Mission Possible

17 As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to obtain eternal life?”

18 Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. 19 You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”

20 “Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”

21 Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him. He said, “You are lacking one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” 22 But the man was dismayed at this statement and went away saddened, because he had many possessions.

23 Looking around, Jesus said to his disciples, “It will be very hard for the wealthy to enter God’s kingdom!” 24 His words startled the disciples, so Jesus told them again, “Children, it’s difficult to enter God’s kingdom! 25 It’s easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God’s kingdom.”

26 They were shocked even more and said to each other, “Then who can be saved?”

27 Jesus looked at them carefully and said, “It’s impossible with human beings, but not with God. All things are possible for God.”

28 Peter said to him, “Look, we’ve left everything and followed you.”

29 Jesus said, “I assure you that anyone who has left house, brothers, sisters, mother, father, children, or farms because of me and because of the good news 30 will receive one hundred times as much now in this life—houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and farms (with harassment)—and in the coming age, eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last. And many who are last will be first.” (Mark 10:17-31, Common English Bible)

Friends, before I really get started, I recognize we are repeating the Scripture we used last Sunday. As I was reading it to you, I was hearing that I write another sermon on this Scripture just emphasizing the idea of impossibility. So, writing this sermon was exactly what I did.

Sometimes a story comes around that is so inspiring that it makes you question just what you’re capable of accomplishing in your own life. This is one of those stories…

In 1984, Augusto and Michaela Odone took their six-year-old son to a doctor because he was stumbling, becoming bad-tempered and not feeling well. After a few tests’ doctors diagnosed their son, Lorenzo, with a rare disease called adrenoleukodystrophy.

There was no treatment for the disease. Doctors said little Lorenzo would continue losing his balance, go blind and deaf until eventually dying of aspiration. He wasn’t expected to live longer than two years after diagnosis.

Augusto and Michaela consulted several doctors and specialists about the disease, but everyone said the same thing: there’s no known cure. There is no treatment; it’s hopeless.

Most of us have at least heard of Michael Jordan. He was the Achilles heal for all the other teams in the National Basketball Association. He was arguably the best basketball player ever to lace up a pair of sneakers. He was so important to the Chicago Bulls in an eight year time period, the Bulls won the championship six times, three in a row, twice. What happened to the other two? Ending with the 1994 season, the Bulls had won three in a row with Jordan in the lineup. Following the 1994 season Jordan decided to retire. Without Jordan, the Bulls proceeded to not even make the finals for two years. The Rockets won those two titles. Two years later Jordan decided to impact the league all over again by making a comeback. With Jordan back on the team, they won three more.

There are two more things you should know about Michael Jordan. First, Jordan was cut from the varsity basketball team when he was a sophomore in high school. He got sent down to the junior varsity that season. To think that the greatest (or even the second or third or tenth greatest) of all time was not one of the ten best players in his small high school at any point during his time there boggles the mind. He did make the varsity his junior year and never looked back. He went on to college at the University of North Carolina. Following college, he ended up with the Bulls and later the Wizards.

So, what was Jordan doing during those two years he decided to let the Rockets win their two championships? He decided to try to make a living as a professional baseball player. Jordan decided to retire from the Chicago Bulls to join the Chicago White Sox organization. He moved from being the premier player of basketball to being a minor league baseball player. He never rose above AA ball. After two seasons he left baseball and went back to greatness in basketball. He gave up.

It is difficult to think of examples of people who are famous enough to know and at the same time gave up on something they were doing. Yes, Jordan gave up but he gave up to go back the thing where he was really good.

Jonah tried everything he could think of to give up before he got to Nineveh. He tried to go to Tarshish, he jumped ship, and who knows what else he might have tried but didn’t make it into the Bible. The only reason Jonah didn’t give up was God would have none of it.

Moses didn’t want to go Pharaoh with God’s demands. Again, God wouldn’t take no for an answer. For every one of Moses’ excuses, God had an answer until God finally said in essence, “Quit with the excuses just go do it. Jacob cheated Esau and had to run away. Samson is so taken with Delilah he ends up giving her the secret to his strength.

Elijah had so many miraculous experiences, you’d think that he’d have unshakable faith. After all, he caused the rain to stop for more than three years, was fed by ravens, saw a limitless jar of flour and jug of oil, witnessed a widow’s son resurrected, even playing a critical role in the scene, and he beat the prophets of Baal by calling down fire from heaven.

But when the showdown with the Baal worshipers so angered King Ahab and his wife Jezebel that she vowed to see him dead, Elijah couldn’t take it. The pressure of being such a high-profile prophet of God had gotten to Elijah and he hightailed it into the wilderness. When God met him there, Elijah was undone, feeling like he was the only prophet left—confident that he was completely isolated and imperiled.

Being loud and impetuous was Peter’s calling card. Peter was the biggest personality in any room. It’s no wonder that he’d join James and John as one of Jesus closest friends and confidants. In fact, he was the only disciple willing to try walking on the water and was the first to call Jesus the Christ and son of God.

When Jesus predicts that Peter will deny him, Peter proudly rebuffs him. But that very night, after Jesus is arrested, someone confronts Peter in the courtyard of the Sanhedrin and accused Peter of being a follower of Christ. And, just as Jesus predicted, Peter denies him three times—the third time cursing his accusers. When he realizes what he’s done he breaks down and weeps bitterly. But, Peter found forgiveness and grace sitting on the shore. Peter, do you love me…

Did Peter’s failure exclude him from Christ’s plans? On the contrary, Peter is the first of the twelve that Jesus appears to! He restores Peter in a touching moment on the Sea of Galilee.

In the movie series, Mission Impossible, Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise and series before that, James “Jim” Phelps, played by Peter Graves went out on impossible missions, suicide missions if you will, and somehow, on their own, without divine help, turn the impossible into possible, every time they hear a recording saying, “Your mission, if you choose to accept it…” then at the end of the recording, “Good luck… this recording will self-destruct in 15 seconds.” There is something in there too about being caught and disavowed. Still, they ALWAYS accept the mission and they ALWAYS succeed in making the impossible, possible.

So, what do we make of all this? Peter went on to become the leader of the disciples and an early church father, preaching the first evangelical message after which more than 3,000 people came to a relationship with God. It was something of Mission Impossible moving to “Mission Possible.” “Peter, do you love me? Feed my lambs.” Those are words of pardon and grace.

Today’s lesson is another story of someone who just can’t leave his stuff behind. He wants admission to the Kingdom. But there is a price he must pay. He must divest himself of all his wealth and then become a disciple. I am reminded of a story about a wealthy man who over and over can’t seem to let go. In his nightly prayer time, the man continues to beg God. Finally, God tells the man its OK, but he can only bring one suitcase. Peter’s curiosity gas getting to him. As the man passes through the gates, Peter sees the suitcase and must ask, “What was so important you couldn’t leave it behind?” The man smiles and sets the suitcase down and opens it. It is filled with gold bars. He looks up and smiles at Peter who dropped his head and was shaking it side to side. He says, “That’s what you brought? Paving stones?”

That could easily be us. Let’s get back to our lesson. There’s a price he must pay to live in the Kingdom. Oh, wait a minute their preacher!! I thought salvation was a free gift from God, a gift offered without price. Now you are saying the rich young man must pay a price. Which is it?

Thank you for asking. I a so glad you asked. Jesus’ instruction was not about buying anything. The price the rich young man was to pay was a matter of his priorities. Jesus was asking the man to make a choice, God or your money. The rich young man, not being able to lose his money, chose it over God. That is a sad turn of events.

Once the rich young man left Jesus explains to the disciples abut how hard it is for a rich person to enter the Kingdom. This is the part of the lesson last week that I believe God was telling me what to do, what to preach.

“It is easier,” Jesus says, “for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom. I can see why the disciples would have concerns. If rich people, with all their wealth and power couldn’t enter the Kingdom, what chance would they have? These guys were far from being wealthy.

Jesus’ answer, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom,” didn’t really give them any comfort. They just didn’t get it.

It doesn’t take a genius to know a camel can’t go through the eye of a needle. There are scholars who have a bit of a different understanding. Some argue that Jesus was not talking about a literal needle. Instead, they believe the term “The eye of the needle” is a metaphor. The “Eye of the Needle” has been claimed to be a gate in Jerusalem, which opened after the main gate was closed at night. A camel could only pass through this smaller gate if it was stooped and had its baggage removed. That would mean it was possible to enter the Kingdom, but it was not easy.

I think such an explanation is lacking. On our own, we cannot obtain the eternal gift of the Kingdom of God. WE NEED GRACE. And it isn’t that I can get grace by my own hard work. I cannot get grace by myself or with the help of my friends or my foes. I can’t get it without God because it takes grace and that is something, I can’t work for borrow or buy. It is the free gift that lets me pass through the eye of that needle into the Heavenly Kingdom of God.

In the television comedy, The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon and Penny are having an argument and Sheldon says, “Penny, when you understand the laws of physics anything is possible.” That really isn’t true. No matter what your understanding of physics might be you are not going to defy the law of gravity standing on earth. Unless of course, God has an intention of doing what is humanly impossible and defies the law of gravity for us. That, my friends, is possible because for God, nothing is impossible.

Being deaf since she was one and a half years old, Marlee Matlin made her credo a phrase: ‘The only thing I can’t do is hear.’ When she was a child, despite the doctors’ advice, her parents sent her to a public school (instead of a specialized one for the deaf), and with the help of special programs Marlee adapted after a while. It helped her to become the first and only deaf actress to receive an Academy Award. Marlee often says: ‘I work every day to help people understand, like my parents taught me, that deaf people not only deserve respect, they deserve to be heard.’

As a child the late Ray Charles began losing his sight, and before the age of 7 he went completely blind. When Ray was 15 years old, his mother died. The young man couldn’t sleep, eat, or speak for many days. He was sure that he would go mad. When he got out of his depression, he realized that, having gone through this tragedy, he would be able to handle anything. When he was 17, the musician started to record his first soul, jazz, and rhythm and blues singles. Nowadays, many people consider Ray Charles a legend: his works were even included in the Library of Congress. In 2004, after his death, Rolling Stone magazine named Ray Charles number 10 in the top 100 greatest artists of all time.

Those are two of the many stories of people who moved past what many of us would consider an impossible situation and still managed to move forward to find success. Could we move forward in much the same way? The answer to the question is “yes.” We may not be an Oscar or Grammy award winning performer, but we can, no matter what the limitations the world might see, use our God given gifts to make a difference in the world or make a difference in the lives of others. God’s gifts in your life matter and no matter what the stumbling blocks in our paths might be, we need to keep moving forward and let the world see God through us.

One of my favorite stories in the Bible is the story of Naaman found in 2 Kings 5. Naaman was a great general in the army of the king of Aram. Naaman contracted leprosy. He ended up before the prophet Elisha seeking a cure. Elisha, never leaving his house, sent Naaman to the Jordan River to wash seven times.

        To say Naaman was angry would be an understatement. He believed Elisha was insulting him by not even coming out of the house. He saw going and bathing in any river, much less this “body of water” that was often so dried up there would be no water for Naaman to bathe. Why couldn’t he use one of the far greater rivers, at least far bigger rivers he would cross on his way home.

        As I see the story play out in my mind, Naaman grudgingly goes to the Jordan, griping about the useless prophet all the way. I see Naaman getting into the river, still muttering complaints. He dips into the river once, twice, three times. Each time he looks at the sores on his body he sees no change. He talks about how this is a waste of time and he starts to leave the river saying, “I guess I will live out the remainder of my life in a leper colony.” His men convince him to get back into the water and finish Elisha’s instruction. He does and, in the end, God heals him.

         What would have happened if Naaman had left the river before completing Elisha’s instructions. Naaman was anything but a stupid man. You don’t become a general in anyone’s army by being stupid. Naaman knew Elisha’s instructions were stupid. He knew there was no way Elisha’s instructions should work. But, as Naaman would learn, God can do the impossible.

        So, what happened to Augusto and Lorenzo? There were failures in Augusto’s effort to find a cure for Lorenzo. But Augusto was a fighter who refused to accept such a terrible situation without expending every ounce of energy he had to overcome the seemingly impossible with the gift of grace and mercy.

Augusto worked to discover a cure on his own. He faced some huge obstacles.

  • Augusto only had a high school understanding in science and medicine.
  • He had to learn everything about the disease from scratch. That includes things like how degradative enzymes cross membranes and how long-chain fatty acids accumulate.
  • After learning about it, he had to discover a cure.
  • And do it all in less than two years so he can give it to Lorenzo.

When they told doctors and researchers about the plan, they heard the same thing:

“It’s impossible. It can’t be done.”

By day, Augusto worked as an economist at the World Bank. At night, he scoured research papers and medical journals from the National Institute of Health. He worked dauntlessly and put all his effort into figuring the disease out.

He finally got an insight from an unlikely source: the oils he used to make spaghetti carbonara. He reasoned that the oils might soak up the deadly acids before it hurt Lorenzo’s nervous system.

Medical researchers thought he was crazy. After all, it’s absolutely unheard of for complete amateurs in medicine to develop a cure to a complex neurological disease that professionals had been studying for decades.

But when they tested the oil on Lorenzo, it made a huge impact on his condition. While it didn’t cure him completely, it did halt the progress enough for Lorenzo to live an additional twenty years when he died from an accident – not the disease.

It took until 2005 for doctors to publish a study to finally prove the treatment actually works – which is now known as Lorenzo’s Oil (which is also the name of a movie about their accomplishment.). In that time, Augusto and Michaela had given it to hundreds of other people and saved lives all over the world.

It all sounds so impossible, doesn’t it?

Someone with only a high school understanding of science studying enough about a rare disease to find a treatment for it? And in less than two years?

We know it’s not impossible though. It happened.

I have to admit that if I had heard about Augusto and Michaela’s plan to find a cure to a disease with little to no knowledge about medicine, I would have assumed it was impossible too. It’s just so far outside of the norm that it’s too easy to dismiss it away.

But it should all give us pause to think about what we consider “impossible” in our own lives.

It seems so easy to define what’s possible and what isn’t. We tend to use our perceptions of things we’ve seen before to help guide us in what can actually be done.

But defining what’s impossible is not as clear as we’d like to think. Perceptions are largely based upon experience. That leaves a big gap of knowledge about experiences that haven’t been tested yet.

The Odones went into that unknown area of experience where no one had gone before. Because it had never been done before, people were ready to dismiss it away as “impossible”. But it’s important to test our perceptions and assumptions – many times they’re wrong.

If Augusto and Michaela had simply accepted their situation, Lorenzo would have died much earlier in his life. The only reason they found this cure was due to Augusto’s determination and willingness to fight.

Make no mistake about it. What Augusto and Michaela did was a long-shot – a huge long-shot. But that’s the strange and beautiful thing about life, sometimes the long-shots pay off. The Odones saw God make Mission Impossible, Mission Possible.

What would have happened to Naaman if he bathed six times and said it was impossible and left upset and angry? He would have missed seeing God turn “Mission Impossible” into “Mission Possible.”

Ethan Hunt and Jim Phelps of Mission Impossible fame might be able to turn the impossible into possible but that is because the writers said so. As for the rest of us, if something is truly impossible, the only way to reverse mission impossible is for God to intervene. When that happens, mission impossible quickly becomes mission possible.

What is God calling you to do that might seem impossible. Will you walk away and see it remain Mission Impossible? Or, will you remain obedient and see God make “Mission Impossible,” “Mission Possible?”

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