hands of sinful men trouble begins.
Ambrose Bierce called money, “The god of the world’s leading religion.” Voltaire commented, “When it comes to the question of money, everyone has the same religion.” The problem with money is that we, like the rich young man, get religious about it. Then we’re dealing in the realm of idolatry. Whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.  And that’s why it is difficult for those with wealth to enter the kingdom of God.
So what is it you love? What is it that you trust? Is it money what you look for your comfort, security, or status? Then that’s idolatry. And Money is such a seductive idol. Sultry siren that she is, once she has you in her embrace she turns on you. When she replaces Jesus as the center of your life she will destroy you. Money is a liar and a tease. She promises rest and pleasure. Instead, she requires your undivided attention, devotion, and worship. There is no Sabbath Day with Money! She’ll work you to death. A death in which you will die apart from Jesus.  
Still, money itself is not the problem. Money is an inanimate object. It is morally neutral—neither good nor bad. What happens in the human heart is what determines whether money is your idol or a gift of God. As a gift of God it is a great blessing, useful for caring for the bodily needs of yourself, your family, your neighbor, and the work of God’s kingdom—not to mention those little luxuries that bring a bit of joy in this world. As your idol, money is a terrible curse, for it will never deliver all that it promises; it always leaves you longing for more. No wonder the teacher says: “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10).
King Solomon speaks from personal experience. He has been there and done that. Not half-heartedly, but with all of his being, he tried to find the meaning of life with hundreds of the most beautiful women, in fancy mansions staffed by thousands of servants, in extravagant gardens. Name the toy. Name the pleasure. The biggest. The littlest. King Solomon had it all. He denied himself nothing.
When he worked, Solomon worked as hard as he could. Always planning and plotting, building and developing, trading and conquering. When he studied, he studied like no one else in history—botany, biology, philosophy, engineering, music, literature, theology—a true renaissance man over two thousand years before the Renaissance. And when he played—boy, did he play! He entertained and impressed royalty from all over the ancient world like the Queen of Sheba.
The wealth that Solomon accumulated was more than Bill Gates or Warren Buffet could ever imagine. And yet what did he discover? What did he learn? What did he write that should be required reading for every American? Even all of us here today? Whoever loves money never has enough money. If you love money, you are like a person who drinks salt water to quench his thirst. You’ll never be satisfied! You must have more! Money will never let you rest.
 And what about you scrooges who hold on so tight to Money that the undertaker will have to pry her from your cold, dead hands? You’re not immune from Money’s seduction, either. Promising freedom, she’ll enslave you. How? You endlessly worry. You’re constantly anxious. You’re always thinking about how much you have and how much more you want. Then there’s the fear that you’re just one bad investment, one stock market crash, or one mistaken business venture away from losing it all.  And ultimately, there is the inescapable fact that you will leave this world the very same way you entered it—with absolutely nothing! When Job lost all his wealth, he said: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised” (Job 1:21). Solomon is probably thinking of Job’s words here; but notice he does not add Job’s words of trust in the Lord, for the man living under the sun without God has no such comfort. He is left empty and disillusioned.
St. Paul probably had both Job and Ecclesiastes in mind when he wrote: “Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Timothy 6:6-10).
Money, who promises you happiness and security, instead causes you anxiety, sickness, and anger. Idols consume their worshipers. And the greatest danger of all is that in attempting to cling to everything, you do not fit through the narrow door of the kingdom. That revelation leaves Jesus’ disciples astonished. And it should leave you just as astonished, if not somewhat shaken, when you realize that most of us here today would qualify under Jesus’ definition of “rich.”
Now, does this mean that you need to divest yourself of every asset? In our Gospel, Peter seems to think that. He starts to say to Jesus: “Hey, look! We’ve got it right. We’re not rich. We’ve left everything and followed You.”
Jesus’ reply seems more confusing than clarifying: “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for My sake and for the Gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.”
What He means is: “Peter, you think you’ve left everything and now have nothing; but you couldn’t be more wrong. Already now, in this life, you have much more than you left behind, and there is much more to come. But hear this, and don’t miss it: In this life it all comes with persecutions. The cross hangs over everything. It’s the narrow door through which you enter into eternal life. So forget the bookkeeping and scorekeeping when it comes to the kingdom of God. There are no ledgers or scoreboards in the kingdom, only pure grace.”
No, your riches won’t save you, neither will your poverty, because the problem is not with money but with sin, which corrupts everything—including your enjoyment of the good things God gives you. He wants to bless you and give you a little bit of joy, and you turn around and make that into some all-consuming idol that robs you of every last ounce of joy in your life. No wonder it is easier for a camel to thread a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom!
Nevertheless, Jesus does the impossible thing, the thing only God can do—He saves you! Not with silver or gold but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death. He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor so that in His poverty you become rich. In His merciful Great Exchange, Christ takes on the debt of your sin, the poverty of your idolatry; and gives you the richness of His righteousness, His holiness, His peace, an eternal inheritance in His kingdom. That’s where Jesus wants your attention. Not on your wallets, your bank account, your assets, your stuff (or lack of any of these), but on Him, on His kingdom, and His righteousness. Seek these and He’ll take care of the rest.
 St. Paul shares this insight: “I’ve learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know what it is to be abased and to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).
With Christ in the center, money takes its proper place and perspective. Do you have plenty? Then rejoice, enjoy, share the joy with others. Are you in need? Then rejoice that your life is free from the clutter of wealth and that you will get to watch how the Lord keeps His promise to provide for your daily bread.
That’s the “secret” of contentment that Paul learned. Live and work and play as free men and women in Christ. Enjoy the food on your table, the wine in your glass, the work God has given you to do, and the opportunities that God gives you to share His blessings with others. These are His gifts to you. Hold them loosely and they won’t hold you. Remember: true meaning in life is not found in money or the things it can buy, but in knowing God and His goodness and grace, those gifts that keep you every day and fill your life with hope, peace, and joy that last to eternity. Whether you have much or little of this world’s wealth, you have the treasure that endures forever, for you have God your Father embracing you through the love of His Son manifested by the Spirit in God’s Word and Sacrament.     
In Baptism, you are bound to the Son of God in all that He is. You have an eternal inheritance in heaven. You are a co-heir with Christ. His selflessness and sacrifice have been exchanged for your greed and selfishness. His perfect obedience replaces your idolatry. His death on the cross is your death to sin and the payment of the penalty of the Law. His resurrection is your resurrection of body and soul to eternal life.         
And having risen and ascended, the Lord Jesus continues to bless you, coming to you always just as He promises, even as He intercedes for you now as your great High Priest at the right hand of God the Father. Calling you to repentance and faith through His Word. Feeding you His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and the strengthening of your faith. Speaking through His called and ordained servant the sweetest words a repentant sinner can ever hear: “You are forgiven for all of your sins.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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