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“Our Means, God’s Possibilities”

Oct.21, 2012 EMCC Relief & Development Sunday


Jesus is the great reverser of human values. When He says, “Many who are first will be last, and the last first,” He’s not talking about racehorses but the conventions by which we’ve come to rank people and rate what’s important in life. He challenges us to consider the possibility that what’s most treasured in this age will prove to be relatively worthless in the next.
    One could illustrate this with a video my son shared on Facebook this past week. In it we see a man in a lab coat with two blenders. He proposes to compare two top-of-the-line smartphones, an iPhone 5 and a Galaxy SIII.  His value-subverting question is, “Which blends best?” Then, horror of horrors, into the blender they go! You see them spinning around, being knocked apart, and ending up being poured out in fine little bits, a pile of particles. It seems almost an obscene act, to destroy valuable marvels of technology thus; surely to a person watching from the 3rd World, it must seem unthinkable. As for guys who enjoy “blow-em-up” movies, they’ll probably watch it and say, “COOL!” My son’s response when he posted it? “I think I’ll buy a blender...”
    Amazed - astonished - jaws dropping open: that might be our response to such a video. That’s how the people around Jesus responded when they heard what He had to say about how un-valuable this world’s goods are in light of eternity. Kingdom values shred what this world treasures into teensy little pieces. God offers something far better than the latest smartphone, but it comes at a cost that might stop us in our tracks.


One day, as Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem and the cross awaiting Him, a man “ran up to Him and fell on His knees before Him” Mark tells us in 10:17. Piecing together the accounts in Matthew and Luke with Mark’s we’ve come to call this man the “rich young ruler”: v22 says he had “great wealth” (hence rich) and Luke calls him a “ruler”, possibly a leader in the local synagogue - ranking right up there in the regional “who’s who”. Mark says he “ran up to” Jesus: this guy’s on the move, a go-getter, perhaps a local mover-and-shaker. I like to run from car into the post office and on other errands, too: I hate wasting time, I want to get on to the next task. If you feel life’s busy, or you’re caught in a rat-race, perhaps you’ll identify with this fellow! He seems positive, successful, an opportunity-seeker. And so far, it’s paid off: he has “many possessions” (NRSV), more toys than the next boy.
    It may not quite be flattery, but he seems to have had some PR coaching for his initial presentation to Jesus is very appealing: kneels before Him, and asks, not just calling Him ‘Rabbi’ but instead, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
    Immediately, Jesus checks him at his first word. Jesus isn’t susceptible to flattery, if that was the young man’s intention. In fact he seizes upon a relatively inconsequential greeting to steer the whole conversation in the direction of examining ultimate values. V18, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good – except God alone.” Let’s look at your value system. What’s your frame of reference? Is it God-based, or from an earthly viewpoint? Jesus might be subtly implying, “Do you consider Me just a teacher, or more than that?” Jesus doesn’t say He’s not God – but there’s enough ambiguity in His response to get a person wondering if He’s suggesting He’s something more. Before the conversation is over, He’ll be implying He’s one who, if you want to follow Him, you’ll have to give up everything you have! V21 refers to “treasure in heaven” – Jesus’ aim is going to be to help this young upwardly-mobile success story to determine what it is he really treasures, what his heart’s core values are.
    Who is Jesus to you? Do you suppose He’s just a “good moral teacher”? The documental evidence of what He claimed doesn’t leave that door open to you; He claimed to be the Son of God, to be given all authority in heaven and earth, to be Lord and our final Judge. There have been many wise philosophers and teachers throughout history, but Jesus confronts us with a claim on our obedience that surpasses any other historic figure. “Good teacher” just doesn’t cut it, doesn’t go far enough.


Jesus goes on to help the newcomer evaluate his life from a long-term view: if he’s interested in eternal life like he says, is he a worthy candidate? In v19 Jesus offers a quick summary of the six of the Ten Commandments that have to do with human relationships, perhaps using “defrauding” as a corollary to “covetousness”:  “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” The man pauses a moment, then professes innocence: v20, “Teacher...all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Check check check check check: his behaviour had conformed ideally to the external standard. This guy was a keener; perhaps he could have said with Paul in Galatians 1:14,  “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” Like Paul, he could consider himself “as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” (Php 3:6) A rabbi’s dream candidate to take on as a disciple.
    Jesus does take this man very seriously. He detects real sincerity and searching in this person kneeling before Him. He knows the fellow’s zeal for the law and determination to be religiously obedient. V21, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” NLT, “Jesus felt genuine love for him.” Then He added, “One thing you lack.”
    The young man is a success story – religiously and commercially. He’s “got it all together”, his high school yearbook lists him as “most likely to succeed” in his whole class. He’s making it in the synagogue system, as well as obviously making it in the business world – just look at those threads! That “bling”! He’s a veritable poster-boy of rabbinic Judaism’s theory that godliness brings worldly success.
    You see, the prevailing attitude among Jews at that time was that wealth was a token of God’s special favour. Some sections of the Old Testament feed into this philosophy.  “You have blessed the work of his hands, so that his flocks and herds are spread throughout the land.” (Job 1:10) “After Job had prayed for his friends, the LORD made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before.” (Job 42:10) “Blessed are all who fear the LORD, who walk in his ways.You will eat the fruit of your labor; blessings and prosperity will be yours.” (Ps 128:1-2) “Tell the righteous it will be well with them, for they will enjoy the fruit of their deeds.” (Isa 3:10) So, wealth was viewed as a blessing from God, a reward for being good. Unfortunately some preachers today present a “prosperity gospel” in which trusting Jesus guarantees that whatever you lost in the recession you’ll get back again and more besides.
    So wealth was seen as implicit proof that a person had obtained God’s favour; also, it was felt that riches gave a person an advantage in obtaining eternal brownie-points. Rabbinical teaching gave the wealthy a clear advantage for salvation. According to the Talmud, with alms a person purchased salvation, so the more wealth you have, the more alms you can give, the more sacrifices and offerings you can offer, thus purchasing salvation.
    Yet, here this ideal student of Judaism is kneeling before Jesus, yearning for something more – assurance of inheriting eternal life. Clearly the “doing” hasn’t been enough; did you catch that in his question? “What must I DO to inherit eternal life?” The commandments with their “DO NOTS” hadn’t satisfied. Legalism, even if perfectly fulfilled, hasn’t brought him spiritual satisfaction. “One thing you lack...” Jesus gazes at him there before him and loves him. Perhaps this seeker is ready for RELATIONSHIP not just religion.
    What’s church about to you? Is it just a matter of outward conformity, showing up each week, going through the right motions? That’s going to leave you hollow, a sham. You may seem to have it all together on the outside like the rich young ruler, but would those closest to you say your faith is real? Is your prayer life like cardboard or non-existent? God sees you in your lack of fulfilment. He loves you. He wants you to experience Him so much more.


V21B, what’s the “Good Teacher’s” prescription?  “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” GULP! Did Jesus just say what I think He said? Did He just tell the “man who has everything” to “Go, sell everything”? “One thing you lack...” “Just one more thing” – WHAM! Christ challenges our young would-be protegé to move from legalism to loving – and to show it by giving away all his “stuff” to the poor. “You can’t take it with you” but you CAN send it on ahead – according to Jesus, if this guy sells his earthly possessions, he’ll convert it directly to “treasure in heaven”. And be invited to follow Jesus.
    Here Christ is doing spiritual surgery, incising deep beneath the surface religiosity and conformity and “looking good” in the synagogue to expose the man’s real love-affair with the world. Possessions are his idols. As commentator Robinson puts it, “He worshiped money more than God when put to the test.” Could that be true of us? As we sit here today, we’re likely in the top 1% of the world’s wealthy, or close to it. Where’s our security? Are we trusting in our “stuff” to the point that if Jesus gave us a direct command to give it all away to the poor, like the young man in the story our face would fall and we’d walk away, sad? “How tragic – to be possessed by possessions and miss the opportunity to be with Jesus.” (Life Application Bible)
    Jesus expands upon the encounter with some no-holds-barred straight-talk to the disciples. Vv23-26A,  “"How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!" The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." The disciples were even more amazed...” Remember all that rabbinical teaching, that prosperity theology that said to be rich is to be blessed – down the drain. The disciples are “amazed...even more amazed”: astonished, struck with amazement.
    Don’t get hung up on or try to allegorize away the “camel through the eye of a needle” part. It’s not about a special gate the camel had to kneel to go through – what sensible camel-driver would put his beast through that? He’d just use a bigger gate! There was already a Persian expression about an elephant and a needle. Jesus may have adapted it, used a current expression, or used his imagination. The point is the IMPOSSIBILITY. “How hard it is...” (2X) V27 “With man this is IMPOSSIBLE.” There’s a common expression today that means something similar: “when pigs fly”. In other words, it’s just not a-happenin’!
    Now, commentators are quick to open an “escape hatch” in case this makes those with possessions uncomfortable. For instance, NIV Study Bible: “There is no indication that Jesus’ command to him was meant for all Christians.It applies only to those who have the same spiritual problem.” But let’s not be too hasty to assume this need not apply to us. Jesus seems to be underlining something extremely important about the tempting power of mammon.
    God was getting at a similar heart-matter back in Deuteronomy 8 when He warned the Israelites what might happen when they entered the Promised Land: “when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery...You may say to yourself, "My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me." But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant...” (De 8:12-14,17-18) What’s the key issue here? Does our wealth seduce us to trust in it and become proud and complacent rather than trusting in God who has given it to us?
    Paul was very direct in counselling Timothy how he should exhort those who are better off. 1Timothy 6(9f,17f):  “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction.For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs...Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share.” Hear the heart-issues: “temptation...trap...harmful desires...love of money...eager for money...wandered from the faith...arrogant...put their hope in wealth...put their hope in God...” Where’s your hope? In winning the lottery? In your RRSP stash or multiple properties? The latest gadget, the newest vehicle in the showroom? What if Jesus were to ask you to put all that away, could you do it for Him? Is HE your treasure? Have you consciously put all you have and are, all you will ever own, at the disposal of His Kingdom? Is your heart genuinely loving people over possessions so you are, in Paul’s words, “rich in good deeds...generous...willing to share”? In this way you will (as Paul continues) “lay up treasure” for yourself for the coming age, so you may “take hold of the life that is truly life.” (1Tim 6:19) Or as Jesus phrased it, “Give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (21)


The disciples in their amazement, as they pick themselves up off the floor, ask: “Who then can be saved?” As if to say, “If it’s that hard for the rich to be saved, what hope is there for the rest of us?!” V27, one of the most-memorizable verses in the New Testament:  “Jesus looked at them and said, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God."” Forget karma or fate as in Hinduism; don’t resign yourself to status-quo because it is “the will of Allah” as in Islam. The God of the Bible makes the impossible POSSIBLE. When you repent and break off your enchantment with this world’s idols, He can save and transform you for eternity!
    It does require total surrender. This point is not lost on the disciples, for Peter points out in v28, “We have left everything to follow You!” Regularly and devotedly we need to put all our possessions, our bank accounts, our property on “the altar” as it were and offer it all back to God to do with as He pleases. It’s not ours, it’s a trust, to be used for His glory, not our proud purposes or pleasure.
    In response, Jesus implies there is a real return on our investment – not 1%, or 10%, or 100%, but 10,000%! Vv29-30,  “I tell you the truth," Jesus replied, "no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields— and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.” Belonging to Jesus makes us part of a divine network, a faith-family wherein we share what we have because we recognize it doesn’t belong to just US but is at the Master’s disposal. As in Acts 4(32,34f),  “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had...There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need.” A hundred times as much is 10,000% – along with persecutions.


On this “Relief and Development Sunday” we close with an opportunity to put Jesus’ words into practice; to prove our heart is NOT captive to materialistic idols by sharing what we have. We have an opportunity to help people in India build safe toilets where drinking water isn’t contaminated and young girls aren’t raped in flimsy shelters. An opportunity to drill wells; to provide bicycles for brothers in Nepal carrying the Good News about Jesus to distant villages; to provide warm shoes for children in India seeking learning from our sister church folk. “All things are possible with God” – the wonderful God who invites us to follow Jesus, know Him in eternal life, and find treasure in heaven by giving to the poor. [R&D video]