Is it good to teach children that anything is possible?
The professor who taught me Logic had a lot of sayings, and this one was my favorite: “It takes a finite amount of time to accomplish anything.”
I loved hearing that, because—until formal logic clicks for you—it’s nearly impossible.
Practically, it’s a very helpful saying. But how about theologically?
In my mind, it takes its place among the others: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” and “If you can dream it, you can do it…”
And then there’s this one, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
Turn that frown upside down, right?
And, of course, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Take yours.”
Do you want me to keep going? Or are you sufficiently motivated?
The saccharine sweetness of motivational posters and practical advice tends to fall a little flat when you realize that some things are actually impossible.
And that’s a difficult lesson—made more difficult by all the snake oil selling false pastors who misquote the Bible and sell lots of books.
I’m sure you’ve heard that “All things are possible with God” (Matthew 19:26). Jesus says that.
But it’s not true. Or, rather, it’s only true in certain terms.
All things are possible with God, but God can’t sin. That’s impossible for God. All things are possible with God, but God can’t not exist. All things are possible with God, but God tempts no one. The list goes on.
When Jesus says “All things are possible with God,” He’s responding to the incredulity of the disciples who won’t believe that a rich man enters heaven only with great difficulty. That’s the context of “All things are possible with God.”
The disciples, like Job’s friends, assumed that earthly blessing corresponded to heavenly favor—that you could look at human circumstances and conclude divine favor or wrath.
But Job’s friends and the disciples are wrong.
Jesus informs them that God can save even the most corrupt billionaire—just as He can save the most impoverished, bloated, trashy-t-shirt wearing child.
Because they’re both—and we’re all—saved by the same thing: faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
What’s impossible for man—to save himself—is possible for God. That is, God saves man.
That’s not a motivational poster—that’s the proclamation of the gospel. That’s “All things…”
But what about this one?
St. Paul writes, “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).
Hardly anyone quotes that in context.
St. Paul means to say that he can get by whether he’s suffering greatly or suffering plenty. In the verse before, St. Paul writes, “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need…” (Philippians 4:12).
He means to say that, by faith, he can endure, whatever happens.
But when you come across a poster with that verse on it, when you find a nicknack with Philippians 4:13 printed on it, “all things” is used to mean anything but faithfully enduring suffering and/or plenty. Rather, the poster and the nicknack want you to hear “all things” and think this:
“Those things you want to do…Those things you want someone to tell you to do…Those things you wish you could do…Those things God should tell you to do…You can do all those things through him who gives you strength.”
That’s motivational. But it’s not Scripture.
“All things” doesn’t mean “all things.”
Because some things are impossible.
And some things should be impossible.
It’s for our benefit that we can’t, literally, do all things.
And Babel, our Old Testament lesson today, shows us why.
“As people migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there…Then they said, ‘Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth’” (Genesis 11:2,4).
For a moment, pretend that everything they say and do is good. What do you make of what God does in response?
“The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.’ So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city” (Genesis 11:5-8).
God admits that “nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them,” so He confuses their language and dispersed them over the face of the earth.
Why would God stamp out the ingenuity of man?
Because some things are actually impossible.
And it’s good that they are.
Now, consider what they said: “Let us build ourselves a city,” and, “Let us make a name for ourselves.”
Never forget that you’re a steward of God’s creation—not a creator, yourself. When you build a house (or a city), or fashion a ring, or buy a car, or even become pregnant—none of that sprang into existence, out of nothing, at your command.
The Lord giveth. That’s true. But the Lord, also, taketh away. And—blessed be the name of the Lord.
When God dispersed the people—when He confused their language—when He left their spires to crumble, it was a good thing, because they would’ve thought that all things were possible for them.
God forced them to trust Him or despair.
I don’t recall any verse of Scripture that teaches us to trust each other, to build for ourselves a city, or to make our name great.
But Solomon writes in Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5).
And thus says the Lord through the prophet Micah: “Put no trust in a neighbor; have no confidence in a friend” (Micah 7:5).
And from Jeremiah: “Thus says the Lord: ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord’” (Jeremiah 17:5).
And Psalm 118: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man” (Psalm 118:8).
And Jesus teaches us to pray, “Hallowed be Thy name,” (Matthew 6:9), that is, God’s name is holy—not ours.
God disperses man and confuses his language so that he will fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
God insists that some things are and should be impossible. That’s good.
But man doesn’t remain in that confusion forever.
Impossible things are still impossible, but Pentecost undoes the curse at Babel.
There is, again and now, one language, one message, one proclamation that is true for all, meant for all, and proclaimed to all: the mighty works of God—Jesus. Christ. God. Son. And savior.
Pentecost is the 50th day of Easter, the day the Church, as we know it, began.
But every day you hear the Word of God in your own language is a reminder of Pentecost.
Every day that God comes to you—seeking, serving, and saving by means of His Word and the Sacraments—is a reminder of Pentecost.
You can’t make your name great.
But God can make you great by adding His name unto you. Holy Baptism washes you clean and marks you as one redeemed by Christ the crucified.
Our name is not holy, but God’s name is. So we’re baptized in the name of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Imagine being taught that anything is possible.
Dogs can become cats.
Trees can marry swimming pools.
Your vote can make a difference.
You don’t need everyone to agree with you, nod and smile and make you feel better about being wrong.
Imagine finding out—too late—that some things actually are impossible.
You do need the clear voice of Scripture, the Word of God, to clear things up for you.
You can’t make a name for yourself.
Even if you build a house or a city, fashion a ring, or make a baby—God gives the growth.
And it’s all His—entrusted to us, as stewards.
Some things are impossible.
We should teach our children that.
We should teach our children to be content with what God gives—our minds, bodies, children, and even the crosses we bear.
You can’t build a tower to the heavens.
You can’t go to God.
But God has come to us in Jesus.
The burden is not on you to go to God—but on God to carry your burdens, to visit and relieve you.
In Jesus Christ, all things are finished.
“Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26).
And in that way, “all things” means “all things.”
In Jesus’ name, Amen!
Pentecost Sermon, 2018
Rev. Benjamin Tyler Holt