God Gives Me Health and Wealth – 05.09.2021

[Matthew 5:1-12, 43-48]

When I was in college, during Spring Break one year, my friends and I did a road trip down to Texas to visit my buddy who lived down there. After high school my friend Jack had gotten a job as an intern with the youth program at Joel Osteen’s church. Now, if you don’t know, Joel Osteen runs the largest church in America – 40,000 people every week. And their youth program is absolutely ridiculous – so huge. So we go, and my friend is showing around behind the scenes, in the sound booth and all that. Now I was a religion major in college, so of course I knew everything – so I thought I’d talk to some of the youth. And we were all just hanging out and I started talking to this one young woman, and I asked her “what’s going on in your faith?” And she said, “well – I’m about to turn 16, and so I have just been really praying.” Oh that’s cool, what are you praying about. “Well, I’ve just been building up my faith and really believing and claiming and asking and I know God will provide, I have been praying for a new pink convertible for my 16th birthday.” Huh? “Well, I’ve been praying and putting my need out there and I know God will provide, he takes care of his people.” [wait, what?] And I remember laughing about it at the time. But in all seriousness, what happens to that girls faith if she doesn’t get the car? She’s gonna think God doesn’t love her, because he didn’t give her what she wanted. Or worse, maybe she’s got rich parents and she gets that brand new car. At some point in her life, she’s going to pray for something – to claim it in Jesus’ name – and when she doesn’t get it, he entire relationship with God will come apart at the seams.

 Today is the final sermon in our series Homegrown Heresies. We have spent the last month examining certain teachings that have sprouted up inside Christianity, teachings that are like weeds among the roses. And what we have seen every step of the way is that what we believe affects how we live. The truth is worth defending because we want that truth to lead us into a life as a follower of Jesus. And the reason I use the word heresy – that’s a very a strong word, that’s a word that we don’t really use in common practice anymore – but I did that on purpose because this stuff really, really matters. It’s our job as Christians to call out bad teachings and toxic beliefs, so that we can actually follow Jesus.

For our final sermon in this series we are going to be dealing with the Prosperity Gospel. And the prosperity gospel is the idea that if they just believe hard enough, gather up enough faith, and put enough money in the plate – then God will bless them with health and wealth and a promotion and miracles and happy marriages and anything you want. Basically prosperity Gospel takes the love of God, and tries to turn it into a product you can sell. It takes the teachings of Jesus and wraps it up with the idea of success on this earth. God will give you what you want, right now in this world, if you only believe – and that teaching is absolute poison in the modern church. I see this teaching all over and it is so toxic. They say “if you are a good person, if you are a good Christian, if you believe hard enough, if you have enough faith – God will give you health and wealth.” If you do good things, God will bless you, God will give you what you want. But if you do bad things, God will curse you, and God will hurt you and take things away from you. It’s all over the place, and it’s one of the worst teachings that is alive in God’s church in the modern world.

Both our scripture lessons for today come from Matthew chapter 5, which is usually referred to as the “sermon on the mount” – it’s Jesus’ most famous sermon ever, and there’s a lot of good stuff in there – so let’s dive in. [read v.1-3].So we got all these crowds following Jesus around, and so he sets up shop on the mountain and says, “let me give you some knowledge” – and the first four words out of his mouth are, “blessed are the poor.” And half the church packed up and left. (just kidding), but seriously – what a weird way to start a sermon! Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. And it goes on like that – basically the first five verses is Jesus saying, “bad stuff gets you blessed.” Listen to this, [read v.3-6]. This list is very famous – you’ve probably heard these verses before, but every time I read it I can’t help but marvel at how crazy it sounds. Blessed are those who mourn. Really? Are you sure the one’s who mourn are blessed? Because I’m pretty sure if you tried to say that at a funeral, you’d get popped in the nose. Here’s the problem – the prosperity Gospel teaches us that God gives us good things, and so when bad things happen – we think God is far away. The Prosperity Gospel – the idea that God gives me health and wealth – that has robbed us of the ability to understand suffering. Couple weeks ago we talked about how grace is actually designed for bad people, for sinners. In the same way, what I want you to see is that God’s blessings are designed for those who suffer. The blessings Jesus is talking about is God’s response to human suffering. You are mourning, and so God will draw near to you and comfort you. And if God is coming close to you, and if God is comforting you – then you ARE blessed.  So, what Jesus is teaching us is that sometimes a bad thing can draw you closer to God. It’s almost like we need to reframe suffering a little bit.

Jesus keeps going [read v.7-10]. Oops, you lost me a little bit. I mean, you talk about merciful, and pure in heart and peace-makers – I can totally get on board with all of that. But then, in verse 10 he’s all like – blessed are the persecuted. And maybe he’s got, like, a different dictionary or something – because in my world, I thought persecuted was a bad thing! Like, aren’t people always complaining – “I’m being persecuted” like it’s a bad thing? But Jesus is over here saying “blessed.” You are blessed if you are persecuted. And it gets worse, listen to the next verse, [read v.11]. Alright, now I’m no scientist, or linguist or whatever – but I’m like 96% sure that “revile” is a bad thing. You are blessed when people hate you because of Jesus. Jesus is saying, “when you do good things, that ruin your life, you will be blessed.” Basically what I am hearing is the EXACT opposite of the prosperity Gospel. “God will give me health and wealth” teaches that blessings are always positive things, but Jesus has a very different list of blessings. And again I’ve got this nagging sense that we don’t really understand suffering if we only view it as a bad thing.

Verse 12, [read it]. Rejoice, get excited – because your reward is great IN HEAVEN. Okay, this shifts the conversation a little bit. The reward, the good things God has for us – is in heaven. The blessings that Jesus is talking about will be set right, in heaven. Blessed are you when you are reviled, or persecuted, or poor, or mourning or hungry and thirsty – Blessed, not because those things are good things, but because justice comes with the kingdom of heaven. Heaven is a place where all wrongs are set right. If you are struggling right now, if you are suffering – Jesus says, you will be comforted, you will be satisfied, you will inherit the kingdom of God, you will be blessed.

The prosperity gospel – the idea that if you’re a good person, if you have enough faith –  God will give you health and wealth, and if you’re a bad person, and if you don’t have faith – God will punish you and give you suffering – that idea uses an oversimplified definition of blessing and suffering. And as Christians, we need to understand that it is more complicated than that. God does not promise that all blessings will be painless and he does not claim that all suffering is bad. Prosperity gospel sounds great on the surface, but it has no depth. Like I said, it has robbed us of the ability to understand suffering. We cannot see what might be working underneath the surface. But if you want to pursue truth, if you want to understand suffering, if you want to experience true blessings – you have to dive deeper than prosperity gospel can handle. Prosperity Gospel has to stay in the shallow end of the pool, but there are deeper waters in God’s love for us to explore.

Let me show you what I mean.  Verse 45 tells us [read it]. Now obviously, sunshine and rain are a metaphor. Sunshine is the good days, and rain represents the bad days – because that’s what cliché romantic comedies taught me. But Jesus says that God sends the sun on both good people and bad people. And sends rain on both just and unjust people. Prosperity Gospel says good people get good days and bad people get bad days, but Jesus says no. That’s not what the world looks like. Jesus says, everybody has good days and everybody has bad days. There is sun and rain for all human beings. But prosperity gospel can’t handle that simple, and obvious truth. There a guy, Benni Hinn, Benni is a world famous faith healer, and prosperity gospel preacher. He goes all over the world “healing” people, and if it doesn’t work, it’s not his fault, it’s their fault they didn’t have enough faith. But Benni Hinn has nephew, Costi Hinn who used to be a part of his ministry. But Costi started reading his bible and starting looking at his uncle’s ministry and then looking at his bible and it didn’t match. And so Costi wrote a book, sort of a behind the scenes look at the prosperity gospel – it came out last year. It’s called God, Greed and the Prosperity Gospel – fascinating book. But one of the stories he tells haunts me. You see, if you believe that God gives you health and wealth – then when you get sick, God is mad at you. If that’s how you believe God operates, then sickness is a sign of failure. So prosperity Gospel preachers have to hide when they get sick. Like, even just the common cold – can’t admit to it. Because that would be God, NOT blessing them. And it’s kind of funny to imagine these super rich and famous preachers hiding the sniffles – because they can’t get sick. But then Costi’s mom got sick. Really sick. Cancer. And in the world of health and wealth, cancer is blasphemy. Rather than surround her with love and support, they sit around asking, “ooh, what did she do? Why is God mad at her?” They drew away from her. And it’s heartbreaking, and it makes me so angry – because God is not mad at Costi’s mom. And it’s easy for us to look at these extreme examples, because their wealthy and famous prosperity gospel preachers – but don’t we all carry this around a little bit? In our lives, when something bad happens, don’t we – just a little bit – don’t we wonder, what did I do wrong? Why is God mad at me? In our moment of greatest need, just like Costi’s family pulled away from his mom, we pull away from God. And really the whole point of this sermon this morning is to show you that when you’re going through something – if you are running away from God, you’re running the wrong way.

The good news this morning is that God is with you in your suffering. God is WITH you in your suffering. Suffering is not just a bad thing to be avoided. There are lots of different reasons for suffering. Sometimes suffering is an earthly consequence – you stole something, so you’re in jail. But there is also suffering that teaches you something, suffering that helps you lean on God, suffering that gives glory to God and then there is just suffering that exists because we still live in a broken, fallen world, like natural disasters. But no matter what your suffering looks like – God is with you in your suffering. We have to reject prosperity gospel, that tells us God is pulling away from us. Prosperity Gospel blocks any decent theology of suffering – and we need to throw it in the trash can. No matter what you are going through, no matter what suffering you are experiencing – God is steadfast and faithful. He is with you in your suffering. To comfort those who mourn, to satisfy the hungry and the thirsty, to give the kingdom of heaven to the poor.

If you buy into the heresy of God gives me health and wealth, then when suffering comes you will be poorly equipped to handle it. You think suffering means that God is mad at you, and that you did something wrong and you should draw farther away from God – but that’s not true!! Suffering is an opportunity for us to draw closer to God. For example, when I became a pastor – I thought funerals were going to be the worst part of the job. Right? To comfort families during their grief, to be with people at the literal worst moments of their entire life. I figured – I love preaching, weddings will be awesome, baptisms will be adorable, funerals will be terrible. I did not expect funerals to be some of the most powerful experiences in my entire ministry. There is something that happens when people grieve together. They are drawn together by a love that I have never seen at any other stage in life. Family’s that are estranged, maybe they haven’t spoken in years – or they live far away from one another, and yet they pull together to hold one another up. It doesn’t always happen, but the suffering that comes with death is actually this rare opportunity to love like they have never loved before. It sounds so weird to say this – but it’s… beautiful. Another example: I hate when my kids are sick. I feel so helpless, and my personal response is to get angry. That’s just how I process when I’m feeling helpless. I just get really angry at the sickness, frustrated that there’s nothing I can do. I hate it when my kids are sick, but I absolutely love to hold my sick babies. I don’t know if you know – but kids can be sort of… energetic. Sometimes it’s like trying to hug a raccoon that just drank an energy drink. They’re always going a million miles an hour. But a little fever takes the wind right out of their sails. And I hold my babies close, and there is a stillness that breaks my heart because I know the little guy’s hurting, but it is also a moment I will cherish for the rest of my life. To hold them so close, when they need me so much.

This is how God holds us in our suffering. In the midst of our suffering, we can draw closer to God and he will hold you tight. This is the truth we lose if we fail prey to the heresy of prosperity gospel. Don’t miss God’s support when you are suffering. He is right there, holding you up through every trial. God is paying attention to your misery. God is paying attention to your suffering. Tim Keller puts it this way, “God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that He was willing to take it on Himself.” Jesus Christ came to this earth, took our sins and nailed them to the cross. He took our suffering, our punishment and brought it on himself. Jesus died so that your suffering has an expiration date. Don’t tell me God doesn’t care about your suffering. God cares SO MUCH about you, God loves you so much that he gave up his son, so that whoever believes in Jesus would not perish – but have eternal life. Jesus suffered, to destroy suffering. Jesus died, to destroy death. So draw close to the God who understand suffering far deeper than we ever could – find rest in his arms.

The challenge for us to today is very simple. I’m not saying it’s easy to do, but it is a simple idea. We need to reframe suffering. We need to reject the world’s definition, the shallow definition that blessings are painless and suffering is always a bad thing. That’s kiddy pool nonsense. Dive deeper into God’s definitions. We need to use God’s standards, use the standards of the kingdom of heaven. Look at what’s going on in your life, and reframe the suffering. Now there’s two parts to this. First, reframe suffering by viewing it as an opportunity to draw closer to God. Draw closer to your God. In your life whether your days are full of sunshine or rain – draw closer to your God. Understand that you are worshipping a God who has suffered alongside you, who understands what you are going through, and he will hold you close long after the storm is gone. Draw closer to the God who is holding you tight through every storm.

The second part of reframing suffering is to draw closer to those around you who are suffering. If we believe that God only gives us health and wealth, when someone is going through something bad – we run away from that. We shun uncomfortable situations, and we walk away from people in pain. If we believe in the prosperity gospel we have no good news for people who are struggling. But if our God is a God of a deeper understanding, if our God redefines and reframes the suffering of this world, if our God comes close to us when WE suffer, then we can do the same for other people. Don’t walk away from those who suffer, walk with them. Don’t draw back, further from them – no, come closer, sit with them in their pain. And don’t give them platitudes – well, if God loves you, he will fix and make it all better. No, just give them the good news. God loves you, even when you are suffering. Sit with them in their pain, or walk with them through that valley.

God will give you health and wealth. It sounds nice, but that sort of teaching is like plastic decorations on a cake. It looks nice, but it’s not going to feed your soul. The prosperity gospel is a tricky teaching that ultimately robbed us of the ability to understand suffering. But this morning God is calling you into the deep end of the pool, and so I’ll leave you with this. Whatever you are going through, whatever obstacles are standing in your way – may you never forget that God is with you in your suffering. May the suffering in your life become an opportunity for you to experience the love of God. And finally, may you reframe your suffering – to draw closer to God and to others who suffer as well. Amen.

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