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Sunday, October 19, 2014

The Eye of a Needle (Matthew 19.16-26)

Sermon by: Robert Austell - October 19, 2014
Text: Matthew 19:16-26

:: Sermon Audio (link) - scroll down for written draft  
Click link to open and play in browser; right-click to save. Sermon audio is also accessible as a free podcast in iTunes. Search for "Good Shepherd Sermons" or "Robert Austell." 

:: Some Music Used
Gathering Music: Kelsey Gilsdorf, piano
Video: Thoughts on Worship (favorite hymn/song) - feat. "Amazing Grace" arr. by Rick Bean

Hymn of Praise: "Come Thou Fount/We'll Feast" (EBENEZER; ref. by Robert Austell)
Song of Praise: "Here I am to Worship" (Tim Hughes)
Song of Confession: "We Fall Down" (Chris Tomlin)
Song of Dedication: "Take My Life/Here Am I" (Chris Tomlin, Louie Giglio"
Hymn of Sending: "Here I Am, Lord" (Schutte)
Postlude: Kelsey Gilsdorf, piano

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf)  
This "manuscript" represents an early draft of the sermon. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided for that purpose.
16 And someone came to Him and said, “Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may obtain eternal life?” 17 And He said to him, “Why are you asking Me about what is good? There is only One who is good; but if you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 Then he said to Him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “You shall not commit murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; 19 Honor your father and mother; and You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to Him, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” 22 But when the young man heard this statement, he went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property. 23 And Jesus said to His disciples, “Truly I say to you, it is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 “Again I say to you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 25 When the disciples heard this, they were very astonished and said, “Then who can be saved?” 26 And looking at them Jesus said to them, “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:16-26)
We have been talking for several weeks about discipleship, or following Jesus.  We’ve been identifying some of the key requirements of following Jesus, including 1) counting the cost; 2) making Jesus first priority; 3) actually following; and 4) realizing that Jesus is worth following.  This week we ask specifically, “What will it cost me?”  Today’s text provides one set of challenging answers to that question, focusing on what we must let go of in order to follow.

Go, Sell, and Give

A man comes to Jesus having led a very good life in terms of God’s Law.  He is religious and has kept the commandments.  He’s a good man, as good is generally understood to be defined, but he comes to ask Jesus if there is not one more good thing that he may be missing.  And Jesus doesn’t fail him.  He tells the man to let go of his riches in order to receive treasure in Heaven.  And the man goes away disappointed, for he owned much.

I want to take two passes at Jesus’ response here.  In both cases, note the verbs – the imperative, action verbs.  They are all in verse 21 and there are five of them: GO, SELL, GIVE, COME, FOLLOW.

I often focus on the last two: come and follow.  But look, in order to come and follow, sometimes (maybe all the time), we must give something up and give something away.

In this man’s case, it was money and possessions.  He was rich, and Jesus knew that his attachment to his possessions were in the way of his complete devotion and obedience to God.  And so, Jesus issued the invitation.  It’s not supposed to be comfortable or casual.  Remember the last few weeks?  It costs something.  And in this man’s case, it cost too much. 

Here Jesus says to sell and give away possessions in order to receive treasure in heaven.  Did you hear the Call to Worship today (Matthew 16:24-26)?  What is a soul worth?  Is it worth hanging on to earthly stuff to risk losing your eternal soul?  Jesus’ counsel sounded like a bad deal, but it was exactly what the man needed to hear.  It was truth, spoken in love. 

The question this passage always brings to my mind is this: “Do I have to give away everything I own in order to be a Christian?” 

The short answer to that is, “Yes, if that’s what Christ asks of you; then yes.”  And if that is hard to hear it gets harder before it gets any easier!

Digging Deeper

In the broader context of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship, money and possessions are not the only things that can stand in the way of following Jesus.  It’s just the specific example here.  And this is where this gets harder.  For some, the thought of selling everything, giving it to the poor, and following Jesus is the hardest thing you can imagine.  For others, it’s conceivable… or at least being very, very generous with money, property, and things. 

But Jesus isn’t speaking against wealth.  He is speaking against greed, covetousness, and idolatry.  To “translate” those three into everyday language, he is speaking against holding on to my stuff, wanting your stuff, and putting something before God.  Jesus recognized that one of the biggest spiritual obstacles for the wealthy is wealth.  But the application is far deeper and more personal than that.

Jesus says GO and SELL to anything that we hold closer than him.  It might be our wealth; it might be our addictions or appetites; it might be our habits and sinful behaviors; it might be our time.  We hang on to destructive behavior because it gives us a sense of control rather than yielding control to the Lord of the universe.  We give God an hour or two a week, and begrudge Him even that.  We give to the church and to charities, but do so out of duty or for the tax break; when was the last time you delightfully just gave it away and felt the freedom of letting it go?

Jesus goes on to say GIVE to the poor – that is, love neighbor more than self.  And he ends with COME and FOLLOW.  Here he lays out the pattern for the Christian life.  We must be stripped bare of everything that encumbers us and trips us up.  We must look away from self to those around us.  And we must follow closely after Jesus.

Sound hard?  … maybe even impossible?  Jesus makes an apt comparison – ludicrous, but then so is what he’s asking of us!  It would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to give his wealth away.  Surely, it would also be easier for the camel than to give up an extra hour of sleep to come pray on Tuesday mornings; or to give up eating breakfast out in order to support God’s work in our neighborhood.  Personally, I’ll give up the money, but don’t ask me to give up my comfort or habits or entertainment!  You can send that camel packing!

The Impossible Question

In studying this text I read that it was commonly believed in Jesus’ day that being rich was a sign of God’s blessing.  (I think we buy into that pretty much in our time, too!)  This explains why the disciples were so dumfounded at Jesus’ teaching here.  They ask in verse 25, “Then who can be saved?” 

I’ve found myself asking that of God when I study passages like this.  Honestly, I just want my Christianity to be like any number of other things in life: I’d like a moderate degree of “success” with the least effort possible.  We can pull off American Christianity with that mentality; but we can’t be Jesus-followers the way Jesus defined it. 

And the disciples are right.  Who can do that? The answer is no one can, except with God’s help.  Jesus acknowledged this very thing in verse 26: “With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 

How does this square with our experience?  Here’s what I can tell you…

Being a Christian isn’t a casual thing; it is an all-or-nothing, stake your life on it, take up your cross and let go of the rest thing.  That’s how Jesus defines it and that’s what he is calling you and me to when he says, “Come, follow me.”

For a very few people, the transformation from unbeliever to believer is sudden, drastic, and a complete overhaul of their life.  The folks I’ve known who have had this experience are usually pretty much at the end of their rope when they meet Jesus, and the taking up and letting go is a no-brainer.

For many of us who have grown up in the church, the transformation to the kind of follower Jesus describes here is slow, halting, and full of resistance on our part.  In this sense, we greatly resemble the rich man in the story, whether “our thing” is possessions or something else we cling to.  Nonetheless, with God all things are possible.  And if we are believers, God is at work in us already!  So God uses the Holy Spirit, the teaching of His Word, the encouragement and accountability of the church and Christian family, and the clear calling of Christ to peel away the stuff we tend to accumulate around our souls.  In these ways God calls out to us: GO, SELL, GIVE, COME, and FOLLOW.

Taking Up and Letting Go

The discipleship question for today is “What will it cost me?”  The answer is anything and everything that stands between you and God.  You know what that is more than I do.  It’s probably the thing that comes to mind if you’re hoping, “I hope he doesn’t name that.”  And this is why it is such good news that God sent His son to seek and save the lost.  If we were left to our own devices to find God, we’d have about as much hope as that camel.  But with God all things are possible. 

So I challenge and charge you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to let go of what keeps you from God.  If it’s everything all at once and God’s doing a real number on you, thanks be to God.  Or, if the Holy Spirit has put one thing on your mind that you need to lay down, I invite you to pray for God’s help to do so.

In order to take up Jesus’ calling and cross and follow him, we must lay down that which keeps us from God.  You are not in it alone, but have the supernatural help of God and His Holy Spirit; and you have the prayers, encouragement, and support of this church family.

I would invite you to pray now with me, and to seek accountability from someone here – a friend in Christ or an elder or me… I would gladly provide that for anyone here.  Let us pray…

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