Wealth Has Gravity

This week we kicked off a brand new teaching series called Gravity: Overcoming the Weight of Our Stuff.  For the next few weeks we are going to take a look at the pull that our stuff can have on our lives, including keeping us from drawing as near to God as we would like, and how we can overcome it.  In this first part, we look at just how strong this pull can be.  Thanks for being a part of this conversation.

Wealth Has Gravity

Rich people have it made, don’t they?  I mean, if you’re rich and something breaks, you can just call someone to come fix it.  Better yet, you can just throw the old one out and get a new one.  When you’re rich and a new version of something you have comes out, you can just go and get an upgrade.  When you’re rich, you don’t have to do things like wait in line at a theme park.  You can just pay extra money and walk right to the front.  When you’re rich, you don’t have to worry about transportation.  You can just drive one of the multiple cars you own.  Or, forget that, you can hire someone to drive for you.  Think about that: When you’re rich, you can get someone whose job is to drive people around and have them drive you around wherever you want to go.  And oh, the things you can buy.

Rich people can buy ice cubes.  Poor people have to go to their freezer and use whatever shape of ice their fridge makes.  Rich people can buy custom, hand-carved blocks of ice that are perfect cubes.  They chill your drink more effectively and melt more slowly.  They can be yours for only $305 for a bag of 50.  Some of you have golf carts and like to use those to get around town.  When you’re rich, you don’t have to settle for a golf cart with wheels.  You can get a hovercraft golf cart for a mere $58,000.  I know we have some motorcycle enthusiasts in here.  If going fast is your thing, and you happen to be rich, you can get the Dodge Tomahawk V10 Super Bike.  For only $700,000 you too can go from 0-60 mph in 2.5 seconds and cruise down 24-27 in excess of 300 mph.  Imagine how short the trip to Albemarle would be then.

Or perhaps you’re a fan of classic board games.  If you were rich you could buy an 18-karat gold, jewel-encrusted Monopoly set for $2 million.  $2.3 million could get you the PrestigeHD Supreme Rose Edition TV whose case is made from handsewn alligator skin and enough diamonds to make sure it sparkles.  If none of those strike your fancy, I know some of you are fisherman.  Rich people probably catch more fish when they use their custom-designed lure made of 3 pounds of gold and platinum and covered with 100-karats of diamonds and rubies.  At $5 million, though, you may want to make sure your line doesn’t break.  Who enjoys coming down for the cruise-in each month?  You could be the envy of the group if you were rich and drove up next time in a 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO.  For $35 million it could be yours.  And, if none of those things get your blood pumping because you are just so rich, I suspect I could get you interested in the History Supreme Yacht.  Made with over 110 tons of gold, including a solid gold hull, and decorated with T-rex bones and meteorites, this beauty rings up at $4.8 billion with a “B.”

You know what the really silly thing about all of these items is, right?  Someone actually owns all of them…meaning they paid for all of them.  Even the yacht.  People with money do some crazy things, don’t they?  I recently re-watched the live action Flinstones movie with the boys the other day.  There’s a sequence in the middle when Fred gets really rich.  He and Wilma redecorate their house, add an addition, buy a new car, replace everything old and out of date they have, buy new wardrobes, and generally start acting like they’re better than everybody else.  Being rich may be grand, but there’s something about being rich that can get in your head and mess you all up.

More than that, though, there’s something about being rich that can pull you in and not let you go.  I think the reason for this is that wealth, money, stuff has a kind of force of gravity to it.  Now, we all know what gravity is.  It’s the force that keeps us from flying off the earth.  If the earth didn’t have any gravity, when you jumped, you’d just float off into space.  Sir Isaac Newton offered the first definition of gravity and it’s still used today by most people because it’s still understood to be basically correct, and also because Einstein’s more accurate definition is way more complicated than most people can get their minds around.  Newton said that gravity is a force of attraction between two bodies.  The larger the proportionate difference between the two bodies, the stronger the force of attraction between them will be.  In other words, something really small is attracted to something really big more than two things of about the same size are attracted to each other.

Beyond physical gravity, though, there are other forces of attraction in our lives.  The last-minute snack and toy displays flanking the cash registers at most stores have a gravity for the hands of young children.  It’s like they walk in between the two displays and are drawn inexorably to one side or the other.  A TV that’s on has a gravity for our eyes.  Try walking by a TV playing something even remotely interesting and not looking at it.  It takes a real effort.  I walked into Sam’s the other day.  One of their big screen TVs was on and I couldn’t even tell what it was showing.  All the same, my eyes were glued to it until I had walked all the way past it.  For most folks today, our phones have a gravity for our hands.  A study from a couple of years ago found that the average cellphone user touches it over 2,600 times per day—that’s almost twice a minute.

When we study the Scriptures, there are a couple of things that are framed as having gravity in our lives.  One of these is God.  That shouldn’t really come as a surprise.  The closer we get to God, the more we are drawn to Him.  The nearer we are to Jesus, the more we want to be with Him.  Throughout His ministry, Jesus drew all kinds of people to Himself.  And, generally speaking, the closer they got, the closer they wanted to be.  That is, they wanted to be closer unless they had something else in their lives whose pull kept them from Him for some reason.

The other thing the Scriptures describe in a way we could characterize as having gravity is equally obvious if you think about it, we just don’t very often: Stuff.  Our stuff has a force of gravity in our lives.  The more of it we get, the more we are drawn to it.  There’s a reason that, generally speaking, the wealthier someone is, the less generous they become with their stuff.  Now, this doesn’t necessarily mean we shouldn’t have stuff—the Scriptures never take up that position and at times are explicit about God giving people lots of stuff as a reward for their faithfulness (remember the end of Job’s story?).  But, if we are going to have stuff—and most of us in this room have a lot of stuff—we have to know how to overcome its gravitational pull in our lives so that we aren’t drawn to it and away from God.

Well, this morning marks the beginning of a new teaching series called Gravity: Overcoming the Weight of our Stuff.   For the next few weeks, we are going to take a look at the gravitational pull of our stuff and how we can overcome it.  And this is something we want to overcome too, because if we let it, our stuff can keep us from getting as close to Jesus as we desire.  To understand why this is we need only go back to Newton’s explanation of how gravity works.  The larger the proportionate difference between two bodies, the stronger the gravitational pull of the larger on the smaller will be.  Jesus Himself said that we cannot serve both God and our stuff.  Whichever looms largest in our lives is the one that will pull on our lives the hardest.  In other words, if we are going to avoid the gravity of our stuff, we have to figure out a way for it to be smaller than Jesus in our lives.  For the next few weeks, I’d like to tell you how to do that.

This morning we are going to start by taking a little closer look at the gravity of our stuff and just how strong its pull on our lives can be.  We’re going to do this by taking a look at an encounter Jesus had with a young man whose stuff got in the way of following Him.  If you have a Bible in some form, find your way to Mark 10:17 and take a look at this with me.

Jesus had finally spent enough time roaming the countryside preaching the kingdom of God.  He was ready to begin what would be a long, winding journey to Jerusalem.  Just as He was preparing to be on His way with the disciples, a young man ran up to Him.  Usually, the general movements of a rabbi with a profile as high as Jesus were well-known much like the travel schedule of a Senator or Congressman might be.  This man may have traveled a great distance to catch Jesus before He set out on the road again.  Just as Jesus was about to leave, he breathlessly runs up, falls to his knees, and asks Jesus the question that has been burning on his heart and mind: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, Jesus probably got asked this question a lot.  People had heard about Him talking about the kingdom of God and eternal life for quite a while now and the prospect of not dying is a pretty powerful drug.  We don’t know how He usually answered, but this time it almost seems like He was trying to put the guy off so He didn’t get drawn into a long conversation when He was trying to get on the road.  You know what that’s like.  He starts with a mild chastisement in the form of a theological claim to a co-equal status with God.  Look at this in v. 18: “And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone.’”  The tip off of Jesus’ real intent is clear in the fact that He doesn’t refuse the acclamation of being good, He roots such an attestation in its proper source and implicitly claims it as His own.  “You say that I’m good.  You’re right: I am good.  But, since only God is good, then I must be God.”  By the way, only three kinds of people would ever say something like that: Someone who’s evil, someone who’s nuts, or someone who’s telling the truth.

Then, Jesus offers what was probably something like the standard response of the day: “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’”  In other words, “Be a good little Jewish boy and keep the Law and you’ll be in good shape.”  But, if this was supposed to put this man off, it didn’t do the trick.  “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.”  He might have said something like this: “I’ve already done those.  What else is there?”  And though he couldn’t have known it at the time, when this guy pushed back a bit, he got Jesus’ attention in a really good way.

Look at this in v. 21: “And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”  Now, forget about all the famous stuff there for just a minute and focus in on that last part.  All throughout Jesus’ ministry, once He had gained sufficient status, people would come up to Him and essentially apply to be one of His disciples.  And over and over again Jesus turned them down.  He was really selective in terms of who He let follow Him as any more than a general member of the crowd.  This guy wasn’t even asking to be Jesus’ follower and He got an offer anyway.  This would be a little like a business school student catching Warren Buffet at a conference, asking him a question, and having Warren respond by saying, “Say, do you want to come and study business with me for a while?”  This was an opportunity that no one in their right mind then would have refused.  Of course you take it!  You sell whatever you have to and you follow the most famous rabbi in the region; the rabbi who may actually be the Messiah.

But he couldn’t.  He couldn’t because stuff has gravity and his stuff was big.  One of the real challenges in the early days of the space program was figuring out how to break free from earth’s gravitational pull.  We could get ships really high up in the air, but there was this kind of wall keeping them from getting all the way into outer space.  It took an incredible amount of thrust to achieve that.  This man ran to Jesus as hard as he could, but he couldn’t quite overcome the pull of his stuff.  It was like a tether snapping him back to his home when he had drifted too far.  Now, commentators have argued for centuries about whether or not Jesus’ command to sell everything he had and give the proceeds to the poor was meant for him alone or as a general prescription for following Him, but I don’t think that’s the real point here.  The real point is that for this guy, the only way he was going to break free from the gravitational pull his stuff was to make it smaller.  That may be the case in your life, or it may not be.  I don’t know what your situation is.  For this guy, though, he couldn’t do it.  Verse 22: “Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”  Wealth has gravity.  And the larger it looms in our lives, the harder it will be for us to get as close to Jesus as we desire.

What happens next gets even harder.  Jesus looks around at the guys and they’re just kind of in shock from what they’ve just witnessed.  They were probably thinking that was a pretty ridiculous ask by Jesus.  I mean, sure, they’d been asked to basically walk away from their previous lives to be one of His disciples, but He hadn’t asked them to sell everything they owned.  They still had their stuff waiting for them back home if they ever got there.  But still, they’d seen how many people Jesus had turned away.  For this guy to actually get an invitation to be a part of their group and refuse it absolutely blew their minds.  Jesus wanted to get on the road, but a good teacher knows when a teaching moment has presented itself, and so Jesus took it.  Look at v. 23 now: “And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’  And the disciples were amazed at his words.  But Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’”

If they were struggling before to get their hearts and minds around what they had just seen and heard, now they were just dumbfounded.  “And they were exceedingly astonished and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?’”  Now, why would they say that?  As I said a minute ago, people have struggled for a long time with what exactly Jesus meant by all of this.  Was He anti-wealth?  Was He anti-rich people?  Was this a one-time deal or a general prescription for life?  We want very much to find an easy way out from under what seems to be a pretty heavy load here.  The idea that rich people might have a functionally impossible time getting into heaven bothers us.  It bothered the disciples, too, but not quite in the same way.  In their minds, wealth was an obvious sign of God’s favor.  If God was happy with you, He gave you more stuff.  End of story.  Jesus’ words sat uneasily with them because it turned how they normally thought over on its head.  Jesus had a way of doing that.

For us, though, we react to these words because, well, we’re rich.  The problem is that we don’t think we are.  The reason for that is, quite simply, misinformation when it comes to global economics.  By a show of hands, how many of you would be willing to agree with the statement that extreme poverty is something that affects much of the world?  Twenty years ago you would have been right.  In the mid-1990s, 37% of the world population lived on less than $1.90 per day which is the official designation for “extreme poverty.”  Living at 10x that level still isn’t great by any standard, but this is extreme poverty we’re talking about.  Today that number has fallen to 10% of the global population.  And it isn’t just that a whole bunch of people went from making $1.89 per day to $1.91 per day.  Income rates and standards of living across the globe are on an incline unlike at any other point in human history.  In other words, things are better financially around the world than they’ve ever been.  But still, by comparison, we’re so far ahead of most of the rest of the world it’s just silly.  The average annual household income in the U.S. is just over $57,000.  That’s just over $156 per day.

The point here is this: On a worldwide scale, we are rich beyond what we can really get our minds around.  Even poor people in the U.S. have a standard of living several times beyond what most folks in the world could even imagine.  We’re rich.  This is why we react to Jesus’ words here.  It’s why they make us so uncomfortable.  If we’re rich and if Jesus said rich people have an exceedingly difficult time getting into the kingdom of God, then it would seem Jesus thinks we’ll have an exceedingly difficult time getting into the kingdom of God.  Why is this?  Because wealth has gravity.  Wealth has gravity and if we’re not careful, that gravity can pull us away from God.  Wealth’s gravity can pull us away from God.

Now, upon hearing something like that, our first reaction is often to justify.  We’ll often start with the “Well, I’m not really rich,” line of excuse, but I’ve just blown that one out of the water.  Sorry about that.  After this, we might point to something generous we’ve done to certify that we’re not one of “those” rich people.  This is a little like what Peter does in response to Jesus.  Look with me a v. 28: “Peter began to say to him, ‘See, we have left everything and followed you.’”  In other words, “Jesus, we did the thing you asked this guy to do.”  The unspoken follow-up before Jesus cut him off—after all, Peter only began to speak here—was probably something like: “So then, do we get into heaven?”

Let’s just clarify this before going much further.  Jesus Himself made clear that there is but one entrance into the kingdom of God: Him.  We go in through Him or not at all.  When we go before God, if we are covered in Christ, it doesn’t make a bit of difference whether we have $100 billion or barely a single penny to our name.  Grace is extended to every single person who desires to receive it without any respect to anything else about them.  If we want to receive eternal life and are willing to follow Jesus, it’s ours.  Period.  But, like this young man experienced, there are some things that can get in the way.  More specifically, there are some things that can pull us back from giving ourselves wholly over to following Jesus.  In fact, there are lots of things.  Collectively we might call all of these things “stuff,” or perhaps “wealth.”  Wealth has gravity and just like the gravity of earth pulls aspiring astronauts who don’t have sufficient thrust to break from it and reach the wonders of outer space, so our wealth can pull us back to it when we set out to give ourselves fully to Jesus.  Wealth’s gravity can pull us away from God.

As a matter of fact, depending on how large our stuff looms in our lives, reaching out and connecting with God through Christ can become impossible.  As Jesus said to the disciples as they were picking their jaws up off of the ground: “With man it is impossible.”  And just so we’re clear: I’m not here talking about how much stuff we have.  I’m talking about how large the stuff we do have looms in our lives.  Our stuff can loom large in our lives and exert a powerful gravitational pull on our hearts whether we have a lot of it or a little of it.  This young man happened to have a lot of it, but there have been not a few miserly poor people who clung to what little they did have with all the tenacity of Ebenezer Scrooge himself.  The point is not how much we have, but how much it has us.  Wealth has gravity.  The bigger a thing it is in our lives, the harder it pulls us back toward it when we try to drift or even just walk away from it.  And the really hard truth is that wealth’s gravity can pull us away from God.  Wealth’s gravity can pull us away from God.

Okay, well how do we break free from it?  That’s what we’re going to spend the next three weeks talking about.  You won’t want to miss a single part of the conversation.  For now, though, let me leave you with two things to keep all of this at the front of your mind and to get you ready for what’s coming next.  The first thing is this: Wealth’s gravity can pull us away from God.  If we’re going to break free from the sometimes iron grip that our stuff can have on our lives, we’re going to have to start with a clear acknowledgement of the truth: Wealth’s gravity can pull us away from God.  It doesn’t pull us away from God only, though.  It can pull us away from people too.  Have you ever had a relationship become fractured over money?  I’ve done a bunch of funerals in ten years of ministry and I’ve seen families at each other’s throats—sometimes before the casket is covered in dirt—more often than I’d care to count.  All over stuff.  Stuff that when they die, their kids are either going to fight over or else throw away.  All this because wealth has gravity.

And if that isn’t enough, think back to the rich young ruler.  He had Jesus standing in front of him offering him the same invitation He had issued to guys like Matthew and Peter and John: Follow Me.  Who gets that from Jesus?  I mean, all of us, sure, but then?  Almost nobody.  Only 12 guys ever when He was on earth.  This guy made 13.  And he didn’t take it.  Because he had great possessions.  The gravity of his wealth kept him from following Jesus.  If he experienced this tough truth with Jesus standing right in front of him, how much more will we experience it when, should our Lord tarry, we’re not going to lay eyes on Jesus in the same way until we die?  Meanwhile, we’re faced with pressures and issues concerning our stuff on a daily basis.  A bill comes in higher than you expected.  A car breaks down.  Your kids’ school is asking for money…again.  Ball season is starting back up.  The pharmacy provider raised the price of your medicine.  There’s a leak under the house.  Who knows what it will be, but that’s life.  And every time we experience it, we are pulled by the gravity of our stuff away from living the life of Jesus as freely and fully as we’d like.  Wealth’s gravity can pull us away from God.

So, what do we do?  This is the second thing: We make it small.  Remember what gravity is?  A force of attraction between two bodies made stronger the greater the difference is in their proportionate sizes.  In other words, a small body gets drawn to the nearest large one.  The larger our stuff looms in our lives, the harder it will pull on us.  The larger Jesus looms, though, the harder He will.  Come back next week as we start talking about how to make that happen.

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