Money and Desire: A sermon based on James 1:9-18
We’re continuing our walk through the book of James. We’re reading James as a manual for how to live as a follower of Jesus as we wait for God’s Kingdom to fully come here on earth. Last week, we began this by looking at James’ advice for how Christians are to live in the midst of trials and tribulations. That is, God uses trials and tribulations so that Christians might become mature and complete, lacking in nothing. Maintaining this perspective is hard, sometimes impossible. That’s why James tells us to ask God for wisdom, who has promised to give us wisdom so that we can see how the mud that’s slung in our face is working to our perfection.
The passage we read today continues in that line of thought, but dials in on a specific temptation that most humans have had to wrestle with — the temptation that comes with money. James addresses the rich and the poor in this section. Remember, James is writing to people who are economically oppressed. He’s writing to people who are being abused by the rich. He’s writing to people who work manual labour, people just trying to make ends meet, and would if the rich weren’t withholding their wages. To make matters more awkward, there are probably a number of wealthy people hearing James’ letter too. After all, later James has some choice words for land owners and merchants that are probably apart of the Christian communities he’s writing to. So which are you? Do you count as the rich? Or the poor? Maybe you can answer that based on the person sitting in front of you. If you think you have more money than them, maybe you’re rich. If you think you have less, maybe you’re poor. Or maybe you could base your status on the average global salary, which, according to an old BBC article, is roughly $2000 a month Canadian. If you make more than that you qualify as rich. Or maybe you could decide whether you’re rich or poor based on the fact that 1/3 of the world’s population lives on less than $2 a day. Based on that calculation, we are all extravagantly rich, and we are hoarding vast amounts of wealth. But it actually seems whether you are rich or poor, James gives the same challenge — he challenges us not to be deceived by the appearance of money. James explains that wealth is deceiving. It’s ephemeral. It’s going to burn up. So, James says the poor are actually better off because they probably have less stuff to get destroyed. Plus, Scripture has all sorts of promises about how the poor and humble are going to be exalted. (Slide 2) James probably grew up hearing his mother’s song The Magnificat, sung over and over and over. In that song, Mary sings about how God “has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” James’ mom, Mary has great joy in singing about the rich as subject to special judgment. James holds a similar view. At worst, we will receive judgement from God based on how they treated or mistreated the poor. Perhaps at best, we need to wrestle through the fact that all our wealth, all the possessions we enjoy, will burn up with scorching heat. Every distinctions that separates the rich from the poor will be reduced to ashes. The fact that so many of us becomes slaves to getting stuff is devastating when we remember what Jesus said about it — in the parable of the sower, (Slide 3) Jesus talks about the rich as those “who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, so that the word of God yields nothing.” Money and wealth can so easily create worry, distraction, anxiety. What we end up with is perpetually trying to get more and more of it, regardless of whether we think we’re rich or poor. The pursuit becomes like a vine that wraps around us and chokes out life. And for all our trouble, for all the worry and anxiety we go through to secure our stores of wealth, James reminds us it’ll all going burn up.
If that’s really the reality, why are we so tempted by wealth? Some in James’ community thought that God might actually be using wealth to tempt people to sin. The idea is that keeping an accurate perspective on wealth is so difficult that it seems like God must be trying to tempt people to sin. For the poor, difficult task of remember that God stands in solidarity with them in their poverty. Its far easier to be both jealous or resentful of people who have more money than you or me. For the rich, its so difficult not to lose sleep over wealth, and remember that this money is actually God’s. Often, we can feel both rich and poor. We act like the money we do have is ours and not God’s, but we are also resentful and jealous of those with more money. James says that as difficult as this test is, its worth it. (Slide 4) James says, Those who have stood the test will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. The crown James is talking about is the laurel wreath athletes would receive when they were victorious. But what James says you actually win is life itself, eternal life. Those who are able to cut through the trappings of money and riches, they will find true life . But this is so difficult. (Slide 5). Its so difficult that the people James was writing to wondered if God was in fact tempting them to sin in all the tension. James says no. The entire witness of Scripture says that God tests us to strengthen us, and reveal what we’re made of… but God never tempts us, or lures us into sin. James tells us that temptation comes from our own misdirected desires. Those desires conceive and give birth to sin. And then if that sin is left unchecked, if that sin is perpetually indulged in. If that sin is never properly confessed, it will continue to fester until the sin gives birth to death. But it starts with the desire. What does misdirected desire look like? Coveting? Lustful desire? Looking around at what other people have? Have you ever been able to pinpoint when that lustful moment when your misdirected desire began? Wishing you had what someone else has? Maybe it was a comment. Maybe it was a commercial. Maybe something of yours broke. And the desire began to form, and slowly began totally consuming your mind. It might have begun with spending a lot of time online looking at different images (or reviews) of what you want. You notice the reviews get more and more expensive the more you look. You might begin to get anxious to get it? You might begin to think of deceiving your partner in order to get it. You might begin to think about allocating money that you would otherwise have given away in order to get it? You might begin to look for ways to spend more than you actually have. You begin to wonder if anyone will actually know if you’ve reallocated money. Finally you just get it, you act, you indulge. And you feel regret start to sinks in. And all sorts of other thoughts crowd in. You wonder if people are judging you. You want to keep it a secret. Or maybe you want to flaunt it and make others jealous. Or maybe it doesn’t live up to your dreams and shameful thoughts start popping up. Maybe you’re worried that people will find out what you really spent. Maybe debt is piling up. Maybe your feeling swamped. Maybe your credit rating is taking a beating, and you feel stuck in a whole. And then maybe you begin to get resentful over those who seem to have it easier, who don’t need to wrestle with these questions of money. Maybe you get jealous of people who seem so free with money. I’m not going to ask anyone to raise their hand if they can identify with at least some of these thoughts. I certainly have this past two months. That’s the fruit of misdirected desire. A kind of desire that leads to sin, and that sin, if not confessed, it leads to death.
So what do we do with our money whether we have a lot or a little? Should we give everything away but our toothbrush? There is a line of Christian thought that assumes that all desire is bad. The spiritual giant is the one who has killed their desire. The spiritual giant is entirely rational, indulges in nothing, and possess nothing. The spiritual giant thinks the right thoughts. Represses their every desire. And disdains everyone who can’t handle their discipline. The irony is that sort of fear of desire also leads to sin. When we ceaselessly repress our desires, we will break. When I don’t pay any attention to my needs and desires, that’s when I’m most likely to sin. When I’m not taking care of myself, that’s when I’m most likely to go on a huge spending spree. One of my favourite lines from Ecclesiastes is “Do not be too righteous, and do not act too wise; why should you destroy yourself?”
(Slide 6). Listen to what James says: “Do not be deceived my brothers and sisters. Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” James is inviting us to think again back to the first chapter of Genesis, when Father first said, “let there be light,” and he created the lights in the sky, and he created everything else on earth. And he said all these perfect gifts were good, very good. God didn’t intend for us to perpetually suppress our desire for material things. The whole world was made good, something to be delighted in, something to be enjoyed, something to be desired. God is a giver of gifts, and he wants us, his children to receive and enjoy his gift. So, we must not be deceived into thinking that God created the material world simply as just a trap for temptation. We must not think that we are somehow more spiritual or holy if we can somehow squash all our desires. (Slide 7) God himself desires. God himself desires us. God desires us to be restored to himself. So much that he sent the Word of truth to us. His eternally spoken Word, Jesus, so that we might be born again, a new creation. You, born again of the Holy Spirit, are a foretaste of the good that is to come when his creation is fully restored. You are God’s desire, and for you God indulged his desire so much that he sent his one and only son to come to us, to die for you.
So the way through the challenge of wealth is not necessarily to deny our desires. It's not necessarily to live our lives suppressing our wants. The way to navigate through the question of wealth is to shape our desires around God’s desires. We shape our desires around that which has lasting import. Let’s think of it this way. Jesus tells us to pray for God’s kingdom to come. As we continue to pray God’s kingdom come, the Holy Spirit will grow that desire within us. As this desire gets stronger, so will our vision of what God’s kingdom looking like as it comes to earth. God’s kingdom is one where there is no more poverty, no more loneliness, no more oppression, no more idolatry, no more war, no more hunger. God’s kingdom is a place where people of all races, of all status, of all walks of life can join each other around the table. God’s kingdom is a place where people of all types worship and love Jesus. God’s kingdom is a place where creation is restored, pollution wiped away, and the earth is enjoyed. God’s kingdom is a place where music, art, and beauty thrive. God’s kingdom is a place where delicious foods are delighted in and drinks are savoured. God’s kingdom is a place where the knowledge of God covers the earth as the waters cover the sea. So, as we continue to pray, “your kingdom come” we are praying for God to shape our desire to resemble God’s desires. As our desires are shaped in a kingdom direction, we will view money differently. (Slide 8). We will begin to ask questions like, “will using money in this way bring me or other people into a deeper love for God?” “Will using money in this way bring people closer together, and reduce their suffering?” “Will using money in this way help us enjoy creation, and bring about its healing?” No doubt you can think of other questions we can ask. Each of us are going to answer these questions differently. But whether we’re rich or poor doesn’t alter the question too much. The question is, with the gifts you’ve been given, how is God shaping your desire for His Kingdom.