The first shall be last and the last shall be first

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I have just preached at my smallest church to a congregation of 2 people. It was a lovely intimate service, and I almost didn’t preach the sermon I had taken. I thought briefly that we could simply have a conversation about the bible passages set for today. This is something that works well with them. However I decided I would preach. It is something I wrote 6 years ago (the lectionary is on a 3 year cycle). At the end of the service one of the congregation asked for a copy of my sermon, so here it is for her, and for anyone else to read.

Hebrews 4:12-16 and Mark 10:17-31

You know what it’s like when you are in the supermarket queue – you pick the shortest one feeling smug….. then wait…delays for a price check or the card machine doesn’t work. The queues get longer – another till opens up and someone who hadn’t been queuing just arrives and get served before all of you who’d been waiting patiently….or not so patiently!

You expect queues to go down at a regular pace, don’t mind waiting your turn but how annoying it is when those who were first end up last and the last person arrives and get served first its annoying.

The phrase many who are first will be last, and the last will be first is often used in such situations.   So let’s have a look and see what Jesus meant by it in his situation.

Today’s gospel has a reversal of expectations, which we see a lot of throughout the New Testament and at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus as a sort of stating his manifesto says:

‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, mourners, meek, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This should not have surprised his listeners if they knew their scriptures.

Micah 6:8  tells us that God has shown us

“what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

But of course, human nature being what it is we adapt what God requires to suit our own situations.   By the time of Jesus, the rich were presumed to be those blessed by God, as were those who kept all the religious requirements and had learnt their torah and the poor, women and children were nobodies in society’s eyes who presumed they were also nobodies in God’s eyes.  Jesus came to challenge their misconceptions and to turn their world upside down.

The man in today’s gospel had possibly inherited his wealth as he uses the expression, what must I do to inherit eternal life.  Inheritance comes to us without our hard work.  We either inherit because of the generosity of the person who named us in their Will or we inherit due to being next of kin and have that legal right.

So this man wants to know how he can be granted eternal life because he doesn’t consider himself to automatically as a right receive it.

The man is respectable due to his wealth and religious in that he has kept the commandments all his life.  But he doesn’t realise that the one thing he holds dear is the one thing that is preventing him.  His love of money and his possessions.  He has put his wealth in God’s place in his priorities.

Jesus looks at him with love in his eyes.  It’s agape love.  The love that puts the other first.  This is the sort of tough love perhaps that we have for children who need correction.  We correct our children because we love them even though it is painful to do so.   Jesus knows this man and loves him.

Jesus knows us and loves us with the same love.  We need not fear God’s judgment when we are called to account for our lives, if we have put our trust in Jesus.  The writer to the Hebrews in our first reading states that the word of God – and we can take that as either the written words in the bible or Jesus who is also the Word of God – is able to judge all our thoughts and intentions.  We need to remember though that as Jesus sees us, he is looking with love in his eyes, not condemnation.  He uses Judgment, and is not judgmental.

He knows what it is to be human, to be tested and tempted, so he understands and he wants to help.  He knows what holds us back from following him.  It may not be our possessions and wealth, small as it is.  It may be other people, it may be our low self esteem or pride, it may be our comfort zone.  We see the needs around us.  We know that we should be sharing God’s love more and more in the world, and yet… we hesitate and make excuses.  Do we really hunger and thirst for righteousness….. or are we just a bit peckish.?

Jesus knows – Jesus understands – Jesus looks with love and wants to work in us, changing us.

Going back to today’s gospel, Jesus knows what’s best for the man and tells him straight.  Go and sell what you have and give the money to the poor – then follow me.  But the man couldn’t and went away grieving.  He had lost the inheritance of eternal life because he couldn’t let go of his inheritance in this life.

It is very hard for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.  We know this but that would have been a radical idea for the crowd watching this scene unfold.  The disciples are clearly puzzled so Jesus illustrates with an amusing exaggeration of a camel getting through the eye of a needle.   Obviously impossible.

[I added this today: We had an interesting discussion this week in our bible study about the camel and the needle. Some people say it refers to a gate in Jerusalem that’s very narrow so that camels have to be unloaded in order for people to get their cargo through. One of us thought this comforting, that we can always work out how to get in. However, we also noted that this theory is interesting, but that Jesus was more likely exaggerating for effect, to get his point across with humour. Archaeologists and other scholars have never found evidence of such an opening used by such tall beasts or reference to a gate referred to as the eye of the needle.]

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So – if the rich, who are supposed to be rich because of God’s blessing can’t get in – who can?

Easy answer:  Nobody can by their own efforts – only God can make it happen.  Only Jesus can save us – as the disciples were to learn.  Jesus’ death on the cross opened up the way to eternal life.

Jesus’ death paid the penalty for our sin.  One of the things many people are blind to these days is sin.

 I don’t sin – I don’t kill, I don’t commit adultery, you might add I look after my parents and am indeed a good parent myself….. etc etc… But we have all sinned and we all fall short of perfection.  And it is perfection that is the qualifying criteria for eternal life.

Eternal life is being with God.  God is perfect  and so to join with God we need to be perfect too.

Jesus was the perfect sacrifice to make us perfect – and of course those of us who have accepted what Jesus did on the cross are slowly being perfected.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen over night.  We all are a work in progress that will come to perfection when we enter into full eternal life the other side of the grave, as St Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13 – then we shall see and know God fully even as he fully knows us now.  We see but dimly.

Now Peter is the one disciple that I think most people can warm to.  He says what everyone else is thinking and daren’t say.  But lord we’ve left everything to follow you.  They left their fishing businesses and other sources of income and security.  They’d probably upset their families too who were left to pick up the pieces after they up and went along with the visiting preacher.  They’ve suffered a lot – and indeed would go on to suffer more for the sake of the gospel.  Surely that counts and contributes towards earning eternal life.

But eternal life isn’t earned…. they still haven’t got it.  And who can blame them.  Jesus was turning their whole worldview upside down.

The rich aren’t automatically granted eternal life – but then neither are the poor.  But the poor are more likely to accept the offer as they have nothing to lose and are probably desperate for a better life.

The adults who know their scriptures and are religious aren’t automatically in.

In one of his parables of the final judgment Jesus says,

21 ‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” 23 Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” Matthew 7:21-23

Similarly, in the parable of the sheep and goats, those who fed, clothed and welcomed Jesus brothers and sisters were the ones who entered eternal life, regardless of their religious observances.

So, who can enter?   Jesus said we should become like children in order to enter eternal life.  Those who are like children are more likely to be able to accept the offer of eternal life.

Children are different to adults in many ways – not just size.

They don’t understand the value of money for a start.

Children are trusting and open.  They are ready to believe, we might say gullible.  But they also have lots of questions and want to learn.   They are like sponges, soaking up new experiences.  I believe we are also born with a great capacity to connect with and know God.  It’s as we grow older that we learn not to trust and believe in God. 

Children know that they don’t know it all and children are humble rather than full of pride, which can happen as we become self reliant as adults.

Jesus is the only Way to God.  As we approach him today, at the altar rail, let us do so with boldness, receiving his mercy and finding his grace to help us to do what the Lord require of us:

To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God.”

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