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Bribing God

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Luke 12:13-21

The latest Batman movie has grossed $300 million faster than any film in history. I’ve seen it, and was amazed and frightened by Heath Ledger’s Joker along with the rest of the audience. It’s called The Dark Knight for good reason—don’t go expecting a comedy. But while I enjoyed seeing Batman at work, he’s not my favorite superhero.

When I was a boy, I wanted to be Superman, more than anything in the world. I wanted to fly so badly that once, as a boy of six or so, I actually cut out cardboard wings, taped them to my t-shirt, and jumped from the roof of our house. With predictable results, unfortunately. But the reason I so wanted to fly wasn’t just to miss the traffic on the Tollway—it was because I wanted to know what is really “up there.” I still do.

Have you ever looked up into the sky and wondered if this is all there is? If there isn’t something beyond what you can see, more to life than what you can touch and measure?

In the last month I’ve been privileged to study and speak in some beautiful places—from Interlaken and the Swiss Alps to the hill country of Texas. I watched people in Switzerland paragliding from the tops of towering mountains to green meadows thousands of feet below, and decided they were insane.

I’ve eaten German sausage in restaurants where cholesterol was invented. I’ve written Bible studies and sermons for the fall from the porch of a glorious hill country home overlooking majestic sunsets and tree-topped ridges as far as the eye can see.

And through it all, in my deepest soul I sensed that there is something missing, something more. You know the feeling, don’t you? You’ve stood before paintings produced by artistic genius and felt that they were not enough. You’ve heard concerts where world-class orchestras played some of the greatest music ever composed, and felt that something was missing. You’ve read literary masterpieces or seen great movies and sensed it in your spirit. You’ve watched a sunset and known there was something beyond. In our deepest being, we sense that this is not all there is. Don’t we?

I’ve come today to ask some momentous questions. According to Jesus, your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions. Why not? In what does it consist? Let’s walk through his parable, then learn why it is God’s word for us this morning.

Are you living for creation?

A “crowd of many thousands” has gathered to hear Jesus (Luke 12:1). One of them shouts out to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me” (v. 13).

The law was clear: two-thirds of the estate to the older brother, one-third to the younger (Deuteronomy 21:17). This dispute didn’t require a rabbi but a judge, so Jesus replied, “Man [better translated ‘Sir’], who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” (v. 14).

On its surface, the question seems simple enough. But Jesus knew somehow there was more to the story, that greed was the true motive here. Perhaps the man wanted his part of the estate before their father died, or their mother passed away, or their family’s needs had been met.

So Jesus said to “them,” not just “him,” addressing the entire crowd: “Watch out!” The Greek is strong: “Take cover!” or “Look out!” For what? “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (v. 15).

“Greed” translates “covetousness” in the original, the sin of coveting. The basic theological definition is choosing to sin for material gain. “Greed” is one of the so-called “seven deadly sins,” because it leads to all sorts of other sins. People steal out of greed, and lie, and manipulate, and kill.

By contrast, Jesus’ life lesson is simple: “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Such a statement was shocking to their culture, as it is to ours. Jesus knew he had to prove his point, so he told them a story.

It starts this way: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop” (v. 16). In this particular year, his land yielded even more than they expected.

Now he had a problem: “What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops” (v. 17). If his grain was not put under shelter, it would mold and be useless. He has already filled his normal storage silos, and has nowhere else to put his crops.

Imagine you’re the CEO of an oil company which makes a discovery so large you have nowhere to store all your oil or gas. Or you’re Tom Hicks and the Rangers have finally found a pitching staff, so more people are coming to games than the stadium will hold. Or we suddenly start seeing bigger crowds than our Sanctuary and Great Hall and gymnasium can accommodate. What would we do?

We’d do what he did: “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 my goods” (v. 18). Nothing unusual in this, just good business sense. So far, so good. But then comes the almost-inevitable result of such financial prosperity: “I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of good things laid up for many years'” (v. 19a). That’s true. He has enough grain, enough money in the bank as it were, to live and prosper for years to come. But then he says to himself, “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry” (v. 19b). The Greek literally says, “keep on resting, eat and drink when necessary, and be merry always.”

In all his calculations for his prosperous future, our rich farmer has forgotten one simple fact. For any of us, it can be true that “this very night your life will be demanded from you” (v. 20a). When it is, “who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” (v. 20b). Not you.

When we bank on the present and ignore eternity, we are a “fool” indeed. The parable can apply to us all: “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God” (v. 21).

All we can see is but a means to all we cannot see. The only safe way to handle the present is to use it for the eternal. Your “grain” may be money, stock, land, a house, cars, clothes, degrees, abilities, whatever you possess. It can all be gone today, unless it was used for God.

Are you living for the Creator?

“A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions”—that’s the point of Jesus’ story. Why must he make it? Why must he remind us that possessions are temporal while life is eternal, that we must use the visible for the invisible, the material for the eternal?

The point would seem obvious. Despite all our medical advances, the mortality rate is still 100 percent. “Man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27), the Bible bluntly reminds us. We know that “the world in its present form is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31). You’ve heard the saying: there are no U-Hauls attached to hearses or pockets in burial shrouds.

Yet we live as though it were not so. Western culture measures success by possessions and prosperity, and always has. The golden rule is simple: the one with the gold makes the rule. “The one who dies with the most toys wins,” the t-shirt proclaims. If religion can help us succeed in life, so much the better. If praying and reading the Bible and going to worship will lead to the blessing of God, they’re sound investments.

Religion has always functioned this way in the West, going back to the ancient Greeks. They were the first to divide the soul from the body, “religion” from the “real world.”

They didn’t love their gods. No one wanted to live for Zeus or Apollo; no one wanted to know Poseidon or Athena more personally. You worshiped the gods to placate them so they would give rain for your crops and children for your family. You built the largest altars you could afford, to bribe their favor and prosperity.

I’ve seen the foundations of the Zeus altar at Pergamum, larger than this Sanctuary. I’ve walked beside the colossal Parthenon in Athens, built to give Athena a home so she would favor their city. From then to now, religion in the West has been a means to an end—salvation from hell, reward in heaven, and prosperity on earth. The more you go and give and pray, the more God will bless you. Religion is a way to bribe God so he will give us what we want.

Our culture has made prosperity the end and God the means. But what we can see and own and spend is not enough for our souls. It never is.

Consider Ruth, a single mother in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, who began buying $5 worth of Illinois lottery tickets every week. She said that she needed these periodic “doses of hope” to counter her occasional feelings of depression. Then the miracle happened: Ruth won $22 million.

She was beside herself with joy. She quit her job wrapping gifts at Neiman-Marcus and bought an 18-room house, a Versace wardrobe, and a robin’s-egg-blue Jaguar. She sent her twin sons to private school. Strangely, however, as the next year went by, her mood became more and more depressed. By the end of that year, her expensive new therapist diagnosed her as having a case of dysthymic disorder, or chronic depression (Authentic Happiness).

Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, who wrote about Ruth, is the former president of the American Psychological Association and the author of twenty books in his field. His research indicates that once a person has the basic necessities of life, added money adds little or no happiness. He concludes: “Materialism seems to be counterproductive: at all levels of real income, people who value money more than other goals are less satisfied with their income and with their lives as a whole….” He finishes his sentence, “although precisely why is a mystery.”

There was no mystery to Jesus. He warned us: Life does not consist in the abundance of our possessions. Bribing God by doing religious things doesn’t work. The reason is simple: we were not made that way. We were made for personal, intimate relationship with our Maker.

God made us to walk in the Garden of Eden at his side, to work with him in tilling and keeping the world he made, to partner with him in service and love him in worship. He made the world as a necessary means to that end, as a place for us to live while we live for him. But we sinned, and everything changed. We were supposed to use creation to worship the Creator, but now we use the Creator to worship creation.

But bribing God doesn’t work. Making religion a means to our end, using religion to build bigger barns so we can rest, eat, drink and be merry is a dead end. There is no joy or fulfillment or significance in such faith this morning. And there is judgment tonight.

Conclusion

So what do we do? Jesus said that we should be “rich toward God” (v. 21). What does that mean?

As I mentioned earlier, I spent a week of my study leave teaching at a conference in Switzerland. During one of the evening worship services, I had an epiphany. I really did. I cannot tell you who was preaching or what he was preaching about. But as he spoke, God spoke to me.

I had been thinking all week about the state of the church in the West. Many of the pastors and church leaders I taught that week came from churches across Europe, working in places where the Christian movement is weak at best. I had talked that day with a pastor in England who told me that there are 250,000 people in Great Britain who claim “Jedi Knight” as their official religion. In England, four times more Muslims go to mosque on Friday than Christians go to worship on Sunday. Many other places on the Continent are suffering in similar ways.

What is the answer to the decline of the church in western Europe and much of America, I wondered. Why is the church advancing so powerfully in Communist China and sub-Saharan Africa, in Latin and South America, in South Korea and Australia? Everywhere that church is a movement, not a building; where Christianity is a lifestyle, not an institution; where faith is an adventure, not a religion?

In the midst of my contemplation, while the preacher was preaching, I heard the Spirit speak simply and powerfully to my spirit: It’s all about Jesus. Christianity is about Jesus. It’s about knowing him and making him known. It’s about loving him and following him and helping other people follow him.

As simple and basic as that sounds, it’s the essence of biblical Christianity. It’s about him. Wherever the Church knows and lives that truth, the Church is building the Kingdom of God on earth. Wherever it is not, it is not.

We come to worship to bless him, not so he will bless us. We read and pray so we can know him and serve him, not so he will serve us. It’s not about us—it’s about him.

I know how basic that sounds. But let me ask you: why did you come to worship today? Why do you teach your class, or sing in the choir, or serve as a deacon, or work on a committee, or go on a mission trip, or read and pray and give? Why am I preaching this sermon? In our innermost being, what motivates us today?

Our lives do not consist in what we possess, but in the One who possesses us. Are we here today to bribe God, or to bless him?

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