FIRST LESSON: Psalm 130
SECOND LESSON Luke 18:15-30
SERMON: “Growing the Fruit of the Spirit – Goodness”
How good do you have to be to get into heaven? Do you have to be perfect? Someone asked that very question of a number of theologians at a conference held in Los Angeles several years ago, and their answers were surprising, especially considering that these were theologians, people who are the ones who study extensively what Christian Doctrine teaches. The answers went something like this: “It’s good that we don’t have to be too perfect or none of us would make it.” Somebody else said, “Christians are not perfect, just forgiven. Of course if God expected perfection, we would not make it.”
These were the answers from people who should have known better. These were the answers from people who should have known that you must be perfect to get into heaven. The gospels record Jesus calling for perfection in two situations. The first is in the Sermon on the Mount, where the Lord concludes his instruction to love our enemies, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:47-48) And the second instance is in the passage today from Luke.
Think about it for a minute. Can you imagine that a Holy God, in whom there is no sin, could accept into his presence people who are not as Holy as he himself?
Now this gives us some problems. All we have to do is check around -- ask your husband or wife, your children or your parents or your friends – and, if they are honest with you, you will find that you are not perfect. As the psalmist wrote, “If thou, O Lord, shouldst mark iniquities (sins), Lord, who could stand?” The Apostle Paul wrote that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And The First Letter of John reminds us that if we claim that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Tell me, can you think of even one person who is totally and completely without sin?
Now we find ourselves in the dilemma that Martin Luther faced: knowing that we -- simply by virtue of the fact that we are human -- are imperfect, and yet at the same time, God can only allow us into his eternal presence if we are perfect -- but we cannot be perfect, because we are human.
Now a ruler -- a pretty good man -- came to Jesus and asked him, “Good teacher what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” This was not a leper or a thief, a prostitute or a murderer. This was a man whom even Jesus did not contradict when he claimed that he kept the commandments: “Do not kill, do not steal, and do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.” This ruler had observed the Law ever since he was a teenager.
He was one of the “ good guys. “ Jesus did not dispute that. But oddly enough, he answered the man, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” And then he goes on to give this ruler a task saying, “Sell everything you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” We, like this rich, young ruler, find such a huge roadblock at this point, we miss the next phrase, “Come, and follow me.” We imperfect human beings zero right in on the material, financial requirement given. If I have to sell everything I own and give it all away to the poor, I’m never going to make it. It’s an unreasonable, impossible demand.
What is the consequence of giving to the poor, not entrance to heaven, but treasure in heaven. So easily we miss that it’s not the selling of everything we own and giving it to the poor that is the gateway to heaven. It is following Christ. We always have to be careful not to read things into the text. I have always assumed that this rich, young ruler went away, declined to do what Christ commanded him. And that’s quite possible. The text doesn’t tell us. He may have become sad, even grieved over what he was required to give away, and yet still done the difficult thing.
But doing the difficult thing isn’t what get’s this guy in or keeps him out. Jesus is the one that gets us through that narrow gate. How does he do that?
In II Corinthians 5:21 the Apostle Paul tells us: “For our sake, God made him [Jesus Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” How good do you have to be to get into heaven? You must be better than good, you must be perfect, as perfect as God. Those who heard what Jesus said to the rich, young ruler asked, “How is this possible? Who can be saved?” And Jesus said, “What is impossible with [humans] is possible with God.” God made his only Son, the only one who was without sin, to be sin for us. Jesus, the Son of God, became legally guilty of murder, theft, adultery, cheating, false witness, taking the Lord’s name in vain, failing to keep the Sabbath, – guilty of every sin of every one of us.
Jesus Christ received what he did not deserve - our sin and its consequences, -- and we receive what we do not deserve -- the righteousness of God in him. God is perfectly good. No human is without sin. So how can a Holy God and an unholy person walk together through eternity when they are so unequal? Because of what Jesus did.
Ted Avant, a pastor in Mississippi wrote that he was always
good at math. Especially addition. Two plus two always equals four and ten plus ten always equals 20. One day his third grade teacher, Miss Mable Jones, called him to the front of the class to illustrate how to add. He was the best in the class she said. He was beaming . . . his time to shine had come.
She wrote on the board some figures to add. He was stunned! The best student in the class was being asked to add one-half plus one-fourth. How? Those were unequal quantities. He was stumped! It was like trying to add apples and oranges. Until she introduced him to the common denominator -- a device that enables unequal quantities to be added together. That’s what Jesus is for us – the common denominator – allowing an unholy person to walk together with a Holy God.
Over the past several weeks as we have looked at the Fruit of the Spirit, I have encouraged you to grow the Fruit of the Spirit in you, to nurture love, patience, gentleness, and Christ-control. It would be tempting to stand up here and urge you also to be good. It would be so nice if everyone were always good. But even good folk cannot be good enough. With humans it is impossible, but with God all things are possible, thanks to Jesus Christ who became sin for us, took the punishment and in whom God finds us to be perfect and holy.
This is why each Sunday when we worship we offer prayers of confession and are blessed to receive the assurance of pardon. This is why our response to that assurance should always be positive. Thank God for people who take the time to introduce us to
the common denominator, Jesus Christ.
There was a story in the newspaper a few years back about a grandmother in Florida who was taking care of her little granddaughter, and the toddler fell into the swimming pool. The grandmother did not know to swim, but in desperation, hoping to save her granddaughter, she jumped into the pool and ended up drowning, and both bodies were pulled from the pool. If you’re going down, you can’t be helped by someone who is in the same predicament you are. You need someone who can swim to save you when you are drowning, and only a sinless savior can save you and bring you into God’s presence.
We know how good you must be, but now let me ask you this: How bad can a person be before God cannot blot out his or her sin? What about an Adam Lanza who shot his mother at home, then killed 26 people, including 20 young children at Sandy Hook elementary School in Connecticut? What about a Timothy McVeigh, convicted of bombing the federal building in Oklahoma City? What about Osama bin Laden? What about the murderer, the child abuser, the thief? Someone wrote in to a pastor for his radio program and saying, “I have accepted Christ as my Savior, but I raped four women. I ruined their lives. Can I ever be forgiven? Is it possible that God can blot out my sin?”
The pastor made a word picture for him I want to share with you. He spoke of two roads. One road is a mess. The ruts are deep and they go into the ditch. The other road is rather well-traveled, and you can see the difference between those two roads, but when the snow falls, when you have two feet of snow falling on those roads, there is no distinction between them because the snow covers them.
“Come now let us reason together, says the Lord: Though your sins are like scarlet they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isaiah 1:18) What does this mean? It means that the same righteousness that we receive is the same righteousness that a criminal receives if he believes in the Savior. The good news is that whosoever believes in Jesus Christ as Lord will be saved. John 3:16.
We may think that’s unfair. Why should those who come to Christ after doing evil receive God’s grace? Remember the parable Jesus told about workers in the vineyard. “When those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ’These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ 13 ”But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
How is it that so many people are kept out of the church, the Body of Christ? We do it whenever we give the impression that one must first be good, good enough to deserve God’s forgiveness. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32). The fruit of the Spirit is goodness.
How much goodness must there be in you to get into heaven? Total goodness. You must be perfect. The only way to be perfect in the eyes of God is through Jesus Christ, the only one who was without sin and was made to be sin for our sakes. Jesus Christ took our sin, yours and mine, and the sin of the worst of criminals, to the cross and this is the good news: Believing in him we participate in his victorious resurrection and so are found to be good enough, holy enough to come into the presence of a Holy God. This is the gift of God.