Real Faith for a Real Life in a Real World.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Wealth, Worry and Nuclear Physics

Readings

Matthew 6:19-34, Luke 12:13-21

Introduction

Wealth!  “You can't take it with you.”  That's what they say, isn't it?  I had an uncle whose life-story was a classic rags-to-riches tale.  His usual response to that expression was, “I've no intention of going!”  Sadly, he had no choice in the matter in the end.  When he drew in his last breath, he was a very wealthy man but, when he finished breathing it out again, he had absolutely nothing: he took not a penny of it with him.

Another uncle of mine used to say, “Money can't make you happy but at least you can be miserable in comfort.”  And I suppose there is some measure of truth in that...

In the passage we read from Matthew, Jesus draws our attention to what really matters in life.  He challenges attitudes which are just as prevalent in today's society as in New Testament times, and shares the secret of how to make sure we have something to take with us when we go.  I want to examine Jesus' words using a framework of three simple questions:

  • What's your heart set on?
  • What's on your mind?
  • What's your priority? 

What's your Heart set on?

There are all sorts of reasons why people amass wealth and possessions.  Some just seem to have a knack for it, and everything they touch turns to gold.  For some, it's about status: their wealth says something about them; they are important.  Apparently, the Pharisees thought their wealth was God's reward for their keeping his laws.  For them, wealth said, “I am righteous, and it is plain for all to see.”  For yet others, it's about security: if they have plenty, they can buy themselves out of difficulties.

Whatever reason we may have for getting rich, Jesus makes the point that our worldly possessions are very unreliable.  They can decay, they can be destroyed, they can be taken from us.  In a way, Jesus himself points out to us that we can't take our worldly wealth with us and that one day, like my uncle, and like it or not, we have to go!

He brings into focus the fact of heaven and that our eternal security is of far greater importance than any safety we may secure for the few short years we are here.  Treasure on earth will fail us; only treasure in heaven will endure.  In the passage we heard from Luke, Jesus tells us that real life does not consist in an abundance of possessions, and that to be focussed only on this life is a very serious mistake.

Verses 22 and 23 in Matthew 6 have something to say about what our attitude to possessions reveals about the condition of our hearts.  These are strange verses in a way, talking about eyes and light the way they do.  Let me read them again, using alternative renderings that bring out some more of the meaning in the original Greek.  “The eye is the lamp of the body.  If your eyes are generous, your whole body will be full of light.  But if your eyes are stingy, your whole body will be full of darkness.”  The eyes of the person who holds on to this world's goods only lightly are open, letting in light.  The eyes of the greedy, possessive person are narrowed and keep the light out!  Grasping at wealth will damage your health!

Wealth itself is not a bad thing; it's a neutral thing that can be used for good or bad.  But it cannot and must not be the focus of our lives.  People who are intent on having wealth probably take the view that their wealth serves them, enabling them to get what they want.  Jesus however turns that idea on its head.  “You cannot serve God and money,” he says.

How do you become a servant of money?  By making it the thing you live for it becomes your idol.  But there is only room for one God in our lives.  God will not share that place with anything else.  In Exodus 20, where the ten commandments are listed, verse 3 says, “You shall have no other gods before [or besides] me.

So, to revisit the first of our questions, what's your heart set on?, ask yourself, what matters most to me? where is my treasure?  Jesus says, “...where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (v21)  There is room for only one God, and being in his kingdom must be our primary focus.

What's on your Mind?

Greed is not the only reason for getting money.  Of course, we need money to live.  We have to eat, buy clothes and houses and all the other essentials of life.  To do that we have to have at least enough, and we all like a little bit more for that rainy day...

I know from experience how easy it is to worry about not having enough, especially in these uncertain times of recession.  Worry is a terrible thing that we all do and makes absolutely no difference to our predicaments; except making them seem larger, and something to worry about even more than we already have.

Why do people worry?  As Jesus says, worrying can't make our lives a single hour longer.  In fact, we now know that the stress of worry can make our lives considerably shorter!  As well as pointing out the futility of worrying, Jesus gives us a very good reason not to worry: we have a loving Father who knows what we need and promises to meet our need.

Once again, he draws into focus what matters most.  Having life and existence is of more import than the things we worry about.  Jesus came to bring us eternal life; that's his priority for us, and it needs to be our priority too.  But we need food and drink and clothing don't we?  Shouldn't these things be important to us?  Doesn't it make sense that we worry about these things?  Jesus puts us straight with examples from nature.

Why worry about food and drink?  Look at the birds, Jesus says.  All they need is available to them.  They don't worry about food and drink and spend all their time working.  God provides for them.  We are more important to God than the birds; will he not provide for us too?

Now, he is talking about the birds living in the very different climate of Palestine, where their food is in plentiful supply all year round.  We have to take account of that because some of the birds around us do stock up for winter.  But even here the birds are provided for: often by people acting as unwitting agents of God.  So the example still stands.  You are more important than the birds so don't worry about food and drink: God will provide the means!

As for clothing, look at the wild flowers: how beautiful are they?  More beautiful than the most opulent king Israel ever knew, and they don't do any work for it.  God designed them to be as they are!  I don't know anything about Palestinian wild flowers, but think about a British meadow.  What a riot of beauty!  There are speedwell, violets, buttercups, field-campion, scarlet pimpernel, primroses, cowslips, daisies, dandelions, to name but a few.  It's just a field of grass but look at it!  We are more valuable than grass; won't our God provide for us?

Look at the flowers here in church.  I know they are cultivated but, all the same, we've only been working with what God put in there to begin with.  Aren't they beautiful?  You are more important to God than even the flowers in church!

The biggest problem with worry is that it is a great enemy of faith.  If worry is the enemy of faith, then faith is the antidote to worry: faith in our heavenly Father who values us so much that he sent his Son to die for us!  If he's prepared to do that, can't we trust him for the basic things of our earthly lives?  God knows our need.  If he is number one in our lives, he will provide our needs.

Actually, looking back over my life to times when I've not had a great deal of spare cash to play with, my needs were always met.  At university in the 70s, I had enough to buy the food and books I needed; other people have bought me clothes; I had somewhere to live. 

But you'll be surprised to know I'm not perfect.  My wife is naturally more generous than I am, and I had some concerns that, unless we were careful, we wouldn't have enough for ourselves.  And then God spoke to me through something I wrote myself in a creative writing class.  He assured me he was with me and that I need not fear not having enough.  There's something wonderful when God speaks to you so clearly: it changes your life.  I put away my fear and allowed myself to live more generously, more contentedly, because God is with me always, and what more can I need?  I've been retired for a year now and have less income but I have enough and some to share, and just as much of God as I always did—and he comes in endless supply.  Why did I have so little faith?

To worry is to live like a pagan.  They have to run after material concerns because they don't have a heavenly Father who knows and supplies their needs.  We do!

So, to revisit our second question, what's on your mind?, ask yourself, am I worrying like a pagan? Or am I trusting in my loving heavenly Father?  Let's trust him!

What's your Priority?

Jesus began his ministry with the words, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 4:17).  The whole purpose of his coming was to make God's kingdom accessible to us, and now he tells us that finding the kingdom is the most important thing in our lives; and so it is!

There's a short phrase that sums up for us the essential point of his message in verse 33 of our passage: “...seek first [the Father's] kingdom and his righteousness...

I looked this verse up in the Greek and I was surprised by what I found.  The word for “first” is “proton”.  As I'm a physicist, that had an interesting resonance for me.  You see, every atom in the universe has at least one proton in its nucleus.  The number of protons in an atom determines what kind of atom it is: hydrogen has one proton, oxygen has eight protons.   Fundamentally, the number of protons determines the behaviour of the atom and the kind of interactions it can have with other atoms.

Now, Jesus clearly isn't talking about nuclear physics here but it's insightful for us to reflect on this.  The kingdom of God is to be fundamental to our existence.  God wants our identity to be defined by his kingdom.  He wants our character to be defined by kingdom values.  Our relationships and all our interactions with others are to be governed by kingdom values.  Then we can show his righteousness to the world, a righteousness that isn't based on social status or our own efforts.

None of this comes to us naturally.  That's why Jesus tells us to seek God's kingdom.  Only God's kingdom will endure.  Only in God's kingdom can we find everlasting security.  That's why Jesus tells us to make it the first thing in our lives.

So, to revisit our last question, what's your priority? ask yourself, who am I living for? For myself, or for God and his kingdom?

Summary

In our passage, the Lord has challenged materialism, warning that to live that way is to serve the wrong God and cannot give us security beyond this life.  He's urged us to have faith in our Father instead of worrying—as if there were no loving God.  And he tells us to make finding God's kingdom the most important thing in our lives.  And he's promised God's provision of our everyday needs.

We can know God's kingdom in our lives here and now.  It's important that we do!  The treasure we lay up in heaven is the only thing we can keep when we leave this world.

Seek first God's kingdom!