Agape Chinese Baptist Church 27 April 2008
Reading: Luke 12:13-21
The world brainwashes us with a particular version of success. According to the world, we are successful when we have a lot of money. We are successful when people admire us and envy us. The world tells us that we need lots of stuff to be successful and happy. We need the latest technology. We need a bigger car and a bigger house. When we have a big house, we need a second house to invest in. If you get a second house, you need a third house. To be successful, we need to be always moving up to higher paid jobs with higher status.
These messages get to us through advertising on the television, the radio and in junk mail. Advertisements are designed to stir up discontent. They tell us we don’t have enough. They tell us we need more. They tell us to be unhappy with what we’ve got and they promise happiness in the form of some new possession.
But new stuff won’t make us happy. Wealth is always relative. We’re not comparing ourselves to our grandparents who had so much less than us. We’re comparing ourselves to our neighbours who have just a little more than us. We’re comparing ourselves to the person at work who bought a new boat or a more expensive car. We feel envious, we feel left behind. We feel like we have to catch up.
The world’s version of success makes us anxious that we don’t have enough and that we’re failures. It’s tempting to think that even though this picture of success doesn’t work for me, it works for the successful. But it’s not true. Jesus’s parable of the rich fool in Luke 12:13-21 tells us that the world’s version of success doesn’t work for the rich and successful either.
In October last year, the businessman John Ilhan, owner of the Crazy John stores, died of a heart attack. He was 42 and he had millions of dollars that were no longer any good to him.
In January, the world was shocked by the death of Heath Ledger. He was just 28 years old, and he was the picture of success. He had done so well for himself. He was recognised as one of the best young actors and he had millions of dollars. Yet what does it count for when you die? His death came suddenly and unexpectedly.
We don’t know when we’re going to die, and death makes all our worldly achievements seem unimportant.
Jesus knew this and that’s why he preached that parable of the rich fool. The rich fool thinks he is in control of his life, that he has achieved success that will last. And yet he dies, and his huge barn is no good to him. Instead of being rich toward himself and his own fulfilment, he should have been rich toward God.
Jesus says in Mark 8:35-36, ‘For whoever wants save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the gospel will save it. What good is it for man to gain the whole world, yet forfeit his soul?’
Kingdom style success is different. The kingdom of God is upside down. Jesus told us that the poor are rich in the kingdom. That sad people will be comforted. That the shy and meek people will own the whole world.
In the world’s eyes, Jesus didn’t lead a successful life at all. He spent the first thirty years at home making furniture. It was a simple, practical job. He wasn’t ambitious or wealthy. He just spent his time loving those around him, loving God and doing his work. When he started his ministry, he spent three years going between the different towns. He had quite a few followers, but not nearly as many as the typical attendance at Riverview or Perth Christian Life Centre. He announced that the kingdom of God was here and that he was the new king. But then he got executed for it. He didn’t write any books, make any money or even become popular in his own home town.
So what was success for Jesus? For Jesus, success was obedience to his Father, the Lord God. Obedience meant doing what he was asked even when it was painful and foolish. For Jesus, success was spending time with the left out people, the people who had demons and mental illness. The people who were sick. The poor people. The tax collectors – cheating public servants who had made themselves rich by betraying their own people.
We haven’t learnt enough about success from Jesus. Even as Christians, we still take on board the message of success that the world gives us. Even in our decisions in the church we do it. So I want to tell the stories of two Christians who decided to aim for kingdom success.
The first is John Alexander. This man used to be a Christian celebrity. He won a prestigious Oxford scholarship and had a spectacular academic career. He wrote Christian books and did speaking tours of the world. He was a picture of success. You might think that because he was doing all these things for the church, that he was successful in the kingdom of God.
But John decided otherwise. At age fifty, he left behind all that success and took up a job as the pastor of a small house church of less than twenty people. He spent his time helping the people in that small church. He spent a lot of time travelling around to small Christian communities helping them to make peace. He didn’t get much money or glory for this, but he was being rich towards God. Once he drove for forty hours across America to visit another Christian community and to help them paint their house. He could have been speaking to crowds of thousands, but instead he was finding that God was at work in the small things.
According to his friend, Chris Rice, John Alexander redefined success like this: ‘It’s caring for each other, forgiving each other and washing the dishes, especially across the lines of race and class.’ And this is so true. Even in the church we have so many rich people, and so many people who have written lots of books. But we don’t have enough people who care for each other, who forgive each other, and who wash the dishes. Especially when you’re daring to do that with people from a different race or a different class.
At sixty years old, John died of leukemia in 2001. None of the Christian celebrities he used to hang out with turned up for the funeral. He was buried in a simple pine casket built by the brothers of his church. Etched into the side were the words ‘it is well with my soul’. The church sisters wrapped him in a quilt made of patches of his clothing. His widow said, ‘Not many people die with so much love around them.’
John’s story moves me so much because he was a man who truly knew what Jesus meant about saving your life when you give it up for him.
The second story I want to share with you is that of a priest named Henri Nouwen, who died in 1996. Henri’s story is quite similar to John’s. I’ll read you an edited version of some of Philip Yancey’s obituary for Henri:
Trained in Holland as a psychologist and a theologian, Nouwen spent his early years achieving. He taught at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, averaged more than a book a year, and traveled widely as a conference speaker. He had a résumé to die for-which was the problem, exactly. The pressing schedule and relentless competition were suffocating his own spiritual life.
Nouwen was invited to the L’Arche Community, a home for the seriously disabled. He spent the last ten years of his life there, caring for a seriously disabled man named Adam who couldn’t speak or dress himself or do anything for himself. Henri lived with Adam in a simple house with no calendar and no computer. His small room had a single bed and a bookshelf. Henri spent over two hours every day just getting Adam ready. Philip Yancey writes:
I must admit I had a fleeting doubt as to whether this was the best use of the busy priest’s time. Could not someone else take over the manual chores? When I cautiously broached the subject with Nouwen himself, he informed me that I had completely misinterpreted him. “I am not giving up anything,” he insisted. “It is I, not Adam, who gets the main benefit from our friendship.”
All day Nouwen kept circling back to my question, bringing up various ways he had benefited from his relationship with Adam. It had been difficult for him at first, he said. Physical touch, affection, and the messiness of caring for an uncoordinated person did not come easily. But he had learned to love Adam, truly to love him. In the process he had learned what it must be like for God to love us-spiritually uncoordinated, retarded, able to respond with what must seem to God like inarticulate grunts and groans. Indeed, working with Adam had taught him the humility and “emptiness” achieved by desert monks only after much discipline.
Nouwen has said that all his life two voices competed inside him. One encouraged him to succeed and achieve, while the other called him simply to rest in the comfort that he was “the beloved” of God. Only in the last decade of his life did he truly listen to that second voice.
We can’t take these two Christians’ lives as blueprints for how we live. Whatever God wants us to do, it’s not exactly the same as someone else. But we should take their lives as examples to learn from, of two Christians who sought God earnestly. God showed them that success wasn’t what they thought, and they were obedient. In giving up the world’s version of success, they found a deeper contentment and were rich towards God.
What I’m saying is very hard, because I can’t tell you exactly what you should do. But I’ll give you two practical tips to help you on the way:
1. Think about avoiding advertisements as much as possible. They give you the wrong idea of success. You could put up a ‘no junk mail’ sign on your letterbox. You could turn the sound off during the ad breaks on television. If you don’t know about all the stuff the world thinks you should have, you won’t feel like you’re missing out.
2. The best place to start this process of seeking the kingdom of God first, of seeking to be rich towards God, is to read the gospels and see what Jesus had to say about what’s important. Get his ideas of success into your mind and spirit. Make your priorities the priorities of the kingdom of God. Then when you pray and listen to discern what God wants, you’re more likely to hear it properly.
As you start to live with God’s idea of success, you’ll become less anxious. Your treasure can no longer be stolen by thieves or a plunging stock market, because it’s secure with God.
But you need to be alert, because the world’s values will keep pulling you back. You need to keep refreshing yourselves with Jesus’ teachings about success.