(Note on audio: the sermon recorded was at the 8:00 a.m. service at which we had our 2-4th grade choir from Christ the King singing and the 6th grade handbells playing. Hopefully the commotion from all the young people isn't too distracting.)
Text: “26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:26-27 ESV)
I’d like to thank you for being so gracious to me two weeks ago at the 10:30 service. For those who weren't here, I had a technical issue with my iPad and, since I’ve gotten into the habit of preaching from my iPad, that caused a significant problem. It was very kind of you to handle it so graciously. In fact, one person even said that they appreciated what happened because it made me look human. Not quite so perfect. If that’s the case, then I invite you to come spend some time with me during the week. That should eliminate that problem pretty quickly.
If I make this look easy it's because, really, most of it is. Especially when you do the same thing week after week. But don't be deceived by the simplicity of what we do each week. The effects of what we do are anything but simple and certainly anything but easy. We’re talking about saving souls. That is not a simple matter. We’re here to do the impossible.
That was a hard realization for the disciples that what we do in the church, what we're ‘about’, is doing the impossible. That understanding started for them with this famous image of a camel trying to go through the eye of a needle. Jesus assures them it is easier for that camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
But it gets worse—or at least it appears to. Jesus goes on to teach his disciples a deeper truth. “Jesus said to them again, ‘Children, how difficult 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 person to enter the kingdom of God.’ And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man it is impossible’ ” (vv 24b–27a). Humanly speaking, no one can slip a camel through the eye of a needle. Not only are riches a huge hindrance to entering the kingdom— making it difficult— Jesus says it is impossible for a rich man to enter the kingdom. And not just the rich! “Then who can be saved?” Jesus answers: it’s impossible for anyone to enter the kingdom of heaven on one’s own.
Yes, it starts with the rich here. You’re familiar, I’m sure, with the parable of the rich farmer who had a bumper crop and said to himself, “Now you’re set for life. I’ll build bigger barns to hold it all and I’ll never have to worry about anything ever again.” He was looking to his bank account, per se, for his confidence for the future. And that very night God told him, “You fool, tonight your life will be required of you.” We know that lesson. It’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for that man to enter the kingdom of heaven.
But there’s another lesson to be learned where money is concerned. The problem with wealth is both the temptation to greed and the temptation to generosity. More than one successful farmer, for example, has said about all the money he's given through the years, “I built that church,” or “I built that school.” Not only does money itself become an idol, the good that we try to do with it can itself mutate into self righteousness. It is just as hard for a camel to go through the eye of a needle as it is for that farmer, too, to enter the kingdom of heaven.
It’s not just riches that can get in the way of heaven. Indeed, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). But any of God’s greatest gifts can be and often are used by Satan as his greatest temptations and most powerful idols. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me” (Mt 10:37) shows that parents, children, and spouses can become idols. How many people forego church because of their family members? How many leave a church where God’s Word is properly taught to join a church that errs in some doctrine because they want their kids to have a “better” youth group (better meaning more entertaining, even though they're not actually getting the truth)?
The Gospel account of the rich man serves as a narrative example of our Epistle’s warning to all believers: “Let us [all of us!] therefore strive to enter that rest” (Heb 4:11) and, as was urged earlier in this same Letter to the Hebrews, to “exhort one another every day . . . that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:13)—any sin.
The problem doesn't lie with money. The problem is in our hearts. The problem is sin that makes money a false god in your life. The problem is sin that makes even the greatest act of generosity into a selfish, self-serving one. No set of principles for ‘Christian’ money management can fix that problem. And not having wealth doesn’t eliminate the problem. The sin is still there making it just as hard for those who are not wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.
Don’t be fooled by what we do here. Absolutely don’t be fooled if it looks simple or easy. When we warn sinners to strive to enter the kingdom of God, to honor and obey God, to love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself, we are asking the impossible. Rich or poor, no matter who you are, you can not do it as you should.
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” For us, it’s not just difficult; it can’t happen. But with God, nothing shall be impossible.
Here's the thing: a lot of what we do is easy, at least outwardly. And especially compared to the effects that God promises it will have. Think of how simple what we do is— let's take just one: baptism— think of how simple baptism is compared to what a heart surgeon or a brain surgeon does on a daily basis. Which is simpler? Baptism. Which promises to do greater things in you? Baptism.
Could anything be simpler than sprinkling with water? In fact, do you know why we just sprinkle instead of baptizing by full immersion? To emphasize the fact that it isn't us doing the work. Going all the way under water and coming back out would be a much better symbol of what's happening: your sinful nature is being drowned and you are given a new life. The Bible calls what happens in baptism being born again. Actually going into the water and coming back out is a better picture of what's happening. We don't do it that way because sprinkling with water emphasizes that the power of baptism is not in us, or in the water, but in God's promise to kill you and raise you again-- to make you born again-- by that water.
Why do we baptize infants? It does seem absurd if you think about it. They have no idea what’s going on. If you don’t have a certificate or witnesses in the form of Godparents or some other memento from the day you’d have no idea if you were baptized or not. It would take a miracle for the baptism of an infant to actually accomplish anything. And that’s the point. With man it’s impossible for that to be anything but a really bad, halfhearted washing. With God it is that baby being born again.
Are you willing to believe in the impossible? What we do would be laughably simple if it weren't for the amazing effects God promises. The Gospel is the Good News that God does the impossible for you. He paid the price that was impossible for you to pay. He paid for your sin, my sin, the sin of the whole world. No mere mortal could do that-- even for himself. But with God all things are possible. God became man so that you and I might be saved. In Jesus, God died for you. The impossible is possible with God. Indeed, he and he alone opens stony hearts to believe. He truly can make a camel go through the eye of a needle. Whether you are rich or poor, by faith you are saved-- and even that faith is not from you. It is the gift of God, given to you in baptism, sustained in you by His word and by Holy Communion. We confess this truth whenever we say with Luther in the Small Catechism, “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” Not only your salvation but also your conversion is all God’s doing. God doing the impossible.
No, the church wasn't built upon your offerings (nor is it the responsibility of those rich people to support the church. That's part of the vocation of every Christian-- to support the ministry of word and sacrament in proportion to what God has blessed you with). God has built His church with water and words and bread and wine.
I suppose that today is the day, that this reading is the opportunity, to lecture you on how you handle your money like a good Christian. How to carve out space in your budget to give a percentage back to God like He says you should. To stop wasting money on that morning coffee that could go to building God’s kingdom. It would be particularly easy for me because there’s no Starbucks between here and the parsonage. But that’s not the lesson here.
Remember what I said, the problem doesn’t lie with money (or the lack thereof). The problem lies in your heart and mine. Does God want the money that He has blessed you with to be used to build His kingdom? Absolutely! And He does it, not by sanctifying the money, but by sanctifying you— making you Holy. Christian stewardship— just like every other part of our lives— starts right here at this font, pulpit, and communion rail where God sends His Holy Spirit to create in you a clean heart and make you new. Then He sends you out to serve Him by loving and serving your spouse, your children, your parents, your neighbors, whoever else He brings into your life. The question isn’t whether or not the Bible says you’re allowed to buy that morning cup of coffee. The question is whether or not that cup of coffee helps you love and serve neighbor. If the answer is yes, then praise God and pass the cream and sugar! Obviously I’m joking: I drink my coffee black. But the point remains: God sanctifies your money by doing the impossible, gathering you into His kingdom, to serve Him with everything you have and everything you are.
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man— or you or I— to enter the kingdom of God. Thankfully we serve a God who delights in doing the impossible, whether that’s giving an infant new birth by water and His Word or by helping you love and serve your neighbor without the aid of coffee. If it helps keep the focus on His power and what He continues to do among us I’ll be happy to become the biggest screwup you’ve ever known. In the meantime, trust these simple means that God uses to do the impossible in you.