Sermon delivered on Trinity 18C, Sunday, September 25, 2016, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of this sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Jeremiah 32.1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91.1-6,14-16; 1 Timothy 6.6-19; Luke 16.19-31.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In one way or another, our lessons this morning remind us of the need to live in the present with God’s future in mind. For us as Christians, that future, of course, is resurrection and living in God’s new world. So this morning I ask you this question. Are you living your life as if the resurrection of Jesus and the hope and promises that accompany it really matter to you, or are you simply schlepping along, whistling through the graveyard, as you try to navigate through life? How you answer this question will determine whether you are overcoming this sin-sick and evil-infected world world in the power of Christ or are being overcome by it.
We start by looking at the remarkable story in our OT lesson. How do we explain Jeremiah’s apparently bizarre decision to purchase land in the midst of utter chaos and hopelessness? I mean, after all, Judah’s cruel enemy, the Babylonians, were laying siege to Jerusalem and would eventually burn down the city and its Temple. Not only was Jerusalem under siege, but the entire nation was being overrun and destroyed by the Babylonians. Adding insult to injury, Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, had already carried out a mass deportation of the Jewish people and would carry out a second one that would leave only a tiny remnant of Jews to live in the land God promised to give them. And if that weren’t bad enough, Jeremiah found himself imprisoned as a traitor in the midst of a starving Jerusalem where cannibalism was commonplace. If we assess this situation on its own merits, things look hopeless. Why would anyone in his right mind want to buy real estate given those conditions? There really wasn’t any hope that the land would increase in value in the future. There was no future! Common sense dictated that Jeremiah’s purchase was utter foolishness and stupidity!
But Jeremiah wasn’t looking at the present with myopic eyes. He looked at the hopelessness, despair, and destruction in his own life and the life of his people with an eye on God’s future. And what did that future promise? Healing and restoration of the land and its people. Just as the Lord had astonishingly told his exiled people through Jeremiah to settle down in their exile, to build houses, marry, have children and prosper, to pray for their captors, and for the peace and welfare of the place where they were held captive (Jeremiah 29.4-14), so now Jeremiah is instructed to purchase his relative’s property, which Jeremiah did. But why? Not because Jeremiah was cray-cray, but because God promised to return to his people and to restore them from their exile! Their sins had yielded the ultimate covenant curse of exile from their beloved land (Deuteronomy 28.36-37). But God in his grace and mercy was not going to let that be the last word. He was going to forgive and restore his broken and hurting people, and return to dwell with them as he had done before their exile and destruction. So Jeremiah did the apparently crazy thing. He bought land that conventional (worldly) wisdom proclaimed to be worthless because he had a real hope in God’s promise to heal and restore his people and the land in which they lived, and that made all the difference in the world to Jeremiah. This is what living in the present with an eye on God’s future looks like for God’s people. This is what hope for a future with God does for God’s people. It makes us look crazy in the eyes of the world!
For us as Christians, of course, that future is resurrection and new creation because we believe that in Jesus’ death and resurrection, God has acted to defeat evil and put to rights all that is wrong with us and his world, including ending our alienation toward God and restoring us to a new, right, and life-giving relationship with God. As Christians we believe that we are given a glimpse of God’s new world in the bodily resurrection of Christ. In Christ’s death and resurrection we believe, contra conventional wisdom that proclaims dead people don’t come back to life, that when God raised Jesus from the dead, God defeated death forever and declared that our bodies as well as God’s creation are important to God and will be restored to full health, beauty, and vitality. As we grow older and our bodies are afflicted by more sickness, infirmity, and decay, we are reminded that this process isn’t the end game, that one day we will experience healing and restoration and a deathless existence for all eternity. This hope compels us to take care of our bodies because they matter to God, and so they should matter to us.
But the new heavens and earth are more important than just the hope of bodily resurrection, massively important as that hope is. The new heavens and earth promise to be free from evil and injustice and suffering and loneliness and fear and all the other nasty things that afflict us in this present age. It will be like this because we will get to live directly in God’s presence for all eternity and be the real human beings God created us to be. It means we will have new work to do as God’s regents over his new world. Think of the best times of your life when you were healthy and happy and fulfilled in your personal and professional life, and then multiply that feeling by a gazillion-fold, and you will begin to comprehend the hope and promise that is yours by virtue of belonging to Jesus. And like Jeremiah, that hope should impact how you live and view this present age as you wait for God’s new age, the age to come, when Jesus reappears to complete his healing and restorative work as he ushers in fully God’s new creation.
We have to keep in mind this future hope of God’s promise to heal and restore all creation to God’s intended good and beautiful state, us included, as we read our epistle lesson this morning. Without keeping God’s future in view as we live out our lives in this present age, we are likely to read passages like this as God trying to rain on our parade and force us to follow a bunch of arbitrary rules so that we can get our ticket punched into heaven. Nothing could be further from the truth. What Paul (and Jesus in our gospel lesson) are doing is warning us not to succumb to false gods and unreality. There is only one true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Only in this God, who revealed himself most supremely in Jesus, will we find true happiness and real life. Nothing else will do, try as we might to make lesser things a viable substitute for authentic contentment that is based on a real and life-sustaining relationship with God. And in our culture, the temptation to worship the god of money is a supremely powerful one.
Think about it. In our affluent and consumer-driven world, we are bombarded with the message that more is better and instant gratification is the ticket. We need more money to buy more stuff so that we can enjoy ourselves and gain a modicum of security and a sense of importance. After all, it’s the rich who get ahead and gain the headlines and notoriety, right? And so we scrimp and save. We become stingy with our money because we believe our security and very existence depend on it. At minimum we need food, clothing, and shelter, don’t we? And everyone knows there’s just not enough to go around (egoic mind anyone?). In other words, we tell ourselves that God can’t or won’t provide abundantly and it’s up to us to fill in the gap.
But this mindset leads us to make money our god instead of the one true and living God. Yet a minute’s thought exposes this folly. Money cannot buy us life or sustain it forever in the way God can and does. And all that hard work and saving? Anyone who lived through the great recession of 2008 will tell you that’s a lie. Wealth can be wiped out in a skinny minute. How many folks do you know or have heard about, who now must continue to work because their retirement savings were obliterated in the stock market crash? So we slave and work to have more, only to realize how fleeting is that wealth, and how uncertain. We watch anxiously over our money and worry about keeping and/or protecting it. And we are tempted to do just about anything to get more of it. No wonder Paul and Jesus warn that love of money (not money itself) is the root of all evil and causes many otherwise faithful people to fall into complete destruction. It very well may be that Paul had Jesus’ parable in our gospel lesson in mind when he issued this warning! It’s not that money in itself is bad. After all, in our epistle lesson, Paul admonishes the rich to use their money generously for the benefit of others. He doesn’t command them to give it all up because money is evil. What is evil is our desire to be self-sufficient and independent of God, and we foolishly believe that money is the best way to help us attain our goal of God-independence.
Of course, in all of this, we see what happens to us when we live for the present age only and reject or minimize our resurrection hope. As we have seen, we become anxious and fall victim to the changes, chances, and circumstances of life, which are often cruel and unjust. We become self-contained and fearful, looking out only for ourselves and for our own best interests. We are willing to sacrifice others to gain what we think we need because we convince ourselves we are in it all by ourselves with no other available resources to help us overcome the hardships, difficulties, suffering, and injustices in our life. In other words, we have no future hope to sustain us in the present!
Contrast this anxiety-ridden mindset to Paul’s admonition to practice godliness that leads to contentment. What does that mean? To practice godliness is to decide to make God our one and only king and to live our lives in ways that are consistent with God’s good created order. This leads to contentment because we are living in harmony with our Creator. And when we really believe that Jesus has rescued us from evil, sin, and death, and that we have an eternal future with him in God’s new world, it helps us meet the present difficulties with courage and hope, which leads to even more contentment because we trust God to provide what we need right now based on his promises for a renewed future (cf. Philippians 4.11-13). We understand that all we have, money included, comes from God. Sure, we have to put in our sweat equity, but ultimately all the good things we enjoy—health, wealth, meaningful relationships, family, and everything in between—come from God and are not strictly of our own doing. God blesses us because he loves us and is gracious to us. He doesn’t always give us what we deserve, either good or bad—thanks be to God! But God created us and knows what we need to make us truly happy and content, and it all starts with our relationship with him in and through Jesus. When we have our eye and hope set on God’s future, we can navigate through this world with meaning, purpose, and power.
We will also start behaving in ways that the world considers strange at best. Instead of striving to gain and hoard, we strive to give away because we understand that all humans are created in God’s image and are therefore critically important. We take to heart God’s command for us to look after the least and the lost—because they matter to God as we matter to him. We lose our usual rationalizations for not giving our money to those in need (you know, they’re lazy, they’ll just buy drugs, they choose to be poor, etc.) because we know these folks are important in God’s economy, even if they aren’t important to the world’s.
And you know what? Every time we do stuff like this, God uses us to bring in his kingdom on earth as in heaven, just like we pray for every week in the Lord’s prayer. For example, when we go to Faith Mission, the hungry are fed. What would happen if we all stopped doing that? People would starve and there would be all kinds of unknown and unexpected consequences. That person we refused to feed might murder to eat or steal money so he can buy food. Whatever it looks like without our generosity, the world would certainly be an uglier and darker place. Likewise when we give money to build a beautiful worship space like we are trying to do. We do so to worship God together and be refreshed and strengthened together to do God’s work in God’s world in new and unexpected ways. This is what godliness looks like. It means we love God with all that we are and others as ourselves, because all creatures are important to God, especially his image-bearing ones. I could go on but you get the idea.
When we place our hope and trust in God at the center of our lives, we learn to develop a godly contentment, and that enables us to keep the long view of life in mind. We realize we have a future and a hope because we take to heart God’s promise to us that he knows his plans for our welfare and not our harm, plans that ensure we have a future and a hope (cf. Jeremiah 29.11). And we have seen the empty tomb of Jesus and experienced his risen presence among us in the power of the Spirit living in us as God’s people. This means that nothing in this world has the power to overcome us, not even the fear of death. Fr. John Wesley, an Anglican priest and founder of the Methodist movement, once said that the mark of real Methodists is how well they died. By that he meant that Christians should not fear death because we believe God has abolished death when he raised Jesus from the dead so that death doesn’t have the final say, even though our bodies lie moldering in the grave. Reports of Wesley’s own death indicate he died an astonishingly peaceful death. He knew the reality of his risen Lord with its attendant resurrection hope and so died in great contentment. There’s real power in that, my beloved.
Now don’t misunderstand. I am not suggesting we minimize our struggles and fears in this world. There are truly scary things that can happen to us and there are lots of scary people around. But when we have a real and vibrant resurrection hope, we understand that not even the gates of hell can overcome us because we belong to Jesus and we have a real future in God’s new age. That future begins right now because God’s new world will be the renewal and transformation of God’s current world, but without all the evil and heartache and suffering that afflict us now. Therefore we are called to get to work on our Lord’s behalf and generously use our resources toward that end, gifts from our generous and loving God, on behalf of God and his people. We will fight injustice and work to overcome all that dehumanizes people. In doing so we proclaim boldly that Jesus is Lord and the world’s systems are not. The world will hate us and persecute us to stop us and shut us up. But we are simultaneously people of the present age and age to come so that we do not fear persecution or ridicule. We know the One who guarantees our future and therefore we know our present is secure, despite appearances to the contrary at times. And that, folks, is the essence of living the Good News, not to mention our mission statement (to be changed by God to make a difference for God), now and for all eternity. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.