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Sermon for Sunday 14 October 2018

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

6Seek the Lord and live, lest he break out like fire in the house of Joseph, and it devour, with none to quench it for Bethel, 7O you who turn justice to wormwood and cast down righteousness to the earth!
10They hate him who reproves in the gate, and they abhor him who speaks the truth. 11Therefore because you trample on the poor and you exact taxes of grain from him, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not dwell in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. 12For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins — you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. 13Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time. 14Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. 15Hate 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 90:12-17

12So teach us to number our days that we may apply our hearts to wisdom. 13Return, O Lord; how long will you tarry? be gracious to your servants. 14Satisfy us by your lovingkindness in the morning; so shall we rejoice and be glad all the days of our life. 15Make us glad by the measure of the days that you afflicted us and the years in which we suffered adversity. 16Show your servants your works and your splendor to their children. 17May the graciousness of the Lord our God be upon us; prosper the work of our hands; prosper our handiwork.


SECOND READING Hebrews 3:12-19

12Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 13But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 14For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. 15As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” 16For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? 17And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? 18And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? 19So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.


GOSPEL Mark 10:17-22

17As {Jesus} was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21And 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.” 22Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.



I heard about a gemologist who happened to be seated on an airplane beside a woman with a huge diamond ring on her finger. During the flight, the man introduced himself and said, “I couldn’t help but notice your beautiful diamond. I’m an expert in precious stones. Please tell me about that particular stone.” She replied, “That is the famous Klopman diamond, one of the largest in the world. But there’s a strange curse that comes with it.” Now the man was really interested. He asked, “What is the curse?” As he waited with bated breath, she replied, “It’s Mr. Klopman.”
Now some of you ladies may wish to re-evaluate your diamonds on that basis. But seriously, the true curse of any kind of valuable possession is its capacity to steal our hearts and souls. The rich young ruler in today’s gospel lesson is one of those unique characters from the Bible that have come to represent greed. On the surface, he appears so unwilling to part with his earthly wealth, that he sold his soul in order to keep his possessions. He wanted eternal life, he knew that there was more to our existence than just the few years we have on this earth, but not at the expense of losing all his stuff. Truth be told, he put more trust in what he had now, rather than in his future and the God who gave him those things.
He was a man who was used to following the rules; rules that made sense, rules that had a cost verses benefit ratio. He liked the feeling of security that tangible things produced. He wanted the magic list that says, so long as I don’t do these things, and I do follow these rules, then I can expect a certain outcome. In other words, he’s typical; he’s your average Joe, he’s no different than anyone else in this world. He wants his cake and to be able to eat it too. As a matter of fact, he’s so typical, this young man scares me. I fear he’s way to close to being me!
When we read this passage, I hope the first thing we do is begin to ask ourselves the hard questions. Questions like, how much of this young man do I see in me? Do my attitudes and his align? If I were to kneel before Jesus today, would I be able to accept His response to me asking the same question? One thing that impressed me when I read this story is that the rich young ruler was so near to the God’s kingdom.
He asked all the right questions. It appears that he understood the Law and he understood Jesus’ teaching. He, by all indications, was a very good man, an example, a good citizen, one who obeyed the law and as a leader, was considered religious. From all we can see, he could easily be considered a pillar of the community, a man of many charitable works. But in the end, one thing held him back. There was one major flaw in his life; the love of material things kept him out. Because of this, many have come to regard him as a moral coward. But the truth is, that conclusion is far too simple.
The fact is, there are a lot of good things that we can say about this man. I’m impressed with the fact, for example, that having talked with him only a few minutes, Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him and loved him. That doesn’t sound like a scathing criticism to me. And, I think that we also need to remember that to this young man, Jesus was not the Son of God. He was simply a new prophet, with an exciting message, a magnetic personality, and eyes that gripped you when you spoke to Him. He was certainly not the Christ of the Apostles’ Creed. At this point in His ministry, not even the disciples fully comprehended Jesus in that regard. The stone of Easter had not yet been rolled away.
So for the next few minutes this morning, I would like to champion the cause of this underdog and look at three positives about this young man and three negatives. First, the positive. These are things that brought him to the master, qualities that made him interested in Jesus’ teachings. The first positive thing is: he was courageous.
Luke describes him as a ruler. That is, he belonged to the upper class. This is the group that brought the most criticism against Jesus. Perhaps it was his youth or maybe it was his willingness to learn, but he didn’t let his social position keep him from Jesus; he didn’t buy in to his peers’ assessment of this Rabbi. Nicodemus was another rich man who went to see Jesus. But he did by night.
Nicodemus went to see Jesus under the cover of darkness for much the same reason. However, he didn’t want to be seen consorting with the Nazarene. Why? His peers might ostracize him. Not so with this rich young ruler. He was different. He didn’t come skulking in the night. He came to Christ in broad daylight. I believe he saw something in Jesus and His teachings that convinced him that Jesus was the real thing. This young ruler was bold, and I believe serious about his quest. This is where this young man may not be so typical. The young ruler set aside his fear of what others thought. Which begs the question of us: are we this bold when it comes to our witness?
How many of us have lowered our head and bit our lip when an opportunity arose to defend our faith or make Christ known among our peers? Too often we lose courage and don’t want to be seen as some fanatical disciples. We buy into the notion that sharing our faith might offend someone, like their rights must be considered over our right and obligation to speak out. So for me, this young man is an example of courage. The second positive thing is: he was humble.
When this young ruler came to Jesus he came running. In Jesus’ day, elite people didn’t run. It was considered undignified. But this young rich ruler ran up to Jesus and knelt before him, right there in the middle of the road, in broad day light for all to see. If his friends saw him, those within his social class, there would be no end to the ridicule, to possible ostracization, but he didn’t care. For me, this not only shows that he had courage, it also shows he was a man of humility. Additional proof of his humility is seen in what he asked: Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
He didn’t come to Jesus with verbal puzzles, mental gymnastics, and pious theological jargon. That was what the Pharisees did. They would come before Jesus and say: Teacher, what do you think about paying taxes to Caesar? Jesus what do you think about divorce? Rabbi what do you think about an afterlife? Why don’t your disciples fast? Wash their hands? Obey the Sabbath? The fact is, the Religious leaders could care less what Jesus thought about any of those issues.
The Pharisees thought that they had nothing whatsoever to learn from this Itinerant Preacher. They were asking Jesus these questions simply to trip Him up and make Him commit that one fatal verbal error so that they could trap Him. They were arrogant. It’s so refreshing to see someone of the ruling class who came in genuine sincerity. “Good Master,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He was asking the right question; He’d gotten down to the very basics. He was in effect saying: Jesus, you clearly have the secret to authentic living. Tell me the secret so that I too may be fulfilled. He humbled himself so that he could find the answer.
One thing that we in the church need to admit is that far too often, we’re not very humble. As a church, we spend too time on issues that don’t amount to a hill of beans while avoiding the eternal questions of life. Far too often our motivation isn’t sincerity, rather we’re motivated by recognition and advancement of our own agenda. We fail, or refuse, to ask the most important question of all, who is praised here, me or Jesus? Let me say that again. No matter what we do, we need to ask, how is Jesus praised here? Is it about me or Him? But that wasn’t this young man’s problem. He ran to Jesus. He knelt before the Master in the middle of the road and he asked sincere questions. He humbled himself and we could learn a lesson or two from this young man. The third positive thing is: he was religious.
Now I don’t mean that in a negative way. He was a spiritual man deeply concerned with religious things. When Jesus instructed him to keep the commandments, he answered, “Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy. Now what did he mean by that? He meant that since the age of 13, the point at which a Jewish boy assumes personal responsibility for keeping the commandments, he had kept them all. Now for some of us, this bold claim made by this young man catches us by surprise.
How is that possible, we ask? Don’t we as Christians assume that no one has ever kept all the commandments? I mean, haven’t we all, at one point or another fudged a little to gain financially? Haven’t we all slipped up a bit in respecting our parents? Haven’t we all looked at something someone else owns and wished we had that something? Herein lies the key to this passage and the turning point of this young man’s life.
This is where the negatives begin to creep into this man’s story. But before we get to the negative, let’s once again recognize the positive; that this young man was courageous; he didn’t hide his interest in Jesus. That he was humble; he came running to our Lord and in his nobleman’s clothes, he knelt in the dust before Jesus. He was also religious; he had kept the commandments from the age of accountability. All of these are positive attributes that we would do well to emulate.
However, it’s at this point that the negative traits start adding up in this young man’s life. As with the positive, there are three less than desirable things I want to point out, and to start, we need to look at the first one, because it forms the foundation for his failure. The first negative thing is: he was looking for a rule to keep in order to please God.
Listen again to what he says, “What must I do to receive eternal life?” I, me: What must I DO. It’s a pretty telling phrase, this I do. What rule must I keep in order for God to be pleased with me? Now please take note here, because this is very important to understanding Jesus previous statement, “why do you call Me good. No one is good but God.” I’ll make sense of this here in a minute. Jesus said, you know the commandments: Do not murder, do not commit adultery, and do not steal. All these commandments are from the second table; the table that has to do with our relationship with others. As I said this is important. Jesus is giving the man the list he’s looking for. And you can hear the frustration in the young man’s words. Since I was boy I have kept all these, he answered, what am I doing wrong?
A story is told out of the orient of a young Buddhist monk who sat outside his temple two thousand years ago, hands clasped in prayer. He looked very pious and he chanted ‘Amita Buddha’ all day. Day after day he intoned these words, believing that he was acquiring grace. One day the head priest of the temple sat next to him and began rubbing a piece of brick against a stone. Day after day he rubbed one against the other. This went on week after week until the young monk could no longer contain his curiosity, and he finally blurted out, “Father, what are you doing?” “I’m trying to make a mirror,” said the head priest. “But that’s impossible!” said the young monk. “You can’t make a mirror from brick.” “True,” replied the head priest. “Just as it’s impossible to acquire grace by a chant.” Another young man by the name of Martin Luther was just as confused as our rich young ruler.
Luther had no peace in his life. He was a monk who wanted to please God, but he felt like an awful sinner. On a trip to Rome he encountered the church’s corrupt practice of selling indulgences, the belief that financial contributions to the church could release loved ones from purgatory. He paid the fee to climb Pilate’s stairs—the supposed staircase that Jesus climbed the day He was sentenced to death. There were 28 steps. You were to crawl on your hands and knees up all 28, stop on each step and say the Pater Noster—the Lord’s Prayer—on each. Luther kissed each step just for good measure. At the 28th step, the loved one you named was released from purgatory. When Luther got to the top of the steps he said, “Who knows whether it is so?”
He doubted the effectiveness of such an action and his conscious still bothered him. It’s like our rich young ruler. I have kept the commandments since childhood what I am still doing wrong? Do you know what the fault is in these three examples? The fatal flaw these three young men shared? They were performing outward exercises to arrive at internal truths. They were conforming outwardly instead of obeying inwardly. They were living by law rather than by grace. That’s what they were doing wrong. A minute ago I asked you to take special note of Jesus naming the second table of the 10 Commandments and of His response to the young ruler calling Him good.
Both these are key to understanding this passage. First is in Jesus’ question and response. God is the only one who is good. The young ruler had disregarded the first table of commandments, or at the least the First Commandment. The first table has to do with our relationship with God. He was putting his wealth in front of God. We need to put Jesus’ statement of who is good and His command to sell all, and come, follow Me together. In essence, He’s telling the young ruler that he’s missing the one rule that is the answer to his question. He needs to understand the One who is good and place him first in his life. Which brings us to the second negative: he loved his money.
It’s interesting that Jesus, after being pressed by this young man, actually does give him something to do. Jesus said, “You want something to do? All right. Since you have great wealth, sell all that you have, give it to the poor, and come follow me.” We need to be careful here because this can be a bit confusing, Jesus is trying to teach this young man that it isn’t outward acts that bring life, but inward obedience. As I’ve said before, wealth isn’t evil. It’s our attitude toward our possessions that makes them evil. The truth is we can take anything, even things that can be considered good and make idols out of them.
So why then does Jesus tell him to DO. If you look closely, Jesus is conveying the difference between the letter of the law and the spirit of the law. Here, in this text, is another teaching of the two great commandments: Love God and love your neighbor. Sell what you have to help the poor and come follow me. In other words, get rid of the things that get between you and God and put God first in your life.
Some of you may remember Flip Wilson’s TV comedy show back in the 70s. One of his favorite characters to portray was Brother Leroy. In one skit, Brother Leroy was leading services one Sunday morning. It wasn’t going very well. People weren’t very responsive. It came time to receive the offering and so Brother Leroy passed the collection plate. It came back empty. So he passed it again. Same thing. Empty. Brother Leroy then went before the people and said, “Now, I know that you all want this church to progress. This church must progress.” No response from the congregation. Brother Leroy shouted a bit louder: “Now, before this church can progress it has to crawl, this church has got to crawl.”
To this the congregation started getting excited and they yelled back, “Make it crawl, Reverend. Make it crawl!” Brother Leroy continued, “After this church has crawled, it’s got to pick itself up and start to walk, this church has got to walk!” And the people yelled back at him, “Make it walk, Reverend. Make it walk!” “And after this church has walked, this church has got to get up and run, this church has got to run.” And the people were worked up into a terrible frenzy, and they hollered back: “Make it run, Reverend. Make it run!” And then Brother Leroy said, “Now, brothers and sisters, in order for this church to run, its gonna need money, its gonna take money for this church to run!” And the people yelled back, “Let it crawl, Reverend. Let it crawl!”
Brother Leroy does make a point. It’s sad to watch as the church crawls in the dust when it could be running with the champions. We can never allow the love of things to get in the way of our love of God. You know what Jesus said, “Where your treasure is there your heart is also” (Matt. 6:21.) The final negative thing we see in this young man is: he walked away.
Sadly, the young ruler couldn’t handle the truth when he heard it. He was unwilling to reshape his priorities. To love God above all and to love his neighbor in such a sacrificial and self-effacing way was beyond him. I wonder if he knew all along what he was missing. I’m wondering if he really knew where his heart was. The sad reality is, he didn’t want to give up his life style. He didn’t want to part with the things that he really trusted, his wealth. The problem was, yes, he retained his wealth, but in doing so, he relinquished eternal life.

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