Sunday, September 30, 2012

Father, Give Us This Day

Texts:    Proverbs 30:7-8; 1 Timothy 6:3-10; Luke 11:1-13

    WITH THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION JUST a few weeks away, there's a lot of debate over the sorry state of the national economy.  Both sides disagree on who's to blame for it all, each claims it's the other side's fault.  This morning we won't get into who's right and who's wrong on the question, but one thing I think we can agree on is that the economy is still in trouble.  People are still losing their homes, their jobs, their savings.  Experienced adults are having to make do with part time and occasional work, and it's not enough to live on.  Many people having given up on finding gainful employment altogether.  People are scared, even panicking.  Some of those people might be folks you know.  Some of those people might be you.  We hear about the working poor.  Our times have given us the hidden poor-- those who still appear to be middle class, but they're desperately hanging on by their fingernails, knowing that if something doesn't develop, if something doesn't change, they'll soon slide down into ruin.  What do our Scriptures for today say to people in that condition?  What do they say to us as we struggle with our own financial worries, or worry about the struggles of those we love?

    We could be superficial.  We could take our passage from 1 Timothy with its verse about the love of money being the root of all kinds of evil, and conclude we should feel guilty about wanting to provide materially for ourselves and our families.  We could imagine we're being told that money doesn't matter at all and we shouldn't bother to provide materially for ourselves and our families. 

    And then our passage from Luke 11.  As it winds up, Jesus seems to be saying that whatever we want, we can ask God for it and He'll give it to us.  That's what the prosperity gospel preachers say.  That you can have anything you desire-- houses, cars, wealth-- if you just ask God with enough faith.  So if we don't have the material things we want and need, does that mean we don't have enough faith?  Is that what Luke is teaching us?  And are St. Luke and St. Paul at odds with each other, one saying God wants us to have money and the stuff it'll buy, and the other telling us that money and possessions are somehow evil?

    We know better than that.  The Holy Spirit is the Author of Scripture and He does not contradict Himself.   And it's not the purpose of the revealed Word of God to give us financial advice.  No, these passages and all the verses of the Bible that talk to us about money and material things speak with one voice, and they all intend that we should have the right attitude toward these things, because we first have the right attitude towards our holy Father God. 

    Lest we should say great riches are always a sign of God's blessing, or conversely, in case we should claim that poverty is  good in itself because God only favors the poor, let us take our verses from Proverbs 30 as our keynote.  They say,   

    Two things I ask of you, O Lord;
            do not refuse me before I die:
     Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
            give me neither poverty nor riches,
            but give me only my daily bread.
        Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
            and say, ‘Who is the Lord?'
    Or I may become poor and steal,
            and so dishonor the name of my God.

    You probably remember the Prayer of Jabez fad a few years ago.  We were told that the formula to a happy, God-blessed life was to be found in a prayer prayed by an otherwise unknown Judahite mentioned in 1 Chronicles.  I suggest that we in our times might take this prayer of Agur son of Jakeh especially to heart.

    "Keep falsehood and lies away from me," he implores, and aren't we surrounded by untruth and even active opposition to the Truth every day we live?  But beyond this, see what Agur prays regarding material possessions.

    First of all, he does pray regarding material possessions and his prayer is recorded in Scripture as an example to us.  There is nothing shameful or guilt-inducing about wanting our material needs to be met.  God created us with physical bodies.  They were part of us when Creation was still "very good," and our heavenly Father knows we need food and clothing and shelter from the elements.  He knows it's good for us to have and enjoy things to delight the eye, to stimulate the soul and to rejoice the heart.  Of course we are in need of material things, and it is right and holy that we should ask the Lord God for them.  For when we ask, we're acknowledging that we depend on Him, that we know that every good gift comes down from Him in heaven, even our life itself.

    But what shall we ask?  Shall we ask to win the lottery and be rolling in cash?  Shall we beg God to give us a higher salary than anyone else in our company, not because our work earns it, but because we want to feel how much more important we are than anyone else there?

    No.  By the Holy Spirit Agur prays, "I may have too much and disown you and say, "Who is the Lord?"  That is the snare in riches.  That is where the love of money proves to be the root of all kinds of evil.  It's when money and possessions come between us and God.  Money can so easily become an idol, especially when one has so much of it he believes he is entirely self-sufficient and no longer needs his Lord.  Indeed, in his letter to the Colossians St. Paul frankly labels greed as idolatry.  The person who on an earthly level has earned his or her fortune is particularly in danger of falling into this pit, for if he will not exalt God as the Giver, he begins to raise up himself as the author and perfecter of all he has acquired.  You may have heard the expression: "He's a self-made man, and he worships his Maker."  But rich or poor or in-between, we have only one Maker, who is the divine Creator of heaven and earth, and only one Provider, who is our Father in heaven, and only one Master, who is the triune Lord.  And if we deny Him; if we stand on the highest pile of possessions the world has ever seen and stick our paltry human noses in the air and proclaim that we are the captains of our fates and the masters of our souls, we are poorer than the frailest, sickest, most starving Christian child in the refugee camp at Darfur, for we, unlike that child, have lost God.

    At the same time, Agur prays that the Lord not give Him poverty.  God certainly is described in the Bible as the special Defender of the poor, but there's nothing noble or virtuous about poverty in itself.  Like riches, it offers its own temptations to idolatry.  Agur feels that if he should become poor, he might be driven to steal.  And what is theft?  It's another way of refusing to trust God, of preempting His right to give you what He wills for you in His good time.  Theft, too, is driven by greed, which is idolatry.  When a child of God descends to stealing to provide for himself, he dishonors God not only in the crime itself, but in what the theft says about God's ability to provide.  It declares that the Lord is not to be trusted.  But when one is poor and desperate, waiting on the Lord is a difficult thing to do.  "My family and I are hungry now!" we might protest.  "I have the right to take what I need!"  With Agur we pray we will never be led into such temptation.

    In all of this prayer, the main thing is not the petitioner's material state, the main thing is his relationship to Almighty God.  Agur knows his weakness.  He also knows God's strength: up in verse 5 he writes, "Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who trust in him."  But how easy it is in our weakness not to trust!  And so, he prays that the Lord will give him "neither poverty nor riches, but only his daily bread.  "Give us this day our daily bread," O Lord.  Assure me that I will have enough for my needs, and may I trust You to do the same thing for me day by day,  tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, not because I see the provision, but because I see You.

    And so, hundreds of years later, when the Son of God walked the earth in human flesh, His disciples came to Him and asked Him to teach them how to pray.  What comes first in the prayer our Lord taught?  It is that we may be given to acknowledge who God is and be fully submitted to His will.  He is our Father: kind, loving, benevolent-- and in charge.  May we always hold His name holy-- that is, may we realize that God is never a means to an end; rather, He is the end and purpose of all things in Himself.  May His kingdom, His everlasting dominion come, and may it be established here and now in me.  Once we understand the greatness of God, we can properly ask Him to fulfill our material, spiritual, and emotional needs.  Like Agur, our Lord teaches us to pray each day for our daily bread and for preservation against temptation to sin against God.  And Jesus teaches us to pray for our greatest need of all: for forgiveness of our sins, and for grace to forgive those who sin against us.

    Jesus commands us to pray believing in the goodness of God, trusting our relationship with Him.  He tells two parables to illustrate this.  We haven't time this morning to examine them in detail, but the point is clear: If a friend will bother himself to help a friend in need, how much more will our loving God open the door to us and give us relief.  If a human father, even an evil one, will give his son good things, how much more will our Father give good gifts to us, the children He has adopted in His Son?  And not just good things, but the best thing-- The Holy Spirit, who is His very presence with us.  If we have nothing else in this world, if we're being starved to death in a prison someplace but have the Holy Spirit living in us and ministering Christ and His benefits to us, we have all we need.

    I pray that you and I can get our hearts and minds and desires around this.  This same truth is what the Holy Spirit through Paul teaches Timothy-- and us-- in the First Letter to that young pastor.  "Godliness with contentment is great gain," he writes.  "For we brought nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it.  But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that."  "Godliness" is far more than an aspect of our own character or personality.  It's not walking around being holier-than-thou or bragging about all the things we don't do.  No, godliness is a state of being in continual fellowship with God in Jesus Christ, continually seeking His will and trusting in His love.  If that is how you know and walk with your Provider, if you have learned the happiness of trusting Him for your daily bread, you are way ahead of the game when it comes to material wellbeing.  If the Lord should grant you more than food and clothing-- and I suspect He has favored all of us this way-- rejoice in His gifts and thank Him for all He has done.  But wanting to get rich for the sake of getting rich can cause us to fall, as Paul and Agur son of Jakeh say, into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that can plunge us into ruin and destruction.

    Brothers and sisters, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be successful at our work.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to be compensated fairly for the labor we do and the work product we produce.  St. James in his letter condemns those who withhold wages from the workman, and the executive in his suite is just as much a workman in what he does as the lowliest sweating ditch digger.  The hazard, again, is lusting after wealth for its own sake, so you can sit back and rely on it and not on God.  The danger is learning to despise the riches that is God's Holy Spirit living in us.

    But how shall we stand in this world of lies and falsehood, in these times when financial uncertainty tempts us to try to get rich quick or to take matters into our own hands and steal?  We stand on Jesus and His death and resurrection for our sakes.  God gave up His Son for us: is there any other needful thing He will withhold from us He loves?  As Paul says in Romans 8, "He who did not spare His own Son, but gave him up for us all-- how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?"

     Not all at once, and not everything we are convinced we need, not necessarily even what we think is best.  We may pray the prayer of Agur son of Jakeh in faith, and the Lord may say No, and give us riches and the responsibility that comes with them.  He may will that we taste poverty, and learn to trust Him not merely for our daily bread, but for our very breath hour by hour.  In all our prayers, may we seek to know God, His graciousness and His glory.  May we desire above all things to be found in Christ, who died for us.  May we rejoice in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, now and in all eternity.  For however the economy is going, whatever our fate on this earth may be, that is a prayer that our Lord will always answer with a gracious, loving Yes.  Amen.

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