Other Scripture used:
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen. (Psalm 19:14)
There’s an old saying, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
It’s usually taken out of context though and used as an excuse to party to extreme levels of debauchery since the battle the following day will probably kill everyone involved anyway.
Many times, there’s no battle involved the following day, just the idea that they might die the next day is enough reason for them to engorge and imbibe freely.
The saying comes from the same book of the Bible as our Old Testament reading this morning, Ecclesiastes. It’s found in 8:15. The New King James Version translates as:
"So I commended enjoyment, because a man has nothing better under the sun than to eat, drink, and be merry; for this will remain with him in his labor all the days of his life which God gives him under the sun."
The teacher, King Solomon, has just described the meaninglessness of most of the things we do in our lives, and then describes the social activities of a Hebrew meal as being the best part of the day. Meals were major spiritual and social events.
Prince or pauper, the family meal was the most enjoyable time, alleviating the hunger and thirst of the day and recharging the emotional batteries by being with their friends and family. It was something to look forward to during each day’s labor, and something that one remembered during the next day’s labor.
If everything is meaningless, then an enjoyable meaningless activity is far better than one that’s not enjoyable.
Our rich fool in today’s Gospel reading gets it wrong also. He tells his soul to “… eat, drink, and be merry.” He doesn’t realize he will die that night. His entire life has been a poverty of riches.
The lesson from Ecclesiastes is to enjoy the life God has given us. Rich or poor, we can all enjoy the basics of a meal with those we love.
I realize many people throughout the world are starving or dying of thirst, and we should always do all we can to prevent or alleviate that kind of suffering. Yet among the poor is often the most real joy. Their meager meals and limited liquids are anticipated and shared with a relish that we rarely experience here.
We ourselves experience a poverty of riches in our own lives. There are five “D’s” that fit the rich man in today’s Gospel reading.
The first is the dilemma. In verses 13-17, we see that the rich man has accumulated so much stuff that it no longer fits in the storage space he has for it.
He could give some or even most of that abundance away to the poor who could make many meals from that much extra grain. Or he could keep it all for himself.
What a dilemma, to have so much stuff that you run out of room for it all. Have any of us faced a similar dilemma in our own lives?
Second is his decision in verse 18. He decides to keep it all to himself and build bigger storage facilities.
Sound familiar? How many of us know people, or have ourselves bought bigger houses because we had accumulated too much stuff? I remember when my wife, Mary, and I couldn’t even furnish a one-bedroom apartment. Now we have way too much stuff for a three-bedroom house.
But we’re not alone apparently. I keep seeing more and more self storage facilities popping up along the highways here. And it’s a growing business all over the country. The industry generates $18.5 billion in revenues each year in the United States and Canada, according to the Self Storage Association in Alexandria, Va.
The rich farmer faces his third D in verse 19: the delusion. He makes two critical errors in judgment that cause his delusion. He assumes he has many years left to live and enjoy his stuff, and he assumes that the material things he has accumulated — the very things Ecclesiastes tells us are meaningless — will satisfy his soul.
But we don’t do that do we? I’m not talking about retirement funds, 401(k)’s, IRA’s, and so on, or saving for a rainy day. After all, there’s another biblical admonition that says “look to the ant, you sluggard,” which tells us store things for the lean times. The story of Joseph describes his wisdom in saving Egypt from destruction during a seven-year famine by saving grain from the preceding seven-year abundance.
I’m talking about making the accumulation of wealth our focus in life. Making more and more money, so we can get more and more stuff, seeing our families less and less, and becoming so self-centered we ignore the needs of others. When our wants become more important than other people’s needs, we are no longer focused on God or following Jesus. We’re following ourselves in a meaningless cycle to get more things to leave behind when we die.
We fall under the same delusion as the rich farmer.
In verse 20, he faces destruction. His lengthy and luxurious retirement will never happen. His entire life has been wasted chasing and accumulating things that are meaningless, and he now faces Jesus who will ask what the farmer did with the great blessings he received.
The only response the farmer can give is that he stored them in the barn where no one else would get any of it from him. That’s not the answer we want to have when we see our savior face-to-face.
How much stuff do we have in sheds or garages or storages units that we don’t need, but others do? Is there anything we could give away to a charity or thrift store?
Tonight could be our night. We never know when God will take back the lives he has lent us. Our souls each have a “return no later than” date stamped on them that only our creator can read.
Verse 21 gives us the fifth “D”, the definition. Jesus tells us not to store up earthly riches at the expense of our relationship with God. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be successful, or that we should reject any pay raises offered to us at work. Being rich does not necessarily push us away from God, focusing on being rich does. God uses the wealthy to further his plan just as he uses everyone else.
Our focus should be on God’s kingdom, not our own.
The very first person to reach the status of billionaire was a man who knew how to set goals and follow through. At the age of 23, he had become a millionaire, by the age of 50 a billionaire. Every decision, attitude, and relationship was tailored to create his personal power and wealth. But three years later at the age of 53 he became ill.
His entire body became racked with pain and he lost all the hair on his head. In complete agony, the world’s only billionaire could buy anything he wanted, but he could only digest milk and crackers. An associate wrote, "He could not sleep, would not smile and nothing in life meant anything to him." His personal, highly skilled physicians predicted he would die within a year.
That year passed agonizingly slow. As he approached death he awoke one morning with the vague remembrances of a dream. He could barely recall the dream but knew it had something to do with not being able to take any of his successes with him into the next world. The man who could control the business world suddenly realized he was not in control of his own life. He was left with a choice.
He called his attorneys, accountants, and managers and announced that he wanted to channel his assets to hospitals, research, and mission work. On that day John D. Rockefeller established his foundation. This new direction eventually led to the discovery of penicillin, cures for current strains of malaria, tuberculosis and diphtheria. The list of discoveries resulting from his choice is enormous.
But perhaps the most amazing part of Rockefeller’s story is that the moment he began to give back a portion of all that he had earned, his body’s chemistry was altered so significantly that he got better. It looked as if he would die at 53 but he lived to be 98.
Rockefeller learned gratitude and gave back from his wealth. Doing so made him whole. It is one thing to be healed it is another to be made whole.
(Brett Blair, www.eSermons.com, September 2001.)
Rockefeller’s change of heart leads me to a sixth “D” for our own application today: Determination.
As Paul says in our New Testament reading, we should take off the old self and put on the new. I think that translation is inaccurate based on a misreading of Paul’s intent. Paul used the word “anthropos,” which means “man” not “self.” In an effort to be more inclusive linguistically, the New Revised Standard Version, which is the translation our readings are in, changed many masculine references to non-gender specific ones.
Most of the time that’s perfectly fine. For instance, “Brothers” in Greek can apply to a group of both men and women. In English we wouldn’t say, “my brothers Bob and Cathy,” but in Greek it makes perfect sense.
Here, however, Paul is not referring to a personal change by ourselves, whereby we take of our old “self” and put on a new “self.” Paul, a former Pharisee who was deeply familiar with Hebrew scripture, tells us to take off the old “man.” In Greek it’s anthropos, but in Hebrew it’s “adam.” He is saying that we are sinful creatures, covered by the sins of Adam in the Garden of Eden. The new “man,” renewed in knowledge according to the image of humanity’s creator, is Jesus Christ.
Paul is telling us to take of Adam and put on Christ. There’s a big theological difference between Christ over us, and changing ourselves from within. When Rockefeller realized he was not in control of his own life, he realized he could not change it himself. He became a different person by putting on Jesus Christ, not by putting on his new self. That determination to live a new life not his own made all the difference in the rest of his life.
We must determine the importance of our relationship with God, life is no longer meaningless. We have a purpose. As a society, we tend to have forgotten God, and think we define our own purpose. More so today than previously, but even 144 years ago one of our leaders noticed where we were heading.
In 1863 President Lincoln designated April 30th as a day of national humiliation, fasting, and prayer. Let me read a portion of his proclamation on that occasion:
"It is the duty of nations, as well as of men, who owe their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon, and to recognize the sublime truth announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by a history that those nations only are blessed whose God is the Lord. The awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has grown, but we have forgotten God."
[America’s Sin of Self-Sufficiency, Citation: Richard Halverson, "The Question Facing Us," Preaching Today, Tape 46.]
There’s a prayer in the Bible that asks God to provide what we need. Enough to get by each day. Not so little that we focus on our own needs instead of God, and not so much that we forget about our need for God.
It’s difficult to accept that even though we think we’re just getting by, we’re actually wealthier than most of the other people in this world. In personal giving, we are the most generous nation in the world. But that’s a corporate result, not an individual one. We each have to look at our own hearts to see how much we are like our rich farmer.
I won’t pretend to know what’s in your hearts, but I can tell you that I’m more like him than I thought when I started writing this sermon. There are things in our house I don’t really need, but have stored in boxes anyway.
I can get rid of some stuff.
The second richest man in Rockefeller’s time was Andrew Carnegie (car-NEGG-ee). He spent the first 66 years of his life accumulating wealth, and then spent the last 18 giving as much of it away as he could. He said, “I resolved to stop accumulating and begin the infinitely more serious and difficult task of wise distribution.”
He also said, “The man who dies rich dies disgraced.”
Carnegie established public libraries in the United States and other English-speaking countries. He started the Carnegie Institute of Technolgy and other scholls that are now part of Carnegie Mellon University; he was a large benefactor of the Tuskegee Institute under Booker T. Washington for African-American education; he established large pension funds for his employees; he created Carnegie Hall for musical performances in New York City; he founded the Carnegie Hero Fund; he established a laboratory at a medical college; and had many other philanthropic efforts.
By the time he died, Carnegie had given away $350,695,653 (about $4.3 billion adjusted to 2005 dollars). His remaining $30 million was donated to various foundations, charities, and retirees.
Most of us will never become as wealthy as Carnegie or Rockefeller. But we can change our focus like they did from “getting more stuff” to “doing God’s will in our lives.”
Anything else is meaningless.