A sermon based on Luke 18:18-27
Sunday, October 23, 2016 – Pentecost 22C
I always thought the TV show and movie series "Mission: Impossible" was poorly named. In every episode and in every movie, they accomplished the mission that 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 spite of the deceitful name, I loved watching "Mission Impossible" as a kid. I also loved "The A-Team" and "MacGyver" who all did seemingly impossible things with what limited resources were available to them.
In our Gospel lesson for this morning there was a rich man had more than limited resources, but great wealth available to him, at least more than most people had. It would seem that things should be easier for him to accomplish—a little more possible. But as he came to Jesus with a question, everyone went away surprised by Jesus' reply. A wealthy ruler went away sad because he thought what Jesus asked of him was impossible. The disciples were dumbfounded because they thought what Jesus asked of him was impossible. But Jesus was trying to lead them to see that what was impossible for them was totally possible for God.
We too face situations in our life that may seem impossible, as impossible as a camel going through the eye of a needle. And there's one situation in particular that is absolutely impossible: that we save ourselves from hell. For it is impossible to keep God's law perfectly as we must if we want to earn heaven. But nevertheless, it's not impossible to get to heaven. For God accomplished the impossible mission for us!
Our Gospel lesson for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost is recorded in Luke 18:18-27…
18 A certain ruler asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
19 "Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'"
21 "All these I have kept since I was a boy," he said.
22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. 24 Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, 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 Those who heard this asked, "Who then can be saved?"
27 Jesus replied, "What is impossible with men is possible with God."
I. It's Impossible to Keep God's Law!
This man had it all, didn't he? He had great wealth, power and honor as a ruler even at a young age, and high-morals and the respect that came with 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 he 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 and asked Jesus, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus answered with a probing reply: "Why do you call me good? … 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. So Jesus reminded him that "No one is good—except God alone." 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 a good teacher and believing Jesus to be the Son of God and your Savior from sin. So 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 all of the time." "You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'"
But the man was so full of himself that he thought he'd already kept God's law perfectly. "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 commandment 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 us to do. Because to do it, we would have to live a perfect life never making a single mistake.
Paul summed it up in Galatians 3:10-11, "All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone…'" (No exceptions!) "'…who does not continue …'" (All the time!) "'…to do everything written in the Book of the Law.'" (Every bit of it!) So… "Clearly no one is justified before God by the law…"
To illustrate that, let me ask, "If Jesus said to you, 'Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor… Then come, follow me,' would you be able to do it?" I ask not because that's what Jesus demands of you, but so you can examine your own heart.
Now you may have heard Jesus say, "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," and thought to yourself, "Well that stinks for rich men." But admit it. We too are incredibly rich. We all have great wealth compared to almost everyone else in the world. And we certainly have waaaay more than this wealthy ruler ever dreamed of having! Make no mistake: Jesus is talking to us, who are so rich, and who are so easily distracted from what really matters by all the stuff that surrounds us. And honestly, if you don't think of yourself as wealthy, it should be even easier for you to "sell everything you have and give to the poor…" right?
But all too often don't we cling to our wealth just like this rich ruler, thinking 10% of our income way too much to sacrifice for Jesus, let alone selling all that we have? Don't we, too, often 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 break the first commandment (and all the rest follow). And we prove that we're less than perfect. We don't meet God's standards. We fail the mission and are doomed to hell. For us, the mission is impossible. "Indeed, 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."
But… "What is impossible with men is possible with God."
II. The Impossible is Possible with God!
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 hatred. 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 corrupt governments. 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 that was impossible for us to complete.
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 Jesus as his Savior and about 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…
Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25 Indeed, 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."
Those who heard this asked, "Who then can be saved?"
Jesus replied, "What is impossible with men is 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 were shocked! If it was that hard for someone to get into heaven—if it was that impossible for those who had the means to make pretty much anything else happen since they could pay for it to make it happen—well, then what about everyone else? Clearly, no one could do it! It was impossible! But… Jesus replied, "What is impossible with men is 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 an unfrozen 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 is 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. Give it regularly. Consider giving online with a recurring gift so you never miss a week even when you're away, so it comes out of your account automatically and it does come out first before you pay your other bills.
And then, as you give generously in thanks to God for making the impossible come true for you, then 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! 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.