We live in a part of the world where when people hear the word “redneck,” they don’t think, “Gee, those folks seem strange. I wonder what life is like for them.” Instead, they’re more likely to think something along the lines of, “Why are you talking about my cousin,” or perhaps more simply, “Yes?” The phenomenon of the redneck has come to occupy a big place in American pop culture thanks to popular TV shows like Duck Dynasty (which has a new season premiering in the next couple of weeks if you’re a fan), and comedians like Larry the Cable Guy, Bill Engvall, and of course the crown prince of redneck comedy, Jeff Foxworthy. Foxworthy really brought the idea of the redneck into the cultural conversation with his “You might be a redneck…” one liners. For instance, you might be a redneck…if you ever cut your grass and found a car…if you own a home that is mobile and 5 cars that aren’t…if your boat has not left the drive-way in 15 years …if you think a turtleneck is key ingredient for soup…if you think that potted meat on a saltine is an hors d’ouerve…if you own at least 20 baseball hats (admittedly there’s about that many hanging on the coat rack inside our door)…if you come home from the dump with more than you went with…and, if you grow flowers in an old commode in your front yard. Funny story on that one: The next time you go to the Sweet Frog in Colonial Heights, check out what they are using as a flower vase on the corner of the seating section. Let’s just say it’s the same thing that was integral in getting Josiah out of pull-ups and into underwear.
That’s pretty funny stuff. So funny in fact that I thought I’d try my hand at it this morning. This morning we are going to be talking about the fourth “S” of idolatry; the idol of stuff. Way, way too many folks in our country are guilty of worshiping Stuff. They are, in other words, stuff-aholics. In fact, you might be too. You might be a stuff-aholic…if you’ve ever bought something just to have the set (I’ll admit I’m guilty of that)…if you’ve ever bought something today planning to pay next Tuesday…if you’ve ever had to get rid of stuff around your house to make room for new stuff around your house…if you’ve ever participated in a community yard sale, sold everything you brought, and drove home with a full truck…if you’ve ever opened a closet door and had things fall out on your head…if you have ever held back on giving something you felt God telling you to give so that you could have money for something else…if you’ve ever let stuff get in the way of a relationship…if you’ve ever gotten upset or had your feelings hurt at church because something wasn’t the shape, color, size, or location you wanted it to be. On second thought, maybe I’d better leave those alone…they’re starting to hit a little close to home.
So again, this morning we are going to wrap up our series, The Four S’s of Idolatry by looking at the idol of stuff. This is a biggie, but before we get too far into it, let’s take a minute to remember where we’ve been so far. The whole idea of this series is that our culturehas an idol problem. There is a whole laundry list of things we worship other than God. The problem with this is that we become like the things we worship. As the psalmist said, “The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; they have eyes, but do not see; they have ears, but do not hear, nor is there any breath in their mouths. Those who make them become like them, so do all who trust in them!” And since these various things are not the God who alone is good, they are not themselves the source of anything good. What outcomes should we expect if we fashion ourselves after the image of something that is not inherently good?
Well, the place where all of this nonsense starts is consistently with our worship of self. The serpent’s temptation of Adam and Eve was essentially a temptation to put themselves in God’s place and become self-defining creatures. But, as we said, while we start there, we never stay there for long. We quickly find other things that seem grander than we are and reshape ourselves in their image. One of the first things on this list, and the second “S” of idolatry, is sex. We talked about the fact that sex is a glorious gift from God, but when pursued outside the narrow context allowed for it in the Scriptures, it quickly makes a mess of pretty much everything. When sex is used for anything other than to express and strengthen the bond uniting a covenantally committed man and woman it creates only brokenness. This brokenness is often like a slow-moving cancer. It’s easy to overlook until it’s almost too late to do anything about it. As we saw, though, the real reason we can’t give ourselves to all this as followers of Jesus is that our bodies don’t belong to us. Your body doesn’t belong to you so whatever you want you just can’t do.
Finally, last week we talked about the idol of state. This is a tougher idol to spot, but it’s just as damaging as the others if we make it our own. From the right we can fix a particular vision of the state in our minds as how it should be and give a patriotic devotion to this ideal that trumps our devotion to God. From the left we envision the state as responsible for meeting all the needs of the people such that it begins to take the place of God as our provider. Whichever direction we come from in putting the state in God’s place, though, Paul made clear in his letter to the Roman church that it is God who’s the source of all the authority there is in the universe. No state is an authority unto itself…whether they want to believe that or not. Instead God gave us the state in its various forms as a gift, but it was always designed to be His servant, not our master.
This morning as we transition to the final “S” of idolatry, stuff, we are talking about something that hits a lot closer to home than the others we’ve seen so far. Worship of self may be at the root of all other forms of idolatry, but we don’t stay there very long so we don’t think in those terms. For the idol sex, while it is quickly becoming the premier challenge to the orthodox church of our time some of its more extreme and damaging forms don’t manifest themselves very much in the church…yet. Worship of state may manifest itself from both the political left and the political right, but most churches tend to stay away from that one. Stuff, though, that hits all of us. It hits all of us where it hurts. We all have a lot of stuff. In fact I dare say we all have too much stuff. I mean, just to get a little personal with you, we spent a few weeks cleaning out, collecting, and throwing away stuff ahead of the yard sale we tried to have back in April. We gathered more than a banquet-size table stacked two and a half feet high with stuff would hold…and we still have too much stuff in the house. We’re still cleaning out, gathering up, and throwing away stuff. I suspect you know what I’m talking about. We are all afflicted by Stuff with a capital “S”. In fact people have always been afflicted by Stuff. And hey, you don’t necessarily have to have a lot of stuff to be afflicted by Stuff. It could be that Stuff has dealt you a bad hand and your lot is just to be jealous of the people who have more than you.
Let’s broaden out from just ourselves for a minute. As a culture we are very often seen by non-Americans as deeply, deeply consumeristic. Well…it’s hard to blame them. Just watch some commercials sometime. Ad after ad after ad is encouraging us either to buy something, to join this or that company for help in getting out of debt, to fork over a lot of money we don’t have for an ironclad opportunity to get rich quick, or to invest with one company or another so that we can all retire as millionaires. It’s all about having money and having stuff. The more the merrier. And…it seems to be working. The average American household has over $15,000 on credit cards right now. When you add all of that up, as a nation we have $884.8 billion in credit card debt. But that’s nothing. We owe $1.18 trillion in student loans…apparently for a bunch of degrees that don’t make us very much money. But that’s chump change compared to the $8.2 trillion we have in mortgages. That makes our national debt $11.91 trillion. I’d say we can’t very well complain much more about how much our government is in debt until we tackle on own debt issues.
Yet again, lest I leave you thinking the idol of stuff is only worshiped by those who have, consider the rather wild phenomenon that was the Occupy Wall Street movement of a few years ago. Large groups consisting mostly of successfully indoctrinated college students and grown-up hippies gathered in little tent camps in several major cities across the country to complain bitterly and protest the excesses of the so-called 1%. Beyond the fact that the groups pretty well all got out of hand, what was their basic message? That we should all live more simply and not be so afflicted by the idol of stuff? No. It mostly amounted to a message of jealousy: it’s not fair that they should have all that stuff; we want some of it too. And then they all got on their iPhones to document their protest. Some of the more infamous moments of the movement came when its leaders were regularly found using the proceeds contributed to the group by the average protesters to put themselves up in swanky hotel rooms with lots of room service calls. Theirs was a worship of stuff different only in form from the presumed worship of the so-called 1%.
So what can we say to all of this? Well, not very much because we’ve probably participated in it in some way. I know I have. But Jesus can and did say quite a bit. Enough in fact that we don’t have to worry about saying anything. We just need to put into practice what He said. Okay, so what did Jesus say? A lot. I want to look at one thing He said this morning. Grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and find your way to Matthew chapter 6. Here in the middle of Jesus’ longest and most famous recorded sermon we have what appears to be simply an encouragement to not worry. But when we look a bit closer we find a couple of important clues that this is really a direct shot at the human tendency to worship stuff.
The first clue comes in the main part of the passage which starts in v. 25. Let me read some of this for you and we’ll talk about it. From Matthew 6:25: “Therefore…” Let me stop right there for a second. As a general rule for studying the Scriptures, whenever you see the word “therefore,” you need to look back a bit to see what it’s there for, because what follows has to be understood in light of what came before. So then, what came before? I’ll tell you in just a little bit, but for now, let’s keep going.
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.” Why would Jesus say this? Well, there’s the obvious reason: we aren’t supposed to be anxious about anything. As Paul wrote to the Philippian church, “Be anxious about nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” That’s a good lesson in and of itself. But knowing that Jesus isn’t simply talking about worry but is taking a shot at our tendency to worship Stuff, let’s think about this in that light.
When we worship something we naturally concern ourselves with doing things that will keep the object of our worship happy. We put extra effort into doing those things and when we can’t we’re bothered by this until we can. Well, when we worship Stuff as a god, what is it that Stuff wants? More stuff. Stuff is a lonely god. It has an appetite for relationships that is never quenched. Stuff wants more stuff. Without enough stuff it gets lonely and so we have to get more stuff in order to keep it company. Unfortunately this relational high doesn’t last and we soon have to go and get more stuff to keep it happy. Well, if we are naturally concerned about pleasing the object of our worship, and if the god Stuff wants more stuff, then when we worship it, we naturally concern ourselves with having enough stuff. A bit simpler a way to put that is: we worry. To this situation Jesus says: “Don’t.”
Okay, but why? Check this out again back in v. 25. This is amazing: “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Well, isn’t it? A whole lot of folks don’t think so. Even if they profess otherwise their actions tell a different tale. And yet life is indeed more than these things. As evidence Jesus tells us to simply look at the world around us. Verse 26: “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more cloth you, O you of little faith? Therefore, do not be anxious, saying “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” [or “How will we retire?” or “What happens if our car breaks down?” or “What happens if our internet service goes out?”] For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.”
So yeah, Jesus is talking about worry here. But this is a worry that comes from a fear of not having enough stuff. And if we’re afraid of not having enough stuff, that’s a huge clue that we are worshiping Stuff. So really Jesus is offering us a choice here between two different lifestyles. One is consumed with fear of not having enough. The other, though, is filled with confidence stemming from a solid trust in the God who has everything. This alternative, as Jesus Himself points out, is so much better. Look at v. 33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Now as a quick aside here, does this mean if we have faith in God He’ll just give us everything we need? We won’t ever have bills we can’t pay again? No, that’s not what Jesus is saying. When we take this and put it in the broader context of Scripture what we can do is trust that if we commit ourselves to God and His way of life and are faithful with the resources He’s provided us He will make sure our needs are met. That said, the trick about worshiping Stuff is that Stuff doesn’t have anything, rather it is things. The deceit here is that Stuff masquerades as the owner when it’s really just a trinket on a shelf. Worshiping Stuff is like walking into Walmart, making your way to the housewares section, and asking a blender if there are any deals right now on the storage totes. The blender replies, “I don’t know, but if you’ll buy me and all my friends I’ll bet we can work something out.” That’s crazy! Who talks to blenders? I know, right! And who worships Stuff? Yet when our biggest concern is that we won’t have enough in some fashion that’s exactly what we’re doing. And guess what happens when we listen to the blender. We wind up poor. Worshiping stuff makes us poorer.
The second clue Jesus is talking about more than just worry comes in the answer to the “therefore” question we asked back at v. 25. Look back to v. 24 with me. “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and [my translation says “money” there, but the actual word is “mammon” which is a more general term for stuff; some translations capitalize Mammon to draw out Jesus’ strike at idolatry].” Here’s the thing: we can’t worship more than one thing at a time. We might switch from thing to thing depending on what’s most convenient, but we can only ever have one master. When we try and have more than one, things don’t tend to go well. When I worked at OfficeMax in seminary I worked in the store’s copy center. Our particular copy center was a hub meaning other stores sent their big jobs to us to do. Because of this, our copy center was cavernous. It was the size of the computer and furniture sections at the Staples in Colonial Heights combined. Because we were so big, we had our own manager, Charles. He was technically under the store manager, Mark, but because the supply side of the store and the copy side of the store were treated as fairly separate entities, as far as we were concerned, Charles’ word was final. The kick was, Mark and Charles didn’t always see eye to eye. On the copy side we were mostly concerned with keeping Charles happy (which was a pretty easy thing to do as he was a great boss), but we were technically supposed to keep Mark happy too. We weren’t huge fans of Mark very often in spite of his being a pretty good boss in his own right. We can’t please two masters. One master commands one thing, the other master commands something different and we can’t do both. What more, one command fits with what we want to do and the other doesn’t meaning—just as Jesus said—we’ll hate one and love the other or vice versa. It’s not a workable situation.
This becomes especially true when we’re comparing worshiping God and worshiping Stuff. Stuff says, “Get more, get more, get more!” God says, “Give it away and trust Me.” We can’t do both…and since the sin-broken desire of our heart is to enjoy the things of this life, God doesn’t usually win that contest. We keep Him on the periphery for the benefits that brings, but He’s not the object of our worship any longer. Stuff is. And again, since Stuff doesn’t have anything, in order to worship it well we have to give up the resources God has given us to make an impact on His kingdom so that we can keep our new god from getting lonely. Or, if we don’t have a lot of resources for one reason or another, we gaze enviously at those who are able to give Stuff the devotion we want to be able to do. In the first instance we grow poor materially, in the second we grow poor relationally because envy and jealousy and the bitterness they cause destroy relationships. Either way, worshiping Stuff makes us poorer.
So how do we get out of this? How do we avoid this debilitating, impoverishing worship of Stuff? We starve it. Worshiping Stuff makes us poorer, so we get it back by making it poorer. Here’s how. Number one: we give. Giving starves Stuff to death. But, throwing a few dollars in the plate when it comes by or at some charitable cause or another when it comes up, while not a bad thing, won’t starve Stuff. Neither will giving like we’re poor when we’re actually rich and just so we’re clear: if you drove here today in a car that you own (or if you walked across the parking lot because the cars you own are already here all the time), you’re rich. Here’s how you give so that Stuff will starve. First, make it a priority. Establish a plan for your giving and put accomplishing that plan ahead of everything else. Save liberally…so that you can give more. Invest wisely…so that you can give more. Clean out your closets…so that you can give more. Are you getting the picture? Make it a priority. Second, make it a percentage. Choose a percentage of your income to be designated for giving (whether you make that pre-tax or post-tax is between you and God, there are good arguments for both). Make it a percentage so that you don’t fall to spur-of-the-moment giving which always turns out to be less than percentage giving, and so that your giving is an accurate reflection of how God has blessed you. For instance, if you settle on a sacrificial amount and then get a big raise…that amount isn’t really a sacrifice anymore. A percentage will naturally adjust to the financial situation God has you in. Finally, make it progressive. When we get used to something that used to be sacrificial, it’s not a sacrifice anymore. When you start exercising you sacrifice a lot of energy with the effort. But if after a year you are still using the same energy, neither the sacrifice nor the effort are really there anymore. Let your giving grow as a reflection of your growing faith. That will starve Stuff because the resources it needs to be fed are already committed to something that’s making you grow. Worshiping Stuff makes us poorer. Starving Stuff makes us full.
Number two and then we’re out of here. We serve. Here’s why. Intentionally and sacrificially serving others puts us in a place where we recognize that there are folks in this world who do not enjoy all of the same benefits we do. Now, in one sense, we all know there are folks in the world who have it harder than we do. I mean, Barrett is going to share with us about the Honduras Team’s trip next Sunday. He’ll probably show us some pictures of people living in squalor. We can see that. But seeing it like that, hearing about it third party, reading about it happening somewhere else allows it to remain a fairly abstract concept in our hearts and minds. When we actually go and serve, though—whether in Honduras or Dinwiddie County—it becomes something entirely more personal. And when it becomes more personal we are pressed with a sense that we don’t need nearly as much as we have; that the Siren song of Stuff is hollow and when we follow it not only will we wind up poorer, but so will all those who God intended to bless with the resources He’s given us. The natural response to all this will be to serve more, starving Stuff. This kind of service, by the way, results in a trove of treasure stored up for us in heaven. Meaning that while we may be starving Stuff here such that we will indeed have less than we could otherwise, we’ll be as rich as kings when the time comes to start really enjoying God’s bounty. Worshiping Stuff makes us poorer. Starving it will leave us richer than we can imagine.
Look, idolatry is everywhere. There are still folks around the world today who bow down to statues. Isaiah’s words making fun of them still ring true. But there are a lot more who have more simply and subtly elevated something to God’s place and are now beholden to the demands of this new master. The truth, though, is that God is so much better. He alone is worthy of worship. He alone is the source of all that is good. He alone created the world and everything in it. He alone is glorious. He alone has all the authority there is to be found in the universe. He alone owns everything that exists. He alone is worth of praise. Worshiping anything else takes the created order and flips it over on its head. Letting our primary concerns be driven by something other than pleasing God with hearts overflowing with gratitude for what He’s done for us through Christ will lead to misery and pain and suffering and death in one fashion or another. Worshiping God, though, will make us whole. It will make us rich. It will make us pure. It will make us full. It will make us fully who God designed us to be to His glory and our joy. Where you have idols holding power in your life, throw them out. Starve them to death. Destroy them in every conceivable way and turn your hearts fully to the God who loves you unconditionally and who sent His Son to die in your place to prove it. Whatever letter your idolatry starts with, change your alphabet. The life of abundance and grace is waiting for you to enjoy it to the full.