Faith & Worship Faith & Worship


Stretching us to the limit

"Jesus looks at us with the appeal of love and with the challenge to adventure with him."

Mark 10:17-27

How many Churches and Chapels around your patch wouldn't smother to death with welcome, anyone under 30 who came into a service bubbling over with enthusiasm and excitement just for being there. In fact, it begs the question "When was the last time you came into Church bubbling over with enthusiasm?" But then, that's another sermon altogether!

You've got to feel sorry for this young man. Here he is, well off, a good man, a respectable man, an enthusiastic man, someone unconcerned with the differences in class between himself and a travelling prophet from Nazareth. Maybe he was working or living in the area through which Jesus was passing. Whatever the reason he comes dashing along the road to arrive, breathless at Jesus' feet.

"Good teacher, what can I do to have eternal life?" he gasps between breaths.

No messing about, no waffling, no trying to trick Jesus into saying something that might get him arrested. This was not the Pharisees or the Scribes trying to gather evidence against Jesus as they did on so many occasions This was a young man asking the question that the whole of mankind should have been asking 'What must I do to have eternal life?'

What an opportunity for Jesus!

Surely Jesus would embrace this man, hold him up as an example to all those gathered round.

But Jesus is not predictable.

"Good teacher!" says the man, and Jesus immediately answers back "Why do you call me good? Only God is good"

What is Jesus trying to do here? Why deflate the poor man's enthusiasm before he's even had a chance to get the answer he was wanting.

But perhaps Jesus had got it right - well, let's face it, Jesus almost certainly had got it right. Here's a good lesson for any evangelist or preacher, and I must thank William Barclay for pointing this out.

Jesus did two things.

Firstly he got the man to just calm down and get his breath back. Jesus didn't want him to arrive swept up by a moment of sheer emotion. Jesus wanted him to think calmly about what He was about to say. He wasn't trying to discourage, he was preparing the man for some serious soul-searching.

"Take a few deep breaths!" Jesus tells him.

Secondly, Jesus starts by telling this man that he's guilty of something that we are often guilty of. He tells the man not to look at Him, not to form some sort of emotional attachment to Jesus the man, however charismatic Jesus might be.

"You must look to God." Jesus tells him.

This is not Jesus denying His divinity; this is Jesus seeing in this man a sort of hero worship, and that was not healthy. And that's true of all who preach and teach the Gospel, but most particularly the more popular evangelists of any age. They can so often be held up in such high esteem, almost idolized.

The teaching must always point to God and never to self. Of course, it's impossible to keep personality and charisma out of the equation, and that's part of the God-given package of any human being, part of the presentation. But always the evangelist must be simply a signpost pointing to God.

So, back to the story. The young man doesn't get off to a very good start, and it gets worse!

"Good teacher, what can I do to have eternal life?"

"What can I do?" he asks. We of course, with our extensive knowledge of this matter would quickly reply "Nothing! There is nothing you can DO to have or earn eternal life. Eternal Life is God's gift, it comes by Grace."

We know the answer to questions like that, because we've heard it so often from the pulpit. We would probably say the same thing to anyone who asked that question, without really stopping to think of any alternative reply.

Jesus, of course, doesn't say that at all. He reminds the man of some of the Ten Commandments that concern relationships between people, rules for life as laid down by God to Moses so many years previous. "Do you remember all those Commandments, and have you faithfully kept them?"

"No problem," replies the man. "I've obeyed each one since my youth! So is that it... Is that all there is to it... Have I made the grade?"

And Jesus looked again at the young man and you can imagine Him smiling. Here was a good man, a respectable man, an honest man, and one who had striven never to do anyone any wrong. Jesus was warming to him, you can sense that. No longer the sharp tongue but a softer tone now

"Jesus looked closely at the man. He liked him and said, 'There's one thing you still need to do. Go sell everything you own. Give the money to the poor, and you will have riches in heaven. Then come with me.'"

So far the man had admitted to Jesus all the things he had not done, which is what the Law was mainly about - not doing things. Isn't respectability mainly about not doing things; not stealing from our neighbor, not lying or telling tales, not being envious of someone else's possessions, not taking life.

"My way" says Jesus, "is different!"

Jesus tells the young man to take his eyes away from the Law, from trying so hard to be respectable by not doing things and GET OUT THERE AND DO SOMETHING! Here was a man who had so much and had given so little. It might be terribly respectable never to have taken from your neighbor - which is quite a negative quality if you stop to think about it - but Jesus tells the man that the Christian way is to give - a positive action.

"Take everything that you are and everything that you have, and be prepared to give it all for others. Then you'll find out what true happiness is, both now and for eternity."

And of course he couldn't do it. Never in his life had the young man been positively and sacrificially generous. This was far more radical than he could cope with.

"How much do you really want this?" Jesus asks. "Do you want it enough to follow me without all that baggage, just you as you are and without all those things that you value so highly. Do you want it that badly?"

Unfortunately, the answer seems to have been "I've followed the letter of the law all these years. In the eyes of the world I am a good man, a respectable man, no criminal record and highly thought of by my contemporaries. I want a deeper faith, and I want to have that assurance of eternal life... but I don't think I don't want it that badly."

Now this is not an example of Jesus saying that wealth is necessarily bad, or that everyone should be prepared to give all that they have to the poor. In some ways that might be bad stewardship, as many folk these days try to make provision for their retirement so that they might not be a burden on others. But the reality of Jesus' call on us is that He MIGHT ask any one of us to do the same - to give up something that is of great value, to be prepared, to be willing if asked to give and give until it hurts.

And there's the rub of course. We may not be rich young rulers, or even rich old rulers. We may not even be rich in monetary terms. But we all have things of value in our lives, both physical and spiritual. There are parts of me, of my personality that I would find difficult to share with others. There are things about my home - some small, some large, very little worth anything in cash value - that mean a lot to me. There are the intangibles of life such as time and space, our own private time and space. These are things that I struggle to give to or to share with others.

As Christians we want goodness, we want to see the blessings of belonging to the Body of Christ, God's Family here on earth. We long for the assurance of eternal life, but so few of us are prepared to say that we want it badly enough to pay the price.

So am I any different, are YOU any different than that young man?

He was asked to do something, to go one step further than he had been before. Jesus wanted to stretch his faith beyond the point at which it had stalled, the point at which the pause or stop button had been pressed.

Jesus listened as the young man told him how earnest he had been all his life in pursuit of his goal, and within him Jesus saw so much potential. But I wonder if Jesus also saw that the step he was about to ask him to take would be one that would prove such a stumbling block.

How would we have tackled this? When we feel love for someone we tend to make allowances, give them a smooth ride, iron out anything that might impede their progress. There's a hymn that says "Just as I am, I come, I come" and we imagine Jesus holding out his arms and welcoming us, just as we are with all our faults, together with all of our good points, our respectability. But is that it? Does it stop there? Is Jesus happy to have us just as we are?

As this young man found out to his cost, Jesus is never happy with the status quo, never happy with where we are. He's always encouraging us to grow, stretching us to our limits, demanding a little more. And if you think that's a little hard, surely that's a sign of His love for us, His Faith in us that He believes we are capable of so much more, given a helping hand.

A poem by Eddie Askew inspired by this chapter ends with these words:

"And where would I be if love let go?
Left me, self satisfied and smug?
If you were as easily content as I can be
With miniscule achievement?
Thank god, thank you, you're not.
For each step up I make, you ask another.
Love says move on.
Stay taut. Stretch tight. Reach out.
And as I do, love meets me.
Not standing on the summit, high and unobtainable until the last,
But climbing with me."

Jesus, looking at this young man, felt nothing but love for him. There were many things in that look of love.

1 - There was the appeal of love. It wasn't a look of anger or frustration, Jesus loved him too much for that. This was the appeal of love, an appeal to the heart to go that extra mile, to be prepared to let go of all that might hinder and follow - just as those first disciples put down their nets and left home and family to follow.

2 - In that look there was also a challenge, to adventure with Jesus. It was a look which sought to pull the man out of his comfortable and respectable life into the adventure of being a real Christian, in the full knowledge that God does not ask us to do anything for which we are not capable of success. If the young man had said "Yes!" to the request, then the riches that he would have received would have far outweighed those that he would give away - but not necessarily in monetary terms.

3 - It was also a look which showed grief, grief at seeing someone deliberately choose not to be what he might have been and had it in him to be.

Jesus looks at us with the appeal of love and with the challenge to adventure with him. I hope and trust that he never looks at us with that same look of sorrow for a loved one who refuses to be what he might have been and could have been.

As the writer Eddie Askew puts it so well. In love, he asks everything from us. He has the right to. That's what he gave.



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