The 21st Sunday After Trinity November 9, 2003

INI

How to Survive Prosperity

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

Scripture Readings

Hebrews 3:1-6
Mark 10:17-27

Hymns

537, 442, 425, 644

Seek the LORD and live, lest He break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and devour it, with no one to quench it in Bethel—You who turn justice to wormwood, and lay righteousness to rest in the earth!…They hate the one who rebukes in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks uprightly. Therefore, because you tread down the poor and take grain taxes from him, though you have built houses of hewn stone, yet you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink wine from them. For I know your manifold transgressions and your mighty sins: afflicting the just and taking bribes; diverting the poor from justice at the gate. Therefore the prudent keep silent at that time, for it is an evil time. Seek good and not evil, that you may live; so the LORD God of hosts will be with you, as you have spoken. Hate evil, love good; establish justice in the gate. It may be that the LORD God of hosts will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5:6-7, 10-15)

Dear fellow-redeemed in Christ:

You are rich! If you don’t believe it, talk to someone who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s. There were very few, if any, jobs available. People lost their homes and farms. Many stood in long lines just for a free bowl of soup. There was no money for new clothes or anything else from a store. TVs, new cars, CDs, Gameboys, and other things which we sometimes consider essentials, were completely out of reach or non-existent 70 years ago.

If you don’t believe you are rich, look at others in the world. I saw a photo essay in a magazine which showed a sampling of people with all of their possessions around them. One picture showed a family in Africa standing outside a hut about the size of our living rooms. Their only possessions were the clothes on their backs, cooking utensils, and a few pieces of crude furniture. In the next photo was a typical family, perhaps in Europe, with a small apartment and possessions of clothes, furniture, and a variety of other goods. The next picture showed an average American family, and the contrast was startling. Filling the front yard of a spacious home were two cars, all kinds of furniture, clothing to fill many closets, books, bikes, appliances, and all of the other luxuries we take for granted. For decades now our nation has been materially blessed on an unprecedented scale. What could be better? What could be wrong with this picture?

There is a danger. Like black storm clouds building on the horizon, wealth and prosperity can gradually overshadow one’s life, block out the sunlight of God’s love, and destroy, rather than bless. With a case study of the northern kingdom of Israel, the Lord teaches us how to survive prosperity and hold on to true riches.

I.

The times of the prophet Amos, 750 BC, were in a way quite similar to our own. Politically, the country was safe and secure. Assyria to the north was not yet a major threat. The economy was booming. There were jobs, business opportunities everywhere, and money to be made. Even in spiritual matters things looked good. There was an outward veneer of worship. The people made regular visits to the golden calves at Bethel and Dan, and went through the rituals of worshiping the Lord. The only other time things had been this good was during the reigns of David and Solomon. There was no end in sight to the good times—that is, until Amos arrived on the scene. Instead of congratulating the nation for all it had accomplished and for its faithfulness to God, Amos warned the people of impending doom. His words are more like a funeral dirge than a celebration. He told them their religion was a sham.

In spite of their outward worship of God, their real god had become material wealth. The evidence was in their lifestyle. How did they spend their time? Amos told them: “You lie on beds inlaid with ivory and lounge on your couches. You dine on choice lambs and fattened calves. You strum away on your harps like David. You drink wine by the bowlful and use the finest lotions, but you do not grieve over the ruin of Joseph(Amos 6:4-6 NIV).

Wealth meant so much to them that they were willing to do anything to get more, even pervert justice. The court system left a bitter taste in their mouths, because bribes rather than justice determined the outcome. The poor had no hope of having wrongs righted. If someone dared to speak out, he was quickly silenced. People were sold into slavery when they couldn’t pay their bills. Exorbitant taxes were levied on farmers. Merchants cheated their customers by selling the chaff and dust from the floor along with the wheat. The nation was calling these “good times.” God called it an “evil time.”

Worshiping wealth instead of God would have fatal consequences. “Though you have built houses of hewn stone, yet you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink wine from them.[v.11] Within a few years the Assyrian army would invade and destroy everything the people trusted in and carry them off into exile.

Does all of this sound familiar? Could history be repeated among us? The evidence condemns our society, too, of worshiping wealth. Gambling casinos and lottery games thrive because people are greedy enough to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars at a time in the hope of striking it rich. Unscrupulous telemarketers target senior citizens to rob them of life-savings. Bribes and promises of special favors threaten our own justice system. God expects justice and righteousness of every nation since He has written His law in every heart, but our country has largely trampled it underfoot and forgotten it.

But there is a more direct and personal side to Amos’ warning. He was not just speaking to Israel as an earthly nation, but as the church of that time—God’s people in the world. Likewise, his words are intended especially for us, the present-day church. Is the warning valid? We confess Christ as our Lord and Savior, but does the evidence support it? What is our attitude toward money and wealth? How much of our thinking in an average day is taken up with money and what we want to buy with it? How much of our time is spent, not just on working for and taking care of the necessities of life, but on getting and using more of the “extras”? When it comes down to a choice of either spending time and money on God and our neighbor or on ourselves, which usually takes priority?

If we are honest, we may find that often our attitude is uncomfortably close to that of the man in the Gospel lesson who sadly left Jesus because he was not willing to part with his possessions. To survive prosperity we want to watch out so that wealth does not become an idol in our lives and destroy faith in Jesus. “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(1 Timothy 6:10 NIV).

II.

If wealth is such a danger and temptation, how can we handle it without losing our faith and life in the process? As the disciples said to Jesus, “Who then can be saved?” The prophet told the people of Israel, “Seek the Lord and live.[v.6] Our hope lies in Him alone. In spite of all that Israel had done, the Lord was inviting them to give up their worship of wealth before it was too late, and to return to Him in repentance.

The invitation extends to us now. We can come to the Lord and admit what He already knows, namely, that we have been guilty of honoring wealth more than God, loving cars, homes, and other possessions more than God, trusting in bank accounts, insurance policies, and career tracks for security and happiness more than God.

We can come knowing that God will not hold those sins against us, but will erase them from our record. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Though they are red as crimson they shall be like wool.(Isaiah 1:18). The Lord leads us to see that our real treasure is our Savior Jesus who paid our debt and its penalty on the cross so that we might have riches that will last forever. “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(2 Corinthians 8:9 NIV). Earthly wealth cannot really buy much at all. It is quickly spent and has no lasting benefit. The riches of Christ make us eternally wealthy!

III.

When we have the riches of Christ it shows in how we view and spend our money and use our possessions. It is a completely different attitude than that of this world. We see our earthly wealth as a gift from the Lord’s hand, not a product of our own effort and ingenuity. We understand that He gives to each of us the right amount of wealth as He knows is best in our situation. Therefore, whether we have a lot or a little in comparison with others, we can be content trusting the Lord’s provision.

Since we find our greatest joy in loving and serving the Lord who gave His all for us, we see our money as a tool to use for God’s glory and the good of our neighbor, instead of a way to gratify selfish wants. As God is generous and loving toward us, so we want to be the same toward people around us. We want to use our money to help, rather than take advantage of others.

Don’t expect others to understand this, however. Many think it’s strange that you would not eat out as often as you might or that you would decide to forego a new appliance or scrimp and save in some other way so that you could give generously to the work of the church or send your child to a Christian day school or support mission work in countries you will never see. But for us, it is not strange at all. It is a living expression of faith in Jesus. We have everything we need in Him. We can afford to be—we want to be—generous in sharing our earthly blessings with others so that they may see and experience Christ’s love through our actions. Joy in salvation shows in thankfulness toward God and in helpful service toward one’s neighbor. The Lord opens our tight-fisted, clenched hand by showing us His hands opened and nailed to the cross.

We are incredibly rich people, especially in spiritual treasures, but also in money and possessions. We thank the Lord for the grace He has shown us. We pray that He would give us the grace to survive our prosperity: to guard against making money our god, to seek the Lord daily in repentance, and to use every gift He provides to His glory and our neighbor’s good. Amen.

Lord, You love the cheerful giver
Who with open heart and hand.
Blesses freely as a river
That refreshes all the land.
Grant us, then, the grace of giving
With a spirit large and true.
That our life and all our living
We may consecrate to You.

(Worship Supplement 2000 — 788:1)

—Pastor Michael M. Eichstadt


Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.