24th Sunday of Pentecost October 23, 2016
Amos 5:6-7, 10-15
3, 289, 380, 611:5-7
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good— except God alone. 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.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “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, and said to each other, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
What is the most difficult thing you’ve ever done? We would all give a different answer to that question. Different based on our personalities, our abilities, and our perceptions of what is hard and what is easy. But whatever you would answer, I would say to you, “There is something harder.” In our lesson for today Jesus told His disciples about the most difficult thing to do, and it surprised them. He said to them: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.” He told them that it was hard to reach eternal life in heaven; that it was very difficult to land on that blessed shore where there was no more crying and sorrow, no more sin, and only a perfect and new life to lead. Jesus mentioned at other times too, that the crown of life was not easy to obtain. He said once (Mt 7:14) “small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
Hard to get into heaven? Hard to “be with the Lord forever”? That’s not the way a lot of people look at it. If you would ask people around town how hard they thought it was to get into heaven, you would probably hear answers like, “Well, only the really, really bad people won’t make it,” or “God loves everyone, so everyone will be saved,” or “No matter what god or gods you believe in, you’ll get to paradise. All roads lead to the same place,” or “Nobody’s perfect, but I’ve done enough good to make it.”
Many are unwilling to say, “It’s hard to get into heaven!” Instead, they act like it’s rather easy. Like everyone will get there eventually one way or another. But again, that’s not how Jesus describes it. Three times in these verses He tells His disciples that it is hard to enter the kingdom of God.
The rich man who came to Jesus thought it would be easy for him to get into heaven because he had led a life of outward purity and God had also blessed him with great wealth. He felt he had already “made it.” He said that all the commandments he had kept since he was a little boy. So when he asked the Lord, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he was expecting Jesus to say, “Nothing! You’ve got it easy!”
But the man learned it wasn’t as easy as he thought. Jesus said to him, “One thing you lack … Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” The man’s face fell and he went away sad. He had not anticipated this. Jesus had found his weakness—his money. He cared more about his money than he cared about God. He could not keep even the very first commandment perfectly! Getting into heaven was not as easy as he thought it would be.
But now you might say to me, “Wait a minute, you’re forgetting something, pastor! You’re forgetting that because of Jesus it is not hard to get to heaven!” And you would be right—in a way.
Jesus does get us into heaven. In fact, He is the only way in. Instead of needing to earn a place there ourselves with our own good and holy lives—which we cannot do, just like the rich man could not—Jesus came down from heaven and fulfilled the law of God in its entirety. Every rule and regulation that God demanded the human race should follow, Jesus kept as our representative. When He was tempted, He did not sin. He was perfect in His thoughts, in His words, and in His actions. Hebrews 4:15, “We have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are— yet was without sin.” The prophet Jeremiah calls Jesus, “The Lord, our Righteousness.” Jeremiah means that Jesus’ life of good works is credited to us.
Jesus took it a step further too. He went to the cross. On the cross He atoned for our sin. On the cross He took our disobedience and cleared our record by paying the penalty for it. 1 John 2:2 says “He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” His death and resurrection from the dead announced the final verdict: We are not guilty. Therefore it is true what the Bible says “whoever believes in Him [Jesus] shall not perish but have everlasting life.”
So in a certain way you would be right to think that it is not hard to get to heaven because Jesus has done what needs to be done to take you there. He has taken the burden of your guilt off your shoulders and placed it on Himself. He has made it so that your good works are not the cause or reason for your salvation. He has made it so that you do not earn a place there yourself, but He prepares a place there for you—as a free gift.
And yet, Christ still says to His disciples, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” Why? Because there are many things that can derail our trust in Jesus. Things that can cause our faith in Him to unravel, so that either by being unwilling to admit our sin to Him (as the rich man was who thought He had done nothing wrong) or by putting our confidence in some worldly thing (like money or good health or some other such)—we actually say, “No thanks,” to what Jesus has done for us.
For the rich man it was his riches that made it hard for him to bow humbly before his Savior in faith. For us it might be the cares and responsibilities in our lives that distract us so we forget to think of Jesus when we ought to. It might be laziness with respect to hearing the word of God that leads us finally to forget or become ignorant of that word. It might be the influence of others who urge us to excuse and defend our sins rather than repent of them and trust in Jesus for forgiveness. Even our own sinful natures, which stir within us all kinds of evils, can lead us away from our Savior. There are so many things that can ruin the simple childlike trust, the connection we have by faith to Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, so that Jesus is not wrong in saying, “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.” We should take this to heart so that we do not treat sin lightly, acting as if it’s so easy to get to heaven that we don’t have to be all that careful to listen to Christ when He wants to guide us and direct us.
But hard does not mean impossible.
A year or so ago I went to a local symphony concert. One of my favorite piano pieces was on the program: Tschaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto. It’s an extremely difficult work that I cannot imagine ever being able to play. Impossible for me. When I got the tickets, I asked for the left side of the auditorium because I wanted to be able to see the pianist’s hands. There was a part of me that was curious. I wanted to watch and see—could someone actually play this music? Could fingers and hands really do what I had heard on recordings for so many years? Of course, the pianist played it and played it very well. What was impossible for me was not at all impossible for the master musician.
What would be impossible for us—to keep our faith in Jesus to the very end, to keep from getting distracted by the riches of the world, to avoid getting choked by the problems of life, to stand against the devil and temptation when they would lead us away from Christ—all these things that would be impossible for us are not impossible for God. He is the Master of our salvation. We confess this work of God in the Small Catechism when we say: “He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.”
God can, and does, bring us to faith and keeps us in the faith. This is His gracious and loving work in our lives. If we are saved, He gets the credit. To Him goes the glory, for without His effort we would fail.
It doesn’t mean it was easy for Him to work this out for us. The Father had to disown His one and only Son on account of our guilt. He had to leave Jesus alone there on the cross, responsible for our sin. He had to turn His back on the One that He loved, the One who had done all things well. It was not easy for Jesus either who had to endure the crushing blow from heaven. But although not easy, it was not impossible.
It doesn’t mean it is easy for God to take our hearts that are naturally set against God and turn them from unbelief to faith and keep them in that faith. It takes power just as great as that which raised Jesus from the dead. But it is not impossible for Him.
It is not impossible for God to forgive our sin on account of Jesus, and through that forgiveness to build in us confidence in Christ rather than confidence in ourselves. It is not impossible for God to work in us a desire to love and serve our Savior instead of enjoying the deeds of the evil one.
Through Jesus, everything has been done so that we can enter into heaven, and using that powerful message, God moves us to trust in His Son until we receive that crown of life.
Is it hard to get into heaven? Yes. Is it impossible? Not with Jesus on our side. With Him all things are possible.
With might of ours can naught be done, soon were our loss effected.
But for us fights the Valiant One who God Himself elected.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.