The Problem with Having It All
1 Kings 11:1-13
Sunday, October 21, 2012
Jim, Joe and Bob found themselves stranded on a deserted island. Having been shipwrecked, they began to discuss what each had within their possession that might aide them in being rescued. Jim spoke first and said, “don’t worry fellas, I have a ham radio with me. Perhaps I can connect with someone, give them our coordinates and surely help will soon be on the way.” Joe shared next. “Well,” he said, “if that doesn’t work, I happen to have a flare gun with me. I am sure if we wait until night and fire the gun, hopefully there will be a ship that sees the flare.”
Bob, having heard from his two friends, spoke last. “If the ham radio or the flare gun doesn’t work, you both need to know that I have been tithing for the last five years.” “Tithing?” Joe and Jim responded in unison, “what in the world does that have to do with anything?” “Let me explain,” Bob continued. “Five years ago, I made a salary of $50,000 and I tithed on that amount. The next year our business took off and for the following four years my income basically doubled every year and my wife and I continued to tithe. Last year, I made a salary of $800,000 and we maintained our commitment by tithing.” “Listen,” Joe interrupted. “I am real proud of your Christian commitment and your support of the church. But I don’t get it, what in the world does that have to do with our getting off this island.” “What I am telling you guys,” Bob said emphatically, “is that my pastor will find us!”
I love that little joke and I share it with you this morning because lots of folks, and maybe many of you, think that story has a lot of truth in it. What I mean by that is that there are many people both in and outside of the church who think that Christian leaders talk way too much about money. Their sense is that this is the topic that drives us and the reason it does is that we simply want to line our own pockets and the pockets of the church.
While I will be the first to admit that church leaders and their congregations are not always the best users of the financial resources they are given, to say that the reason that churches and church leaders talk about money and possessions so much is purely for selfish reasons is a very misplaced idea. In truth, the main reason that this topic is so much at the forefront of our life together is because this topic is also at the forefront of the New Testament. In fact, did you know that there are few topics that Jesus talked about more? Why? It is actually quite simple. The reason is because for many of us there is no aspect of our lives that we struggle more with than the temptation to allow possessions or personal success to define who we in a deeper way than does our relationship with God.
This is not only true for us, but it was also true for Solomon whose story is at the center of our worship today. And, it is in revisiting Solomon’s story that we find some good basic guidance for our own struggles with resources and possessions that continue to dominate our lives all of these centuries later.
The Solomon story truly is an amazing one. On the one hand, there really was no person in the ancient world who rivaled his wisdom. Solomon really did understand how life was to be lived and in his early years as Israel’s leader, he made all of the right decisions. I say that not simply because of the shrewd leadership or political moves that he made but also because of the important decisions that he made when it came to the role that God had in his life. As we read the scriptural description of Solomon’s early life as King, what we find is that while he was the leader of the Israelite people, his primary devotion and his primary focus remained on his relationship with God. Perhaps this reality is seen nowhere more clearly than in the story of Solomon’s dream found in I Kings 3. In the dream, which again takes place very early in his political career, God invites Solomon to ask for whatever his heart desires and Solomon replies by asking for wisdom as he seeks to lead the Israelite people well and to live obediently for God. Among all of the things he could have asked for, this is what Solomon desired most.
By the time we reach chapter 11 of I Kings, however, things have changed dramatically. Solomon’s focus is no longer on following God’s wisdom. Instead, he is now zeroed in on his own ideas of what he can do in order to continually build upon his success, wealth and his power. In fact, the desire to become more successful, wealthier and even more powerful had begun to consume Solomon’s life. What was once simply an outgrowth of his obedience to God is now the driving force in his life. As a result, Solomon does what so many people do, he begins to rationalize anything that can lead toward those ends. In Solomon’s case, one of the things that helps him reach those ends is marrying the daughters of countless neighboring rulers. This unique way of creating political alliances however also comes with significant issues. With each new foreign wife comes a new culture, new gods to worship and a new outlook on life and ethics. Yet, since these actions help Solomon to continue his quest for more – more power, more wealth and more prestige, he rationalizes the situation by seeing the ends as far outweighing any concerns over the means. And, as you all know, Solomon gains the world but he loses his soul. Said another way, he exchanges the true God for the gods of wealth, power and prestige and in the end, it costs him everything.
This morning, let me suggest to us that Solomon’s story strongly reminds us of a couple of things we should never forget. First, Solomon’s story reminds us that if God is firmly at the center of our lives, then the desire to grow as a person of means and significance can always be kept in its rightful place. Thinking about this statement reminds me of an old adage that many financial advisors use when it comes to personal savings. What is often pointed out is that most folks get it backwards when it comes to saving money. Often times, our strategy is that once we have paid all of the bills and taken care of all of our family needs and wants, then we will look at what we have left over at the end of the month. Whatever that amount is that remains is what we will transfer into our savings account. Unfortunately, however, what remains is often very little money or none at all and thus we get ourselves into a perpetual cycle of reaching the end of the month and having nothing left for savings. The reverse strategy however is to begin the month by putting a designated amount into savings. Then, everything else has to fit into whatever funds remain. What we find, wonder of wonders, is that somehow, everything that is needed is still often able to be taken care of and still can be accomplished. This is the way, according to most financial advisors, that we are most likely to be disciplined when it comes to our savings as we simply reorient our priorities.
The same principle holds true in our relationship with God and it is the idea that benefited Solomon so well in his early life. If we begin with our relationship with God and if that is where we start each day and if that is what always stands as the number one priority in our lives in terms of our commitments then everything else will fall into place just as it should with the time and resources that we have left over, after we have first given ourselves to our relationship with God and to our role within God’s work. This is precisely what happened with Solomon in his early years. His relationship with God and his work for God was Solomon’s first priority. But, this way of living didn’t cause the rest of his life to suffer or to diminish. Ironically, everything else in Solomon’s life fell right into place just as he had hoped and dreamed as a natural byproduct of his commitment to this top priority.
Unfortunately, however, we like Solomon, often work from the opposite end in our relationship with God, just as many of us do when it comes to our financial savings and that leads us to the second principle that we learn from Solomon. If our primary desire is to grow our financial means, our individual significance or any other life focus for that matter then it is virtually impossible to maintain a right relationship with God. If all of this other stuff becomes our primary focus and if we begin to simply work God into the equation with what is left over, slowly but surely, God will be further and further marginalized to the corners until we reach a point as did Solomon where God and God’s kingdom has a very, very small place in our lives. That is what happened with Solomon. As he grew older, all of these other desires became his top priority and God simply faded to the background. In the eyes of the world, Solomon had it all, but from the perspective of God, Solomon had lost his soul.
Let me speak very honestly and say that this happens in countless ways and in countless areas in our lives. We don’t mean for it to happen but it does. Whether it is our drive for success and a desire to reach financial goals, our commitment to other personal dreams, our focus on our children and their activities and drive to accomplish their goals or just a focus on a personal hobby – all of us enter seasons in our lives where something other than God becomes the driving force in our lives. In other words, everything else gets scheduled around making sure that we can accomplish that particular task or goal. Whatever it is, whatever it is, if it is anything our than our relationship with God and our commitment to God’s church, our relationship with God and our commitment to God’s work will suffer – period. No exceptions.
These vases that we started worship with today are the classic example. If we start with God and the work of God’s kingdom, mysteriously everything else will find its place. But, if we begin with everything else and simply try to fit God in with what is left, it will never, ever work, no matter how hard we try.
This morning, which perspective are you taking? God first and then everything else? Or everything else and then God? The difference could not be more profound….Amen.