In the late 1980s there were historic events happening around the world that were changing the face of world politics and international relations. Perhaps most iconic was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. I was seven years old in 1989 and one of the enduring images in my mind from that time is this.
The chap in the top hat is Scrooge McDuck from the Disney television series Duck Tales. Scrooge McDuck, resident of the city of Duckburg, was the richest duck in the world. The three little ducks are his great-nephews, left in his care by Donald Duck when the latter joined the Navy.
The show charts their adventures as they try to help Scrooge McDuck grow even richer and thwart the attempts of his rivals to overtake him as the world's richest duck. Don't ask me why his name sounds Scottish, by the way – I'm sure that's just a coincidence.
I particularly remember this character because he had so much money that he kept it all in a giant tower that looked more like a grain silo, and defying the dangers of granular solids, he regularly swam, surfed and even skied in or on his money. Even at seven years old, and with a very comfortable life, I thought that was the best thing ever and I wanted it for myself.
The modern idol we're thinking about tonight is luxury. This idol is firmly seated at the heart of our society. Our whole economic philosophy is founded on the idea that our goal should be to make money and increase our wealth. It's so rare to find anything an organisation with any other aim that we have a special name for them; we call them 'not-for-profit' organisations.
And closer to home, I hope you're aware that you are all rich. If you live in Britain and you've got a home to go to tonight, you're rich. A survey from a few years ago put the average annual wage in China at a little over $4000, while the average wage in the UK at the same time was a little over $34000.
In 2008 the World Bank revised its poverty threshold from $1 to $1.25 per day. Around the same time in the UK, Sainsbury's was running a new campaign, perhaps you remember it: Feed your family for a fiver.
And those figures have, as much as is possible, been calculated to reflect the same purchasing power, as well, so you can forget the idea that it's because stuff is more expensive in countries like Britain. We're rich.
I want to draw from a passage in Luke to help us think about this idol of luxury. It's Luke 12.13-21, page 735 of the blue bibles – please look that up and follow along. And I want to divide that into three sections:
1 – Pursuing luxury makes us slaves
2 – Luxury fails to deliver
3 – Be rich towards God
1 - Pursuing luxury makes us slaves
Let me set the scene to get us started. In this episode in Luke's biography, Jesus is teaching a crowd. In fact at the start of the chapter Luke records that a crowd of many thousands has gathered, so many that they were trampling on each other. So thousands of people are crammed around Jesus, hanging on his every word.
Up in v8 Jesus said, "I tell you, whoever acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man [meaning himself] will also acknowledge him before the angels of God. But he who disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God."
Absolutely astonishing. Here is a carpenter's son from some backwater town up north saying 'I will either acknowledge you or disown you before all the angels of the Almighty God. The decision of your eternal destination – the kingdom of God or hell – is my decision.'
Absolutely mind-blowing. No wonder they were hanging on his every word.
And then an unnamed person in the crowd pipes up and says, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me."
Has this guy not been listening? He certainly didn't hear the announcement asking people to keep their questions related to the talk, the topic or the text.
But that's exactly the issue we're up against tonight. Luxury, wealth, possessions – these are so strong a draw for us that we can be completely consumed by them.
Despite every astonishing claim that Jesus has made, he still wants to ask Jesus to sort out a family squabble about money. Jesus' answers in v14, "Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?"
On the one hand that's a strange response from the man who has just claimed to be the Lord of all the universe, but handling this request is well outside the scope of Jesus' mission. Instead, Jesus responds with a lesson on greed: "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions."
Read verses 16-19.
[Jesus] told them this parable: The ground of a certain rich man [Did you spot that first time? He's already rich!] produced a good crop. 17He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'
18Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I'll say to myself, You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.'
Disaster! I've got such a high yield of grain that I don't have enough storage to hold it all! What am I going to do? I know, I'll build some barns that are even bigger than the barns I've got. I'll hire all the men I can find and quickly buy out all the timber from the yard in the next town and we'll get these barns raised asap.
What's Farmer Joe's aim in all this – did you see it? To have good things laid up for many years – in other words, to have the security of wealth – and to be able to take it easy and have a good time – in other words, to have the comfort of wealth.
And there is one more reason why people desire wealth, and that is status. I want to lord it over my neighbours. I want Farmer Jim to see that I've had to build bigger barns and a brand new combine harvester so that he knows I'm a better farmer than he is. In fact I'll build these new barns at the top of the farm so that they can be seen from the town below. That's a bit unfair – Farmer Joe doesn't say any of that, but then he's only a fictional character, so let's not worry about him too much.
Those three end-points – security, comfort and status – are the real goals behind the desire for wealth. We're desperate for them and we're slaves to anything we think can give them to us. Our five senses tell us that the physical world around us is all there is – that's materialism – and that makes us want more and newer and better stuff – that's consumerism. Advertisers hold out happiness so that we can almost reach it, if we'll just buy that one more thing.
Drink this drink and you'll be the life of the party.
Buy these toys and your kids will love you.
Use this deodorant and angels will fall out of the sky to be your girlfriend.
And we swallow the lie… not the one about angels and deodorant, but the one about happiness being at the other side of one more purchase. The right product or even just a better product, that'll make us happy. Security, comfort and status are the real goals behind wealth and they enslave us to pursuit of it.
The odds of winning the jackpot in the UK lottery are almost 14 million to 1. But that doesn't stop 32 million people buying an average of three tickets each every week. We're obsessed.
Not that Jesus is necessarily down on wealth. Having money allows us to do good things. Having money saves us from poverty and deprivation. Having money allows us to provide for our families, to live in comfortable homes, to travel in safe vehicles and receive high-quality healthcare and education. All good. Having money allows us to be creative and to look after the world and to care for those less fortunate than ourselves. All good.
But Jesus says, "Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed…" Most of us like money because it lets us do things beyond meeting our physical needs and those of others. With money we can indulge our love of novelty. We see something new in a shop window or on television or in a magazine or draped over someone we meet and it gives us a thrill. We fall in love with that new thing, we want it and we buy it. Six months later the love is gone, replaced with the next thing. With money we can indulge our love of beauty and luxury. Why settle for polyester when you can have Egyptian cotton? Why settle for a Laguna when you can have a Lexus? Why settle for instant when you can have ground? With money we can indulge our comfort, or even our laziness. Why should I clean my own house or weed my own garden or wash my own car, when I can pay someone to do those things for me? Why should I walk in the rain or wait in the cold when I can afford a drier, warmer way of getting around? With money we can indulge in the esteem of the world. Money means success. Successful people make money and more successful people make more money. We'd be reluctant to say it like this out loud but we, in our society, kind of half-believe the idea that the rich are the good and useful, while the poor are the unworthy and useless. We don't want to be seen as lazy or untalented – we want to make money and show that we have money so that the world sees us as good, brainy, talented, successful people. Just like that rich farmer, just like the man who came to Jesus, just like the world around us today, we can so easily make it our goal to be rich, to get richer, and to live in luxury, whether that's for the security of wealth, the comfort of wealth, the status of wealth or for all of the above. We make luxury our goal and pursuing luxury makes us slaves. And the cruel reality is that luxury fails to deliver.
2 - Luxury fails to deliver
20 But God said to [the rich farmer], 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
The obvious problem of being enslaved to the pursuit of wealth and luxury, is that we chase after these things in either complete or in growing disregard for the God who designed us, who made us and who has an overarching purpose for us as his creatures.
Wealth is not God. Luxury is not God. But there is a God, and he is God. He created everything, including us. He created everything, including us, for his pleasure and for his glory. He has a specific design for how we should live, for what our goals should be, for what we should pursue.
Here's what we are to make our life's work: love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself. Perfect fulfilment of those two laws is what humanity so briefly looked like before sin spoiled it. Those two laws are the summary of the Old Testament Law given to God's people in the desert. They summarise the law that Jesus fulfilled perfectly as he demonstrated a perfect, God-honouring life.
So while Farmer Joe is eating, drinking and being merry, God cuts in. 'You fool! I am God. I give you everything down to the last penny. I give you the air in your lungs. I am worthy of your complete devotion and praise, and they are my right. I could take away all your wealth in an instant. But instead I will leave your wealth and take you instead. You will leave it behind, you are powerless to bring a penny of it with you.'
God is angry with the man because he is chasing after good created things rather than living to rightly honour his Creator.
When we chase luxury, we're saying,
'I am more concerned with living in comfort and security, enjoying the status of wealth than I am with living a God-honouring life, fulfilling his purposes for me, chiefly by loving him and loving my neighbour.'
'I care more about my comfort than I do about my godliness.'
'I care more about my security than I do about my Christ-likeness.'
'I care more about being highly regarded by my neighbour than loving my neighbour as myself.'
'I don't want to do the hard work of loving God and obeying him – I want to have a comfortable, easy life.'
'I don't want to do the hard work of loving my neighbour – I want my neighbour to see me as successful and tasteful.'
'I don't trust God to provide for my needs as he has promised, so I will make as much money as I can so I can be secure.'
Am I oversimplifying this? Am I making it too black and white? Listen to this from Jesus, a few chapters on in Luke 16.
"No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money." The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight."
You cannot serve both God and Money. You can't serve them 50:50 or 60:40 or even 90:10. In Luke 18 Jesus says,
"How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
It's so hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, and it's even worse for the greedy. Here's Jesus again, speaking through Paul's letter to the Ephesians:
"… of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person— such a man is an idolater— has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God."
God will judge – it is hard for the rich to enter his kingdom and the greedy will not enter his kingdom. You cannot serve both God and Money. You can't.
Love the Lord your God and love your neighbour as yourself. Here's a different slant from Micah 6:
[God] has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
But there's a flip side to this. It's not just that God wants us to worship him instead of luxury. It's that doing that is better for us too. It's not just that luxury fails to deliver. It's that pursuit of luxury robs us of something much better. That's what I want to cover under the third and last heading:
3 - Be rich towards God
Read v20 and 21
20But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?' 21This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich towards God.
The rich farmer was a fool because he made wealth and luxury his god. He wasn't rich towards the true and living God. What does it mean to be rich towards God? Listen to 2 Corinthians 8.9:
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.
Being rich towards God is accepting his measureless generosity to us in Jesus. Jesus paid that bottomless debt we owed to God because of our sin and set us in his infinite credit before God. You might think that Greece is in trouble but there is no earthly bail-out that can cover the debt owed by a sinful human being before almighty God. But Jesus paid it all and more.
Being rich towards God is then about relating to God as we now can, as his children, children of a loving Father. Chasing wealth and luxury, we never really achieve the comfort or security or status we desire, but as God's children, we are freed from all those anxieties. We take to heart the two-part truth that every good thing we have comes from God, and that, knowing what we truly need, God promises to provide for us. Taking those truths to heart frees us from pursuit of comfort and allows us to be content with what we have. Taking those truths to heart frees us from pursuit of security and allows us to be assured of having what we need. Taking those truths to heart frees us from pursuit of status and allows us to be satisfied in a right and loving relationship with the God of the universe. Taking those truths to heart we can sing honestly, 'All I once thought gain I have counted loss, spent and worthless … compared to [knowing you, Jesus].' We can even boldly sing, 'Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were an offering far too small.' What is that going to look like? There are any number of answers, and few hard and fast rules. This is an issue of spiritual health and of conscience. But I think we often consider this whole area and resolve to try to de-emphasise wealth in our lives. We think that it's enough to demote money. But that's the world's answer.
No, we need to take ever tighter hold of the gospel, of our riches in God, displacing the idol of luxury from our hearts, and then, from a God-given position of true contentment and security, ask ourselves just how radical we can be with the resources God gives us to steward for him. Let me try to illustrate what I mean.
A friend of mine recently moved to Uganda with his pregnant wife and their toddler son so that he could take up a teaching position at a theological college 20km north east of Kampala. Whenever I think about this area of wealth and possessions I often think about how much they've given up in order to do that. Their commitment to Jesus is both a great challenge and encouragement to me. However, in a recent prayer letter update, they wrote this:
"We spoke at length with a student yesterday who has come from the far north, war-torn part of Uganda. He arrived last month after a two-day journey here having left behind 5 children, including 4-month-old twins. He expects to see them very rarely in the next few years as he trains to pastor churches back up there. He found out this week that his home and land had been damaged by flash flooding. Although his situation is clearly far from ideal, the reality is that it is his wholehearted commitment to Christ above all else that has brought him here. We feel very humbled to be in such company and know that we have a lot to learn."
His situation is very far indeed from ideal, and it's not for me to suggest anything like that for any one of us. But would it even have occurred to us to do something so radical with our lives? Are we living the lives we're living after careful thought of how best to love God and love our neighbour, or are we blindly following everyone around us, thoughtlessly carrying on lives that aren't at all distinctive in the area of wealth and luxury? Let me finish with some verses from Revelation.
14To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God's creation. 15I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! 16So, because you are lukewarm— neither hot nor cold— I am about to spit you out of my mouth. 17You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realise that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. 18I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so that you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so that you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so that you can see.
19Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. 20Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
21To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.