Sermon for October 14th, 2018
You lack one thing.
That is what Jesus said to the man with many possessions: You lack one thing.
We don’t know much about this man. We know that he was a good man by most standards; he kept the commandments, or at least he says that he did. I suspect that he probably has broken some here and there. I am inclined to think that anyone who says they’ve never done anything wrong is either Jesus or delusional. But still, this man, he’s probably a decent human being. He’s very respectful to Jesus as a good teacher; he’s humble and kneels before him. We know that he has been somewhat successful in life, because he has many possessions. And we know that Jesus loves him. The bible tells us so.
But despite all of that we also know that something is missing in his life. This man lacks one thing. Deep down I suspect that he knows it. Why else would he go running up to Jesus asking him what he must do to inherit eternal life? If he had been confident that he had it all and had it all worked out, he wouldn’t have gone chasing after this Jesus. But he does. Something inside him keeps telling him that there is more. There is more to be had; there is more to be done. There is something missing in his life and his soul is restless until he can find it. There is a hole in his life that he is looking to fill.
Now I suspect that this man has been trying to find this one thing that he lacks for a very long time. Fortunately for him, he has been somewhat successful in life. He has had the luxury of seeking fulfillment in things. He has the money and the means to acquire possessions. Other, less fortunate, souls might have had to try to fill the hole with food, or wine, or drugs, or sex, or violence; but not this man, he has the great fortune of having wealth. And with that wealth he has tried to fill the void in his life; he’s gotten pretty good at it, but deep down, something is still missing. There is one thing he lacks: a living relationship with God.
Now make no mistake, this man has a relationship with the law; he has a relationship with the teachings of God; with the commandments. And by his account it is a good relationship; he says he’s never broken them, but I can’t help wondering: what if he’s not quite right about that? What if his relationship with God’s law isn’t as pristine as he makes it out to be? It seems to me that this man has two options: either he can try to convince himself that he has the power, the skill, the resources and the righteousness to achieve eternal life on his own (he can try to convince himself that he is good), or he can admit that forgiveness, salvation and eternal life are things that he cannot attain by himself; they are things that he can only receive as a gift. He can admit that only God can fill that empty space in his soul through an act of mercy.
This man wants a teacher, but what he needs is a savior. He wants a God that he can own just like all of his other possessions, not a God that owns him. He wants eternal life, but he is so used to being in control of his earthly life that he thinks the Kingdom of God is something that he will attain by his good choices. He says: “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” What must I do? He thinks that eternal life is something that he is going to win for himself. He can’t imagine that it is something that is going to be given to him as a gift, because of something that God did in Jesus Christ. He still thinks that he can save himself.
And here’s the saddest part of this story: this man walks away from Jesus. He only lacks one thing. It is the thing that he has been searching for his whole life. It is the hole that he has been trying to fill through good works and through material possessions. Here it is at last right in front of him, and he can’t have it, because it isn’t something he can buy, and it isn’t something he can do. It is someone that he must follow. It is a gift that he must be able to receive. It’s not a teacher; it’s a savior.
People hear this story and they get caught up on Jesus asking the man to give away his money and possessions, they get hung up on that, but I don’t think that is the hardest thing that Jesus asks this man to give up. Jesus is also asking this man to give up his sense of self-righteousness. He’s asking him to give up control over his life. He’s asking him to give up on the idea that he can save himself. Those things are even harder to let go of than money.
Even in church, I can’t tell you how often I hear Christians talking about what we doing in the world and how we are following God’s commandments and doing all this work to build God’s Kingdom, and not talking about what God has done for us. You think it’s hard to get people to let go of their money? Try getting them to let go of their self-righteousness. It is hard to get people to let go of money and possessions, but it is even harder to get them to let go of trying to save themselves.
But if you can, if you can let go of trying to save yourself, letting go of everything else gets a lot easier. When you realize that the god-shaped hole in your life can only be filled by a relationship with God, trying to fill it with more stuff becomes less tempting. When you realize that the size of your bank account doesn’t impress Jesus as much as how you live your life and how closely you follow him, then it becomes easier to invest in the things that really matter. When you realize that salvation comes from God alone, trying to hold on to anything but God seems really pointless. When you realize and accept that only God is truly good, then you will realize that all that self-righteous talk is just a bunch of hot air.
Our life as Christians is meant to be a response to what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. A response. We cannot buy eternal life, or buy our salvation, or buy goodness. We can only respond to what God has already done for us and to Jesus’s call to follow him. I expect that that response will mean that we will feel called to leave some things behind in this world. I expect that we will want to follow God’s commandments as best we can, not because we think we are all that good, but because he has shown such love to us that he will forgive us, even when we break them. I expect that we will feel called to let go of some of our stuff too, including yes, our money. I expect that we will willingly and gladly sacrifice from our own goods and possessions, because we will recognize the supreme and ultimate value of his sacrifice. We have seen the goodness of God. Now our life of faith is meant to be a response to that. We have found the one thing we lack and it isn’t a teacher, it’s a savior.
Is it hard to follow Jesus and let go of your self-righteousness, and your control, and even your possessions? You bet. But entering the Kingdom of God on your own…well, that’s impossible.