Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pentecost Twenty
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
Psalm 90: 12-17
Hebrews 4:12-18
Mark 10:17-31

Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish justice in the gate: it may be that Jehovah, the God of hosts, will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph.

Isn’t it interesting that in our Gospel lessong Jesus asks, “Why callest thou me good? none is good save one, even God.” He knows we are going to fail and He identifies Himself with us. He takes on even our very nature as His own, despite the reality that He is truly good.

Jesus said these words to a young man that came to Jesus to ask a question. The man honored Jesus with the title “Good Teacher” and bowed down to Him. He wanted to know what was necessary for eternal life. Now, this particular man was wealthy. He had everything he could possibly need and more. It appears he came upon his wealth in a righteous way, for when Jesus asked if he followed the commandments, the man was happy to reply, “Yes.” We might call him a good man, if we hadn’t just hear Jesus say no one was good. The young man probably wanted Jesus to tell him he was good and that he’d done everything right. “You are going to heaven, my son. You did everything right.” Isn’t that what we all want Him to say to us? Yet, we know it isn’t true. We all fail. We all sin. We aren’t ‘good.’

This passage talks about wealth but is not so much about wealth as it is about what we do with our resources.

Jesus answered the man’s righteousness with a hard saying, “One thing thou lackest: go, sell whatsoever thou has, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.” The man was devastated; Jesus words were the last thing he wanted to hear. He grew up in a world where righteousness meant following the Law and if you did that well, you would go to heaven. Jesus told him that he had to give up his whole life. Which of us would respond any differently? Following Jesus means giving up everything; can you pay so high a price?

Now, we might say, “I don’t have great wealth.” But the words are the same for you. Could you give up everything? Could you give up your selfish agenda and hard heart? Could you leave everything behind and follow Jesus? Do we believe in God like a child, completely dependent on Him and willing to trust without reserve?

Yet, Jesus’ words are not nearly as harsh as we make them out to be. There will be those who will preach this text in a way that insists it is about the rich giving up everything to the poor. There are those who point to every reference of wealth and poverty with the idea that God hates those who have more than others. But verse 21 says something that might surprise us. “Jesus looking upon him loved him.” Jesus loved him. Despite his failure, despite his self-centeredness, Jesus loved him. And Jesus loves us, too, despite our failure and self-centeredness. He loves us.

Jesus then said to the disciples, “Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God!” The same thing could be said about any of the things that separate us from God. How hard is it for them that trust in their own ideology? How hard is it for them that trust in their own works? How hard is it for those who trust in politicians or governments or the wealthy? How hard is it for them that trust in anything but God? It is impossible.

But that’s why God forgives.

We are shocked when Jesus says, “Don’t call me good,” because if Jesus isn’t good, then how do we have any chance? But we are reminded by the writer of Hebrews that Jesus shared in our frailties. “For we have not a high priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but one that hath been in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.” Jesus knew how hard it was to be a human being; He was tested just like every other man. When we go to Him with our pain and frailties, He can sympathize. Yet, He was without sin and because of His own obedience to the will and word of God; we can trust what He says. There is one thing we all lack—God—because we have something that we hold in higher regard than Him. For the Israelites in Amos’s day, it was their twisted justice that trampled the poor and oppressed the righteous. For the rich young ruler, it was his wealth. For Peter, it was his pride. What is it that Jesus is asking us to give up to follow Him? In what do we trust more than God?

The text from Amos shows us how life is made more difficult by those who do not do what is good and right with their resources. It tells us what happens when we put our own agendas or hearts ahead of God. We are to seek God first, to seek goodness so that we’ll experience life, not death. God does not call all wealthy people to become paupers; He calls us to do what is good and right with our wealth. Unfortunately, those to whom Amos was talking were not seeking God or goodness. They turned justice to wormwood and cast righteousness to the earth. They trampled the poor in their work and in their pursuit for self-interest and pleasure. They took bribes rather than judged rightly and ignored the needs of their neighbors.

God calls us to a life in which we “Hate the evil, and love the good, and establish justice in the gate: it may be that Jehovah, the God of hosts, will be gracious unto the remnant of Joseph.” We may not be good, but we can do good in God’s name. We can serve Him by using our resources for the sake of others. Jesus made the task impossible for the rich young man, but if he had only listened and followed, he would have discovered the incredible blessing that comes from putting God first in the world.

Jesus said, “Children, how hard is it for them that trust in riches to enter into the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle's eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” Again, Jesus uses extreme language to make His point. He makes it impossible for us to enter into the kingdom of heaven. And yet, He makes it the easiest thing in the world to do. “With men it is impossible, but not with God: for all things are possible with God.” Trust in God. Seek Him. “Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need.”

The explanation I’ve heard about the camel through a needle’s eye statement is that the Needle’s Eye was a gate into Jerusalem. It was a very small gate, through which a fully loaded camel would not fit. The camels guide had to remove everything from its back, carefully lead it through and then restack the burden to continue on the journey. It was hard work, but the only way they could get through that gate was to go to all that trouble.

This fits the context of this Gospel story. For the man to get to heaven, he had to unburden himself of everything. While we might focus on the part of the story that says “give it to the poor,” Jesus is actually concerned about the man. He looked at him and loved him. “Let go of everything and follow me.” This is the easiest thing in the world to do, but the hardest, because we don’t want to go to the trouble of unburdening ourselves.

As I understand the story of the Needle’s Eye, the gate was in a very convenient spot for travelers, but was too hard to get through, so many would travel much longer to get inside the city through a wider gate. It might seem like the easy route, but is it? Is it easier to hold on to everything and go another way? Or is it easiest to let go of everything and follow Jesus?

God didn’t set the world in motion and then walk away. He is still working amongst His people and through all of creation. The writer of Hebrews says, “For the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Ok, perhaps this isn’t easy. God cuts into our hearts and pierces our souls. He is able to judge the thoughts and intentions in our hidden depths. It is not enough to say that we are sorry for what we have done. God knows when our apologies are insincere. He’s looking for transformation, real change in our attitudes and actions.

So He asks us to give up everything. In the story of the young man, Jesus asked him to give up all his wealth, but He was really asking for more. “You think you are good, and you called me good so that I’ll see the goodness in you. You want me to tell you that you’ve done everything right and that you deserve to go to heaven. But I’m going to make it impossible for you to earn your place in God’s kingdom.”

He will make it impossible for you to earn your place in God’s kingdom.

The key to this lesson is in two words, “you, earn.” You can’t earn it. You don’t deserve God’s grace no matter how well you follow His rules. You are not good, even though the world and the devil want you to think you are. You are a sinner. You can’t be saved by your own ability or works. It is no wonder the disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” We ask the same thing. Who can be saved?

But with every question of law there’s always a promise of grace. “With men it is impossible, but not with God: for all things are possible with God.” And so we are encouraged to seek God, to seek goodness, to do what is right with our resources, not to earn our way into heaven but in response to the grace God has given us so freely.

And Jesus finishes the lesson with an incredible promise, “There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or lands, for my sake, and for the gospel's sake, but he shall receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions; and in the world to come eternal life.” Like the camel that has been unburdened, once through the gate the guide can restore everything to continue the journey.

Now, if we were millionaires and gave everything away, would God ensure that we’d be millionaires again? I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that the person who obeys God will be blessed beyond measure. Though it seems like Jesus talks a lot about wealth, it is never really about the stuff, it is always about the relationship with God. What comes first? Do we hold on to our world or do we let go and follow God?

And so, we are encouraged by the writer of Hebrews, “Let us therefore draw near with boldness unto the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy, and may find grace to help us in time of need.” We can’t draw near if we are carrying any baggage, so let’s drop it all at the gate and enter into God’s presence. He has already forgiven our failure. He’s already made it possible for us to be saved.

The psalmist writes, “And let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us; And establish thou the work of our hands upon us; Yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.” In answer to the prayer of the psalmist, God will give us everything we need to continue on our journey. By His hand we will be able to hate evil, love goodness and establish justice. It is by His hand we will glorify God in our actions in this world and then live in eternal peace in the next.

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