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Sermon for 11 October 2015

FIRST READING Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

6 Seek the LORD and live, or he will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it. 7 Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground! 10 They hate the one who reproves in the gate, and they abhor the one who speaks the truth. 11 Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12 For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and push aside the needy in the gate. 13 Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. 14 Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. 15 Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.


PSALM Psalm 90:2-17

2 Before the mountains were brought forth, or the land and the earth were born, from age to age you are God. 3 You turn us back to the dust and say, “Turn back, O children of earth.” 4 For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past and like a watch in the night; 5 you sweep them away like a dream, they fade away suddenly like the grass: 6 in the morning it is green and flourishes; in the evening it is dried up and withered. 7 For we are consumed by your anger; we are afraid because of your wrath. 8 Our iniquities you have set before you, and our secret sins in the light of your countenance. 9 When you are angry, all our days are gone; we bring our years to an end like a sigh. 10 The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone. 11 Who regards the power of your wrath? Who rightly fears your indignation? 12 So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom. 13 Return, O Lord; how long will you tarry? Be gracious to your servants. 14 Satisfy us by your steadfast love in the morning; so shall we rejoice and be glad all our days. 15 Make us glad as many days as you afflicted us and as many years as we suffered adversity.  16 Show your servants your works, and your splendor to their children. 17 May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.
SECOND READING Hebrews 4:12-19

12 Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 13 And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an 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 to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.


GOSPEL Mark 10:17-22

17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Comedienne Joan Rivers once said something, with which many people would agree. “People say that money isn’t the key to happiness, but I always figured if you have enough money, you can have a key made.” A current Country hit basically makes the same statement. According to Chris Janson’s hit, “Buy Me a Boat”, he wishes he had a rich uncle that would kick the bucket so he could have a pile of cash like Warren Buffet. The first line continues that he knows some people say that money can’t buy happiness but “it can buy me a boat, it can buy me a truck to pull it.” You get the sentiment. How much is enough money? It’s a good question.
A Hollywood film editor once said, “I had this date the other night with a woman who wanted to walk along the beach. I’m wearing a twelve-hundred-dollar suit, a seventy-five-dollar tie, a hundred and fifty-dollar shirt, and a pair of two-hundred-dollar shoes. It costs me fifteen dollars to clean my suit and six dollars to have my shirt hand washed. “I don’t even want to think about what it would cost if I should get a drop of spaghetti sauce on my tie. And this woman wants me to roll up my pants and walk along the beach! All I can think about is how much it’s going to cost me if she wants to sit down on the sand. Here’s the bottom line that I have to ask myself: Can I afford to wear my own clothes?” A twelve-hundred-dollar suit, a seventy-five-dollar tie, a hundred and fifty-dollar shirt, and a pair of two-hundred-dollar shoes . . . When is enough . . . enough? That, by the way, is from a book titled, Lives without Balance.
Before his death, J. Paul Getty was reputed to be one of the richest men in the world. He once complained to a newspaper reporter that inflation was hurting him and that a billion dollars was not what it used to be. And yes, that’s a “b” as in billion. And that was back in the 70’s when a billion dollars was a lot of money. You have to feel for the man!
Author and sociology professor Tony Campolo in his book, Everything You’ve Heard Is Wrong, tells about a young idealistic student, he once had in one of his classes named Ralph. During his undergraduate years, Ralph was committed to becoming an advocacy lawyer who would champion the rights of the oppressed and stand up against the exploitation of the poor. Ralph was full of passion for justice and radiated a compassion for the underdog that inspired all who knew him.
However, by the time he graduated from law school, Ralph was deeply in debt. So he took a job with a large firm that specialized in corporate law and did as little pro bono work as possible. The pay was mind boggling, and Ralph convinced himself that he would only stay with the firm for as long as it took him to make enough money to pay off his school bills. He assured his former professor that the yuppie subculture, into which he was jumping, wouldn’t rub off on him. He was certain, that who he was had been so firmly established, that the surrounding culture couldn’t change him. I’m sure you can guess the rest of the story.
When Tony Campolo met Ralph a few years later he was a transformed person. His idealism was gone. He was on the verge of becoming a partner in the firm, he had a live-in relationship with one of his colleagues, and they had just moved into a “super place up on the East Side.” What saddened Campolo most was that the excitement that had once sparkled in Ralph’s eyes seemed gone. “Oh,” says Campolo, “Ralph still went to church regularly. He had found one of those churches that served, as they say, ‘a better class of people.’” I guess that Ralph discovered that once you get on the treadmill of material success, enough simply is never enough. It begs the question, when is enough . . . enough for us?
A wealthy man came to Jesus to ask what he needed to do “to inherit eternal life.” Evidently, this man was where so many unfortunately are. His material needs were being met, but not his spiritual ones. He wasn’t a bad man, scriptures tell us he was studious about obeying the commandments and by extension the law. The problem was he was lacking spiritually.
His approach to Jesus, however, was a bit of unbecoming flattery. He addressed Jesus as “Good Teacher.” To us this many not sound bad, but this was a violation of proper Jewish etiquette. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good–except God alone.” Jesus was probably cautioning this man not to put his ultimate confidence in teachers or powerful people, but only in God. Jesus continued, “You know the commandments, you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Again this man was where many people are spiritually.
This man believed that, if he just kept the Mosaic Law, he would have it made spiritually. Consider his situation: He thought money would make him happy. But it didn’t. He thought obeying all the rules of his faith would make him happy, but it didn’t. Society and the religious community had taught him that if he had enough money and if he was a good guy, that would be enough. But it wasn’t. Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him.
Jesus knew this man was trying to live as his society told him he ought to live. And Jesus appreciated that. We are commanded to be obedient to God’s commands and this man practiced that. But he was missing one thing. Jesus wanted to give him the key to what he needed. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” “At this,” says the Gospel of Mark, “the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
At least one Bible scholar says that this may be the saddest verse in the Bible. This young man was in the presence of the Son of God Himself. He could have made his life something magnificent. His name would have been called blessed by hundreds of people he might have helped. He could have written one of the Gospels perhaps. His name would be revered even today. But he turned away, all because he couldn’t let go of the good in order to take hold of the best. God allows us the freedom to do that. God never forces Himself on anyone. Mark records that, “He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” He was willing to trade eternal life for the wealth he might enjoy for a few decades at best. Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:23)
Starting in the 24th verse Marks records that he disciples were amazed at Jesus’ 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 someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” At this the disciples were even more amazed, and they said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” It’s a good question for us here in the US to consider.
If accumulating stuff won’t bring you happiness and keeping the rules won’t buy you salvation, what’s it going to take? If we take everything we have and sell it, and give the proceeds to the poor like Jesus was telling this man to do, will that do it? Well, that depends. Is money what’s most important in your life? Is it your money that’s keeping you from giving your all to God? When Jesus told this man to sell everything he had and give to the poor, he went away sad, because he was wealthy. Jesus was simply telling this man the truth about what came first in this man’s life–and that was his money.
This passage then forces us to ask ourselves, what is it that comes first in our life? The first Commandment is clear; you shall have no other gods before Me. I ask the kids in confirmation all the time to name the idols, the things we have in our lives that come between us and God. Their answers are amazing and poignant. So let me ask you the same question is a slightly different way. What is it that keeps us from doing something great for God? Is it our job? Is it the family? Is it time playing computer games, or watching sports at the stadium or on TV? Is it conversing with our friends on Facebook, or some other hobby? If we looked at our Visa statement, our computer log, or calendar, would they tell us what really matters to us? Where do we devote our time, our money, our dreams, our energy? Is it in the accumulation of ever more wealth, ever more toys? Jesus said, “Where a man’s treasure is, there will his heart be also . . .” Wealth isn’t the issue. What’s at issue here is who or what do we place first in our lives?
Jesus knew where this young man’s heart was. By societal standards he was a nice guy, he kept all the commandments. That may be more than you or I do. Jesus looked at him and loved him, but Jesus knew that God didn’t come first in his life. Again, we need to constantly be asking ourselves, what is it that comes first in our life? For many, Paul Tillich was the twentieth century’s most perceptive theologian.
Tillich once said that whatever is our ultimate concern in life, that is our god. Among these concerns might be our personal success, or our allegiance to our country, or the quest for scientific truth, or a host of very important concerns. Or, our ultimate concern should be the God of the Bible. All but the latter are forms of idolatry. For far too many, this is difficult teaching.
We must accept that God must come before our job, our family, our concern for our health, and even our allegiance to our country? Nothing in this world can come before God. Let me add here that God rarely asks us to choose, for example, between our family and our faith in God–or our allegiance to our country and our faith in God–or even our job and our faith in God. But it can happen. And when it does, we must choose God.
Leadership guru John Maxwell notes that there are only a handful of important decisions people need to make in their entire lifetimes. He says that most people complicate life and get bogged down in decision making. He says his goal has always been to make it as simple as possible. He’s boiled the big decisions down to twelve things. Once he’s made those twelve decisions, all he has to do is manage how he’ll follow through on them. He says if you make decisions in those key areas once and for all–and then manage those decisions daily–you can create the kind of tomorrow you desire. According to Maxwell, “Successful people make right decisions early and manage those decisions daily. The people who neglect to make those decisions and to manage them well often look back on their lives with pain and regret–no matter how much talent they possessed or how many opportunities they once had.” And of course the ultimate decision is what or who will you worship?
Once we decide to worship the God revealed to us in Jesus Christ, then all the other important decisions can be made quite readily. If you choose instead to worship an idol–whether wealth or comfort or work or any other temporal god–then life becomes much more complicated and the end result will only be sadness. That isn’t the message of our culture, but it’s Christ’s message, even to those of affluence.
Pastor Ray Stedman puts it this way: “I have been privileged to travel extensively and to speak oftentimes to rather wealthy audiences. I was in Hollywood, Florida . . . the so-called “gold coast” of Florida. Every morning I taught the Scriptures to a crowd of five hundred or more. These people, I was told, represented well over a billion dollars’ worth of accumulated wealth.
“I had the opportunity to talk with many of them individually. I found that most of these, by their own testimony, thought they had all the money to buy anything they wanted. The problem is, they had arrived at the place where they were suffering from what someone has so aptly called ‘Destination Sickness’–the malady of having everything that you want, but not wanting anything you have, and being sick and empty and lonely and miserable.”
The wealthy young man who came to Jesus probably suffered from this malady–Destination Sickness. He had arrived. He thought he had it made. But, in truth, he was a slave to his wealth. Jesus was offering him a lifeline, but he couldn’t see it. All he could see was what he would be giving up. The question for us is are we ready and willing to put God first in our life?
Are we tired of the emptiness of living life our way and not God’s way? Have we discovered that there’s not enough money, not enough work, not enough sex, not enough narcotics, not enough stuff to ease the pain of an empty and unfulfilled heart? Sir William Beach Thomas said, “To achieve happiness by a succession of pleasures is like trying to keep up a light all night by striking successive matches.” Happiness doesn’t come from pleasure but from purpose. The happiest people are those who have given their lives completely and unreservedly to God.
The disciples were amazed at Jesus’ words about the difficulty of the wealthy entering the kingdom. Jesus looked at His disciples and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” Then Peter spoke up and said, “We have left everything to follow you!” “Truly I tell you,” 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 . . . and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.”
Now please don’t misunderstand. Jesus doesn’t say that it’s impossible for people with money to enter the kingdom of God. He said, “All things are possible with God.” The only people in danger are those who put other things before God. The only people in danger are those who enjoy their wealth, for example, while turning a blind eye to the needs of the poor. The only people in danger are those who have no greater purpose in life than the accumulation of more. When is enough . . . enough?
For many years, a businessman in New Jersey has anonymously given away more than $600 million to universities, medical centers, and other beneficiaries. Recently, a legal complication forced him to reveal his identity. He explained his generosity this way, “Nobody can wear two pairs of shoes at one time. I simply decided I had enough money.”
A friend of the donor described him as a man who doesn’t own a house or a car. He flies economy class, wears a $15 watch but “didn’t want his money to crush him.” Could that happen to us, that our craving for material success could crush us, or our family, or our health, or our relationship with God? The wealthy young man in our scripture turned sadly away from Jesus because he had great wealth and he refused to reprioritize his life. In light of our gospel reading, the question we must ask ourselves is, who or what is first in our lives. It’s an important question to ask because it’s a question that has eternal implications.

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