Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Rich Young Ruler. A Sermon preached at the Celebrate Service in Dromore Cathedral on 2nd April 2006. Mark 10:17-31

This morning we’re going to be thinking about the two questions in our reading – ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ and ‘who then can be saved?’ I’m assuming that these questions are fairly important to you, seeing as you’re here this morning. So as we look at the questions, and how Jesus responded to them, we’ll find out something about eternal life, how we can achieve it ourselves, and what it means for us.

Jesus had been teaching the crowds, and had been blessing the children brought to him – against the disciples’ wishes. And just as he was setting off on his journey up towards Jerusalem, the young man approaches him, and kneels before him. He is breathless, because he has been running, and gasps out his question: ‘Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’

He wanted to know how to have eternal life. Now, while this means that it goes on forever, it means so much more than that. Eternal life is also about a new quality of life, because it is spent with God, in fellowship with him. He was asking Jesus how he could be right with God. As someone has pointed out, he wanted to know what to do in this world to be happy in the next.

Jesus refers him to the commandments, and lists off some of them – ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honour your father and mother.’ As Jesus says these, you can see the young man going through a checklist in his head, nodding, and smiling more and more. And then he says, ‘Teacher, all these I have kept since I was a boy.’

There’s no doubt about it – Jesus was impressed. We read that ‘Jesus looked at him and loved him.’ He knew that what the man said was true enough, that he had indeed kept the commandments listed, that his credentials checked out. The young man was trying to please God through following his commandments. And Jesus was pleased to see his earnest desire to follow God. But then came the punchline – the decider – ‘"One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

Mark tells us that the man’s face fell, and he went away sad. It had looked so good for him – he had everything going for him, until Jesus put his finger on the one thing the man didn’t want to give up – his wealth.

You see, on the outside, it seemed as if the man had it all made. Any church would have wanted him as their member, or maybe even to serve on the Vestry or as Churchwarden. He had done it all right on the outside – keeping all the negative commandments – all those ‘do nots.’ Things seemed to be going well when Jesus dealt with the commandments towards your neighbour.

And yet, when it came to the first four – our responsibility towards God, then it got a bit tougher for him. Then the young man had a choice – would he obey the first commandment (You shall have no other gods before me)? He had to face up to the tough question of what he would put first in his life – would it be God, or would it be his wealth?

Sadly, he chose to hold on to the wealth he had, and turn his back on Jesus. When it came down to it, what he had in this world seemed to him more important than what he could look forward to in the next. He wanted the crown in the next world without enduring the cross in this world.

Notice that Jesus didn’t run after him – he simply stated the conditions of eternal life for that man, and let him make his decision. But then Jesus turns to his disciples and seems to make it even harder for salvation. What does he mean when he says ‘How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Now, I don’t know about you, but when I read these verses, it makes me wonder a bit. After all, while we may not feel incredibly wealthy, in world terms we are indeed rich. And have you ever tried to thread a camel through the eye of a needle? I find it hard enough to put a thread through there, let alone a needle! Peter catches the serious implications of what Jesus is saying, when he asks him the second question – ‘Who then can be saved?’

And here, we find great comfort, in Jesus’ words, "With man this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God.” All things are possible with God. We can indeed be saved. Not through any striving or effort in ourselves, but by God alone. God can, and will bring about our salvation if we let him. This is indeed a great comfort. But his words also contain a challenge. Because if we’re going to find salvation in God, then we have to let him bring it about, and not try to work for it ourselves! And this was exactly the problem with the young man. He wanted to know from Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life, and his striving was all what he would do. Yet when it came down to it, his ultimate security was found not in God, or the salvation he would provide, but rather in the wealth he had.

And so the challenge is there for us today – how have we tried to gain eternal life? Has it been through keeping the commandments (or at least those that are easier to avoid), or by observing some sort of moral code of decency (the sort of thinking that says that I’ll be all right if I’m in church each week)? Have we tried to gain eternal life by trusting in our riches or our job, our social status, or our postcode?

God doesn’t want a sort of outward conformity, that sort of decency that seems to run throughout our thinking in Northern Ireland – yeah, she’s a decent woman… etc. Rather, God wants to be first in our life – that we would love him with all our heart and all our soul and with all our mind and with all our strength (Mark12:30). Think of the young man – his wealth took first place in his heart, even above God, so that in the end, he had to turn his back on God because of his wealth.

It would be so easy this morning to stand here and say that God is calling each one of us to sell all we have right now, and to give all to the poor. But I’m not sure that this is the direct application for every one of us. However, the passage does lead us to think about what is important in our lives. Does wealth take a great role in your life than God? Which are you actually worshipping, because Jesus said that we cannot serve two masters.

And as we reflect on our priorities, let us think about what we do have. Would we be willing to give all away for the sake of Jesus? Do we actually believe that Jesus alone is the source of eternal life and worth giving everything up for?

In a way, it boils down to our attitude to wealth. Are we going to be like the young man, tight-fisted, holding on to his wealth, even if it ultimately costs us eternal life? Because if we hold on to what we have, with that closed hand, then we won’t release it to God, or be able to receive what God has for us.

The contrast to the young man, though, is the disciples. As Peter points out, "We have left everything to follow you!" They have opened their hands, and surrendered what they had to God. But at the same time, they also receive from God, so much more than what they ever had – both in this life, and in the world to come. How is this so? Well, as Jesus points out, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel 30will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—and with them, persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.”

We aren’t called to follow God as individuals, as lone rangers on our own. We follow God together, in the church, and it is in this community that we find that hundred times as much that Jesus talked about – as we share with our brothers and sisters in the family.

The call for us this morning may not be to sell all we have and to give it away immediately. But the call is for us to surrender all we have to God, seeking how we can use the things he has given us to his glory, and for his purposes. Perhaps you could offer your house to host a home group, or offer some hospitality to the new person sitting near you in church this morning. Because even simple actions like these can show that you aren’t trusting in your wealth for eternal life, but rather, that when God is first in your life, then you will use all you have for his purposes, and are willing to give it all away, if he calls you to do that.

So what must we do to inherit eternal life? We are saved by putting our trust in him, by putting him first in our lives. And this will have implications for our wealth and all that we have – as we ask God how we should use it for his glory. Will you be like the rich young man, who held on to his wealth and lost eternal life, or will you surrender all you have and find salvation by putting your trust in God?

Let’s pray together: Father God, we thank you that all things are possible with you, and that we can find eternal life in you. Help us to trust you, and to surrender all we have to you, to be used as you want. Help us also to recognise the riches we have through this church family and the wider family, and to encourage one another to follow you. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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