Turning The World Upside Down
by Rev. Jonathan Gale
29th Sept 2013
1 Timothy 6: 6 – 19
6Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; 7for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; 8but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. 9But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 10For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
The Good Fight of Faith
11 But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. 12Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 13In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you 14to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15which he will bring about at the right time—he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. 16It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honour and eternal dominion. Amen.
17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
Luke 16: 19 – 31
The Rich Man and Lazarus
19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’
Well, Abraham is a little imperious isn’t he? Not much sympathy shown to the suffering rich man there. He reminds me of an incident I recall from a number of years ago in a popular low-cost clothing shop. The owner, an equally imperious man, had built himself a little dais with a parapet around it. He would stand upon it, hands clasping the surround and wearing his little religious hat, while he surveyed his domain. An obsequious little man stood behind him wringing his hands and whining apologetically. “Drop dead,” the shop owner said matter-of-factly, not deigning to look at the man behind him. More whining and hand-wringing. Another “Drop dead.” Eventually the pleading man left before the owner’s patience expired.
Actually, Abraham, in spite of looking a little like an Eastern potentate, was offering a side of the gospel we seldom hear today: hard fact. What he says is unexpected to us, which leads me on to the title of this talk.
I’ve entitled this sermon, Turning the World Upside Down. In Acts 17 we have a stark image of how the world saw Christians. Paul has begun preaching in Thessalonica and as people convert to Christ the locals get highly agitated, and drag a few Christians before the city representatives describing them as, “These men who have turned the world upside down …”
When Jesus set out upon his ministry one of the first things he did was evade a mob in Nazareth who wanted to throw him over a cliff. He had just claimed to be the Messiah. They simply could not accept this. He had turned their world upside down.
I wonder what the good people of the Nazareth synagogue expected to hear from Jesus. I wonder if Jesus expected the reaction he got from them! The unexpected tends to surprise us in life.
But is our surprise always justified? In the Escher sketch on the screen right now one’s eye begins naturally at the bottom of the picture and sees fish swimming. As the eye rises we suddenly realise that we are looking at birds flying. But did it really happen suddenly or were the birds there all the time, gradually coming into relief?
I think a similar thing happens in Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus the beggar. We’re going to look at this briefly and I want you to look out for the moment where things are turned upside down, where the swimming fish become flying birds, so to speak.
19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.
(The very language invokes images of elevation. Kings feasted sumptuously every day.)
20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
(Lazarus was nearby – at his gate. He was closer than a neighbour. And he was lying there. The man was low and in the dirt.)
21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores.
(So the rich man is raised up and Lazarus was considerably lower. He lay where the dogs lay – where the scraps of food fell.)
Are you getting the difference between these two men? One up, and one down.
22The poor man died
(Things are getting very low for Lazarus indeed)
and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.
(Hang on! Is this the first sign that the swimming fish might in fact be leading to another image? Something’s happening here. Lazarus is carried by angels – flight is involved – and as far as we know Abraham is in heaven. Is there a change afoot here?)
The rich man also died and was buried.
(He’s not carried anywhere. He’s simply buried. Full stop. He’s moving in the opposite direction: down. But is that as far down as he goes? The next verse …)
(In Hades? This fellow is plummeting! Hades is the Greek underworld. Jesus is having fun here with his imagery as he turns the tables, as he describes the real “up” and the real “down” as they appear in God’s eyes.)
23In Hades, where he was being tormented
(There’s more than just elevation involved here. Somehow the natural consequences of the rich man’s life have caught up with him, but no doubt he was very surprised when they did so. Had he paid more careful attention he’d probably have seen that his lifestyle would eventually come to the disastrous end that it did.)
23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.
(Things have changed, haven’t they? Things have turned upside down. What were once swimming fish suddenly appear as flying birds. Lazarus is far above and by the side of Abraham, the father of the faithful.)
Then leaping ahead to the end of the reading: 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
(You see, even if someone rises from the dead, to the person whose will is not yielded to God, they will still simply be one remove above the grave – nowhere near as high as they are – and a resurrection will not affect them in the least. Only the humble – those who have a hunger for the living God, those who are prepared to seek him in the Scriptures [what Jesus refers to as ‘Moses and the prophets’] will find the wherewithal to turn to God in sincere repentance and faith.)
Kingdom of God values are upside down values – they involve complete dependence upon God, not upon us.
That’s the first point, and the second is similar: we should not look to advantaging ourselves in this life, but rather to invest in the future, whether it is in life after death or in the restored creation that will come into being when Christ returns – what Jesus in Matthew 19 calls the renewal of all things.
In other words we are to look forward to an age to come, and we are to invest now in attitudes and behaviours that will benefit us in the future.
When Jesus announces in Mark 1 that The time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has come near, he is announcing a new initiative of God. God is in other words ushering in a new age. Its foundation stone is Jesus and his teaching, death and resurrection, but its culmination is in the second coming of Christ.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all have Jesus mentioning the age to come. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, and in our reading from his letter to Timothy mentions the age to come.
Paul urges Timothy 14to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, 15which he will bring about at the right time
(The age to come has begun with Jesus and will be fully realised with the manifestation of Jesus when he returns. But what is the commandment we are urged to keep?)
17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.
Now that’s encouraging! God isn’t against wealth. All things are richly provided for us by God for our enjoyment. But back to what the rich are commanded:
18They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, 19thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
(This is all behaviour that reflects Kingdom of God priorities and they are an investment in the future – for the age to come.)
Ultimately it’s our internal worlds God wants to turn upside down, our attitudes. When they are dealt with – when our wills are surrendered to God, the behaviours will follow.
We are so conditioned to survive – to put our own thriving above everything else. The desire to survive is a powerful force. It is what naturally drives us.
This is why the temptation to desire money is so strong – because money represents power – the power to ensure our own thriving.
But Paul sees things differently, and tells Timothy (Vs. 9) that
those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.
Really? Is this really true? Well in one sense clearly so – the desire to be rich will skew our priorities. It will focus us on selfishness. That much is obvious.
But in our Gospel reading it appears that simply being rich is a problem too. The rich man certainly seems to be punished. His world is turned upside down in a most uncomfortable way.
However it is not for being rich that he is punished, but rather for the way he used – or in this case did not use, his wealth. The rich man was not impacted by Kingdom of God values much at all. Lazarus lay starving at his gate and it seems that the rich man made no effort to assist him at all. His were not upside down values. He had no mercy on Lazarus and so after death his world turned upside down. He went from living in pleasure to living in great discomfort.
We’ve just spent millions on the America’s Cup challenge, and I’m sure we all enjoyed the spectacle, in spite of Oracle’s victory in the final race. But with hundreds of thousands of beggars in the streets of the United States and with real need in lower income families in New Zealand, we simply have to ask the question as to whether we used our finances wisely. Perhaps we did. Time will tell. But we do need to think about these things honestly. This is our duty as Christians because everything we do has a knock-on effect on others.
So it seems the message is either we turn our own worlds upside down now, or they’re turned upside down for us in the future. Simply put; having God as your first priority now, yields great reward in the future.
In order to put God first we have to deny ourselves – take up our crosses – take up the ways of God. This may make life tougher now. Some of the hopes and dreams we had for our lives may well not be realised.
But the point is, when we surrender to God, we have hope – very tangible hope – for the future.
To quote a reviewer of Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Leaving Church, “ … life is about both disappointment and hope — and ultimately, renewal.”
Oh! I don’t know. This all sounds very much like a con to me, to get me to benefit other people, to place myself at a disadvantage. What guarantees do I have? I feel a bit like the rich man – if someone was raised from the dead – if I had some supernatural proof, I’d be more prepared to do as the Scriptures say.
Well, someone was raised from the dead: and that someone is Jesus. The death and resurrection of Jesus are the powerful symbol for how God wants us to live: in putting aside our own survival (in embracing the death of our selfishness) we are resurrected (God renews us with a life that is superior to anything we could have achieved in our own strength.)
The message is really quite simple. Turn your life upside down now and God will turn it back up again in the life to come, whether that is in the afterlife or when Jesus returns to renew all of creation.
God bless you as you think on these things and seek to give them practical expression in your life.