Everyone gets frustrated. In ways small or great, we feel the frustration of not being able to do what we want to do, not being able have what we want to have, not being able to achieve as we would want to achieve.
Young people, by nature, dream great dreams. If you give them half a chance, they will tell you what they want to become. Come upstairs with me some Friday to our After-School program, and the children will speak of being astronauts or zoo-keepers, they will talk about their ambition to be an actor or a football star or a political leader, and there are stars in their eyes. They really believe they can achieve these things. But we, older and wiser adults, having been around the block a few times, smile indulgently and say, “Yes, dear, you night do that.” But what we mean is, “within reason” And at a price I can afford. As long as it is profitable enough to take care of your mother and me in our old age. But other than that, sure, go ahead, be what you can be.
And slowly but surely, you know, dreams die. The expectations we silently project on our children seep in, and they begin to edit their dreams. They get their dreams downsized to fit the reality someone else imposes on them. They get their dreams downsized when they face the economy and try to enter the job market and focus on supporting their own young families. Dreams die. Dreams are frustrated.
Maybe we can hear a dream on its way to apparent frustration in the dialogue between our young man and Jesus. We have listened, up to now, not too sympathetic to this brash young questioner. We have suggested that when he posed his sweeping issue, “What good deed must I do to have eternal life?” -- we have suggested that he was way off the mark, and that his question was just crammed with wrong assumptions. I made a whole sermon a couple of weeks ago out of the idea that the question was self-centered and that he didn’t recognize the place that grace would have to play in his life. Way off the mark.
But what if it was not such a bad question? What if it really is an honest, searching question? What if it is a real spiritual dream, a quest for truth? What if he truly has come to Jesus, penitent, open, ready, thirsting for truth? If he has, by the time we get to tonight’s ultimate question, he surely must have felt frustrated. Am I not going to get a straight answer? Am I to have no clear, straightforward, concise answer?
Listen again to the series of questions and responses between our young seeker and Jesus:
“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?
“Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter life, keep the commandments.”
“[All those which begin] You shall not .... and [one more], you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
“I have kept all these; what do I still lack?”
“Go, sell, give, come, follow ”. A rapid series of imperatives. Go, sell, give, come, follow. When the young man heard this word, we went away grieving. And the disciples, Jesus’ disciples, themselves young men, themselves men with the still unfulfilled but not quite forgotten dreams of youth, the disciples asked, “Then who can be saved?” Frustrated, puzzled, confused, anxious. “Who can be saved?”
Jesus, it seems you have ruled everybody out. You have pronounced salvation so difficult that none of us are going to make it. You have put the Kingdom at so far a reach that none can grasp it. Jesus, you speak often of the Father’s salvation. But then you tell us it will cost a king’s ransom, you tell us we must go and sell all our possessions, you tell us that we must invest in the poor and the lonely, the hungry and the hurting .. and there are so many of them, overwhelmingly many. If we have to do all of that to be saved, “Then who can be saved?”
The dream of salvation. It feels frustrated, doesn’t it, in so many ways? What has happened to the hope of salvation?
Salvation ought to mean personal peace. It ought to mean a settled heart and a satisfied soul. But for many that seems so very elusive. This week we are reeling from the news accounts of thirty-nine people who rubbed out their own lives in search of salvation and spiritual peace. Believing that in the heavens there was a sign, meant for them, intended to spell out the promise for which they had waited, the Heaven’s Gate cult ate a poisonous concoction and apparently, peacefully, slipped away into nothingness. Tragic, just tragic, that there was no better news for them, no better avenue to salvation that came to their attention. Salvation is supposed to mean a settled heart and a satisfied soul. But for them, only frustration. “Then who can be saved?”
Salvation ought to mean a world finding answers to its most difficult problems. Salvation ought to mean a world which has learned some things about reconciliation and peacemaking. But only last night, as I spoke for a while with Von Deloatch about the situation in Bosnia and the other nations of that region, we felt as though there is no end in sight for conflict. No hope for peace when racial and religious divisions goes back for hundreds of years. No hope for harmony, no hope even for ordinary people to live ordinary lives, when the hatreds of the human heart continue to break forth into violence. If I lived in Bosnia or Serbia, if I lived in Rwanda or Zaire, if I lived in Ulster or in Calcutta or in Pyongyang, I too would be frustrated. And I too would wonder, “Then who can be saved?”, because salvation ought to mean a world finding answers to its intractable problems. But they are all still here.
Salvation ought to mean personal peace, it ought to mean international reconciliation, and salvation ought to mean positive, productive, power-filled lives for the young people of this region. It ought to mean that we invest in our young people some hopes and dreams that are way beyond having the right shoes and driving the right cars and being seen with the right friends at the right clubs. Salvation ought to mean vibrant and accomplished young people, all across this city, without regard to race or wealth or neighborhood. But, oh, what a time we have come to! What a day we have permitted! When crews roam the streets and children abuse children, when drugs are peddled by kids barely able to read their names and bombs are planted In the schools by teenagers! What a day we have come to! Who, indeed, can be saved? Are we doomed just to decline more and more? Are we set on a downward course that will end only in complete chaos and total frustration? “Then who can be saved?”
I think I feel for the young man now, don’t you? His questions are answered only with more questions. I think I feel for the disciples, too. They had done the best they knew to do. They had followed the script as they knew how to follow it. But now Jesus was telling them they still hadn’t got it. They still didn’t understand. Frustrated, they were. Frustrated.
Maybe even God felt frustrated, if we can speak that way for a moment. Maybe even God felt the weight of it all. The burden of trying to teach people who couldn’t or wouldn’t understand. The freight of trying to lead a nation set on leaving Him out of their equations. The pain, the pain, of watching those He had loved, those in whom He had invested so much, shrug Him aside. All they, like sheep, had gone astray. They had turned every one into his own way.
What could God do, in the midst of His own painful frustration that His beloved creation was headed in all the wrong directions? What could God do? “Who can be saved?”
Maybe even God felt frustrated, and, in a manner of speaking, wanted to give up on us. If even God has had enough, then who can be saved?
“Then who can be saved? But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” And who would have imagined God’s possibility? Who would have thought of this?!
God allowed that Son of His, that Jesus, born in Bethlehem amid angelic choirs, raised in the arms of Mary and protected by the wisdom of Joseph; God allowed that Son of His, fresh and growing in the Temple, brilliant and faithful in the desert, that Son of His, working miracles in the Galilean villages, speaking wisdom on the Judean hillsides, healing in Capernaum, raising the dead in Bethany, God allowed that Son to die. Snuffed out, a brief and flickering candle, to die.
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which He loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses ... “. But God. It is impossible for be saved. The frustration is well-founded. But God. For God all things are possible.
From the earliest days, Christians have known that there was something unique, unrepeatable, and ultimately redemptive about the cross. From the earliest days, when their first hymns were sung, they were sung about the crucified one. When their first creeds were composed, they centered on the Christ who died. When the Gospels themselves were written, about half of their pages are devoted to the events leading up to the climax of Calvary. It is the cross which is the greatest symbol of frustration, but it is also the cross which is the mark of God’s salvation.
You and I are frustrated because we cannot get to the core of the problem. We can put Band-Aids on it, but we cannot get to its core. The problem is the exceeding sinfulness of sin; the problem is that sin so easily and quickly gets hold of us and will not let us go. The problem is that the good we say we want we do not do and the evil we say we do not want is what we end up doing. The problem is that human beings over and over again allow themselves to be driven by all sorts of unworthy things: greed and envy, hatred and selfishness. We frustrate ourselves and we frustrated God.
But God saw that even that could be broken down, even that could be dealt with. God saw that if, in our midst, there could be planted one who was so selfless, so utterly devoted to others, we might,. just might, discern something. God saw that if, right down into our history and into our time, there could be one who would so devote himself to redemptive action, so give himself to all the things that make for peace, then we might, we just might, turn from our foolish ways and do something different.
And so the Cross. So Jesus, suffering, bleeding, dying. So Jesus, making a way where there was no way. So Jesus, crucified, the foolishness and the frustration of humanity, but the wisdom and the love, the grace and the power, of God.
How does it work? It works by reminding us, in a way we can never forget, not only of the exceeding sinfulness of sin, but also of the awesome power of love. It works by stabbing us to the quick about our failures, but it also work by spurring us on to want to be our best, to want to live for others, to want to live in love. It works by setting in front of us a billboard that cannot be ignored, on which the love of God is displayed so strong, so grand, so immense, that no one can miss it.
“When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.” Go, sell, give, come, follow. Yes. I want to. I want to, if He loves me that much. What was impossible is become possible. Who can be saved? I can. We can. Because of the cross.
On Good Friday, 1958, I was in a little town in North Carolina, working at a job I did not particularly want, presumably preparing for a profession I knew I no longer wanted, and just a little insecure about what I did want. In walking away from the engineering profession in the era after Sputnik, when they were telling us that engineers were needed, engineers were in demand, and engineers would be well paid .. in walking away from that, I knew I was walking away from what the world called success. I thought I felt called to do ministry instead, even though the material rewards were not the same, and even though I knew I lacked a whole lot of the skills and disciplines the ministry would require. I was really kind of in limbo, in between things, not very sure of what I was doing.
But it was Good Friday, and I was walking from my rooming house to the church I had been attending, in order to go to a service very much like this one tonight. I was walking and wondering, wondering and walking, where should I go? I rounded a corner, and there, in the front yard of another church, there stood a cross, placed there for Good Friday. On that cross they had painted the words from the Book of Lamentations in the Old Testament, “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Is it nothing to you?”
I knew in that moment that, no, the death of Christ was not a nothing to me. I knew that the death of Christ compelled something in me. I understood for the first time that the death of Christ on His cross was truly for me, not only for the whole world, of course, but wonderfully, for me. It beckoned me, it called me, it spoke to something deep in me. And I have never even wanted to turn my back on it since that Good Friday nearly forty years ago. Who can be saved? I could. I could. And I was.
“Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small. Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” Who can be saved? Everyone can. Everyone who will call Him Lord, everyone who will come and follow. Everyone. With us it may look impossible and frustrating, but for God, God in Christ, all things are possible.