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Possible and Impossible

October 21st 2012

Proper 24b – Mark 10: 23-31 – “Possible and Impossible” – October 21, 2012

“To Dream the Impossible Dream” is the most famous song from the musical “Man of La Mancha” The musical is based on the novel by Miguel Cervantes about a fifty-year-old Spanish gentleman, Alonso Quijana, who has read too many books about knights in shining armor and who decides to go off on a quest of his own under the name Don Quizote de la Mancha. The musical portrays him not so much as a fool but as a kind of noble, but unrealistic dreamer. He’s admired for dreaming an impossible dream, and being willing to “march into hell for a heavenly cause,” in the words of the song. And there is certainly something in us that admires a person who tackles seemingly impossible odds, the type of person who is driven to attempt to do what seems undoable: to break a speed record, go to the moon, build a railroad across a continent, discover a cure for a disease, sail around the world.

And when we see people like that who achieve such amazing technological, scientific, and personal breakthroughs we’re tempted to believe that there is nothing that humans can’t do. If we can send a man to the moon, then surely we can find a way to end war, hatred, poverty, crime, even death itself. So we look to experts: the scientists, sociologists, medical researchers, anthropologists, psychologists, politicians, and the latest self-help book authors for answers and cures for our persistent human woes. People see a broken world around them and inside them that needs to be repaired. Some sense that the problem goes deeper than technology. They sense that they and the world are not right with God. So they look for something they can do to make it right. There must be a way. It must be possible for them to do something to repair this breach with God. There must be an answer.

The rich young man we saw in last week’s sermon text came to Jesus asking similar questions. He wanted to know what he could do to be right with God and to gain eternal life. He claimed that from his youth he had already done everything written in the law. Was there anything left for him to do? Jesus told him to sell everything he had and give it to the poor and follow Him. The young man listened and then went away sorrowful. This was too much for him. Jesus was telling him to do what seemed impossible to him: to give away all his possessions and become an itinerant disciple.

In today’s text Jesus explained why the young man had such a difficulty with His demand. He said that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (25). The disciples were blown away. If a rich man, who was considered by the Jews to be especially blessed by God, could not enter the kingdom of God, who could? (26) Now they were asking the right question. Not, “What must be done to inherit the kingdom?”, but “Who can then inherit the kingdom?”

Jesus’ answer must have dismayed them even more. He said, “With man, it is impossible…” I wonder if Jesus put a dramatic pause here to let the words sink in before continuing with “but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” In other words, humans cannot by their own efforts enter the kingdom of God, no matter how heroic, no matter how courageous or noble or well-intentioned their efforts may be. Only Christ can repair the breach between God and man and bring us into His kingdom.

It is easy to misunderstand the meaning of what happened next in today’s sermon text. Peter, (the Don Quixote of the disciples), is always eager to tackle the impossible, to take on heroic actions like walking on water, promising to never abandon Jesus even if everyone else does, pledging even to die with Jesus. He seems not to have fully heard or understood what Jesus just said about the impossibility of humans working their way into heaven. Peter seems to be stuck thinking about the rich young man who wouldn’t give up everything. He says, “See, we have left everything and followed you.” Peter seems to be saying, “Remember that rich young man, master? He couldn’t do what you asked him to do, but we did.” Then Jesus tells him, “Yes, those who have left everything for My sake and the sake of the Gospel will have eternal life.” So Jesus first tells the disciples that it’s impossible for a person to enter the kingdom of God by his own works, but then Jesus says that those who have left everything for His sake will have eternal life. So which is it? Salvation by works or grace?

Jesus is not contradicting himself here. He’s talking cause and effect. He is talking about salvation by grace alone, and the fruits of that salvation, one of which is loosening our grip on material things. We are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world and defeats death by His perfect life, His death, and resurrection. This faith is the only way to salvation. No one has ever been saved by doing the law, for every work of a human being, except for Christ, is tainted by sin, the sin of Adam that clings to us to the grave. The law was not given to man to show him the path to salvation but to show him his sins, to curb his destructive appetites, and to show him God’s will for his life. It is not a road map to salvation. That way is truly impossible for us.

But you know we humans don’t like the word, “ impossible.” So, instead of just confessing our sins and falling upon the mercy of God, we take His good gifts of perseverance, courage, and ingenuity and use them to storm the gates of heaven, using our performance of the Law like a battering ram, proudly waving our resume of good works and demanding to be let in. Using the law this way is about as mad as Don Quixote “marching into hell for a heavenly cause” and with the same final destination.

Jesus was trying to show the rich young man just how mad the idea was of his being declared innocent before God by his works. But the young man didn’t seem to get it. It appears he was looking for an insider tip from a great spiritual master and instead got an impossible demand. The young man didn’t realize that what he needed for eternal life was forgiveness from God in the flesh, Jesus Christ, not a tip from a spiritual leader. And as confused and impetuous as Peter could be at times, he knew that Jesus was more than just a spiritual leader.

In Saint Luke’s gospel, chapter five, Saint Peter tells Jesus at their first meeting, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” (Luke 5:8) Peter knows how sinful he is. He knows that he doesn’t even deserve to be close to the holiness of Jesus. He knows he has nothing to offer Jesus, who has the power to do the humanly impossible, who with a word made Peter’s nets full of fish after Peter had fished all night without success. Does Jesus depart from this humbled man? No, as Psalm 51 says, “a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps 51:17). Jesus does not despise Peter. He calls him and his fishing partners, James and John, out of the waters of the Sea of Galilee to a new line of work, a new vocation, catching men now instead of fish, and He calls you and me out from the waters of Baptism to new lives, too. Peter and James and John, and the other nine disciples left their old lives behind and followed Jesus by faith. Now, as adopted children of God, we leave our old lives of slavery to sin behind and follow Jesus by faith, too.

That doesn’t mean that those God has called into His kingdom will never falter in the faith. Peter faltered many times. Instead of asking Jesus for strength to stand when tested, he boldly asserted that he would never desert Jesus. We know how that turned out. He fell asleep when Christ asked him to stay up with him at Gethsemane and within hours of Jesus’ arrest had denied him three times. But Christ does not despise the broken heart and did not despise Peter’s broken heart. The risen Christ forgave the broken Peter, gave His Holy Spirit to him, and told Peter the Coward that He would die Peter the Martyr to glorify God. (John 21:19). Now, through faith in Christ, it was possible for Peter to preach the Gospel to Jew and Gentile, to spread the Good News from Jerusalem, to all Judea, to Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, bringing God’s peace to those who believe in Christ. Now, through Christ’s forgiveness, His promise of eternal life, and with the constant guidance and encouragement of the Holy Spirit, it would be possible for Saint Peter, twenty-five years later in Rome, to do what had been seemed impossible for him to do on that first Maundy Thursday and Good Friday in Jerusalem; to confess Jesus and give up everything, his life included, for the sake of Christ and the gospel.

And for us, through the same profession of faith in Christ, it is possible to have peace with both God and our neighbor and to serve both. Now it is possible for us to do God’s will, his law, through Christ dwelling in us, and with the guidance and encouragement of the Holy Spirit.

Now, through faith in Christ, it is possible for us to have the certain hope of the resurrection to life everlasting. It’s now possible for us to look forward to the last day with hope and joy, instead of fear.

Now, through faith in Christ, it’s possible for us to be generous with the wealth God has given us--giving first and sacrificially to the Lord, not under compulsion but freely and cheerfully. We give our gifts of time, talent, and treasure in gratitude for all that we have received. If we are struggling with finances we may not be able to give a tenth of our income, but if we have great wealth we will be able to give much more than a tenth and still live comfortably and happily.

God has called all of us to different vocations in this life: husband, wife, son, daughter, father, mother, teacher, worker, citizen, soldier, official of the state, clergy, missionary, disciple. He placed us in these vocations so that we may serve our neighbor, and through our neighbor, God Himself. We have seen and heard how God has called the Reverend Heiney and his family to their vocation as missionaries in Guinea. He may call you to a life like that, too. But to whatever vocation God may call you in the future, He calls all Christians now to help spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those around them, whether here in Olathe or in Africa, to be lights shining with Jesus’ love in a sin-darkened world. One of the ways we do that is through supporting the work of the church and her missionaries throughout the United States and the whole world, with prayer and material support.

You see, you and I are the brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers of the Heineys and all who have given up so much for the sake of the Gospel, because we brothers and sisters of Christ live in the joy of the promises of Him who gave up everything for us. Jesus is talking about us in today’s sermon text. Isn’t that amazing? Is that possible? You know the answer. Amen.

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