Scriptures: Genesis 18:9-15; Luke 18:18-27

But God … does the impossible

The story in this passage of Scripture in Luke is in all three synoptic Gospels (that's Matthew, Mark, and Luke). They all mention that the man was rich, but only Matthew mentions that he was young, and only Luke mentions that he was a ruler. So we come up with this composite name for him, the rich young ruler. (A lot of times, people try to harmonize the Gospels and some of the aspects that are in them.)

This young man seemed to have had everything going for him. As I noted, he was rich. He was a ruler – probably that means in the synagogue, a leader in the synagogue, possibly a member of the Sanhedrin. Don't think of him being a king.

In his own eyes, at least, he considered himself very upright. That's a good thing by the way – not that he considered himself that, but that he was zealous in fulfilling the law. Yet his question assumed that the only way that he might “have eternal life” was by doing something, and this is a popular misconception. It exists to this day, and it is truly endemic in some cultures, among which I would include this culture today in America, and the Western world overall.

I would note in passing that of the commandments that Jesus mentioned, they were all in the part of the Ten Commandments that are focused on loving your neighbor. All except one. Did you note which ones weren't covered? The first four, which deal with God, and then the last one, “You shall not covet your neighbor's wealth.”

The young man had claimed to love his neighbor, since he said, “I have done all this since I was a boy.”

So Jesus put him to the ultimate test: would he give up his riches for his poor neighbors? Could he let go of his stuff? Could he let go, perhaps, of the things he earned? I'm not saying that he inherited it, even. He doesn't seem to have a sense of entitlement, as it were. But could he pass it on to someone else?

It was too much for the young man to bear, and he went away sad. And Jesus, it says, loved him – as he let him go, as the rich young ruler made his choice. Then Jesus began teaching His disciples how hard it is for those who trust in riches to enter the kingdom of God. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he said.

That's a saying. It's a rabbinical tradition. Sometimes the saying referred to an elephant, which is even bigger, rather than a camel. You will hear sometimes that it has been said that there was a gate in the wall of Jerusalem, called the Eye of the Needle, that was so small that you had to strip your camels of all the stuff they had in order to get through the gate.

But there's no archaeological evidence of that – even though I really like that as a possibility, that he was referring so something real that was there, the idea being that you have to divest yourself of all your stuff, in order to come to the Kingdom and accept God's grace.

The disciples ask a very good question: “Who then can be saved?” You see, during the time of Jesus (and I would again say even to this day), there was a common cultural belief that if you were wealthy – “healthy, wealthy, and wise” – then that was God's blessing upon you. If you were poor or if you were sick, if you lost a lot of things, then God was cursing you, and there was something wrong in your life that needed to be fixed.

Even today, when we look at Job, for instance, who is called righteous, many times we're kind of like his friends, who sat there with him, empathized with him for a week, mourned with him … and then sat there and said, “Now, why are you being punished? What did you do?” To which, of course, Job replies, “Nothing.”

How many times have we had something in our life that is hard, something in our life that is disastrous, and we wonder, why is God punishing me? Sometimes there are consequences to what we do in our sin, but maybe that has nothing to do with it at all. Maybe it has something more to do with how you respond to that situation. What are you going to do, if God calls you to do something that requires deep sacrifice? How can we do what is righteous and follows Christ?

Christ noted, in one of the other Gospels, in Matthew, that if you don't love him more than you love your brother and your mother and your sister and your father, then you're not fit for the Kingdom of God. That's harsh. But what he's saying is about priorities. What is the greatest love in your life?

He also says you can't serve two masters, God and mammon (which is a word for money, or wealth). You'll either love one and hate the other, or hate one and love the other. If you love God, then your stuff cannot rule over you. This doesn't mean that we all have to live poor.

And I am not a fan of the liberation theology movement, particularly in South America, that says that God has a special heart for the poor, that somehow being poor makes you better spiritually than somebody who is wealthy. I think that that is, frankly, misguided and wrong, and said out of a sense of envy – which violates the tenth Commandment.

God doesn't call everybody to be like the rich young ruler and give up everything. God has nothing against your accruing savings and wealth. I just want to make that clear. The question is, is that the main focus of your life? Is it security? That is what most people see money as, not as a game. I know there are those, especially some who do stock-trading, that may see it as a game, and the more you get, the better your score.

But for most people, money deals with security. Do I have enough to take care of myself, my family, to be comfortable? But what if God calls you to be uncomfortable? What if God calls you to do something that you're just not really sure you can do?

It doesn't have to be something huge. It doesn't have to be something like when I left my career in science in order to become a Minister of the Word and Sacrament and a preacher. Maybe it's something like helping to lead worship. I'm so appreciative of the liturgists, who went through training, but there's no doubt that they were not comfortable – that took them out of their comfort zone, frankly, and I'm aware of that. It's good that they were willing to sacrifice time, pride, comfort, in order to help lead you into an encounter with God.

But it's hard. How do we get this sacrificial mindset? How do we get to where we can take up our cross daily and follow Christ? How do we get to where we can be saved by Christ?

I think that the first thing that we have to do is we have to release our power, our control. We need to know that we are powerless without Jesus. Twelve-step programs say, in the very beginning, that I am powerless against my illness, whatever it is, and I believe in a higher power who can do what I can't. It's all dependent on God, on Christ.

The rich young ruler wanted to do something. He wanted to stay in control. He wanted to exercise his own abilities, in order to be saved. There's nothing wrong with wanting to do well. There's nothing wrong with wanting to – in fact we're called to – exercise the gifts that God gives us.

But we're to do it for a specific purpose. And I'm sure we all know what that purpose is, because we know what the chief purpose of humankind is, from the Westminster Shorter Catechism: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. That's why we exercise our gifts, to glorify God. That's why we do our best, to glorify God, not ourselves.

We need to know that we're powerless without Jesus. No matter how great our gifts seem, we cannot do it correctly, cannot do it in a way that glorifies God, without His help.

It's tough to give that up, that sense of control, that sense of being in the center, that sense of being able. How many times have I heard “I don't want to be a bother” or “I can do this myself, thank you”? We need to release that sense of power and control. If we do that, in Philippians 4, Paul says “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.”

The second point is that we must release our past – something which I have spoken of previously – and I know that it is hard. This is not just our mistakes, our failures, which we need to give up, which I have spoken of previously, some of which you may have put into the plate here at the front on a previous week in this series, and we're going to collect them all and burn them on Good Friday.

But we also need to give up our successes. As Paul says, “I don't look to the past, but I keep my eyes facing forward, to the goal that I have before me.” Running the race. Can you imagine, in a marathon, if someone who was running kept looking back to see where he was in comparison to everybody else? Pretty soon he'd be so far back there would be nobody else to see, frankly. The only thing worse might be if he tried to run backwards.

We have to give up the past and give it to God. We want to learn lessons from our past successes and failures, but we need to leave them in the past and get on with our daily relationship with Christ, each and every day. “Give us this day our daily bread.”

Some people cannot return to God and allow Him to bless them because they do not want to give up what they have against another person, or they don't want to give up what they think makes them special. God thinks you're special just as you are. I know it's easy to say but hard to believe, but that's why we need to give it to Jesus, because with God, all things are possible, even that which is impossible for us

The third thing we must do is release our possessions, as Jesus told the rich young ruler. It's the only way to prove that they don't possess us. Again, it may not be that God calls you to sell everything that you have and give it to the poor. But we need to have generous hearts, as was mentioned in our responsive reading today. Thank you, Bob – I didn't even know where that was going, but there was a purpose in it. The Spirit moves.

You can't let your stuff control you. You need to have a generous heart. You need to be able to give freely – to the work of the church, to others who are in need, to the poor. And that's not just your money, but your time, your talents – all of it – giving God glory the whole time.

Each week we have been putting something at the foot of the cross. We're going to do the same thing this week, and this week you have a whole lot of choices. You can leave for Christ something that you struggle to maintain control over, something that is impacting your life, perhaps, in a negative way, and you just really don't want to give it up, something that if you gave it up might make you feel desperate – which, by the way, we need to be, in order to accept Christ fully, and his sacrifice.

Maybe it's something from your past, either something bad or something good, something that you might be overly proud of – that sense of “I can do this all myself.” I forget who it was recently, one of the pastors I was talking to, who said he had a congregant who had a heart attack, and drove himself to the hospital instead of calling 911. He was aware he could have called 911, but he decided he was going to drive himself to the hospital and go into the ER for a checkup. That's someone who doesn't want to let go of control.

While we might admire his endurance, one has to question, what would have happened if another one had hit while he was driving? There's a good chance that's how my father died, in his car accident. They're not sure, but they believe he had a heart attack. (It was his first one – he wasn't trying to drive to a hospital, though – it caught him by surprise.)

Maybe it's some of your stuff that you need to give up, to the cross. Maybe it's some of your time, that you need to set aside for God, and you can put that on paper and leave it here – a promise, if you will, that you are going to give up something that you do, maybe something even that you find pleasure in, in order to spend that time with God.

What can you release that is keeping you from maximizing your relationship with Christ? What is making it impossible – or making it seem to be impossible – for you to move forward from or with? Give it to God, because with God all things are possible.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.