Thanksgiving Sunday - 1 Timothy 6:3-19
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
If you had bumped into this man in the street, or even visited his house, you would have thought that he was just another old man, struggling to make ends meet and constantly fighting off destitution. Joseph Leek lived in a dilapidated old house in Hull, which he never repaired, even though it had a leaking roof, wore second hand clothes from a charity shop he visited every week, and watched his neighbour's TV to save on rental fees and electricity. He hated holidays, and never used public transport, preferring to ride around town on his bike. He was the sort of man who never spent any money unless it was absolutely necessary. And he was known as a miser. But when he died a couple of years ago at the age of 90, he left million pounds to the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. His two daughters never saw a penny of his huge fortune, but nevertheless were proud of their father's achievements, though admitting they had missed out. He had never mentioned the charity, though registered as blind, and his daughter believes that one of the reasons he may have done it was to avoid inheritance tax. Thrifty right to the end!
Well I guess one of the reasons we like these sort of stories is because we are fascinated by money. Stories about people making a lot of money or losing a lot of money always make good headlines. The fact is that we live in a consumer society, where material possessions and the desire for more money are rife. Millions play the lottery each week in the hope that this week will be their lucky break. And if you scan the shelves of your local bookshop you'll discover yards of books which claim to teach you how to get rich quick. Just this week I found dozens of books on getting rich and buying happiness on Amazon's website, the internet bookseller. There were titles like "The Science of Getting Rich," by Wallace D Wattles or "Getting Rich in America- 8 Simple Rules for Building a Fortune and a Better Life" by Dwight Lee, and my favourite, "The China Investor: Getting Rich with the Next Superpower" by the aptly named Caesar Bacani! We might laugh, but the fact is these books sell in their millions. Napoleon Hill's book "Think and Grow Rich" has been through 42 editions and has sold over seven million copies. Clearly there is a huge attraction in what these authors are saying. One author, Gudrun Kretschmann, begins his book, "The 10 Keys to Prosperity" with a letter to the reader: "Dear friends, wouldn't it be a different world if we knew that we could all be prosperous? We have the power to build and shape our lives in the way we choose and desire. Only our minds create scarcity. Choose prosperity in your life. Abundance and prosperity on all levels is possible. These keys will assist you in manifesting a life you really want. You deserve it, Love Gudrun." Now whilst we might say we're not so nato be taken in by such things, yet the very air we breathe in Britain today is that of a consumer culture bent on getting as much as it can as quickly as it can. And advertising only fuels that insatiable appetite. Of the thousands of advertisements we see and hear each week, the message is that same. Buy this product because you need it to make your life better. You deserve it. And more often than not we are taken in.
Now believe it or not, this problem of a materialistic consumer culture is not new. Because the apostle Paul faced it in his ministry in the first century. Admittedly it was wrapped up in slightly different clothes, but at its heart Paul had to tackle the same problem- the love of money and possessions. And it is that that Paul is tackling in this passage at the end of 1 Timothy. He's writing to his younger colleague Timothy and he's warning him of false teachers. And one of the things these false teachers are doing is being taken in by the love of money. Not only are they peddling a false gospel, but they are also making money out of it. Notice what Paul says at the end of verse 5. Talking of the false teachers, he says: "[T]hey have been robbed of the truth and they think that godliness is a means to financial gain." And it's in this context of a wrong understanding and wrong use of money, that Paul goes on to urge Timothy to teach about the right use of money and possessions. And these verses are bang up to date and so relevant to us in our situation. Because on this day where we are given an opportunity to assess our giving and to thank God for all he has given us, it is absolutely vital that we have God's understanding of money and possessions and not the world's. For Christians are meant to be counter cultural, and Paul means us not feel guilty or pressured into giving, but to reflect the character of our generous heavenly Father who has given us so much. So Paul gives us three commands from this passage:
1) Be Content (Vv 6-8)
2) Be Warned (Vv 9-10)
3) Be Generous (Vv 17-19)
1) Be Content (Vv 6-8)
And his first command is to be content. Verse 6: "But godliness with contentment is great gain." Now Paul could have said that for Christians, we are not to pursue gain. But that's not what he says. He says that we are to pursue gain, but it has to be the right kind of gain. And that is godliness with contentment. We are to aim for godliness and be content with what we have materially. And how can we be content? Well listen to Paul speaking in Philippians 4: "I have learnt the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want." And what is that secret? He goes on "I can do all things through him who gives me strength." In other words his contentment springs from his relationship with God. Whatever his material situation, he is content because he knows that something is far more important than material possessions and wealth, and that is his relationship with God. If you are so growing like Christ and delighting in God that you are freed from that covetous greed that afflicts so many in our land, that you are content with what you have, then that is real gain, says Paul. And why should we have that attitude? Verse 7: "For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that." Life, you see, is a brief journey between nakedness. What's the point of piling up wealth and riches when you cannot take it with you? A woman once asked a vicar after the funeral of a wealthy woman: "Vicar, how much did she leave?" "Everything madam," he replied. This life is a preparation for eternity. We are simply pilgrims who must travel lightly. And if you are so attached to the things of this world that you acquire and pine for as much as you can get, that you are making a foolish mistake. No, says Paul. Contentment is the key. It's not that he is saying that food and clothing is all a Christian can have. Rather he's saying that that is all we need. And we should be content with that. Now if God gives us much more, then rejoice, but don't let that be the source of our joy and contentment. Rather, godliness with contentment is great gain.
At the risk of upsetting the treasurer, (but I'm sure he'll agree!) the heart of giving is not facts and figures, not even how much or how little you give. It's about your heart. It's about whether you find your joy and contentment in your relationship with your heavenly Father and your desire to grow like him, or whether your real joy is in your wealth. That's the question. Is your delight in God or material gain? As Jesus said, you cannot serve both masters. Its one or the other. Perhaps the reason why so many Christians in the Western world are so materialistic is for precisely this reason. That their relationship with God is so shallow. Their true joy is not actually in their God, but in their possessions. But Paul's secret is that he is so thrilled by his God and loves him so much, that whatever his material assets, he finds his joy in God. And he is content with his lot. And when your heart is so captivated by your loving heavenly Father, then giving becomes a joy and a delight, because as we'll see, you simply delight to reflect his character.
And how counter cultural we would be if we had that attitude to our money and possessions! Listen to these words of the writer John Benton: "In an age in which the whole direction of people's lives is dominated by climbing the career ladder, acquisition of material goods and never being satisfied, for a Christian to be able honestly to say 'I am fine as I am, I don't need anything', is a tremendous and glorious shock to the non Christian's system. It is cutting edge. To be known as an able colleague and yet to have no greater ambition than to be content in God is so astonishing it makes people sit up." I wonder if you and I could say that of ourselves, that we are so delighted with our Father, so gripped by his love, that we are content with what we have, with no desire for anything else. Because that is the first and most important question when it comes to thinking about our giving. Where is your heart? Is it set on worldly gain, or heavenly gain? And before we do anything else, we need to get that one sorted. That's Paul's first command. Be content.
2) Be Warned (Vv 9-10)
But then secondly, Paul gives us another command, and that is be warned. Because he wants us to be under no illusions of the dangers of wealth. Now we need to be clear that the Bible is not against wealth or rich people necessarily. In fact, there are a number of wealthy people in the Bible. Abraham and Job for example were some of the wealthiest men of the day. God blessed them richly with material blessings. But those who want to get rich are given a serious warning by the apostle Paul. If you are wanting to get more wealth and material possessions then you are steering a course for dangerous waters. Why is that? Because of what Paul says in verse 10: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil." Now often this verse is misquoted and Paul is misunderstood. Listen again to what Paul says. He says that the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. He does not say that money is the root of all evil. Money in itself is not the problem. The problems start when it is abused. Then it is a root of all kinds of evil. So what does Paul mean? Well he mentions two things.
a) Serious Difficulties- First he says the desire for wealth will lead you into serious difficulties in this life. Notice the terrible downward spiral there is for anyone who sets their heart on wealth in verse 9: "People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction." It starts with a desire to get rich, which Paul says is a temptation and trap. It leads to many foolish and harmful desires, and eventually plunges people into ruin and destruction. It's a downward slope which only leads to disaster and destruction. The sad fact that many discover too late is that money does not satisfy. One writer has put it this way: "Money is like sea water; the more you drink of it, the thirstier you become."
And time and again we read of some terrible trouble that has arisen over a huge lottery winner with friends and relatives squabbling over the winnings, whilst others badger the winners with begging letters. Just this week the story of a huge lottery win in Ohio, USA, has been on our TV screens and in our newspapers. It all started when the million jackpot was announced. One woman, Elicia Battle stepped up to receive her prize but said she had conveniently lost her ticket. That was until the real winner claimed her prize, Rebecca Jemison, who walked off with her multi million dollar cool cheque. Elicia Battle has vowed not to give up the struggle for the cheque. Cleveland police have vowed to prosecute her for lying to the police, which could land her in jail for 6 months. If you want to get rich, says Paul, you're heading for serious difficulties.
b) Spiritual Disaster- But there is a far more serious problem facing those who want to get rich. And that is spiritual disaster. Verse 10: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs." What Paul is saying here is that if you pursue wealth and riches, if your concern is simply for more money and possessions, then you are running the risk of losing your faith. You are running the risk of ship wrecking your faith. In short if you follow the yellow brick road it will only lead you to hell. That's what he's saying. Do you remember what Jesus said. "What good is it if a man gains the whole world and yet forfeits his soul?" Yes, some, says Paul have wandered from the faith.
Of course we might say: "I don't want to be rich, I just want a little bit more! I just want to be comfortable! Where's the harm in that?" Well that is a very dangerous game to play. Because where will we stop? When John Paul Getty, one of the richest men in the world was asked how much money he wanted, he said: "Just a little bit more." And for the Christian it may also be a case of not being willing to trust God. Paul has already taught us to be content with the basics. God will provide for us what we need, but not always what we want.
Again we might say: "Come on, Paul is just scare mongering! We're serious Christians. We're not going to be duped. But Paul isn't playing. Remember he's writing to Christians. This isn't theory, this is real. He's serious. Wealth can be dangerous. Indeed, one of his best friends called Demas, just a year or two after this letter was written left the faith because he was more interested in the attractions this world has to offer. And if you've been a Christian long enough, you'll know it happens. Christians apparently strong in the faith leaving the church because they have fallen into the trap of wealth. I think of some friends who attended a church in the north which was almost destroyed because one of the elders of the church embezzled his business' funds and walked away with several hundred thousand pounds. Friends, let us not be naWealth is very seductive. Let's have the courage to urge one another to stay clear of this danger and to keep each other on the road to heaven. Let's encourage one another to be counter cultural when it comes to our thinking and actions on our wealth and possessions. Heed the warnings that Paul gives. The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Be warned.
3) Be Generous (Vv 17-19)
So what then is the antidote to this temptation? What positive teaching on wealth does Paul give? Well that brings us to the final command that Paul gives. Be generous. Because generosity with our wealth and possessions is a sure way of protecting us from the trappings of materialism. And generosity is a wonderful thing because we are reflecting the wonderful generous spirit of our heavenly Father. Paul has just been telling Timothy in the intervening passage that he is to actively pursue godliness. Verse 11: "But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness." Those are the qualities of someone who is living for God. And what will that mean practically for the wealthy? Paul tells us in verse 17: "Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment." Now I take it that could easily apply this passage to ourselves for we are very wealthy in the Western world. Even those of us who consider ourselves less well off are still very rich compared to millions in our world. So what does Paul says to us. Well he tells us not to trust in our wealth, but to put our hope in God. Wealth is fleeting. Wealth is prone to stock market collapses, burglars, fire and flood, and most seriously of all death. But when our hope is in God, then we have a sure anchor for ourselves.
And what has this to do with giving. Well it means that when our hope is in God, then we joyfully use our worldly riches for his glory and good. Verse 18: "Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share." Notice here that generosity includes our deeds as well as our wealth. We're to be generous in every aspect of life, our time, our actions, our talents, as well as our wealth. But why should we? Well Paul reminds us of God's wonderful character in verse 17: "God richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment." You see God is the supreme giver, something we remember tonight as we share bread and wine remembering his supreme gift of Jesus. He is the one who is the model of generosity. He is the one who gives us the wealth in the first place. And its only because he has given us so much that we can give to others. In that sense our wealth is not really ours to use. It's on loan to do with as the true master sees fit. So we are to give generously is to reflect the Father's heart. And that is why generous giving is such a wonderful thing to be a part of. A generous church family is a church family that reflects the Father's heart, that models itself on God's character. Generous and cheerful givers are truly godly because that are being godlike. And if you're not being generous, whether it be with your wealth or time or gifts, then you're really missing out on the party, and you are not being godly. And so whether you're a hard up student, or a wealthy employer, each one of us needs to decide before God what being generous will mean for us. And if our utmost desire is to know God and make him known then we'll long to give as best we can to his work.
And that brings us back to where we started. Because Paul finishes by asking where our heart is. Verse 19: "In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life." If you are truly living for God and his priorities, then you will live and give for heaven, for God's kingdom. Because that is reality. You'll use your worldly wealth for the kingdom of God, knowing that that treasure lasts forever. It's a question of the heart, of what we are most passionate about, what you and I most value.
Some of you will perhaps know that my family live in Cambridge, and the local football team is Cambridge United. Now back in November of 2003, Cambridge United was threatened with being wound up as a business and the football club being finished. The club had to find in a matter of weeks to repay a loan, otherwise the business would be sold to developers. The club asked the supporters to find in cash within four weeks. It was a huge task for a very small club with a very limited fan base. But the club had one thing on its side. Totally committed fans. These fans did anything and everything for that club in order to raise the They carried out sponsored walks and cycle rides. Some people had their hair shaved off, others sponsored their own seats in the ground. You name it they did it. And after 4 weeks they had raised the money. And what struck me as I kept up with the news was the total devotion and passion that these people had for their cause, their football club.
And it got me thinking. I wonder how you or I would compare in our passion for the gospel and the cause of God. Football fans travel thousands of miles and give hundreds of pounds to see their team, and if you follow Cambridge United it almost always ends in disappointment. But friends, we have something far better to invest our time and money and passion in don't we? We have something far more valuable to share, something far more wonderful to look forward to, and we have a far greater cause. The cause of the gospel, something which will last for eternity. But do we have that undying passion for our God and the gospel that these fans had for their club? Answer this honestly. Where is your heart, where is your passion? A football club, a degree, a career, a particular lifestyle. Paul says that when our heart is with God and we serve our God by giving to his work and sharing our gifts and good deeds for the gospel's sake, then we are building up treasure in heaven that will last forever. Under God he can use our cheques and our cash for something that will last forever. And in eternity we will be amazed to see the fruits of our giving and our work under God, not that will we boast in ourselves, but that we might sing God's praise for evermore. Will you get involved? Will you join that great gospel cause? I tell you, you'll never regret banking with heaven. So hear Paul's commands again and resolve to put them into practice. In the face of covetousness, be content, in the face of wealth's dangers be warned, and in the face of the wonderful gospel task, be generous as your heavenly father is generous and invest in eternity.
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