Mission Impossible

Scriptures: Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7; Mark 10:23-27

I’m going to hum the line of a theme song, and I want somebody to tell me what TV show it was. [Hums.] Yes, Mission Impossible. Most kids these days only know the movies with Tom Cruise.

But we all knew the TV show, when every week, there would be Peter Graves, and there would be that tape, and it would say, “Your mission, should you choose to accept it…” Then they would use some remarkable hardware, spy gear, a really intricate plan, and somehow they’d always manage to do the “mission impossible” every week.

Well, as I read this passage today, I couldn’t help but think of that old TV show. This was a mission impossible that the young man came to Jesus with. Some translations say a rich young ruler, others say just a rich young man.

So I wanted to look at some of the aspects of this story, so we can understand why it was impossible, what he was trying to do, and what Jesus’ answer was.

So who is this young guy, really? Well, he was everything a Jew strove to be. He was educated – we know that. Both in the Law, and elsewhere. He was zealous, as far as the Law. We don’t know that he kept all 613 like a Pharisee, but he certainly kept the Commandments. At least he declared that he did.

He was concerned with what was good. He was concerned with eternal life. When he comes to Jesus, and he says, “Good Teacher” – and most scholars agree that he was probably sucking up a little bit, but he was being politic, how’s that? And showing his eruditeness. He said, “What good thing must I do?

He was wealthy, which for the Jews meant blessed by God. Remember, God would bless those who blessed Him and curse those Him, and one of the signs of that blessing was wealth and prosperity.

It’s one of the reasons why, in the book of Job, when God gave permission to Satan and Satan went and took everything away, Job’s friends, trying to be friends, but missing the boat entirely, after they had sat seven days with him with ashes in their hair and tearing their clothing with Job, when he lost everything, turned to him and said, “OK, what sin have you committed?”

Because they were sure that this disaster and calamity had come because he had somehow sinned against God. And of course Job’s argument for the entire book is “I didn’t do anything. I didn’t do anything wrong.” So the Jews thought that wealth and prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing.

Now let me tell you some things that were there as well, or that I believe were there, that the disciples, and those with Jesus at that time may not have seen. They saw an educated, zealous, blessed young man.

But let me put it to you that he was also arrogant, or had overweening pride. It’s one thing to take pride in your accomplishments or take pride in a job well done, to recognize the fact that you have done well, and take joy in the masterwork, for those of you that have ever crafted things.

But it’s another thing to be so proud of your own achievements that you think you can do everything yourself. He seemed to feel he could get into heaven on his own. “What good thing must I do to get to heaven?”

He was, perhaps, greedy. And if not, he was definitely ruled by his possessions. I would put it to you to remember, for us, it isn’t having possessions that is a problem. It is being ruled by them. We must hold lightly to the things of this earth.

If we spend more time caring about what we “own” – I put that in quotes because we’re supposed to be stewards – and taking pride in those things, and showing off those things and trying to gain status because of those things, then we have an incorrect perspective on wealth, and we need to learn otherwise.

It’s OK to make money and to have good things. God promised us good things. It’s not OK to place them before God. This is, in the end, what the rich young ruler did, as he walked away, sad, because he was very wealthy.

There’s an illustration I want to share with you, that was in a book called Holy Humor. It’s a story of two men. When they were young and they were in college, I think it was, they made a pact with each other, that they would tithe – give ten percent of whatever they made to God, always, faithfully, and they would hold each other accountable.

One of them went on to be a businessman, and one of them went on to be a pastor. The one who went on to be a businessman continued to tithe through the years, as he made an average of ten thousand dollars a year, then a hundred thousand dollars a year.

Then he made a million dollars in a year, and he wrote to his friend, who was now a pastor, and he asked for his friend to release him from his vow. Because, I mean, a hundred thousand dollars a year, that’s just so much money. His friend said he’s pray about it.

So a couple of weeks went by, and the businessman contacted his friend again and said, “So, have you been praying about it?” And he said, “Oh, I’ve been praying.” The man said, “Have you decided to release me from my vow?”

He said, “No, I haven’t been praying about that. You made that vow before God.” He said, “Then what have you been praying for?” And he said, “I’ve been praying that you go back to making only a hundred thousand dollars a year, so there’s no problem with tithing on it.”

It always seems like there’s some point in our life where the money we have begins to control us.

As the young man went away, Jesus loved him, but let him go. Like the message in the show – you know, the message that self-destructed after ten seconds – you couldn’t go back and change your mind. You couldn’t go back and say, “Wait a minute, let me listen to that one again, and think about it.”

The young man made his choice when faced by the Christ himself. Now, Jesus letting him go bothered the disciples. Because they saw only the first half of what we already talked about. So they questioned Jesus.

He made one of his most famous sayings, talking about how hard it is for someone who is wealthy to get into heaven, that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to get into heaven.

Now, this is one of these sayings that has not only been famous but people have struggled with throughout the centuries. There are interpretations about what this may mean in terms of the eye of the needle and what he may have been referring to.

One of the stories, that I actually adhered to for a long time, is that there was, in the wall of Jerusalem, that Jesus was referring to, a gate. There was a secondary gate in the wall of Jerusalem for after hours. It’s what we call a man-door. It was no bigger than a man.

In order to get in, a camel would have to be stripped of everything that it was wearing, its gear, all the moneybags, if the merchant wanted to get in, and go in on its knees. So therefore no merchant could bring in any arms or anything like that, in the night.

It’s a wonderful story. The problem is, it’s not true. There was no Eye of the Needle Gate. There is now, but it was built in the nineteenth century, and we know that for a fact. A Russian Orthodox church, that was up against the wall, actually built it.

So, as appealing as that is, that wasn’t what the story was. And the fact of the matter is, as one commentator pointed out, that story has an inherent flaw in it, that it’s as hard for a rich man to get into heaven as it is for a camel to get through the Eye of the Needle. He could still do it himself.

You just have to divest yourself of everything. Which, by the way, is pretty much what a lot of religions teach – Buddhist, and things like that – if you simply let go of everything of this world, then you will achieve enlightenment, or heaven. So that has some inherent fallacies.

Some folks have looked at the translation of the Greek word, and think it was mistranslated and actually the word for camel could mean rope. The ropes we’re talking about, they were frequently made of camel hair.

So he was saying it’s hard to get a rope – think about a rope that’s used by seamen, for instance – and try to push that through the eye of a sewing needle, which is what the word for needle is (except in Luke, and there it’s a surgical needle, which is even finer). That would be pretty much impossible too.

But what if Jesus meant just what he said? What if he meant that it is harder to get into heaven for a wealthy man than it is for a camel, an actual camel, to get through the eye of a needle? Well, you sit there and say, well, that just doesn’t make sense, that’s just so preposterous.

Well, there was a midrash – that is, a rabbinical saying – from the Exilic times, when they were out in Babylon, that said that, in order to describe something as impossible, that that is like trying to get an elephant through the eye of a needle.

Now, the disciples and those in Capernaum and Galilee probably would have never seen an elephant, and probably didn’t know what an elephant was. They did know a camel. And they would have known that midrash saying, and understood Jesus to be saying that it’s preposterous.

It is impossible – Mission Impossible – for a wealthy man, on his own, to get into the kingdom of heaven. It would be like trying to push a camel through the eye of a sewing needle.

And they were dismayed. They were upset. They said, “Well, then how can anybody be saved?” Remember, for them, as Jews, prior to Christ, it was the fulfilling of the Law that got one into heaven. It was being shown to be blessed by God that was a sign that you were going to heaven.

But Jesus was saying the Law was not the vehicle for getting to heaven. And in many ways, this turned their world upside down. They were confused, for if not the Law, then what? What we seem to have is a Mission Impossible, even as the disciples noted.

How can anybody get to heaven? How can anybody see God? Well, Jesus gave them hope. He said, “With God all things are possible.” You know, Paul, later on, in Philippians, says, “I can do all things through Christ who lives within me.”

With God, through Christ, all things are possible. Salvation and victorious living. But it requires two things. The first one is actually the easier of the two, and that is accepting Jesus Christ as Savior.

There is no way to get to heaven except through Jesus Christ and his sacrifice on the cross. There is no way to get to heaven and to see God face-to-face, and joy in eternity, unless you make the decision to Christ as doing, out of love for you, what you cannot, cannot do for yourself. And that’s the easy part.

The second part if making Christ Lord of your life, Savior and Lord. As noted by the disciples, Peter in particular, it requires sacrifice. And it requires letting go of the things of this earth which control us.

There was an acronym that somebody gave in my readings, that I liked, and it spells the word FAITH, and I’m going to give it to you. FAITH: the F is for the word Forsaking; the A is for the word All; the I is I; the letter T stands for the word Trust; and the letter H is for Him. So, “forsaking all, I trust Him.”

That’s what it requires, to live a life that has Christ as Lord. We must learn not to be ruled by our “stuff,” but also not by our jobs, our selfish desires, and certainly not our desire to be in total control of our lives.

I’ve never met anyone who likes feeling like they have no control in their lives. We must trust in Jesus/ He came that we might live an abundant, full life. It says in our catechism that our purpose is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. This should be our focus.

We do that, I believe, as we, first of all, spend time daily in prayer, seeking God’s wisdom and direction for our own lives, and not just interceding for others. Intercession for others is very important. We do it when we pray every Sunday, during the Prayers of the People.

But it’s also critical for us to pray for God’s wisdom and guidance for us. Too often we feel, “Well, I know what I need to do. They just need some help.” We all need help, each and every day. And you get that daily as you spend time in prayer. Study His Word. It is how we get to know God and recognize His voice.

This can’t be done by just Sunday worship, though it certainly helps. We must read each day, and take opportunities to study, like Sunday School, like the Bible studies – not just the ones here at the church, but I’ve known people that have had small group Bible studies elsewhere, that they are part of.

In our Lord’s Prayer, we talk about “give us this day our daily bread.” It does speak, I believe, of food that we eat, helping to nourish us and provide for us. But I also think that it’s talking about the Word of God. Jesus himself said, in the desert, that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God. Daily, you need to read His Word and study it.

Third, we need to train our hearts and minds, building character as we publicly serve Him through the church and other missions, and witness to His goodness and grace with our own joy, our own telling of the Gospel truth, and our dealings with each other.

We build character as we do things out of the sight of other people, being faithful in what God calls us to do. Then we witness to God’s goodness as we interact with other people, and how we act in the presence of other people, how we care for each other, how we reach out in love, how we show mercy, and yet how we stand up for the truth. All these things train us and help us to follow Jesus as Lord of our lives.

So it turns out that the Mission Impossible is only impossible if we try to do it on our own. We need to take God with us. We need to have God within us. And if we accept Christ as Savior and we truly make Him Lord, and we take the steps to be able to follow Him faithfully, then He has promised He will provide us with everything we need.

And we will live an abundant life, and we will have the joy and hope of an eternal future with Him. And that theme song from Mission Impossible need never be played.

In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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