Where will I spend eternity? - Luke 18:18-30

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 7th September 2008.

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Most of us laugh at national and regional stereotypes. We know they are not universally true but they still provide the essential material for many a harmless joke. I was reminded this week of what happened when 40 Scousers arrived at the heavenly gates. Peter was cleaning the gates when all 40 arrived at once. He had never seen anyone from Liverpool in heaven before so he hurried off to ask God for advice. God paused for a minute and then told him to choose the ten most virtuous ones, they would be allowed a place in heaven. Peter went back to the Scousers but within a few minutes he was back in God’s presence, out of breath and alarmed. “They’ve gone,” he said, “they’ve gone.” “What all of them?” said God. “No, not the Scousers, the gates, they’ve gone!”

There are always some people who seem more likely to be in heaven than others. If we were to draw up a list of likely candidates then some of the world’s citizens would never appear on anyone’s piece of paper. We like to classify people, don’t we? We like our categories; the good and the bad; the virtuous and the wicked; the ones going to heaven and the ones, well, the ones who will never get beyond passport control at the heavenly terminal. It’s a fact. We love to classify people.

I’m not here tonight to stop you doing this. This may surprise you but there is nothing inherently wrong in rightly evaluating where people will spend their eternal future. The Bible does this all the time. Classification is not wrong but what we must do, and it’s what we rarely do, is use the right system of classification. And this is what we discover in Luke chapter 18. So our plan tonight is to go through the story and listen carefully to where Jesus says people will spend eternity.

Look with me at verse 18. A certain ruler asked Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

I’m sure we have all sorts of questions we would like to ask Jesus. Wouldn’t it be brilliant to be granted a personal audience with Jesus? What would you ask? Surely there is no question of greater importance than the one we have just read about in verse 18. If we had all the time in the world then of course we could ask him all sorts of things but if we were only given a few minutes and if we were only allowed to ask one question then we would be foolish not to ask about our personal future.

We’ll soon discover that this ruler had a very serious hidden problem that Jesus needed to expose but at the start of his conversation with Jesus at least he is asking the right question. He doesn’t run up to Jesus and say, “Jesus, I’m really stressed at work. I have influence over many people and day by day I fear my health is suffering. Do you have any advice for a busy man like me? Maybe some techniques to give me balance and wholeness?” No he cuts straight to the chase and addresses the most important question of all: Where will I spend my eternal future?

How would you answer this question? It’s never happened to me yet. Strolling along the road, I have my nice sandwich from Benedicts under my arm, and one of Hull’s local rulers runs up to me, it’s John Prescott and he says, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” How would I answer? Not about what you do John but it’s all about what Jesus has done. The difference between a two letter and a four letter word. Not about what you do but about what Jesus has done.

However, it’s not what Jesus did at all. I find it very surprising but truly brilliant. Look at what he says in verse 19. He asks the man a question of his own. The man bounds up to him and says, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and Jesus replies, “Why do you call me good?”

It’s surprising but it is a brilliant reply. Why does he do it? The guy probably meant to flatter Jesus. “You seem to be a fantastic communicator, no one falls asleep during your sermons. What advice do you have for me on my eternal location?” But who cares? If Jesus is simply one more guru offering his ten pennies worth in the market place of spiritual ideas then who cares? Why follow the commands of a good teacher? So before he does tell the man clearly and plainly how he can guarantee his eternal future in heaven he makes sure the man knows who he is talking to. You call me good but do you realise that there is only being who deserves the title good and that is God alone.

Jesus is not saying, “Watch you language and don’t be so flippant. I’m not God.” He is saying instead, “Watch your language, don’t be so flippant. I should be called a good teacher but only because I am one of the members of the heavenly royal family. I am one of the members of the divine Trinity.” So that’s who is speaking. This is the person answering the man’s question.

I am fascinated by what Jesus does next. Look at what he says in verse 20. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’” To which the man responds, “All these I have keep since I was a boy.”

We don’t know why Jesus mentioned these particular commandments. Even if your mathematics isn’t very good you’ll realise that he doesn’t mention all ten of the Ten Commandments. He only mentions 5. The ones he does mention are not the one particularly concerned with our relationship to God. The Ten Commandments can helpfully be divided into the vertical and the horizontal. Jesus focused first of all on the horizontal ones. How we are treating our neighbour? We’re not sure why he did this but the man he was talking to quickly affirms that he has kept all these since he was a boy. And there is no evidence that he hadn’t at the level of actions.

He was a good moral man. He was the type of man you would want your daughter to marry. He would be faithful to his wife, you wouldn’t feel nervous if you saw him coming towards you in dark alley, your possessions would be safe around him, his word was his bond and he would never neglect his in-laws. He was a good moral man.

However, although on the surface he would appear to be a prime candidate for heaven he was actually on the road to hell. He would be on many peoples’ heaven list but in verse 22 Jesus exposes what really made him tick.

When Jesus heard his reply, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he became very sad because he was a man of great wealth. It’s a devastating statement from Jesus. You lack one thing. Not so much you have one thing that you must give up but you lack one thing that makes everything you have completely meaningless. What does he lack? Listen carefully to what Jesus says. “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” He lacks riches in heaven. He has no prospect of eternal life.

What have you achieved so far in your life? I’ve done okay. Good education. Captain of football team – we avoided relegation by one point in the last game of the season, beautiful wife, lovely house…but if I didn’t have eternal life my whole life would be a waste of time. It’s the one thing that really matters.

Imagine a consultant takes some junior doctors on a ward round. Sees a patient. Comments on her eyes, her smile, her hair, her figure. She lacks just one thing – a heart beat.

This man was lacking just one thing – an eternal future with the God who made him.

What was stopping this man from having eternal life? His wealth. Jesus said it must be sold so that he could be free to come to Jesus and so be sure of eternal life.

Following Jesus is the key. He is the way to eternal life. You can be moral but have no eternal life.  However, before this is possible the man must sell his wealth. The question is why? Jesus doesn’t demand this of everyone so why this man?

This is what the man worships instead of the true and living God. We often describe sin as rebellion but tonight let me ask you to think of sin in terms of replacement.

A god-shaped gap. But the problem is that the gap does not remain empty. We stuff it full of other things. The Bible calls this idolatry but perhaps a more contemporary word is replacement. We replace the true and living God with other things. We take a good thing and make it an ultimate thing. We then look to that thing for all the things that God should provide – things like security, identity and worth. For this man it was his money.

If you had asked him directly if he worshipped money then he would have said, “No, not me. I worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I’m a good religious person.” Now he may well have been a nice moral man, perhaps even very religious in his activities but God was not at the centre of his life.

This replacement of God is very serious and it needs to be exposed and then dealt with. If you are not a Christian then it can stop you coming to Jesus for your personal salvation and if we are Christians then it can stop us growing into full maturity in Jesus.

How can we tell if we have replaced God with something else? Here are a few diagnostic questions.

•    What do you day dream of?
•    What is your greatest nightmare? What do you fear being taken from you?
•    (More concrete) What story does your diary tell?
•    What information does your bank statement reveal?
•    What are you not prepared to give up to further your spiritual life?

o    Job.
o    Sport.
o    Family. What comes first? God or the grandchildren?
o    Your own opinion.

These types of questions will reveal idols but it’s not good enough for them simply to be revealed, they also have to be removed and then replaced with Jesus Christ.

The man who came to see Jesus was not prepared to give up his idol and so therefore he forfeited the chance of following Jesus and hence the chance of enjoying eternal life.

What are you preparing to give up eternal life for?

Or perhaps, if you are a Christian, what are you allowing to stunt your spiritual growth? I know it seems very important in the moment but just think what will really matter, not in five years time, not  in ten years time, not in a hundred years time but in a 100 years time, in a thousand year’s time – after a million years time.

It will certainly not be the latest kitchen, the finest golf swing or the fastest car. It will be our relationship with Jesus and so now is the time to make sure this flourishes.

As the man walked away Jesus chose to make another spiritual point which most people don’t seem to get straight away but when it’s understood properly it is such a shock to the system. Look at what we’re told in verse 24.

“Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!  25 Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 Those who heard this asked, “Who then can be saved?”

I’m not an expert in camels or in sewing but you don’t have to be to get Jesus’ point. A camel is huge and the eye of a needle is tiny so it is not just difficult to get a camel through the eye of a needle, it is impossible unless you first of all put the camel through a blender!

Some Christians have heard something about a gate in Jerusalem called the Camel’s gate – to get through the camel had to take everything off its back and squeeze through. There are two major problems with this idea. First, there was no such gate. Secondly, it would completely change Jesus’’ point. It is not that it is really difficult for a rich person to get into heaven but that it is impossible for a rich person to get into heaven. So forget the gate and stick with the blender. What does Jesus mean? He cannot mean that rich people cannot get into heaven. Plenty of rich people get into heaven. What he means is that a rich person cannot get into heaven but his own good deeds.

To understand his point we need to realise that in Jesus’ day rich people were thought to be particularly blessed by God and if there was a scale of goodness they would be at the top. Their goodness was thought to be blessed by God by riches.

In our day it would be the equivalent of picking a Mother Teresa or a Cliff Richard and saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for Mother Teresa to get into heaven by her own deeds!” This should be shocking. If getting to heaven is by our own performance then such a statement from the lips of Jesus should stop us in our tracks and be devastating. In short it would mean that we are stuffed!

This understanding of Jesus’ words explains why the people listening to Jesus react as they do. They are shocked and exclaim, “Who then can be saved?” Notice what they don’t say. They don’t say, “Oh well then I guess only the poor can be saved.”

No, they think, if the rich, who we think of as particularly good, cannot get into heaven by their own performance, merits or achievements then what of us, who are lower down on our own classification charts? I love how Jesus’ responds. Verse 27. Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” It’s impossible for humans to get to heaven by their own performance, but God has made it possible by a completely different way. It’s very simple. If we follow Jesus we get to heaven free of charge. He has already said this. But how does following Jesus make access to heaven possible? This takes us to the very heart of the Christian message. It wasn’t cheap. Jesus had to go all the way to the cross to pay the price for our stupid way of living. He bore the anger of God for our replacement of God with things of inconsequential importance. But here is the wonderful truth.

When we follow Jesus, that is when we believe in him, we are united to Jesus by faith and benefit from his wonderful perfection and sacrificial death.

Becoming a Christian is like getting married. Both parties join resources. We bring our sin. Jesus brings his perfection. This is God’s amazing plan. The key move for us is to follow Jesus. He is the focus of the God the Father’s amazing plan. We cannot get to heaven by our own performance. We are not good enough and we have a punishment awaiting us because of our behaviour. But Jesus stands ready to accept any who will come to him.

Is this something you need to do tonight? What idol do you need to give up? What do you need to take out of the gap and get rid of once and for us? Come to Jesus. Do it tonight.

For those of us who have. Let’s keep on watching out for those idols and keep on pursuing our spiritual life in Christ as a first priority. It is worth it! Look at what Peter says to Jesus in verse 28. ‘Peter said to him, “We have left all we had to follow you!” 29 “I tell you the truth,” Jesus said to them, “no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God 30 will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life.”

It’s worth coming to Christ and it’s worth pursuing our spiritual life as a first priority. Let’s pray.

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