Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sermon on Mark 10:17-22, for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost, "Hands Full and Heart Empty"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Welcome to all our preschool families, and thank you for joining us for worship today, and supporting your child’s education! Today in our reading Jesus encounters a person who is genuinely and eagerly interested in knowing about eternal life. Reflect today whether that’s also a burning question for you, and we’ll look together at what the answer is. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

We’re not invincible. We live like it, but we’re not. Every person will reach life’s end one day, and don’t wait till then to ask the question, “What next?” In the Gospel lesson we encounter a rich young man, who could really be any one of us (rich or poor—but I’ll get to that later). He’s eager and ready to find out about eternal life, and comes running up as Jesus is leaving town to ask a burning question. His respect for Jesus is obvious when he kneels before Jesus and calls Him “Good Teacher.” His burning question is: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” His question is the first clue that he’s misguided and on the wrong track. Why? Because he mistakenly thought that an inheritance was something he could earn.

“What must I do” are words that aren’t compatible with the words “inherit eternal life.” You don’t do something to gain an inheritance. It’s given. You’re either born in the family, or granted to be an heir by the benefactor. The rich young man mistakenly thought that gaining this inheritance centered around him and his actions. “What must I do” better describes meriting something than inheriting.

Then, without denying that He Himself is good, Jesus seeks the reason behind the man’s question and if he truly understands what it means to be good. Jesus said, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” Jesus knew that something was missing from this man’s understanding of what it means to be good. The man thought of himself as basically good, and that he could do something to merit eternal life. He just needed the right laws or directions to follow. Since the man was determined to get to heaven by what he was going to do, Jesus plays along a little, and answers him on his own terms. And Jesus lists some of the 10 commandments. Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother. It’s no coincidence that the commandments he lists are what we call the “2nd table” of the law. The 10 Commandments are normally divided into the “1st table”—the commandments relating to our love toward God—and the “2nd table”—commandments about our love toward our neighbor. So Jesus basically lists all the commandments, except for the ones about God…interesting…wonder why...

After hearing these, the rich young man says, “Teacher, all these I have kept from youth.” He immediately concludes that he is good, and that he’s got a clean record by the commandments. Probably outwardly this was true. He was probably a model citizen, very moral, and well-respected by his friends and neighbors. But did this qualify him as being “good?” As good enough to merit eternal life in God’s kingdom? Remember, Jesus said no one is good except God alone. I think this is a hard pill for us to swallow. None of us want to admit that we are bad. The Bible uses the word “sinners.” But sin doesn’t just mean “imperfect”—it describes our rebellion against God. True, we’ll all admit we’re not perfect, but it’s another big step to admit that we’re sinners who consistently have broken God’s commandments. But if anyone says they’re not a sinner, I’d just like to interview their husband, wife, or family to see if they agree.

But Jesus looked at this man who thought too much of himself, who came with hands full of wealth, but whose heart was empty towards God—Jesus looked at him and loved him. He was eager but misguided. He loved him, not because he had pleased God by a clean record of obedience to God’s law; not because he had somehow earned God’s favor. Jesus loved him because he saw in this man every sinner’s need. The need of every sinful being to recognize how short they’ve fallen of God’s perfection, and how utterly dependent they are on God’s grace. He had to see that eternal life was something he couldn’t achieve by his own efforts. To open his eyes to how he really hadn’t kept the commandments as he thought, Jesus tells him he lacks one thing. This one additional thing that the young man was lacking was the most important thing of all—and explains why Jesus didn’t name the commandments about God at first.

“‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.” The challenge to sell all his possessions and give to the poor showed that he had failed to keep the first and greatest commandment of all—“You shall have no other gods before me.” Jesus’ challenge made it evident that this man’s god was his money and possessions. He wanted eternal life, but he valued his possessions and wealth more greatly than God. Hands full and heart empty—he had all the money and prestige he could want, but the true treasure, the treasure of heaven, was out of his reach. Money was the idol that sat on the throne of his heart, and God will not share our obedience to two masters. “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24). What Jesus asked of this man, was to show that God alone was his master, and that he was willing to lay all earthly treasure aside for the heavenly treasure of eternal life and salvation in Jesus Christ.

It’s one of the saddest verses in Scripture, that this man went away disheartened—empty in heart and sorrowful, because he had great possessions—hands full. He made his choice between two masters—and decided to serve money instead of God. He gave up eternal treasures for the earthly wealth that won’t last. It’s easy for us to put ourselves in his shoes and imagine what thoughts ran through his mind. We might have thoughts like these: “I have a life of ease and comfort, and I’m the envy of all my neighbors. When they see me dressed in my fine clothes and driving my luxury car, people wish they were me. I get a thrill every time I go by and all the heads turn to see what I’ve got. My house is 2nd to none, and I have all the designer furniture. It’s just too much to give up. Jesus wants me to sell this all to the poor? And what are they going to do with it? Waste it all? I think I’ll eat, drink, and be happy, and enjoy life while it’s good.”

Is there anything that you own or that belongs to you that you would be unwilling to surrender if God called you to? Something you say you could never live without? We need to reflect on this vital question: Do we have an idol in our hearts that needs to be cast down, so that God alone can rule in our hearts? Are our hands full, but hearts empty? Is our life bent in a pursuit for more wealth, and more and better things…from electronics and games to cars and houses? If so, we need a hard dose of reality to understand that this is an empty pursuit in the long run. Many people live pleasant and fulfilling lives surrounded by all the luxuries they want, and never imagine that something is lacking from their life. Others may have very little and feel that if only I had this or that, or if only my job paid more, etc etc, then I would be satisfied.

However, we’re mistaken if we think this is just Jesus’ lesson to bring down the super-wealthy. A person of modest means can just as easily tempted by the same sin as the rich young man. Greed and lust for possessions. So also a poor person can be tempted by the same coveting for what they do not have, and a stinginess about what they do have. This sinful condition of the heart is not measured by how much cash you have in the bank, or about how many possessions you have and how fine they are, it is a matter of how your heart is oriented toward God and toward your possessions. While this particular rich young man had hands full and a heart empty—it’s just as possible to have hands empty and heart empty. We could be penniless, but still have a greedy and selfish heart.

Alternately, a person may have hands full and also a heart that’s full. A person could be wealthy but open-handed with their wealth: generous and open to give and receive. But whether our hands are full or empty, what a pity to walk away from Jesus with an empty heart!

What a tragedy to think that you might gain something by chasing earthly wealth, while ignoring the one standing offering you treasures in heaven! The tragedy was that he thought he could merit eternal life, when this was a gift to be given for free. The tragedy was that he was so enslaved to his temporary, earthly wealth, that he would not turn to a new master, Jesus Christ, who could make him the heir, not only of eternal life, but heavenly treasures that won’t wear our or decay. His wealth and his desire to keep his hands full prevented him from coming to Jesus, the greatest treasure in heaven. He never heard the Good News that Jesus traded all of His heavenly treasure to come down to earth and live a life of poverty and service—all for us.

Jesus had no place to lay His head, but stayed wherever hospitality opened the door. He gave a priceless treasure in purchase of our souls—when He shed His blood of priceless worth for us on the cross. More beautiful than diamonds, more costly than silver, more precious than gold, He gave a life of invaluable worth in exchange for all of ours. The worth of His life cannot be measured, because Jesus did what neither we nor the rich young man could: He lived the perfect life of obedience to the commandments. He was indeed good, because He kept every commandment, both of love toward the neighbor, and of love toward God. His life is the greatest treasure for us. Eternal life, forgiveness of sins, standing in the presence of God without guilt or shame, the eternal love and son-ship that is ours in Him, peace, fellowship, and the privilege to dwell eternally in the new heavens and the new earth are all part of our inheritance.

The treasure that Jesus gives is ours by pure, undeserved grace. There is nothing we do to merit or earn eternal life. It’s our inheritance by faith in Jesus Christ. A gift, not something earned. With the Lord Jesus as our treasure, our heart will always be full as God desires it to be dedicated to Him. So whether we go through life with hands full or hands empty, with Jesus as the treasure of our heart, our heart will always be overflowing with an abundance of heavenly treasure that we can freely give to others. The treasure of Christ in your heart is a treasure that is not diminished, no matter how much you give away. His love for us is an eternal store. Have faith in Him and inherit eternal life! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Facing our mortality brings the inevitable question of “what’s next?” after death. Ecclesiastes 3:11. Have we answered this question for ourselves, and are we prepared for life’s end, whenever it may come?

2. What was flawed about the rich young man’s question? What is incompatible about meriting an inheritance? Romans 4:4-5

3. Why did the man think that he was basically good, and deserving of eternal life? Why is this not true? Romans 3:10-12, 21-24; Ecclesiastes 7:20; Mark 10:18. What do we need to admit about our own goodness or lack-thereof, and how this affects our relationship to God? 1 John 1:8-10; 4:10, 19

4. What are the “two tables” of the 10 Commandments? Mark 12:28-31 How had the rich young man failed to keep the first table, and especially the first commandment? Exodus 20:2-3ff. Reflect on your own failures to keep the commandments. What things have we placed as idols in our hearts?

5. Where do we get a full heart? What is the heavenly treasure that we should seek? Matthew 6:19-24

6. How did Jesus forsake all of His treasure to become ours and to grant us all of His treasure? What did it cost Him? 1 Peter 1:3-7, 18-20

7. What riches can we now freely give away, since we have faith in Christ? How does giving this away add to our treasure in heaven?

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