A Sermon for the Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost
October 11, 2015
(Job 23.1-9,16-17; Psalm 22.1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31)
One night I dreamed a dream.
As I was walking along the beach with my Lord.
Across the dark sky flashed scenes from my life.
For each scene, I noticed two sets of footprints in the sand,
One belonging to me and one to my Lord.
After the last scene of my life flashed before me,
I looked back at the footprints in the sand.
I noticed that at many times along the path of my life,
especially at the very lowest and saddest times,
there was only one set of footprints.
This really troubled me, so I asked the Lord about it.
“Lord, you said once I decided to follow you,
You’d walk with me all the way.
But I noticed that during the saddest and most troublesome times of my life,
there was only one set of footprints.
I don’t understand why, when I needed You the most, You would leave me.”
He whispered, “My precious child, I love you and will never leave you
Never, ever, during your trials and testings.
When you saw only one set of footprints,
It was then that I carried you.”
– Mary Stevenson
Sometimes God is hidden. And so we search.
Finding God, however, seems far beyond our capability. Job, and indeed this morning’s uncomfortable psalm – the same one Jesus made his own – are reminders that there are times when God is hard to find.
Such times are real, difficult, and call us to a deeper trust.
Sometimes God is hidden. God, however, is never inactive. God is always there.
Our gospel reading begins, promisingly, with a man kneeling before Jesus. His desperation is revealed only as we realise how unaccustomed this wealthy man is to bowing. Has he been nervously searching for a more dignified and private audience with Jesus? Has he left his concern to the last moment and only now, as he sees Jesus preparing to leave, found the courage to cast himself and his question before the Messiah?
‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’
We are left to ponder motive: Does he know a guilt he cannot shake? Does he doubt his worthiness before God? Is there reason to believe death is close? Is God somehow ‘hidden’ from him?
Jesus lists aspects of Moses law but there is no confession. Before the Jewish code this man – not unlike Job – claims innocence. He has always known and obeyed.
Then we read that Jesus ‘…looking at him, loved him…’. It is so personal. Our narrator wants the reader to be sure that Jesus speaks out of love.
This needs to be emphasised for what Jesus is about to say could easily be construed otherwise: ‘Go…sell…give…follow’. This prescription is so unexpected we are told the man went into shock. He left in grief.
God’s love does not always offer the easy road.
Jesus’ disciples heard these words just as harshly. They were ‘perplexed’ and ‘greatly astounded’. Their question, ‘Then who can be saved?’, highlights their deeply held belief that riches were only advantageous in the spiritual life.
After all those with money have all the opportunities: leisure, education, power. If anyone has the time and knowledge to access and obey Moses’ law it is surely those for whom the day-to-day is accounted for.
But Jesus does not see things this way. For him this man is bound, not free. So much so that Jesus describes the parting of man and money in terms of the challenges associated with threading a camel through the eye of a needle. To be sure, this is a linguistic exercise in hyperbole, contrast and, quite likely, humour. But then Jesus confirms their dire interpretation: for mortals such parting is ‘impossible’.
But not for God.
Indeed, as Peter considers Jesus’ words he realises that the impossible – and more – has happened. What this man with all his apparent advantages could not (as yet) do, they have done. They have left everything.
The camel has threaded the needle among them – and they did not even recognise it!
But Jesus did. He can list the sacrifices they have made: relationships, possessions. A generous reward is coming their way: a hundredfold – accompanied by both persecution and that elusive hope of the kneeling rich man: theirs will be ‘eternal life’.
It does not come easily. Perhaps Jesus’ reiteration of the reordered kingdom introduces a needed sobriety: the disciples only look like the first. We are left wondering in what way they will be last.
It reminds us that there are times we not only wonder where God is. There are also times that we are hidden from ourselves.
The writer of the magnificent ‘Letter to the Hebrews’ touches on two sources of help for such blind eyes: the ‘word of God’ and Jesus himself.
I suspect Jesus’ rich inquirer would understand. This speaking God peered into his heart and with such love and generosity, judged rightly and perceptively. This man is not ‘hidden’. Before Jesus he is found.
Jesus’ penetrating words open new possibilities for self-assessment. They also cause some grief. They are not, however, cruel and vengeful.
Anything but…they extend from a heart of love. Our passage from Hebrews describes it this way: ‘…we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathise with our weakness, but we have one who in every way has been tested/tempted as we are, yet without sin.’
And then there is the logical conclusion: ‘Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.’
Grace and mercy in time of need: a carrying God, indeed.