|Luke #65 God of the Impossible
God of the Impossible
Reading: Luke 18:15-30
Introduction: This week, I received a phone call from a student at Lipscomb inquiring about a class that I am scheduled to teach in the spring. He wanted to know about the reading requirements for the course, so I told him about the texts that I was going to use. Then he asked about other books that he might read that would be helpful, and I suggested one that was a bit more introductory, thinking he might be trying to become familiar with some basics before the class started. When he heard the title, he said, “Oh I read that back in undergraduate class.” It was one of those “been there, done that” responses. It turned out he wasn’t planning on taking the class; he just had an interest in the texts I required.
Most of the time when a student asks that kind of question, the real question is, “what must I do to pass this course?” When I was a student, I always wanted to know what the requirements were--that’s the part of the syllabus you read first. Who cares about the objectives of learning! The issue is, what must I do? My experience with students over the years has been that very few enter a class asking, “How much can I learn?” Certainly they are there to learn, but the minimum daily requirements for that process are foremost on the student’s mind.
In the world of jobs and schedules and employment, many people maintain the same approach. What must I do to keep my job? What must I do to receive a promotion? It ends up remaining that minimum requirement approach to life. The really successful people may say, “What must I do to succeed, to achieve all of my goals?” That extra push may make them work harder. But the question still remains, “What must I do to get whatever it is I want?”
Our story from Luke today takes that question one step farther, as the ruler comes and asks Jesus about the requirements for entering eternal life. His question is the same as that asked by the lawyer back in chapter 10. There we were told that the lawyer asked the question to test Jesus. Here the circumstances appear to be different. There is nothing in the context to suggest any devious motive on the part of the man who asks the question. The literary context in which we find the story, however, is very interesting. Remember that the parable on prayer we studied last week ended with the proverbial reminder, “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, everyone who humbles himself will be exalted.” The parable of the Pharisee and tax collector ended an extended scene in which Jesus had been talking about the kingdom of God as both a present and future reality. “The reign of God is in your midst,” he told the Pharisees. Yet, there would also be a time when the disciples would long to see a day of the Son of man and they would not see him. The warnings about readiness for his return at the end of chapter seventeen and the two parables on prayer were intended to keep followers of Jesus focused on God, relying on prayer and God’s sustenance, while we await the return of the Son of man. Those relying on themselves, or those who become too comfortable with life on earth, buying and selling, eating and drinking, building and planting--even those relying on their own pious deeds--may miss the final fruition of Kingdom life with God.
Following the proverb, Luke tells of two more incidents that illustrate the same principles. First there is the story of families bringing their babies to be touched and blessed by Jesus. When the disciples discover that Jesus’ time is being taken up with such trivial pursuits, they chastise the parents for wasting Jesus’ time. After all, babies are really even human yet. They had no legal standing until their teenage years. You don’t waste the teacher’s time with babies. But Jesus immediately reverses the disciples, telling the parents to come on and the disciples to get out of the way. “Allow the little children to come to me. Don’t hinder them, for the kingdom of God is made of up of such as these. Indeed, whoever does not receive the kingdom as a little child, will never enter into it.” Does that mean we receive the kingdom like we receive babies? Or, perhaps more likely, we are to be like babies in order to enter the kingdom? What is it about these babies that make them kingdom recipients?
Without further commentary by Jesus or Luke, the story continues with the question of the ruler, “Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” His question still fits the larger context of the nature of the kingdom and kingdom people. The reign of God belongs to those who are like little children. The ruler is certainly no small child in terms of his physical maturity and his status in the community. He is, after all, a ruler. At first Jesus responds to his use of the adjective “good” in his greeting. Ultimately only God is good, Jesus says. There must be a bit of irony in that statement for Luke’s audience, because the point of this whole story thus far is that Jesus himself, as Son of God, does deserve that title.
Jesus then goes on to list off the fifth through the ninth commandments, those having to doing with human treatment of other humans. “You know the commandments: adultery, murder, stealing, lying, honoring father and mother.” It is interesting that Jesus does not include the command that condemns coveting what others have. The ruler can respond with some confidence at that point: “From the time I became accountable for my own actions, I have kept the commandments.” He just lacks one thing, Jesus says. “Sell your possessions and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” We find out why coveting wasn’t a problem--he already had it all. But like the people of Noah’s day and the people of Sodom, his identity was all tied up in his possessions. To give everything away would have destroyed his whole social existence. The title “ruler” would be gone; the wealth that maintained that identity and power would be gone. He would have nothing left except the otherworldly notion of “treasure in heaven.” Luke gives us this wonderful understatement: “He was sad because he was very rich.” Jesus sees him standing there and he goes on, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a sewing needle than for a rich man to enter the reign of God.” Once you get connected to the securities and identities of this world, it is too hard to let go.
Those standing there watching and listening can’t believe their eyes and ears. Even the Law taught that wealth was a sign of blessing from God. If this ruler has kept the commandments since he was a kid and been blessed with wealth and power--if he can’t be saved, who can? Jesus says that when the question is, “What shall I do to inherit eternal life,” the answer is, “It’s impossible”! The question itself is a contradiction. Inheritance is always a gift, not an earned possession. But while humanly impossible to attain--for the rich as well as anyone else--with God salvation is possible. Just as the angel told Mary when he announced that she would have a son, “With God all things are possible,” so in this story it is amazing grace that saves, not human effort. We have nothing to bring before God, and the things we do have become our biggest obstacle. The rich ruler could not embrace the new identity of Jesus without forfeiting his social identity that was based on power and possessions. That is the secret to little children belonging to the kingdom, isn’t it! They have nothing to bring except themselves before God. There is no earthly identity established; no collection of rules kept or possessions held; no self-exaltation to overcome.
It is somewhat ironic that Peter responds to Jesus with the comment, “We have left our homes and followed you.” The truth is he and his fellow disciples had left old identities to follow Jesus. There is commendation from Jesus for the losses they have suffered: “There is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children (that’s what these guys have done) for the sake of the reign of God, who will not receive manifold more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” There is blessing in leaving behind the identities and securities of this life for the sake of the kingdom. But there can never be any reliance placed on what we have done or given up. The irony is that Peter’s comment betrays a continued desire to be justified by his own actions! It is this same man, Peter, who soon will deny ever having been associated with Jesus, not once but three times.
How hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God! In fact, it’s humanly impossible because we--not he--we become so attached to our stuff and to the identity that comes from the location of our stuff in relationship to other people and their stuff. Conspicuous consumption has so much to do with identity in our culture and identity in this church. We all are in the process of conforming to the security and values of the culture around us, and there is no escape. Can you imagine God saying to any of us this morning, “One thing you lack; go sell everything you own, and give to the poor, and come follow me.” Think of our litany of excuses. Well, he really doesn’t mean you have to do that; you just have to be willing to do that. Just make sure you could sell that car; you could sell that house--don’t get too emotionally attached.
No, as long as we are going to earn our way in by our performance, we are all doomed. Only because of God’s amazing grace is there hope for any of us. Compared to any other standard of living in the world, we all are rich. To some degree or another we all would be horribly saddened if told to give up our earthly identity in order to inherit eternal life. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.” What is impossible with men is possible with God. There is no escaping the call of discipleship to let go of this life and its passions and power and identity and follow Jesus. There is no escaping that trip to the cross that Jesus himself must make. We too are still called to let go. There are times when I feel so helplessly caught up in this world and this culture, buying more, needing more, trapped in the affluence of Brentwood, Tennessee in a lifestyle that I really enjoy and really don’t want to give up. But I worship a God who does the impossible. And in amazing grace I find comfort, and hope, and I see myself for who I really am. I love the verse in the song, “Nearer, still nearer, nothing I bring, naught as an offering to Jesus my king. Only my sinful my sinful contrite heart.”
That is all we bring before God, isn’t it? It is precisely when we can let go of everything else and be that vulnerable and exposed and honest that the impossible becomes possible. Our materialism ought to bother us. Our need to conform to this world ought to bother us. We need to let go, and this morning we cry out, “We believe, help our unbelief!” We want to seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, but it is so easy to want our own little fiefdoms.
Who will follow Jesus this morning? Who will go to the cross with him, and die with him in baptism, putting the person who would be king to death so that Christ can be king and lord of your life? Who will become like a child this morning and come to Jesus with nothing but a sinful, contrite heart?
Delivered at Brentwood Hills, November 5, 1995 a.m.
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