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Sermon for Sunday 10 October 2021

First Reading: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

6Seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, 7O you who turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the earth!

10They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth. 11Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins — you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. 13Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time. 14Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. 15Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

Psalm 90:12-17

12So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom. 13Return, O Lord; how long will you tarry? be gracious to your servants. 14Satisfy us by your lovingkindness in the morning; so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life. 15Make us glad by the measure of the days that you afflicted us and the years in which we suffered adversity. 16Show your servants your works and your splendor to their children. 17May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.

Second Reading: Hebrews 3:12-19

12Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” 16For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.

Gospel: Mark 10:17-22

17As {Jesus}was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.

Putting God First

I bet I know what some of you are thinking: here we go again, another sermon on the evils of wealth, on how wealthy we are, and on how money is the root of all kinds of evil.  For those of you who think this, well good on you!  You’ve been paying attention and I’m doing my job identifying those idols that can cause us to break the 1st Commandment: “[we] shall have no other gods before [the One true God].”  For those who simply allowed our first lesson and the Gospel reading to go in one ear and out the other, well you need to go back and reread our lessons for today!

And while money can become an idol to us, and we should guard against this, today’s lessons are about so much more.  For starters, I’d like you to notice two things about the man who came to Jesus inquiring about eternal life.  First, the question this man asks Jesus is right on point.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life” (10:17b).  Notice the word inherit.  An inheritance is something we’re given.  Like Salvation, we don’t earn it or deserve it.  An inheritance is something we receive out of the goodness of our parents’ or a family member’s hearts.  Salvation and eternal life are God’s free gifts to those who believe.  Second, Mark tells us that this was a morally righteous man. 

I say that the man was considered, by societal standards, a morally righteous man because of his response.  Based on his answer, I’m sure he followed all the Jewish laws; he fasted regularly, attended the synagogue or Temple on the Sabbath, he tithed, he brought the right sacrifices, and he took care of the poor.  The reason I say this is two-fold: 1) he responded to Jesus’ question about the Commandments by saying that he had obeyed them all from his youth.  2). Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him.

Now to be clear, Jesus looks at all of us in love.  But this is the only time in scripture that one of the gospel writes makes this specific statement.  This was a good man, a kind man, a generous man, but sadly, a misguided man.  When Jesus looked into this man’s heart, He saw a man more concerned about his wealth then in putting God first in his life.  The bottom line is that this man trusted his wealth more than he trusted that God would take care of him.  Why this man had this view is not revealed.

This man could have come from poverty and through good business practices became wealthy.  This man could have come from a wealthy and influential family and had been taught that money was the only real security we have in this life.  We simply don’t know what the background of this individual was.  All we know is that Mark records that Jesus looked at this man and saw the one thing standing between him and eternal life, his wealth.

The warning here in scripture is clear, money is a powerful tool of satan and even though we don’t misuse or take advantage of the opportunities that money can bring, we can become so dependent on it, that it comes between us and God.  Therefore, this passage forces us to ask ourselves these hard questions: 1) where does my faith really lie?  2) what in my life gets between me and putting God first?  3) do I use a portion of my wealth for good causes and then say to myself, look at how good a person I am.  I help the poor, I give to the church, I donate to good causes, so God must love me and therefore I’ll end up in heaven because of all my good works. 

If any of these questions are difficult to answer or is something we think, then this reading from Mark is one we definitely need to pay close attention to.  Jesus makes it clear; nothing can come between us and our faith and allegiance to God.  God is our only hope for salvation and eternal life.  We can’t work our way into heaven, nor can we buy our way in.  There’s only one way: Jesus made it clear, I am the way the Truth and the life.  No one come to the Father except through me (John 14:6).  But this lesson also brought up an interesting question asked by one of the other pastors; when do we know we have enough?  When do we have what we need, and when does our wealth and possessions exceed our needs and therefore subject to becoming an idol?  Don’t you just hate questions that are very difficult to answer? 

Trust me when I tell you that these two questions caused a great deal of discussion Tuesday morning and some of that debate bordered on becoming heated.  When is enough, enough?  When do we have enough to meet our needs and when do we obtain more just because we want it?  As I said, these are very difficult questions to answer because I believe these questions situational.  And the best answer I could come up with was to ask these questions: do the things we possess help us help others and how do we use what we have to glorify God?

Let me share the example I used in an to attempt to answer these very difficult questions.  Many of you know I enjoy working with wood.  Now depending on what you do with wood, it can require a little or a lot in the way of tools.  Making pens, for example, takes very little by way of tools.  You need a lathe, some cutting tools or knives, and some sanding and finishing supplies.  Overall, if you’re careful, for $200 to $300 you can obtain the basic tools and supplies and begin making pens.  On the other hand, if you like to do home remodeling, or repairs, that’s a much different story.

Home remodeling and repair, depending on how diverse your proficiency is, can require many hundreds of dollars in tools and equipment.  Everything from table saws, to miter saws to powered hand tools to non-powered hand tools like hammers, levels, squares, chisels, drill bits and the list goes on.  And as you know, technological advances in these tools have make them much more efficient and enhances the convenience and speeds up the process.  Battery operated tools are a good example of how technology has made things easier and more convenient.

Over the last five or so years, I’ve been obtaining more and more battery-operated tools because of their flexibility and convenience.  As time has passed, the tools themselves have become lighter, more compact, and more versatile.  The temptation is to always have the latest and greatest.  If I’m not careful, this can become an obsession or an idol.  One of the pastors asked, do I really need a third drill simply because they have a new model out?  Now the argument I used is a clue to the priority these tools have in my life.  I must ask, “can I honestly say, there is a need because I have nothing that fulfills a genuine need.”  If the honest answer is yes, then it might be OK.  But, if I’m forced to admit that it’s simply because it’s the newest model out there and I want it only because it’s shiny and new, then I need to ask myself are these tools becoming an idol to me?

The bottom line is, we need to honestly examine the blessings God gives us and ask ourselves the tough questions: will the things I want help me in my work for God’s kingdom?  Or, is this something that comes between me and my faith and allegiance to God?  Now to be clear, God doesn’t mind if we get some joy and pleasure out of our possessions.  As I said, in the example of my tools, I really enjoy doing woodworking and minor repairs.  It helps me relax and I derive a great deal of satisfaction when I see a project complete.  But I also try to use those tools in service to God’s kingdom.

Over the years a good many people have taught me to use those tools and from those skills I have used them to help build houses for Habitat for Humanity, make repairs for people who otherwise couldn’t afford to hire someone, or in the churches I’ve attended to make minor repairs.  Like so many of you who have given of your time and talents, I’ve tried to use the blessings and gifts God has given me in service to God and His people.  But the question we all need to ask is, how will I glorify God with the things He has given me? 

Hopefully, I’ve highlighted the point of this passage.  God must be our top priority, and the blessings He gives us, are to be used in His service and in His kingdom.  This brings us to our Old Testament reading.  In our First Lesson, we have the opposite of the man in our gospel lesson.  What we have is the result of the misuse of wealth.

God, through His prophet Amos, is warning the people of the result of their sins, which by the way are described as “great” and “many.”  You’ve heard me explain this before.  Ancient Israel didn’t have a welfare system or a court system as we know it today.  In Ancient Israel, God gave specific instruction as to how to assist the poor.  You were not allowed to harvest the corners of your fields, nor gather the gleanings of the land (Leviticus 23:22).  You were to pay a laborer’s wage the same day (Leviticus 19:13).  If someone gave you their coat as collateral, you were to give it back that same night (Exodus 22:26).  You were prohibited from using false weights (Proverbs 20:10-12).  You were to help the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the alien (Zechariah 7:10).  

It was obvious, by these laws that God handed down, that we were to deal fairly with each other.  But the fact that the poor are oftentimes oppressed is nothing new, is it?  In Amos’ day, like today, the rich were using their power and wealth to amass further wealth by cheating others.  Furthermore, those of affluence were using their wealth to influence and sway the legal system.

In ancient Israel, even to Jesus’ time, those with influence could sit at the gate and in essence convene court.  People with complaints could come and have their cases heard by an appointed magistrate and however the magistrate adjudged the situation, that was the ruling.  However, people would bribe the crooked magistrates to rule in their favor thus lining the pockets of the one making the bribe and the magistrate.  These are actions the Lord detests and God, through Amos, is calling these people out and warning them of the consequences. 

Starting in verse 11 we read, “Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine.  For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.”  God is warning of the Northern Tribes of Israel of the Assyrian destruction to come.  If they failed to heed the warnings, failed to turn from their evil ways, God was going to allow the Assyrian Army to pillage and conquer the land.

The houses they’ve built with cut marble and hewn stones would be occupied by foreigners.  The vineyards they spent years planting and cultivating would be harvested and the fruit enjoyed by others.  In essence, everything they had gained from their unlawful activity would become the spoils of another.  And as we read from history, the Northern Tribes refused to listen, and they were indeed carried away into slavery.  Again, none of this I’m telling you is new or something you haven’t heard me preach on before. 

We know that everything the ancient Israelites were being accused of is detestable to God and illegal acts.  Yet far too many people today still use the power they gain from wealth to further oppress others and to further increase their bank accounts.  And you and I, as disciples of Jesus, need to do whatever we can to stop these things from happening, or to speak out, as Amos did, against such practices.  Thank goodness, most of us do speak up.  However, there are two additional things in our reading that we need to take note of here.  First, here in this day and age, as it was back then, we must be aware that we will not gain friends by speaking up against the abuse of wealth or power. 

Note what God says starting in verse 10, “They hate him who reproves in the gate, and abhor him who speaks the truth.”  Then as now, those who use their wealth and power will do everything they can to silence those who call them out.  As Jesus explained in John 3:20, “Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.”  But again, none of this is a surprise to any of us.  What might surprise you however, comes down in verse 13, “Therefore the prudent keep quiet in such times, for the times are evil.”

When I read verse 13 on Tuesday I was stumped.  As Christians we’re called to share the gospel and identify those things that are sinful and that oppress others.  Here God is telling us, that at some point we’re to stop talking and watch.  As you can imagine this was quite the topic of discussion on Tuesday.  What do you mean, tell a group of preachers to keep silent?  When I first asked for their thoughts when I read this I was greeted with complete silence.  Then one of the pastors provided a wonderful example. 

Referring to a teenage family member, he shared how he and his wife had tried time, and time again, to get a nephew of theirs to stop running with the wrong crowd.  They repeatedly warned him of the consequences that he faced from the activities he was engaged in, and what the future might hold if he insisted on staying on the path he was on.  Needless to say, all their warnings fell on deaf ears.  The young man has now quit High School and has now begun to abuse drugs.  You can guess the rest.  The pastor’s wife describes the situation like this, “it’s like watching a train wreck in progress.” 

You do your best to warn the conductor of the train, but if they fail to heed the warnings, you’re powerless to stop it.  God is clear in Ezekiel 33, “If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will surely die,’ but you do not speak out to dissuade him from his way, then that wicked man will die in his iniquity, yet I will hold you accountable for his blood.  But if you warn the wicked man to turn from his way, and he does not turn from it, he will die in his iniquity, but you will have saved your life (vss. 8-9).  God commands us to speak out against sin which includes the abuse of wealth and power. 

We’ve also been warned, that those who you speak against will do whatever they can to stop you from calling them out.  Chances are you will be reviled, possibly even persecuted, and as Amos phrased it, they will “abhor” you.  But we must speak the truth in love.  However, there may come a time when we must simply step back and watch the train wreck happen.  Sometimes the only thing we can do is allow the inevitable to come.

God’s instructions are clear.  God commands us to “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate.  If we do, God tells us the blood of those who refused to listen will be on their hands; we will not be held accountable.  God isn’t necessarily calling us to a life of poverty.  What He’s telling us, first and foremost, is to place Him above all things in our lives.  God is to be our first priority.  Jesus made this clear when He answered that the First and greatest commandment is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).  Second, we’re to be careful with the gifts God gives us, to use them wisely for His glory and His kingdom.  And finally, we’re to learn when to speak up and when to be prudent and keep silent. 

Jesus followed His response in verse 37 with the second greatest commandment, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ (vs. 39).  Learning to be prudent and stop warning others is hard.  But we must remember, God is at work and God is in control.  It may be that God is using the warnings we’ve given to seemingly allow the train wreck to happen, or, to get the person back on the right track. 


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