Proper 23 – Series B
Helpless, Jesus actually called us helpless little children last week. What is he thinking; doesn’t he know that I have considerable cash stashed away for a rainy day? I have equity in my house, my stock portfolio includes lots of blue chip companies. I have health insurance and a good car. I can take care of myself.
Of course, that is rather laughable in these days of looming economic instability when jobs are easily lost, when we have watched our portfolios and bank accounts grow, shrink, grow back, and shrink again. It is not as dire as it was a few years ago when banks were closing and entire retirements simply evaporated, but recent global economic turmoil has many people uncomfortable. I remember some years ago feeling really badly for someone who had $80,000 of Enron stock and lost it all. Now I know lots of folks who have lost that much and more.
The temptation to find our security in something other than God is not only for good times. It afflicts us all the time. The poor man who believes that all his problems would be solved if this lottery ticket would just be the one is depending just as much on the worldly wealth as any Scrooge McDuck sitting on his pile of coins and gleefully counting them. This week and next, Mark will take on one of the primary attempts by people to assert their adulthood. They will try to make believe that they are actually able to control, exercise their will, and be adult. They will imagine that they are adult by the fact that they can manipulate some of their environment and surroundings. The more of their surroundings they can manipulate, the more potent it seems that the temptation becomes. Has science and our ability to shape so much of our world just turned us into little divine wannabe’s? Maybe I really am able to stand on my own two feet.
Today we will see Jesus love a deluded young man, and do his best to extract this fellow from his idolatry. He will handle him roughly, give him a good shake to wake him up, and when he groggily falls back asleep, Jesus will still love him, and pinch him so that he might be roused from the deep sleep of his dependency on mammon.
The picture Matthew gives us is that the young man walks away, unable to see the world any differently than he has in the past. The preacher today may well also need to apply a little tough, parental sorts of love. The sin of trusting anything other than God is deep-seated, difficult to see in our own selves and particularly stubborn. The whole point of security is that we don’t have to move, you see. The reason we trust in this is because we think it will work.
But let not the preacher despair, Jesus still loves the sleepers. He smiles at them and still is about the business of waking them up to the reality that a trust placed in any other than the Lord of heaven and earth is like leaning on a bruised reed. It will snap in your hand and pierce your palm. He knows how much that hurts; he has had his palms pierced in case you had forgotten that.
The securities upon which we are wont to depend have a regular habit of crashing down around us. The health which was so good is suddenly compromised; the stock portfolio which was looking so healthy suddenly is itself on life support. The friendships and position which looked
to be so rich suddenly are shown to be shoddy and poor when one person betrays us. The things we depended upon have a way of letting us down.
Does Jesus work behind those events to wake us up to the fact that our trust is misplaced? Does the wise preacher keep an eye out for those moments of insecurity as good times to talk about the security which is found in Christ and our Father in heaven? You bet he does.
Collect of the Day
Lord Jesus Christ, whose grace always precedes and follows us, help us to forsake all trust in earthly gain and to find in your our heavenly treasure; for You live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
The Lord’s grace always precedes and follows us. Does it go in front of us and run a little interference? What does it mean to go ahead of us? What does it mean to follow us? I suppose this could simply mean that we are always immersed in grace. It is all around us, but that is not quite what it says and I like to think that this has more to say than that. At least I think it does.
The Lord’s grace goes before us. There is a great deal of peace to be found in the idea that God’s grace has been there before I ever get there, no matter what door I am about to open. If it is a new job, a new city to live in, a new relationship, a new child in my home, a new car, no matter what, God has been there long before I got there. Not only has he been there, but he has been there graciously.
What exactly does that mean? Can I count on the idea that God has been preparing this time and place just for me? That he has gently and subtly moved things here and there for my sake? Perhaps he has opened a door for my particular words to slip in and change someone’s heart. Perhaps he has softened up some old codger so that this time, when I speak, he will be ready to hear that good news. Perhaps he is just putting someone in that office who will forgive me when I have screwed things up badly.
There are all sorts of ways that his grace can go before us. In truth, in this culture, it is hard to find someone who knows nothing of Christ and the New Testament and his love. They may not know much but they probably have heard phrases like the golden rule, the Ten Commandments, or have seen the John 3:16 banner hung up at a football game sometime and asked about it.
But God’s grace not only precedes me, preparing the way, it also follows me. The words I speak are never perfect, they are always tainted by my sinful reality. But God’s grace is an amazing clean up squad. He can take even my faltering and halting verbiage and make it into something life giving. My sinful and sometimes scandalous life becomes an illustration of his grace to all. My falls and failures are the very stuff of his Kingdom. His grace follows in my trail of broken relationships, missteps, sins, and failures and he makes something even of that. His grace follows me.
But in our folly, sometimes we forget that grace. It is subtle after all. God does not put this in our face our make it so obvious that we cannot but acknowledge it. Such would deny the very faithful relationship he delights in. And so, having acknowledged his gracious presence, we also beg him
to help us trust in him, and in him alone. He is the treasure, not the stuff which may be in my stock portfolio and bank accounts. He is the stability and strength which I cannot find in my own health and in my own securities of job and family and home. He is the only one to trust. In his hands I am safe.
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15 Amos’ words are embedded in a longer passage which I have included for you. The news he has is not good. Our text gets to the heart of the message, but I think the context makes it that much sharper.
1 Hear this word that I take up over you in lamentation, O house of Israel:
2 “Fallen, no more to rise, is the virgin Israel; forsaken on her land, with none to raise her up.”
3 For thus says the Lord GOD:
“The city that went out a thousand shall have a hundred left, and that which went out a hundred shall have ten left to the house of Israel.”
4 For thus says the LORD to the house of Israel:
“Seek me and live; 5 but do not seek Bethel, and do not enter into Gilgal or cross over to Beersheba; for Gilgal shall surely go into exile, and Bethel shall come to nothing.”
6 Seek the LORD and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, 7 O you who turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the earth!
8 He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the LORD is his name;
9 who makes destruction flash forth against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.
10 They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth. 11 Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins— you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. 13 Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time.
14 Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. 15 Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.
Amos wrote to the interesting crowd of folks who lived in the autumn of Israel. Jehu had cleansed the worship and people of their idolatrous king and slaughtered the prophets of Baal and Asherah in a great and purifying bloodbath; although, God would find him guilty of too much zeal on that day. Now his descendent, Jeroboam II sat upon the throne, a decent enough king, and the folks at the time loved him. Of course they loved him for all the wrong reasons. He was not successful as David had been successful. David had been devout in his piety and always turning to the LORD on his day of trouble. Jeroboam presided over a political and economic boom time in Israel.
The Assyrians and Syrians who had so plagued them a generation ago were in the decline. A power vacuum opened up and the nations of Israel, Tyre, Sidon, and others stepped into that void. We probably learned about these Tyre and Sidon folks under a different name: Phoenicians. These were trading folk, their ships plied the Mediterranean and brought their wares and shipments of grain and olive oil as far as North Africa where they established a colony at Carthage and from there to the very shores of Spain, where a Carthaginian general named Barca would establish a military encampment, which in the Punic dialect was called a “lona.” Today that encampment still bears his name: Barcelona.
But what did these intrepid traders pack into their ships? At the busy ports of Tyre and Sidon, it was largely the produce of the fertile fields of Galilee. What Omri and Ahab had already established decades before, Jehu and Jeroboam continued: The lucrative trading agreements with their neighbors to sell them grain and olive oil and wine. Today when we find the wreck of one of these ships, it is often filled with great earthenware jars called amphora. Inside them we still find the residue of olive oils and wines likely produced by the Israelites of Jeroboam’s day.
From tending a flock in the extreme southern reaches of Judea, God had called upon Amos to preach a message of condemnation to the prosperous folk of the Northern ten tribes. The people of Israel, his northern cousins, had grown to trust their wealth, their position, their alliances, and their king to the neglect of God. For Amos this showed up in the fact that for the almighty shekel, they would virtually enslave their own countrymen, depriving them of honestly earned wages and neglecting the poor, widow, and orphan in their midst.
In pronouncing these judgments, Amos has his eyes fixed squarely on the Torah. There God explicitly told the people of Moses’ day and our day to trust first in God. That meant we were free to care for the poor, widow, alien, and orphan in our midst. We could do so because God would take care of us. He who gave us Manna in the wilderness would not let us starve, so how could we let another human being starve if we have food and shelter and clothes to give them?
Amos looks around at the injustice of Israelite society and sees not only a problem of injustice, he sees an idolatrous lack of faith and trust in God. In the reading we have today he notices that the whole justice system of Israel is broken and the little people are getting stomped on. You can imagine that this is a problem in itself, but for Amos, it is a problem in that it is a symptom of a faith problem. Hence, he does not merely exhort the Israelites to treat the poor better, but to turn to God, seeking him that we may live. The justice and mercy for which he calls are not things of themselves, but the fruit of healthy, faith-relationships with God. Here is where many in modernity have pitiably misread Amos. They believe him to be the prophet of liberation and the empowerment of the poor. But they miss his real point. He is really the prophet of faith.
Amos still has hope. The verses should occupy the attention of the preacher. Amos calls for the people to amend their sinful ways and perhaps God will have mercy. The judgment looms but it can be averted. Do we believe that any judgment looms? I am not sure that we can hear Amos without that sense. We will twist and turn him into something else.
1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations. 2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
3 You return man to dust and say, “Return, O children of man!” 4 For a thousand years in your sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.
5 You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: 6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers.
7 For we are brought to an end by your anger; by your wrath we are dismayed. 8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence.
9 For all our days pass away under your wrath; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. 10 The years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength eighty; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. 11 Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?
12 So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. 13 Return, O LORD! How long? Have pity on your servants! 14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days. 15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil. 16 Let your work be shown to your servants, and your glorious power to their children. 17 Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish the work of our hands upon us; yes, establish the work of our hands!
That last phrase in the psalm really attracts me. “Establish the work of our hands!” We often seek meaning and purpose in the things we accomplish, we want to erect the edifice, build the business, create the lasting memorial to ourselves. But that real meaning and that real significance require God’s participation. If He does not establish our work, it simply erodes. I remember in graduate school reading the poet Horace’s estimation of his book that it was a
memorial more lasting than the pyramids and statues of bronze. We thought it rather humorous that the only folks who bothered to read him were a few dusty classicists like ourselves and even then not many of us.
God’s presence is beautifully described in the preceding verses. The psalmist longs for God to be present and active. Psalm 90 has been the occasion for many excellent hymns. You will want to check out some of those. The sentiments expressed here are justly famous. The whole psalm deserves a careful and thorough reading by God’s people. We get it several other times in the pericope system so we focus only on the final verses today. But the preacher who is attracted to this text will do well to consider the whole thing.
12 Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14 For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15 As it is said,
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
16 For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17 And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18 And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19 So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
The writer to the Hebrews is an important witness in the NT for a number of reasons, but perhaps chief among them is his understanding of the ecclesial fellowship which of course we call Church. One of the interesting things he notes is that the Church is a mutual exhortation society for him. He sees the community as mutually reinforcing the faith. Is that how we see our churches? Is that how we ought to see our churches? Is that in itself a different reason for attending church than to “feed me” or for some sort of a more consumer mentality? Does the writer to the Hebrews in fact have something of a rebuke for us in this? Is the question about what I have to give to my fellow believer in terms of encouragement much more important than whether I like the music or the Bible study, etc.?
The other interesting piece in here is that the faithful are to exhort one another lest they fall away from the faith. I wonder what the hard core Calvinists who insist on the perseverance of the faithful do with that phrase. To illustrate he turns to the Torah and uses his typical ‘from the lesser to the greater’ construction. The Israelites who died in the wilderness are like us. They were heading toward a promised rest in Canaan just as we head toward the promised rest of heaven. They did not all make it to the Promised Land and some were excluded on account of disbelief. How much more will it not be true now that the Son of God has spoken and has died in
the flesh, if we do not believe it? The promised rest of Canaan was denied to them, but we are heading to the promised rest of which Canaan was simply a foreshadowing. If they did not make it because of unbelief, what will happen to us if we fall away?
And so, we need to encourage one another in the faith. I think the preacher who addresses this must ask some serious questions about how exactly an encouraging community works. The writer to the Hebrews here simply tells us what is at stake, but the actual mechanics of how this works might be just as important. What does an encouraging ecclesial community look like in this generation? What does it do? As an academic I have spoken to more than a few of my colleagues who feel driven out of communities of faith because they simply cannot accept some of the tenets of rabidly literal readings of the text and because pastors of local parishes cannot tolerate the intellectual ambiguity of an academic. Other folks sleep in on Sunday mornings because they perceive that the church has been judgmental and harsh. Some cite hypocrisy or some clerical vice. The list gets longer every year and sometimes, in my darker moments, I wonder why anyone stays.
What would the community which encourages people to stay in the faith really look like? I don’t think it jettisons substance and faith. Indeed, such churches are some of the fastest to be hemorrhaging members today. What really keeps folks attached to the community called Church? There is a not-so-subtle temptation which feeds on the pride of preachers that folks come to church because the preacher is good, a good speaker, a good teacher, a good leader, etc. Is that what it takes for churches to grow? Christian Schwartz, in what is probably one of the more insightful studies, suggested that there were 8 characteristics which are common to growing and thriving churches. You read about them in his works which center around “Natural Church Development.” If you really want to look into that, his is probably some of the better stuff that I have read on the subject.
Ultimately it is God who encourages us through those fellow Christians. How do we talk about this without obscuring him? The psalmist has asked God to establish the work of our hands. What about the work of our churches? How will that be established? Should it be?
17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “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.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
There is a powerful sermon here about the idolatry of trusting in our material wealth. It is a good sermon and a sermon which our generation needs to hear again and again. I will fault no
one for preaching that sermon. The radically materialist society in which we live has made our things into our gods in many respects. Our lives are judged by the size of our homes, our televisions, our bank accounts, and the sort of car we drive. We idolize those who make money, no matter how they do it, even if it is something shameful. Shopping centers are temples of a sort. We are given impossibly beautiful visions of what can be ours if we only possess this or that thing, a piece of clothing, a piece of technology, or something else. We believe, we make our offering/sacrifice, and a young priestess hands us the blessing in a bag which marks us as belonging to the church of Macy’s or The Gap.
Jesus’ hard words for the young man are spoken to us as well and we as a church have spent far too much time rationalizing our greed instead of putting our wealth to work for the kingdom of God. When I was in Utah we opened up a preschool and a small day care. It struggled, but it seemed to be working. I remember doing a stewardship program one year and we asked folks how much they made in an anonymous survey. It was stunning. If that little congregation of about 60 folks on a given Sunday had simply tithed, we would never have had to charge tuition for our preschool. The preschool and day care have since closed. The business plan on which we based it was flawed. It should have worked, but we did not take into account the reality that LDS families were so close knit and often handled their day care needs internally to the family and would not use a service like this.
There is another sermon however, which I want to focus on here. It is found by looking at what Jesus says here, not the man, his wealth and his reaction to Jesus’ words. This sermon starts with Jesus reaction to the young man who simply calls Jesus “good teacher.” It is a polite sort of thing to say, the sort of respectful thing that a student might say to a professor, to a rabbi. But Jesus seems to crawl all over him for that. “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”
Why does Jesus react so to a simple word of politeness? Of course, Jesus is right. Only God is good and one could see this as a test of whether the man is attesting to Jesus divinity. Is Jesus plumbing the depth of this man’s faith? Being Jesus, is he doing that for the sake of the man who asks him the question? Surely. Like the Syro-Phoenecian woman a few weeks ago, he starts out really rude with this guy.
Remembering how that turned out, I wonder if this is not something like that, a lesson given not only the man but also to the disciples. If you read the reading for next week, they seem puzzled by this. Jesus attests that wealth is a hindrance to entering the kingdom of God. The disciples are amazed at Jesus words. I think the key to Jesus’ rudeness to this fellow is to be found in their amazement. They need to see this exchange and so Jesus is going to push it as hard as he can.
He starts off by putting the self-confident young man on the defensive a little bit. The charge here is really one of the first commandment issues. He is wondering if the guy is a true worshiper of the LORD, or at least that is the man and the disciples heard this exchange. Jesus is essentially questioning the man’s view of God. Only God is good, to call another good is to suggest that there is another God. Of course, the one to whom he speaks is God and is good. Is Jesus asking him to consider that idea?
Jesus doesn’t give him time to recover. He immediately then launches into a listing of the commandments: particularly what we usually call #’s 5, 6, 7, 8, 9/10 and then 4. This is a strange ordering of the commandments. The honor of parents was always enumerated the way we see it in the commandment table which is found in our catechism, at least with the honoring of parents prior to the commandment about murder. We encountered this parental commandment a couple of months ago when Jesus upbraided the Pharisees at the time for their lousy way of honoring God. They allowed a man to declare everything “corban” and thereby free him from the obligation to care for his aging parents. It was a few weeks ago now, but actually not that many chapters before (Mark 7:9-12). We got it right after the three weeks of John 6. I imagine that Jesus spoke these commandments one at a time, slowly. Murder? The man nods, “I have kept that one, no murders in my past.” Adultery? Stealing? False witness? Defrauding? At each of them the man nods. “Yes, I have kept them.” Honor your father and mother?
But this is not really about commandment keeping. If you ask me, Jesus is not so much interested in the man’s obedience as he is in the man himself. The young man shoots back at Jesus that he has kept all these commandments since his youth. He has been the good boy.
Now Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him. I have gotten to know this Jesus a little bit in the past decades of my life. Jesus did not start loving this man at this moment, but Mark really wants you to know that the next words out of Jesus mouth are really words of love. The man has asserted that he has kept the commandments. Jesus looks at him in love and smashes his pretentions. It is a painful thing to do, but it is the loving thing to do.
I believe it is imperative at this point to recognize the question that the young man asked Jesus. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” On the surface the question is nonsense. One does not do something to be named an heir, but one simply is an heir or one is not. It is something that happens when you are born, normally. Or it happens at the decision of the one who names you as an heir. The better question is “what must I be in order to inherit eternal life.” But we always ask the question this way, don’t we? We understand perfectly the nonsense that the man speaks, it doesn’t really seem like nonsense to us.
Jesus sees a young man who has tried ever so hard, but still comes with this desperate question. His good works have not brought him satisfaction or confidence. His life of striving and working has brought him no peace. He is still asking the question. It haunts him. “What must I do?” Like a Luther some 1500 years later, he has done so much and it still seems like so little. Jesus looks into his desperate eyes and loves him.
Here is a form of Gospel. We have so often messed this up. We have so often tried to control our eternal life, to own it, to demand it, to earn it. God does not reject us on that account. He does not hate us for it. But he sees our foolish and self-centered ways and he loves us. Of course, he also promptly kicks out from under us the very things on which we thought to build our tower to heaven. He confuses us and scatters us and we are soon reduced to the children to whom he gives the kingdom in the first place.
Jesus loves the man and tells him to sell everything and follow him. This passage and others like it have had a profound impact on the history of God’s people. Francis of Assisi and countless other monastic and mendicant orders were founded in answer to this call. People literally did sell everything they had and in some way tried to follow Jesus.
But Jesus is not really offering some formula nor is he after the man’s money or his service. He is after the man himself. The wealth and the security it brings him, the comfort it affords him, are simply obstacles to possessing the man himself. Jesus looks at this fool and loves him. He would have made Peter and James and John scoot over and make room for him. You wonder who would have had to drop out of the twelve to make room. Or would we talk about thirteen disciples if this had gone another way.
It was a noble and worthy attempt on Jesus’ part. He has gotten the man off balance with the first words. He has set the bar high, and still the man clings to his pretention of righteousness. So Jesus, lovingly, crushes him. “Sell it all and follow me.” He peers into the man’s heart and sees his idolatry and confronts it head on. The man blanches, you can imagine. Jesus has now worked back to the question he started with. Only God is good, you see. You are not good. The man walks away, very sad, because he had great wealth and apparently cannot part with it.
Luther helps us here. Without the first commandment, the rest of them cannot be kept. Like a physician probing for just the spot in your back where it hurts, Jesus puts his finger on the man’s idolatry and pushes that spot very hard. It hurts. The preacher needs to ask the question of where the spot is for his people. It may not be money. It might be control, power, reputation (do you have any idea how much time people spend grooming their image on Facebook?), or something else.
Next week will hear Jesus speak of the pitfalls of wealth. The preacher would do well to keep reading if you are thinking about this text. God’s kingdom is upside down once more. The rich people don’t get to say that they have more of God’s love, measured with the yardstick of their bank accounts. It doesn’t work that way. Today however, we see Jesus loving a rich young ruler. He doesn’t deserve it. He is an arrogant fellow, but under the arrogance is a desperation to be an heir of heaven. Jesus would welcome this man to the ranks of heaven’s heirs. He would happily write him and us into the heavenly will. He did it with his blood. It has never been a question of what we must to inherit life. It is always a question of what the one man who was the heir did with this life, on a cross, on a Friday, long ago.
1. I am desperate for a sense of security and meaning in my life. An honest look at me, my health, my existence is bleak and empty. The ancient cultures of northern Europe compared a human life to that of a bird which flies into one end of a mead hall and out the other at night. From darkness, a brief moment of light, then back into the darkness.
2. Thus I grasp for meaning and security in all sorts of things, perhaps money, but it could be just about anything. Today Jesus addresses a young man whose security is in his wealth and whose hope for eternal life is in his good deeds.
3. But these are empty of any real hope and security. The human being who trusts in them is ultimately disappointed. Death is cruel, life is worse, standing before the judgment seat of God and counting on your good deeds is foolish and I know it. I am uneasy about this, but I don’t know what else to do.
4. I should know better. God has repeatedly told me to do otherwise. The first commandment still applies, but I find this very difficult.
5. I seem to be caught between despair and deceit. Honesty about my life leaves me with no hope, a lie leaves my stomach tied in knots, but what can I do?
1. God has entered this bleak and poisoned world and run the human race with us. Jesus has stared death down, suffered its indignity, and conquered it. There is more to this story than simply that I am born, live, and then die, he has burst that story wide open. There is much, much more to me than the dates inscribed on a tombstone and an obituary will every tell.
2. And so he offers me another form of security, a security, safety, and meaning which is not located in my accomplishments, deeds, or possessions, but in the fact that I am a possession of God. He defines me, he owns me, and there is no one, nowhere, in no way who can take that away from me.
3. This hope, this meaning, this salvation does not disappoint in the end. The end is celebration and joy. But it does displace all the others. God is a jealous God, and he will not share with others. He stakes an exclusive claim over us.
4. Jesus looks at the young man and loves him, and he loves us. Our inability to trust and love him solely and wholly does not remove us from his love, but prompts him to action. He enters the human race, he dies upon the cross, he seeks us out, and pulls out from under the props which we have erected in some vain hope of meaning and security. All because he would have us fall into the loving hands of our creator and God.
5. Thus Jesus exclusive claim of our hope, trust, and love extracts us from the twin fate of despair and deceit. I may honestly consider my life and rejoice that Christ has died for my failings and entrust my entire being to his hands.
1. “Jesus looked and him and loved him.” (That the hearer would rest in the good news that God has answered every question and concern. He has looked at our broken lives and our miserable attempts at righteousness, even when we still are in the midst of our deception and he has love us nonetheless.)
We would love to be able to solve all our problems. But we cannot. Our failure to do so might make us feel worthless and helpless. It might also be that our society has told us that such people are failures and miserable human beings, the sort of people whom you see on TV. But we know it is true of us too. There is a little voice which speaks to us in the middle of the night when we lie sleepless on our Sealy Posturpedic Pillow-Topped Mattresses and despite the fact we are lying a bed whose comfort prior generations could not know we still find ourselves discomfited. A little voice inside our head whispers: “I am a failure. I have even failed to own up to my failure. I am a failure at failing! God must surely hate me.”
It is at just such a moment that God comes in and smacks the sniveling creature which our conscience has become under Satan and looks us in the eye and simply loves us.
The desire to hold some control here, some bit of differentiation cannot be underestimated. There has to be something that God finds loveable within us, the logic goes. There must be some remnant of the image of God, some promise of a good deed I can do, some bit of virtue that I have that separates me from the detestable people I know. But to each of the suggestions which I put forward Jesus smiles and shakes his head. No, not that either. Finally my desperate mind lands on “faith!” I believe, that is why you love me! Jesus shakes his head again. “Repentance” I at least know that I am a failure. That is why you love me! No, Jesus shakes his head again. He does not love me because I believe or because I am sorry for my sins.
Is there any reason that god loves me? Yes, says Jesus and he holds out his hands and shows you the scars they bear. But you died for all! Yes, he nods. He died for all. He loves us all.
Today Jesus looks at the man who trusts his own deeds and his own wealth and loves him. He would have pulled out from under him the false security and empty promises which these props afforded him. He would have carried this man in his band of followers and made him into a disciple and an heir of heaven. Perhaps we would have memorized his name with the other disciples. For this man, Jesus would have become his savior God. And perhaps he did. Did Jesus look around him in every crowd who gathered in hope that he might see this young man’s eyes staring back at him? Did he turn around in every Galilean village hoping that this man might be there? He loved him, after all, he cared for him. He wanted him to follow.
Jesus loves us with that same love, unconditionally given, which has the power to transform us into a different person because Jesus has given it to us. When I separate my
status before God from my own accomplishment, I am suddenly thereby freed to look at someone else very differently too. God does not love me because I got it right, nor does he love the other guys because they got it right. In truth, we are all especially good at getting it wrong. The disciples will be totally changed by this realization in the lesson next week. What will happen to you? Will you realize that the co-worker you struggle with is just as beloved of God as you are? Will that change the way you talk to them tomorrow? Will the neighbor who has been dumping their weeds over your fence be seen for the first time as a fellow redeemed of God? What will be freed in your life? Only he knows. But I am excited to see it.
2. “Only God is Good” (Gospel: That God opens the eyes of the hearer to consider his/her life in light of the first commandment’s exclusive claims upon our hearts. There is no other who can give us the life, meaning, and health we so desperately need.)
Luther says that our God is the person or thing which we believe will do us the greatest good, be the most benefit to us. What will solve your problems? Winning the lottery might fix some of them, but will it really solve the big ones of your life? Would eternal health and life solve them? Would science or some technology which allowed you to live without the pesky people solve your problems?
What will do us the greatest good? Jesus today is confronted by a man who is pretty sure that his greatest good will come from the fact that he is righteous before God, and he looks to the blessing of his wealth as some sort of validation of that goodness. But Jesus immediately challenges him. No one is good but God. His trust, his worship, his love is misplaced. Yes, he wants to go to heaven, a noble goal, but he trusts himself to get himself there. That great good cannot come from me, it cannot come from you, it must come from God, the God who revealed himself to us as a Father who sends a Son, a Son who obeys and dies upon a cross, and Spirit who is poured out into our lives in Word and Sacrament and thereby includes us in that heaven.
I cannot make this happen. In this we must simply admit our own failure and be the helpless human beings that sin and death and Satan have rendered us. God must do this, or it is not going to happen at all.
But this sermon does not really end there. For such a realization does not only comfort the sinner, but it frees us as well. The man whom Jesus loves in today’s text becomes an illustration of this first commandment principle to the disciples of Jesus. They will marvel at what Jesus says. How can this be? Cannot he look to this wealth and be assured that God has blessed him? Jesus opens our eyes to see ourselves and our neighbor very differently. The love of God is given, simply given. It cannot be earned and it cannot be measured, it cannot be controlled and it cannot be tamed. Only God is good, you see. Don’t expect others to be that sort of good. They may at times reflect the goodness of God, but only God is good – period. By his gracious impartation in Christ, we will share in that goodness for an eternity, but that goodness is gift, a gift given to broken and sinful
people. Only God is good, and so that means that when I see your sin, and you see mine, that does not mean you or I am not worthy of God, for he is good, I am not, you are not, but his goodness makes the difference, not our evil.
I look forward to the day when your life and mine will be a perfect reflection of God’s goodness. I see it now, once in a while. Somedays I see it much more clearly than other days. But often, when I look in the mirror, and I look out over you, I have to remind myself and you, only God is good and his good time he sent Jesus to give that goodness, and his good time he will bring this whole thing to his conclusion. God is good.
3. Establish the Work of our Hands (Psalm – That the Holy Spirit would move the hearer to acts of love and forgiveness)
We often look for a legacy. Presidents, including the current president, look for a legacy issue just before they leave office. They want something to be remembered by. FDR has Social Security, LBJ wanted his legacy to be the war on poverty but ended up with Vietnam as his legacy, Eisenhower approved the Interstate Highway System, etc.
But what is our legacy? What do we do here that has any lasting value? The interstates will eventually crumble to rubble, who knows what shape Social Security will be in a few years. I don’t have presidential power to do something big. Will I just be forgotten when I die? Will I have a legacy? I have children, but let’s be honest, the writer of Ecclesiastes might have gotten that one right when he lamented that his children were all fools and would soon undo all the good that he had done. In Solomon’s case it was true. His son Rehoboam completely messing things up and the civil war that ensued greatly diminished the kingdom.
In the medieval era wealthy men would endow a chantry, paying for monks to say prayers and masses for their souls in perpetuity. It was a legacy of sorts, but one which was designed to get the benefactor out of purgatory faster. Today those medieval buildings either lie in ruins or have been repurposed as upscale shopping centers in England or Germany. Perhaps there is a Turk or Pakistani running a shop out of that building today whose prayers to Allah are spoken five times a day in a strange mockery of the monastic prayers which used to be spoken there.
So what could be our legacy? The psalmist today urges God to establish the works of our hands. This sermon will pray that prayer with the psalmist and hear what Paul says in I Corinthians 13 where he says that while everything else passes away, even faith and tongues and knowledge, love alone endures in the judgment of God. The psalmist wants his works established. There is only one way to establish your works. They must be filled with God’s love. It is the one thing we have right now in this life which we will have in the next as well. It is the one truth of heaven that is true for us right now. We love and through us God loves this world.
The human being who wants to make a mark should not look to power and wealth. They pass away. The Psalmist wants God to teach us to number our days aright. He realizes
that without God he is helpless and so are we. He pensively waits for God’s blessings in the morning because he realizes they are all by grace.
The preacher will want to have a list ready, I think. He will want to have concrete and various ways that a Christian could make his or her mark in love. Don’t just talk platitudes here, but talk about opportunities. Point out ways that your congregation and its members are even now making a difference and living the love of Christ for this town and neighborhood in which we live. This sermon should have a little push to it. Yes, the mark is the mark made by Christ. It is the mark made in our baptism when the sign of the cross was put on us. But as Luther says in the Catechism, God’s name was put on us that day and when we live holy and chaste lives, we make a mark. No mark is so lasting as the mark of love. Humans may well forget it, but God has inscribed upon his memory every cup of cold water given to a child.
4. Exhort one another while it is “today.” (Epistle – That the hearer would delight in the fellowship of the church and be moved to its healthy mutual love.)
The sermon is a sermon about the Church, always a difficult and sometimes distracting topic for a preacher, but when understood as a sermon about an act of Jesus, a creation of God, the Holy Spirit, it fits a little better into our usual ideas about preaching.
The writer to Hebrews brings up an important feature of the nature of the Church. Our American culture wants to define it economically and politically. The Church is a voluntary organization of like-minded people who have voluntarily affiliated into a not-for-profit corporation. That is true, but is it really the truth? Hardly. The church is called into being by Christ himself, imbued with the Holy Spirit, and will persevere long after the government which approves the congregational charter and bylaws has passed away. We are preaching this church, this body which Christ has gathered.
But the writer to the Hebrews wants us to see something about this body. It encourages one another. The Law here will not be hard to diagnose. It will be as near as the last member who drifted away and has not been seen for months. It will be as near as the empty pew where your friend or your child should be sitting today.
What is the Gospel for this? Jesus creates a community which encourages one another while it is the day. Alone we are helpless and hopeless, which is why Christ has put us together. Our role in a parish is not to exert power over one another but to encourage and support. We do this when we:
- a. Pray for one another (Surely you have a prayer list already for this Sunday, but speak of the parishioners praying for one another at home as well.)
- b. Praise and encourage the good and the noble in our neighbor. Ours is a crass and cynical age in which the “cool” people are detached and make fun of everything. But here is a place where gentleness, kindness, goodness, patience, and peacemaking are valued and encouraged.
- c. Serve one another, especially in our neighbor’s need. The dinners we hold after a funeral, the gentle hand for the elderly gent who struggles up to the rail for communion, the hand on the widow’s arm reminder her that she is not alone, and much more.
- d. Hold one another accountable. This might not feel so good as the first three, but when we see someone stumble, this is a place where they can be gently and kindly set aright. (Galatians 6:1-5, Hebrews 5:1-2, etc.)
- e. Serve together. Quilters and Sunday School teachers, church officers and the guys who poured the sidewalk last summer, we do so much more when we do it together.
There is more we could put here, but you are getting the idea. The church is often lambasted today as a boring and out of date place, or worse, a place where narrow minded and bigoted people get together to reinforce their small worlds. These are not true, we are proclaiming the truth because it is not that the Church is always so perfect or good, but because in this collection of sinners God is doing some really beautiful things. Talk about them.