St. John's Lutheran Church, Racine, WI
October 21st, 2012
Greetings, Introductions, etc...
Today's Gospel reading follows immediately after last week's, when Jesus lovingly tried to call the rich young man to repentance. “Go sell everything you have” if you want to enter the kingdom, and the man went away sad, for he was very rich. And now, Jesus comments on the incident, and on the broader problem of those with great riches entering the kingdom. And his disciples are amazed.
Why were they amazed by this? Perhaps because then, like now, we look at those with wealth and riches in a certain light. We see wealth and riches as a mark of success and perhaps even a sign of God's favor.
We Americans are especially susceptible to this kind of thinking. We are the world's superpower, and even in a down economy, the wealthiest country in the world. Our standard of living is among the highest, and we enjoy many physical blessings just by living here. Even our poor people are quite well off by a worldly standard. So the easy thing to think is, God must favor us. He must be rewarding us, as a nation, for our great values on freedom and equality. We're so wonderful aren't we? God must really love this country the most.
Well maybe you're not so convinced. But what about when we look at worldly success in the church? Look at the churches that are successful, and have it made – in terms of money and people. The happening places, the bigger the better. Yes, they have the nicest buildings, the best parking lots, the newest sound systems. And the people are going there in droves – look they have so many young people and now they need to build and expand again and.... you might think... that God is really blessing that congregation because of its worldly success, its wealth. A sign of God's favor. But be careful. Bigger isn't always better, more isn't always more favored, and these outward trappings of success can easily be as much a sign of problems in the church.
Or even as an individual. Even when we look at ourselves. For many others might consider us to be wealthy. But don't we think we've earned it? Don't we tell ourselves we deserve the nice things we have? We've worked for them. We take care of our things. We give back... somewhat... We know how to handle money. We have lots of handy reasons and rationalizations- but in the end it's the same lie – that God likes me better, that he's giving me all these good things because I deserve them. That whatever success and wealth and “stuff” I have in life is mine and I earned it.
But Jesus throws a monkey wrench in all that. For those rich people, for those successful people, and even for you and me. How difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! And if you're rich – well – all the more. It's easier for the largest animal (perhaps they weren't familiar with elephants and dinosaurs) to go through the smallest opening. It's a ridiculous thought. It's physically impossible.
And notice the disciples' reaction. “Then who can be saved?!” See, it's not that they considered themselves rich, but they thought that wealth was a sign of God's favor. And if even the ones God blesses with riches can't enter the kingdom, than what about poor little old me? If those who are successful can't even do it, then what about me – I struggle from day to day. I can't keep my ducks in a row. I can't handle my problems. I can't even control myself. I'm a mess. I'm a sinner.
This is what Jesus is looking for. They are starting to realize the problem. They need him. You need him. Despair of your own efforts, your own works, your own value and worth. If even the rich and powerful and successful and glamorous are shut out of the kingdom, if not even those far “better” than you and I can get in... then we are sunk. On our own, we are lost. Without God, it is impossible.
“With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
Once the despair starts to set in, the helplessness and hopelessness of their situation, Jesus starts to open the door for the Gospel. He begins to explain that while yes, it is impossible for you, even for the rich man, to enter the kingdom... with God, it's possible. It's possible, and it's a reality, in Jesus Christ... but first Peter interrupts....
“Lord, we've left everything to follow you...” Maybe this is the trick, Peter reasons. Maybe it's not being rich, but being poor that earns God's favor. Maybe it's leaving everything behind. Maybe it really is selling all your stuff and going into a career in missionary work. Maybe it's moving 9344 miles away (but who's counting) and preaching in a foreign land, to a foreign people.
But it's not that either. It's never been about having the things or not having the things. It's never been about being rich or poor, successful or not. Or about where you live and how big your house or small your checkbook. God desires all men to be saved. God blesses rich and poor alike with the blessings that truly count. It's about the heart, it's about the faith, it's about Jesus.
Jesus, who truly left everything behind, when he left his throne in heaven to be born a lowly human and laid in a lowly manger. Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the son of man had no where to rest his head. He had no wealth or beauty that we should regard him, but humiliated himself – stricken, smitten, afflicted, chastised and condemned. Even his garments were stripped from him. A man of sorrows, well acquainted with grief. Hardly a worldly success story. He who was first became last of all... at the cross.
This is how God does the impossible. This is how God gets the rich and the poor and even you through the eye of the needle into the kingdom of heaven – through the cross. Through the impossible thought of God becoming Man, and the Creator dying for the creature, the one without sin, taking the sins of all. And through death, bringing forth life. Impossible? Not with God. Not with Jesus Christ. Not with silver or gold, but with his holy precious blood.
And this faith will lead us who believe to fear, love, and trust in him above all things. Above all material wealth and riches. It may mean literally leaving some things behind. Or it may mean simply repenting of putting these idols before the true God. Christ is worth far more to us than “houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands”. And Christ promise us far more than any of that in the kingdom to come.
But he also mentions persecution. Before the bright shiny day at the end of the tunnel, there are persecutions. Christians can expect that the life of faith brings trouble, hardship, and persecution. People won't regard us like they regard the rich – with awe and admiration. The world won't roll out the red carpet for the followers of Jesus.
In the kingdom of God things aren't always as they seem. The rich aren't always the ones with God's favor. And the persecuted and troubled aren't always the ones out of favor. The last are sometimes first, and the first are sometimes last. And even the extraordinary, the incredible, the impossible.... is possible, and very real. Even for you the sinner, salvation is sure, through Jesus Christ our Lord. In his name, Amen.