WHO ARE WE? A few years ago, when the Berlin wall collapsed, East Berliners were finally allowed to enter West Berlin. Before he left, one East Berliner scrawled this line of graffiti on the wall. We came, we saw, we did a little shopping. That just about sums up what life is about for most people today. We are consumers, first and last, we live to buy. But does that kind of identity satisfy us? Sometimes when I’m driving down the expressway on a bright sunny day, I look out into the distance and see the shimmer on the pavement in the distance. It looks as though a rainstorm just moved through, and the pavement half—a—mile up the road is still wet. But oddly, I never reach that wet pavement. The shimmering pavement is a mirage that’s ever receding. The faster I drive, the faster it moves ahead of me. Satisfying ourselves with what money can buy is also a mirage. If we buy into a consumer identity, we never have enough. Satisfaction is a mirage that is always tantalizingly out of reach. Always receding before us the faster we pursue it. No wonder many of us in North America feel a strange tension about money deep within us. Not that we necessarily feel all that wealthy. Most of us are likely a little behind in our bills and wondering how we are going to catch up. Yet we know enough about the world to know that our lives are nothing like people who live in third world countries, in the Congo, or Indonesia. We have it good. Down deep that creates a rather mixed feeling. We aren’t quite ready to go out and give all our Christmas presents to the poor and eat soup for Sunday dinner. Yet we feel conflicted when it comes to the lifestyle we enjoy. How can we find peace within ourselves? I am going to suggest that peace can only come when we get beyond a consumer identity and see ourselves the way God sees us—as stewards. But to understand that, we are going to have to spend some time in scripture so that we see ourselves the way God sees us. ABRAHAM: RICH MAN—POOR MAN First, I want you to meet the prototype of every believer, Abraham. Abraham, of course, was a rich man long before God seized him and sent him packing out of the familiar surroundings of Ur of the Chaldees. Indeed, Genesis 12 tells us that when God called him to make his move to the Promised Land, he had not only a wealth of possessions to pack up, but a host of servants to help him with the job. But the wealth that Abraham possessed in his home country was only a drop in the bucket compared to what awaited him:
"All the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring like the dust of the earth . . .Go walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I am giving it to you."What do you give to the man who already seems to have everything? Well, in that verse from Genesis 12, we are told that God intends to give him wealth beyond measure! Here is a man who has everything to whom everything will be given! Here is a man who is destined to inherit an entire country! Yet strangely, the man who possessed everything really has nothing. At least, in terms of this land that was to be his. The one who holds the deed to Canaan is a man without even a burial plot to call his own. For when his wife Sarah dies, the grieving Abraham must go to the Hittites and beg to buy some land. Ephron offers to sell. He proceeds to sell Abraham the cave of Macpelah at an inordinate price of 400 shekels of silver. Abraham knows that he is being gouged, but what can he do? The man who is to possess everything is a stranger to this land. He knows that if he turns down Ephron’s offer, he is not likely to get another. Abraham pays far more than the cave is worth. For Abraham has everything—yet he has nothing. Not even a burial site in the local cemetery. Possessing Everything—Having Nothing. That was Abraham’s story. THE LEVITES: RICH TRIBE—POOR TRIBE Now go forward a few centuries and we’ll see that same dynamic emerges again as the promises to Abraham are fulfilled. The twelve tribes sweep into Canaan, led by their God. The land is divided among the tribes. Each family is given their piece of the rock in this land of promise. All are bequeathed the ancient equivalent of the family farm. Why, suddenly it IS as though Abraham’s descendants possess EVERYTHING! After all, this land flowing with milk and honey is now theirs! But for one tribe, different rules apply: the tribe of Levi. The Levis are called to a different way of life. You read about it in Deuteronomy 10.
"The priests who are Levites—indeed the whole tribe of Levi—are to have no allotment with Israel. They shall live on the offerings made to the Lord by fire, which is their inheritance."Now, we have to ask why God made this arrangement. Why were the Levites cut off from the opportunity to build wealth for themselves through the ownership of fields and flocks? They seem to own nothing! Ah, but in a real sense—they possess everything. God goes on to explain in verse 10, "They shall have no inheritance among their brothers. The Lord is their inheritance as he promised them." This is the calling of the Levites. By the very way they live, they are to remind Israel that behind the gift of the land stands the God who gives himself to Israel. The land is not Israel’s by right. Nor is the land Israel’s by force of military might. It is God’s gift. Indeed, all their material possessions were a gift of God’s grace. Everything they possessed came as a fulfillment of the promise to Abraham! The Levites are to be a living, walking, talking reminder of that truth to Israel. In a real way, the Levites have everything—the LORD is their inheritance! And even materially, the Levites live in a rich and prosperous land. They enjoy the riches of Canaan. Yet in a real sense they have nothing. For they are ever dependent upon God’s faithfulness and the faithfulness of God’s people for their daily bread. Possessing everything—Having nothing. INTO THE NEW TESTAMENT AGE—YOUR FUTURE Now, all this sounds very much like an academic Old Testament history lesson, until you move into the New Testament. The Apostle Paul takes these concepts and translates them into a New Testament key. In II Corinthians 6:10, Paul takes this dynamic and applies it to your life and mine. We, he says, are people who live as those "having nothing, yet possessing everything." Having nothing—yet possessing everything! What might that mean? Well, it means, first of all, that we are a very rich people indeed. Someone might brag at school—my daddy owns a factory. I say to you—MY Father owns the whole universe! Indeed, Paul tells us elsewhere that as children of the Heavenly Father we are destined, not merely to inherit Canaan—as did the Old Testament Israelites—but we are destined to inherit the whole earth! I look around at the world and I see its vast resources, its technological marvels. But I also see a world that is today still much influenced by the principalities and powers that oppose God and contradict God’s designs. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the world would be a place where all these resources, all these technologies, all these fields of learning we possess—were under the control of God’s reign?! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if technology never belittled life? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we didn’t have medical procedures that brought death to unborn children? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Internet was simply a conduit for truth and beauty, rather than a sewer for lies and filth? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the entertainment industry celebrated beauty, rather than pandered to raw sexuality? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the communication industry sought to channel truth, rather than manipulative deceptions? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if manufacturers always made products of worth, rather than turned out useless junk that clog our landfills? Imagine such a world where everything is as it should be! And now, I tell you. It’s on its way! For the earth with all its grand possibilities and potential is designed as the inheritance of the children of God! And there is coming a day when it will be ours. People sometimes fret that the new heaven and earth will be a boring place. How much harp playing can you take in a day? Nonsense! Don’t you know that you are destined to inherit the earth! Don’t you know that eternity is spent in unfolding the never—ending possibilities of a creation that is filled with unlimited ways of praising God! This is your future! ALL is yours! You, as a follower of Jesus, are one who possesses everything!! THE IDENTITY OF A STEWARD AH, but Paul would say, you also have nothing. Yes, nothing. What can that mean except that what we possess is not really ours? For all that is ours always belongs to GOD. And we are and remain eternally stewards of God. Now, two things are true of stewards. On the one hand, they possess everything. For all things are under a steward’s management. Yet at the same time, a steward has nothing. For all continues to belong to the master.
Possessing everything—heirs of the world! Yet having nothing—stewards of God! That’s the resolution to the tension found in Paul’s words.Of course, the ultimate steward who demonstrates this identity is none other than Jesus Christ himself. Paul in Philippians tells us that Christ possessed all things—even the very nature of God. Yet he emptied himself, and made himself nothing. Why? In order to be a servant. Or perhaps you might say, in order to be a STEWARD—a steward who will set all things right to the honor of his Father. Christ, the ultimate Steward, has redeemed us. He has commissioned us to be like him. He has called us to practice our own stewardship, and so fulfill our vocation to be people who bear a resemblance to Christ, our Savior, our elder brother. THE STEWARD’S MANDATE But that means very honestly, we weren’t placed on this earth to consume, but to care! To be care—givers to God’s creation. In fact in Genesis, 1:28, you find our mandate to do just that. That verse is sometimes called the ‘cultural mandate.’ It’s the marching orders to God’s image—bearers. It reads this way, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." That’s pretty strong language. It picks up the truth that stewards possess everything. The creation mandate has sometimes been used to justify the abuse of God’s good earth. Ruling and subduing has sometimes been translated into raping and plundering the creation. The result has been ruined rivers and fouled air. Countless animal species have been driven to the brink of extinction and beyond because broken, fallen human beings have assumed that our identity as image—bearers means that we can do what we want, that we can consume at will. But Genesis makes clear that there are boundaries to this ruling and subduing. Genesis 2:15 tells us that Adam was placed in the Garden to ‘work it and care for it." The words used here in the Hebrew mean ‘serve, preserve, keep, safeguard." That’s the other side of being a steward—we possess everything, but we have nothing because all that we have is on loan from God. For all that we have remains entrusted to us from God, its Maker! It means that we are called to be care—givers for God’s world. Now, that means that our identity as stewards goes far beyond just managing money. Our calling as stewards intersects with everything we do on Planet Earth. For everything on this planet belongs to God, he owns every square inch. And everything we do is simply the work of care—management for God. Now, very frankly, our management style doesn’t generally measure up to the great expectations of God that have been laid on us. Most of us aren’t very careful earth—keepers. An example? Those little Styrofoam cups we drink from? They never—and I repeat—never disintegrate when tossed into a landfill. We burn through our natural resources as though we have an endless supply. It’s time for us to face up to who we are. Not consumers, but care—givers, care—givers of the creation. And why? Because only when we do will we really assume the role that God has placed over us in our world today. The problems that we face in our world today are problems that aren’t going to be solved by government and business alone. If you think that those sources can solve the world’s challenges, think again. Recently, two scientists—one a chemist the other an anthropologist, issued a report which said that they saw no hope for Planet Earth coming from the disciplines to which they had devoted their lives. If there is an answer, they said, it will not come from a political party or from some big oil company. The answer, said these two scientists will come from THE CHURCH! From the church! What an amazing thing to say! Why would the church have the answers? Why? Because the church is entrusted with the truth of God and the truth of God helps us understand who we really are—stewards of God, earth—keepers for the sake of God’s Kingdom. Perhaps we can learn from those Christians who are known as Mennonites. The Mennonites speak of the days when ‘soil evangelists’ used to make the rounds of churches and farm gatherings to ask for commitments from the farmers to save the soil for future generations in obedience to God. For as one Amish proverb puts it, we don’t inherit the world from our ancestors—we borrow it from our children. Those ‘soil evangelists’ basically said—stewardship begins with ourselves. We can’t solve all the world’s problems today. But we can begin to see ourselves as stewards over the small corner of the planet God has given each of us to care for. Maybe that’s why I picked up some rather nauseating trash the other day the nature of which will remain unmentioned. Maybe that is why I tore up the back part of our lot to plant a garden. After all, when we confess that we are stewards of God’s creation, the calling begins at home. Thinking globally means we also work locally. This is who you are. God’s steward. No higher calling in our world is possible.