Real Riches

Luke 12:16-21 ‘The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then 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 all my goods. And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.’ But 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?’ This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”

It isn’t wrong to have wealth. The man in the parable didn’t lie, cheat, or steal to acquire his wealth. He was a farmer, he worked hard, and God blessed his hard work with success at harvest time. His good crop, and the many other things he had, were gifts from God.

It’s not wrong that you and I enjoy the good things we have. Your wealth and mine is a gift from God as well.

The problem comes when selfishness corrupts God’s good gifts. Why had the Lord given the rich man more than he needed, more than he could even store in his barns? Was it really God’s plan to make it possible for this man to stop working altogether? Did the Lord approve of the idea that the man’s purpose in life could now become “eat, drink, and be merry”? Was that a worthy cause to which to devote the rest of his days, a godly use of the gifts he had been given?

Such a small-minded, self-centered use of God’s gifts corrupts them. Our overabundance is a test of our love for others and our trust in God. Love puts a higher priority on sharing the gospel with lost souls, and helping those who have a need, than on personal comforts. Faith trusts that the same God who gave me so much today will give me enough tomorrow. Jesus doesn’t say it is a sin to have a savings account. But when our own enjoyment–having what I want to have, and doing what I like to do–becomes our purpose, our cause, then selfishness has corrupted God’s good gifts.

There is still a higher price to pay for selfishness and greed. Look at God’s words to the man in the parable. “You fool!” he calls him. All of us, even Christians, even believers, are still sinners. At your death do you expect to meet God and hear him condemn you as a fool? Because we are forgiven, we expect to be welcomed as his children. Something is seriously wrong here.

“This very night your soul will be demanded from you.” That is not the language God uses for welcoming his children into heaven: “The angels carried him to Abraham’s side.” “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Take your inheritance…” God’s words to this rich man sound more like demanding someone pay his debt. It is language that judges and condemns. Jesus is warning about the danger to our souls.

Jesus teaches us to be more concerned about true riches–to be rich toward God. Those are not measured in dollars or kept in bank accounts. Those are not riches for which we have worked, sweated, and sacrificed. They are the gift of God. “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.”

Jesus gave up everything–heaven, every worldly comfort, his Father’s loving presence, even his innocent life–to bring us spiritual and eternal riches. “In him,” Paul says, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.” “The gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” In some of the last words of the Bible, John invites us, “Whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.”

Take as much of God’s grace as you can hold. There will always be plenty more for everyone else. Let your conscience take it easy. God’s free forgiveness ends our slaving to make ourselves acceptable to him. These make us truly rich and teach us a better use for the earthly wealth we have been given.

On Guard Against Greed

Luke 12:13-15 “Someone in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.’ Jesus replied, ‘Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?’ Then he said to them, ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’”

All my life I have been surrounded by a relatively high standard of living. By modern American standards, I don’t believe you would say my family now, or the one I grew up in, is rich. But we have always enjoyed plenty. Some of my neighbors and friends have qualified to be called “rich,” even by modern day standards. Like you, I have grown up in a culture and economy driven by the pursuit of wealth. Some would say that greed is necessary to make it all work. But most of us probably don’t even sense the spiritual danger in which we have been living.

Jesus was not pleased with the request someone in the crowd blurted out as he was teaching them: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Does this man’s request seem unreasonable to you? Isn’t it right for family members to divide the inheritance? And who would be more qualified to make sure that all of this was done fairly than Jesus?

The first problem with the man’s request was that it misunderstands Jesus’ mission. He came to save the world from sin. He didn’t come to save us from tight-fisted family members. Misunderstanding Jesus’ mission is still a problem for many. He may have had opinions about politics, culture, or legal issues. But by and large he kept them to himself. He did not come to be our judge and arbiter in these areas.

Jesus’ next comment reveals that he understands a greater problem with the man’s request. “Then he said to them, ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.’” Jesus isn’t necessarily saying the man’s case was not valid. What he wanted may have been “fair.” But his motivations were wrong. The case the man had framed in his own mind as a matter of fairness was really driven by greed. He was mostly concerned about getting more for himself.

Greed has a subtle way of hiding itself behind all kinds of noble sounding ideas and activities. If the inheritance was divided, but the family ended up divided along with it, what had been gained? There are things more important than money. “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” It’s true, life doesn’t consist in our family relationships, either. It does consist in our restored relationship with our heavenly Father, restored by the selfless sacrificial death for our sins by our heavenly brother Jesus. Where God has generously and freely given us forgiveness, faith, and new life, what do we need all that other stuff for?

Can we miss the timeliness of Jesus’ warning, “Be on guard against greed”? Is there anyone who doesn’t know some family affected by disputes over an inheritance? Maybe it’s your own. Some are inclined to think of money matters as personal matters. But greed is never just a personal matter. It affects the people around you. It ruins relationships. Nothing our parents, grandparents, or great aunts own is worth ruining a relationship to have, even if we think it rightfully ought to belong to us.

Jesus doesn’t limit his warning to inheritance. “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed…” Do you know the number one reason that marriages fall apart?  It has to do with money. Does money ever turn people against each other where greed is not also involved? We might better apply Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians who were taking their fellow believers to court. “Why not rather be wronged?”

In business, employers and employees ought to be teammates, pulling together for the same cause. Greed often turns them into competitors, fighting for a greater share of the profits. Even in the church tensions arise over money problems. If we are honest about the source of that problem, more often than not you can trace it back to our greed. One reason Jesus urges us to be on guard against greed, then, is the way it ruins relationships.

Jesus has better things to do than feed our greed. We have better things to do than obsess about money, too.

The Divider

Luke 12:51-“Do you think that I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Jesus dismisses something more intimate than the dream of world peace in these words. Even our most intimate relationships, even family, can be divided by the gospel. He pictures for us a small Jewish family with a father, a mother, a son, and a daughter. The son has married, and in ancient tradition, he and his wife live in his parents’ household. His sister is unmarried and lives at home, too.

To our modern minds, married children living with their parents might sound like a recipe for division in the family. But that is not the way it was in Jesus’ day. This was a generally accepted and usually workable arrangement. In this case, however, the younger generation is divided against the older: father-son, mother-daughter, mother-in-law – daughter-in-law. The reason for the division is Jesus himself.

Does that make sense? Doesn’t our Lord promote family values? Doesn’t he teach children to obey their parents, parents to love their children, and husbands and wives to be committed to each other? Doesn’t that make families stronger?

Yes, but what happens when a new generation stops believing in him? Some of you may have suffered this sad experience. Relationships cool. Priorities, morals, and values change. Urging church attendance or talking religion is perceived as unwelcome meddling or even hostile judging. Not peace, but division.

On the other hand, what happens when a new generation is the first to know Jesus? Christian missionaries can tell you that new converts are often shunned by their parents and grandparents. They have abandoned the old gods and betrayed the family traditions. Not peace, but division.

So why does our Savior trouble us with such unpleasant possibilities? He is teaching us something about the cost of discipleship. Believing in Jesus is free. He does not charge us for forgiveness, heaven, or any other gift that comes with salvation. We are saved by this grace.

But after we follow him in faith, there is a certain price we pay by being his disciples. This is not a price we pay to him. It is not a price we pay to purchase what he has to offer. It is a price we pay in the suffering and sacrifice that come along with being on his side.

When I attend one of my children’s athletic events, there may be no admission charge involved. But there is a certain price I pay in time and exposure to the elements. Maybe I come home soaked by rain or sunburned.

Jesus does not charge admission to follow him, but doing so may expose us to any number of unpleasant experiences. These include the division of our families and friends. It may alienate our children, drive away a potential mate, offend a friend or colleague, or upset a parent. Would that price be too high for us? Does he really have first place in our hearts if it comes to a choice between him or them?

Jesus’ Other Baptism

Luke 12:50 “But I have a baptism to undergo, and how distressed I am until it is completed!”

Jesus had been baptized by John the Baptist long ago when he spoke these words. He was not referring to his baptism with water. Rather, Jesus sometimes uses the term baptism as a picture of intense suffering. Whippings, beatings, insults, and spit are going to be poured out on him. Enemies will surround him. His own blood will flow over him. Finally, death will cover him. Jesus’ words contemplate the suffering and death by which he freed us from sin and gave us the ultimate demonstration of God’s love.

Jesus’ own peace was disturbed by that contemplation: “…how distressed I am until it is completed!” Have you ever dreaded a painful experience you had to undergo– maybe a dental or medical procedure? Maybe you have contemplated the pain of hell, fire and torture that never ends, and the thought filled you with a shudder.

Of course, for you the pain of hell is just a hypothetical thing. Hell itself is real enough, but you are never going to experience it so long as you cling to Jesus. For him it was inevitable. If the torture of the cross wasn’t bad enough, he knew that he would suffer the full anguish of hell there for our sins. Every day brought him closer to this “baptism.” The anticipation was painful to think about.

But Jesus did not use his certainty of this future to avoid this baptism. He did not turn and run. He does not even wish it would never happen. He simply wishes that it were already done. Perhaps we could compare his anticipation to an expectant mother who dreads the pain of labor and delivery. Still, she so wants the child she will hold in her arms on the other side. She wishes it were already over.

You and I are the children Jesus longed to hold in his arms on the other side of his crucifixion and death. Having you makes it all worthwhile for him.

Jesus Lights His Fire

Luke 12:49“I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish that it were already kindled.”

What is the fire Jesus came to bring? Jesus sets the world on fire with his gospel message. Here it is viewed from a perspective we don’t often consider. The gospel Jesus preached can’t be believed unless people are willing to be real about themselves. It is meaningless if we aren’t painfully honest about ourselves. Jesus’ gospel is the good news that he has done everything to restore our relationship with God. He has paid for our sins. He has lived the obedient and loving life that we owed. He has done one hundred percent of the work.

When we get past our pride and admit the real extent of our moral failure, that gospel is one hundred percent good news. So long as we are clinging to some illusion of personal goodness, so long as we are convinced of our own spiritual ability, either we won’t understand what Jesus did for us, or we will reject it. In fact, we will probably hate it.

            So what does a fire do? Take a fire out of a fireplace or campfire ring, and set it loose, and what does it do? A fire spreads. A friend of mine had a summer job as a fire fighter in Idaho during his college days. Fires can make some amazing turns and jumps and changes of direction. Just when you think you have them under control, they flare up all over again.

            That’s how it is with the complete forgiveness and total salvation Jesus has set loose on earth. It spreads to hearts in one place where it is preached, and suddenly flares up in hearts no one would have expected to believe it. Who can predict where it will take hold next? Jesus’ own disciples consisted of a government bureaucrat and a radical anti-government militiaman. The New Testament is filled with reports and stories of the gospel catching on in the families and courts of rulers and emperors, as well as with the slaves and prisoners. It caught on with those who made their living as religious professionals and with those who practiced the world’s oldest profession. I have seen it come to life in the hearts of people I would never have guessed might believe it. If I am honest, the most surprising place I’ve seen the flame of the gospel flare up is inside of me.

            But not everyone believes. Of course, fire not only spreads. It burns. Jesus’ message inspires great passions both for it and against it. Those who believe it will insist on spreading it. Those who don’t believe it will insist on putting it out. Only where Jesus’ message has been watered down does it fail to produce friction and heat among men.

            Do you see how Jesus is confronting us here? If you are looking for the politically correct, socially acceptable, consistently civil Rotary-Club god or religion, don’t come knocking on Jesus’ door. His message isn’t tame. It isn’t “safe.” It isn’t respectable from a worldly point of view. If we try to make it that we will only be fighting against him.

Jesus’ message is a fire on the earth. It excites. It inspires. It consumes. On the inside it even gives us peace with God. But on the outside it disturbs the peace as it sets the world on fire.

Humility Wins!

Luke 14:10 “But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when the host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.”

Jesus is not talking about a psychological trick, a device, to get ourselves moved up in life. His purpose isn’t to make us clever about getting what we want. He is describing a person with true humility.

True humility does not have grand designs for position and prestige. When it takes the lowest place, the last place, the least desirable place, it is pretty certain it has taken the place where it belongs. It doesn’t deserve any better than this.

Such humility is not the result of childhood trauma. It is not the product of shame robbing us of the belief that we have worthwhile gifts or abilities. Godly humility is something quite different.

Godly humility realizes that God has made you and me rather impressive displays of his creative genius. There has been no one else exactly like us in all of history. Our minds and bodies possess powerful, beautiful abilities that make us creatures of glory. We are the crown of his creation. To deny this would insult him.

But you and I are not the only ones. Our gifts may be unique. But it is not unique to be gifted. Our Lord has been as good to everyone else as he has been to you and me. They possess powerful, beautiful abilities, though they may be different than our own. Godly humility understands this.

But we haven’t made such good use of the gifts we have been given. We have been unfaithful stewards, poor managers. We have turned them mostly to serve ourselves. That changes our idea about what we deserve. In the general confession of sins we admit: “For this I deserve your punishment both now and in eternity.” That’s hardly a demand for the place of honor at the feast.

What place will our Lord give to such humility? “…when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests.” God calls the humble “friend.” No one likes the prideful person, but everyone likes the humble person. Even the secular world tends to respect and trust the humble. Think of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. He passes on an extravagant honeymoon vacation, an exciting new business venture, and a place on the board of the local bank because he is not too good or too high to help even some of the poorer people in town. At the end he enjoys the love and friendship of almost everyone in Bedford Falls.

Sometimes the world recognizes the humble. But the humble are the only people with whom God can work. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). “(The Lord) crowns the humble with salvation” (Psalm 149:4). Why? Only the humble admit to their sins, which Jesus freely forgives. Only the humble have set aside their tainted honors, and have empty hands into which God can pour his love and gifts. Only the humble have a place in God’s kingdom now, and will move up to a place of honor at God’s feast in heaven.  

We hear the word “deserve” in advertising often. Commercials offer things like the house you always deserved, the job you deserve, the break from parenting your children you deserve, even the shapely figure that you deserve. I don’t know what they think we did to deserve all this. I do know we don’t want what we deserve from God. We want his grace instead. May he give us the humility to receive it.

Pride Is a Loser

Luke 14:7-9 “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place.”

 Like a moth is drawn to the light in a bug zapper, sinful pride is drawn to anything that makes us look superior to everyone else. The end result is similar, too. It’s not enough to have something serviceable or adequate, or even excellent or outstanding. Pride isn’t satisfied unless it make’s everyone else’s look inferior. This is what Jesus saw going on at the real-life meal in front of him. It was not enough to have a good seat at a great meal. Pride wanted a seat that made self look important, at least more important than you.

As much as this is a problem for how we get along with each other, it is an even bigger problem for how we get along with God. Pride wants the top spot. It isn’t even satisfied with a place next to the Lord. It wants his place for self. It wants to push God off his throne and crown itself king.

What does pride find as it seeks a place of honor? No one likes a prideful person except the prideful person himself. Think about your friends for a moment. They all have character flaws you are willing to tolerate or overlook. One may obsess too much about money or things. Another may be quick tempered. Another is too quick with his opinion. Still, you keep them as friends and enjoy their company.

But you probably don’t keep too many people as friends who think that you aren’t as important or valuable as they are. Pride doesn’t win us a place of honor in anyone else’s heart.

As a result, pride generally doesn’t get to stretch itself too high before it gets knocked down a few inches. We see this playing out in many different areas of life. History is littered with examples of rulers and dictators whose pride cost them their kingdoms. It has cost athletes championships, businessmen their fortunes. Time after time, rather than finding a place of honor, pride ends up losing it.

Nowhere is that more true than in our relationship with God. God holds each one of us so dear that he gave up his own Son Jesus to save us from sin and for himself. Not a single human being exists for whom he did not make that sacrifice. Paul tells us in Ephesians, “There is no favoritism with him.” He elevated us to be sons and daughters in his family, members of his royal court, rulers with him over the universe. We have been given a place of honor at his heavenly feast that far surpasses a table near the bride and groom at any wedding reception.

But pride lays claim on a seat in heaven only one man can claim. Only one place in heaven has been set for a man who earned it. It belongs to Jesus Christ. “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,” the angels and creatures of heaven sing. All the other places God gives as gifts.

So long as pride is insisting on a place it has earned, it cannot receive the place of honor God freely gives. Our Lord cannot let pride keep the place it wants. If we won’t receive the place he wants to give, he must send us down to a lower place–outside his feast. With God, our pride can only lose. Set it aside, and receive the place he graciously gives instead.

Prophets!

Acts 2:17-18 “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy.”

The Prophet Joel promised God’s Spirit would come with these gifts “in the last days.” The Apostle Peter asserted that this is what happened on the Day of Pentecost nearly two thousand years ago. Does it surprise you to hear him describe the events of Pentecost as “the last days”?

We often hear people talk about our own time as “the last days.” What few people realize is that the last days began with the ministry of Jesus. The Biblical last days run from the first coming of the Savior to his second coming. The last era of human history has been going on for a couple of thousand years. If the Prophet Joel promises that God will pour out his Spirit in the last days, we can still expect to receive his Spirit today.

What’s the difference? Having the Spirit makes us bold to speak. Twice these words say that people “will prophesy.” Even “seeing visions” and “dreaming dreams” has to do with a message from God to share. “Prophesying” isn’t mainly about predicting the future. Read the Old Testament prophets. You will see that most of their messages didn’t deal with the distant future. It dealt with how the people were living now, and how God was reacting to it. It is true the Lord has clued us in about the future of his plan to save the world. But he is not an other-worldly fortune teller, nor are his prophets. Rather, he has an urgent message of life for his people, and he sends his prophets to deliver it.

Who are they? “All people,” “your sons,” “your daughters,” “young men,” “old men,” “servants,” “men and women.” Your pastor serves in a prophetic role. He stands and proclaims God’s word to you. Sometimes our seminary is even referred to as a “school of the prophets.”

But the Spirit’s gift is not limited to the clergy. Notice the inclusivity. Our young people are little prophets–our sons and daughters. Sometimes they deliver the sincerest and purest gospel messages. Have you ever listened to a child tell a friend about Jesus? Have you ever heard them comfort the sick with their simple trust that Jesus loves you? When they stand in front of church and sing the gospel on Sunday morning, do you perceive doubt and disbelief on their faces? Surely our Lord is still pouring his Spirit out on these little prophets and moving them to speak.

How about the rest of you? They say that public speaking is the greatest fear, the most common phobia, from which people suffer. But you don’t have to stand in front of a crowd and preach a sermon for the Spirit to use you to prophesy.

Remember the old mission hymn? “If you cannot speak like angels, if you cannot preach like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, you can say he died for all.” You can teach a Sunday School lesson. You can sing your faith in the choir. You can invite a friend to church. You parents can lead your children to Jesus with home devotions.

It’s not that complicated. The Spirit is all about the message that Jesus died and rose to save sinners. We have that message, and we have that Spirit. Say something.

Bold to Speak

Acts 2:14 “Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd.”

Peter always had a reputation for being impulsive. When Jesus asked the disciples a question, Peter was quick to answer. But that was generally in private situations. When Jesus was arrested, the disciples ran away. When he was on trial, Peter denied that he ever knew Jesus. When the disciples discovered Jesus’ empty tomb, they spent the night hiding behind locked doors–even Peter. They hardly looked like a brave band of Christian soldiers ready to turn the world on its head with their powerful preaching.

With the Spirit’s coming on the Day of Pentecost, something had changed. When Luke here tells us that these men “stood up,” the sense is not so much standing after sitting, but more like taking your stand, standing like the hymn “Stand up, stand up for Jesus!” urges us to do. The virtue isn’t in having your body erect, your knees locked, and your bottom off the cushion. It’s in making your position heard, your alliances clear, and not backing down from them. Peter and the eleven were done with fleeing, denying, and hiding. Now they were bold to stand up for what they believed–what they knew to be true.

If their body language gave some indication of where they stood, their voices left no doubt. Peter “raised his voice and addressed the crowd.” I remember classmates in high school Latin mumbling through parts of their translations because they weren’t very sure of their work. They hoped the teacher wouldn’t understand exactly what they said, that he might fill in their mumble with what he hoped to hear them say. They didn’t want to be confronted by the teacher for saying something wrong.

But there wasn’t any mumbling on Peter’s part on this day! He raised his voice. He addressed the crowd. He was never more sure of what he wanted to say. He was never less afraid of the reaction of those who heard him speak. It’s not hard to see the difference the Spirit’s coming on Pentecost Day made. They went from timid and frightened to bold.

We could still use a healthy dose of what they had on that day. My sinful nature, your sinful nature, still likes the path of least resistance. We want the easy way out in matters of faith and confession. We don’t have to publicly deny Jesus to reveal how timid we are. Sometimes we can hide our faith right out in the open. We try hard to blend in. We don’t run away and remove ourselves from society. We simply become society. We become so much like everyone else, that no one can tell there is anything different about us at all. God help us if we become so much like them that we share their eternal fate!

How, then, are we going to find the Spirit that makes us bold? Do we hunker down in a holy huddle somewhere, waiting for God to pour his Spirit down on us? Do we have to impress God into giving him to us by living an extraordinary life of kindness?

The Apostle Paul once asked the Galatians this rhetorical question: “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” He indicates the answer when he follows, “Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.” God gives his Spirit to those who believe the Gospel they have heard. The Spirit comes to us when the story of Jesus is told–that God loved us so much he did not spare his only Son. He sent him into our world to live under the same rules we live under–but to keep them; to suffer the same miseries we suffer–but to accept them; to die the death we deserve–but for our crimes; and to rise to the unending life we will live– but as death’s first conqueror.

The Spirit comes to us when forgiveness of sins and free salvation in Jesus Christ is preached. Then the shackles of doubt and fear fall off our hearts. The doors to the prison of “you still haven’t done enough for God” fly open. In Jesus we know that we are fully and finally free! The Spirit still comes to us in the gospel, and that makes us bold to speak like Peter and the apostles so many years ago.