Readings: Psalm 22:1-15, Deuteronomy 28:1-9, Hebrews 7:23-28 Mark 10:17-30
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian, MD, October 14 2018
Mark 10, verse 25;
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"
Alice the Camel had a hump. At least one hump. As you know (of course) that's what made her different from a horse. Humps could get in the way. Particularly if you filled your hump with provisions that you were saving for a rain-less day. You never knew when you were going to have to go trundling through the desert wastelands. "I shall be prepared" she said. A hump was also handy for hanging things on. It was surprising just how much stuff the back of a camel could store. "I never go nowhere without me hump" she had a habit of saying.
Humps also slow you down a bit. Alice never jumped out of bed with anything on her face other than a "Hummppff". It's not so easy to embrace the morning with a smile when you can hardly get to your feet. She didn't usually like going places at all. If you asked her to come to your place and spend some time with you she had a habit of being so busy keeping her hump and the things she packed around it in order that she would refuse.
Mind you, having a hump had it's h'advantages. Self-sufficiency brought with it independence. When everyone else had to go to the store every day to stock up, she only had to make a trip to the nearest oasis once a month. Nibble on a few palm leaves, nice tasty fig here and there, and you didn't have to bother with no one and no one had to bother with you.
One day, Alice the camel had to go to the city. It was a real busy day and most of the Gateways in the city wall were blocked with traffic. On the way in to Jerusalem she met a horse, a donkey and a dog who were heading in a different direction. She thought "I think I'll follow those fellows".
They led her to a gate in the walls that was known as the "Needle Gate", on account of it being rather slim and low. "Woof" the dog went through. "Hee-Haw" the donkey went through. "Clippity Clop" and Mr. Ed was through to the other side.
Now it was her turn. She put her head through, but then all the stuff she had stuffed on her back became stuck. So they had to shove her back. "Lighten the load" said Mr. Ed. So she shed some stuff and tried again. "Hee-Haw' said the donkey (Which she understood as meaning take some more things off your back). So she shed more stuff and tried to stuff herself through the gap. Nothing doing. "Woof" said the dog (As dogs have a habit of doing) and she dropped everything she was carrying and tried to sqeeeee - eee - zzze through the gap. But .. no. Her hump couldn't handle it.
"Humppff" she said. "How am I going to do this?" The dog, the donkey and the horse suggested that if they tied a rope around her neck, maybe they could pull her through. So they tied, they pulled, they tugged with all their strength. "Your strannngggling me' she spluttered. The rope snapped followed by a "Woof," "Hee-Haw" and an "Ouch" as the animals catapulted backwards onto the floor.
"We'll have to push her from behind' suggested Mr. Ed. So they all stood at her rear and pushed and shoved with their shoulders and their backs and their legs and their arms. Alice squeee- ee- ee- ezed slowly through the gap. The dog, the donkey and the horse pushed and pushed and pushed. Alice squee-ee-ee-zed and squee-ee-zed until suddenly, with an almighty PLOP, she shot through the Needle Gate and they all landed on the other side of the wall in a heap.
By laying aside all her possessions and with a little help from some passing friends she had managed to squeeze on through to the other side.
After they had picked themselves up off the floor and dusted themselves down, a man who had been watching from a distance approached them. "Now" he said, "That was quite impressive." He reached into his pocket. He pulled out a shiny, tiny, needle which sparkled in the sunlight. "For a real challenge" he said, holding up the needle in the air, you try and squeeze yourselves through that little hole, the eye, that we put the thread through."
The dog, the donkey, the horse and Alice the camel all laughed and laughed and laughed They were all in agreement. "Woof, Hee-Haw, Don't be stupid, That's impossible" they said!
Meanwhile, in another place, at another time and this time not in fantasy but in reality, Jesus told His disciples, "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."
He had spoken those words because a very rich young man had come running up to Him and said, "Good Teacher, I have kept the commandments all my life, What must I do to gain eternal life?"
Jesus had looked him in the eye and said, "Why do you call me good? No-ones good except God." Then he had told the young man, "There's one thing you need to do to find salvation. Sell everything you have and give it to the poor." Because the young man was loaded he had walked away like a sad puppy with his tail between his legs.
After seeing what had happened the disciples were thrown into confusion. They had always had the impression that if you kept the commandments and God blessed you with health, wealth and prosperity then you were heaven bound with no questions asked. They themselves had left everything, family, friends and possessions. Surely that was worth a bit in the eyes of the Almighty? They were therefore astonished at His answer to the rich man and even more astonished when He told them, "Children, How hard it is for anyone to enter the Kingdom of God!"
They were worried. "Well look if that man who kept the commandments can't be saved, if we who have left everything to follow you can't be saved, what's the deal here?"
And Jesus replied, "With men it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God." He implies that by the grace of God, camels can fit through the eyes of needles, and people can find salvation.
When Alice the camel shed her possessions she was acting a little like the rich young ruler. She needed to squee-ee-zze through the gate. How could she? Well by a process of reorganization, follow a few simple rules, then no problem, she'd be through. Likewise, the young ruler believed that if he could make himself good enough by observing the commandments of God, then that's all there was to it. Eternal life was in the bag.
Problem was he had a hump. Every commandment he kept, everything he was doing for his salvation was only for the benefit of one person in the world. Himself. He was the center of his own tiny universe and needed to be reminded that God's Salvation wasn't about him, it was something larger and grander than his cosy life. There were people out there who needed practical help. He had the means of supplying it. If he started to do that, then he would be starting to understand what the Kingdom was all about. So Jesus tells him, "Sell everything you have and give to the poor."
The disciples were more in the position of Alice the Camel who needed her friends help to squeeze them through the gate but then found themselves with the impossible task of now squeezing through the eye of a real needle. Peter complains to Jesus, "We have left everything to follow you." Through the things that He is saying Jesus is challenging the disciples to think. "Now, why did you leave everything to follow me? What is your motive? If you are only doing it to gain your own salvation then you are wasting your time."
They had gone further than the rich man. They had made it through one narrow gate and on the other side were with a company of friends. But now it was time for the real challenge of discipleship. A real needle. Could they leave everything, including their personal desires for comfort, for self advancement, their dreams for the future and hopes of how things might turn out when Jesus was crowned Messiah, could they leave all that behind?
They needed to. Because Jesus was not going to turn out to be the sort of Messiah they were expecting. His was not going to be a victory won by zapping the enemy with lightning bolts from beyond. His victory was to be won through loving the unlovely, through bringing dignity to those others looked down upon, through undeserved suffering, a death on a cross and a resurrection from an empty tomb.
What was impossible for man, God was working in their midst. He, Jesus Christ, was the bearer of salvation, the way, the truth and the life. Only through total reliance on Him, would they ever experience the salvation of the Kingdom.
The game play hasn't changed. There is still not a thing we can do to earn our salvation, other than throw our lives upon the grace and mercy of God. Being good at keeping the commandments won't do it, because none of us is that good. Leaving it all behind won't do it because none of us ever leaves everything behind.
We need to come to Jesus and ask "What must I do to gain eternal life?"
We may have to give up a lot. Our dreams. Our pride. Our self-sufficiency. In fact any activity that takes us away from the obligation and privilege of worshiping and serving God in the company of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
To truly be a disciple we have to literally surrender to Christ in our hearts all that we are and all that we own We need to say to Jesus, "This is everything I am and everything I have, my time, my talents, my relationships, my stuff, and it's all Yours to do with as You please."
If we can do that then like the disciples we will be rewarded by so much more. Jesus tells Peter; "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age -- houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields... with persecutions -- and in the age to come eternal life."
Strawberries and Cream, Love and Marriage, Horse and Carriage, they go together. Camels and Needles. They don't fit together. Go ask Alice. You just can't get a camel through the eye of a needle.
And we never truly will discover the Kingdom until we are prepared to offer up everything for it's sake. In the kingdom of God it is through abandonment that we find all things, it is when we are prepared to let go that we let God; it is when we give ourselves to others that we find our true selves.
Of course it is a daunting challenge. The noblest things in life have always been worth living and dieing for. May God help us to live as Kingdom people, not as camels who are trying to sqee-eee-eeze through the eyes of needles.
The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.