To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
It was a sight to behold. Stacks of old newspapers from floor to 8 foot ceiling; garbage bags full of musty and moth ridden clothes; dozens of those cardboard orange juice containers – not all of which had been washed out, so some of them looked like a science experiment on mold gone awry; once prized family heirlooms that had long ago been swallowed up by an avalanche of clutter; moldy food that hadn’t been refrigerated since the Reagan administration; even the bones of a family pet who haplessly wandered into the stacks and never came back. It was a sight to behold. And what was more amazing was that someone called this place home. Thankfully, this wasn’t a personal experience for me. I’ve been in some homes that have a fair amount of stuff, but nothing like this. This I got to see from the comfort of the couch a few years ago on the TV show “Hoarders.” Do you remember that one? I only saw a few episodes, but they all seemed to follow the same general pattern. The cameras pan across the home interior and see nothing but clutter. Someone, usually the child of the resident, says to the camera, “I don’t know how they can live like this!” The resident then admits there might be a little bit of clutter, but they need these things. “How did it get this way?” asks one cameraman. “Well, I just started keeping things, and then…” In come the workers wearing hazmat suits, and out goes the clutter – one dumpster load at a time. They clear out the trash, scrape the walls, strip the carpets, fumigate the house, clear the clutter, clean the mess, and give their loved one a new lease on life and, almost without fail, how do the hoarders react when this is all taking place? They cry – and they’re not tears of joy. They panic. They hyperventilate. They can’t fathom life without their stuff.
I’m not here to criticize unfairly – I realize that in many of those cases there are generational tendencies to save a little bit more, sometimes there are mental health hurdles, and to be honest a quick look at my closet or garage might lead you to believe this is a “pot calling the kettle black” situation. So, don’t hear me wrong – that’s not my point. But it was always striking to see how just about every person felt like their “stuff” was something that was a part of their identity. They simply couldn’t think of being without it, no matter what anyone promised about a better life. There was a young man who came to Jesus who was a kind of hoarder, but he wasn’t squirrelling away newspapers; he was enamored with his pocketbook.
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Luke’s gospel tells us this man was a “ruler,” probably in his local synagogue. He was the cream of the religious crop. You’d be proud to call this man your relative. You’d love having a synagogue ruler as a neighbor. He’d mow your lawn and babysit your kids. By all accounts, including his own, he was a law abiding Jew. But still he wondered…What do I have to do? What an interesting juxtaposition – such a well-respected, well-to-do, well-behaved man fell on his knees before Jesus, not to try to trap him, but sincerely asking the million dollar religious question. “What must I do?” How could he wonder? Based on what he says next, he’s pretty sure he’s kept all the commandments. But here’s the problem: in a religion of law and works – no matter how well I do, no matter how much I do – the question is always there: have I done enough? So, his question is genuine – What am I missing? Before Jesus shows him the solution to his spiritual crisis, Jesus needs him to see how deep the problem goes.
Right off the bat, Jesus would have this young man reconsider his vocabulary. “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.” If God is the only one who is truly good (and Jesus is God), then realize your hope to save yourself by being good is already shipwrecked, because God the “highest good,” cannot accept anything less than his level of “goodness,” i.e. perfection. The divine standard of perfection is impossibly high. Even a lustful look with the eye or a fleeting thought of the brain or the natural desire of your sinful heart is enough to send you plummeting into hell forever. A shallow understanding of the law leads to a shallow goodness indeed. To teach this lesson, Jesus pointed him back to the law. You know the commandments… To which the young man gives the typical response to the question of morality – Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy. “I’m a pretty good guy. I’ve never killed anyone. I’ve never slept with someone else’s spouse, I’m not too bad.” But that wasn’t the word at stake – “good” as only God alone is good! Jesus directed his attention to those commandments that address our relationship with other people which, no coincidence, are also the commandments that people can see you keeping, which the rich young ruler thought he’d done.
So what was he missing? “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” You might think you’ve kept the commandments, and other people might look at your life and say the same, but you’re forgetting the very first one – You shall have no other gods. At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Like a bright sky that was suddenly covered with dark clouds, the rich young man’s face fell. And he went away sad, not because he was wealthy, but because he loved his wealth more than he loved God. The rich young ruler wanted to do some good thing to purchase heaven, but in talking with Jesus, it became apparent his heart loved his goods more than his God. So, what’s the point? Salvation can’t be bought. That’s the lesson Elisha taught Naaman in our first lesson. The Aramean army commander had been healed from leprosy and in his mind, he assumed that this cleansing is the kind of thing you pay for. But Elisha wouldn’t have it. Rather than let this new believer think for a second that the true God is some kind of “transactional deity” like the gods of Naaman’s native Aram, Elisha preached grace. “As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.” This cleansing of your skin came free of charge, all by God’s grace, just like the cleansing of your sin.
Do you see how shocking that is? It was for the disciples. In their estimation, the rich young man was a guy who was especially blessed by God because, after all, monetary blessing must mean that God is smiling on you, right? He was so sincere about desiring to do the right thing and wanting eternal life. He met the Son of God face to face, but went away sad. “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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.” The wealthy face a special temptation to put their trust in their stuff, but do you know what? It’s not just the rich who can love money and things. The poor wish they had more and the middle class are focused on survival in the face of economic class extinction. But money, wealth, and stuff aren’t really the problem – those can all be good things. Money, wealth, and stuff aren’t the problem. Our hearts are the problem. By nature, our hearts elevate earthly comfortability over eternal blessings – and it happens with some remarkably simple trade-offs. Rather than gladly hearing and learning God’s word, and coming to the place where the gospel is proclaimed - I’ve got plans this weekend. Instead of seeing the needs of the neighbors next to us, and looking at how God has blessed me with the ability to meet those needs, I’ve got to make sure my stockpile is in good order. Our problem isn’t the number in our bank account or the boxes in our garage. Our problem is our hearts that think I can pay, pray, or obey my way into God’s favor. Our hearts elevate self (or even stuff) over our Savior. Like spiritual hoarders, we stockpile all the wrong things that we think will bring us happiness and security, but only end up feeling emptier inside.
What clutter are you carrying that if Jesus told you to give it up, you’d be tempted to walk away sad? Your money? Your possessions? Your full schedule? Your sense of self-importance? Jesus saw to the heart of the rich young man’s problem just as surely as he sees to ours. So notice what Mark says when Jesus is dealing with him. Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus loved him enough to send him away sad. Why? To show him that Jesus is everything. This stuff is harming you, not helping you. It might be good looking, useful, and entirely helpful stuff, but in the end, stuff doesn’t save you. Only Jesus does. And in steps someone who loves you enough to call you away from it before you’re swallowed alive by your garbage pile.
It’s not often said in the gospels that Jesus loved a specific person, so why is that important here, and why did Jesus love this young man? Because he saw his sincerity? Because he noticed the young man’s dedication? Because Jesus looked at him and saw just how committed he was to doing the right thing and making the good choices? Because Jesus saw in this man some great potential for the future? No, no, no! Here was a man who was ignorant of the way to God and steeped in self-righteousness. Sound familiar? Jesus loved this man precisely in the same way he loved you when you were his blind, dead, enemy. He was lost. He was on his one way march away from God. And what’s worst of all, at the time he thought he’d been doing better than most. Jesus looked at him and loved him because here was another sinner in desperate need of his salvation, his rescue, his forgiveness. When put face to face with our hopeless spiritual condition, the disciples’ words make all the sense in the world, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” We were powerless to de-clutter our sin-filled, self-centered hearts. What is impossible for us, God stepped in and did perfectly.
Jesus created the universe with a word from his mouth, and he rightly owns all things. He holds in his hands everything – all power, all praise, all glory – and he emptied his hands for you. He left all the wealth and glory of heaven to be born in the humblest circumstances. He went from having all power in his hands to having nothing in his hands except a couple of nails, and he did it for you. That’s the lesson he wanted to teach that rich young man, and that’s what he wants to teach you and me. Jesus empties us of our false gods and foolish trust, so that he can fill us with his grace. That’s Jesus’ way, isn’t it? He empties you before he fills you. He empties you of your self-centered thoughts that your relative goodness is the way to God’s ultimate goodness. He empties you of your trust in the things you can see and quantify. He empties you of your inborn desire to put your stuff ahead of your God. He empties you of your sin and shame for ever loving money more than your Maker. And then, in his grace, he fills you. He fills you with his perfect righteousness. He fills you with a perfect priority shift, Jesus sets you free to see your worldly goods in a new way – not as a way to measure success or serve self – but as a way to love and serve those next to you. You don’t need to hoard God’s spiritual gifts of mercy and grace because those are new every morning. In addition to those spiritual gifts, he fills you with confidence in his promise to provide daily bread. He fills you with the joy to know that should everything you own disappear, you haven’t lost a thing, because you have an eternal treasure in heaven with him.
In a world that glorifies wealth and wants to hold onto stuff, seek the right riches, God’s true riches in his Word of promise. Seek God’s eternal riches in the gospel – all yours fully and freely in Christ who gave up his all so that he could give you everything.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.