Monday, October 22, 2012

Sermon on Mark 10:23-31, for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, "The Impossible? That's God's Job!"

·         Do you think you’ll have difficulty entering the kingdom of God? Thought about it? For many, this question is way off their radar. A hard place to enter? American confidence—assume we’re all virtually guaranteed a spot. A study by George Barna in 2003: 81% believed in an afterlife, 76% believe there is a heaven, 71% there is a hell. However, only one half of 1% believe they will go to hell, while 64% believe they will go to heaven. Not convinced of Jesus’ words? Way to heaven is narrow, path to destruction is broad and easy? Of course polls and statistics will never tell us whether 50 % will actually go to heaven, and 50% to hell, or 40/60, 20/80, or anything like that. Only God knows. But we’re not that different from the disciples—surprised at the difficulty of getting into heaven—first for the rich, then for anyone—then plain impossible!
·         Jesus’ conversation—after the rich young man’s encounter. Wealth is a hindrance, a hardship, for entering the kingdom. Jews thought the opposite—prosperity a sign of God’s favor—maybe even able to do more good works, charity, etc. Disciples were stunned: riches are an obstacle to entering, rather than advantage? A rich man getting into the kingdom of heaven is harder than threading a camel through the eye of a needle, Jesus says. Disciples’ jaws were hanging. Wondering, “Then who can be saved?” You’re not leaving us any options here! Modern interpreters of the Bible have jumped to find a way around the harshness of these words. If a camel can’t fit through the eye of a needle…maybe enlarge the size of the eye of the needle?! A tiny gate in a city wall, where a camel would have to stoop down to enter, with difficulty, perhaps? No support from archaeology or history in Jesus’ time; but just to drive the point home and rule out even that possibility, Jesus shrinks the eye of the needle down to nothing—zero. “With man it is impossible.” Just hang on those words for a moment, before stealing Jesus’ thunder and jumping ahead. With man it is impossible.
·         Why did Jesus need to strike down our optimistic view that we can all make our own way in? That it’s so easy to enter, and that human effort and striving make it possible? We all know lots of fine, decent people, and everyone’s surely heard someone say (if you haven’t said it yourself) that they think “I’ll go to heaven because I’m a pretty good person.”
·         So why does Jesus rain on the parade? Why does He show the gates of heaven as locked up tight and impossible to scale by human effort, not just open to every “pretty good person”, and why does He leave the disciples and us gasping, “Then who can be saved?” Suddenly all human strength, strength of morals, strength of mind, strength of arm—all fall away. There’s no “try your best and get an ‘A’ for effort.” For us, it’s impossible. Jesus does this, because, as you may have noticed, God is everywhere in the Bible constantly striking down pride. First to last pages God is humbling human pride and reminding us that He is God. Jesus drums away in many places this refrain: “May who are first will be last, and the last first.” God does it so that we take no confidence in ourselves, our worthiness, or our effort. To show us that it’s impossible without Him. Ahh…but wait…the impossible? That’s God’s job!
·         There’s no human effort or achievement that gets us there, but God and God alone. There’s no entrance but by Him. All things are possible for God, means that God can achieve what we cannot. He is the doer of the impossible. If salvation was a “do-it-yourself” job, then Jesus wouldn’t have had to come into the world or suffer so terribly on the cross. If we could free ourselves from the power of our sins, then He wouldn’t have had to die for them. He could have just left it up to us! But sin and our predicament was a God-sized problem that required a God-sized solution. Jesus came to open to us the way of everlasting life.
·         This is why Jesus came to teach and proclaim the kingdom of God was near. Shatter all false hopes and false dreams of achieving heaven by our effort. When false hopes and false dreams are shattered, we’re left with the truth. He had to wrest our trust from earthly attachments like wealth that would blind us to our need for God or rob us from contentment with what we’re given. Riches fuel our anxiety and drive us to greed and imagined self-sufficiency. He had to reorient our thinking to show us what is temporary and what is eternal, and where to store up true treasures that will last—in heaven. Jesus had to unlock the self-made sin prison of our self-will—all our selfish seeking after personal gain and our own path. He came to speak the truth, and set us free, so that we would not be enslaved to our passions, our possessions, and our self-made religion, but that we would find true freedom, forgiveness, and life in Him.
·         Right here and now, in this place of worship, and in every place where Jesus’ name is praised, we can lift up glad songs of thanksgiving, that God has done the impossible. That we, self-willed, sinful, undeserving men and women, have been rescued out of the slavery of sin and death, and that Jesus has opened the gates to the kingdom of God to us. With God, all things are possible—and our salvation is the greatest gift of all. In this life too, we share the joy of an “extended family” of Christian brothers, sisters and mothers—in our family under God our heavenly Father. Words can’t even begin to express our appreciation to God for His love and His blessings. But Lord, receive our praise nevertheless, as we praise You and acknowledge You for Your mighty works and salvation. You are worthy of all our praises, in you and in your cross we boast, for you are our light and our salvation! We confess that you have done the impossible for us, and that heaven stands open to those who trust in you, because of your great mercy and Jesus’ great suffering and sacrifice. Hear our prayer and our praises for the sake of Jesus Christ, and teach us to be grateful. Teach us to know the surpassing greatness of your gift, and to proclaim it to all the world. In Jesus’ name, Amen!

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. What typical attitudes have you encountered (inside the church, or outside it) about how or whether one will go to heaven? Do people even think about it at all? Do you agree most people think it’s easy or natural for most people to end up in heaven? On what basis? Good works?

  1. How did Jesus flip the disciples’ (and our) expectation about how easy the kingdom of God is to enter? Why did He start with identifying riches as an obstacle to entering heaven? What challenge does wealth present to faith? 1 Timothy 6:10; Hebrews 13:5; Luke12:13-21

  1. How does Jesus further close the door to show that not just the wealthy will find it difficult to enter the kingdom? Who then can get in by human effort? What kinds of human effort do people usually consider as deserving an entrance into heaven?

  1. Why does Jesus and more broadly the whole Bible strike down human pride? Luke 1:52; 14:11; 18:14; James 4:6; Ephesians 2:8-9. Why cannot salvation be a “do-it-yourself” job? What is the power of sin to enslave us? Why did this require a “rescue job” from Jesus? What did it cost?

  1. Since God gets all the credit, and deserves all the credit, how should we live? Explaining the 1st and 2nd articles of the Apostle’s Creed, Martin Luther describes our response to God’s Fatherly divine goodness and mercy, and the Son’s gift of redemption this way: “For all this it is my duty to thank and to praise, serve and obey Him”…and “that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.” How can we praise and thank Him today and every day?

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