'With man this is impossible,' said Jesus. 'But not with God, for all things are possible with God.''
Our two readings, from Marks gospel and the first book of Samuel, on first glance perhaps dont seem to have a lot in common. The story in Samuel concerns the choosing and anointing of David to be the new king. Mark tells us about a rich young man and his quest to discover the answer to a very important question Good teacher, he asked. What must I do to inherit eternal life?
And yet both readings have much to tell us both about ourselves, God and the reason why the approaching season of Advent is so important to the church.
Lets look firstly at 1Samuel and Samuels meeting with Jesse and his sons. In the previous chapter 15 we read that Samuel had stood up to King Saul and told him that because of his behavior Saul was rejected by God. A very courageous stand considering that Saul could have had Samuel put to death. But Samuel was a man who commanded respect.
The elders might have been more than a little apprehensive at sharing a sacrificial meal with someone they knew was out of favor with the king. But share they do, and Samuel then settles down to the task of deciding which of Jesses sons is the chosen one.
It seems to be quite straightforward. After all, tradition dictated exactly what the choice should be. Fortunately, Samuel wasnt someone who clung so tightly to tradition that he wasnt open to a little prompting from God.
Well, after all seven apparently eligible sons are rejected, David has to be found - brought down from the hills where he was tending to the flock, and God whispers in Samuels ear This is the one!
Sometimes God chooses the most unlikely people. His choice of David, a young shepherd boy, in a culture where the eldest would, under normal circumstances, have expected to inherit anything, would have surprised everybody. Not that David didnt have his charms - he is described as handsome, with beautiful eyes, and later on he wrestled with lions and defeated Goliath - but this just wasnt the way things were done!
But what does God tell Samuel? "The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."
If you go for a job interview these days, then youre likely to be faced by a barrage of rather cunning psychological tests and interviews. Character references are taken and studied. Sometimes even your handwriting is analyzed. Scientists believe that these tests can tell prospective empoyers something about the character of the person they are interviewing. We try so hard not to look on the outside. No-one is asked to parade in swimming costume in order to get a job - at least not the sort of job Id be likely to go after. But however hard we try to see below the surface of a person, we remain human beings who dont see as God sees.
God then seems to use a different yardstick to measure a persons worth. As well as that, he doesnt always act in the way that we would like him to.
And heres the link with our story in Marks gospel. Again the question is all about the future destiny of an individual, but not as leader in the kingdom of Israel. Here the individual in question is concerned about a different kingdom - the Kingdom of God - and what the entry requirements might be.
"Inheriting eternal life" "entering the kingdom of God" or "being saved" These three familiar phrases are all used in this passage, and all refer to the longed-for age to come in contrast to condemnation and punishment. The orthodox Jewish answer was simple: Salvation was for circumcised Jews who kept the commandments. Theyd got it all worked out, written down, signed and sealed. There was no arguing. This was the traditional way of doing things.
You have to ask the question, "Gods choice or mans choice?"
Jesus reply to the rich man seems at first to be fairly orthodox.
He cites the so-called second table of the ten commandments, probably
because obedience is more easily tested by the way someone lives their
life in the world
"You know the commandments: "Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother."
"Teacher," he declared. "All these I have kept since I
was a boy"
Not a bad CV is it? A good, honest and trustworthy individual, with evidence of a sincere desire to serve God. Would you give him a job? On the surface his credentials were impeccable. Jesus was obviously impressed, because we read that he looked at him and loved him. But then we turn from the good outward show that man judges by, to the different way in which God looks at us. And a whole new set of values.
Two more commands "Sell what youve got and give it away to the poor" and secondly "Follow me"
What a disappointment! The young man had measured himself up to the highest
standards that man could judge by - the ten commandments - and passed
with flying colors. Now he finds that Gods yardstick - His interpretation
of the commandments - is somewhat different to that which the man had
grown up with. Accepted Jewish thinking was that a mans earthly
prosperity was in some way a measure of his spiritual state. A pleasant
thought for some, no doubt. But doesnt that sound a little like
some of the TV evangelists we read about in America, with their flash
houses, cars and glitsy personalities.
"Children," says Jesus. "How hard it is to enter the
kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle
than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
We cant pass that point in our reading without asking is wealth wrong as well? No, its not the possession of riches thats the problem, God isnt insisting that all Christians should be begging on the street corner. Rather its the desire for riches that keeps a person from salvation.
I can well remember when I worked in industry
being almost obsessed by the desire to obtain the highest possible percentage
rise in wages - and that was at a time when 10-15%% rises were common,
not the 2-3% of today. That dates me. It was an unhealthy obsession and
detracted from the important things of life. Jesus calls the young man
to make a total commitment - and that cant be done if money plays
such an important part in a persons life.
"Who then can be saved?" ask the bewildered disciples. And the answer comes back "Nobody!"
"Nobody???" Well, at least not by their own efforts. But where man cant act, God can and does.
We so often limit in our own minds the power of God to act, perhaps sometimes because were afraid he might do the unexpected thing. Theres nothing more disconcerting than to find unpredictability in someone you thought youd got marked down as steady and unremarkable.
But God has shown throughout the bible that his desire is to save. When he judged the world with a flood he provided a way of escape. When he judged Sodom and Gomorrah he sent a warning, offered a reprieve and delivered those who listened to the warning. He sent Joseph to Egypt in anticipation of the great famine to save his family and the nations from salvation. He heard the cries of his people in Egypt to be released from their slavery, and sent Moses to deliver them.
Throughout the Old testament the Jews saw in God their hope for the future and their salvation.
Psalm 27 "the Lord is my light and my salvation - whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life - of whom shall I be afraid?"
In the New Testament we see God acting in the most selfless, loving and
wonderful way possible, in enabling all men and women to draw close to
their creator, to be reconciled, saved, and made right with God through
the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
"Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12)
"Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim 1:15)
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life"
"Who then can be saved?" asked the disciples. "With man this is impossible," replied Jesus. "But not with God; all things are possible with God"
"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" asked the rich young man. "Stop making idols of possessions or wealth which stop you worshipping God properly or loving your neighbor fully.....and follow me."
I think thats more or less what Jesus meant in his reply.
In our run up to the short season of Advent, where we start to strip away the tinsel and fancy wrapping paper, and focus on the birth of Jesus and all that this monumental event means to the world, its good to remind ourselves that in a technological world where man seems to have so much control over his destiny. Where every day more and more is discovered about just what makes us tick - as the complicated pattern of our genes, the blueprint of our physical bodies, is unraveled - and as medical science continues to prolong life, that there are still some things which are outside our control. Some things which are not within our grasp.
God knew that David was the man for the job without the poor boy having to go through a two day selection process with psychometric tests. God knew what lay in Davids heart, and wasnt swayed by any outward show or appearance. Samuel would have chosen Eliab, and goodness only knows what would have happened if Eliab and not David had been anointed. But Samuel was close enough to God to be open to that gentle whisper, and it was upon David that the Spirit of the Lord came upon in power.
By ourselves, says the bible to us, we can do nothing to earn our salvation. "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" we read in Romans 3; but read on "and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.... since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from Gods wrath through him." "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord"
"What can I do to inherit eternal life," said the young man. "Nothing!" is our reply. "For God has done everything for us through his son."
Gods ways are not our ways, and how often we seem to limit the power of God. We would much rather have our finger on the trigger, to be in control of our destiny. Somehow it seems wrong to have to put our trust in someone else.
But this is the God who created the world, who sustains the world through his Spirit, who poured his love out to his creation even though so often it was kicked back like sand into his face. This is the same God who, through his son Jesus healed the sick, raised the dead to life, lived for a time on earth, was tortured, died and rose again in order to give us hope.
"Christ is our hope" Paul the apostle writes, and John looks forward to a day when the people of God will see Jesus as he is and be like him. They will live the life of the age to come, in the presence of God. They will know perfect peace and security under the rule of the King of Kings. A new heaven and a new earth will signal the end of suffering and death. God will be all in all.
The people of Israel needed David at a particular moment in time. They didnt know it then, all they thought they needed was a new king, but God did and acted accordingly.
Later in their history the people of Israel knew they needed a Messiah. But they thought they needed a warrior leader who would overthrow the Roman rule. They got their Messiah, but the one God knew they needed, not the one they thought they wanted.
How often we mix up the words "want" and "need"
God acted, and continues so to do, when mankind needs him. He does not always do exactly what we would want Him to do, but he always acts in our best interests for that is his nature.
In the run-up to Christmas we shall be reflecting on the way in which God acted in coming to live among his people as a tiny baby. Most of them were too busy looking for their version of the Messiah that they failed to notice what was happening among them.
May we never try and impose our ways, our values and our ideals on God. Rather let us be as open as Samuel was to listening to that little prompt that says "I know thats the way you think it should be done.... but I know a better way." Or open to the word which says "Yes, I know youve kept my commandments, and youre a very nice person.... but I want you to go one step further."
"With man this is impossible," said Jesus. "But not with
God, for all things are possible with God."