Sunday, October 11, 2015

Sermon: Last and First

Grace Presbyterian Church
October 11, 2015, Ordinary 28B
Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

Last and First

So, did you hear about the Apocalypse this week?
No, I’m not kidding.
As has happened a number of times in the last few years, another obscure religious group came out of the woodwork with a prediction about the end of the world – in this case, this past Wednesday. In this case, the group was something called the eBible Fellowship, based in Philadelphia, and they put forth in pamphlet and video form (and an interview in the British newspaper The Guardian) that the world would face its end on Wednesday, although curiously, the leader of that group said he planned to go about his week as normal. It’s entirely possible, I suppose, that the whole thing was done tongue-in-cheek, but the group leader – while admitting that the October 7 prediction was clearly incorrect – still professes that the end will happen “soon.”
Since I don’t normally start putting my sermon in print until Thursday anyway, I don’t suppose this latest predicted demise affected my week that much either. But it did put me in mind of how often some group or preacher out there is coming forth with this day or that day for the end of the world. Perhaps most famously in recent years, the radio preacher Harold Camping got caught in error for having predicted the end of the world on May 21, 2011. Such fevered predictions date back to at least the nineteenth century in this country, when sometime preacher William Miller predicted that the world would end in 1843. These predictions, of course, seem rather ill-advised in the face of Jesus’s own words, in Mark 13:32: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the son, but only the Father.” And yet the predictions keep coming.
It seems at least in part that there are some people who insist on having “insider information.” They wish to claim secret knowledge, things that are not available to everybody, but are only revealed to or discernible by a select few, those who “read the Bible in your special ways,” and are obsessed with reading meanings into symbols and turning metaphors into lead-pipe cinch predictions. As the result of this obsession, these would-be scholars are bound and determined to put themselves first, ahead of their fellow followers of Jesus Christ, as if by their interpretation they are earning greater favor with God.
You see, there’s more than one way to put yourself first. Today’s reading from Mark focuses on another, or actually two other such ways of privileging oneself that get wrapped into one. Sometimes you hear the main character of this story called the “rich young ruler,” but Mark’s description doesn’t mention anything about his age or any kind of rule; the only description we get is that “he had many possessions.”
He asks Jesus what he must do to “inherit” – to κληρονομεω – eternal life. This is a rather interesting request; not how to “get,” or how to “earn,” or “to be blessed with” or any other construction we could imagine, but “to receive as an heir.” In that sense Jesus’s answer seems a little odd; after first engaging in some questioning about what it means to call Jesus “good,” he recites some of the familiar commandments, mostly from the “second half” of the Ten Commandments. It’s a list of things to do – or more precisely, in this case, not to do, with one exception. And in some ways it might seem like a low hurdle to surmount, but by this reference Jesus brings all of the law into play.
In that regard we might be surprised to hear the man proclaim that he has “kept all these since my youth,” but in Jewish thought of this time this wasn’t that shocking a thing to say; such devotion to keeping the law was the very animating premise of that group known as the Pharisees that has popped up on occasion in our journey through Mark. And you’ll also notice that Jesus doesn’t particularly seem to consider the claim that outlandish; no “oh, please, you cannot possibly have kept the Law that well” or any such retort. Jesus reacts, in fact, according to verse 21, with love. Jesus sees into this man and loves him.  As the author of Hebrews writes, we don’t turn for our salvation to a savior who doesn’t understand our needs and temptations and afflictions; we turn to Jesus, the “great high priest,” who knows all the temptations we’ve ever known. Jesus is not insensitive or unaware of the condition of this man’s heart.
But that love requires a hard answer, an answer that cuts right to the heart of what the man was lacking despite all his keeping of the law. And when he heard Jesus’s words, “he was shocked and went away grieving,” with those possessions weighing on his mind.
Now let’s be clear; this is not a story that is meant to be a blanket condemnation of rich people. Jesus loved the man, but he knew that the man’s attraction to his possessions – not the possessions themselves – were standing in the way of the man’s ability and willingness to follow Jesus. But the man wasn’t the only one shocked by Jesus’s words. Verse 24 describes the disciples as being “perplexed” by Jesus’s words, and verse 26 says they were “greatly astounded” at what Jesus says. You see, Jesus is having to teach his disciples yet again that human standards for status or power or influence simply don’t count for anything in the kingdom of God. The disciples, and probably most of Jesus’s audience, actually does assume that the man’s wealth probably did indicate that he was destined for eternal life. Jesus says that’s not enough, and that it may well get in the way.
Just as Jesus has had to challenge his disciples to welcome “the least of these” – children, the poor, those without any status in society, now Jesus has to get his disciples to understand that the rich and powerful are not deserving just by dint of their wealth.
We read later in the New Testament, in 1 Timothy 6:10, that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.” It seems, however, that it isn’t just those who have money who love it. We see it enough in our own time; we see so many who are besotted with rich people. I’m sure I’m not the only person here who remembers the TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, am I? We envy the rich, we want to take after the rich, we want to be approved of by the rich. Sometimes we even want to make the rich president.
But again, wealth or the attraction to it isn’t the only possible impediment out there, not the only thing the desire for which can impede our readiness to follow Jesus. I’ve already suggested that our desire to have special status or special knowledge can lead people astray. What about the desire for pleasure? Or the desire for comfort? The desire for strength or physical prowess, maybe (or should I not dare mention that in a town so taken with a particular sport that trades on that physical prowess so readily)? The desire for control, or power over others?
None of these things, except possibly that controlling others part, are particularly evil in and of themselves. But if our desire for them becomes an impediment to following Jesus at any cost, they are to us what possessions were to this man.
Even as Jesus says that “for God nothing is impossible,” it seems that good old Peter is starting to get concerned about just how hard it seems to be to enter the kingdom of God. After all, Jesus says plainly in Mark 10:24, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” Not just for the rich guy, but for anybody. Peter, knowing that at least he walked away from family and a decent fishing business to follow Jesus, begins to wonder out loud if it was all for nothing. Jesus provides a strange reassurance – a promise of blessing both for the now and for eternity, but a promise “with persecutions” – the world will not receive you kindly if you follow Jesus. And then the final blow: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
So, what of all our striving? Many who are first shall be last. The ones who accumulate and hoard the most shall be last. The one who dies with the most toys…shall be last. The one who claws and fights and gouges his way to the top against all those “losers”…shall be last. The one who crows about his or her own power or beauty or prowess…last. And the last shall be first.
But who are we? Are we willing to lose it all, whatever “it” is, for the sake of following Jesus? Or are we still trying to get to the top, to have it all, to know more than the next person or to have special status in some way? Are we too busy trying to be first to follow?
Dear Lord, deliver us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns: “Eternal God of Time” (N.P.); “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise” (PH 265); “Lord, You Have Come to the Lakeshore” (PH 377); “O Jesus, I Have Promised” (PH 388)

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