Wealth & Possessions (1) They say that Christmas is a time for giving and every year, it seems that the average person gives more than ever. Well whatever about giving, Christmas is definitely a time for spending and quite often spending money that you don’t have and getting into debt. In the context of Christmas and the Celtic Tiger and Ireland’s prosperity, it seems appropriate to do a short sermon series on money, possessions and giving. This is one of those sermons where you probably won’t doze off. I remember very few sermons from my childhood in Athlone Methodist Church but I do remember the one about the use of money. Whether we like it or not, money has a hold on us. I don’t believe people who say that they don’t care about money, as if they can take it or leave it. Just try taking it from them and see what happens. Martin Luther had some thoughts on the subject. He used to say, "The last part of a man to be converted is his wallet!" Another of his sayings was "There are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, the mind, and the purse." John Wesley had a motto. “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can”. And by saving, he didn’t mean save it in a bank, he meant “live frugally”. That was why he was a vegetarian, because meat was expensive and he could survive without it and therefore have more money to give away. I’m sure there are other sayings from other famous Christians, but we should make every effort to find out for ourselves what the Bible says about money and giving because we have to deal with our finances almost every day. We have to pay for things most days. Even if you spend the whole day inside, the chances are, something is happening in your bank account – a bill is being paid by direct debit or a charge is being deducted or whatever. As regards giving, now more than ever, we seem to have more needs than ever placed before us. We get emails telling us about the floods in Bangladesh, we are approached on the street by cheerful people looking for a standing order for Sightsavers (the reason they’re so cheerful is that they’re on commission). Almost any organisation that we get involved in – school, church, sports club, community group – they’re always raising funds. Sometimes it feels like everyone wants your money! We now have a condition in Ireland called “donor fatigue”. That’s why standing orders are so popular with charities nowadays, because you only have to ask once and then it’s set up and usually keeps going. There are different attitudes in Christianity to wealth and giving. I’m quite taken aback by the huge emphasis on giving on Christian Television. I watch one program in particular and the other evening, I noticed that before it started, the TV Network ran a little ad for themselves. There were three people sitting in nice armchairs and the presenter said “one of our donors wrote in to say that with the cost of living going up, they are struggling to maintain their giving. What can they do about this Doug?” And Doug, who looked like a wise old Grandfather gave his sagely advice: “Well, one of the things they can do is to make a gift from their Net Worth rather than their cash flow. They can give stocks or property in tax efficient ways (and a picture of a well-to-do person ringing up their stockbroker appeared on the screen). Our listeners should write into us and we’ll send out a pack explaining the whole thing”. Can you believe it? Somebody is struggling to make ends meet, and this Network wants their assets! It gets worse though. After my program was finished, the Network put on another ad and this time it was targeted at people approaching retirement, suggesting that they take out a “charitable gift annuity”, which is basically an arrangement where you give a sum of money to a charity instead of an insurance company and you receive a lower pension than the insurance company would have given you with the charity pocketing the difference. I then looked up the website to find out about these two schemes and I found a whole lot more of them. In fact, one of their web pages is entitled “16 ways to give”. Whatever stage of life you’re at and whatever situation you find yourself in, there’s always at least one of those 16 ways to give to the TV Network! For example, under “Gifts of Property”, it said: “We welcome such donations as homes, buildings, vehicles, aircraft, jewellery and boats.” I remember being horrified by one preacher on TV talking about Psalm 71:21 over and over again: “Thou shalt increase my greatness, and comfort me on every side.” (KJV) As the preacher was getting very worked up about this verse, the words scrolled across the screen “Send $71.21 each month for the next 12 months”. The implication was that if you really want God to increase your greatness and comfort you on every side, you have to do more than just believe Scripture, you have to hand over $854.52! I don’t like being critical, but this sort of stuff is just wrong. In Acts chapter 8, a guy called Simon (a Sorcerer) tried to buy the ability to dispense the Holy Spirit from Peter and Peter told him where to go. He said: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!” And yet today, people are openly selling the gifts of God. People are selling miracles. “Send your gift in now and receive your miracle in Jesus name.” All major credit cards accepted. So now more than ever, we need discernment and unbiased guidance as to how we manage our money, our possessions and our giving. This morning there’s only time to look at some basics. Firstly, we have to ask the question, where does all the stuff come from? The answer is in the very first verse of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” God made the earth, which is where all our stuff comes from in the first place, and very early on in the Bible, we discover that God is very generous with all the things that He’s made. In Genesis chapter 1 God gives Adam and Eve every seed bearing plant and fruit bearing tree for food. Through them, He gave humanity dominion over the earth and everything in it. Psalm 115:16 says: “The highest heavens belong to the LORD, but the earth he has given to man.” So in the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth, He kept the heavens for Himself for the time being but He gave the earth to humankind. Now, scholars argue about what “dominion” actually means, but we can see what it means in practice if we read on. God placed Adam in a Garden, and then we see how he exercises his dominion: Chapter 2:15 “The LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Through Adam, humankind was given dominion over the earth, but with that right came a responsibility to take care of it, to manage it appropriately. Now more than ever, we are aware of environmental issues and we realise that the human race has not fulfilled its responsibilities to be good stewards of God’s creation. Christians and Jews and Muslims should really be at the forefront of environmental concern, because we all believe the same Creation story. At the very least, we should be concerned because it’s a justice issue as well. If climate change is a reality and the evidence suggests that it is, then it’s the poor that will suffer the most. And God is on the side of the poor, and we should be also. I’m dealing with the big picture first, then we’ll work our way down to our personal possessions and you’ll see how God is consistent in His approach. You see, God’s idea of ownership is different to ours. We had Psalm 115:16 a moment ago. It says: “The highest heavens belong to the LORD, but the earth he has given to man.” But Psalm 89:11 says: “The heavens are yours, and yours also the earth;” and Psalm 24:1 says: “The earth is the LORD's, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” Wait a minute; I thought God gave the earth to mankind? He did, but he still retained ultimate ownership. It’s a bit like buying leasehold property. Quite often, you will find that a building you own is under a lease of 999 years. For all intents and purposes you own it. You can do anything you like to the building, as long as you get planning permission. You can rent it, refurbish it and eventually sell it. But all the time you “owned it”, it technically wasn’t really yours. It belonged to the person who drew up the 999 year lease. So God has given the earth to humanity on a long lease. It’s not freehold, it’s leasehold and there are stipulations in the lease as to how we should take care of it! Now let’s narrow it down a bit from the whole earth to Israel. God promised the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. In Exodus 6:8, He said to Moses: “And I will bring you to the land I swore with uplifted hand to give to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob. I will give it to you as a possession. I am the LORD.” Well, the word possession definitely suggests ownership. But when you read on, you realise that again God had leasehold in mind and the terms of the leasehold are contained in the Law of Moses – or the Old Testament as we call it. One of the terms was to do with the Year of Jubilee. It was supposed to happen every 50 years and it was quite incredible. After 50 years, land had to go back to it’s original owner! All land was therefore sold on a leasehold basis and the sale price would depend on how many years until the next Jubilee. Listen to Leviticus 25:13 & 23. “In this Year of Jubilee everyone is to return to his own property... The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.” The idea was that a family would never lose their inheritance for ever, they just had to wait until it was returned to them. Also, no one person or family could build up huge wealth at the expense of others because when Jubilee came around, it all had to be returned. Not surprisingly there is no evidence that Israel ever carried out a year of Jubilee. No doubt vested interests were to blame. So God gave Israel the land of Canaan as their possession but He still called them His tenants. They had the right to live in it but God still retained ultimate ownership and gave specific instructions as to how His tenants were to live on the land. Now, let’s narrow it down further. Psalm 50:10-11 says: “every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine”. If we were just talking about the animals in the forest, or the birds in the mountains, or the creatures in the field, then we could understand that God owns them, because they’re pretty much wild. Not many people own a pet badger or a pet crow, but the cattle on a thousand hills are all owned by someone. Cattle don’t roam free, they are owned and managed by people for milk and meat and leather. Don’t forget that Adam was given the plants and trees for food, Later, Noah was given all the animals for food. Then Moses was given a shortlist of animals for food. If you were a pig, you had a better life expectancy in the time of Moses than in the time of Noah! Anyway, cattle made the shortlist. People owned cattle and yet God says “they’re mine”. There are people in this congregation who own cattle – and I’m sure they have all the paperwork to prove it, but ultimately all animals are owned by God. The same goes for non-living things like precious metals for example. In Haggai 2:8, God declares: „The silver is mine and the gold is mine,', People liked silver and gold jewellery in those days just as much as they do today. People owned these items – no doubt they had receipts from the silversmith and the goldsmith to prove it was theirs but ultimately God owns all the silver and all the gold. God has given the earth to humankind and whenever something is extracted from the ground, whether it’s gold or silver or oil or natural gas, ownership is “assigned” to someone and the commodity may be passed to several people over its lifetime, but all the time, it ultimately belongs to God. Everything is given to us in trust and God expects us to act responsibly with things that we have been entrusted with. So we’ve seen how the earth with all its plants and animals and natural resources belong to God, but what about the money we earn that doesn’t involve farming or mining? God thought about this one. In Deuteronomy 8, He warned the Israelites not to forget about Him when they settled in Canaan. He said: “You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me." But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth.” We need to realise our utter dependence on God’s grace for the air we breathe, the food we eat, our health, our strength, our work and our wealth. God has blessed us with so much. The book of James reminds us that: “Every good and perfect gift is from above”. And so everything we own comes from God and ultimately belongs to Him. Everything we have has been given to us in trust. We are not really owners, we are stewards, appointed by God to manage a portion of His wealth. Next week we’ll look at what our responsibilities are as stewards. But let me leave you with one thought in the meantime. If you really believe that everything you have belongs to God, then when it comes to giving to the work of God, the question is not: “how much of my money should I give to God?”, the question is: “how much of God’s money should I spend on myself?”. Let’s Pray. Father we thank you for your Word, which teaches us about our relationship to you. We thank you that you created us in your image and gave us this world to live in. We thank you for the vast resources of our planet and we confess that we have exploited them rather than taking care of them as you intended. We thank you for all that you have given us and we ask that you help us to truly acknowledge your ownership of our possessions and your Lordship of our lives. Show us how to be faithful stewards of all that you have entrusted to us, for we pray in Jesus name. Amen.