Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
Hebrews 4:1-13 (14-16)
For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answereth him in the joy of his heart.
Today's Gospel lesson is a continuation of the story that began last week of the rich young man's visit to Jesus. "What must I do to be saved? I have observed all the commandments since my youth." Jesus looked at him and loved him, "One thing you lack..." Jesus said.
The young man was heartbroken because he had collected a lot of things. How do you get rid of everything you own? I often ask this question when I see stories of those people who have chosen to live in tiny houses. My art supplies would never fit into such a small space, let alone my whole life. As a matter of fact, my husband and I did not downsize when we bought our latest house, as many do when they reach the age of the (nearly) empty nest. We bought a larger house so that I'd have room to work. This is the first house we've had since we were married that doesn't have furniture pushed against every wall. There is room to move, a place for the cats to run, storage space for my junk. I can't imagine every getting rid of everything to move into a house that is just two hundred square feet.
Now, I have to say that I do know how to purge. We took truckloads of things to Goodwill and to our church to sell when we moved to this house. They could have filled a store with the amount of old clothes, toys, and household items we gave away. I eventually went through all my craft and art supplies and donated boxes to camps and other arts organizations. I gave sets of dishes to my children. I threw a lot of old papers into the recycling bin. I even purged my bookshelves.
I also purchased a china cabinet so I could finally display the dishes I inherited from my mother. I found room on the walls to display some of my art. I continue to purchase books (even though I do most of my reading on an e-reader.) I still buy stuff. My birthday wish this year was for a "Big Bang Theory" Lego set. It is pointless, nothing more than a dust-catcher, but it made me smile as I put it together and it makes me smile when I see it. So, while I do know what it is like to rid myself of too much stuff, I still like having it around. Could I sell it all live in a two-hundred square foot house for Jesus' sake?
Today's Old Testament reading from Ecclesiastes is a little uncomfortable for us who love our stuff. The writer writes, "He that loveth silver shall not be satisfied with silver; nor he that loveth abundance, with increase: this also is vanity." When we have a little, we always want more. You can't eat just one potato chip. It is hard to collect just one porcelain figurine. I don't have just one pair of sneakers, but a pair in every color so that I can match my shoes to my clothes. I also have socks to match. I can't go to the kitty store without buying our babies more toys, even though there are so many in the house they can't possibly play with them all.
The writer of Ecclesiastes goes on to talk about the vanity of collecting stuff, after all, we can't take it with us. We labor for everything we have. We not only chase after that next piece to our collection, but we labor to earn the money to purchase, labor to keep the dust from it. We even labor at holding on to it against those who want to take it from us. Our focus is on our stuff and we lose sight of other things. A man pays more attention to his car than his girlfriend. The woman is more concerned about which pair of shoes to wear. Children don't like to share because they don't want a sibling to ruin their toy. We lose sight of the joy because we are too worried about what will happen to our stuff.
As the writer says, "As he came forth from his mother's womb, naked shall he go again as he came, and shall take nothing for his labor, which he may carry away in his hand." There is a joke about a man who was near death. He had spent his life working hard for his possessions and he prayed that he might take some of it with him to heaven. An angel heard him, and though the angel told him that he could not take anything, the man implored the angel to ask God. After a time, the angel reappeared and told him he was allowed to take one suitcase. He died and went to heaven. At the pearly gates, St. Peter stopped him and said that he couldn't bring the suitcase. He retold the story of the angel's visit and after St. Peter checks it out, he returns and says, "Ok, but I have to see what is in there." St. Peter opens the suitcase to find bricks of pure gold stacked neatly inside. He said, "Pavement? Why did you bring pavement?" We love our things, but we have to remember the value of it in terms of our eternal destiny. We don't need to take gold to heaven because the sidewalks are paved with gold. Everything in eternity will be better than anything we have on earth.
The message of Ecclesiastes isn't all bad news. The writer goes on to say, "Behold, that which I have seen to be good and to be comely is for one to eat and to drink, and to enjoy good in all his labor, wherein he laboreth under the sun, all the days of his life which God hath given him: for this is his portion." God wants us to enjoy our life on this earth, not to the point that our possessions are our focus, but in thanksgiving for the God who has made all good things possible. "Every man also to whom God hath given riches and wealth, and hath given him power to eat thereof, and to take his portion, and to rejoice in his labor-this is the gift of God." We are called to a life in which God is our focus. Our stuff is meaningless in terms of eternal destiny, but they are blessings to be enjoyed.
The key here is to remember the priorities of life. The Ecclesiastes passage for today ends, "For he shall not much remember the days of his life; because God answereth him in the joy of his heart." We don't need to worry about today or about our stuff because our hearts are filled with real joy in knowing that our God is gracious.
The rich young man was distraught over the command of Jesus because his focus was on the stuff rather than the One by whom He was blessed. The one thing he lacked was not poverty, but was the joy of knowing that God is the center of blessedness. Joy, true joy, does not come with stuff that sits around getting dusty but is found in our relationship with our Creator and Redeemer God.
The rich young man missed what was important in the encounter with Jesus: that Jesus loved him. Jesus knows that the world tries to distract us with shiny bobbles. "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." His words were shocking to the disciples because they did not see who could be saved. Jesus answered, "It is impossible for man, but all things are possible for God." Then Jesus made them a promise, "Those who are willing to set aside the things of this world for the sake of the Gospel will be blessed beyond measure with even more. However, it will come with a price: persecution." We have reason to rejoice because the promise of eternity is greater than the wealth of today, and even if we suffer now we can do so with joy because the day will come when the promise will be fulfilled.
We chase after stuff, but God offers us something even better: rest. We exhaust ourselves with the work to pay for our stuff, with the searching for the stuff, with the caring for the stuff and with the protecting of the stuff. All this for stuff we have to leave behind. But God says, "You don't have to exhaust yourself over all this; put me first and you'll have enough. You will have even more in the Promised Land. Rest in me, for in Me is the true blessing."
Some people, even Christians, never really experience the rest that comes with faith in Christ. This is not a rest that means we do nothing with our lives. God calls us to work. He calls us to produce. He calls us to be witnesses and to serve others. He calls us to be good stewards of all we have been given. He might even call us to rid ourselves of everything to follow Him completely. This is a call to Trust that God is faithful to His promises and the blessings of this world are simply a foretaste of that which is to come in Heaven. One thing they lack is complete trust in God and the joy of knowing that God is the center of our blessedness.
We have talked multiple times about Psalm 119. It reads like a redundant law-filled text and is often ignored. However, there is value in the words of the entire psalm because it turns us toward the One from whom all rest and blessing is received. There are eight different law words used in the psalm, each describing a different aspect of God's Word. If you understand that each word has a unique meaning, than you see what the psalmist was telling us more clearly. The theme of today's text is ultimately "staying in God's Word." We learn that it is there that we find rest and joy.
The psalmist asks how a young man can be pure. The answer, is by obeying God's divine spoken Word. We can look for Him in our religious obligations. We must keep His promise close to our heart so that we won't turn from Him and do what is wrong. We can seek God's teaching on how to live properly and according to His rules. We can accept God's judgment when we do wrong and rejoice through our worship practices. We can, and must, focus on God's authority over our life and there we will find rest.
See how each word means something different? Each verse of this section of the psalm refers to something different: the spoken Word of God, the obligations of faith, the promise, the teachings, the rules, the judgment, the rituals and the authority each have a place in our life and as we are obedient in all ways we will find a life blessed by God's graciousness. None of that will earn us eternal life in Heaven, but it will help us to live a life that glorifies God in this world as we wait for the promise He has won for us.
I hope that if the time ever came for me to choose between God and the world that I will make the right decision. I know, however, that Jesus loves me even when I fail. I know that He understands the draw of the world and the bobbles that it promises. I know that He sees my heart and that He sees the flicker of faith that is at the center of my being, the faith that He has given by His grace. Day by day, Today even, I find I can let go more and more as He fills me with Himself. One day I will have to give it all up; one day I'll die and stand at those pearly gates. I don't have any pavement to take with me, but I hope that I won't feel the need to beg God to let me take a few of my favorite things. I hope that my little faith will be enough to keep my focus on the Lord now so that I won't worry day by day what will happen to my stuff because the joy in my heart is from God. For now, I pray that God will help me remember that the meaningless dust-catchers I will have to give up in this world will be replaced with so much more: eternal rest and joy and peace.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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