September 26, 2010

Arrive with nothing; leave with nothing

Preacher:
Series:
Passage: I Tim. 6:7

Bible Text: I Tim. 6:7 | Preacher: Rev. Karl Burden | Series: 2010 Sermons | A very wealthy man, suffering from a terminal illness, recognized that he had only a few days left to live.  So he called his wife into his room and instructed her to cash in all his investments and put the money raised from the sale of these securities, into bags which she was then to store up in the attic.  His motive for this strange request was, that when he died, he wanted to take his money with him.

A day or so following his death, his wife went up into the attic where she found all the bags of money still lying where she’d put them.  Turning to a friend who was with her, she snapped:  “Darn fool, he must have gone the other way!”

In his first letter to Timothy, Paul tells us that: “We brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it.”    This isn’t a message many of people, (especially those with a sizeable fortune), want to hear.  Yet like it or not, this is the very clear message that comes to us, not only from Paul’s letter to Timothy, but from many other texts in both the Old and New Testaments.  – The Bible assures us, we simply can’t take it with us!
I wonder how many of you have played the children’s game of – ‘I dare you?’   It’s not a game I’d normally advise anyone to play, because it can lead to some very dangerous consequences.  But there are times when – “I dare you,”  can have a positive outcome.

In May of last year, word was leaked to the press that two of North America’s richest men, (investor Warren Buffett and his friend, Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft), had organized and presided over a confidential meeting of billionaires, hosted by David Rockefeller.   During that meeting, Bill & Warren issued a challenge to more than 40 billionaires.  One might even call that challenge, a game of – ‘I dare you.’

The dare, in this case, involves their personal wealth.  Bill and Warren challenged their billionaire colleagues to give away at least one half of their fortunes.  Of course, only Bill and Warren have the credibility to issue such a challenge, because they’d both led the way by already giving away far more than half their own personal wealth.

Now I wonder, what would motivate billionaires to accept such a challenge?

It’s commonly believed that anyone who has amassed a sizeable fortune has done so by clawing and scraping up the backs of colleagues and competitors.  The wealthy, (so goes the popular belief)  are people who have learned how to take advantage of other people’s weaknesses, and win at their expense.  After all everyone knows, “It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there,” and if you want to be really successful, the only way to do it, is beat out your competitors.
If there is even a shred of truth to this perception, then we’d have to think that those 40 or so billionaires who have actually accepted Bill & Warren’s challenge, must be tough minded individuals who’ve had to claw and scrap in order to get where they are.  Yet, here they are today, freely giving huge quantities of their accumulated wealth, away!

Paul says: “There is great gain in godliness combined with contentment.”  Could it be that these men and women have finally come to the realization that godliness, and not wealth, is the only way to find contentment and peace?

I’ve always been amazed by the generosity demonstrated by Bill Gates, because, (although it may not be widely known), Bill suffers from asbergers.  Asperger’s disorder is a mild variant of Autism.  It’s characterized by social isolation and eccentric behaviour particularly in childhood.   The typical behaviour of people with asbergers, is what  appears to be self-centeredness, because they’re not inclined to care about the needs and wishes of others.  Yet, here is Bill Gates, (no doubt greatly influenced by his wife, Melinda), leading the way in altruistic generosity.

In his letter to Timothy, Paul addresses a problem that had arisen within the church in Ephesus.  Some of the elders had begun teaching a deviant brand of the Christian faith, based upon rules and regulations.   One of the things which troubled Paul about this, was that the motivation of these elders, was quite obviously greed.  They thought they could use the enthusiasm of new converts to become godly, as a means of gaining prosperity for themselves.

Ephesus was a prosperous city; and there were wealthy people in the Ephesus congregation.  The elders were seeking to manipulate these wealthy members, so that they could extract money from them, for their own benefit.

To put a stop to this blasphemy, Paul wrote to Timothy telling him about the danger of putting the desire for wealth ahead of our desire to walk in the steps of Jesus Christ.

So let’s take a close look at what Paul had to say on this topic.

I BE CONTENT

He begins by saying that the seeking of godliness is a noble goal, but it’s one which needs to begin with being satisfied with what we have already.
“There is great gain in godliness” he writes, “combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.” (verses 6 & 7)

Thus, rather than being driven by an overwhelming desire to gain wealth, our primary goal, as Christians, should be to please God, and to be thankful for what God has already provided for us.

This message is probably even more appropriate for our ears today than it was in Paul’s day.  We live in a society whose primary motivation is the accumulation of stuff;  bigger and better homes, cars, computers, wardrobes.  We’re constantly bombarded with advertising all of which is designed to make us desire to have more.  However, the accumulation of wealth, in and for itself, has never brought peace of mind to anyone, – because those who attain wealth always want more; and they worry that what they have, could be stolen from them.

I would encourage anyone who can, to volunteer to work among the desperately poor, – especially those in third world countries, at least for a short time.  Those who do, will  discover that people who have virtually nothing, often possess an inner peace which is the envy of those with wealth.
This is what Grace & I witnessed in the Dominican Republic.  I saw it particularly among the children, with whom I had the opportunity to work..  These kids had no toys, (at least not what our children would call toys).  All they had with things they made for themselves out of sticks and stones, and scrapes that they managed to pick up.  And yet these children were, for the most part, happy.  I never heard any of them complain about being bored; or upset because of what they lacked.  They were in desperate need; but they didn’t let that stop them from being at peace.

II AVOID BEING OBSESSED WITH ATTAINING WEALTH

There’s a big difference between being industrious, and working diligently to achieve goals; as opposed to being obsessed by the desire to get ahead.  Paul says that those who are obsessed with seeking riches fall into the temptation of putting the attainment of wealth ahead of everything else.  To use his words:

“Those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.” (verse 9)

The thirst for wealth tempts us with the temptation to achieve wealth by whatever means necessary, be it lawful or unlawful.  And what makes this desire all the more insidious, is that is never fully satisfied, because it’s human nature to always want more.

A newspaper once ran a competition for the best definition of ‘money’.  The winning entry stated that:  ‘Money is an article that may be used as a universal passport to everywhere, except heaven; and the universal provider of everything accept happiness.’

So what does Paul’s message mean?.  Is it impossible to be both wealthy and a committed Christian?   That’s a dilemma with which many have struggled.  After all, Jesus said: “It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for someone who is rich to enter into the Kingdom of God.”  (Matt. 19:24)  So can we have wealth and a strong faith at the same time?

We need to remember that neither Paul nor Jesus actually condemned wealth.  It isn’t wealth in itself, that is the problem, but rather, the ‘love of money’; that’s what’s at the heart of the issue.  And that’s the trap the elders in Ephesus had fallen into.  Instead of having the desire to serve God as their primary objective, they’d become consumed by the desire to accumulate wealth.

But it’s an easy trap to stumble into.  I’ve heard Christians state, with assurance, that if they are committed Christians, that in itself, will ensure that they will prosper materially.  But that’s not what Christ promised?  He never said: if you are faithful to Me, you will succeed in life.  On the contrary, His message was:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.” (Matt. 16:24)
To the very religious rich man who came seeking eternal life, Jesus said:

“You lack one thing;  go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”  Mark 10:21)

Paul’s message for those who are rich, is this.  Your riches are only in this present age.  And you must never think that your wealth will give you a special status in heaven.  Wealth merely gives you a special opportunity;  an opportunity to use your wealth to help others.

So that brings us back to Warren Buffet, Bill Gates, and their colleagues who have accepted the challenge to give half, or more of their wealth away.   Warren Buffet, himself, has already promised to give away 99% of his wealth.  And of the 40 or so billionaires who received that challenge at the meeting last year, at last report, 34 of them had accepted the challenge!

III Live your life with purpose and passion – v.11-12

So, what about you and me?

If Paul’s words are not sufficient motivation for us to consider how we will use our resources, then perhaps the parable that Jesus told to the Pharisees who ridiculed Him because of His teachings about the use of riches, will help that message to sink in.

Jesus told the story of two men, one very rich, the other extremely poor.  When both died, the rich man was startled to discover that the poor man, Lazarus, was enjoying life in heaven, while he was suffering in hell.  Being used to servants waiting on him, the rich man cried out to Abraham who was with Lazarus, begging him to send Lazarus down to him to relieve his suffering.  But Abraham replied, that isn’t possible because  a great chasm has been built up between them, (built during life) which prevents anyone from passing between.

Abraham then goes on to explain that because Lazarus suffered while on earth and now it’s time for him to enjoy the comforts of heaven.  The rich man then pleads with Abraham to allow Lazarus to go to the rich man’s 5 brothers who are still living, and warn them that they are headed for eternal punishment unless they change their ways.

But again, Abraham refuses saying, ‘they already have Moses and the prophets.  If they refuse to listen to them, then even if someone comes back from the dead, they will not listen to them.

Today, we have access to the words of One who has returned from the dead; Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour.  His teaching is all the evidence we need, as to the meaning of life, and how we should live our lives.  All we really need now, is to develop a personal relationship with Him, and follow in his steps.

May you receive the strength and motivation of Christ’s spirit, to do just that!