Ready for This?
Morning Service conducted by our Minister, to include the baptism of Logan Bell
This sermon is taken from Mark 10, verses 17-27; James 1, verses 16-25
Ready for this?
OK, let’s make one thing clear at the start- that story about Jesus and the rich man is not, primarily about money. We tend to be wary of stories in which people are told to give away their money. I would guess that most of us here enjoy a lifestyle ranging from just- about-comfortable to very comfortable and that we have had or still have to work incredibly hard to maintain that lifestyle. So any tale in which someone is required to give away all his money has us firmly closing our purses, the financial apps on our phones and our ears. Which is a bit of a waste of my time and yours. …..
So let’s relax. That story is not primarily about money.
It is the rich man who makes the first move, not Jesus. This man runs after Jesus and asks what he must do to gain “eternal life.” Is this about going to heaven when he dies? Possibly, but I doubt it. The phrase “eternal life” can be taken as meaning the same thing as “everlasting life,” in other words going to heaven when you die. But more often in the Bible it is about a quality rather than quantity of life. It is about finding a deeper meaning in your life right here, right now. It is about finding something more to life than you are now experiencing.
But why should a man who is rich, Matthew’s Gospel also said he was powerful, Luke’s Gospel also says he was young-so presumably fit and healthy want more out of life? He was highly religious and says that he has kept all the laws of his religion faithfully so he obviously was not suffering from a guilty conscience. What could a rich, successful, good-living, religious man want from a poor, homeless, wandering preacher like Jesus?
You might think “nothing” until you remember the number of incredibly wealthy, famous celebrities who have died of drug overdoses;
Or seriously powerful people who are exposed as having been involved in sad and sleazy activities;
Or men and women we might have known who have worked flat out to get to the top of their profession and then asked “is this it?’
Or parents who pour all their time and energy into making their children successful and then the children go off to lead their own lives (which are not always the ones you might have chosen for them) and parents ask – what is left in life for me?
Or even long-term, faithful church members who give huge amounts of time and talent to the work of their church but then get to a point when they find themselves asking “why am I here? Do I really believe in God?”
You might have been watching the recent dramatization of Thackeray’s novel “Vanity Fair” on ITV and each episode opens with Michael Palin as William Thackeray, spinning his characters on an old fashioned merry-go-round. It looks bright and pretty and exciting but Thackeray says that all these people are “striving for that which is not worth having.“
A life can look to us as though it has everything when, to the person living it, it can feel as though it has nothing. Which may be why this rich, successful young man comes to Jesus and asks, “what can I do to gain real life?”
When we first started thinking about prayer, I pointed out that human beings had always been “praying creatures.” Long before any kind of organised religion, people were sensing and reaching out to something other, something greater than themselves. There was a deep rooted belief that there was more to life than mere survival for a limited number of years.
(And this is proved by the archaeological records.) Even in our scientific and largely non-religious culture today, there are still a growing number of people claiming some kind of what we call “spiritual” awareness or experiencing a deep sense of spiritual need. It is as though we still seek a deeper purpose to life; a sense that we are part of something vaster than ourselves; a reason for our being here; a reassurance that there is more to us than a body which can only expect to live and breathe for our “threescore years and ten.”
As a Christian minister I believe that Jesus Christ has the answer to this need. For Jesus Christ came to reconcile us to God; to put us in touch with God; to bring God right into a human life and even a mortal death; to release the power of God in overcoming the powers of evil and death, to place our hands into the hand of God so we might know ourselves to be God’s children and a part of God’s eternal purpose.
The rich man in the story obviously suspected that Jesus Christ might be the answer to his own deep spiritual needs. After all, many people came to Jesus asking more or less the same question and many found that “eternal life” they were hoping for. So why could not he?
I suspect, because he was not ready for where this eternal life might take him. Our biggest problem with “spiritualty” is that we want to be in charge of it and of course, if we are looking to get involved with something greater than ourselves, we are not going to be in charge of it. Not ever.
A man like this, a strong character with plenty of money and power is not going to find it easy to get involved with something he cannot control. Keeping religious and moral laws requires, basically, will power. And most of us do not have enough of it but this man clearly had. But a truly effective and authentic spiritual life requires us to let go and invite a greater power into our lives. And because we are talking a greater power, we cannot set the boundaries. If we believe in the God of love proclaimed and demonstrated by Jesus, we have to trust this God to enter our lives and take us on into the deep joy and peace Jesus promised. This has to be accepted as a gift, not something we can deserve because we are good enough or give enough or achieve enough. If we are looking at a being far greater than ourselves then it is that being who must freely offer himself to us, not we who set the terms and conditions.
Our man in the story could not get his head or his heart round this. He wanted Jesus to give him a formula, a therapy, a mantra that he could rely on to bring him deep joy whenever he wanted it. He would not have minded paying for it because that was what his life was all about- buying whatever he wanted, including God. The Jewish faith- his faith- had strict laws about giving one tenth of all your money to the work of God, that is, to the needy and to the temple. He had kept this law. He had paid highly- a whole tenth of a very rich man’s income- and he wanted to see results. He wanted the spiritual satisfaction due to a man who had paid so highly. The reason Jesus asked him to get rid of his money was not because Jesus did not want anyone to have any money but because Jesus could see that money had become the bedrock of this man’s life. It was the source of all his confidence, security and self-esteem. Only if that were to be gone might the man be ready to see God for what God truly was and open his life to a love that was freely given and not paid for.
It is not just about money. With this man it was about money. For other people it can be other things that hold them back from God. It might be personal pride. Nowadays we are brought up to see ourselves as Rulers of the Universe- we can know everything and we can do anything. How can we bring ourselves to bow humbly before a God we cannot even see?
It might be guilt. A lot of us shrink back from a power that presumably knows everything there is to know about us because we fear that this power might not like us very much.
It might be intellect. We want everything to be clear and scientific and logical. We want faith neatly tied up into provable facts and cause and effect. And it cannot be. We are not asked to abandon our brains when we worship God but, as a very wise man said to me once, “the opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” He was absolutely right and some people cannot cope with that.
It might be credibility. When you live in a secular culture, it takes a lot of courage and conviction to take on a faith, to live by that faith. And, as Edward, Victoria and I agreed when we were talking about Logan’s baptism, it takes a huge amount of courage, conviction and commitment to bring your child up within a faith community and teach them to believe in God. Amongst other things, you are risking them getting a lot of “stick” in the playground.
Jesus had this amazing capacity for looking at people with deep love and seeing exactly what it was that was holding them back from God. If he were looking at each one of us right now, what do you think he might see?......
Prayer then, real prayer is something of an adventure. If we are honestly inviting God to get involved in our lives then we can have no idea what will happen. Of course we pray for other people, for situations that worry us, for what is going on in the world and we should never under-estimate the power of our prayers but the greatest change real prayer will make will be in us. For in prayer we are opening ourselves up to God, entering into God’s way of thinking. And are we ready for this?
You may have heard of David Wilkerson- the Minister of a nice, lively, growing church. He was doing good work, the congregation loved him, his family were living happily in a newly built house. David felt that he needed to spend more time in prayer and so he made a resolution to spend an hour or two in prayer every night after his work was done. He had great willpower. He kept going faithfully. Then one night he picked up a magazine, hoping to find something that would direct his prayers. He saw an article about four teenage boys in New York who had callously and brutally murdered a disabled man in a wheelchair. Naturally David’s were first for the victim’s family, for the local community who were shocked and terrified, for the police, that justice might be done. But then, without asking, he found his prayers changing him and his concern growing for those four violent, drug-crazed boys, the terrible place they had grown up in, the society that was washing its hands of people like them. To cut a long story short, David ended up leading a pioneer Christian ministry on the streets of one of the toughest areas in New York, living from hand to mouth, putting his life on the line, no security of any kind. But, as you may know from his book The Cross and the Switchblade, the effects of his ministry were vast and little short of miraculous. And, despite leaving behind everything he had once believed vital to his wellbeing, he found himself with the gift of “eternal life,” real life. His prayers had taken him far from where he thought he wanted to be. He was not ready for this. But God was.
Or Albert Schweitzer- a exceptionally brilliant man with four phds! He prayed for God’s guidance and ended up healing the sick in a remote and poverty-stricken part of Africa. Was he happy in his life? By all accounts, yes he was.
Nearer to home and slightly less dramatic, a good friend of mine told me of the prayers she made when she was coming up to retirement from an extremely high-powered professional career. She was barely sixty and afraid of getting bored or stale in her life, so she prayed that God would give her something worthwhile to do. The next thing she knew was that the Minister of her church was asking her to consider becoming Church Secretary, something she had never dreamed of doing. With some apprehension she took it on, for a few years only. She loved the work, the congregation and I, the Minister, loved her. She did the most brilliant job and remained happily and willingly for the full term of office.
And you may have heard the story of the well-to-do lady in the early years of the twentieth century, when people still had servants. This lady prayed hard for the gift of patience. She needed to calm down, hold her tongue sometimes, deal with life and people more graciously. God answered her prayer, she was to say, some years later. God sent a new cook into her house who was a wonderful cook but had more than her fair share of the artistic temperament to go with it. The cook had such a filthy temper that the lady soon acquired the gift of patience in dealing with her.
Prayer is an adventure. Bringing Logan into the Christian community will be an adventure for him as he learns to pray and to trust in God. We do not know where faith and prayer might take him but, as we remain faithful to the promises we have made, we trust God to love him, direct him and empower him. As James-the writer of our second reading- was to say, God has put something of himself in us. We must make our lives ready for this seed of God’s Spirit to grow. And the more we look at God, the more we shall see just who we are and what we really want in life.
And so finally, I mention John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.” His prayers certainly took him on a huge adventure. From making vast sums of money in the human slave trade, he became a Christian Minister. From supporting the business which was bringing economic prosperity to Britain, he worked with Wilberforce to bring it down. From a position of power, wealth and social “clout” he became a humble preacher whom even the church at first rejected because of his background and with whom the tabloids had a field day. This was what he wrote as his own epitaph: John Newton. Once an infidel and libertine …. Was by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long laboured to destroy.
Does this sound to you like a man who lost everything or a man who gained everything?