Sunday, February 28, 2016
Sermon: Luke 18: 15-30 Entering the Kingdom
This morning we’ve got a quick quiz for you. They’re all multiple choice. What important event happened in England in 1066? 1. The Romans left England. 2. The building of the Offa Dyke. 3. The Norman invasion or 4. The Battle of Bannockburn? (3 Norman invasion). True or False: The Union Flag comprises of four crosses, one for each part of the United Kingdom? (False). Who appoints life peers in the House of Lords? 1. The monarch. 2. The Prime Minister. 3. The Speaker of the House of Commons. 4. The chief whip. (1 The monarch).
Now what’s the point of those questions? Well, they are the sort of questions you’re asked in the ‘Life in the UK’ test to gain British citizenship. If someone comes from another country and wants to become British, they have to pass the test (pass mark 75%). There’s a practice test online, so with some fear I took it, but thankfully I passed, so I don’t have to give up my citizenship! To enter the kingdom, to become a citizen, you have to prove yourself and pass the test.
The question running through our Bible reading today is that very question. What do I need to do to enter God’s kingdom? How can I gain entry? Is there a test? A pass mark? How do I get into the kingdom?
On Friday there was a General Election in the Republic of Ireland. I wasn’t watching the campaign too closely, but sometimes you see the photos of politicians kissing babies. They make a good, positive image as they go around trying to get votes. Well here, ‘they were bringing even infants’ to Jesus ‘that he might touch them.’ Jesus was in town, and parents were bringing their babies to Jesus.
Or at least, they were trying to. The disciples were acting like Jesus’ bouncers, bodyguards, keeping the babies away. Rebuking the parents. Maybe they were worried that Jesus was too busy to spend time with babies. Maybe they were afraid they’d be sick over him. For whatever reason, they were stopping them.
But look at what Jesus says: ‘Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’
Jesus wants the children to come to him. It is ‘to such’ the kingdom belongs. Did you hear what Jesus says about coming into the kingdom? ‘Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ He’s not saying that if you don’t enter as a child, then there’s no hope for you to come in in later life. You enter ‘like a child’.
Childlike faith is to receive it entirely as a gift, not able to earn it, just taking hold of what you’re given. Just like those infants being brought to Jesus so that he could touch them - they hadn’t earned it; they hadn’t done anything; they just received it as a gift. To enter the kingdom, you need to be childlike.
Yet straight away, this ruler asks Jesus this question. Was he not listening? ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Look at what Jesus says in reply: ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.’ Do you hear the force of those words? No one is good except God alone. Even the best of us is, at heart, bad. No one is good. No one is good enough. We can’t reach that level of goodness. Now, immediately, that should set off the alarm bells. No one can ‘do’ what is needed to inherit eternal life.
But the man asked the question, so Jesus gives the answer. Here it is. Here’s what you need to do to make it to heaven by your own effort. Verse 20, Jesus lists some of the ten commandments. No adultery, no murder, no stealing, no false witness, honour your parents. You can see him checking them off - no adultery, never done that, tick. No murder, haven’t done that, tick. On and on and on. The man claims to have a perfect passmark. ‘All these I have kept from my youth.’
And perhaps you have also checked them all off. Maybe you’re thinking to yourself that it’s no big deal. Five out of ten isn’t bad. halfway there. But if you know the ten commandments, then you’ll realise that he has checked off commandments 7, 6, 8, 9, and 5. They’re from the ‘neighbour’ bit of the commandments. What’s missing? The commandments to do with God (and coveting). So look at what Jesus says. He doesn’t directly quote the commandments, but he gets to the root of the man’s worship:
‘One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ He just needed to do this, but it was too much for him. Luke tells us ‘But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.’ Five out of ten wasn’t enough. To ‘do’ to get eternal life, the passmark is perfection - to perfectly love God all the time with everything, and perfectly love our neighbour. No one is good except God alone. We just can’t do it. We can’t work for it or earn it. Nothing we can do will be good enough. Even our best days aren’t good enough. There’s a wee saying that helps us here - nearly never cleared the sheugh. If you’re jumping over a ditch, you want to get right over it - nearly make it, and you’ll find yourself in sheughwater. Attempt to live the perfect life, even if you nearly make it, you’ll still have failed.
Now just in case we missed what was happening, Jesus makes it even clearer. ‘How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.’ (24-25) Can a camel go through the eye of a needle? Of course not! I can hardly put a thread through the eye of a needle, let alone a camel! And that’s the point. It’s impossible. Those who heard it get it: ‘Then who can be saved?’ (26)
How can anyone enter the kingdom? How can anyone be saved? ‘What is impossible with men is possible with God.’ From our point of view, it’s like putting the camel through the eye of the needle. Impossible. We can’t do it. We can’t make it. But it’s possible for God. In fact, Jesus has already told us how God makes it possible - enter with childlike faith, not working or earning, but simply receiving what Jesus has done for us.
None of us are good enough, but Jesus was. He lived the perfect life. He died the perfect death. And it’s by trusting in his life, death and resurrection, we can come into the kingdom. Humanly impossible, but God makes it possible as he extends the offer to all, to come in under his terms, by his grace.
The ruler has walked away. The cost was too much for him. But Peter can’t resist pointing out his own obedience - ‘See, we have left our homes and followed you.’ Remember what we’ve done. It is possible that God does call us to give up things in order to follow him. But Jesus reminds us that he is worthy, and worth it. Look at how he ends the passage. When we give up, we find that we receive far more back. ‘Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.’
As we take up our cross, as we deny ourselves, as we give up good things, God gives us even more. Houses and family relationships. Just think of our one church, how many houses and brothers and sisters we are; and how many more across the world. Jesus doesn’t call everyone to sell all and give to the poor, but he might. but out of his abundance, he more than repays in this life, and even more abundantly in the age to come with eternal life.
How do we obtain that life? How do we enter the kingdom? Not by tests, passmarks or performance. No one is good except God alone. But God in his goodness provides a way; he makes what is impossible for us, possible through Jesus. A free gift to be received like a child.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 28th February 2016.