Sunday, December 05, 2010

Sermon: 1 Timothy 6:2-10 Do Not Covet

We’ve reached the final commandment, and you might think that it’s all a bit irrelevant these days. After all, who speaks of coveting now - it all sounds a bit old fashioned, especially if you’re talking about coveting your neighbour’s man servant or donkey. Consider these examples:

Meet Christian Louboutin. The designer who’s given us the shoe women covet, celebrities rock and divas sing about

Since I heard the news of actor Sanjay Dutt buying a new Rolls Royce Ghost for his wife, I can’t help but covet this car a tad more, what with Sanjay Dutt being my favorite actor and all. Excessive lust - the pent up energy it seems has to be penned.

Had Spain not filed an excellent case for staging the event he and England covet? (Beckham and that World Cup story...)

I really covet the Oliver Spencer one [coat], but my friend Gove already has it.

All of those came from the national newspapers over the past week (among others!). The notion of coveting is alive and well right across the land. There’s even a women’s fashion website called which suggests the latest fashions celebrities are wearing, and where to buy them from.

But you might be asking yourself, what does it mean to covet? Just as the examples at the start all expressed some sort of desire to have something that someone else has; so we find that in the original commandment as well. It is discontentment with what he have - being dissatisfied with our own possessions compared to someone else’s. You remember in previous weeks how some of the commandments were very brief - you shall not kill, just four words. When it comes to the tenth commandment, it’s a lot more specific, with lots of examples - house, wife, servants, ox, donkey, or anything that your neighbour has.

Why is do not covet one of the ten? Why did it make it in? Sometimes you see in the newspapers or on the internet the ‘ten commandments of journalism’ or blogging, or athletics or whatever it is. Or there’ll be a feature on the ten commandments for a new millennium - with things like recycling, and just being nice to people. If you were compiling the ten commandments, what would be in your list? Would coveting still be there?

It turns out that do not covet is the perfect end to the ten commandments, it perfectly rounds them off, and is the key to at least the second half, and perhaps even all of them. Last week we looked at Colossians 3, and right in the middle of our passage, there was that little phrase ‘and covetousness, which is idolatry’ (Colossians 3:5). So to covet is to worship stuff, and not God - so the commandments finish as they begin, challenging our worship. What or whom will we worship?

But more than that, we come to realise that, as Motyer puts it, the tenth commandment ‘is the interpreting clause of the whole Decalogue’ (Ten words), because to covet is the point at which every breach of the law begins.

Do you remember King David’s sorry series of episodes when he committed adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:4) and then when she’s pregnant, David murders Uriah by placing him in the worst part of the battle and withdrawing his soldiers to leave him defenceless (2 Sam 11:15)? How did that all begin? David saw Bathsheba bathing on the roof, and coveted his neighbour’s wife.

Or in 1 Kings 21, when King Ahab and his queen, Jezebel bear false witness against Naboth by accusing him falsely (10), then have Naboth killed (13), and steal Naboth’s vineyard (16). Where did that all begin? Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard (1-4).

Far from being the last and the least of the commandments, it’s actually the key to the rest. Just think for a moment of a time when you coveted something that a friend or neighbour had - something that you really wanted. It may not have been their male servant or female servant; nor their ox or donkey, but it must have been something they had. Maybe it was their house, their car, their mobile, their results, holidays, image, family, security, heat (in this cold weather!), health, garden, popularity, friends. What happened? You probably saw it, then wanted it, then the desire gripped you, and it drove your thoughts, your words, and maybe even your actions. [James says ‘each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire...’ (James 1:14)]

Your thoughts, words and actions will reveal what it is that you are worshipping - whether God, or something else. Most of the time, indeed, all of the time before we’ve been saved, we will be coveting something - precisely because we are all idolators at heart. Calvin described the heart as the idol factory. We’re all guilty.

As we’ve reminded ourselves every week - and we must never tire of reminding ourselves of the good news of the gospel - Jesus was innocent on this point of the law, he perfectly fulfilled the law, and therefore never coveted. The Son of Man has nowhere to lay down his head - yet he never coveted his neighbour’s house. Jesus had no wife - yet he never coveted his neighbour’s wife. Jesus had to borrow a donkey to ride into Jerusalem - yet he never coveted his neighbour’s donkey.

Because Jesus died for us, for all our sin, including our idolatrous covetousness, we can have forgiveness even in this area of our life. But as we’ve been seeing throughout our series, we’re not just fleeing legalism, but we’re pursuing holiness. Now as Christians, it’s not enough just to abstain from doing evil (as far as we can, through the help of the Holy Spirit), we also turn to positively seek to please the Lord by doing good works and obeying the law of Christ.

So it’s not just that we don’t try to covet any more - the gospel gives us a positive alternative to coveting, contentment. (And we’ve finally arrived at 1 Timothy 6!) Look at verse 6. ‘Now there is great gain in godliness with contentment.’ The apostle Paul presents a model of contentment which stands in total opposition to the values and standards of the world we live in. You see, the advertisers (particularly in the run up to Christmas) are fuelled by spreading the message of discontentment and dissatisfaction with what you have. They design the products and the ads to make you say ‘if only I had product x, my life would be complete’ (whether that is a closer shave, or the newest gadget, or Beyonce’s perfume, or a big win on the lottery).

The Christian, however, is called to be content with what you have - as Paul reminds us, it’s a zero sum game. When you’re born, you have zero. When you die, you will have zero, so anything you have now is a bonus! And let’s remember that Paul isn’t writing to Timothy from the lap of luxury - as if he’s saying that once you reach a certain standard of living, have (as Hyacinth Bouquet would say of her sister, “large house, and a 'Mercedes, sauna and room for a pony”), then you can be content. You see, no matter how much we have, we’ll still want just a little bit more! But think where Paul is as he writes to Timothy. He’s not in the Hilton, Rome, or lying by the beach - no, he’s in prison! It’s the same in Philippians 4, where Paul says that ‘I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.’ Location? Prison. What’s the secret? ‘I can do all things through him who strengthens me.’ (Phil 4:13) Whether I have a lot, or have little, because Jesus is strengthening me, I can face any situation, I can go through any hardship or circumstances.

As we begin to apply the message, I have to ask - have you learned this secret? Are you learning to be content in whatever situation the Lord has placed you, whether with little or a lot? Here’s a little scenario. Your friend in school turns up tomorrow with the newest, most fantastic mobile that you’ve had your eye on for ages. How do you respond? Is there envy and jealousy; will you allow the seeds of coveting to take root, so that every waking moment you’re plotting and planning how to get the same phone, even if it means not having lunch from now until you finish school, and not contributing anything of your pocket money or part time job earnings to the church or those in need? Or will you say no, that your current mobile is fine, that you don’t need a new one straight away?

Or if you’re watching television, and you see a particular advert. For each of us it will be different, but you know what it will be for you - car / watch / whatever. Will you be taken in by the false promises of the advert, as they claim your life would be better or even complete if you just had this product? Will you daydream about it, setting up an altar in your mind to worship the mini idol? Or will you say to yourself that you do not need it; that the one you have now will do, that God has richly provided you with so many good things that it would be wrong to throw them back in his face and pursue this one thing?

To seek your sanctification in this particular area, to begin to take seriously the command against covetousness and to practice contentment will, in fact, mean that those knock on sins may be reduced - it’s like the domino chain where you set one off and more fall in sequence - if you begin to deal with the first desire, the impulse to covet, then the sequence won’t start.

It’s no wonder that the very last words in John’s first letter are words we need to hear and heed as we seek to live out the tenth commandment, and indeed the whole ten commandments. John writes, very simply, ‘Little children, keep yourselves from idols.’ (1 John 5:21). What are your idols? Where are you prone to covet? How will you battle those desires by contentment?

We need God’s help, so let us pray.

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday 5th December, rounding off the series in the Ten Commandments.

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