The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost October 24, 2010
540, 201, 759 [TLH alt. 290], 655
May the God of all grace, who called us to His eternal glory by Christ Jesus, after you have suffered a while, perfect, establish, strengthen, and settle you. To Him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen.
1 Peter 5:10-11
Dear fellow-travelers—those passing through this life to the next:
Most people today are familiar with the concept of a “debriefing.” A debriefing takes place when someone does, sees, hears, or otherwise experiences something and then is asked to repeat that information to those better equipped to analyze and understand that information. The words originally referred to pilots that flew missions over enemy territory and were later debriefed by those who would analyze what they saw or experienced. Now the word—the technique—is much more broadly applied in the military, law enforcement, business, and so on.
Today’s text represents a debriefing, but it is something of a “reverse debriefing.” In other words, those who saw or experienced something were taught by another as to just what they had experienced and what it meant to them and to others. That reverse debriefing is found recorded in the tenth chapter of Mark’s Gospel account:
Then Jesus looked around and said to His disciples, How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were astonished at His words. But Jesus answered again and said to them, ”Children, 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 than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.”
These are God’s words to us. Give them the honor, respect, and undivided attention due such precious words from our God. That our God Himself would prepare us to learn and grow from the study of these words, so we pray: “Sanctify us through your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.” Amen.
Do you recall the event that preceded our text? It was the account of the rich young man who believed that he had kept all of the commandments perfectly—from his youth on—but still asked Jesus what he had to do “to inherit eternal life” (Mark 10:17). Obviously, the question itself—What must I do to inherit?—is strange and backward. It turns the idea of inheriting on its ear and makes it into something rather perverse and manipulative.
An inheritance is wealth passed down to those who haven‘t earned it. Clearly the rich young man had no concept of Christianity which is all about receiving a gift that we could in no way earn or deserve. Christianity is all about work done by someone else (Jesus Christ) and the results of that work (forgiveness and reconciliation with God) gifted to those who did not and could not earn such things on their own.
Jesus masterfully laid bare the evil of the young man’s heart by identifying the god that he actually worshipped—his wealth. His heart was all wrong, and he walked away from Jesus filled with sorrow—a genuine tragedy.
The disciples witnessed this scene, and Jesus began their reverse debriefing with these words: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!” [v.23] You heard the disciples’ reaction: “And they were greatly astonished, saying among themselves, ‘Who then can be saved?’” [v.26]
This leaves us with several questions that we have to answer if we are to truly understand this text. First, why were the disciples so astonished at what Jesus said? Secondly, why did they have to be debriefed by Jesus when they had just witnessed the event for themselves? Finally, what gave Jesus the right to interpret for the disciples what they had just witnessed for themselves?
First, why did Jesus’ words shock the disciples? The answer is both cultural and historic. In Jesus’ day (and actually down through history until relatively recently) folks imagined that earthly wealth and standing were barometers (accurate indicators) of God’s favor. This point of view was the natural by-product of pagan idolatry which also found its way into the psyche of believers. In ancient times human beings would pray and sacrifice to their local idols as a means (so they imagined) to get what they wanted in life. If you wanted good crops, you prayed or sacrificed to the god who oversaw such things. If you wanted children, you prayed to your fertility god. If you wanted to defeat your enemies, you prayed to your god of war. The result was that if your crop was good, your wife had children, and you triumphed over your enemies, all were indications that you were “favored by the gods.”
Although the believers in Jesus’ day believed in the one true God, they carried some of the baggage of their pagan neighbors including the idea that earthly wealth and success was an accurate indicator of God’s pleasure. More than that, they believed it was an indication of God’s seal of approval on a man’s actions and lifestyle.
The reverse was also true. They believed that if a human being was experiencing hard times, such hardship was an indication of God’s wrath and displeasure. You recall how the disciples, upon seeing a man who had been born blind, once asked Jesus: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind” (John 9:2). Jesus, of course, made it clear to them that physical conditions here on earth should not be regarded as an accurate indicator of either God‘s wrath or favor.
The disciples as yet had not learned this lesson. Their shock was the result of their misguided idea that the rich should be regarded as the best of the best—those highly favored by God. They were appalled at the idea that even those they considered to be most favored by God stood no chance of entering heaven. “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.” [v.25]
Next question: “Why did the disciples have to be “reverse debriefed” by Jesus when they had just witnessed the event for themselves?”
You’ve no doubt heard the expression: “Seeing is believing.” The problem, of course, lies in what you believe based on what you saw. I once saw David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear. No kidding! With my own eyes I saw Lady Liberty standing there plain as day, a curtain was raised and lowered, and the statue was gone. Thankfully, Mr. Copperfield promptly returned the statue to avoid a significant fine and jail time. I remember interviews with those on the scene who “saw” with their own eyes and some actually believed that he had made the Statue disappear and then reappear—so powerful was the illusion.
The point, again, is that “seeing” can lead silly human beings to believe all sorts of nonsense, all sorts of things that simply aren’t true, aren’t real. The disciples had just experienced Jesus’ condemnation of an outwardly pious rich man—in their minds an obvious recipient of God’s favor and a shoe-in for eternal life. Based on Jesus’ condemnation of that individual they immediately despaired of anyone ever making it to Heaven. If such a man could not make it, who could? It was roughly the equivalent of a bunch of us old, fat, out-of-shape couch potatoes watching elite Olympic sprinters trying to run the 40 yard dash in under 4 seconds and thinking “If they can’t do it, who can?”
The problem, of course, is that the disciples didn’t understand what they had witnessed which was exactly why Jesus took the time to instruct them as he did. Just as illusionists or magicians fool us by using what we expect to see against us, so too Satan uses illusions like material wealth to con silly, gullible human beings.
Mankind’s basic problem is our natural inclination toward assuming that what holds true in the physical world also holds true in the spiritual. In other words, since we tend to want to reward “good people,” God must feel the same. Since we have to work to earn good things here on earth, then we must also have to do the same to earn some sort of eternal reward.
True Christianity is dramatically different. While the disciples saw in the rich young man a leading candidate in the pursuit of heaven, Jesus recognized the lack of saving faith in his heart. The young man was running well, but he was running toward the wrong end zone. His work-righteous beliefs would land him in Hell. Christianity is the one and only religion in existence that relies on the good that someone else performed for our salvation. It is the only religion known to man that teaches that salvation is ours as a gift, based not on our own actions, but on the perfect life and sinless death of another—Jesus Christ. God has declared us innocent based on what Jesus did. It is never based on what we did or did not do.
Last question: “What gave Jesus the right to interpret for the disciples what they had just witnessed for themselves?”
The world would likely view what Jesus did in our text as indoctrination rather than education or enlightenment. We live in a very proud society whose citizens place inordinate value on individual opinions. Had Jesus spoken to modern Americans as He spoke to His disciples, He would likely have been told to keep His opinions to Himself. They had, after all, seen for themselves and could thus judge for themselves.
No, they couldn’t. Hear this well. Mankind is simply not capable of knowing the truth without or apart from the divine working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds. “The natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Not only is the Gospel foreign to man‘s way of thinking, it absolutely cannot be believed without the Holy Spirit working or creating the faith that accepts such things as true.
God, not man, dictates reality. Man can see only so much and he invariably comes to false conclusions based on his limited, natural understanding. Need evidence? How do you naturally feel when things are going badly in your life? Do you feel like God is nearby and favoring you as his beloved child, or that He is either ignoring you or displeased with you? The reality that God has revealed to us is that wandering sheep need discipline—hard times that He uses not only to call us closer to His side but to realign our affections and priorities in life.
God can and does dictate reality. He alone determines what is true and what is false, what is real and what is not—precisely because He alone is the Creator of all that exists. He alone possesses the wisdom and the power to do so. The good news is that He has dictated a reality in connection with our salvation that depends 100% on that which has already been successfully completed by His Son Jesus. God’s reality in connection with our salvation is that Jesus had to take into himself a human nature, thereby placing Himself under the demands of the Law just like we are. He then had to live His entire life without sinning even once and then had to willingly allow Himself to be sacrificed as payment for the sins of every other human being. That’s exactly what Jesus did, which means that God’s reality in connection with the forgiveness of our sins is that it’s a done deal—the bill for our sins has been paid in full, once and for all. Done. God said so, and God is the one who dictates reality.
This is undoubtedly exactly what Jesus was talking about in our text when he answered the disciples’ question: “Who then can be saved?” with this most comforting answer: “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.” [v.27] Indeed how impossible for even one sinner to enter God’s holy heaven, and yet God achieved the “impossible” by providing an outside source of righteousness and then crediting that perfection to each of us, sinners.
If God was able to accomplish this “impossible” feat, how could we imagine anything else to be beyond His ability. Sickness, sorrow, frustration, heartache, disease, poverty, depression, infertility, fear, addiction—what can our God not overcome? Our God Himself—the very God who dictates reality for all of creation—He Himself has declared that nothing for Him is impossible which makes it both true and real for each of us.
This is our God. He has secured our salvation in Jesus Christ, and He will continue to provide absolutely everything that we need. God grant us the faith and humility to accept his reality alone. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.