Text: Hebrews 3:12-19, Mark 10:17-22 W 19th Sunday after Pentecost
Faith for Today
In the name of him who calls us today to follow him, dear friends in Christ: I wonder … have you ever foolishly turned down what later turned out to be a golden opportunity? In this morning’s Gospel reading, we heard about a would-be disciple of Jesus who did just that: the rich young man. We’re told he came running up to Jesus, apparently because he was excited about the Lord and all the things he had heard about him. He was enthusiastic about meeting Jesus and it seems that he wanted to be involved in what he was doing. We see him kneeling in reverence before the Lord, obviously because he respected the authority of Jesus. And finally, that he asks the question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” shows that he looked to Jesus to give him the words that would lead to eternal life. All in all, it appears that up to this point at least, his heart was in the right place.
In response to his query, Jesus answers with the words of Moses: the holy Law of God, which promised to give life eternal to anyone who kept it whole and undefiled—though it’s interesting that Jesus restricts his answer to what we would call the Second Table of the Law, that is, the part that deals with our duties and responsibilities to other people. He doesn’t mention the First Table of the Law, Commandments one through three, which treat our obligations toward God. Even so, to our Lutheran ears so accustomed to hearing how we sin constantly in thought, word, and deed – not only in the evil we do, but also in the good we neglect to do – the rich young man’s response to Jesus sounds pretty presumptions. “What? Just keep the Commandments? Is that all? No problem. I’ve got that covered. I’ve been keeping the Law ever since I could walk.”
And perhaps it was the completely benighted ignorance about what God really demands in his holy Law that the young man’s response revealed …his cluelessness in matters of the spirit and his inability to honestly assess himself in the light of God’s Law, which caused our Lord to look on him with compassion and love. I rather think that must be it, because at one time or another he first met every one of us in exactly the same lost condition. True, this young man knew nothing; but at least he came to the right One for the answers – and with that Jesus can work. And we know that his work begins by showing sinners that they are under the wrath and judgment of God and therefore aren’t nearly as safe and secure as they like to think they are. To do that in this case, Jesus reveals to the young man a sin that he blind to; namely that his trust in worldly wealth far exceeds his trust in the Word and promises of God – which is to say that a false god of gold and silver has his primary devotion.
But just think about what Jesus is offering him when he tells him, “Sell what you have, give the money to the poor, and you shall lay up treasures in heaven; and come follow me.” What an opportunity. No, he wouldn’t have been one of the original twelve disciples, those slots were already taken; but he could very well have been part of the larger circle of seventy or so, all of whom were eye-witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, and all of whom went forth first sharing the Good News with a world hungry to hear it. For their faithful service and for the things they suffered in the cause of Christ, they will be counted among the greatest in the kingdom of God for all eternity. This rich young man could have been one of them. But no; he was attracted far more to short term pleasures and the worldly comforts that wealth can buy.
And so in his case we have what we might call a discipleship failure to launch. He doesn’t get started. Asked to step out in faith by Jesus himself with the promise that far richer rewards than anything this fast fading world can provide will be his forever, the young man weighs his options and refuses to let go. And mind you, it isn’t that he doesn’t admire and respect Jesus. His actions prove that he thinks the world of him … or maybe not quite the whole world because it’s evident that the world is the one thing he refuses to release. In the end, he shows that he doesn’t really trust Jesus. He’s unwilling to let go of his worldly security and step with Jesus into an uncertain day to day existence. “If I give up my wealth”, he thinks, “What will I eat tomorrow? What will I wear? If I get sick, how will I be able to afford the best doctors I’m used to having? There’s just too much uncertainty. Yes, he promises a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow; but what about today?”
This is the reason a lot of people never get started with Jesus. Oh sure, they admire him and believe that he can deliver on the promise of eternal life; but that’s just too far out there. They’re concerned about today. And it may not be only worries about having their physical needs taken care of that holds them back. It could be a pet sin they don’t want to release or an ungodly lifestyle they’re comfortable with that they know they’ll have to give up if they follow Jesus today. And we might as well face it, there’s some of this same attitude in ourselves. We too hold a part of ourselves back, kind of hedging the bet. With one foot we follow Jesus faithfully while we keep the other foot firmly planted in the world so that we have a place to retreat to if the going gets rough. But it’s awfully hard to get very far down the path of discipleship like that. And then we wonder why we’re always fighting the same battles with the same sins over and over again. Another way to do this is compartmentalize our discipleship or confine it to certain hours or days of the week. Two steps forward, three steps back. And still we wonder why we’re not getting anywhere. There’s some of this rich young man in all of us.
We’re told that he went away sorrowful; and though it may appear that his story ends on a sour note, this is actually a good thing. It means that the words of Jesus stung him. It means that he had to face the awful truth that having worldly wealth today was more important to him than inheriting eternal life. It means he came to realize that he was trusting in a false god. And hopefully seeing that sin ultimately led him to repentance and seeing his need for a Savior as great as the one God provided in Jesus Christ. And hopefully too, that we understand his story and see ourselves in it will bring us to the same place so that we let go of whatever it is that’s holding us back. It’s worth noting that in the young man’s case it may have worked rather well. A number of theologians believe that the rich young man in this story is none other than St. Mark himself – a man known for making other false starts; but one who ultimately became a partner with the Apostles Paul and Peter in laying the foundation of the Christian Church. We pray that the Lord would use us as mightily as we too repent of misplacing our trust in the things of this world, and receiving the blood purchased forgiveness of our Lord, commit ourselves one hundred percent to stepping out with him in faith – trusting him to take care of us wherever he leads and come what may.
But it’s important to see that this is just the first step. It’s only getting started. To follow Jesus means that we keep moving forward with him every day. This is the problem addressed by the Epistle lesson. The writer of Hebrews is warning us not to be one of the many who get started and who then for various reasons give up somewhere along the way and never make it to the goal. To make his point he uses the bad example of the Israelites in the wilderness. You will recall that they were delivered by God from their hard bondage in Egypt. When they were powerless and oppressed he saved them by mighty miracles and terrible plagues on their enemies, proving to them again and again to what lengths he was willing to go to rescue them from slavery and bring them safely to his Promised Land. The capstone of their redemption was the last plague, when the firstborn of Egypt died and the Lord’s people were protected by the blood of the lambs – an episode that culminated with the Lord opening a way through the Red Sea to give his people safe passage out and then using the same water to drown their pursuing enemies.
Imagine, if you would, being one of those people who had been there and seen all that. As you watched the walls of water you had just come through collapse on what was at the time the strongest and most feared military force in the world, could there be any doubt in your mind that the Lord wasn’t completely committed to fulfilling all of his promises to you? Absolutely not. On that day they had all the proof they needed. On that day they believed.
But what happened next? Just a few days later the water supply ran low and they panicked. “Oh, why didn’t we stay in jolly old Egypt? Why did we allow the Lord bring us out here to die of thirst?” When the going got a little difficult their faith evaporated faster than a drop of water falling on hot sand. And once again, the Lord came through for them by miraculously providing water. Did that convince them? Yes … for a while; but then the food supply ran low and it was back to accusing the Lord of being maliciously bent on murdering them all by cruel, slow starvation. And again, you remember what happened. The Lord gave them manna – bread from heaven – to sustain them on the way. And each day they were allowed to collect just one day’s worth. If they tried to take more and keep it, they found that it went bad, stank, and was full of maggots. Why? Because the Lord was trying to teach them something. It was this: “I want you to trust me today. I want you to have faith for today. Don’t worry about tomorrow; don’t even think about it. I’ll take care of that when it becomes today. The future is in my hands. All you have to do is have faith for today – and the proof of my commitment to you is lying on the ground all around you. Pick it up, eat it, and it will sustain you in faith to walk with me today.”
Sadly, some of them never got the message, or if they did, they didn’t let it sink in. At each subsequent threat or crisis they lost faith. Others didn’t even need a crisis; they just grew dissatisfied or bored with the Lord’s provision, or they didn’t like the way he organized the hierarchy of leadership in the camp, or the instructions he gave about how they were to worship, or the rules he laid down for godly living. They had all kinds of reasons, but the result was always the same: they lost their faith for today. They gave up on the Lord and they rebelled against him – with the result that many of them perished in the wilderness and never made it to the Promised Land.
And this is the danger we face. You see, we‘ve been led out of bondage to sin and death by God’s mightiest of all miracles: the death of his Firstborn Son. The blood of the Lamb of God covers and protects us. And we’ve been reborn by passing through the water of Baptism by which he washed away the guilt of our sins. And now every time we witness a Baptism, we stand on the shore of the Red Sea and see another one safely delivered while the vaunted power of Satan is defeated and drowned. And too we have been provided with the Bread of Life from Heaven to sustain us on our way. Jesus Christ himself feeds us with the Word of God and his own body and blood to give us faith for today. But we must be on guard that we not become one of those who for whatever reason give up along the way.
I don’t need to tell you that so many of our young people stand here before the altar of God on the day of their Confirmation. They promise to remain faithful, suffering all, even death, rather than depart from the faith. More importantly, they promise to be faithful about receiving the Word and Sacrament that feeds their faith. And when they say it, they mean it. But what happens? In all too many cases they give up. They stop feeding their faith day to day. If they persist, eventually they starve their faith to death. And then there are those who have long walked with Jesus sometimes ten, twenty, fifty years, who are faithful about receiving his Word; but who then allow a deadly faith destroying sin to come into their lives: someone offends them and they dwell on it, filling their hearts with rage. They can’t forgive. All they can think about is revenge. Or a loved one comes down with a chronic illness or dies, and that embitters them against the Lord. They dwell on their pain and loss rather than on the goodness and mercy of God. Or perhaps it’s a temptation that comes along – maybe to acquire some wealth or advantage in a less than honest way; or maybe it’s sexual in nature – an adulterous affair, whatever: the result is the same – they succumb to the temptation and if they refuse to repent, faith for today dies. They don’t make it to the goal. Today’s worldly pleasure at the expense of an eternal reward.
And perhaps the worst thing is to think that could never happen to me. This sort of thinking betrays the same self assured cockiness of the rich young man who imagined that he had faithfully kept the Commandments. As long as we are in this fallen flesh we need to hear the admonishment of Paul who said, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.” The more confident you are in yourself, the more danger you are in of falling.
That is why the writer of Hebrews calls upon us to exhort and encourage one another every day as long as it is called today. That’s where we live. Not in the future we don’t yet know, and certainly not in the mistakes of the past. We can only focus on now. Christ our Lord calls us to follow him in faith today. And the Word he speaks is what creates and sustains the faith he wants us to have. That’s how he reveals our sin, and that’s how he assures us of his forgiveness, which gives us the strength to get up and follow, trusting him to bring us to the goal. That’s why the writer of Hebrews tells us, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart [against it]”. Let it be the Bread of Life that feeds your soul today.
And with this in mind, I’d like to point out an often neglected resource we have that can help us keep faith for today. It’s on page 327 of your hymnal – the part of the Catechism on daily prayer. There’s a certain genius in the way these are set up. First you’ve got the Morning Prayer. It begins with the invocation: In the morning when you get up, make the sign of the holy cross and say: In the name of the Father and of the X Son and of the Holy Spirit. The purpose of that is to remember who you are: a baptized child of God upon whom the Lord has applied the blessings that Christ earned for you on the cross. It reminds you that you have been redeemed, crossed over the Red Sea as it were, and are on the way to the Promised Land. Then it asks you to recite the Creed, which reminds you of all that God has done in creating, redeeming, and sanctifying you. Then it asks you to say the Lord’s Prayer, in which you ask him to provide this day all that you need for body and soul. And finally there’s the Morning Prayer itself, in which you thank the Lord for his protection in bringing you thus far and ask chiefly that this day you be preserved from sin and every evil. Then you commend yourself to God’s care and go about your business trusting him to see you through the day.
Now look at the Evening Prayer. You’ll see that everything is pretty much the same except that now instead of asking that you be kept from sinning, you ask for forgiveness for the wrongs you have done. You can then go to sleep with a clear conscience, knowing that for Christ’s sake you are forgiven, that you are right with the God of the universe, and that on this day, despite all your weaknesses and failures however many they may be, the Lord gave you all the faith you needed for today. It’s a pretty clever system of making sure that at the beginning and end of each day at least you’re where you ought to be. I’m not saying that it’s foolproof – it’s the nature of sinners to take what is good and use it for evil; but still, if your day is bracketed by such a spiritual discipline at this, it’s awfully hard to wander too far from the path of faith and righteousness in between. I commend them to you with the hope and prayer that you will use them, that through your prayers and your continued listening to the voice of Jesus speaking through his Word you will continue to share in him holding confident in your faith until the time called today comes to its end. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!