Overcoming Materialism

I Timothy 6:17-19

If you are rich, this sermon is for you.

There aren’t many sermons directed at rich people, but this one is. My text is a word from the Apostle Paul to the rich Christians in the church at Ephesus. The first phrase of verse 17 makes it very clear: “Command those who are rich in this present world.” There are certain obvious implications of this statement that we should think about. First, some people will be richer than others. This fact is one that we all accept as part of reality but it may surprise you to discover that it is also mentioned in the Bible. Some people have lots of money. That’s a fact of life. And God has something to say to those people.

But who are the rich? Certainly it’s not you or me. If someone came up out of the blue and asked, “Are you rich?” what would you say? Most of us would stammer a bit and then we would deny being rich. But we would be wrong. All of us are rich, and I am not speaking about “spiritual riches” or our “riches in Christ,” as true as that is. I am speaking of old-fashioned riches, money in the bank, greenbacks, material wealth. All of us are rich. As I write these words, I am conscious that this sermon will go out around the world, but even so I am directing my remarks to the people of my own congregation in Oak Park. We’re rich. Who are we kidding? Compared with the people of Haiti, we’re incredibly wealthy. Compared with the people of Nigeria, Sudan, Bangladesh, or Thailand, we’re loaded. But that statement is true of Americans generally.

If you own your home, you’re rich.

If you own your car, you’re rich.

If you have enough food to eat, you’re rich.

If you have extra clothes in your closet, you’re rich.

If you’ve got enough money to go out to eat occasionally, you’re rich.

That includes all of us. And even though there are some people at Calvary who have very little, those people still have far more in terms of creature comforts than most people around the world.

So this is a sermon by a rich pastor to his rich congregation.

And I should add that it’s not a sermon where the message is, “It’s a sin to be rich” or “You need to get rid of all your money and become poor.” That’s another sermon (by another pastor, I should add). It’s not what our text says. The issue is not how much money you have, it’s what you do with what God has given you.

As we think about this, let’s consider three popular money myths:

Myth #1: Having more things equals more happiness.

Myth #2: Having more things equals more importance.

Myth #3: Having more things equals more security.

Happiness, importance, security. Money can do lots of things but it can’t buy happiness, it can’t make you more important, and it can’t guarantee your earthly security. That last point is critical when you consider the dangerous world in which we live. There is no lasting security anywhere in the world today. In an age of terrorism, there is no front line because we’re all living on the front lines now. Even those who serve the Lord can’t be sure of what tomorrow may bring. That fact came home to us with great force this week.

Bonnie Witherall

So what do you think? You’re 31-years-old, a graduate of Moody Bible Institute. You and your husband feel called of God to minister to Muslim women in Lebanon. So you join a ministry working in a refugee camp. Yes, it’s dangerous, you knew that going in, but your heart is set on caring for those women. One morning you hear a knock on the door. When you answer it, you see a man with a gun. Seconds later you are dead, shot three times in the head. Murdered by some fanatic who hates what you stand for. That’s what happened to Bonnie Witherall last week. She was gunned down while working at a missionary clinic in southern Lebanon. Her sister summed up Bonnie’s life this way: “She believed in her heart that God wanted her in that place, doing whatever he called her to do and that was basically to share her life with people. It was hard for her to walk by people who were suffering.”

There is no absolute protection from suffering in this world. Money can’t buy happiness and it can’t guarantee you a long life or good health. We are fools if we think otherwise.

Wealth is not necessarily an impediment to our walk with God. History is filled with examples of rich Christians who used their wealth wisely and brought great benefit to the world. And there is scarcely a church or ministry anywhere that has not benefited from the large gifts of wealthy believers. But if money is not an impediment, it is definitely a test. The way you spend your money tells the truth about your values. Show me how you spend your money and I’ll know the truth about what you really believe. You can come to church and dance in the aisles if you want to, but that doesn’t mean as much as how you spend your money. Not long ago a noted Christian leader told me, “Follow the money.” He’s right. If you want to know the truth, follow the money. That’s an almost infallible rule of life. Money talks, and the story it tells reveals the truth about your walk with God.

Money is not evil; it’s the love of money that gets us into trouble. A few verses before our text for today, Paul says it this way: “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (I Timothy 6:10). When I read that, I say to myself, “I don’t love money,” but then I read the phrase “eager for money,” and I’m stopped in my tracks. I’m like the man who said, “If money were a woman, I wouldn’t say we were in love, but we’re definitely dating heavily.” I understand that. The odd thing is, money in the end can’t satisfy. I’ve never heard a man on his deathbed say, “Thank God for my money.” Dying men give thanks for family and friends, but a dying man doesn’t have time to worry about money. As Billy Graham says, “I’ve never seen a Brinks truck following a hearse.” When Alexander the Great died, he gave instructions that he was to be buried with his hands outside his shroud so that everyone would know that he took nothing with him. Sometimes we ask about the departed, “How much did he leave?” The answer is always the same: “All of it.”

First Timothy 6:17-19 offers three specific commands for us to consider. The first one involves our heart. The heart always comes first, the money comes later.

I. Examine Your Heart

“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (I Timothy 6:17).

There are five important truths we should glean from this verse. First, some people will be rich. In particular, some Christians will be richer than others. Some will have more, others less. This means it is not a sin to be rich per se. It’s how you made your money and what you do with it that matters. Second, money has a peculiar power to make us feel insulated from the problems of life. Money makes us feel invincible. I heard a man say that while driving home from the airport, he realized that he was speeding because he was in a hurry. He said to himself, “I should slow down.” But then he said, “Why bother? I can pay the fine if I get a ticket.” I suppose all of us have had thoughts like that at one time or another. That’s the sort of arrogance Paul is warning against. We’ve all known rich people who were arrogant in the way they treated others. Money has a way of making you feel set apart so that what happens to others will never happen to you. Third, wealth truly is uncertain. You can be rich today and broke tomorrow. I wonder how many of us lost money in the stock market over the last two years? We rode that high-tech rocket all the way to the top and most of us rode it back down to the bottom. In some cases, people lost 30% or 40% or 50% or more of their investment income. People who planned to retire at age 50 will now have to work until they are 125. But that’s the nature of wealth. Just when you think you’ve got it made, your money takes wings and flies away. Fourth, putting your hope in God is a choice we all must make. It means (among other things) that you consciously decide each day that you will not trust in your money to get you through life. Perhaps it means saying, “Lord, today I trust you completely with all that I am and all that I have. I take you at your Word and no matter what happens to me, I believe in advance that you are working out your plan in my life.”

Fifth, God gives us everything we need at any given moment. That’s a startling statement if you think about it. And it’s especially appropriate on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Do we truly believe that we have everything we need at this moment in the material realm of life? If we believe in God, the answer must be yes because if we truly needed anything else, God would have already given it to us. And the fact that we don’t have everything we might wish for simply means that in the eyes of God, it’s not something we truly need. God does not withhold good things from his children. “No good thing does he withhold from those who walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11 NASB). “If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11 NLT). I realize as I write these words that someone may read them who is living every day with a serious illness or a debilitating physical handicap. How can we speak of God’s goodness in situations like that? Perhaps the only possible answer is to ask in return, How can we not speak of God’s goodness in those situations? The Apostle Paul added a helpful insight when he remarked that in every situation he had “learned” to be content (Philippians 4:11). I find great comfort in that because it means on one hand that it is possible to be content no matter where I might find myself. It also means that contentment does not come easily in every circumstance but must be learned over time as we discover God’s grace in the most unlikely places. So I think we can say—indeed, I think we must say—that at every moment along the way, God gives us whatever we need for that particular moment. And if we truly need something else tomorrow that we don’t have today, we can rest assured that somehow, someway, at some point in time, our Heavenly Father will see to it that what we need will be given to us.

In the larger context this means that generosity depends on good theology. We will be generous precisely to the extent that we have a proper view of God and his involvement in our daily life. If we separate God from life, then we’ll feel obligated to hoard our wealth because we’re in charge of everything. But if we understand that he is the Lord of all of life, including the tiniest details, then we are free from the need to trust in our wealth. We can give it away, knowing that we’ll have everything we need when we really need it. A proper view of God leads to a generous view of life, which is why giving (in the broadest sense) ought to be as natural for the Christian as breathing.

II. Consider Your Actions

“Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share” (I Timothy 6:18).

Once you have looked at your heart (and in particular what you believe as the foundation for everything you do), then it’s time to consider your actions. Three things are mentioned in this verse: Doing good, being rich in good deeds, and a generous spirit that gladly shares with others. All three are really one and the same thing. Or you could say that doing good is general, being rich in good deeds is more specific, and being generous and willing to share is a pointed application. Note that these commands rise beyond the level of what you do with your money. They touch the deeper issue of how you spend your time. This is a word we need to hear because for many people, time has become more important than money. Time has become so precious to many of us that we would rather give $100 to a charity if we can avoid going to a banquet. Or we will write a check as a way to avoid getting personally involved. We have Day-Timers and calendars and Palm Pilots and all sorts of electronic gizmos to help us save time and manage life effectively. As a result, we are in danger of losing any personal contact with a hurting world. The answer to that is found in this verse: Be generous in the way you spend your time. Get involved with others. Go face to face with a couple in crisis. Spend an extra ten minutes talking to a friend who is searching for the Lord. Think of ways you can make a difference in a child’s life this week. Are you bothered by too many interruptions during the day? Perhaps those interruptions are sent by the Lord to keep you from making your job the focus of your life. What a difference it would make if we thought of each interruption as being sent by the Lord. How would you respond if Jesus wanted to interrupt your life today? Would you have time to talk to him? Would you put him on hold? Would you say, “Sorry, Lord, I love you but I’m tied up right now?” If we could take that perspective regarding all our “ordinary” interruptions, it would drain the irritation we feel when “our” plans are interrupted by someone else. Didn’t Jesus say something about visiting him in prison, giving him clothes to wear, and giving him food to eat? See Matthew 25:31-45 and ponder the implications of his words.

III. Enjoy Your Reward

“In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life” (I Timothy 6:19).

Here’s a promise for all of us to embrace, but it has special relevance to the rich. You might call this Jesus’ Investment Advice. First, generous living leads to an enhanced life in heaven. When we dare to take these words seriously, we are laying a foundation for the future that will last for all eternity. To “lay up treasure” means to live in such a way now that our future experience in heaven is enriched. We all understand the concept of investing for the future. Probably most of the people reading this sermon have made some plans for the future. You’re saving for college or for a new car or for a new home or you are putting money into a pension plan or a retirement fund. If you are planning for your retirement, that means the money you invest now won’t be yours to enjoy until many years in the future. But you do it now so that when your retirement comes, there will be sufficient funds available so you can do whatever you want to do. The same is true in our Christian life. As we live a generous life toward others, we are making payments into our heavenly retirement account. But this verse is not just about the distant future, it also promises “life that is truly life.” True life. Real life. Abundant life. Life that goes beyond mere existence. Life as God intended it to be. Paul means that generous Christians discover a quality of life that stingy Christians never know. Those who dare to become generous givers end up enjoying life on a level that those who hoard their wealth never experience.

The happiest people on earth are those who have learned the joy of generous living. They give and give and give. They give their time, their money, their advice, their counsel, their talents and their commitment. They are not content to be spectators while life rushes by. They get off the bench and get into the game. And they truly enjoy giving to others. They have learned the secret that you can’t out-give God. As my friend Howard Harvey likes to say, “I shovel it out and God shovels it in. And God’s got a bigger shovel than I do.” Maxey Jarman was a wealthy Christian businessman who during his lifetime gave away millions of dollars to Christian causes around the world. At one point he suffered an enormous financial reversal and lost everything. A friend asked him if he regretted having given so much away. “Oh no,” he replied, “I only lost what I kept for myself.”

What we keep, we lose because we won’t live forever. What we give away, we keep because the benefits of giving last for eternity.

Miss Eva

The year was 1939 or 1940 and a young woman came to Chicago to study at Moody Bible Institute. While she was a student, she began attending a small church in suburban Oak Park. Back then it was called Madison Street Bible Church, today it is called Calvary Memorial Church. She attended this congregation and taught Sunday School during her Moody years. When she graduated in 1945, she felt called by God to become a missionary in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky, working with the Scripture Memory Mountain Mission. Then and now, the Appalachian region was one of the poorest regions in America. It was not an easy place for a single woman to serve the Lord. Before she left Chicago, someone gave her a car, an old jalopy with so many holes in the roof that she had to use an umbrella inside the car when it rained. One of our Sunday School classes pledged $20 per month for her support. Armed with the old car, the $20 per month pledge and her faith in God, she moved to the mountains of Kentucky to begin her ministry. Back then the road system was primitive, which meant that sometimes she and her co-workers had to ride horses up into the mountains to teach children the Word of God. In 1951 she and a co-worker were asked to consider going to a remote community called Rock Fork where there was no church and no organized Christian work. She and her co-worker agreed to go. Eventually they got a vacation Bible school started that continued for a number of years. Later they managed to start a small Sunday School that met in a home. It attracted a handful of children along with a few adults. Some years later they began holding worship services on an occasional basis. They didn’t do it every Sunday and they never formally organized as a church. But eventually they erected a church building made from a doublewide mobile home on a tiny piece of property. By the 1990s they were holding services there and calling themselves the Rock Fork Bible Fellowship. If they didn’t have a preacher scheduled, Miss Eva told me they would often play one of my sermon tapes and use it as the message of the morning.

I should pause and add that Miss Eva (which is how the Kentucky folks refer to her) has been serving as a missionary for 57 years and our church has supported her all that time.

After 50 Years—A Church is Born

During a week of ministry a few years ago at Camp Nathanael (owned by the mission agency), Miss Eva asked if I would stay over and preach at Rock Fork. I recall that we had about 45 people in attendance that morning and I preached my heart out, we had a wonderful time, and I also remember that when I stood on the platform, my head nearly brushed against the ceiling. Later we had dinner on the grounds, which was wonderful because those country folks really know how to prepare a meal. Last July I was preaching again at Camp Nathanael when Miss Eva said she wanted to show us the new church building at Rock Fork. So Marlene and I and Miss Eva and Donnie Sloan drove way out in the country (we were already in the country but this was about ten miles further east) to see the partly-finished building. Even though there was much work to be done, I could tell it was going to be beautiful. Miss Eva’s eyes sparkled with joy as she told us the story of how she and her co-worker had started the first vacation Bible school a half-century earlier. And now, at last, after so many years and so many prayers, a church was about to be born. When she asked if I would come back and preach for the dedication of the new building, I told her I would be glad to do it. Then she said that she knew she wouldn’t live a lot longer and she had asked the Lord to let her live long enough to see the new church building dedicated and the church formally organized. “I’ve got more friends in heaven than I do on earth but I want to stay here a little while longer if the Lord will let me,” she said. That’s when I realized that this church building represented the culmination of her life’s work, the result of 50 years of labor to bring the Word of the Lord to a small Kentucky settlement.

We dedicated the new building on Saturday, November 23. Because I had an engagement I had to attend in Oak Park, I couldn’t leave until 10:30 p.m. on Friday night. With the help of two of my sons, Nick and Mark, we drove through the night, arriving in southeastern Kentucky about 8:00 a.m. Saturday. We ate breakfast, showered, changed clothes, and then headed for the dedication service, which started at 11:00 a.m. I would estimate that 60-70 people attended the two-hour service. Joy and tears mingled together as the people reflected on God’s faithfulness. An attendance board reported that the Sunday before the attendance had been 41, the week before that 27, and that the weekly offering had been $190. Speaker after speaker told stories of how God answered prayer over the years. And of course we had dinner on the grounds and ate like kings. Then my boys and I got in the car and headed back home. We traveled 1,000 miles in 22 hours, including six hours we spent at the church—now called Rock Fork Bible Church.

I tell that story for two reasons. First, because Calvary has been supporting Miss Eva’s ministry for 57 years. We rejoice with her in this significant accomplishment. Second, because this story allows us to reflect on the values of the kingdom of God. Some people may wonder about the 50 years spent and a church with only 40 or 50 people attending. But God’s economy is quite different from ours. The One who owns the cattle on a thousand hills is not impressed by numbers. The Lord of the universe is not more glorified by 10,000 than by 50. He can deliver by much or by little. A thousand years is but a day in his sight. If you asked Miss Eva, “Was it worth it?” she would certainly say, “It was worth it and I would gladly do it again.” She invested her life in building God’s kingdom and the results are in full view for all to see.

The Richest People I Know

As I ponder the matter, I realize that the richest people I’ve met recently are the good folks at Rock Fork Bible Church. And the richest person I’ve met recently is Miss Eva Lodgaard. Personally I hope she’s around for many more years, but when the Lord takes her home, I know the words she will hear: “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of the Lord.” She gave herself completely to the people of southeastern Kentucky. In a ministry that now stretches into its seventh decade, she has been rich in good deeds, generous and willing to share with others. There is laid up for her a firm foundation for the future. Heaven will be bright for her. And she has discovered the life that is truly life.

Now the challenge is to you and to me. We are so rich—and I mean that literally. We have been given so much. Compared to the rest of the world, we’re at the top of the heap. I do not think we need to feel guilty about that, but we ought to feel a sense of profound obligation. God never wastes his blessings and he doesn’t pour them out so that we can use them on ourselves. Blessings are meant to be shared. Money is for giving away. Material wealth is given so that we can bless others as God has blessed us.

If you are in the grip of materialism, what do you do? The oldest answer is the best. The best way to break the stranglehold of money is to give it away. That’s right. Just give it away. If your bicycle has been a snare to you, give it away. If that new boat is a problem, give it away. If your clothes have become an obsession, give all the new stuff away. If your home has become an idol, give it away. That’s right. Just give it away. If you worry too much about your investments, start giving that money away to the Lord’s work. Find some worthy cause and invest in it. Find a need and meet it. Find a hurt and heal it. Take your nickels and your dimes and then take your hundred-dollar bills and invest them for Christ and his kingdom. It doesn’t need to be something big and flashy. And the world doesn’t need to know what you’ve done. As you give to help others, you will help yourself, and in the process the stranglehold of money will be broken in your heart. That’s a win-win solution. Help others, help yourself. Bless others and you will be blessed along the way.

One of these days we will all stand before the Lord. The danger we face is that we will hear the Lord say, “You fool! You spent your life building a fortune but were not generous toward the Lord or his people.” (See Luke 12:13-21.) The Lord will not ask how much money we had at the end of our life and he won’t ask what rate of return we got from our mutual fund investments. But he will certainly ask, “What did you do with what I gave you? Did you use it all for your own enjoyment? Or did you use your money for the sake of my kingdom?”

What you keep for yourself, you eventually lose. What you give away, you gain eternally. So may God cause us—the richest people in the world—to become generous givers and so enter into the blessing that comes to those who aren’t afraid to take God at his Word. Amen.

  1. Listen to this sermon (37:38)
2002-11-24-Overcoming-Materialism

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