Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Sermon: Wednesday of Lent 5 - Judica

1 April 2009 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA

Text: Mark 10:32-45 (Jer 31:31-34, Heb 5:1-10)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

There’s a old debate that rages based on the question: “Is it better to be good or lucky?” The world favors greatness above luck. The world admires wealthy person who started out poor and who worked and struggled and clawed and kicked to become great. The world scorns a passive tycoon born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Indeed, we’re often told “God helps those who help themselves.”

And in this world, it is a good and noble thing to aspire to greatness. We have largely lost this drive to excel and are often satisfied with just getting by.

But God’s kingdom doesn’t work like the world.

In God’s kingdom, greatness is not determined by hard work, skill, desire, or accomplishment. In God’s kingdom, it is better to have the silver spoon, to be graced not so much with luck, but with charity, which is “grace” – than it is to rely on oneself and one’s abilities, powers, wealth, or even goodness.

St. Paul expressed this in an almost shocking way when he says: “And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” To the one who does not work? In what kingdom of this world is work treated this way? But once again, God’s kingdom works differently.

Not that God wants us to be lazy. Far from it. There is a harvest out there, and the workers are few, says our Lord. We must work while it is day. And we are rewarded for our work. But the catch is this: Our work does not earn us salvation. Our work does not justify us. Our work does not give us eternal life. For that is a gift. We are the despised tycoons with the silver spoons in their mouths, enjoying the fruits of someone else’s labor and reaping the benefit of someone else’s blood, sweat and tears. And that Someone Else is our crucified Lord.

This is the reality James and John did not understand. They sought greatness. They sought the ability to sit at God’s right hand. They sought glory. And our Lord teaches them that even He, the Lord Christ, does not seek this kind of approval in the eyes of the world, rather he “drinks the cup” of passion and is “baptized” with the baptism of crucifixion. Jesus asks them if they are willing to do this.

Of course, they aren’t. And neither are we. We are servants, that is, slaves – for even our Lord Jesus Christ Himself “came not to se be served, but to serve,” to be a “slave to all.” Unlike the Gentiles, that is, the nations of the world, who find glory in lording over others, who lust for domination, who seek riches according to the passing material in this passing world, we disciples of Jesus and servants of the Lord Most High find our greatness in lowliness, our fulfillment in service.

For we confess that it is Christ who is the Great One, in fact the perfect One: the King, the Lord, the Almighty in the flesh. And it is Christ who “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” And it is Christ in whom we boast and to whom we give all the glory. It is in serving Him that we find greatness in God’s kingdom.

For even the “high priest chosen from among men is appointed.” Greatness in God’s kingdom is not about setting our sights on a goal of some high position and working hard to achieve it. We are appointed, we are called, to whatever our vocation is in God’s kingdom. Even our Lord Jesus Christ “did not exalt himself to be made a high priest, but was appointed by him who said to him: ‘ You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’” Even our Lord Jesus’s priesthood is not something he takes by his own authority, rather He is ordained by the Father, who declares: “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.”

In God’s kingdom we don’t strive for greatness, but rather we strive to be faithful. In God’s kingdom we don’t seek the praise of men, but rather to praise the Man who is also God. In God’s kingdom, we do not seek to elevate ourselves, but rather to elevate others – for this is what we do when we operate based on love.

James and John failed to understand that God’s kingdom is a realm not of power, but of love. In God’s kingdom, one does not climb the ladder of success, but rather we hang on to the lifeline that has been cast down to us in our weakness and inability to save ourselves by work and ability.

In God’s kingdom, greatness is more often than not an impediment. Our Lord warned the wealthy to be careful, that it is easier for camels to squeeze through needles’ eyes than for the rich to find salvation. And it was the rich young ruler who went away sorrowful when our Lord asked him to part with his riches and follow Him. But it isn’t only wealth that interferes with salvation. The Pharisees’ sense of righteousness was more an impediment to their salvation than even the sins of tax collectors and prostitutes, whom our Lord said would enter the kingdom before the self-righteous.

For once again, in God’s kingdom, greatness is given, it is not gotten. Greatness is bequeathed, it is not earned. Greatness is bestowed by virtue of the work of the Lord, not merited by the work of the one seeking greatness.

For God’s kingdom is a universal kingdom. It is for great and small, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, “from the least of them to the greatest” according to Jeremiah, and “the good and the bad,” according to our Lord in St. Luke’s Gospel. God’s kingdom is an amalgamation of people of every time and place, every nationality and tongue, every ability and calling. It is a kingdom of love, not of power. It is a kingdom of redeemed misfits, not of self-assured mighty-men.

And though greatness in God’s kingdom is not a matter of being “good,” that is having skills or abilities, it isn’t a matter of luck either. For in God’s kingdom, we receive greatness as a gift, as a promise, as a direct result of our Lord’s sacrificial work on the cross – not by random chance.

In God’s kingdom, it is better to be fortunate than good. It is better to be a humble recipient of grace and mercy than to be an arrogant doer of great and powerful works.

For listen to the prophet Jeremiah proclaim the Lord’s promise to all of us who passively and unworthily receive this greatness from Him who indeed drank the cup and was baptized with His passion and death for us:

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

That, dear friends, is greatness that money cannot buy and that industry cannot earn. And, according to the one who did purchase it with His blood and who did earn it by the sweat of His thorned brow – it is yours as a gift, now and unto eternity. Amen.

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

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