"As I mused, the fire burned"

Reflection on life as a person of faith.

The Money Trap

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11 September 2011, SJE Sermon Series, “Money Laundering”
Revelation 18:1-20; Matthew 18: 21-35

We’re reading from the Revelation of John this morning. A cautionary word on apocalyptic literature before we open this somewhat risky box: there are thousands of pages on the Internet that attempt to line up the events in Revelation with the real world. The ten horns of the beast are the ten member states of the European Union (even though there are now 27). I wanted to say generally that the point of an apocalypse is not to permit you to determine when the end times are coming by analysing geo-political structures to figure out when the beast with ten horns and seven heads has arisen. Rather, the point is to highlight the structures in our present reality that are those that war against the Lamb…so Revelation is not a roadmap to the end times as much as it is a manual for present discipleship, and this is the lens through which we examine it today. The key theme is the victory of Christ, and today we’re looking specifically at the place and power of money in the life of a Christian. We open with this rather dramatic passage from the Revelation of John describing the judgement of Babylon, that person he describes in Revelation 17 as “The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. 5And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” 6And I saw the woman, drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of the martyrs of Jesus.” Nice.

Babylon is not so much a real city as it is a reflection of the economic and political forces which act contrary to the rule of Christ. So we are not so much talking about a specific historic place, but rather about the quality we might call “Babylon-ness”, or the marks of Babylon. There have been many Babylons, and there will continue to be many Babylons in the world.

Babylon is presented to us sitting on the beast “a scarlet beast that was full of blasphemous names, and it had seven heads and ten horns.” The purpose of that beast is to make war on the Lamb: “The beast that you saw was, and is not, and is about to rise from the bottomless pit and go to destruction.” Note that the beast is comprised of utter blasphemy – the contrary of all that God is, and even the description here is an inversion of the holy God, “who was, and is, and will be forever” to the beast, “who was, and is not, and is about to rise”. There is a truth here about evil – that evil in our world is often presented as a parody of what is holy, or as a half-truth that contains enough to confuse us. Recall the serpent’s lie, “You shall surely not die”.

Babylon is shown riding on this beast, but closer to the end of Chapter 17 we’re told that the beast turns on Babylon, “15And the angel said to me … the ten horns that you saw, they and the beast will hate the prostitute. They will make her desolate and naked, and devour her flesh and burn her up with fire…And the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.”” So, Babylon the great harlot, is worshiped by the kings of the earth, and many people of many nations surround her. Babylon is the embodiment of all that is contrary to the Lamb in this world, and yet the beast will turn on her and utterly destroy her. This is another important lesson about evil: it contains within it the seeds of its own destruction, and for this reason it will never triumph, and will never even form a credible challenge to the might of the Lamb. In fact, the Lamb’s victory over the beast is not because of greater power or might or advanced ‘smart’ weapons, but simply because the Lamb is, “Lord of lords and King of kings” and really that’s all that is needed. There is also a frightening truth about our sin in this warning about evil: as much as drawing near to Christ encourages us to draw nearer still; so too unresolved sin encourages us on to greater sin. One of the reasons that evil is inherently self-destructive is because sin begets greater sin…greed is never satisfied, but instead demands greater and greater amounts of money, power, possessions; lust is never happy with one conquest, but instead demands more and more satisfaction. So, the choice on our behalf to follow a path of sin leads us into great self-destruction (there is no such thing as a “harmless” amount of sin).

Chapter 18 gives us a description of the fall of Babylon, and those who mourn her passing, and this description tells us much about the Babylon-ness, and why it is not the model by which we Christians are to live our economic lives. There is only one way that we can deal safely with all the powers and principalities that hold sway in this world, and that is to willingly submit them to the lordship of Christ. Only through passing off the lie that any power we wield is our own power and submitting it to Christ are we freed from the lies that insert themselves between us and our Lord. This is what we are talking about when it comes to money – the only way to avoid money’s power over you is to submit it back to Christ’s lordship. To abandon any sense that you ever had real control over it anyway, and to allow Christ to guide you in your use of the gifts he has provided you, as difficult as that may be.

In chapter 18 Babylon falls into her judgement, and I want to draw out some of the aspects of this fall to illustrate the truths about economic might that is not submitted to the lordship of Christ. First, Babylon is not just a bad place, and it is not just a place that is drunk on the blood of the martyrs (bad enough unto itself), but has become a dwelling-place of demons. This illustrates for us a truth about allowing lordship other than Christ into our lives: it is not just a matter of choice, “I can choose to devote my life to acquiring wealth because it is my choice, my right, and as long as I don’t hurt anyone else there is nothing wrong with that choice.” Well, that was the choice of Babylon, to seek wealth above all else. Rather than just being a choice, Babylon has become a dwelling place for demons by reason of that choice. Our choices ultimately demonstrate whose lordship we are choosing to submit ourselves and as a result have immense spiritual repercussions in our lives. We may attend church weekly, but if our lives are ruled by money, or power, that is the lord we have chosen to worship. What is it you wish to be as a follower of Christ? A dwelling-place for the Spirit of the Most High, or, like Babylon, a dwelling-place for demons? Our choices can have eternal repercussions.

We are told the reason for Babylon’s fall and judgement, and it is because, “in her heart she says,
‘I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see.’” Babylon’s confidence in her own stability, safety and security is manifest in her attitude: I rule and I will never mourn. Let me rephrase that to make a bit clearer what Babylon is declaring: no one rules over me (that is, I am not subject to the rule of Christ), and the profit of sin (that is death) will have no hold over me. Now, I want to bring this soundly home, because our third truth is apparent here: Babylon-ness is characterised by the absence of Christ who is properly at the centre of everything. Do not allow yourself to fall into a petty rationalization about your own state of obedience to Christ by saying, “Well, that is Babylon, and I’m not Babylon.” Rather, listen to what is being said about Babylon, and ask God if that lie is one that it written on your heart as well: no one is the ruler (or boss) of me. I set my path, I decide what I will be…I decide what is sinful and what is not. Babylon’s declaration is the proclamation of anyone who places a power and principality over that of Christ’s proper place in our lives. Now, note something else about this third truth: it doesn’t really matter in then end what you proclaim as Lord in your life, as it does not alter the reality that Jesus is Lord over all. As Babylon declares she will never mourn, this does not change the reality that Babylon began her fall into desolation the moment she proclaimed her independence from Christ.

What follows is a poetic recounting of how three different groups of people react to the burning of Babylon with Holy fire: kings, merchants and shipmasters and seafarers. Each sees the fall of Babylon in terms only related to how this will adversely impact their own bottom line: the kings will no longer live in luxury with Babylon; the merchants will no longer have anyone to buy their cargo, and the shipmasters and seafarers will lose the ability to grow wealthy because of the transit of goods. None of these care a whit for what is happening to the city, or the people presumably being burned up within Babylon, but only see the fall and judgement in terms of how it impairs their own pursuit of wealth and possessions and luxury. Now this is a clear illustration of the deception of money, and the cost of setting money as lord in your life: you can never have enough, and your life is only defined in terms of one thing – the pursuit of more money. Contrast this attitude of king, merchant and shipmaster with that of Christ who, even as the judgement is poured out on Babylon, weeps for those who perish because they did not chose to follow Him.

If you didn’t get it during the reading, let me point out now that there is only one result achieved by the path followed by Babylon – the wages of the endless pursuit of wealth are death and destruction. This is the only outcome possible when money, power and economic systems are not submitted to the Lordship of Christ. Now I’ll contrast this with something I’ve heard from too many Christian owners of small businesses for it to be chance: they all have stories of the big deals that would have brought wealth and success, if they were willing to compromise in their discipleship to Christ. This is an important image, for Babylon does not arise all at once, but starts with a series of small choices to follow the god of money, over Christ and grows from there. One of my former commanding officers, who commanded the UN mission in Haiti, said at his retirement that the day you needed to resign your commission as an officer was the day you started saying about the privileges you received, “I deserve this” or “I’ve earned this” for that was the beginning of the end. Once you believe you deserve something because of your own efforts, it is easy to displace Christ and to place yourself at the centre. We can so easily make ourselves gods in our own existence…when we’re not busy making other things idols that we may worship.

One of the most disturbing parts of this judgement narrative comes at the end of the extensive list of goods the merchants have been selling to Babylon, “horses and chariots, slaves – and human lives.” Babylon’s sin is not just that of worship of money, the physical representation of wealth, but of reducing God’s great creation including His own people into objects of trade. This is another truth about Babylon-ness: it reduces the human to an object. What structures in our world today convert people to goods? Aside from the immense global slave trade which goes on to this day, what structures of the world force people into servitude and slavery…even though we may no longer sing that we owe our soul to the company store, this is a reality in many parts of the world. In western Canada, there is a trade in young boys and girls, mostly aboriginal, who are stolen away and put on the sex trade circuit between Saskatoon and Vancouver, to meet a ravenous need for sex for hire. While I would like to blame those who run that sex trade…the reality is that it exists because there are lots of people willing to pay for sex. Money that could be submitted to Christ’s lordship is instead used to pay for sex that enslaves others. That is Babylon. What about all the killing in Edmonton and Hobbema and other places close to home? Our leaders seek to control this with laws – a ban on edged weapons, really? Is a ban on sticks and rocks to follow? Perhaps it is too difficult to admit that the reason we have so much killing is because of the number of people who are willing to kill? That is Babylon.

If you have read an account of the US bank collapse caused by the massive failure of asset-backed securities (ABS) that had been developed to bundle up worthless mortgages, this is exactly the Babylon of which we speak. Essentially, worthless mortgages were bundled into security packages that were then traded to investors…but under a much higher quality rating then the underlying mortgages ever would have received. This was a scheme to hide risk, and it worked until the entire system collapsed. What was the motivation to create the house of cards? Unbridled seeking of profit in a system that demanded new and exciting investment vehicles, over any concern for consequences or responsibility.

This was driven home personally when I was reviewing my mother’s investment records after her death this year, and discovered that not only had her advisor left her invested in stock-based mutual funds, but he was also quite regularly shifting her in and out of a variety of mutual funds as she was drawing on her retirement savings. That sort of strategy benefits only one person – the investment advisor – as he can claim sales commissions on each transaction, but it is as far as you can get from ethical when it comes to a retiree living off their savings. Unfortunately not illegal in Canada even if it is highly immoral. That’s Babylon – profit over love, money over compassion, higher sales figures regardless of what must be done to get there.

You will note that before Babylon falls, God orders out of Babylon all of his faithful people so they will avoid that judgement – you can’t be ordered out if you’re not already dwelling in Babylon. Now, if you haven’t figured out the problem yet, it is that we are living in Babylon right now. While Canada is a good place to live, under the rule of law, there are large parts of our country that are not under the lordship of Christ. My mother’s investment advisor; the bankers putting together asset-backed mortgages; those who support slavery by funding the sex trade. We are surrounded by Babylon-ness. We can dwell in Babylon, as long as we have a proper attitude toward those things of Babylon. So this final truth, and the central truth, the only way we can be safe as children of Christ within Babylon is by submitting all those things of Babylon to the lordship of Jesus. Christ frees us from the Babylon-ness of the world. Does money control us? Do we live in fear of shortage, or spend our lives struggling to acquire more things to bring us a sense of safety and security? Or do we submit our money, the earnings from our employment, and all we have to the lordship of Christ? One Christian writer describes his own means of dealing with the power of money over his life – he gives it away as quickly as he gets it, for that is the only way he can ensure that it does not gain power over him.

Ultimately, the call on each of us is the challenge to live as Christ’s own while in the midst of Babylon-ness, and to stand as living witness to a different way. We are to submit all we do to the lordship of Christ, and particularly when that submission is contrary to the pressures of Babylon-ness in the world. What do you need to do to have a godly relationship with money?

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Written by sameo416

September 11, 2011 at 5:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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