Tuesday, October 23, 2012
Man's impossibility is God's freely given treasure...
The reading we heard in the Gospel for today is familiar enough so that it was part of the jokes traded by Gov. Romney and Pres. Obama at the traditional Al Smith Dinner this past week. But as familiar as these words are, their meaning is not necessarily clear to us and they are easily misunderstood. With all respect to the candidates, I think these words deserve a careful look and that begins with context.
Last week a rich man came to Jesus seeking eternal life only to leave completely disillusioned. The disciples listened in on that conversation and thought about what they heard. Now the conversation continues. But instead of relieving their fears, Jesus only made their confusion worse. Our faith in the golden rule – he who has the most gold rules – has hardly wavered – though we are often unsure whether God is as impressed with it as we are and, if not, what does impress Him. If the rich and powerful cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, who can? And that is exactly the point. It seems that riches and power can do anything here on earth and get away with it, but not before God. There is a reason we say "rich as God." The Lord who owns all things is not swayed in the least by the treasures that tempt us. But this is not merely about the inadequacy of money and possessions to win over the heart of God.
Jesus insists that with man it is impossible. Jesus is clear here. It is not that salvation is difficult. It is not that it is hard and requires concerted effort. It is not that the price tag is high and requires all that have of value. It is that the Kingdom of Heaven is impossible. The rich cannot afford it and the powerful have no influence over it. The kingdom of heaven rests in the hands of the Lord alone. He does not set a price on it but, because of sin, it has been priced beyond the reach of anyone.
The kingdom of God is not for the getting but for the giving. The kingdom which cannot be bought can only be given – a gift of priceless value requires payment in a priceless currency. The only thing that can pay for the kingdom of heaven is, as Luther reminds, not silver or gold but the holy and precious body and blood of Christ. The kingdom is entirely inaccessible apart from Christ. Now you might think that such a priceless treasure would be guarded away. Far from being stingy with such a priceless treasure, God has been gracious to give to the unworthy, the undeserving, and the sinner. With man it is impossible and that is the Law but the Gospel is that all things are possible with God. Now this is not theory here – what might or might not be possible but what is made possible by the act of God in His Son Jesus. His suffering and His death have paid the priceless cost for the priceless gift and now He lovingly gives to us what we could not purchase, earn, or merit.
Riches cannot purchase grace and neither can poverty earn it. Good character cannot merit God's favor and neither can good works merit the Kingdom of God. That pretty much makes it unreachable and impossible for us. If all our riches are not enough and if people of good character are not good enough and it good works are not enough, then we are left to trust only grace and only mercy. Jesus does not sugar coat the problem. And it is no wonder that the disciples sighed in despair. If the rich cannot afford it, good character cannot earn it, and good works cannot merit it, then what hope can ordinary people have? What about us, they wondered? The answer is in Christ Himself who is both payment for this kingdom and giver of its grace to all who believe.
The disciples despaired because they had nothing. Peter pleads their cause. "We have left everything to follow You, Jesus? What of us?" Perhaps we come here Sundays with the same question. We may not have much but what we have we have left to follow You, Jesus, what can we hope for? But Jesus is careful to point us not to what we have done – whether we think we own it all or whether we think we have given it all up. With man it is impossible, but with God all things are possible. The message is clear – radical faith in radical grace.
When Jesus asked the young man to leave behind his possessions, He was asking Him to leave behind the false comfort these temporary treasures hold out. It was a call to radical faith in radical grace. When Jesus asked the man to follow Him, it was not because Jesus wanted more groupies. Jesus was calling Him to radical faith in radical grace. When Jesus promises reward, Jesus is not pledging to make up for all that this world steals from us or to balance out the cost of discipleship with heavenly reward. No, Jesus is calling us to radical faith in radical grace.
In this radical grace, the first in this world become the last and the poor who are last of all become first. In this radical grace, those things which distinguish us here on earth count for nothing and we become equal in the blood of Christ. In this radical grace, God is no respecter of persons and counts no earthly distinctions. Only faith. Only grace.
It is not the leaving of things that counts but the clinging to Christ that saves. It is not following Jesus that earns us anything but the trusting in Jesus so that we follow the sound of His voice speaking through His Word that counts for anything at all. It is not the good works that merit eternal reward but the reward given by the cross that moves us to good works. That is the message of Jesus. Radical trust. Radical faith. Radical grace. It shocks and challenges the mind and makes no sense to us but it is the path of God and the path of the Kingdom of God.
The Lord asks for your money and your time and your talents not because these mean so much and are of such great value. He asks for them because they mean nothing at all. We do not give to the Lord these tithes and offerings to show that God is so important to us we will give what is most precious to us. No, we give these tithes and offerings to the Lord precisely because they are not precious to us at all. Only the Kingdom. Only grace. Only the cross. Only these are important to us.
Have you ever seen a U-Haul being pulled by a hearse? Ecclesiastes is blunt here. We come empty and with nothing and we can take nothing at the end. What matters is not what we do in the middle. No, our lives are not measured by what we accumulate or what we experience. In plenty and in want, in youth and in old age, we come to the Lord the same – trusting in His mercy and rejoicing in His grace. What is impossible for us is possible for Him. The priceless cost of a priceless treasure is paid so that it might be given freely to you and me and to all who believe. And that, my friends, is the power of love. See what great love that the Father has for us that we should be called the children of God. And that is exactly what we are. Amen