St. Paul Lutheran Church, Annapolis, MD
October 14th, 2012
Grace, mercy and peace.... Introductions, etc...
Another episode, another conversation, another lesson for us from Jesus. This time it's the rich young man who wants to justify himself. The dialogue is amazing. The man's ears are so stopped up with works righteous pride that he can't hear the law Jesus is blasting at him. But what the man was unwilling to do, and what none of us can do for ourselves, Jesus does for us all. Let's encounter God's law and his gospel today, so that we do not also go away sorrowful...
“What must I do to inherit eternal life??” What a question. It's a big question. An existential question. Like the meaning of life, and why do bad things happen to good people. But there's a difficulty with this question. It betrays a stunning, but very common misunderstanding of how this all works.
Let's start with the idea of inheritance. Of course in our everyday world, an inheritance is one thing. You're not supposed to have to work for it – it's supposed to be yours by rights. Perhaps the firstborn son is the traditional heir, to the farm, the estate, or the kingdom of his father.
But then, there are those strained relationships, where parents disown estranged children from the will. Families squabble over the estate like a pack of hyenas over a fresh kill. Sin turns us into green eyed monsters and things become more important than people. And we assert our rights, this is mine, I've got it coming to me. It's my inheritance.
Not so in the kingdom of God. Here, it is we who long ago disowned ourselves from God, wrote ourselves out of his will for us, rejected him and his blessings. An earthly son or daughter might hope to work their way back into a parent's graces, and maybe a share in the estate. But with God, there is no such hope. “What must I do?” when it's too late? When the judgment is already rendered, “the soul that sins shall die”. The wages if sin is death. The wicked will not stand in the judgment. Uh oh. We've got a problem here. What must I do... when what I really deserve is not to inherit eternal life, but condemnation?
The young man knew it, or so it seemed. He knew he needed something. There is a sense in all of us that we're not quite right. The law of God, written on our hearts, tells us somehow, in some way, we lack something. It's a little voice that can be muffled with enough hardening of heart. But it takes work.
This young man, in his foolishness, felt he was so close. He must have thought there was one finishing touch to be made on his lifetime masterpiece of good works. Funny how, no matter how much we tell ourselves we're righteous, there is always this lingering doubt... At least, when we're looking to ourselves, our own achievements. I may tell myself I am good. But can I convince myself I am good... enough?
“Good Teacher”. He doesn't get Jesus right, either. He doesn't address Jesus as Lord, or Savior, or Christ. Just a “good teacher”. Jesus probes, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone?” You don't know what good is, my friend. Yes, Jesus is good, in the truest and holiest sense of goodness. And if the man knew it, he would have shuddered in fear. Yes, Jesus is more than a teacher, he is God made flesh. And if the man knew it he would have fallen on his face, like Isaiah, and Peter, and so many other sinners confronted with the presence of Holy God. But not this young man, so sure of himself, so reliant on his own goodness, so in the dark about his sin, and his Savior.
Jesus points him to the commandments. He says he's kept them. And anyone who thinks so has a shallow view of these holy commands. This is where Martin Luther's Small Catechism is so insightful, with all of it's “What does this mean...?” Each of these commandments is just a starting point for us to examine the depth of our sins. Jesus, too, raises the bar – he says “do not murder” includes the hatred of the heart, and “do not commit adultery” includes lustful thoughts. There's no escaping the law. There is no one righteous, not one. Not this young man, not me, not your pastor, not you.
And finally, Jesus hits him where it hurts. Rather than spend all day explaining the many ways this man breaks God's law, he pulls out his scalpel, and strikes where the man's heart truly is. “Sell your stuff”. In effect, saying, “repent”. Turn from your false gods. Turn to me, the true God, the only one who is good. And I will help you.
I don't know where your heart is, but I think you do. I don't know what sins you cling to. Maybe it is greed, like the young man. Maybe it is lust, or anger, or pride. And if I were Jesus, I'd point it out, too. But I can call you to think of it, and repent of it, and turn to the one who is good, who comes to give you an inheritance you don't deserve.
So where does that leave us? We could leave here today like the young man, hanging our head in sorrow. Our we could receive him who comes to us with grace and mercy. We could go and try harder to do that one little thing that we foolishly think will complete our masterpiece of self-righteousness, or we could admit that it's all a sham, that we are poor beggars, and beg for mercy from the merciful one.
Jesus is the good teacher. But he is more than just a teacher. He gives the one thing that we lack – himself. His blood. His cross. His innocent suffering and death in our place, which gives us his own righteousness. He becomes the man of sorrows, to take away the sorrow of our sin. He is bereft of all earthly possessions, even his garments are divided among the soldiers. And finally, he gives even his own life. He gives all the riches of heaven to us, the poor, the needy, the lowly. And he makes us rich- truly rich, but not with silver or gold.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is: nothing. You can't. You won't, without Jesus. But with him, there is nothing you can do, for he has already done it, accomplished it, and sealed you as an heir of heaven. He has already died, that you may live. You can only receive it in faith and rejoice.
So receive him this day, in his word, in his body and blood, for your forgiveness, life and salvation. And go this day, not in the sorrow of your sin, but in the joy of your inheritance in Christ. Go, not in the self-righteousness of a fool, but in the righteousness of Christ that belongs to all the heirs of eternal life.