What would Jesus have us do in the midst of economic crisis? Mike Woodruff offers answers to that question that push us to gain new perspectives on the issues involved. Along with the sermon manuscript, Mike offers a helpful preface, explaining the background to the message.
Introductory Comments from Mike Woodruff
As I was preparing my message for Sunday, October 5, 2008, I realized I would be looking into the eyes of some folks who were quite scared about the economy. Some had recently lost their job. Others were working in the financial markets and dealing with clients who were starting to panic. The 700-point drop in the Dow clearly had peoples' attention. Though I had planned to preach on another topic, I changed my plans on Wednesday morning and decided to try to answer a critical question in a different sermon: "What would Jesus say to those who are worried about our economy?"
I wrote the message on Wednesday afternoon, and I immediately sent that draft to three folks who work in the financial sector and a couple of the other pastors on our staff. Their feedback was helpful and led to a few modifications. The most prevailing thought was that I was not being as merciful as Jesus would be. I thought that was ironic—especially since my initial motivation for preaching on this topic was to offer hope. I did a bit of restructuring. If CD sales are any indication of when a message connects with people, this one did a better job than most I preach!
Over the course of the last few weeks, many who watch our financial markets have gotten motion sickness from the sharp ups and downs—mostly downs. Insurance companies have teetered. Investment banks have folded. Stock prices have plummeted. This has led to a lot of sleepless nights. It has led to some gallows humor about corporate executives taking second jobs flipping burgers. Retirees are cashing out their 401K plans in order to fill their car with gas. The financial crisis has also led to some anger. People are mad at the system, mad at the banks, mad at those who defaulted, mad at the business leaders who didn't see it coming, and mad at Congress for their lack of regulations, wrong regulations, or too many regulations. Many of us have experienced some sleepless nights due to fear and anxiety. I'd like to weigh in on the matter. I realize that you've heard a lot about all of this already, and that you might not want to hear anymore, but I'd like to share what I think Jesus would say at a time like this.
I'm not going to cover what Jesus might say about our economic system per se. I'm a bit conflicted about capitalism. It is clearly the best economic system; it has generated wealth that has helped many people; it has created disposable income, much of which is directed to the poor. There are clear upsides to the system. But as Adam Smith points out in Wealth of Nations, it is largely based on self-interest. Those who understand capitalism know that it can fuel greed, and when left unchecked by Christian conviction, it can get even uglier.
Though there are things that might be said about the declining sense of personal responsibility we now face, I am not here to examine what Jesus would say about that issue. Societies such as ours are built on trust. At the end of the day, we rely on each other to act with a sense of honor and responsibility. When people or institutions take on more debt than they can possibly manage—just because someone has made it easy for them to do so—there is a certain belief that they will honor their commitments. I am not an economist, but I get very nervous when we rely more and more on individuals or the government to make things right.
All the questions we have about these issues are important, but I want to talk about what Jesus would say specifically to you. In particular, what would he say to those of you who have had a very anxious week? I want to spend our time together reminding you that God is sovereign—he is in control and loving. You are not to be anxious for anything, but in everything, by prayer and supplication, you are to make your requests known to him. And the peace that surpasses all understanding will guard your heart and your mind. With that in mind, I have four things I think Christ would point out in the midst of our economic situation.
Jesus wants the downturn in our market to remind us that this world is not our home.
First of all, I suspect Christ might point out that the downturn in our market has not really changed anything important. The simple-but-frequently-forgotten truth is this: the world is broken and our systems are fragile because the world is populated by fragile and broken people. Many people try to do the right thing, while others do not. All struggle with their own selfishness and greed and limits. There are periods of time when we forget that our world is broken, and we start to believe that we are going to work everything out—that the wonderful advances in science are going to keep us going, that hard work and goodwill can promote peace, that the market will only go up, that stocks will only grow in value. But terrorists and cancer and 700-point drops in the market have a way of reminding us that this is a broken world. They remind us that things are not as they were before sin entered the scene—and things are not what they will be when Christ returns!
It's not an all-together bad thing to be reminded that we are not home yet. In his famous sermon "Learning in War-Time," delivered at Oxford in October of 1939, C. S. Lewis wrote about how little war changes things—how it forces us to face certain realities that we try to avoid. In commenting on the fear war often generates, Lewis said:
No man—and specially no Christian who remembers Gethsemane—need to attain a stoic indifference about these things. But we can guard against the illusions of the imagination. We think of the streets of Warsaw and contrast the deaths there suffered with an abstraction called Life. But there is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that—of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later. What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent. One hundred percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier, but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us. Does it increase our chance of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering, and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all. Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable set of circumstance would? Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why cancer at 60 or paralysis at 75 do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past.
Lewis argues that war forces us to face certain truths we'd rather not face. I think the market instability forces us to face those same things—to realize that this life is not our home. It's a good thing to be reminded of that.
Jesus wants the downturn in the market to give us a new perspective on time.
Secondly, I believe Christ would try to use the downturn in the market to help us reframe our thinking with respect to time. He would want us to look past the short term and focus on a more distant horizon.
When I speak of Jesus wanting us to look past the short term, I am speaking of looking past this life. Short term thinking, then, includes such things as retirement planning. I'm not saying you shouldn't save money for a time when you no longer work for a salary. You should. If you don't, you might be a financial strain to your kids or someone else. But if you are healthy, that should not be the end of the ways you serve or the ways you contribute to the common good. This is the real point here: the end of this life is not the end of our life. We are going to live forever.
Christ's thoughts about the events of the last few weeks have to be framed by the idea that we are going to live forever. The purpose of this life is not to have money in the bank or enjoy an easy retirement. The purpose of this life is to invest the gifts God has given us in his kingdom. It is to see people reconciled to God and to each other. It is to extend his love, his mercy, his grace to others, all in advance of the day we meet in heaven. Your net worth may have been cut in half this week. I am sorry. That is maddening, so no one expects you to be happy about that. But I do think that Jesus would help you reframe your loss in light of a broader time-line, a larger canvas. He would point out that we should not be too consumed with the next fifty years, but also the next fifty thousand years. To quote from Paul, writing in his second letter to the believers in Corinth: "Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal."
This world is not our home, so we are not to be consumed with our comfort at this moment. We are to be consumed with the kingdom of God—with the things that will truly last. Yes, the market has dropped. But nothing in heaven has changed. Jesus is still sovereign. He is still seated at the right hand of the Father. He is still going to come again. None of that depends on a government bail out. Set your mind on things above, not on things on earth. For where your treasure is there will you heart be also.
I recently spoke to Don and Ailsa, a couple who were surrogate parents to my wife and I while we were out in Washington. They helped us in a number of practical ways. They had us over for holidays. They offered counsel at all of the big crossroads of life. They were there for our kids' births and birthdays. Don has always been a mentor to me, even confronting me on things when he knew I was wrong. Don and Ailsa are now in their eighties. I called them on Monday night, and Don was laughing. When I asked why, he said, "Ailsa just said, 'Well, we're poor again, but who cares! We're not going to live that much longer anyway!'" I thought, That's sort of my attitude. Even if I were to live another 80 years, that is nothing in light of forever.
We need a long-term perspective. It is, after all, the only way Christianity makes any sense. Read the Sermon on the Mount again this week. It starts in Matthew 5 or Luke 6. Consider the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst now. Blessed are those who weep. Blessed are you when men hate you because of your work for the kingdom.
As you read, ask yourself if you would sign up for that if it was not followed by "because great is your reward in heaven." Jesus is calling on us to live today in light of eternity. The one with the most toys does not win. The one who invests in what is going to last wins. The one who is a great steward with the resources God has entrusted to him or her wins. The second thing Jesus would say to us in the midst of this market downturn is that we need to extend our horizon. If you have any hope of finding the peace that you are after, you can't focus on the here and now, because Christianity doesn't make any sense here and now. Don't think small thoughts. You were made for more than this!
Jesus wants the downturn in the market to remind us that putting our hope in money is a bad idea.
I believe Christ might also use the market downturn as an opportunity to remind us that putting our hope in money is a bad idea. If we are depressed or mad or fearful, then we have likely put too much trust in money and not enough in God. Perhaps this is a chance to try to move beyond that manner of living.
The Bible says lots of things about money, and most of it is bad. Money itself isn't bad, but it is not neutral. It is far too powerful for that, and it easily does bad things to us. As Paul warns us in his letter to Timothy, "the love of money is the root of all sorts of evil."
Perhaps this is a time to see money's limitations. In Matthew 6, Jesus tells us we have to choose our first love. We cannot serve two masters—God and Mammon—because we will love the one and hate the other. Our heart can easily be tempted to rest with money. It has the power to make us feel safe, to feel like we are independent of God. But it will eventually let us down. We are called to love someone far greater than money. Perhaps the market downturn will serve as a wake-up call—an opportunity to move away from the false sense of security that money provides. This is a chance to be reminded that our most important needs can't be bought with U.S. currency or Euros or even gold. Such things are a free gift from God.
Jesus wants the downturn in the market to give us a more global or historical perspective.
I also suspect that in the midst of this market downturn, Jesus would have us adopt a more global or historical perspective. Even if the markets drop another 700 points—or even 7,000 points—we need to be reminded that most of us will still have a lot more than most.
There are some people who carry a sense of entitlement about them—an assumption that they are owed some measure of health and wealth or ease and comfort. There are some Christians who feel this way as well, often because they listen to preachers who promise them that if they follow God, they will be blessed. To a degree, this is true. The problem is they believe such blessings always include health and wealth right here, right now.
I do not believe that Jesus would accept any of this as a starting point. He would not begin with idea that we are promised an easy life. He came to serve not be served, and he insisted we follow his lead. He told us to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow him. He said that "in this world, you will face many trials." As others have hated Christ, so they will have a certain degree of hatred for us. "The foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests," Christ said, "but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." Throughout the last two thousand years, that is what many of those who have followed Christ have faced. I think that if we suggest we are really suffering because of this market downturn, Christ would help us see just how much we have going for us.
There are a few billion people on this planet trying their best to live on less than 2 dollars a day—close to one billion of those are trying to get by on less than 1 dollar a day. Part of what Jesus would help us gain is some perspective on our condition. Though we may have fallen a great distance, we will almost certainly remain on the top of the socio-economic heap.
Jesus wants the downturn in the market to remind us of his presence.
Finally, I believe that one of the things Christ would say to us in the midst of this financial crisis is that he is present with us. Not only that, but he understands our fear and panic, and he is bigger than both. He wants to remind us that his love for us is greater than any market decline, that we are never alone, that we are not to be troubled or anxious. He wants to remind us that if we will just look to him, we will find peace.
Paul picks up on this theme in his letter to the believers in Philippi, a church he planted. Like the rest of the Christian churches at the time, they were facing persecution. In fact, Paul was in prison at the time of his writing the letter. It was possible he would die because of his faith. Against that backdrop—one not just of financial instability but personal safety—Paul writes:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
God's promises are there for us. But his promise is not a promise that things will turn out the way we want them to. There is no guarantee we will have a life of financial ease. To put it bluntly: God is not that small. What he promises is that everything will be okay. He promises us that we matter to God. He promises us he will exercise his plan—a plan that includes a chance to be with him forever, where there is no fear or pain or anxious moments.
The road between here and there may be rocky. That's okay. He will always be with you, offering peace and joy and strength for the present. If you know Christ, your ultimate well-being does not depend on a bailout plan from Congress, a healthy 401K plan, or even money in the bank. It depends on something much more secure than that. It rests on God.
I invite you to sleep through the night. Nothing that ultimately matters has changed. Shine your headlights just a bit further down the highway, and you'll realize that one of the least helpful things you can ever do is place security in something so transient as money. You want your faith to rest in a God whose love for his children will never falter.
To see an outline of Woodruff's sermon,click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul?
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach?
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers?
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points?
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers?
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers?
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see "Plagiarism, Schmagiarism".
Mike Woodruff is pastor of Christ Church Lake Forest in Lake Forest, Illinois, and president of The Christian International Scholarship Foundation.