Money - Proverbs 3:9-10
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The story is told of a duck that was flying with his flock in the springtime northward across Europe. During the flight he came down in a Danish barnyard where there were some tame ducks. He enjoyed some of their corn and their company. And he stayed, at first for an hour, then a day, then for a week, then for a month and finally, because he relished the good fare and the safety of the barnyard, he ended up staying all summer. But one autumn day when the flock of wild ducks were winging their way back southward again, they passed over the barnyard, and their mate heard their cries. He was stirred with a strange thrill of joy and delight, and with a great flapping of wings he rose in the air to join his old friends in their flight back home. But he found that his good fare had made him so soft and heavy that he could rise no higher than the eaves of the barn. So he dropped back again to the barnyard, and said to himself: "Oh, well! My life is safe here and the food is good." And so every spring and autumn when he heard the wild ducks calling him, his eyes would gleam for a moment and he would begin to flap his wings. But finally the day came when the wild ducks flew over him and uttered their cry, but he paid not the slightest attention to them. Because he was now far too comfortable in the barnyard to care. And nor did he notice that every so often one by one those ducks would disappear only to reappear on the farmer's table for Sunday lunch. For those comfortable fat little ducks were slowly fattening themselves for the day of slaughter.
Now I wonder what you would say is the biggest danger facing the Western Christian church today. Perhaps you'd say it's the danger of our liberty to preach the gospel being taken away by ever more stringent religious freedom laws. Perhaps you'd say the biggest problem is the lack of young people coming to the church nowadays. Maybe you'd say that the biggest problem facing us is lack of prayer, or lack of clear gospel minded leadership. Well all those are no doubt very serious problems. And yet I would want to argue that there is one danger that is perhaps far more subtle and therefore far more dangerous than all those other problems and dangers. And that is the danger of materialism. That is the increasing obsession with possessions and things and the desire for a particularly affluent and comfortable lifestyle that is fuelled by the consumer culture in which we live. You see we are constantly bombarded by thousands of messages every week urging us to have this or that, or more subtly prodding us to aim for a slightly more comfortable lifestyle where you have the better kitchen or car or holiday or garden or whatever it is. And whilst, as we will see, there is nothing necessarily wrong with that, yet the danger is that this desire for more, or simply for a more comfortable way of life, hardens our hearts to the truth of the gospel and the Bible's teaching on living God's way. Because the danger is words like sacrifice and simplicity and frugality don't even enter our vocabulary, and we become far too focussed on what this world can give us instead of remembering that our true home is in heaven. We're just pilgrims passing through on the way home, who are meant to sit light to this world. But this danger subtly burrows away at our values each and every day as we hear and listen to messages which offer us something better and nicer. It dulls our spiritual senses so that we don't like to make sacrifices for Christ's sake. We may not be so keen to stand for Christ and make tough and costly decisions for him. And we expect a life of relative ease and comfort which means spiritually speaking we become complacent and unthinking. And like that duck in the farmyard we find ourselves settling down to a life of ease so that we are never able to fly against the prevailing winds of our obsessively materialistic consumer culture.
Now you might think that I am perhaps over reacting a little. Surely it's not that big a danger for the Christian? What's wrong with a comfortable lifestyle after all? Well listen to these words from one minister who leads a church in one of the most wealthy parts of England. He asks: "What trips up most Christians nowadays? What keeps our Christian lives at a low level? It seems to me that it is not often the big sins such as theft or adultery that erode the spirituality of the general mass of Christians. What really undermines us spiritually is that we are trapped in the by-path meadow of the trivia of a consumer society. The banal TV, with the distraction of sport or soap operas; our cluttered lives caused by thousands of choices that we can make, with every one of them distracting us and taking us this way and the other, so that we are not focused any more on the one great matter in life- our God. Consumerism robs our focus and it is that which chains many of us down in our spirituality. Although such aspects of consumerism are not necessarily wrong in themselves, they rob us of our focus."
And the Bible would agree. In fact it may surprise you to know that the Bible speaks far more about money than even things like faith or prayer. Apparently, though I've not counted them myself, there are about 500 verses on faith in the Bible and about 500 on prayer, but a staggering 2350 on money! Clearly it is something that God believes we need much teaching and encouragement on. And in Jesus' ministry, he himself highlighted the dangers of wealth. In fact in the parable of the sower, he says that the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desire for other things can choke the word of God in a person's life. The snare of wealth, says Jesus, is one of the reasons why people give up the Christian life.
And when we come to the Proverbs we find that they too have much to teach us on wealth. For if you remember, the Proverbs are God's practical teaching to us to live the wise way, that is God's way. We've seen throughout this series on Proverbs the key comes in chapter 3 verse 5-6: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight." And that is something that affects our attitude to wealth as much as anything else. With wealth there is a wise way to live and a foolish way to live. So what then is the wise way to live when it comes to our wealth? How can we avoid this subtle and dangerous temptation that is all around us? Well looking at various Proverbs this morning, I want us to see four things that we must remember:
1) Remember the Source of Wealth
2) Remember the Purpose of Wealth
3) Remember the Future of Wealth
4) Remember the Key to Wealth
1) Remember the Source of Wealth
So first then, we need to remember the source of wealth. And Proverbs has much to say about how to acquire wealth and where we get it from. And humanly speaking the way to gain wealth is through hard work. So for instance 6 vv 10-11: "A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest - and poverty will come on you like a bandit and scarcity like an armed man." Or again in 10 v 4 we read: "Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth." Now of course as soon as we read verses like this we need to be careful. Because Proverbs is a not a law book. It's not talking about absolute truths which are right all of the time. So it's not saying that the diligent always get wealthy and the lazy are always poor. Nor is it saying that the rich are therefore hard working and the poor are therefore lazy. A mere few minutes of life experience makes you realise that sometimes there are very lazy rich people who seem to get wealthy by doing nothing. And there are some very hard working people who struggle financially. And the Bible recognises that sometimes the world is a very unjust place. It's not a case of simple logic. But the Proverbs is a practical book which puts truths generally. So it's plain common sense that if you are lazy and ill disciplined, then you should not expect to get anything for your lack of hard work. Why should you be rewarded? So one of the characters that the Proverbs counsels us to avoid being is the sluggard. For he is so lazy and ill disciplined that he never achieves anything. So for example 26 v 14: "As a door turns on its hinges so a sluggard turns on his bed." And the sluggard also gives ridiculous excuses for not doing something, so 26 v 13: "The sluggard says, 'There is a lion in the road, a fierce lion roaming the streets.'" So ill discipline and laziness are marks of the fool. It's just plain ungodly to be lazy. And it's worth us noting that if you are prone to laziness and ill discipline in your life generally and you frequently give in to that temptation, then it's very easy for you to become lazy spiritually too. It's the attitude which says, "I can't be bothered to pray, or read the Bible, or even to come to church. It's just too much effort." Beware the sluggard, says the writer. For it can lead you to poverty, both in the material and spiritual realm.
But that is not where the Proverbs leave us when thinking abut the source of wealth. For we hear the other side of the coin in 10 v 22. "The blessing of the Lord brings wealth, and he adds no trouble to it." What do we do when we find ourselves in a position where we do have wealth and possessions? Do we pat ourselves on the back and say: "Well done! You've worked hard for this?" Or do we say, "Thank you Lord! All good things come from you. You are the one who has blessed us so richly!" Well it's the latter attitude that the Proverbs urges us to have. For wealth is a good gift of God. So we shouldn't turn our noses up at wealth, and neither does the Bible condemn wealth as evil. No, it is a good gift that has been given to us by God. And the fact is that everyone in this building, despite our relative differences in wealth, some earning more than others, some having less than others, yet the fact is compared to much of the world, we are fabulously wealthy. And that is something to thank God for and acknowledge. Because the moment we fail to give thanks to God and to recognise that he is the generous giver of good things, then that is the moment when like that duck in the barnyard, we no longer look up and we gorge ourselves on the good gifts we have been given with no thought to the giver. So why not make it your habit to thank God daily for what he has given you so richly. Do you thank God for the food you eat, the house you live in, the possessions you have? They are all good gifts from a good giver. Yes we must not be ungodly and lazy, but ultimately we must remember the giver, who is God himself. Because the first step to protecting ourselves against the dangers of materialism is to remember the source of wealth.
2) Remember the Purpose of Wealth
But having received such good gifts, what must we do next? We need secondly to remember the purpose of wealth. Because God does not want us to keep his good gifts to ourselves. They are given to us for good purposes. And in the Proverbs we discover that there is a wise way and a foolish way to handle wealth. And the principle is made clear for us in 3 vv 9-10: "Honour the Lord with your wealth, with the firstfruits of all your crops; then your barns will be filled to overflowing, and your vats will brim over with new wine." Honour the Lord with your wealth- that's the principle. He's given us wonderful gifts, but we can either dishonour the Lord or honour him through what we do with his good gifts. For as the preacher Charles Spurgeon said: "Any idiot can make money, it takes a wise man to spend it."
a) The Foolish Way- So let's look first at the foolish way to use money. If you want to dishonour the Lord with your money, then follow these three simple steps. First trust in your wealth. So Proverbs 11 v 28: "Whoever trusts in his riches will fall, but the righteous will thrive like a green leaf." So here is the man or woman whose confidence and security is in their wealth and not God. He or she finds his identity and self worth in the salary they get, the car they drive, the clothes they wear. All their hopes are pinned on that promotion, the raise, the endowment policy maturing. Except what happens? You crash the car, the house burns down, unemployment strikes and your hard earned pension is slashed through a stock market crash. It's not that things like cars or houses or pensions policies are bad. It's just that we're fools according to the Bible if that is where we place our trust instead of God. The writer says that whoever trusts in his riches will fall. And why is it so foolish to trust in wealth? Because according to 27 v 1 we don't know the future. "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring forth." Who knows what tomorrow will bring? So don't trust in wealth. Trust the one who has already made tomorrow.
But another mark of the foolish way to use money is to be stingy with your wealth. 28 v 22: "A stingy man is eager to get rich and is unaware that poverty awaits him." Here's the person who is constantly counting the pennies and refuses to give anything away. I read the story this week of an elderly couple who went out to dinner to celebrate their wedding anniversary and they both ordered steak. And when the steak arrived, the wife eagerly began to eat hers, whilst the husband waited patiently. The waiter saw this, so he asked if everything was OK, at which point the husband said: "Yes everything's fine thank you. I'm waiting for my wife to finish so I can use her dentures." But there's a fine line between being thrifty, that is being careful with your money, and being stingy. And often those who are stingy are stingy because they want to cling desperately to their wealth. So 18 v 11: "The wealth of the rich is their fortified city; they imagine it an unscalable wall." But all too easily that wall is breached and the wealth plundered. And yet sometimes those who have very little materially are the most generous. So friends of mine who have visited some of the poorest parts of Africa frequently say that those are the most generous and warm hearted people they have ever met. They will give you something very precious to them to make you feel welcome as an honoured guest.
And then one final mark of the foolish way to use your money is to be abusive with your wealth. That is not help others but oppress others. And the Proverbs have much to say on how it is so easy to oppress those who have less than you. So 22 v 7: "The rich rule over the poor and the borrower is servant to the lender." If you are wealthy it is very easy to lord it over those who have less than you and look down your nose at them as if they were lesser beings. And 14 v 31 shows the problem with that: "He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their maker. But whoever is kind to the needy honours God." If you ignore those in need, you are actually showing contempt for the one who made them. And you have joined the ranks of the fool who dishonours God by his misuse of his God-given wealth. He trusts in his wealth, he's stingy with his wealth and he's abusive with his wealth.
b) The Wise Way- But the Proverbs also outline for us three marks of those who are wise with their wealth. They long to honour God with what God has given them. And they are marked by the three exact opposite marks of the fool. So first they are content with their wealth instead of trusting in their wealth. 23 v 4: "Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint." The wise person is content with what they have. They don't strain to have more and more. But the problem is when you've tasted wealth, then the danger is it's like drinking sea water. You want more and more and your thirst is never quenched. So consider a man like Elton John. Between January 1996 and July 1997 he spent an average of million a month. Purchases included four Bentley's, 000 worth of flowers and a wig for his fiftieth birthday party which cost He said at the time: "I love my possessions. I get more love from them than from most human beings." His is an unquenchable thirst for more. But compare that to the apostle Paul in his letter to the Philippians: "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. So Proverbs 30 vv 8-9 says: "Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise I may have too much and disown you and say, "Who is the Lord?" O I may become poor and steal and so dishonour the name of my God."
And in a world which constantly looks for more and is never satisfied, then Christian contentment is very counter cultural. So listen to these words of the author I quoted earlier on who pastors a congregation in a wealthy part of England: "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."
But the person who is wise with his wealth will also be generous with his wealth rather than stingy. So 11 vv 24-25: "One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty. A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed." Or again 22 v 9: "A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor." The beautiful thing about generous giving is that it is a joy to you as well as the person you are giving to. So as you refresh others, then you yourself are refreshed. Because God promises great blessing for those who give, not necessarily financially, but the blessing of seeing others helped, of the gospel bearing fruit, of people being saved through the workers we support. And it's a real sign of spiritual growth when a person's wallet is converted as well as their heart. It's a mark of the Spirit of God to make us generous and to sit light to our possessions and wealth. And let's praise God that over these last few years we have seen a huge increase in giving in St. John's. Because that is a great blessing and a great work of God. And if you struggle to be generous or you struggle with his whole area of giving, then pray that God would soften your heart and enable you to join in this great gift of giving to others. For generous people are wise people.
And then the final mark of the wise person is that they are loving with their wealth, rather than abusive with their wealth. So 14 v 21: "He who despises his neighbour sins, but blessed is he who is kind to the needy." The wise are always looking for ways to help others with what they've received. And in a Christian church family, surely one of the marks of a genuine loving community will be to support those in need. And that need can come in all sorts of ways- having meals cooked, having children looked after, having transport provided, giving financial help too in some circumstances. If we have received so much in various ways from the Lord, and if we are men and women of love, then we too will long to share that love in practical ways with others. And that begins in the church and flows out to the world.
So the purpose of wealth then is not to trust in it, or be stingy with it or to be abusive to others with it, but rather to be content, generous and loving. And once again, in a culture which loves wealth so much, surely such actions will be wonderfully attractive to the watching world.
3) Remember the Future of Wealth
But why should we sit light to our wealth? Why be so generous? Well that brings us to our third point to remember and that is to remember the future of wealth. Because the fact is wealth is fleeting and it can slip through your fingers like sand on the sea shore. So 27 v 24: "Riches do not endure for ever and a crown is not secure for all generations." Or again 23 v 5: "Cast but a glance at riches and they are gone. For they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like the eagle." So the point is if you have riches, don't count on them being there for ever. Because as easily as we might gain them, just as easily can we lose them. So if you put your trust in what is so fleeting and transient, then you're an utter fool!
Just a few months ago I was watching a programme about lottery winners from the last ten years. And whilst a fair few were perfectly happy, there were a significant number who had had catastrophic disasters. For one the money had caused all sorts of problems in their families, but for quite a number, the money had fizzled away all too easily. They had started off with millions, yet within a few months or years they had nothing, perhaps through spending too carelessly, or making unwise investments, or with one man being conned out of millions. "Cast but a glance at riches and they are gone."
But far more seriously not only does wealth have a habit of disappearing, but also it won't help one jot on judgement day. 11 v 4: "Wealth is worthless in the day of wrath, but righteousness delivers from death." Wealth is worthless on the day of wrath say the writer. It won't matter on judgement day whether in terms of your wealth you're Bill Gates or the most destitute beggar on the planet. God looks at the heart, not at the wallet. It's whether you've accepted his rescue in Christ or not that matters. Whether you are right with God. We can't buy God off. And we cannot take our wealth with us.
And it's at this point that I think you and I as Christians are in the biggest danger. Because the great problem with materialism and the consumer culture we live in is that it constantly tells us that this world is all there is. And we're in danger of falling for it hook, line and sinker. We're in danger of being duped, hoodwinked into thinking that we must live for this life and this alone. Materialism dulls our senses to the fact that there is a world to come and it's that world we should be preparing for. We're just pilgrims passing through. Store up treasure in heaven, not on earth said Jesus. And if we forget the future reality of heaven and if we forget that judgement day is a reality then we are in serious danger. Because if you ignore the future, then you'll be less likely to use your wealth and money for God's work. If you ignore the fact that we will have to give an account to God for how we've used our wealth and money, then we will become ungodly in our use of it. So we'll either let money be the dominating force in our lives and slip away from God or at the very least we will be become ineffective Christians in our witness because we're far more interested in our wealth and what others think of us than God's verdict of our lives. We'll want comfort over God's priorities. Yes wealth is a good gift, but it can be dangerous. And the more we keep an eye on the future, judgement day and the great hope of heaven that we have, then the more we will sit light to the things of this world and the more we'll use God's gifts for his glory. So another step to avoiding the dangers of wealth is to remember the future of wealth.
4) Remember the Key to Wealth
But there's one last thing we need to remember and that is to remember the key to wealth. And the key to wealth is wisdom. So 9 vv 10-11: "Choose instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold. For wisdom is more precious than rubies and nothing you desire can compare with her." The most important thing we should crave is wisdom. And wise thing to do in the Bible is to fear the Lord. That is what it means to be wise. So if you want to be really rich, then you should crave the wisdom that the Bible offers. And that is to be found in knowing God. No, you might not be wealthy in the world's terms. No you might not have all the riches you might naturally desire. But you'll be rich beyond any of your friends dreams. Because you know the living God and you are a co heir with Jesus Christ in heaven. So the writer can say in 15 v 16: "Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil." It is far better to be the poorest man in the planet but to know God as your Lord and King, than to be the richest man in the universe and not to know God. Because the poor man with Christ is really the rich man. And the rich man without Christ is really the poor man.
So what it all boils down to is this: What do you really want? Pursue wealth in this world at the expense of your relationship with God and you will find yourself to be spiritually poor and wanting on the day of judgement. But pursue spiritual wealth and wisdom that comes from knowing God- and then you will know what it means to be really rich. So as we finish let me tell you about Charlemagne. Charlemagne was a very wealthy and powerful European emperor in the 8th and 9th centuries AD. About 180 years after he died, officials of the Emperor Otto opened the great king's tomb, where they found an amazing sight, quite apart from the incredible treasures that filled the room. What they saw were the skeletal remains of the king seated on a throne, the crown still upon his skull. In his lap lay a copy of the Gospels. Then they noticed that one bony finger rested immediately above Mark 8:36, which read: What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul? So will you heed the danger of becoming like that duck in the Danish barn. He got too comfortable and in the end it would be the death of him. Well the way to avoid the dangers of materialism is to remember these four things. Remember the source of wealth, remember the purpose of wealth, remember the future of wealth and remember the key to wealth. For true riches are found in God alone.
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