+ 21st Sunday after Pentecost – October 21, 2012 +
Series B, Proper 24: Ecclesiastes 5:10-20; Hebrews 4:1-13 (14-16); Mark 10:23-31
Jesus’ words make us uncomfortable. You can try to wiggle out of from under his words: “Well, Jesus was only talking to that certain rich man and his teaching on riches doesn’t apply to you.” Or you can dance around the issue saying “But Jesus is talking about the difficulty of salvation.” True enough. But Jesus condemns both, our love of riches and our love of self-righteous religion, our many attempts to save ourselves. So we can’t dismiss Jesus’ words so easily
Words that cause everyone to wrestle: the rich man, the disciples, you and me.
That’s right, even pastors struggle with this text. There’s tension. On the one hand possessions and wealth are great blessings. Jesus uses the stuff of his creation to forgive and provide a church, an income, house, shoes, cars and the like. But on the other hand, when wealth falls from God’s good and generous hands into the hands of sinful men, trouble begins. Voltaire once said that “When it comes to money, everyone has the same religion.”
But pastors aren’t alone. You’re at war within yourselves too. On the one hand you’re thankful for your earthly blessings. The catechism calls these first articles gifts. And gifts they are. Gratitude and praise abound. And yet you forget the Giver and only look at the gifts. We worry. We doubt. We covet. We hold onto our wealth like Gollum in Tolkien’s Hobbit and LOTR. “No, you can’t have it. It’s my precious.” Our hands and hearts are a locked in a death grip.
Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.
But we’re not alone. According to Solomon, “Everyone to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them…this is the gift of God.” Wealth comes from the generous hand of God, Solomon says. And yet Ecclesiastes also warns that wealth and possessions are vanity, emptiness, meaninglessness, dust in the wind. Solomon ought to know. He was the richest man in the world at his time. The envy of all the rulers around him. Even the Queen of Sheba paid a personal visit to see his collection. He could buy anything, do anything, go anywhere. He had gardens, houses, Egyptian horses, a harem of over 900 wives and concubines. But it was all vanity, meaningless, consumptive.
Jesus’ words shocked and astonished the disciples. We get that. Jesus went right for our gods: riches and religion. In Jesus’ day – much like ours - wealth was admired and sought after. It was considered a sign of God’s blessing. When you “counted your blessings,” the more you could count, the more God had blessed you. By the way, beware of preachers today who proclaim this kind of false gospel. It’ll leave your bank account and your faith in ruins.
How do you resolve the tension? Should we empty our bank accounts, sell all we have and take a vow of poverty, live the monastic life in order to get right with God? Many have tried.
Truth is, neither riches nor poverty will save you. The problem isn’t wealth but sin. Sin corrupts everything including your enjoyment of the good things God gives us. He blesses you; gives you a little joy, and you turn around and make it into an all-consuming idol that robs you of every last ounce of joy in your life.
Luther teaches us that whatever you put your trust and security and hope in, that’s your god. Problem is, the riches and wealth are temporary, fading. So whether its riches or your own self-righteousness, it’s a poor god to fear, love and trust in.
Jesus’ teaching makes us squirm because our love of “stuff” and our love of self is exposed. We’re afraid. We doubt. We covet. We sin. All of this has to go. None of it’ll fit through the eye of the needle. His warning about riches is for our good. There’s always danger in clinging to our stuff; danger in always wanting and accumulating more to the point that we don’t fit through the narrow door of the kingdom.
The disciples were astonished. And the astonishment shouldn’t be lost on us either, especially when, compared to the rest of the world, most of us fit Jesus’ definition of “rich.”
And, like us, the disciples didn’t know know what to do with Jesus’ teaching. They overheard Jesus’ conversation with the rich man. They saw him go away sorrowful. “If that guy – loaded with possessions and piety – if he doesn’t get an automatic ticket to heaven, then who can be saved? Jesus, this sounds impossible. “What about us, Jesus? We left our family and possessions and our nets and followed you.”
Finally, the disciples ask the right question. “Who then can be saved?”
And with a one sentence sermon, Jesus preaches the entire OT and NT, answering both the rich man and the disciples. “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For with God all things are possible.”
The currency of the Kingdom of God isn’t found in our riches or our righteousness, but in Christ’s righteousness. It’s not only difficult for one who trusts in riches or self-righteousness to get into heaven; it’s impossible. Salvation isn’t a transaction. Book-keeping doesn’t work in the Kingdom of heaven. It’s salvation by ransom, reversal, exchange. Jesus gives you all of his righteousness and he takes all of your sin. The last are first. The Losers are winners. The poor in spirit inherit the kingdom. The ungodly are justified. Scandalous. Outrageous forgiveness!
That’s where Jesus points us. Not to our bank accounts, our assets, or our self, but to Him, His kingdom and His righteousness. “Seek first the kingdom and its righteousness, and all these things you worry about – clothing, shoes, food, drink, house, home, whatever – all these things will be added to you.”
What about your wealth? What do you do with it? Solomon says, “Enjoy it while you have it. Enjoy your work and wealth. These are gifts from God.” After all, “We bring nothing into this world from our mother’s womb; we take nothing out of this world. The wealth that promised us happiness and security instead causes us anxiety, sickness, and anger. That’s the difference between the true God and false ones. False gods consume their communicants. In Christianity you feast on Jesus. The true God gives you His body and blood to consume for your forgiveness.
And to the world, the disciples, the rich man and us, this is Jesus’ most astonishing teaching: that your salvation doesn’t come from your good works or riches…or even out of God's surplus. Nor God's riches. Nor God's greatness, but from his poverty. Only when God gave all of it up. Gave up the glory and riches and honor. As Jesus came from his mother's womb he went again, naked as he came; he took nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand." Born into nothing. Died with nothing.
And from that nothingness comes your salvation. Jesus discarded everything, came to suffer, bleed, and die for you, taking you back through the eye of the needle with him. He takes your guilty, lying, coveting, greedy, rebellious sinful nature all the way to the cross and wrestles your sin to the grave. His life and blood, drained in order to fill the chalice with eternal life. His side, pierced in order to flood the font and bring you through the eye of the needle into paradise.
This is the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, though he was rich, for our sakes became poor so that through his poverty you might be made rich.” Because the poverty and nothingness of God is richer than the riches of men. (Rev. Eli Davis)
With Christ in the center, wealth takes its proper place, as servant, not master. Freely you have received. Freely give. Serve the neighbor. Provide for your family; live in your vocations. Remember the church: Evangelism, Youth Group, Preschool, Hispanic outreach, the Music Academy, campus ministry, Gospel Seeds, homeless care – these are just a few ideas here at Redeemer. The Church is where you receive that hundred-fold Christ talked about. A Heavenly Father. A new family and a new home, Christ’s body, the Church. Jesus feeds and nourishes you with his body and blood.
In this life, if you have plenty, rejoice, enjoy and share the joy with those in need. And if you’re in need, rejoice that your life is free from the clutter of wealth. That’s why St. Paul says, “I’ve learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know what it is to be abased and to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” To be content is to have your heart at rest in Jesus, and through Him to receive all things as gift from the hand of God.
Hold everything with the dead hand of faith, enjoy it while you have it; you can’t take it with you. Live, work and play as free men and women in Christ. Enjoy the food on your table, the wine or beer in your glass, the work God has given you to do each day. These are His gifts to you. Hold them loosely and they won’t hold you. Remember, your joy comes not from the gifts but from the giver-God who gave them.
In Christ your wrestling is over. For with man it is impossible, but not with God. In Christ, all things are possible. For Jesus can, has and will do the impossible for you.