If riches increase, set not your heart upon them.(Psalm 62,11)And when the wise men from the east were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh. (Matthew 2,11)
Wealth comes in various ways. Mostly by hard work, diligence and good investments. However it can also be inherited or even won by hook and by crook. Sometimes wealth is lost – and not even because of your own fault, but quite on the contrary, because like Job, you were just doing everything right even in God’s sight. He lost family, possessions and even his health – not because he had lost his way with God, but rather, because the sly accuser, that evil nay-sayer got his chance to put even this burden on to the righteous Job. Now that off course is quite a heavy blow for all those believers in the “do-et-des” principle (“I give so that you give back”) like those deluded devotees of the so-called “prosperity gospel”.
The Psalms 37 and 73 lament over the blessings received by the godless and cry to God asking him, why it can be that the godless prosper while the righteous suffer. And the answer given is off course that we can’t see and judge solely by looking at this short life of ours. You need to have the perspective of eternity to make the right call in this regard. Jesus’ parable of the rich man and poor Lazarus makes the same point and the philosopher king Kant takes that cue to stress that morality needs eternity – otherwise we’d land up in the absurdity of the nihilists and shortsighted denialists of modernity.
Yet like with Job – and Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, but also Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, Lydia and the very wise men from the east – wealth and riches are not per se negative. On the contrary, Christians recognise them as good gifts from the giver of all good gifts and as St. Paul asks rhetorically: “What is it you have, that you have not received?” Well, like Scrooge in Charles Dickens Christmas carol people often make the mistake, that wealth is a purpose on its own and believe that it’s money that makes the world go round. That’s just not true. Not even by a long shot. Yet even Martin Luther writes in his explanation of the 1st commandment in his Large Catechism, that if our money is full of money, then we are cocksure as peacock and proud as punch. However as soon as the money is gone, it’s a different story. We are down and tempted very much to despair.
With this morning’s Herrenhuter reading the living God wants to encourage us not to put our faith in our possessions, wealth, ability, merits or credits, but rather in him the creator of all good and the preserver and sustainer of life even through suffering and death. The history of Jesus escape to Egypt in Africa underlines, how he himself put all his hope and trust in the living God and not in our earthly structures, familiar frameworks and possessions. He was born on the road – put into a manger as there wasn’t any other room at the inn. As if that wasn’t tough enough, he even leaves that behind himself and hits the road again – off through deserted areas into foreign exile living as refugee on another continent. Even as a grownup he later confesses: I have no place to put down my head! He was poor by all earthly standards, yet he made many, many rich. He fed the hungry, healed the ill and comforted the needy. It’s easy for the masters to drop off a few titbits for the dogs under the table, yet Jesus Christ brought forgiveness, life and salvation to lost sinners. He helped, where nobody else could. With his caring and merciful hands he filled countless empty hands. He changed water into wine and in the desert he feed thousands. He truly is the saviour of the world, who can help, when we are helpless. He can create good out of nothing and even make evil serve us well and to our best. It’s easy to create an excellent meal if you have top ingredients. The real art of cooking is to make something special with limited resources. Well, our God Jesus Christ can do all and everything with little and even out of nothing.
Remember the stories of Gideon? God sent back most of his fighting men, so that nobody would get the idea, that it was their numbers, force or power that saved Israel. Well, he’s like that even today. He sometimes lets us get to the very end of our tether – and lets us realise that we are at our wits end and at the end of our ideas, resources and ways out, just to make us trust, hope and fear him above all things. If we have him, we don’t need to ask for heaven and earth, because he himself is the very highest good, our best friend and very real Lord and God.
In the Christmas story set by Carl Orff and sung by the Toelzer Knabenchor, the shepherds discuss the gifts brought by the wise men from the east. The gold impresses them and the incense and myrrh leave them somewhat speechless. They ask, why those kings of old, these rich men from afar don’t just set up Joseph and Mary to really take good care of baby Jesus, whom they adore and worship. Why don’t they set up a proper carpentry shop with the most elaborate and sophisticated tools, so that Joseph would be able to really make a killing in the business. Why don’t they supply the mother of God, the blessed Virgin with a special house and garden to take best care of the little own, she’s entrusted with. Similarly Paul Gerhard sings what he would have like to do to make little baby Jesus lie comfortable and appropriately on precious fabrics and with most beautiful decorations and fitting surroundings. Until one of the boys says: “This story just goes very differently.” Why? Because that is God’s will. He became poor to make all else rich. He lands up on the cross and finally in the grave prepared for another.
I have also often thought, what the Church could do if we had donors like the muslim faithful, who built the impressive mosque, university and shopping mall in Midrand – half way between Johannesburg and Pretoria. Or the buddhist supporters, who built the impressive temple structures in Bronkhorstspruit for all to see, who drive from Pretoria to Middleburg on the N4. Why is it that the church – and especially the confessional Church – has such depressing financial woes and has to get by on a shoestring, whereas crazy endeavours seem to sprout up every day seemingly without any financial constraints?
Can you imagine what would happen if the Church could build a training institution – a first-class Seminary with a state of the art library and capable, competent and enthusiastic staff, who would go about their prime calling to serve to train Lutheran pastors from across the continent to become faithful missionaries, evangelists, teachers and bishops as if they were serving their Lord and God himself – without any financial constraints? A facility, where the students and their families could live comfortably and in fitting style to go about learning and training for their prime calling: Serving the Lord amongst his people in Africa + without financial worries and anxieties? Well, perhaps that would be heaven and not our real world, where most people and especially in Africa have very real financial cares and burdens every day. Perhaps it’s just not beneficial for the Church to just think and live according to the motto: “We can!”, but rather everyday asking humbly: “Give us our daily bread!” And he does so over good and bad. He let’s it rain abundantly and even sustains in drought and hard times. He is a good God, who takes special and best care of us – always – in good and bad days. Perhaps our dependance on each other also keeps the one, holy Christian Church working together as a family, which is entrusted to each other and thus prevented from going off separately, individually and just in ever diminishing and shrinking independent sectarian groupings – because we no longer need each other, but can far better stand on our own feet – not even realising how much poorer we are for this our standing alone and in our own corner, missing out on the blessings and enrichment of the others, brothers and sisters in the Lord, in his church and mission. But would it not be wonderful if we had places like CS St.Louis or CTS Ft.Wayne on all continents – or at least on this continent, where there are still so many, who would like to take up the calling to serve faithfully as pastors, teachers, evangelists, missionaries and bishops of the Church?
St. Luke does not write about the wise men from the east, but he does write a lot about Jesus meeting rich and prosperous people, calling them to repentance too and preaching the gospel to the poor. See, rich people are challenged to believe that they actually can handle things themselves. They don’t need anybody else. They imagine themselves to be independent. Sometimes they are tempted to think, that they don’t even need God. Like the Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky’s novel. He was under the illusion, that he and his Inquisition could do God’s mission better without Jesus and without him interfering. Like the rich young man, whom Jesus loved. He walked off sadly, because he didn’t believe that Jesus had something to offer, that would balance his loss if he gave everything to the poor and followed him instead. Yet there are those, who stand up and follow Jesus and never need to look back, but rather have now found life and salvation missing nothing: Zaccheus, Matthews, Joseph of Arimathea, Lydia, the treasurer from Ethiopia etc. Jesus says: “Today salvation has come to this house.” (Lk.19:9)
Even St.Peter asks his Lord and master: So what is in it for us? We’ve left everything behind and have followed you. What’s that leave us with? Jesus does not put him down, but assures him, that he has not made a bad move and that he has not be discriminated against or been short-changed, when he was called into following Jesus. He’s not to be disappointed. He’s not going to be ashamed, because as heir of the kingdom of heaven he’ll realise rather sooner than later that he’s not lost everything or anything really, but rather gained all and everything – a better home: heaven! A better family: the holy Christian Church! The very best life – eternal, blessed and at perfect peace with his very best friend and only God and Lord: Jesus Christ, who is all in all, and we can be in his presence now and forever. Amen.
O Jesus Christ, Thy manger is
My paradise at which my soul reclineth.
For there, O Lord, Doth lie the Word Made flesh for us;
here-in Thy grace forth shineth.
He whom the sea And wind obey
Doth come to serve the sinner in great meekness.
Thou God’s own Son, With us are one,
Dost join us and sour children in our weakness.
Thy light and grace Our guilt efface,
Thy heavenly riches all our loss retrieving.
Immanuel, Thy birth doth quell
The power of hell and Satan’s bold deceiving.
Thou Christian heart, Who ever thou art,
Be of good cheer and let no sorrow move thee!
For God’s own Child, In mercy mild,
Joins thee to Him; how greatly God must love thee!
Remember thou What glory now
The Lord prepared thee for all earthly sadness.
The angel host Can never boast
Of greater glory, greater bliss or gladness.
The world may hold Her wealth and gold;
But thou, my heart, keep Christ as thy true treasure.
To Him hold fast Until at last
A crown be thine and honour in full measure.
Paul Gerhardt, 1607-76