Sunday, August 19, 2007

How Does Your Garden Grow?

Texts: Isaiah 5:1-7; Galatians 5:16-26; Luke 20:9-19


You hear that line, you probably think of the nursery rhyme:

Mistress Mary, quite contrary,
How does your garden grow?
With silver bells and cockle shells
And pretty maids all in a row.

A nice little verse to teach the children, right? But many traditional nursery rhymes started out as the sung version of political cartoons. This one is most likely about Queen Mary Tudor.

Mary was the elder daughter of Henry VIII, who split the Church of England off from Rome. By the time Mary became queen, her younger half-brother Edward VI had been working several years to make England thoroughly Protestant. But Mary was Roman Catholic to the core. Whatever it took, she was going to return England to the Pope and what she saw as the True Faith of the Roman Catholic Church.

But the majority of her subjects disagreed. To them, she was "quite contrary"-- she was trying to reunite them with Rome when they wanted the Reformation. And she was making of England a strange garden. Again there were silver bells: the restoration of the pomp and ceremony of Roman Catholic liturgy, especially to the bells that are rung when the priest is said to be turning the bread and wine into the physical body of our Lord Jesus Christ. There were cockle shells: Cockle shells were the souvenir badge of someone who’d made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain in order to gain forgiveness of his sins. Protestants did not believe in pilgrimages to earn forgiveness. Catholics did.

And Queen Mary planted the "pretty maids all in a row." Some say that refers to the graves of all the Protestant martyrs she caused to be executed. Others say it’s a grim reference to the torture device called the iron maiden. However it was, Bloody Mary sowed quite a crop in her day, and the result was bloodshed, confusion, strife, and economic disaster.

That’s what happens too often when we human beings start sowing our gardens in this world. But when God Almighty plants a garden, then all will be well, right? Any songs about His gardening work will be songs of joy, correct?

Or maybe not.

Children sang of Queen Mary and her disastrous garden in the streets of Tudor England, but long before that, the prophet Isaiah was singing a song of the Lord God and His tragic vineyard in the temple courts of ancient Jerusalem.

How did God’s vineyard grow? Not so well, actually.

The Lord has planted it in an ideal spot with the richest soil. He’s dug the ground and cleared it of stones-- no obstacles are going to hamper the roots of His vines! He’s chosen the best vines available and surrounded it with a hedge and a wall to keep the wild animals out. He's built a watchtower to keep a lookout for thieves, and a winepress that's waiting to receive the grapes at harvest time. The Lord God has followed all the best practices of viticulture-- but instead of sweet, juicy grapes, all He gets is stinky-sour little marbles.

As Isaiah sang his song of the Lord’s vineyard, his hearers would agree, yes, there was something very wrong with those vines. The owner of the vineyard was sorely cheated. Somebody really should pay. But by the end of the song, they’d have to realize that they were the rotten, fruitless vines. They and their countrymen were the cheats, the ones who would pay:

"The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the house of Israel
and the men of Judah
are the garden of his delight."

At least, they were supposed to be. But the Gentile nations could have pointed their fingers at Judah and sung,

O God of Israel, God of Israel,
How does your vineyard grow?
With oppression and strife and cheapness of life
And murderers all in a row.

But the Lord didn’t plant His vineyard that way! He’d lavished every advantage on Israel and Judah! I’ve read that the only difference between a wild sour grape vine and a cultivated sweet one is the work of cultivation. If a wild vine is cultivated, it doesn’t stay wild. And if a people are graced with the Law and favor of God, they shouldn’t stay godless and self-centered. But the Lord looked upon Judah, the garden of His delight. And where He expected the fruit of justice, He found murder and bloodshed. Not just the murder of the dark alley, not just the slaying of the helpless wife by the drunken husband, but so-called "legal" murder: judges sentencing the innocent to death: the rich cheating the poor out of their houses and lands and turning them out to starve and die. The Lord reached out His hand for the fruit of righteousness: right relationships, kindness and consideration between family members and neighbors, and true worship towards Himself, but pulled it back in horror when it touched nothing but the slugs of oppression, misery, and distress.

The Lord says through the mouth of His prophet, "What more could have been done for my vineyard than I have done for it?"

The answer, of course, is nothing. So what will God do?

He will give His people what they deserve for their sins. He will prune them through war and devastation, ruin and exile. He would no longer let them think that He does not demand justice, righteousness, and every fruit of virtue in His garden. He would no longer let them mistake His grace for indulgence and His mercy for approval of their crimes and sins.

About 700 years after Isaiah, another Prophet sits teaching in the temple courts in Jerusalem. It is Jesus of Nazareth, and He, too, sings of God the Beloved, and how His vineyard grows. This time, it seems there is fruit for the Lord to enjoy-- if only He can get what He is due.

For after the Lord purged and pruned His people in the Babylonian exile, He led them back home and planted them again in their own land. He set leaders over them, tenant farmers who were to cultivate the people and lead them in the ways of the Lord. They were to teach the people the Law and see that they bore fruit worthy of His name.

But a long time passed. And priests and scribes and teachers of the Law who were the tenants of the Lord’s vineyard forgot why they were there. They claimed allegiance to their Landlord and His Law, but they got more and more tied up with how they thought things should be. They began to look on God’s people as their own, to prune and cultivate and feed upon as they saw fit. They didn’t appreciate interference from outside, even from God Himself!

In this they were only following the bad example of religious and civil leaders from Isaiah’s time and before--and since. It’s what happens any time that the caretakers of God’s vineyard focus on doing their own will under the cover of God’s name instead of on doing God’s will in God’s name.

So when God the Landlord sent His servants the prophets to claim the fruit of godliness, righteousness, and justice, His tenants did them violence and sent them back with no grapes, only the strange red fruit of blood and wounds.

Jesus knew His hearers would be scandalized in the Owner’s behalf, just as Isaiah’s audience was. Jesus also knew they’d be ripe with fury when they realized His song was about them. At the climax of His parable, He describes a crime against God the Landlord that hadn’t been committed yet but would be soon-- the slaying of the Owner’s own Son who was sent to collect the fruit of the vineyard on His behalf. Did the teachers of the law realize that Jesus was talking about Himself? Whether or not, they seemed very eager to prove they were capable of the enormity He accused them of.

For their crimes, the doom of the tenants is the same as the doom of the bad vines in Isaiah’s song--death, destruction and loss.

That’s how it is. When God lavishes care on human beings, He expects and deserves worship and obedience in return. When God invests anyone with a sacred trust, He expects and deserves that that leader shall render up the fruit of it whenever God requires. God has a right to expect that His vineyard shall grow and bear fruit and be taken care of very, very well.

But we’ve seen that that very seldom happens. It’s not God’s fault. It’s not even a particular problem with the Jews. It’s how things are with humanity in general. The best of us given the best of advantages cannot come up to God’s righteous expectations. It’s the sinful nature and its natural selfishness. It’s the worm of original sin working away in our hearts.

Didn’t God realize that about us when He planted His vineyard? Of course He did. But both our Lord and His prophet Isaiah are speaking on our human level. We’re made in His image and we’re responsible for what we do and are before the Lord. In particular, God’s chosen people from Old Testament Israel to the 21st century church are responsible for bearing good fruit for God. Especially, we who claim the name of our Lord Jesus Christ are the vineyard of the Lord in these latter times. We are the garden of His delight. As Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, we’re to bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. God expects and deserves nothing less from us who have been redeemed by His grace.

If I were a preacher of a certain type, I’d start exhorting you under the pain of the fire of hell to work really, really hard to bear all that good fruit. I’d say you’d better hurry up and work on it, or you won’t inherit the kingdom of God, you’ll get the other place. But that’d be stupid. That’d be like--

Well, it’d be like the sweet pepper plants in my garden. I have four of them, but only three have set on any fruit. The fourth one has plenty of flowers, and a nubbin or two, but no peppers worth speaking of. Well, what if I were to go to the store and buy some green peppers and tied them to that plant with string? Wouldn’t work, would it? They’d just rot.

Or what say I go buy some artificial peppers at the craft store and hang them on the plant? Yeah, right. Try eating that in your salad!

It’s the same way if we try to bear the fruit of the Spirit by our external effort. It’d all be fake. It’d all be rot.

So what are we supposed to do? How can our gardens grow?

By remembering whose gardens they are. Remember: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are the fruit of the Spirit. They are the virtues and obedience that God Himself gives. They are the fruit we bear when He has given Himself to us in His Son and we are joined to Him. "Live by the Spirit," St. Paul writes, "and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature." In other words, you will bear the fruit the Lord desires.

We have to get it the right way around. If you say, "If I do this I will live," your fruit will be false and rotten and you will die. But if your mind is, "I will live by the Spirit and so do this," that is peace and pleasure and fellowship with God.

The key to it all is Jesus’ words in John’s gospel, chapter 15. No human being, Jew or Gentile, could ever be the fruitful vine that the Lord requires. No human being, that is, except the God-Man, Jesus Christ. He is the true vine whose fruit is righteousness and justice. We bear fruit only when and if we are connected by faith with Him. And no human leader or vinedresser can truly take care of God’s garden the way God Himself does by His Holy Spirit.

What does this look like in everyday life? I’m learning it’s primarily a matter of faithfulness. It’s putting ourselves under the authority of Scripture and letting the Holy Spirit its Author interpret it to us, and not our own desires.

It’s a matter of union and connection: Union with God in Spirit-led prayer and connection with fellow-believers who can encourage us to keep in step with the Spirit, even when it seems hard.

And it’s a matter of attitude. It’s the Spirit reminding you that Jesus has already borne the perfect fruit of justice and righteousness and that He wants to bear it in you. It’s remembering that Jesus obeyed God perfectly in all He said, thought, and did, and trusting Him to work out His obedience in you. It’s feeding on the most precious fruit that ever hung on a vine or a tree, the fruit of the broken body of our Lord Jesus Christ, dead on the cross for our sins and raised glorious, whole, and shining for our life and exaltation.

Don’t believe it when people tell you that the bad fruit of the sinful nature can be sweetened up by prosperity, education, and good examples. If that were the case, ancient Israel would never needed a Messiah. If that were the case, modern America would have no need for a Saviour now.

But Israel needed Jesus the Christ and so do we. And He’s here, by His Holy Spirit, ready to give you life, ready to cause you to bear fruit, ready to make your garden grow: to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

God's Sovereign Timing, God's Faithful Plan

Texts: Genesis 15:1-21; Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-16; Luke 12:32-40

AS YOU HEARD WHEN I WAS introduced at the beginning of the service, I worked in architecture before I went to seminary.

For me, getting into Architecture was a call from God. I started college as an art major, but towards the end of my second year, all sorts of things came together that proved to me that God wanted me to do Architecture instead.

The way I understood it, I was called to do what’s called Advocacy Planning-- work with cities to build low-cost housing for poor people. Or I was going to rehabilitate rundown urban neighborhoods so they could be safe and habitable again.

But I graduated from architecture school in the mid-’70s and the economy was bad. I moved to Philadelphia--a lot of urban rehab was going on there-- but even there I couldn’t get a job doing it. Ten years later, I was back in my home town working for a small firm that did custom-designed house additions for extremely wealthy clients. I’d be at my drafting table crying out to God, "Lord, I thought You called me to work in behalf of poor people! Then why am I sitting here drawing up marble bathrooms for the filthy rich?!"

So I can understand Abram’s feelings here in the fifteenth chapter of Genesis. About eight years before this the Lord had called Abram and his wife Sarai out of Haran in Syria, to go to the land of Canaan, which is the land of Israel today. The Lord told him,

I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you;
I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.

When Abram and his family got to Canaan, the Lord told him, "To your offspring [or, ‘your seed’] I will give this land."

But here it is eight years later, and Abram and his household still don’t own a square inch of the real estate! What’s more, Abram’s about eighty-four years old, Sarai’s about seventy-four: they have no children and no prospect of begetting any!

"Lord," cries out Abram, "I thought You called me to become a great nation and be a blessing! I thought You promised that my offspring would inherit this land! Then why am I sitting here, an old man with no children? Why will everything I have go to Eliezer my servant?"

I can sympathize!

What does God say? "Oops, Abram, I goofed"? Does the Lord say, "Sorry, Abram, I got distracted elsewhere and forgot to give you kids before Sarai’s biological clock timed out"? Or worse, does the Lord say, "Ha, ha, tricked ya! You came all that way from Haran in Syria and before that a thousand miles from Ur of the Chaldees for nothing! Ha, ha, ha!"?

Does God say that? Of course He does not. And praise His name, that He does not.

No, the God who is Abram’s Lord and ours replies, "This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir." And the Lord draws Abram outside the tent and tells him to look up at the stars in the sky. I’ve never seen the night sky in the desert, but I’m told the stars will hurt your eyes, they’re so many and so bright. The Lord says, "Count those stars. I challenge you to try. Your offspring will be like that. Millions upon millions!"

People of no faith would complain that that’s no proof that God’s promise was true. Just more words from an invisible being. Maybe just some crazy thought going through Abram’s own head.

But Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord credited his faith to him as righteousness.

Abram took God at His word. He didn’t say, "All right, God, I’ll go have relations with my wife tonight, and we’ll wait a month or two and if she’s expecting, I’ll believe You." No, Abram believed the Lord right away. He believed that when God makes a promise, He means it. He believed that when God gives His word, He’ll keep it. And Abram believed that the Lord has the power to keep His promises, no matter how impossible the circumstances may seem.

And so, as we read in Hebrews 11, God was not ashamed to be called Abram Abraham’s God. Abraham was called "the friend of God," because he took the Lord at His word and obeyed Him.
The Lord then says, "I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it."

Abram replies, "O Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?"

Now, I’m looking at that, and I’m thinking, "Hey, wait a minute, Abram, what happened to your faith?"

But there’s a difference between skepticism and wanting a solid foundation for your faith. Abram wanted confirmation of God’s promise. Perhaps he wanted to make sure that the words he heard were truly from the Lord, and not just the noise of his own desires. So he asks, "How can I know?"

And the Lord our God responded with an amazing sign.

I wonder, what did you think when we read these verses about the animals and the birds cut in two? Here’s Abram’s deep sleep and the dreadful darkness, and the firepot and the blazing torch passing between the pieces! Did it all seem like fantasy? Did your mind disengage till we got back to something familiar? Or would you agree it was an amazing sign indeed?

Well, actually, a lot of it wasn’t amazing at all. At least, it wouldn’t have amazed anyone in Old Testament times. What’s happening is, the Lord God is cutting a covenant with His friend Abram. It’s the way it was often done. When two people or two towns or two nations wanted to make a solemn agreement, the chosen animals would be cut in two and arranged a certain distance apart, wide enough so two people could walk between them. The terms of the covenant would be recited or read, then the parties to the covenant, or their representatives, would walk together between the pieces of the dead animals and birds. The meaning was, "If I break this covenant with you, may I become like these dead birds. May I be cut in half like this heifer, this goat, and this ram."

Nothing amazing about that, for Abram’s day. Covenants were ratified that way all the time.

No, here’s the amazing part of the sign the Lord gives:

He put Abram into a deep sleep or trance, so Abram couldn’t walk between the pieces. The Lord alone, represented by the smoking firepot and the blazing torch: the Lord alone passes between the dead animal halves and swears on His own life that His promise to give Abram and his descendants the land will be kept. Abram didn’t need to promise anything! All he had to do is believe that the Lord would be faithful to His word and that the Lord had the power to keep His promise.

But still, didn’t Abram ask, "How shall I gain possession of the land?" After all, the Lord had said, "I brought you out . . . to give you this land to take possession of it." And in the Hebrew, the word ‘you’ is singular. But as the Lord cuts the covenant, He repeatedly speaks of Abram’s descendants possessing the land. In fact, the Lord says they won’t really get it for over four hundred years, not till after those descendants have suffered bitter slavery in a land not their own. How does this fulfill God’s promise to Abram?

Before we get upset on Abram’s behalf, we have to notice that there’s no record that he was upset about this at all. This shifting of beneficiaries bothers us because we are a very individualistic culture. We Americans band together in families and clubs and societies as long as it benefits us, but ultimately we each identify with ourselves, with our individual wants and needs.

But in Bible times, it wasn’t like that. In ancient culture, you identified with your family and your family with you. If disaster was prophesied for your grandchildren, it was a disaster for you, even if you should die in bed. If riches and blessings were ordained for your great-grandchildren, that was riches and blessings for you.

I’m not saying that people were more altruistic in those days. They could be just as selfish and self-centered as we can be. But the circle of what a person considered "mine" was a lot bigger. Your identity was with your tribe and your household. So when God promises the land to Abram’s distant descendants, Abram is satisfied. What benefits them, benefits him.

And I hope we’re satisfied with that promise, too, because that promise and the way it was made also affects us.

Yes, us. God chose that Hebrew culture and their way of thinking on purpose. He chose it because those covenant promises weren’t just for Abram Abraham and his blood offspring, they were also for us, who are his spiritual descendants through faith in God. We are the descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. We are the children as countless as the sand by the sea.

How can that be? Abraham’s legal offspring are counted through his son Isaac, and then through Isaac’s son Israel. Aren’t they all Jews?

Yes, Abraham’s blood offspring are all Jews. But it’s not Abraham’s blood offspring that God ultimately has in mind. It is Abram’s spiritual descendants, whether Jew or Gentile, who will finally inherit the promises.

(And when I say "spiritual," I mean born through the Spirit of God. Be certain of this: when the Holy Scriptures speak of something being "spiritual," it’s something more real and more lasting than anything on this temporary and decaying earth could ever be.)

But how do we become Abram’s spiritual offspring? By pretending to be Jews? By working really hard to show God how good and deserving we are?

No, we join the family of Abraham by faith in his offspring, the Israelite Jesus Christ.

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he makes this statement: "The promises were spoken to Abraham and his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds," meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ."

Now, technically, this Hebrew word meaning ‘seed’ or ‘offspring’ can be singular or plural. It’s like the English word ‘sheep.’ But the Holy Spirit is driving St. Paul to make an important point: That when it came down to it, the only absolutely true and faithful descendant Abraham ever had was Jesus of Nazareth, born of Mary, the Son of God. He was the only one who truly followed and improved on Father Abraham’s example of obedient faith. He is the true and only heir of the Patriarch, and all of us, Jew and Gentile alike, all of us inherit the promised land only through faith in Him. Through faith in Him we become Christ’s brothers and sisters. Through faith in Him we become descendants of Abraham. Through faith in Him we are reborn as children of God.

Jesus Christ made it possible for our God to keep the solemn covenant He made with Abram. For, time and time again, God’s people Israel were so faithless, so disobedient, so wicked that God could not keep His promises and still be the holy and righteous Lord. But God had pledged that if He ever broke His promise to Abram, He Himself would die.

How can the Lord keep His promise despite our wickedness? How can the eternal God die?

He keeps His promise by sending His divine eternal Son to earth to be faithful and obedient. In His perfect, sinless life our Lord Jesus Christ was and is the faithful descendant of Abraham that no ordinary human being could be.

And God dies in the body of that same divine, incarnate Son, who paid for our faithlessness and rose again to fulfill God’s promises in all those who believe in Him. In that one faithful act of our Lord Jesus, the Lord’s covenant with Abraham is both kept and renewed.

God in Christ kept the covenant; God in Christ died for the covenant; and God in Christ is the perfect Offspring and fulfillment of the promises of the covenant. In Him we have hope of more and greater things than we can even imagine.

It took a long time for God to reveal His Christ. Abram and millions of his descendants were already dead without seeing the how God would keep His word. And we have not yet seen how God will finally keep all His promises to us. But we can believe in Jesus Christ and what He did for us, and our Father in heaven will credit it to us as righteousness. Because we know God and hear His voice, we can look forward in patience and hope, to the day when our elder Brother Jesus Christ will come in glory and we and father Abraham and all our numberless brothers and sisters will inherit the country He has prepared for us.

And meanwhile, we can have faith that whatever happens to us in our lives, however long it may take, whatever suffering it involves, however much we may not understand what God is doing and why He’s doing it, that the Lord is working out His sovereign plan for our lives. We can have faith, because all those plans are centered in His Son Jesus Christ, and in Him we are assured that all God’s promises are faithful and true.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

How to Get Rich Quick (or, Making a Living vs. Having Life)

Texts: Colossians 3:1-4, 12-17; Luke 12:13-21

I MAY HAVE MENTIONED WHEN I was here before that I did my theological training at an Anglican seminary.

It was an excellent education. But one thing was deficient about it: We never learned how to come up with sermon titles. Anglicans and Episcopalians don’t bother with sermon titles. I wish I didn’t have to bother with them, either.

I really wish I didn’t have to bother with them because of events like this past week’s.

The sermon title in the bulletin is "How to Get Rich Quick." That made a lot of sense when I was planning worship two or three weeks ago. But things have changed. If you like sermon titles, allow me to make a substitution. This message should better be called, "Making a Living vs. Having Life."

Our reading from Luke deals with both those basics of the human condition: Making a living and having life. Or, looking at it from the other side, not being able to make a living and not having life--that is, death. The events of this past week brought those realities home to us in a gut-wrenching way.

Last Wednesday in Minneapolis, there were maybe 150 cars on the I-35W bridge over the Mississippi River. Most of those people were returning home after working hard all day making their livings. Some of them, truckers and delivery men and the bridge construction workers, were hard at work even then. They were doing what they needed to do to keep body and soul together, to have something left over to be comfortable, and maybe end up wealthy besides. They were taking the road they thought they needed do to accomplish that. And for them at 6:04 PM on August 1st, that road literally meant the I-35W bridge.

But for some of them, that course in life, that bridge, led them to death. They just wanted to make a living! But they ended up dying instead.

It doesn’t take a bridge collapse for that to happen. In fact, it happens all the time. We see it in our passage from St. Luke.

Luke 12:13 begins with someone in the crowd yelling out to Jesus, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me!" There it is: death and the need to make a living. This man’s father has died. And he can’t make a living, because his brother won’t divide the inheritance.

The longstanding rule in ancient Israel was that the eldest son inherited a double portion of his dead father’s property, and the rest of it was divided equally between any younger sons. The land itself couldn’t be sold outside the family; that was against the law of Moses. In extreme circumstances, as in the case of the Prodigal Son, land and livestock could be sold off, ideally to a relative, and the younger brother would get the cash proceeds of his share. But ordinarily, the eldest son was supposed to partition off part of the family farm for his younger brothers and give them their share of the sheep, cattle, and so on, so they and their families could live.

But in this case, the eldest son hasn’t done his duty by his younger brother. He’s hogging all the land and livestock to himself and won’t give his brother the wherewithal to make his living.

Don’t know about you, but before I studied this passage, my reaction was, "You silly man, what are you bothering Jesus about that for? Hasn’t He just been talking about how you can trust the Holy Spirit to keep you and preserve you when you’re being persecuted for following Him? Didn’t He just say you can rely on Him even through death and the end of the world?"

That’s my first impulse. It might even be a right impulse. But it’d be a hypocritical one. I’m unemployed myself just now, and if anyone should be able to sympathize with this man’s predicament, it’s I. This man has effectively been fired by his brother. With no land and no livestock, he has no work to do. There’s a good chance his brother has tossed him off the family homestead altogether. Or has told him he can stay-- if he’s willing to work for slave wages. Maybe he’s got a wife and children to feed. What are they going to do? This man in the crowd is worried. He’s distressed. He’s afraid.

Humanly-speaking, he’s got a right to be afraid. Lack of material sustenance, the lack of a living, is the next worse thing to lack of life itself. Lack of material sustenance is a little death. Lack of material sustenance can lead to actual death.

Looking at it that way, I now want to say, "Jesus, how could You be so insensitive! You say you refuse to be a judge or arbiter between this man and his brother, but then you go on and make this judgmental statement about him being greedy! I heard you! You said, ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his material possessions’! Lord, that man didn’t want anything extra, he just wants what he needs to make a living! He just doesn’t want to starve and die!"

But if I say that, I haven’t heard my Lord Jesus. I haven’t heard Him at all. I-- you-- all of us had better listen to Him more closely, listen carefully to the parable He now tells.

He tells of a rich man who does very well out of his land. He’s got so much yield he can sell it for cash money and put it away in his treasury. He can buy goods and merchandise far over what he needs for survival and decency. He’s got so much, he can build two miles of grain elevators and put his excess grain in them and live off the proceeds for the rest of his earthly life. And by gad, he plans that that life shall be easy, well-fed, and fun.

This rich man has made a fatal error. He has confused his living with his life. He has confused life on this earth with Life itself.

And you know what, God almighty agrees with him about him having everything he’ll need for the rest of his life. God’s Spirit speaks to his heart and says, "You fool! You equated material goods with life, did you? You thought you’d have enough to last you till you died, did you? Well, you were right. You’re going to die tonight, and never need any material goods again. Tonight I will demand your earthly life from you, and you will discover just how frightfully poor and lifeless and dead you are."

Let’s understand what Jesus is saying! He's telling the radical truth when He says it’s not His job to arbitrate the dispute between the man and his brother. There were civil magistrates for that! His job on earth was to be a judge and arbiter between mankind and God. His job was to show us our sinfulness compared to God’s perfect holiness-- and to make a way for that sin to be overcome.

The man in the crowd was infected with the greed of poverty. Maybe he imagined that if he were as rich as the man in the parable, he’d be set up for life and never have to worry about making a living again. The fool in the parable was guilty of the greed of abundance. He thought life and all its goodness were forever his.

Greed is the inordinate desire to have and possess. It’s a deadly sin that separates us from our God. Have we misunderstood it? I think we have! To hear Jesus, real greed, deadly greed, is equating material goods or making a living with life. It’s confusing this earthly life with life in God. Friends, you can be rich as Bill Gates and be utterly poor towards God; you can be poor as the most destitute refugee in Darfur, and be revelling in the wealth and life of your heavenly Father.

But what does this have to do with the bridge collapse last Wednesday? Am I saying those people died because they were not rich towards God?

No, I’m calling all of us to look at ourselves because people did die unexpectedly and suddenly in that bridge collapse, people who were only trying to make their livings.

It’s inevitable at times like this to say, "God, why were those people killed? Why didn’t you save them, as You did the children on that bus? It’s so unfair!"

It was inappropriate for Jesus to be judge over that man’s inheritance. Even less should we try to be judge over God. We are ignorant and blind; He is all-knowing and all-seeing. We are sinful; He is utterly righteous. Someday all of us will die; He lives forever. God knows the lifespan He has set for every last one of us. If there is human fault in that bridge collapse, it will be discovered and perhaps punished. But whatever human agency may have been at work, God had every sovereign right to demand the souls of those people last Wednesday evening.

The real question for you and me is, "Am I rich towards God? If God should demand my soul of me tonight, will I be ready?"

There are bridges all over these three counties. A lot of them are rated "Structurally Deficient." If one of them gave way under you tomorrow, could you stand before God Almighty and claim your share in His eternal kingdom? Or for you, does making a living equal "life" and does "life" only mean what happens to your body?

Speaking from our dead, sinful souls, that’s exactly what it does mean. But that’s not what life and riches has to mean, or should mean. Hear what Christ’s apostle Paul says in his letter to the Colossians:

"Since . . . you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, . . . not on things below." Things below-- that’s the greed of poverty and the greed of riches; that’s letting worry and fear drive wedges between us and our brother and between us and our God. No, there’s nothing wrong with making an honest living! It’s our duty in this world, and can give us honest joy. But we’re not to "set our hearts" on it. We are not to confuse making a living with having a life, and we’re not to confuse this temporary life on earth with the eternal life God will give us through His Son!

No, the Holy Spirit invites us to be rich towards God! To set our hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at God’s right hand!

But how can we? What am I going to do if I don’t have a new job when the unemployment runs out? What are you going to do if your retirement funds aren’t enough to cover taxes and medical and all? We all fear death. And if we can’t support ourselves, we’ll die!

But it’s simple, really. You overcome the fear of death by realizing that you have already died.

Yes, that’s right. You’re dead. If you have been crucified with Christ, your old self has been put to death on His cross--that old sin nature that frets and worries about not having enough. The old sinful Me, Me, Me that thinks everything will be all right if it can just get rich enough. The old flesh that’s sure that this life is all there is and rebels when the body fails and it’s time to go.

Christians, take comfort! For you, that old sin nature is history! You’re already dead! Death cannot hurt you ever again! Your old sinful nature is dead and buried in Jesus’ tomb; at the same time, your new life in Him is risen and is sitting in heaven with Him at God’s right hand in glory! Jesus Christ Himself is your life! Jesus Christ Himself is your riches towards God!

How rich are you? This rich: You are God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved by Him. Jesus your Elder Brother will certainly divide the inheritance with you, on the great day when you appear with Him in glory.

You may go through times when your outer clothing is old and unfashionable. But inwardly you can be clothed with every rich virtue that belongs to Jesus your Lord. Your life may be plagued by trouble and grief, sickness and physical death. But the peace of Christ can rule in your heart. You may be tempted to be angry with your brother, your neighbor, your fellow-Christian. But you are a member of the one Body of Christ who sits enthroned in heaven, and you can show His heavenly peace to anyone who troubles you. You can be rich towards God and have no fear of death, because Christ your Life has claimed you as His treasure and keeps you for His own.

The table spread for us today is proof that His promise is sure. Come to this table in peace with your brother and sister. Come taste the bounty of death overcome. Come, be renewed and enriched in the life and living Jesus won for you on His cross. His body is your sustenance. His blood is your life.

Whatever happens to you, to your living, or to your life, sing with gratitude! The inheritance is yours! Your storehouse is full to bursting! You are rich towards God-- through Jesus Christ: our life, our living, and our glorious crown. To Him be all power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing, now and forever. Amen.