October 14, 2018: "Amazing Grace"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
October 14, 2018
No matter how much time I spend with the Bible, I’m always amazed. Now, you might attribute that to the fact that my living revolves around the Bible and that I am contractually obligated to say that. But I’m serious. The Scriptures of our faith amaze me. They amaze me because week after week, month after month, year after year after century after millennia, they still have so much to say to us. Through God’s Holy Spirit, these ancient words, these ancient tales, these ancient parables and sayings, still have so much life within them and so much life to give to us. I read the Bible, we read the Bible, because God is still speaking and God will continue to speak to us, and give us life, if we remain opening and willing to listen.
This is absolutely true of the text we’ve just heard from Mark 10—there is a lot of life and a lot of good news here. But in order to hear that good news and to receive that life, we need to deal with a little issue first. And that issue is that over the years this text has been mangled and twisted and interpreted in a ways that have absolutely nothing to do with God or with the story itself. I’ll give you an example. In my mind I can still see the sign board that was put up every November during stewardship season in the sanctuary of the church where I was raised that read, “God loves a joyful giver.” Right below were the words “Mark 10:22” in reference to how the rich man went away grieving. Maybe that has happened here in the past, I don’t know. I do know that you’ve probably heard sermons on this text where the preacher says wealth is bad, or that rich folks won’t get into heaven, or that the rich man was a sinner because he couldn’t, wouldn’t, give it all up for Jesus. All of this is wrong. The text doesn’t say any of that. These are just projections that we’ve put onto the text because, if we’re honest, this is a text that makes us a little uncomfortable. The text doesn’t say anything about money being evil or that wealthy people don’t have a chance of getting into heaven. That is all nonsense. So, let’s wipe the slate clean and let’s look at and listen to what is actually happening here.
Jesus’ time on earth is quickly coming to an end as the tenth chapter of Mark opens. We are just a short time away from Calvary and there is a renewed sense of urgency in everything Jesus says and does. We heard that urgency in Jesus last week when the Pharisees tried to trap him with a question about the law. They wanted to know if Jesus knew the law, but he couldn’t be bothered by such petty things. Instead, Jesus talks about God’s desire for us to be in loving, mutual, and fulfilling relationships with each other. That is what is important to Jesus. That is what the disciples need to know before Jesus leaves them. After this, Jesus is approached by a man who kneels before him to ask a question.
“Good teacher,’ the man says, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus reminds the man that God alone is worthy of the title of ‘good.’ Jesus then points out that the man already has what he needs for eternal life: the law of Moses. The law of Moses, the commandments given at Sinai, are God’s recipe and prescription for life; follow them and you’ll have eternal life. The man confirms that he has followed all of the Mosaic law since he was just a kid. But Jesus takes it a little further. With great love Jesus says, “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, and follow me.” And in a sad moment, the man turns and goes away from Jesus in grief because he had many possessions.
The story goes on. Jesus looks around at the disciples as the man sulks away and says, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.” The disciples don’t get it. They were being thick, as usual. So, Jesus gives them a vivid image. He says, “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.” Talk about powerful! There is no doubt here, no grey area, no room for interpretation. A camel simply cannot pass through the eye of a needle, no way, no how. Shocked, they look around and say to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Everybody has stuff; even the disciples, who were blue collar people, had stuff, things they could call wealth. If everyone has some type of wealth, will anyone be saved? Full of love again, Jesus looks at the disciples and says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
And that, my friends, is where we’ve so often missed the point. This story has nothing to do with wealth or riches or things; it doesn’t really have anything to do with the law of Moses or the man who walked away, either. This story is not about a man who couldn’t give it all away for Jesus; Jesus is not trying to shame the man or the disciples. This text is about the unconditional, amazing grace of God that is able to do exceedingly more than we can hope for or imagine. Jesus says something shocking: it will be easier for a camel to walk through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples express shock and awe because the camel and needle thing is impossible and it doesn’t look like anyone can be saved. Jesus then proclaims that yes, from a human point of view, the camel and needle thing is impossible. It is impossible for the man to give up his many possession in order to follow Jesus. But not for God. For God all things are possible. Things like camels strolling through the eyes of needles. Things like rich people getting into heaven. Things like anyone of us getting into heaven.
Can you see why I am so amazed by the Scriptures of our faith? After so many terrible sermons and stewardship campaigns built on flawed and twisted interpretations of this Scripture, God has something more, something new to say to us. The thing that God is saying to us today is that there is nothing we can do to earn or secure our place in the kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is the good and loving and peaceful things of this world while we are living, and the eternity of peace and life that awaits us on the other side of this life. We can’t do anything to get in. We can’t get in by following God’s law better or more perfectly. We can’t get in by selling our homes and cars and the clothes off our backs. We can’t even get in by devoting every moment of our lives to prayer and worship and service. Our only hope for life in the kingdom of God, here and in the here-after, is the amazing grace of God. And the exceedingly good news of the Gospel is that God gives us that grace abundantly, and has promised that it will never be taken away.
How would your life be different today, and every day, if you fully embraced and believed that good news? For me, it would mean absolute freedom and unending joy. I am the chief sinner when it comes to thinking that I can earn my place in God’s kingdom. Some of it has a lot to do with things I heard growing up. “You have the power to choose your own fate and destiny.” “If you run hard enough, you’ll beat the competition and claim the prize.” “Don’t let anyone or anything stop you from getting to the top.” You might have heard things like that, too. But it is also about my desire to look good in God’s eyes. And that’s a sin, plain and simple. It is a sin because sometimes I work long hours, as if God measures my worthiness by how long I stare at a computer screen. It is a sin because sometimes I run myself ragged trying to please every person I met, as if my weariness pleases God. It is a sin because sometimes I judge people for who or what they are or are not, as if God is happy when I look down at people created in God’s image.
The end result of all of this manic work of trying to look good to God is that I’m just tired all the time and God’s mind isn’t changed. According to the psalmist, God loved me and gave me the gift of grace at the very moment I began forming in my mother’s womb. The same is true for each and every one of you here today. If the amount of grace God gives us was proportionate to our worthiness, if God’s pleasure with us depended on what we do or do not do, we would be in a lot of trouble. You can’t earn it by working long hours. You can’t earn by trying to pleasure everyone and in the end pleasing no one. You can’t earn it—and I can’t emphasize ‘can’t’ enough—by judging someone on how they live or read the Bible or pray or love. God is God, and we must simply accept how much God loves us and how God’s amazing grace is the reason, the only reason, we live and move and have our being. If you think God will be changed if you sell everything you have, become a monk or a nun, or build a little chapel in your backyard where you spend every moment you have left in prayer and worship, knock. But guess what? God won’t be changed. The love that Jesus had for the man as he walked away, the love that Jesus had for his disciples, is the same love God has for you and for me. Today. Tomorrow. And forever.
So, I’ll ask you again: How would your life be different if you believed, actually believed, this good news? To be certain there would be freedom and joy. But there will also be a lot of work to do, work that is a deep response of gratitude for God’s grace. We possess the grace of God so have to get to work feeding the hungry and giving water to the thirsty and clothing the naked. We possess the grace of God so we must resist those who would use God’s word as a weapon. We possess the grace of God so we must put an end to the fear and misunderstanding and lies that push us to wage war against each other. We possess the grace of God so we must champion the welfare of our children, our elders, those who are most needy, and person in between. We possess the grace of God so we must stand up for what we believe in and never be ashamed to proclaim that God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God and God abides in them. We possess the grace of God so we must live in such a unique and peculiar way that the world looks at us and says, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a bunch of wretches like them.”
Because that is what it did. That it was it does. It has saved a wretch like me, and a bunch of wretches like all y’all here today. We were lost, but know we’re found. We were blind, but now we see. Accept it, my brothers and sisters in Christ, and you’ll never be the same. Amen.