The Problem of Materialism

We are in the Advent season – that time of the year where, in a special way, not in an exclusive way, because I hope we do it the rest of the year too – that we never forget the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that we don’t only think about it at Christmas time and at Advent time.

And so this evening, I want to speak to you about something that becomes very prevalent at this time of the year. It is materialism – the problem of materialism. I want to select some Scriptures and help us to understand what our Father says about materialism. You’ve often heard me say from the pulpit that it’s taken me three careers to really summarize what I think from where I look what it is that humanity is struggling with most when I observe people.

If I may say something autobiographical that most of you know: The Lord by His grace has led me to practice three careers in my life thus far – first in classical music, then as a detective for more than two decades and then as a Pastor and a Theologian, and also a little stint in the academy at our Baptist Theological College. That gave me an opportunity to observe life from three angles: The angles of the ancient philosophers of Beauty, Truth and Righteousness. They teach us that everything in life has to do with Beauty, with Truth or with Righteousness. We need to answer the question: ‘How beautiful or ugly is something and what makes it so? How true or how false is something and what makes it so? How right and how wrong is something, what makes it so?’

Observing humanity from those three angles first in Music and then in Law and then in Theology it is – and I want to say this with as much self-flagellation as I can – I see it first in myself before I see it in other people – it is the Stoics that taught us that they dislike their sin most when they see it in others. And the three things that I’ve observed and disliked because I see my own sin in others are those three things that I mention to you so often: Narcissism, Hedonism and Materialism.

  1. Narcissism
    Just about everybody knows what it is: it’s the desire to worship self – the pursuit of the promise of the devil that ‘you will be as gods’. Humanity still hasn’t let go of that quest – to be gods – little gods all. I’m sure that many of you have seen the same for yourself, haven’t you? And I’m sure that the honest among you will say that you’ve seen the same in yourself.

  2. Hedonism
    From the word Hedos which means pleasure. It’s the pursuit of pleasure. We don’t only want to be worshiped, we want to be pleased. All our urges, all our needs aught to be satisfied and pleased all the time and then that third evil that scourges us every day, the evil of:
  3. Materialism
    The love of the things of this world. The love of the world and the things thereof. I’m not saying we mustn’t enjoy the good things that God blesses us with – the things that humanity creates in its innovation and talent. We are made in the image of God after all, and He is the Creator. And part of His image in us is to create things and invent things and make things more beautiful, hopefully more true and hopefully more right. But it’s a sad thing that materialism is so rife in our societies. You see it when you were in the shopping mall and especially at Christmas time. We see the materialism.

We live in a very materialistic society and we see it in our popular culture of music and TV and so on. And we see it expressed in the desire for an affluent lifestyle. Everywhere we go we see the clarion call of humanity: ‘puff me, please me, pay me!’ I’m sure you recognize for yourselves what I say to be true.

Materialism is a dangerous enemy to the Christian. I want you to know that. Let me say it again: Materialism – the love of the world and the things thereof – is a dangerous enemy to the Christian. The deceitfulness of riches can make us fruitless. The Lord tells us in Matthew 13:22 about the deceitfulness of riches. The desire for riches can ensnare the Christian – keep him captivated and captive so that all he does, is pursue this world and the things thereof. And it’s so foolish, because you cannot hold onto it. It won’t hold on to you, either. You come into this world with nothing – you leave it with nothing, except what you have in Christ.

So we don’t want to be fruitless. We don’t want to be ensnared by the things of this world. So what can we do as Christians and not only as individual Christians and families, but as the Church – what can we do to not get ensnared in materialism? Well, let’s consider first of all:

  1. God’s use of Isaiah

    He was sent to a corrupt and materialistic society, and He was offering that, through Isaiah, which truly satisfies. And today, the Lord Jesus has a similar response which you and I can offer to a world that is starving for that which truly satisfies. I wish I could get rid of the habit, but when I was in the detective services, we used to sharpen our observational skills. We used to observe every expression on a person’s face – the way they walk, the way they talk, the way they respond to one another. We did that all the time and I was in the mall yesterday. These days you kind of focus on the eyes, because there’s nothing else to look at. It’s one of the things that I think is good about this mask wearing – it forces us to look each other in the eye a little bit. But what I see in the eyes as I walk about the mall is almost a kind of wildness. That’s what I saw yesterday – not with everybody, but with the bulk – a wildness to in a frenzy get from the one shop to the other. People are enslaved to this world and the things thereof.

  2. The Response of the Lord Jesus to Materialism

    We need to learn from the Lord Jesus – His response to materialism. Many of us think of the good life in terms of material prosperity – that’s the good life. But the Lord Jesus taught that there is more to this life than material possessions. Luke 12:15: “And He said to them, ‘Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.‘” Listen to me people of God. This is your Lord speaking – the King of Glory who owns all things, and He says take heed and beware of covetousness (that means to desire things). Why must we be aware of it? And why must we take heed? Here’s the reason. And when He says it is true and you need to take it in this evening when you hear your Lord speaking and He says to you: “your life does not consist in the abundance of the things that you possess.” So you can stop chasing them. I’m not saying don’t be a good steward. Make the best use of the means that God blesses you with, but don’t let your life consist in the abundance of things that you possess.

    We also see this Illustrated in the parable of the rich fool. Do you remember that? The rich young ruler whom the Lord Jesus looked at and then He spoke a parable to them in Luke 12:16 and on: He spoke a parable saying, “The ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully, and he thought within himself saying, ‘What shall I do? Since I have no room to store my goods, my crops.’ So he said, ‘I will do this. I will pull down my barns and build greater and there I will store all my crops and my goods and I will say to my soul, Soul, you have many goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat and drink and be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This night your soul will be required of you, then whose will be those things which you have provided?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.” We need to be rich toward God.

    The Lord Jesus also taught us that – the insecurity of riches anyway. You cannot hold on to them. They are insecure. He said to us in Matthew 6:19: “Do not lay up for yourself treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourself treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” This is the Lord Jesus Christ. You cannot hold onto material things, especially not these days in the Republic of South Africa. They are susceptible to theft. They are susceptible to corruption. Jesus taught us the danger, the grave danger of riches. He didn’t only tell us that we cannot hold onto them, but that there’s a danger about it. And here it is in Matthew 6:21-24 – here’s the problem with your treasures: “For where your treasure is…” – you need to know this – “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other.” And He makes this statement. He says: “you cannot serve God and Mammon.” And you know what? The Lord knows. The Lord is right about this. He taught us the danger – they can dominate our affections, capture our hearts, blind us to the True Light and bind us to darkness. They can prevent us [from] being able to serve God.

    And so the message of the Lord Jesus Christ is clearly and sincerely this – it’s to correct our misconceptions. And here’s the misconception we have: Riches do not make people happy. Get it, people! Riches do not make you happy, but even worse than that – riches cannot give you meaning. I have become convinced in my life that what we should pursue in life is not happiness. I want to tell all of you this evening: ‘Stop chasing happiness! We’ve got a world filled with people who are happy for all the wrong reasons. Stop pursuing happiness. Pursue meaning.’

    Let’s stop asking ourselves: ‘How will this make me feel?’ and let’s start asking: ‘What does this mean? What is the meaning?’ Let me give you an example: You have in your home – you have hopefully furniture that you like, you have clothing, you have utensils, you have amenities, you have beds you have nice things in your home that you enjoy and food to cook and everything and these are means, but take away the people in your life and leave you with only those things, and I tell you those means will have lost their meaning, because what they do when mom cooks a nice meal – when your wife cooks a nice meal – the meaning of that is not just the meal, it is: This is how we love together. This is how we stay together. This is what binds us together. That’s the meaning of it, but you take away the meaning the means become meaningless too. Don’t get attached to the things of this world brothers and sisters. Lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven the Lord says.

    So the Lord’s response to materialism is:

    a.  It exposes the deficiency of riches. The Lord exposes how deficient riches are and He holds out to us then in His response the truly abundant life. What is the truly abundant life? Now that we know and I hope you do know now that it’s not in what you own and what you have. What is the abundant life? The Lord Jesus offers us a life filled with peace. That’s part of the abundant life. In John 14:27 He didn’t say ‘lots of stuff I leave to you; I leave you My estate.’ He had none! Foxes had holes, but the Son of Man had nowhere to lay His head! When we think of where Jesus’ place was, we have a tomb to think of – not a huge big mansion with servants and everything that opens and closes. But “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” And He didn’t come and attach Himself to those things on this planet. And so that’s not what He leaves behind.

    What He leaves behind is what you need most of all and what that we lack most of all in this world. What is it? What does He leave us? “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give you. My peace I leave with you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” Again, it’s your Lord speaking. These are the words of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. Never did a man speak as He spoke, and He tells you He leaves you His peace and He tells you to let not your heart be troubled. That’s not a suggestion. That is a command! Neither let your heart be afraid.

    How many of you lack peace? How many of you have troubled hearts this evening? What troubles your heart? Only one thing should trouble our hearts and that is sin! If there is sin in your life and you know it; that must trouble you. It’s the only thing it can trouble you and if I may just step aside a little bit and comment on that: The only true punishment that a sinner ever has is the conscience. The first and the worst punishment that you can have is your conscience. Until your conscience afflicts you, an entire legal system cannot afflict you. As I speak to you, I drove past Central Prison the other day on the way to someone and I thought: ‘My goodness, there are still some people sitting in there that I put in there many years ago.’ Some of them are still blaming me for their being there. I was just doing my job. I didn’t put them there! They put themselves there, but it’s no punishment to them because their consciences are not afflicting them. They’re still blaming someone else: their victims and the detective who arrested them. So they’re not being punished, they see themselves as victims – not as perpetrators.

    The only thing that should trouble your mind is sin – not the things of this world. The only things that should make you afraid, is the fear of God and His judgment. He offers us peace – a life filled with peace – peace with God through justification we read in Romans 5:1&2, therefore we have peace with God. Peace with man through reconciliation (Ephesians 2:14-16). And peace with yourself through supplication (Philippians 4:6-7). That’s the peace you want – peace with God, peace with others, peace with yourself. What you need is justification – it gives you a peace with God. What you need is reconciliation – it gives you peace with others. What you need is supplication – it gives you peace with yourself. And that peace, Paul tells us in Philippians chapter 4, surpasses all understanding.

    So the Lord offers a life filled with peace. That’s the first aspect of an abundant life – it’s a life filled with peace, not the things of this world.

    b. What is the second aspect of a truly abundant life? It is a life filled with another virtue of that humanity lacks – greatly! It is love – peace and love. The Lord tells us in John 15:9: “As the Father loved Me, I also have loved you.” Now, He gives us a command. He says: “abide in My love.” The Father has loved Me. I have loved you. Now you stay in that love. That’s the second aspect of an abundant life. It’s a love patterned after that love that the Father has for the Son – love that can be fervent and pure between brothers, Peter teaches us. Love that can be extended even toward enemies! The Lord tells us to love our enemies. Why? Your enemy hates you, right? Why do you want to fight your enemy? Because it’s wrong for the enemy to hate you. But if you hate him back, you’ve become like him and what are you fighting for? If you become like your enemy, you lose all right to fight. We cannot become like our enemies – we need to be different! When they hate us, we need a love them. It’s part of the abundant life. The love Jesus offers passes knowledge Paul tells us in Ephesians 3:9

    c. But not only a life of peace and a life of love, but also a life of joy, which is also lacking. I’m not talking about the silliness that the world holds up for joy. Those are just cracks – it’s not real joy. Joy is something different. It’s part of the abundant life. What is this joy? The Lord tells us, we find it from His word. He says: “These things I have spoken to you.” Where will you find joy? Do you know where to find joy? The Lord says: “These things I have spoken to you.” Why? What was His motive? “…that My joy may remain in you and that your joy may be full.” Do you read the things that Jesus has spoken to you? Do they bring joy to you? They ought to, because that’s why He spoke them to you, and that’s part of the abundant life – it is hearing what Jesus spoke and letting it stir joy in you. I so wish I can learn this lesson better, I really do need to.

    It’s a joy that can keep you going in any circumstance. Peter tells us in 1st Peter 1:6: “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while if need be you have been grieved by various trials.” He says you can greatly rejoice in the words of Jesus. And so by offering us such peace and love and joy, perhaps we can appreciate why Jesus said He offers an abundant life. An abundant life is a life not of how much stuff you have, but it’s a life of peace, of love and of joy.

  3. Our Response to Materialism

    To communicate this response to a materialistic society, Jesus calls upon His church, and while it certainly entails proclaiming the Gospel, I want to suggest at least some additional thoughts about our response to materialism. And here’s what I want to say:

    a. Exemplify Jesus’ response as individuals

    You need to imitate and exemplify the Lord Jesus’ response as individuals. As individuals, we must possess the peace, the love and the joy that Jesus offers. Where does it come from? It comes from heeding His words. John 15:10-11: “If you keep My commandments you will abide in My love.” How do you abide in His love? By keeping His commandments! “Just as I have kept My Father’s Commandments and I abide in His love. These things have I spoken to you that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.” And as Christians we must heed that – we really do.

    Joy, love and peace come through heeding His words. And it also comes through spending time in prayer. Philippians 4:6-7 where He says: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything, by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Do you see what prayer does? It puts a guard in front of your mind and your heart. Where do anxiety and depression and these things come from? It comes from an unguarded heart and mind!

    Now what is the guard of the heart and the mind? What is the guard that needs to be there so that those anxieties and depressions and all those things don’t come in? The peace of God is the guard. How do you set that guard in place? By not being anxious for anything but by prayer and supplication, making your requests known to God and leaving them with Him. Then the peace of God stands guard by your mind, stands guard by your heart and the peace of God that transcends all understanding guards them. And then you can rejoice in the Lord always He says.

    If we fail to spend the time that we need to in those Graces – heeding His words and speaking to Him in prayer, we’re not going to be convincing that we have a more abundant life to offer than the world has. And so as individuals we must not depend on material things – not at all! We must learn the secret of contentment. 1st Timothy 6:6-8: “Now godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content.

    My closest friends – and most of them are in this congregation – they know that I sometimes like to just step aside and compare what the philosophers are saying alongside what the Gospel says, because the Lord has blessed them with some insights as well. I stumbled upon Marcus Aurelius in his meditations the other day – his third book and the 13th meditation – this Roman Emperor who is considered one of the wisest people who ever lived – the last of the Romans of the Pax Romana (a thousand years of Roman peace) – some say the greatest Roman Emperor ever. And he was a stoic philosopher – the philosopher Emperor. And he made this comment. He says: ‘No one is more miserable than he who always is out and about seeking to divine the minds of his neighbours.’

    Now to divine the mind of a neighbour is like a water diviner that goes around saying where’s this thing of value; the water? He says nothing is more miserable than those of us, who are always out there to see ‘what’s in the mind of my neighbour?’ – divine the minds of a neighbour! He says they don’t realize that the true soul is within – it’s inside of you – it’s not out there. And you must serve your soul.

    How do you serve your soul? He said you safeguard it against three contaminations – three things that can contaminate your soul: The first he says – and this is going to be surprising to some of you, and maybe some of you will give me a reason that we must go and have coffee, because you may be upset with what I say. And I know that a couple of you have acted upset on purpose so that I can buy your coffee – which I don’t mind doing, I enjoy that – continue to do so.
    The first one is passion. The contamination of the soul. Now we say passion – he’s got a passion for this; he’s got a passion for that. I saw a young man walking around the mall the other day full of tattoos and two earrings. It looks like – my one friend said – ‘somebody hit him with a wet comic and then the Wildlife Society tagged him’ – I had to tell my friend that that was very rude. But he had a t-shirt on that said ‘find your passion.’ He seems to have found his – it is written all over him. The Stoics tell us that passion is not a good thing and I agree with them. It’s a contamination of the soul, because it comes from a word passio which means to suffer. The Passion of the Christ is not ‘the enthusiasm of the Christ’ – that’s what the word passion has become to mean: Enthusiasm! It doesn’t mean enthusiasm – it means suffering, it means unease, it means restlessness, it means agony. It’s something inside of you that stirs you, makes you restless and suffer and you begin to pursue it in order to alleviate that suffering and that unease. And you have seen passionate people. They can be a real pain in the neck, can’t they when they get passionate about something. The Stoics called it a contamination of the soul.
    The second thing – ooh what a prevalent thing this is: Triviality. You know, what triviality is? It is measly things – it is unimportant things – trivial things. We are spending lives pursuing triviality, people! – things that have no value and no meaning! That’s at the heart of materialism.

    But the third thing that Aurelius refers to is discontentment – to never be satisfied, because if you notice people who are passionate about trivial things, you can never satisfy them. They’re always discontented. And before they know, they’re pursuing the world and the things thereof. It’s called materialism and it deprives you of the abundant life of peace, of love and of joy, and it reduces you to a restless person – a hapless person with no love – always annoyed with other people because they’re not giving you what you want. You know, this is how it works, don’t you? You’ve seen it. You all hear – I’m not making this up. I’m just telling you what you’ve seen with your own eyes. Not once, not twice, but many times. It’s called materialism and it’s a soul sapping sin.

    So we need to exemplify Jesus’ responses as individuals by heeding His words, by spending time in prayer, by not depending on material things for true happiness. If we’re poor, to learn the secret of contentment. If we’re rich, to be content – to not trust in riches, but quick to help those in need, Timothy tells us in 1st Timothy 6:17. To be content and willing to share goes a long way towards demonstrating that Jesus’ response to materialism really means something to you as an individual, as a family and to us as a congregation. It’s one of the things I have enjoyed in the three congregations that I have pastored thus far. I praise God that all three of them – and most of all of them this congregation – what has blessed me is their open-heartedness – their generosity to reach out to others when they’re in pain and afflicted. I love you for this my brother’s – my fellow Elders and Deacons. Thank you for that. It safe-guards us from becoming materialists. Lastly, we must:

    b. Exemplify Jesus’ response as a congregation

    The value of a congregational demonstration cannot be taken lightly. Jesus stressed the value of brotherly love and unity – a group of gathered people about whom the world can see that people are more important to them than stuff. The Lord’s church illustrated the value of congregational love and joy in the early church, and you and I as a congregation, we should make sure that our fellowship and our worship demonstrates the love we have found in Christ by the way we greet one another.

    I sometimes get like a spiteful little boy: Somebody comes up to me and I want to give me the elbow and because I’m half Irish I say: ‘I don’t want to do that because others say that. Hi!’ (Greeting with hand). You know why? I miss the hugs! I want them back, do you?

    We need to be a congregation that demonstrates the love – and is more than hugs. It’s being there when people need you. We should make sure that our fellowship and worship demonstrates the love – the joy of being Christians – the peace that Jesus made possible – in the way that we work together. And we must be careful as a congregation not to fall into a materialistic trap by placing too much concern over such things as the physical facilities in which we meet, the physical appearances of the members or visitors – not that it’s wrong to have comfortable facilities or to look nice, but that should not be our primary concern – not to the neglect of truly important matters like saving souls. Otherwise, we could be guilty of being like the Laodiceans in the Book of Revelation. They thought they were rich and wealthy and had need of nothing but they were unaware that they were wretched, miserable, poor, blind and naked.

So as I conclude: The rampant materialism in our society provides us with an opportunity, because materialism leaves one in a state of spiritual malnutrition and so we are rich and ripe for the true feast which Jesus has to offer. What does He offer? Here’s what He offers you: Rest for a weary soul, rivers of Living Water for a thirsty soul. And He provides that through His cleansing blood and His life-quickening Spirit. But if those trapped in materialism are going to believe such is possible, you and I need to make sure that we’re offering the abundant life as an alternative to the world’s materialism, both individually and as a congregation of God’s people. Praise God for Elders. I have seen this is their agenda and it’s a joy to see it. Let it be true in your life as individuals too – as families as well, and for us as a congregation.