In 2006 I was the chaplain in HMAS Manoora, an amphibious transport ship taking part with other navies in amphibious landings of army troops on a New Caledonian island. During one landing I joined the soldiers who were being put ashore on the landing craft. In the bay where we landed there was a tree. It was a tree that we had to be very careful not to damage because the locals revered this tree as a sacred tree. It was covered in bits of coloured cloth - offerings from people who believed that it could save them from sickness and death.
An article in World Vision magazine spoke of a similar tree in Ethiopia. This one was a giant tree that stood on the banks of the Awash River, in an arid valley about two hours' drive southeast of Addis Ababa. It had stood there for generations, seemingly eternal. For years, the people who lived in the surrounding district had suffered through famines and, in their suffering the people looked to the tree for help. Like the people in New Caledonia, they believed that a spirit gave it divine powers, and so they worshipped it. Adults would kiss the great trunk when they passed by, and they spoke of the tree in hushed, reverential tones. And the children would say, "This tree saved us." In that tree, these Ethiopians thought that they could find salvation.
People in different cultures around the world seek the answer to the question of salvation – “How can we be saved?” In the Gospel reading from Luke 18:18-30, the young man who came to Jesus asked that very question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
In the reading from 2 Timothy 4:6-8, the apostle Paul speaks about his faith in eternal salvation.
Paul is enduring his second imprisonment in Rome under Nero – this time not under house arrest as during his first imprisonment; but, in a cold dungeon, chained like a criminal and excluded from contact with his friends. Paul knows that his work is done and the end of his life through martyrdom is imminent.
Nevertheless, he is content knowing that his God given mission is completed. He has faithfully proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles. And he has stood firm in his personal faith and witness for Christ against all of the opposition that he encountered – even to the point of imprisonment as a criminal and later, martyrdom.
And now he thinks of his approaching death as being, like Jesus’ death, a sacrifice to God - just as his life was a living sacrifice. He says his life is being ‘poured out as a libation’ (v.6). A ‘libation’ is literally a drink offering to a god.
He is about to depart on the next journey in life; we have the picture of the moorings that have held him to this life being released and his soul setting sail on a journey to another shore where he will receive the reward for his 30 years of faithful service to his Lord, Jesus Christ.
Paul is able to picture his imminent death in this way because he has a sure and certain hope for salvation, that he calls the ‘crown of righteousness’. He has every confidence that when he stands before the judgement seat of God, upon which Christ will sit, he will receive true justice - unlike the judgement of Nero’s court.
But he does not see himself as being special in this regard – the crown of righteousness, he says, will be given ‘to all who have longed for his (Jesus’) appearing’ (v.8). Here we have Paul’s answer to the question that we have asked, “How can I enter the kingdom of heaven?” or; “How can we be saved?”
Paul indicates that salvation is available to all who are true disciples or followers of Christ – those who have made him Lord in their life and have obediently remained faithful to his commands, and who now long for their Lord’s return.
Now let us turn back to Luke 18:15-30 and see what Jesus’ answer was to this question on how to achieve salvation. In these passages, Jesus is teaching about the kingdom of heaven.
Some parents were bringing their children to Jesus; but the disciples thought that Jesus shouldn’t be bothered by these parents. In response to the disciples’ rebuke of the parents, Jesus rebuked them and explained that to receive salvation, i.e. to enter the kingdom of Heaven, we must place total dependence in him as Saviour, just as a child is totally dependent upon its parent. We must humble ourselves, acknowledge that we are all sinners, and fully trust in him with a childlike faith and complete sincerity. Only as we place ourselves completely in Jesus’ hands can we inherit eternal life.
A young man listening didn’t seem to quite understand and asked Jesus the question. "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" (v.18)
The young man has been faithful in obeying the Ten Commandments. Will this be sufficient to make him good enough to receive salvation? Jesus explained to him that whilst obedience to God’s commands is important, on its own it was not sufficient.
The reason is indicated in Jesus’ exchange with the young man about the concept of ‘goodness’. We tend to associate ‘goodness’ with respectability – we think that being good is only about not doing certain things. Perhaps we get this idea from the Ten Commandments – “Thou shalt not ...” – or perhaps our idea of goodness originated in the era of Queen Victoria? But what Jesus explains is that goodness originates in the holiness of God. God’s ‘goodness’ is an absolute quality – in God’s holiness there are no degrees of good. Just one small sin is sufficient to disqualify us completely from inheriting eternal life.
So on our own we cannot achieve salvation merely through our efforts to be ‘good’. Rather, salvation can only be bestowed by God as a free undeserved gift – this is God’s grace. On our own, we are helpless to attain salvation. In the end, salvation is God’s action. The good news is that this gift of salvation is available to all because of what God has done through Jesus Christ. We can achieve God’s standard of goodness, if we receive Jesus as our Saviour and Lord. But, here is the catch that was the young man’s problem: just as God’s standard of ‘goodness’ is absolute, so we must follow Jesus absolutely.
This means doing something about everything in our lives that is inhibiting our relationship with Jesus. If you love your wealth more than Jesus (as was the case with the rich young ruler) then it will retain a control over your life that will prevent you from making Jesus absolute Lord in your life. And unless Jesus is Lord of all – every part and aspect of your life – then you are not truly following him.
Jesus used hyperbole to make his point: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” What he was saying was that the desire for wealth, or any other temptation, could create a power over us that is too strong to be overcome by mere human power. We alone cannot cleans ourselves of sin and defeat death. We cannot will to live purely; we alone cannot overcome temptations such as the temptations of wealth.
Those who heard the conversation with the young man were somewhat taken aback! "Then who can be saved?" Jesus responded, "What is impossible for mortals is possible for God."
There are some things that we mere mortals just cannot do.
J There is a humorous story about a middle-aged woman who, in dire need of a beauty make-over, went to her salon with a fashion magazine photo of a beautiful, young, lustrous-haired model. She showed the stylist the trendy new cut that she wanted and settled into the chair as he began humming a catchy tune and got to work on her thin, graying hair.
The lady was delighted by his cheerful attitude until she recognized the melody. It was the theme from the TV series: "Mission Impossible."
There are some things that we mere mortals just cannot do. Making ourselves good enough to inherit eternal life is one of them. But what is impossible for mere mortals is possible with God.
Let me illustrate by returning to the story of the sacred tree in Ethiopia. The tree in New Caledonia may possibly still be there; but the one in Ethiopia isn’t! In 1989, World Vision began a development project in the region, including an irrigation system. But even as they laboured to build the system, the great tree stood like a forbidding sentinel of the old order, presiding over the community, enslaving the people through fear. The people continued to practice animal sacrifices and strict observance of taboos to win the favour of the spirits.
When the World Vision workers saw how the villagers worshipped the tree, they knew it was an idolatrous barrier to the entrance of Christ’s kingdom and transformation of the community. One morning as the staff prayed together, one of Jesus' promises struck them: "lf you have faith, you can say to this tree, 'Be taken up and removed' . . . and it will obey you." In faith, they began to pray that God would bring down the menacing goliath.
Soon the whole community knew the Christians were praying about the tree. Six months later, the tree began to dry up, its leafy foliage disappeared, and finally it collapsed like a stricken giant into the river. The people of the community were astonished, proclaiming, “Your God has done this! Your God has dried up the tree!” In the days and weeks afterwards, approximately 100 members of the community received Jesus Christ because they saw his power displayed in answer to the Christians' prayers.
Some comedienne once said, “Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn’t have to do it!” J But here we see that nothing is impossible to God, including bestowing the gift of salvation on those who accept Jesus as Saviour and Lord.
People around the world in all cultures seek the answer to the question, “How can I achieve salvation?” They put their trust for salvation in all sorts of things: for some it may be in a sacred tree, for others it may be in their wealth, their respectability, their charitable works, or their adherence to religious rituals. Paul’s absolute assurance was that salvation is available through Jesus Christ. Jesus also said that eternal life is available to those who follow him.
But there is something very important that we must understand. Just as God’s concept of goodness is absolute; i.e. there are no degrees of goodness that satisfy God’s requirement to be without sin (which is why no amount of charitable works or ritual on its own will provide salvation), so we must follow Jesus absolutely.
This means doing something about everything in our lives that is inhibiting our relationship with Jesus. For example, if you love money more than Jesus (as was the case with the rich young ruler) then it will retain a control over your life that will prevent you from making Jesus absolute Lord in your life. And unless Jesus is Lord of all – every part and aspect of your life – then you are not truly following him.
So here in a nutshell is our conclusion: If you want Jesus to be your Saviour then you must make him your Lord and this means making him Lord of every aspect of your life.