A sermon based on Mark 10:17-27
Sunday, October 21, 2012 – Pentecost 21B
I always thought the TV show and movie series "Mission: Impossible" was a misnomer. In every episode and in every movie, they accomplished the mission that previously self-destructed five seconds after they received it. But, I get it. "Mission: Probable," and "Mission: Pretty Likely You'll Succeed," just don't have the same exciting ring as "Mission Impossible."
But in our text for this morning, Jesus speaks of a mission that really is impossible. He talks about a camel, the largest animal native to Palestine, going through the eye of a needle, the smallest opening imaginable. Now that is impossible! Well… at least for us. But it's not impossible for Jesus. If he wanted, Jesus could perform a miracle and make the camel fit through. You see, Jesus takes the mission that is impossible for us and accomplishes it. And thank God! Because knowing that it was impossible for us to be perfect keeping all of God's law, knowing that it was impossible for us to get to heaven, no matter what we did, Jesus came to accomplish the mission. Mission: Impossible? Jesus makes it possible. In fact, Jesus makes it certain. Listen now to the account of Jesus doing the impossible in Mark 10:17-27…
17 As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" 18 "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'" 20 "Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy." 21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." 22 At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
I. He Keeps the Law
This man had it all, didn't he? The other gospels tell us he was a young man and a synagogue ruler with great wealth. He had wealth, power, honor, high-morals, respect and authority in the community and he was still young enough to enjoy it all. He was the kind of guy every Jewish mother would love to have as a son-in-law. He had it all… except for one thing: the certainty that he was going to heaven. He sensed there was something still left for him to do, but didn't know what it was. So he went to the most famous Rabbi around. He went to Jesus.
Running up to Jesus, he fell on his knees. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?" There's no indication in these verses that this wealthy young ruler was anything but sincere. He really wanted to know. And Jesus got right to the heart of the matter. "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone".
Now some will argue that Jesus denies that he is God in this verse. But that's not what's happening here. Jesus, who knows this man's heart, knew he thought he was pretty good. "No one is good—except God alone" Jesus reminds him. And though this man called Jesus "Good teacher," it wasn't enough. There's a world of difference between believing Jesus to be a great man and believing Jesus to be the Messiah, the Savior, the Son of God. Jesus began to lead this man to recognize who he really was. "Why do you call me good?" Just as a compliment? Or because you know who I really am and how much you need me?
But the young man didn't think he needed Jesus as a Savior, only as a guide. So Jesus held up the mirror of the law. "What do you have to do to go to heaven? Keep all of the law." "You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'"
But the man was full of himself. And he answered, "Yeah, yeah. I've done all that." "All these I have kept since I was a boy." You see his limited understanding of sin allowed him to see himself as righteous before God. He thought that sin only involved outward actions, not inward thoughts and attitudes. And so, having never murdered anyone, having never cheated on his wife, or stolen his neighbor's cattle or spouse, he thought he was pretty good. He had no need for a Savior.
But Jesus loved the man and couldn't let him continue in his deadly self-righteousness. "No you haven't kept all the commandments. You can't get past the first because you love your wealth more than you love me." And Jesus unveiled his ugly greed. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
What was the one thing the man lacked? Perfection. God demands nothing less. He doesn't demand people try their hardest. He doesn't demand they refrain from just outward sin, but from every sin—from greed that clings to wealth and makes it one's god. God demands that we be perfect in every way, inside and out, in order to be a part of his kingdom. But quite frankly, that's impossible for any of us to do.
What if Jesus said to you, "Go sell all you have, give it away, and follow me?" Would you be able to? I ask not because that's what Jesus demands of you, but so you can examine your own heart.
I'm sure you're heard the story before of how they used to catch monkeys in the Orient. They'd put an aromatic nut in the bottom of a jar with a narrow neck. The monkeys would smell the nut, and come to grab it, but when they tried to remove their hands from the jar, their fist, clenched around the nut, was suddenly too big. And unable to pull its hand out, and unwilling to let go of the nut, it was trapped by its own greed.
All too often the devil traps us in that same monkey trap, doesn't he. We cling to our wealth thinking 10% of our income way too much to sacrifice for Jesus, let alone selling all we have. We cling to our own self-righteousness and our own good actions instead of to our Savior. And unwilling to let go of our trust in our 401k's and Roth IRA's, unwilling to let go of our trust in our charitable acts and good deeds to earn God's favor, we fail to trust in Jesus. We're trapped with our hands in the jar, ensnared by the hunter. We're less than perfect. We don't meet God's standards. We fail the mission and are doomed to hell.
Yes, "No one is good—except God alone." But Jesus, being true God did keep all of God's commandments perfectly. He never murdered, even with hate. He never committed adultery, even with lust. He never stole anything, even with laziness or greed. He never lied. He always honored his parent. And he even kept the first commandment perfectly, loving God the Father with all of his heart, with all of his soul, with all of his mind, with all of his strength. Keep the law perfectly? "That's impossible!" you say. But not for Jesus. He completed the mission impossible.
Now, we don't know what ever happened to this rich young man—whether he continued to reject Jesus and perished eternally, or if he later reconsidered and came to know about his Savior and the sacrifice Jesus willingly made for him. But Jesus would continue the lesson in the man's absence. He would teach his disciples that because it was impossible for them to be perfect by their efforts, it was to get also impossible for them to into heaven on their own. But he—Jesus—could do that impossible mission too…
II. He Takes Us to Heaven
23 Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" 24 The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." 26 The disciples were even more amazed, and said to each other, "Who then can be saved?" 27 Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."
Now don't misunderstand. There's nothing wrong with having wealth. Many wealthy people in the Bible have put their trust in God: Abraham, Job, and King David, just to name a few. But what makes it hard is the trust the wealthy tend to place in their wealth rather than in Jesus. Wealth has caused many a Christian to lose his or her place in heaven. So Jesus warned, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God… It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
Like jumping up to touch the ceiling, it doesn't matter how good your vertical is. It just can't be done! There is no way to fit an entire camel through the eye of a needle. It's impossible. And it's equally impossible for the rich… and the poor and the middle class—for anyone!—to enter the kingdom of God on their own. Because God demands perfection, and because we can't keep his law perfectly, it simply cannot be done. The sins of pride and arrogance and self-righteousness, the sins of greed and the love of money, the sin of failing to give one's wealth back to the God who gave it—all these exclude one from the kingdom of God!
The disciples understood what Jesus was saying and they were amazed—literally, knocked off their feet in astonishment! If it was that hard for someone to get into heaven—that impossible—no one could do it! The disciples… said to each other, "Who then can be saved?" 27 Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."
Salvation is impossible for anyone on their own. But that doesn't mean it's impossible. As the angel Gabriel told Mary, who wondered how she, a virgin, could possibly give birth to a son, "Nothing is impossible with God." (Luke 1:37) And a virgin did conceive and give birth to a son. God became man. And that man did, not just the improbable, but the impossible all the time.
He did the impossible when he healed the sick and demon possessed. (cf. Mark 1:21ff.) He did the impossible when he cured the incurable diseases of leprosy and paralysis (cf. Mark 1:40-2:12). He did the impossible when he controlled the weather at his command (cf. Mark 4:35ff). He did the impossible when he raised the dead to life (cf. Mark 5:42). He did the impossible when he fed more than 5,000 people with only five loaves of bread and two small fish (cf. Mark 6:30ff). He did the impossible when he walked across the surface of a lake (cf. Mark 6:45ff). Jesus did the impossible so often that he made people expect him to do the impossible.
In fact, the whole Christian faith—our faith—is built on "impossible" miracles. God came to earth to live as a man with human flesh that the immortal God-man could die. Now all sin is paid for by the blood he shed on the cross. The disease of our self-righteousness and self-trust is healed when faith is created in our dead, lifeless hearts of stone. What is by nature impossible—a person going to heaven (because he or she is less than perfect in sin)—is made possible—even certain!—in Jesus, who makes us perfect with his accomplished mission impossible.
It's been said that a man may get to heaven without riches, without honor, without learning, and without friends, but he cannot get there without Jesus. That is impossible. But dear friends, thank God we do have Jesus because in him, the impossible mission of entering heaven is more than possible. It's certain.
Now, dear friends, use your wealth to thank God. Use your riches as a tangible way to express your gratitude to God for all the gifts he's given you—the material wealth and the spiritual wealth that's yours. Take the time to plan your gifts to God, giving him, not what's left over in your budget, but, expressing your thanks to him for taking away your every sin—of pride and self-righteousness, of greed and materialism—set aside a portion of your wealth for him first. And watch God do impossible things in the Kingdom with your gift. After all, just look at what impossible things he's already accomplished! He was perfect! He's made us perfect! And he will take us to heaven! Now eagerly give what you have in thanks to your Savior who gave all that he had for you on the cross! In his name, dear friends, amen.