Proper 24 – Series B
Luther supplies a very brief but profound meaning to the first commandment. We should fear, love and trust in God above all things. Those of us who have spent a few years teaching catechism class surely remember the fact that this commandment’s meaning adds that simple monosyllabic word to the end of that usual “fear and love” couplet which introduces the rest of the commandments.
Trust – what does that word mean to us? We are to trust God above all things. It is easy enough to write up a litany of alternatives from which we should be warned: Money, power, health, success, fame, etc. Only God should hold that position of the highest trust, but what exactly does it mean to trust God? What does that look like? What does that feel like? How does one know that one is trusting God above all things? Does a little light turn on somewhere when you are spot on with the trusting? Perhaps we have total contentment or inner peace. What would that trust look like if we kept that commandment?
Luther would go on to say that if we could keep this first commandment perfectly we would always keep the rest of them. In fact, to break any of the other commandments always involves a breaking of this first commandment. We steal because we trust that the money, even wrongfully gained, will take care of us. We murder, trusting that the elimination of this human being will solve a problem. We lie because we trust that our reputation or the gain to be had from that lie will be important to us. What is coveting but a spineless form of idolatry? Too fearful to actually steal the thing, we will brood on it and desire it intensely, and that poison will rot our innards.
Luther would also say that the longest psalm in the Psalter, the 119th, a section of which we read today, is nothing but an exposition of this first commandment. In it the Psalmist continually sings the praises of the Law, the Torah of God in which God has demonstrated his great love for me, rescued me from slavery in Egypt, and established me in a promised land. But the Psalmist goes on to love the rules of God, the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances. In truth, every verse of this chapter, the longest chapter in the whole Bible, has a synonym for God’s law in it. He meditates upon them, they show him the way (vs 105). The Law is definitely the friend of the psalmist.
The psalmist is living in that perfect relationship with Christ called faith, in which God is no longer the enemy, but the redeemer, no longer the cruel judge who sends my soul to hellish torment but the one who rescues me from sin, death, and devil. (More Luther, but forgive me since Reformation Day is just around the corner.) That redeemed and rescued person does indeed delight in the Law of God, that God is my God and I am His person.
I have of late been reflecting on and teaching about King David and his Psalms. He is a too often neglected figure. His Psalms, David wrote 73 of them, give us a view into the heart of the man whose life occupies some 42 chapters of the Old Testament history. Sixteen of the psalms are connected to specific events in the life of David. In them he reiterates his trust of God over and over again. Not only when he faces giants and Saul’s persecution but also when Saul is 2
vulnerable before him and he could solve this problem himself. That is the harder time to trust God, actually. When things are in hand, when control and power seem within my grasp, it is hard to trust that God’s solutions are the real and best solutions. For David in the cave while his enemy was vulnerable, it looked like the path was clear. Kill him. But he was the anointed king. David would not lift his hand against him and take his life. He trusted God on that day too. He did the right thing, even when his own friends urged him to take Saul’s life.
Today as we reflect on this, Jesus and Solomon will speak of others who make a claim of such allegiance upon us. Our material culture will essentially tell us that there is no God out there, and the one with the most stuff wins. If money is my god, then more money simply means I am closer to god. I will orient my whole life around its acquisition. That task will consume me.
But this is not just about the simple idolatry of money, as bad and real as that is. Solomon speaks of a life with meaning and real joy, as it receives from God’s hand whatever he gives. Jesus points to the sacrifices that Peter and the rest of the disciples have made and acknowledges them, and points them to the eternal life which they shall enjoy from His hand, as well as the temporal gifts of family, home, and oddly persecution.
Behind both of these, God is speaking to us about the relationship we enjoy with him, the relationship we call faith, the relationship which trusts him. The psalmist does not love the Law because he keeps it, but because it no longer destroys him. Solomon has learned the hard way that all the things of this life are meaningless under the sun, without the blessing of the one who is over the sun, who made the sun. Jesus lovingly smiles at us for all our missing the mark and simply says that in the kingdom of God, the last will be first and the first will be last. God can shove a camel through a needle’s eye, he can bring you to heaven’s bliss. Trust him.
Webster has a useful definition of faith, you might look it up and use it in a sermon. Theologically speaking, trust is not faith; rather, trust is what faith does. Trust seems to require an object, it is not a thing which stands alone inside the human being and seeks an object, it is a reaction to the object, to the trustworthy one. We tend to think that trust is something that I have and which I will invest in this or that, but in reality, trust is a reaction to something outside of ourselves. The preacher will want to keep that in mind in a context which often speaks of people deciding to trust, and faced with many trust “choices.”
What do our people trust? If our relationship to God results in worship, love, and trust, we might diagnose idolatry in asking what you trust.
1. People trust in their doctors/medicine. They are shocked when the doctor says there is nothing more to be done. But the truth is that doctors eventually lose all their patients. I am not sure this is a real idol or not. Doctors themselves can be quite trustworthy, the issue here is that the Christian can see behind the doctor the God who gave the doctor his skills and put that healing gift in his hands and receives the doctor’s care as a gift from God. One can see God in all sorts of things. (This is pure Augustinianism – he said we should use everything to enjoy God.) God loses none of his patients/flock.
2. Consumerism: the mall is really a temple. It has little chapels in which you can make sacrifices and the promises which are made in the ads which adorn the windows is that if you just make the appropriate sacrifice here you will be happy and beautiful. Of course, when we get home and open the package, we discover that the promise is empty. But we go back. Some people shop to feel alive. That is idolatry.
3. People trust their faith – just look at the way they speak about prayer. They trust that “my prayers will work…” or if it doesn’t work, it is a failure of their prayer. “I did not pray hard enough.” That is really trusting their prayers and not the one to whom they are praying. It looks like the real thing, but it is just off the mark.
4. The state – the 20th century was really the century of the advancement of the state – it is the one who will solve our problems. The state assumed that it could wage a war on poverty and win. When confronted with the evil of another school shooting, we turn to the state to fix the gun laws or we imagine that the state solution will be worse than the problem. But is the state really the one who creates and regulates this? The state is complicit in this. It has a number of liturgies by which it demands our allegiance and loyalty.
5. The Self – We most often trust simply in our own ability to solve our own problems. When we are faced with big problems, we tend to ask what am I going to do about it. There is a good thing to say about that. Initiative and effort in the face of problems is a good thing, but it also can become a form of idolatry. Whom do we trust?
6. Knowledge – The 17th century literary and scientific figure Francis Bacon is supposed to have said that knowledge is power. Do we think that eventually we will solve big problems, if not in our lifetime, we believe that it will be solved in the lifetime of our children. Do we really buy into the Star Trek idea that science will eventually solve hunger, disease, etc.?
The preacher will want to ask what his congregants and the people with whom they speak on a daily basis are trusting, worshiping, and loving. What is their God? Today’s text uses the real possibility that money is an idol, but it could really be just about anything.
Collect of the Day
O God, your divine wisdom sets in order all things in heaven and on earth. Put away from us all things hurtful and give us all things that are beneficial for us; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
(If you want to read an excellent book which addresses the very issue of this first line of the prayer, I recommend The Essential Sermons of St. Augustine translated by Edmund Hill and published by New City Press in New York in 2007. In this collection of sermons, Augustine again and again hammers his people for the very issues which the readings and prayers of today pick up upon.) 4
Order and wisdom are the operative words in the ascription of this prayer. Wisdom is much more than intelligence. All of us have known the brilliant scholar who cannot so much as change a light bulb in his own home or figure out some of the basics of personal hygiene. Worse the person who is incredibly smart but manages to alienate every human being they see. If you want to watch an interesting exploration of that phenomenon, tune into the Big Bang Theory on TV. Yet despite these basic failures to do important things, that person may in fact be brilliant, Sheldon, the character on the BBT, got his first doctorate at 14 or something like that. These folks are simply not very wise about some things. Wisdom not only has a good answer to a problem, it also is humble and willing to see that problem get solved, even if it is by another person with another answer. Divine Wisdom never wins the battle in such a way that it also loses the war.
God’s divine wisdom is marked by order. He always keeps the important things at the top of the list and never loses sight of what this is all about. I have often wondered about folks who eschew “organized religion.” What is the alternative, disorganized religion? Does one really want an everything-goes sort of religion? Even in the LCMS I sometimes wonder if our insistence on the rights of congregations and pastors over against the synod and each other is not more a sign of our sin than a sign of our liberty in the Gospel. Do we have something to learn from those denominations who practice a form of obedience to one another? I shudder to think of what it means that we have declared ordained pastors “supervisory” in the SMP but have never really expected them to be obedient to anyone themselves. It would seem that supervision has to be built on obedience. That very thing suggests order, it suggests structure.
God has ordered all things in heaven and on earth. But I also have to admit that it does not look that way to me. Random shootings and crime, a good friend dying of cancer, a really nice young man who simply cannot find a girl who is not bad for him, all sorts of things point to a world of random and impersonal arbitrariness. Is it simply the case that like the chaos of a swarm of bees or the tumult of an ant hill, I need to take a step back from the cosmos to see the order in it all? Is the complexity of the world such that I cannot find this order in observing the tiny part of it that matters to me? I cannot take that step back from the universe in any meaningful sort of way. In that model of order, I must trust that the one who made the world and cares for it has that under control. He has ordered it.
Or I can look to the marvelous order of nature. There are many things in nature which strongly suggest order. The repetition of the Fibonacci sequence throughout nature almost demands the idea of order. The Fibonacci sequence is 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13,… The next number is always the sum of the prior two numbers, thus the next number in the sequence would be 8 + 13 = 21. This occurs throughout nature, in the tiniest microscopic structures to the number of seeds in each circle of a sunflower’s blossom. Of course the natural science people get very nervous when you talk about that too much because order always seems to imply an “Ordering Principle,” a mind, behind the order. Science cannot work in a world in which there is the possibility of an arbitrary rupture of the rules by even a momentarily capricious mind. It must be a “rule” a “law” of 5
nature which is inviolable or all the experiments are so many games and they are afraid the government will not fund “games.”
There are lots of ways to talk about order in the universe, it will seem like a load of hogwash to the person who is going through a random act of violence and tragedy, but in moments of peace and reflects, when you are looking at the beauty of a flower the world can seem very orderly. The preacher will need to be quite careful about his congregation and the situations to which he is preaching in this regard. On one hand, you can sound like an idiot to your informed congregant, on the other, you can almost deny the existence of God if you preach alongside the person going through tragedy. It is a tough needle to thread.
The preacher will want to ask what hurtful things God would keep from us if he answers this prayer. I think we often see the physical problems, but are the spiritual problems much more dangerous? Excessive wealth? That might go with the Gospel lesson. Depression/mental illness?
Will he kill the internet? I heard on the radio today that one porn site had over 100 million paid views in one day. Even Playboy has given up competing with that.
What are the beneficial things that would come our way? A good marriage? A loving spouse? An ability to have good and healthy relationships with friends? A good government? A heart for people? An ability to find win/win solutions with my neighbor? A good dog who is always happy to see you when you get home and not the rabid cat who leaps out at me from the bushes as I walk up the driveway?
Ecclesiastes 5:10-20 I have included the verses immediately before our passage. Solomon’s words about a king who is committed to cultivated fields is really interesting. Armies in the ancient world were made up of farmers who did not cultivate when they were are war.
8 If you see in a province the oppression of the poor and the violation of justice and righteousness, do not be amazed at the matter, for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them. 9 But this is gain for a land in every way: a king committed to cultivated fields.
10 He who loves money will not be satisfied with money, nor he who loves wealth with his income; this also is vanity. 11 When goods increase, they increase who eat them, and what advantage has their owner but to see them with his eyes? 12 Sweet is the sleep of a laborer, whether he eats little or much, but the full stomach of the rich will not let him sleep.
13 There is a grievous evil that I have seen under the sun: riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, 14 and those riches were lost in a bad venture. And he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. 15 As he came from his mother’s womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil that he may carry away in his hand. 16 This also is a grievous evil: just as he came, so shall he go, and what gain is there to him who toils for the wind? 17 Moreover, all his days he eats in darkness in much vexation and sickness and anger. 6
18 Behold, what I have seen to be good and fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life that God has given him, for this is his lot. 19 Everyone also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and rejoice in his toil—this is the gift of God. 20 For he will not much remember the days of his life because God keeps him occupied with joy in his heart.
The traditional story is that Solomon wrote Song of Songs in his randy youth, Proverbs in his middle age, and Ecclesiastes in his somewhat cynical old age. We cannot verify that, but the tenor of Ecclesiastes has the feel of a guy who is a little bitter, coming to the end of his life, and is looking for meaning.
In the text he goes through a number of options, and since he is Solomon after all, he has tried them all. He looked for meaning in pleasure, in work, in success, in power, and here in chapter five, he looked for meaning in the accumulation of wealth. But, as with all these attempts, there is nothing under the sun which is meaningful. It is all vanity and emptiness.
The only meaning will be found when his attention is directed “above the sun;” although, he never uses that term. Only when he is focused on God is meaning ever found. In this text, when one receives from God the job one does and the bread one earns and eats and drinks with contentment, that is a meaningful and good thing.
It is likely that his critique of the desire to find meaning in these things will attract our attention today. Be a little careful with this. This is a diagnosis, not a prescription for a cure. That is hinted at in the last paragraph, and won’t really come to light until Christ, the wisdom of God is revealed.
First Solomon notes that money is insatiable. There is always a desire for more. The greedy man knows no contentment. There is always someone richer or who has a bigger car, a better home, a vacation spot in some luxurious place, etc. If you seek meaning in the accumulation of wealth it will always seem poor compared to someone even if you are in the top 1% of all the human race.
Then he notes that money often doesn’t do good things to a person. The poor laborer who eats his bread sleeps well, but the rich man with his belly full of fine things cannot sleep for his heartburn. You have to wonder, however, if Solomon has ever tried to sleep when hungry. It is not as easy as he seems to imagine, yet, it is also true that the sleep of a simple man is often much more satisfying than the sophisticate who is running to his physician for a pharmaceutical solution.
In the next paragraph he addresses the fact that riches are in fact ephemeral, one cannot really ever say that one totally possesses them. The dollars stuffed under a mattress in the 1950’s have been seriously eroded by inflation. The stock portfolios of those who sought to beat inflation took a beating in 2008-9. Some suggest that we are on the verge of another correction. The money 7
which buys the food that gives me indigestion is easily lost in one bad venture. Unwittingly buy a house with a poor foundation and you might lose the whole investment.
Solomon’s imagined unfortunate wealthy thought to use his money to care for his son and leave as a patrimony. Now it is gone. He returns to the grave just as naked as he came into this world. Now, all he has to show for his labors are the ulcers and headaches. There is no meaning here, only an illusion of permanence and meaning. The rich man seems substantial compared to the poor man, but he is not. He is one bad business venture away from poverty, one collapsed bank from living on the street. No, this does not happen to every rich man, but it can. It is a great evil, he calls it.
Real meaning is not found in the things, but in the one who gives the things. He fills the heart with joy, whether wealthy or poor, and he causes one to forget whether they are spent in toil or luxury, because the real joy is found in him.
I am reminded of Augustine’s maxim that we enjoy only God, we use everything else to enjoy Him. What he means to say is that everything we encounter in this life is in fact an instrument for us to worship God, even our money. It is idolatry to own it, as if it is ours, as if it is our security and our possession. It is an act of worship directed to the true God when we have it, spend it, and use it as a gift from the one who created all the universe.
This is an excellent text to preach a sermon on vocation. Solomon seems to look at the humble worker who enjoys his job and simply goes home to family and a warm bed and is jealous of him. Solomon suggests that the real joy is not in finding God somewhere else but in finding God in the very places where we are already working and living. Receive the gift of your work as a gift from God.
Psalm 119:9-16 Psalm 119 is an acrostic, with each section of the psalm beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew Alphabet. Today we get the “bet” of alphabet, or as Hebrew scholars spell it “beth.”
9 How can a young man keep his way pure? By guarding it according to your word. 10 With my whole heart I seek you; let me not wander from your commandments! 11 I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. 12 Blessed are you, O LORD; teach me your statutes! 13 With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth. 14 In the way of your testimonies I delight as much as in all riches. 8
15 I will meditate on your precepts and fix my eyes on your ways. 16 I will delight in your statutes; I will not forget your word.
We have wrestled with this before. The Psalmist finds delight in the Law of the Lord. Of course the Hebrew word for Law is “Torah” which includes a great deal of Gospel, but one cannot get away with just saying that the redeemed man finds joy in the redemption of his life. The Psalmist is very clear, he delights in the rules of God, he loves the fact that God has given him a way to live which is wise, good, healthy, and fruitful. The redeemed and regenerate man loves the rules; he delights in doing the right thing. Of course the old sinner, who clings so tightly to us, hates those same rules. In this sense we are a little split in our personality, almost psychotic. On one hand we are utterly passive in our righteousness, but that passive righteousness which is received from God’s hand graciously, effects great change in us, it raises the dead to life. The psalmist is addressing that new fully lived life here.
Lutherans have a good and strong track record of addressing that old stinker within. It is good and right to do. There is another man, however, in there, the new man, the regenerate, who also deserves some attention. This new man writes these words. He is a moral optimist; he is someone who hears the commandments of God not as a burden but as a lost man might receive a map into his hands. Yes, it tells him which way to go, but that is a good thing. The path he is enjoined to follow leads to a destination, to the place he wants to go. A person in a burning building hears the fireman’s command to follow him to safety with great joy. He does not rebel under the odious nature of that commandment, but delights in it. The command is also rescue.
Of course, this means we cannot sit in cynical ridicule of the simple, healthy, fruitful life which our pious LWML mothers enjoined upon us. Eating your vegetables, keeping away from bad company, avoiding coarse and profane language, and living within your means is not “exciting” in the view of Hollywood or the rest of culture. But it is not a bad way to live; in fact, it might just be a really good way to live. Can we not preach that? If we don’t preach it, have we done our TV and cinema viewing crowd a great disservice by simply letting a culture of cynical sin be the only voice they hear?
Hebrews 4:1-13 (14-16)
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. 2 For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. 3 For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,
“As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest,’” 9
although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. 4 For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” 5 And again in this passage he said,
“They shall not enter my rest.”
6 Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, 7 again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
8 For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. 9 So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, 10 for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.
11 Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. 12 For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
The writer to the Hebrews had a difficult task before him. It seems that his audience were wavering in their Christian faith, and considering a return to Judaism. Because he stresses so much the priestly work, most scholars conclude that these may have been priests; the very group that Luke says joined the Christian movement in great numbers in Acts 6:7.
Today he again makes use of his regular technique of from the lesser to the greater. Joshua, many years ago, spoke of a rest in Canaan. That is the lesser rest, the rest which is not the last rest of heaven. It is important that Joshua spoke of it, because he spoke after the land had been occupied. This quote comes from the end of the book, as Joshua is about to die. They are already there, but yet, they are not there. They still wait for heaven’s greater rest.
Thus, we are talking about two things that are the same, rest, and yet they are different, one is lesser, the other much greater. If the grumbling and rebellious Israelites of old were not able to enter that lesser rest because they turned back, how much more will we be denied entrance into the greater rest if we turn back from this Promised Land? To return to Judaism is nothing less than what the Israelites did in Moses day when they refused to enter the land because it was filled with strange giants and many people whom they did not know. It was frightening and 10
unfamiliar. Likewise the Christianity of the first century was surely filled with folks these priests thought strange. The gentiles were creating a more and more alien church to their experience. What is more, the wrong people were big. Their priestly families had always been the guarantee that they were important. But in this new kingdom it was not so. One did not become a bishop, an overseer, even a deacon, because one was of the right family but because one had been given a gift from God, and he seemed to be giving those gifts to the wrong sorts of people.
The writer to the Hebrews keeps their eyes on the big picture here. This is bigger than their perceived slight and loss of status. This is about them getting into the promised rest that is heaven.
There are a couple of notable verses in this text which themselves make excellent sermons. Vss 12 and 13 make the basis for an excellent sermon on the Word of God. As we draw near to the festival of Reformation the preacher might want to take advantage of that. We won’t go too far into that one, after all, what Lutheran worth his salt cannot write that sermon?
The last verse of this text is also a marvelous sermon, made better by the context provided above. Christ knows our temptations and weaknesses. He knows them because he has endured them himself. This means we can draw near to the very throne of God with confidence and joy. The one who sits on that throne is one of us. This is an excellent sermon the incarnation, the singular and strange doctrine of Christianity which stands as the very engine which drives the Christian movement. The wise preacher hits this theme often because the incarnation of Christ is what pumps energy into the lives of his parishioners.
Mark 10:23-31 I have included the tail end of last week’s reading so you can see how this flows from one subject to another.
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.
23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 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.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” 28 Peter began to say to him, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” 11
Jesus is flipping the disciples’ world on its head. They imagine that material wealth is a measure of God’s blessing. Poverty is a sign of God’s displeasure. But Jesus says wealth is a positive hindrance to salvation. This shocks them. What would similarly shock our people? Some folks believe that they have kept the rules so that God loves them. There is a difference between me and the guy who going to hell. I have made a good decision, I have led the right sort of life. I think most Christians would balk at this, but when I hear them talk about sinners, I am not so sure that they don’t deep down trust their own decision or position over against God. Do they trust their own faith?
We love to put the people we think are really bad into a big basket and assume that God cannot save such wretched sinners. But that is just trusting our own morality? And isn’t God just the sort of God who takes the impossible cases and makes it possible. Indeed, should not every Christian look at that needle’s eye and gulp a little when he sees his camel sized hump of sin on his/her back? It is impossible for all of us and yet God makes is possible for all of us as well, for every sinner. We often think we need to morally vette everyone who comes through the doors of our churches. We think that Jesus can only commune with the morally upright folks who look like us. Thus evangelism for us often becomes far more about convincing people of the right way to think and much less about introducing them to the one who can pass us through the needle’s eye.
Jesus turns our worlds upside down as well. The things we are so sure are true and which are obvious to us are often quite contrary to the kingdom of God. It is so easy for us to stand with the Pharisees on the edge of the crowd and scowl at Jesus’ dining companions. But he is just putting camels and other quadrupeds through the same needle through which we all need to pass..
Money is such a strange topic. Too often we are told not to talk about it or preachers are very uncomfortable with it. And there is reason. I regularly visit the “News of the Weird” a weekly roundup of odd news. I think this guy missed the phrase in verse 30 “with persecutions”:
David Cerullo came to prominence after purchasing the television studios abandoned by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and established what is perhaps the boldest of all Christian “prosperity gospel” ministries (that pays him an annual base salary of $1.52 million). With his father, semi-retired Pentecostal preacher Morris Cerullo, they assure followers that the more they give, the more God will return to them. In a recent TV spot, Morris, speaking first in tongues and then addressing the currently credit-challenged: “When you (donate), the windows of heaven … open for you … 100 fold.” “Debt cancellation!” (The on-screen message: “Call now with your $900 offering and receive God’s debt cancellation!”) [Charlotte Observer, 5-23-09]
Do we choke on the “with persecution” phrase in verse thirty because we are out of step with the disciples in Acts 5:41? They were beaten and thanked God that they were able to suffer the sake of the name. Do we see persecution so differently than Paul did in Romans 5 in which he rejoices in his suffering because suffering does so much good to him? 12
I used to resort to the last line of our text at potlucks as something of a condolence when my father would send me to the back of the line. Usually my father, who was pastor, did this in response to the fact that as he said the prayer he would catch me surreptitiously making my way toward the corner of the fellowship hall where the line would start. He seemed to have this notion that one should simply stop wherever you were when he made the announcement that it was time to pray. I took it as my cue that I should be maneuvering myself to the head of the line. Ah, well, in heaven, I thought, the last will be first. But I have to admit, that I usually was doing my best to be first in this life and letting the next one take care of itself.
This peculiar set of sayings by Jesus follows immediately upon the story we got last week in which the rich young man walked away from Jesus crestfallen because Jesus had told him to sell all and follow him. That was Jesus’ loving word to him. What would a word of indifference sounded like? Probably something to the effect that he was just fine, just try a little harder and I am sure you will get in.
Today Jesus actually makes a joke. It will be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Some goofball in the 19th century came up with the notion that there was this gate in the wall of Jerusalem which was accessible after dark. It was so low that a camel would have to remove its entire load before entering. It is a nice little story, unfortunately it is utter fabrication. If you are tempted to use it this week, resist the urge. It is a lie.
Jesus really means a camel through a needle’s eye. Humanly speaking, the only way that is going to happen is with a very large blender. Jesus means for this image to be impossible. Don’t ruin it by making it possible for the camel or the rich man to get in there if he just stoops low enough and divests himself of his treasures. That is not the point that Jesus makes here, and perhaps a little more accurate view of the ancient world might help.
Like many Christians of the wealth and success Gospel variety, there was a strong impulse in the ancient world to say that the person who had attained wealth must be blessed by God. If they are blessed by God, they must have done something right; they must have the favor of God. Success in this life came to be seen by some as a sure sign of eternal life. This must have been something of a convention at the time, or else how does one explain the disciples’ reaction to Jesus words? They are shocked. They understood that the miserable poor man surely must have done something to incur God’s wrath but the rich man enjoyed God’s blessing. See also the question they ask when they encounter the blind man in John 9 for a similar vein. Someone must have messed up for this man to be born blind. When Jesus repeats the claim that wealth is in fact a hindrance to salvation, the disciples wonder if anyone can be saved.
Apparently God has a very large blender or a very large needle. With God, even the impossible is possible. Camels can make it through needles’ eyes when God is involved. The rich man and the poor man have hope in God, and in fact, he is their only hope for eternal life. 13
Peter chimes in with his strange claim that he has left everything to follow Jesus. Is he trying to say that he has bought something? Jesus response is equally odd if that is the case. Or is this the regenerate man popping up like in the psalm for today? Is this an attempt on Peter’s part to make a purchase here or is it a genuine act of worship we witness here? Just to complicate things, it could be both at the same time. We rarely do anything with pure motive, if ever.
Jesus words are no help to understand this. He says truly that they will get a hundred fold for what they have given in this age. They will have houses and siblings, parents and then, oddly, persecutions. In the next age they will have eternal life. Is Jesus reminding Peter that this might have been a really foolish thing to do in the eyes of the world? Is Peter promised a whole family of new fellow Christians, but told that he will live in a hundred of their houses as he runs for his life from a persecutor? Or does Jesus really mean that he is blessing Peter for his sacrifice. But then what is that little line in there about persecutions doing there? I had rather thought that this was one of those disputed texts in which the editors of the Greek NT had inserted the most difficult reading, but alas, it is not. This is uncontested as far as I can tell from the critical apparatus of the Greek NT.
What shall we make of this? I really think that one could go just about either way with it. I think that Jesus is really saying that this kingdom of his is simply upside down. The relationship we call faith, in which God saves and we are saved, is simply impossible for us to create, maintain, or even comprehend. My humanity is simply too broken, my spirit is too willful, my imagination just too limited to ever conceive that God would do such a thing for me. There must be something that resides in my life which makes be worthy, at least more worthy than that poor soul I see descending the down escalator at the end of time. I don’t want to be that miserable wretch, so what must I do?
That is exactly the point Jesus wants to make. It isn’t you doing at all. It is God who does the saving here. Why you then? He does this simply because he loves you. I really cannot see into the heart and relationship of that unhappy man who is damned. I know that God loved him too. But I can tell you that God loves you, unreservedly and without stinting. Last week Jesus looked at the wealthy young man who had it all wrong. He trusted his wealth, he trusted his own works righteousness, and he did not understand grace or all the good things which we know he could have read if he had just had Luther’s Small Catechism. He is theological red meat – ready for true Lutherans to pounce upon and dissect for his errors. But Jesus does not do that. The text simply said that Jesus loved him.
That is what it takes to be saved, the love of God which he showed us in Christ Jesus, and that is all it takes to be saved. Peter is no more saved for his sacrifice than without it. His life will be blessed with much more than he has lost. He will indeed have a massive family to whom he writes in his first letter:
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and 14
unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
Notice the emphasis on inheritance, all part of one family there, the children of God, or as he says later in the letter, a holy nation, a royal priesthood…
But the very next line of his letter also points to the truth of that strange word we saw stuck in the list of things that would be coming Peter’s way.
6In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.
Peter did indeed receive his persecutions for giving up the comforts of his home and fishing business to follow Jesus. But he doesn’t seem all that upset about it. In fact, he looks at the persecutions as another form of blessing, a purification and refinement that he and his fellow Christians would be more ready to see Jesus on that last day.
The last really are first, you see. The world put them on the bottom of the important list, but God had other ideas. There is no way to climb that list on our own, it seems. One has to be placed at the top, one does not claw and crawl your way up there.
1. I am hardwired to trust in myself as the answer to my own problems. It sometimes even works. I have gotten a job, I have bought a house, I have created a family. I have made a difference.
2. But my money corrodes my very being. Bank accounts are never full, at least never full enough. My house consumes me, my job bores me to death, my family is too often a place of conflict and the only impact I seem to make is that of a finger stuck in a glass of water. As soon as the finger is removed, the water simply resumes its shape, my impact is negligible.
3. I like to think that I have God figured out. Good here, should correspond to good there. But it doesn’t work that way. My blessings in this life may in fact be a problem. The things that I consider a curse, like persecution may in fact be my best blessing. I do not understand this. I would like to go to heaven first class, thank you, sipping wine and equipped with a nice plate of something tasty. Persecution? That only happens to people who have made God angry.
4. All this is very disquieting to my little universe of me. The money is for me, isn’t it? The house is for me, isn’t it? The family, the church, the car, the job, they are all for me, aren’t they? Shouldn’t they be the sorts of things I enjoy as blessings from God, signs of his approval? Doesn’t this mean I am good?
5. I am a Lutheran, after all. That should count for something. Does God really mean that as the Israelites of old lost their opportunity to enter the rest of Canaan, I might be in danger of losing my rest? Doesn’t he know I am tired of always being right? It is a lot of work after all.
1. God knows my weakness and my brokenness, this is why Jesus, the wisdom and order of God has come into this world, to pull the props out from under me which distract me from the brutal reality that I am lost and he is here to find me.
2. Blessedly, in this new relationship he establishes, my money becomes something else, it is a blessing from him for me. It rests in my hands, but it does not define me. It comes from Him, not me, and that means I am not really responsible for it. I don’t know what will happen with my house, but he will help me. I cannot make my life meaningful, but he can. I never would have dreamed a decade ago that anyone would be interested in reading my thoughts on the weekly pericope; after all, I am still that kid who always tried to get to the front of the potluck line. Today I added name #130 to this distribution list.
3. It is a strange and unusual world in which we live in Christ. I don’t have to figure it out, I can count on the fact that God loves me, whether I am enduring great pain or whether my bank account is replete with reserves. I know that he loves me, and that is simply the most important thing that anyone can say about me. It transcends whether I am rich or poor, old or young, male or female, anything. He loves me. In a sense I do have God figured out. But it is a far cry from what I thought when I would manipulate him into opening heaven’s door. He is much simpler than that. I find that he has thrown open the doors to me long before I ever showed up. I find my pocket is full of worthless keys.
4. And so the whole of this life really belongs to him. The money, the car, the family, the friendships, the church, the house, the job. It is all his. Even something so intimately and personal as my own flesh and body. Perhaps I will be a persecuted Christian, a martyr who bears witness to the salvation Christ has wrought with my own red blood shed upon the ground. I hope not, but he might do that, and I would receive a glorious crown from his hand on account of it. He will make it right, I don’t have to worry about that.
5. God’s Word, sharper than a two edged sword has cut and slain me, but not that I might lie dead upon the field, but so that he might raise me to new life. Our high priest has passed
through the heavens, blazed the trail we failed, and he sympathizes with our weakness and carries us when we cannot make the grade.
1. “The first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Gospel – That the hearer would simply trust in God for the answers to this life’s problems, challenges, and victories.)
Luther said that your God was the person or thing which you trust to do you the most good. There is a terrible thing which happens in this world today. People succeed. They get rich, they get educations, they buy beautiful homes and they raise beautiful children. Of course, these are not bad things of themselves, but they are so easily the distractions that take our eyes and minds off the one who belongs as the focus of our life: our God and the Savior Jesus.
Whom do you trust? When push comes to shove, when the checkbook is empty, when the pink slip comes, when they stock market crashes, the poor man is perhaps oddly in a better place to trust in God, after all who else does he have. But what about us who are wealthy, and make no mistake about it, the poorest American is wealthy by the world’s standards. That is why countless thousands risk their lives to work in the kitchens and laundries and fields of our land. They want a part of what you have, even if you don’t think of yourself as rich. Whom do we trust when the ends do meet? Whom do we trust when the family is at relative peace and the house payment is made and the car is running well? Whom do we trust when the job is good, and the money is better?
Jesus warns us today that such things can be a problem for us. We can be almost cursed with success, for it tempts us to trust our own resources. The poor man has no resources so he must trust God. He doesn’t know where his next meal will come from. He must count on God to provide, like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness, like the widow of Zarapheth who gave Elijah her last handful of flour.
We prudently save and prepare for a rainy day. God has given us these things to do so, but if we think we have established security, Solomon’s words quickly disabuse us of that notion. We work hard and cash our checks, and that is good. God does not delight in sloth. But our hard work and the checks we cash, are they really ours?
Jesus turns the world of the disciples upside down today. They thought that wealth was a sure sign that the rich man was “in” with God. He had the favor of the man upstairs. But Jesus says the first will be last and the last will be first in that kingdom which God establishes. Peter is promised marvelous things, increase of family and homes by the score, but also persecutions in this life. His life surely bore that out. Christianity gave him a whole new family in Christ, a family who welcomed him into their homes. But it also gave him persecutions, eventually he would die a martyr’s death, if the story is true, 17
crucified upside down. His life looked like a total loss to the soldiers who pounded the nails through his hands and feet. But Christ also promised him eternal life.
Jesus does not want you to give up your money or your home today for him. He already bought it and by all rights owns it. Even your own body belongs to him, as Peter’s did, as he was made a martyr and a witness to the Christ on that day. You are completely and wholly in his capable hands. On the last day, when you have nothing, when you are nothing but a handful of in some grave, he will speak your name and Peter’s, and by this powerful word, you will answer him. Who else is going to do that for you? Whom do you trust?
2. “Through the needle’s eye.” (That the hearer would rejoice that God can put camels and fat Americans through the eye of a needle. With God all things are possible, even your salvation, even my salvation, even the salvation of the people who will surprise me in heaven.)
Time to debunk that old idea that if you just get rid of the stuff, you could actually get into heaven that way. It is true that hearses have no luggage racks, as Don Henley once sang. But they carry naked corpses to cemeteries from which they will be raised either to eternal life or death. The difference is not found in whether you have divested yourself of your goods or not. The truth is that heaven’s standards are high, very high. In Matthew 5:48 Jesus says it is perfection. Not one blemish, not one spot is allowed. Not only must you do the right thing, you have to like doing it. Motives matter! You have to the right thing for the right reason, all the time. The little covetous thought, the fact that you have even once looked in your wallet and given God only of the leftovers is condemning. It is ever so easy for us to label someone as a great sinner and imagine that we are better in comparison to them, at least good enough. But it is not so. The murderer or the reprobate sinner is simply at the head of a line walking in the wrong direction. My relatively less significant sin may put me a little farther back in that line, but we end up in the same place, and that place is far from God.
Jesus words were shocking to the disciples because they thought that God’s love was measurable. You could see who was loved and who was cursed just by looking at their lives and success within it. God must love the rich guy and the poor guy must have done something to earn this plight. But we have taken Jesus words to heart. They no longer shock us. The preacher will want to find out, however, what we are thinking about God’s kingdom which is in the same vein. We often have a morality meter which tells us who is upward bound and who is downward destined. The really bad sinners, the homosexual, the deviant, the mass murderer, they are surely the damned. But this text will not allow for us to make those categories. Every person in heaven is an impossible case. Our human nature rebels at this. We want to make some distinction within ourselves between the one who is going to heaven and hell. But the truth is that we are all sinners who deserve that same sulfurous end. 18
Heaven looks impossibly high for me, and it is. A little over 100 years ago a fellow tried to make this a little more palatable for sinners like me. He created a story about a gate in Jerusalem’s wall called the eye of the needle through which a camel could be brought after the main gates had closed. The camel would have to be unloaded and then the animal could be brought in. It sounds good, but it is not true. Jesus means a sewing needle here and he means a camel. That is not going to work. It is impossible. For you and me, yes, impossible, but not for God.
Jesus enjoins us today to forget all about our righteousness, our status, our rank, our goodness before God. He has turned the world upside down and given his kingdom to sinners for Christ’s sake. I cannot measure up to heaven’s entrance criteria, but he can make me measure up, he can give me that right-ness, that perfection which I cannot create. In Jesus he does just that. In the waters of my baptism and yours he poured out perfection in that blessed flood. In this meal the perfect son of God comes inside of us, absorbing our sin and replacing it with his perfection and peace. When he speaks through His word today, he speaks with the same power and authority that called light and sun and moon and this earth into being in the creation. But today, he creates not a new world but you and me, holy and pure and good, that we may slip through the needles eye.
St. Augustine used to start his sermons by calling his parishioners “saints.” Of course they were not particularly holy people. Several times he has to tell the folks in back to quiet down so the rest of the folks can listen. But he was right to do that and so am I right to call you the same. In absolution, in baptism, in meal, in this fellowship and by his word, God has done the impossible today. He has made saints of all of you.
How do we try to earn that heavenly entrance today? The disciples seemed to think that having wealth was a sign of being “in” with God. How do we make that evaluation today? Do we look at something other than wealth? What does the person who is passing through the needle’s eye look like? What is the accusation in all this for us? What is the Law? Where do we run into that frustration at meeting heaven’s demand that we actually are made uncomfortable by it? I am not sure that most of my people to whom I speak actually get all that hung up on this question. I think they pretty well assume that they are in , and so are most other folks. How does one help them wake up to the fact that it is not really so? Or is it really the case that God is quite amiable about letting folks in? What do we really want to say here? What don’t we really want to say here?
I wonder if we don’t have people who are quietly complacent about the fact that we are OK, but are we really good? The Ecclesiastes text could be helpful here. Solomon has tried and tried and tried to find peace and meaning, he has tried to pass through this needle’s eye on his own. But he just cannot do it. His every attempt is emptiness (vanity) so much smoke and vapor that always eludes him. The real peace he has always wanted is sitting right there in front of him. It was in the gardener in his palace who loved his job, saw it as a gift from God, went home to his family and delighted in all of it. 19
3. Houses, brothers, and sisters galore! (Gospel – that God expand the hearer’s faithful imagination to expect and hope for the great blessings which God has for this life – a community of real love and abiding care)
This sermon is really for the congregation which has become the social club – an association of voluntary members who come to church if it pleases, if they can see some benefit, some return on the investment, but who fail to see the deep relationships that God creates in the sacrament, in the commonality of our heavenly Father, in the one Baptism into which we have all been baptized.
This sermon sees the final paragraph of the Gospel lesson as a strong word of Law but also a word of creative hope. Jesus speaks of Peter getting a hundred fold in family, houses, and land. In truth, Peter did, but not like you might expect. The early Christian community seemed to take the idea that they were all “brothers in Christ” rather literally. It seems that the early Christians did not need to make hotel reservations. They just dropped in a fellow Christian and were hosted, in much the same way that when I visit Kansas, I always stop in to see my sister and spend the night. Peter’s calling to follow Jesus meant he left his family and home, but he got a huge extended family – a radical community of couch surfers, scattered throughout the Mediterranean world where he could always drop in for a meal, a place to stay, etc. It is no exaggeration, Peter had a house in every city because his huge new family already lived there. It is interesting that those who give up “father, mother, siblings, houses, land” get 100 fold of all them back except “fathers.” Is that because we all only get one Father? Is this really the statement that this is a radically redefined community of people, united under one Father into one family?
Of course, that is not the way it works today. But is that because we have accommodated to the culture, gotten comfortable with our sinful reality? Does Jesus describe a more human way to live in which people are far more generous with one another and the bonds of Christianity are much stronger? Have we become less Christian, less human, for all our self-sufficiency? This is strong Law.
Jesus throws a really disturbing word into this mix as well. Not only will Peter get a hundred fold of houses, family and land, but he also gets this “with persecutions.” I have had the occasion to read several books by folks who were persecuted and talk with some refugees who were persecuted. One of the recurrent themes I see in both is the idea of community. Corrie Tenboom in her little book “The Hiding Place” talks about this, but so does Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and others. There is a marvelous prayer found in the pocket of a dead teenage boy at the concentration camps in Germany in which he asks God to remember the love, the brotherhood, the fellowship, and the good things they enjoyed when it comes time to judge their tormentors.
The reason we don’t know the sort of relationships which Jesus envisioned and Peter knew may well have something to do with our comfort. Solomon in the OT speaks of a 20
wealthy man who cannot sleep because his stomach is too full. Have we become simply too self-sufficient? Does God have an answer for us? We prayed in the collect he would keep away the hurtful things and give us the beneficial things. What if that benefit is persecution?
God does not call us to a relationship in which we simply gather with like minded folks who agree with us. He creates the Church, a collection of sinner/saints. He invites us to one table where we kneel and are made into a massive family with many siblings, many mothers, many children, one Father. He is establishing relationships which we might in our luxury scorn, but in our day of greatest need absolutely depend upon. God defines your fellow congregant differently today.
4. More is never enough (OT – That God would give the gifts of contentment and peace to the hearer, replacing an idolatrous ambition with faithful trust.)
This sermon really is a frontal assault on some of the very things of our culture – thus is counter-cultural. We will want to be careful here. Money is not bad, nor is a measure of ambition. It is not wrong to apply for a promotion, to get a new certification, to try to better one’s lot. Solomon seems to have in sights more the abuse of this than the thing itself. The Lutheran preacher will want to reach deep into the doctrine of vocation here. Solomon is really after the reader/hearer to see the gift that God has given in work and to delight in it as a gift.
God has rich blessings for the human being in the thing which is before him or her. To always be striving for something more can be to deny those blessings. To always be struggling for advancement can also be simply a life defined by struggle when God has so much more in mind for us, much of which might be found in the place where he has put us right now.
The retiree is not immune from this, even though he or she might not be striving for advancement, perhaps it is just striving to stay out of the nursing home at all costs and forgetting to love the neighbor in the pursuit of personal health. We love the fellowship at church, but do we love the mission which God has given us? We perhaps have arrived in one sense, but the peace which Solomon notices in this text is not the leisure, but the satisfaction of being engaged in a god-given task. Have we taken our hands off the plow?
Too often we imagine that the retirement benefits begin right now, but God’s retirement benefits kick on the day we are buried. Today we are called to a life which he defines, and one in which he gives us great peace and contentment, as we trust him to know the end of all our stories, and all of our doings. Just because our age in life has constricted our horizon and vision, (we tend not to buy green bananas anymore lest we not be there when they get ripe) but God’s vision and horizons are limitless.