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Worship Theme: Secret greed destroys selfless love.
Sermon Theme: Without Him You Don’t Have a Thing
It happened on and, I suppose, it happened in the icy waters of the Arctic Ocean. The year was 1845. Veteran British sailor Sir John Franklin led his crew on an expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, a way to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by navigating the icy waters in north of Canada. We don’t know the names of too many British sailing expeditions or the captains, but this one history remembers, because it ended badly, very badly.
Preparations were made for the voyage, but there were a lot of mistakes that were made. The preparations that were made were more suitable for spending a year at the Royal Navy Officers Club in England than for a year in the frigid north. The explorers made room on their ships for a large library, a hand organ, china place settings, cut glass wine goblets and sterling silver flatware, engraved with each officer’s initials and family crest. Hardly the kind of thing that you would consider a necessity for a sailing expedition. And those things were of little value to them when their ship became stuck in the ice.
Search parties found frozen clumps of the bodies of the men who had set off for help when their supplies ran out. One body was found wearing his fine blue cloth dress uniform, edged with silk braid. Good enough for a cool evening in England, but the dress of a fool on an Arctic expedition. Another body was found, with his dead frozen hands clinging to a set of sterling flatware. His body was quite easy to identify, with his initials and family crest engraved at the bottom of each piece in his hands! (Cited in David Garland, NIV Application Commentary on Mark, p. 408.)
I wish I were making that story up. How foolish to be more concerned with how you look than staying warm. How foolish to take the thing that’s shiny and attractive and leave behind the tools that could keep you alive. It’s a sad tale of what happens when people cling to earthly possessions and ignore matters that are immeasurably more important.
God tells us another story like that in our Gospel today. It’s about a man who held on to the shiny and sparkly wealth that he had accumulated and left behind his immeasurably more valuable Savior. He chose the things of this life instead of the One who could give him life eternal. Jesus was trying to teach him and he does in fact teach us today, that Without Him, You Don’t Have a Thing.
The main character in our story is not a villain. He is not an evil doing, two-timing thug. He doesn’t take advantage of others. He doesn’t live in open rebellion against the government. He is not a person that is so obviously bad that anyone would say that he had his pain coming. In fact, he was quite the opposite. He was an upright man. He seemed to have himself put together. He was a good citizen, a devoutly religious person, he apparently had lived a pretty good life. Yet he recognized that there was a void.
And so, he went to Jesus to try to fill that void. But he wasn’t approaching Jesus as Savior and Redeemer and friend of sinners. Instead, he approached Jesus as “Good Teacher.” He approached Jesus as his equal. He held his discussion with Jesus assuming that he could have a discussion with Jesus – good man to good man. And you see the problem there is two-fold. He was thinking way too much of himself and way too little of Jesus. He didn’t come to Jesus who could save him from his sin, because he wasn’t in search of a Savior. You can tell by the way he responds to the law that Jesus preaches. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” And how does he respond to Jesus’ summary of the law? “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” “Right, Jesus, but what else?” You can hear the self-righteousness in his voice from his very first question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He assumed all along that his actions were the ones that would get him into heaven. He assumed all long that he was the one who would make a difference, that he was the one that would have to fill that void in his life. And it is with that assumption that he stripped Jesus of his sole purpose for existence. It is with that assumption that he overinflated his own worth and severely downplayed the worth of Jesus.
And Jesus showed himself to be the Good Teacher and a loving Savior as well. He continued by gently exposing the man’s fatal flaw. 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.” And there was the flaw in the man’s life. He had no appreciation or desire to make God number one in his life. And that’s why the story comes to such a sad conclusion. At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. He thought he was rich, but he was missing the most important thing. He thought he had it all, but the reality was far from it. Without Him, he didn’t have a thing.
And we stand 2,000 years to the sideline and look down our noses at the rich young man and cast our own judgments and scorn. And the irony is that we look down on him because we have the same pride in our hearts that he had. We think ourselves to be better than he, but the sad reality is that we are exactly the same. We cling to our possessions all the same and we too refuse to give them up, even when Jesus asks. He asks for a generous portion of our income as a thanks offering, and yet we cling to the last penny and give him only what we think we can spare. He asks us to make some sacrifices in our lives so that the lives of those around us can be better, but we squander our wealth on things that don’t matter, and then have nothing left to help those in need. We cram our closets and our refrigerators and our garages till they can’t hold anything more, then we claim we have nothing left to give. We cling to our wealth just as much as the rich young man.
And the saddest similarity is the commandment that he broke is one that we break every day. It’s the first commandment that he refused to keep. You shall have no other gods and Luther explains it: We should fear love and trust in God above all things. We are hardly the model of First Commandment obedience, are we? We allow so much more than wealth to take a priority over God in our lives. Our busy schedules bumps God out of his number one place. Weekend recreation takes scheduling priority over public worship. Weekday busyness prevents us from having a Monday-Saturday relationship with Jesus and teaching our children to do the same. Sometimes it’s our own feelings that we foolishly make the most important thing in our lives. Greed, pride, idolatry, you name it, we are guilty. Jesus uses the example of a rich man because of the context of this story, but he could have just as easily filled in any of our many sins as he said: “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 someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.
And if you are picturing that, you see how impossible it would be. A camel simply cannot go through the eye of a needle. It’s impossible. It is just as true that a rich man, a prideful woman, a disobedient child, a disgruntled senior cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven on their own. For a sinner to stand before a holy God is just as impossible!
And then Jesus offers the reason for his lesson. With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” What we cannot do, God does! Like live a perfect life. What we cannot do, God does! Like put faith in our hearts. What we cannot do, God does! Like save a person and redeem the world from the hell that their sins deserve. What we cannot do, God does! We who are rich in greed and arrogance and weighed down in sin, have been washed clean by Jesus. We who cling to our wealth have been set free by the one who emptied himself to become our Savior. We who are so interested in being served ourselves, have been forgiven by the one who made his goal in life to serve others. We who think our lives are the most important, have been given real life by the one who gave his life for us on the cross. Jesus offered his life and shed his blood so that our sins could be erased. Jesus, left behind the riches of heaven, to come to a place where they would cast lots for his clothing and would lay him in a stranger’s tomb. Paul makes the point in 2 Corinthians, where he says “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).” But he didn’t stay in that tomb for long. Three days later, he rose from death and announced his victory over sin and death and the devil’s power. And through his poverty and through his love we are rich. We have the riches of his grace. We have the riches of his promises. We have the riches of his heaven as our true and lasting inheritance. There we will have joy forever in the rich glories of loving presence.
And now we can look at wealth in a different way. We can see the opportunity to use it to fear, love and trust in God above all things. We can use it as a way to say thank you for God’s glorious and forgiving grace. We can use it to honor him as we are generous with those around us, as we use it to provide for our families. We can use our wealth to give him a consistent a first-fruit offering, and we can be cheerful givers, not filled with fear or doubt, but trusting that the Lord will provide for us, and that he will be generous to those who are generous with him. Our wealth is not something we need cling to any longer, but rather it’s another tool that we can use to give God our worship and praise. It’s another way for us to live for him.
Martin Luther, once said, “I have held many things in my hands and I have lost them all; but whatever I placed in God’s hands, I still possess.” Take his advice. Recognize that there’s a lot of stuff in this world, but most of it makes almost no difference at all. Don’t cling to stuff; instead cling to what truly matters. Cling to Jesus and his life-giving Word. Cling to your opportunities to receive his sacrament. Cling to your God in prayer. Be greedy about your time with him; don’t let the busyness of life crowd out your time with your Lord. Recognize what truly matters. Cling to Jesus, because Without Him, You Don’t Have a Thing. Without him we have nothing, but with him at our side, we have everything. Rejoice, my friends, we are rich in Jesus. Amen.
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