We have a very active congregation of very talented people. That's not flattery - that's just fact. We have a lot of highly dedicated, high-achievers here. Some of you are, perhaps, even what they call "over-achievers" - people who try to squeeze as much as possible out of whatever time and abilities you have, pushing yourself over the limit. That's very commendable, and we thank God for people like you.
There's only one problem with being a high-achiever. Sometimes we take that desire into other areas of our life, where it doesn't apply, and doesn't work well. High-achievers sometimes, for instance, have difficulty with personal relationships. They simply demand too much from their partners - frankly, they wear them out. They also tend to have problems with their faith, because they think that what serves them well in the rest of life should serve them well there also.
There's a story about Jesus meeting a high-achiever Luke shares with us, in Luke 18:18-27:
Now a certain ruler asked Him, "Good Rabbi, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus replied, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery,' 'Do not murder,' 'Do not bear false witness,' 'Honor your father and mother." He said, "I have kept all these things from my youth." When Jesus heard this, He said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell all you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." But when he heard this he became sorrowful, for he was very rich. When Jesus saw this, he said, "How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!" Those around him said, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus responded, "With people it is impossible, but with God all things are possible."
Here is a young man who has it all - wealth, success, everything a person could do. It's obvious that he is a high-achiever, because when it comes to his spiritual life, he is able to boast that he has kept all of the commandments from his youth. Now, I certainly can't say that - I really don't know anyone who can! But Jesus obviously believes him - he isn't incredulous at the claim; he doesn't question him on the point. This young man is REALLY an over-achiever. There's only one problem. Unfortunately, we can't apply our achievements to that area of life. In fact, St. Paul says that the very best of what we do in that area is nothing but filthy rags.
You see, love is always a gift. It cannot be earned. When I got married, I couldn't believe that this beautiful, talented, wonderful woman would fall for a lunk like me. Almost thirty years later, I still have trouble believing it. At first, I figured it was because she really didn't know me very well. But I've come to find out that doesn't have much to do with it. Her love for me is a gift that has very little to do with the kind of person I am, or what I have to offer her. All you can do with a gift like that is accept it and say, "thank you," and respond by loving a person like that as much as you are able. Some people like to make marriage a "fifty-fifty" proposition, or try to earn their partners favors, or demand love from them. But marriages like that don't work. That's not what marriage is all about. What marriage IS about, is this wonderful gift that we are given, of dwelling in someone's heart, of having this precious relationship that we are given - not because we are smart, or good-looking, or especially talented, or wonderful - but rather just because, somewhere, somehow, in some way, this person has come to love and care for us. It is pure grace - a gift.
The Bible says that marriage was given to us as a sign of a greater relationship that we have - our relationship with God. And if marriage is an act of grace, them this relationship with God is even more so. It is pure gift, unearned, unmerited.
That's where a lot of folks - even the vast majority of Christians - make a big mistake. We even misquote Paul. Some folks think, "well, as long as I'm good - keep the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, I'm o.k." Do we think that is what makes our spouse or children love us - because we're good and don't beat them? That helps - but that's not the center of a good relationship. And it matters even less in our relationship with God. Some churches say, "well, it's based on faith: "the just shall live by faith," after all. But when we do that, it just makes faith into another work. How much faith do we have to have? Like a mustard seed? Great faith? How much is enough?
We've left something out of the equation. Luther got it right. We are justified "by grace through faith." What that means, is that our relationship with God is first and foremost a gift. That's what grace means. He has decided to love us. That's all there is to it. God loves you, and there's nothing you can do about it. You can't add to that, you can't detract from it. He loves you. You are in his heart. He has loved you from before you were born. The Psalmist says, "You have called me from my mother's womb." And he shall love you for all eternity. You are his child. That's what baptism proclaims to us. The writer of Hebrews says, "He will never leave you nor forsake you." His love is eternal and unchanging. You are justified by grace. In common English that is to say, "your relationship to God is a gift of his love to you."
Then comes that other part, "through faith." My response to my wife's love, if I'm really smart - since she is such a wonderful person - is to rest in her love. That's the other part of a relationship, isn't it? She can love me all she wants, but if I don't rest in her love, it's really not a relationship. She may long for me, but my longing for her completes the relationship. God longs for us - he has given us his love. My longing for him completes the relationship. That is faith - my trust in him, my resting in his love.
In the story of the rich young ruler, that was the part that was missing in the story. Jesus reached out to the young man. Luke says that he loved him. But the young man couldn't believe it. He came thinking that he could offer something to God, that he could buy his way into heaven. But when he discovered that it was a gift, he couldn't accept it. He couldn't trust God - not enough to give up the poor, paltry things that he did own, to rest in God's love alone.
When Eleanore and I were young, we had nothing. We struggled to come up with seventy dollars a month to keep a roof over our heads. All we had was one another. We don't seem to struggle with the bills now as much as we did then, but I'm not sure that we have much more - that we could ever have much more - than we did then. Compared to what she has given me, the rest isn't worth even counting. That would be like a millionaire counting his pocket change.
That is the nature of this gift we have been given, you and I. We have a God who has loved us eternally, unconditionally, extravagantly. From before the foundations of the world were laid, you were in his heart. And when the end of everything comes, and into the farthest reaches of eternity, you will still be there. He knows you by name. He has counted the hairs on your head. He knows ever shadow that passes over your life. And he has wonderful dreams for you. You are graced with an immeasurable love.
Rest in that love. Believe in that love. Depend on that love. Rejoice in that love.