What Do Grace, Love and Mercy Cost?
A sermon on Hebrews 4:12-16 & Mark 10:17-31 by Nathan Nettleton, 12 October 1997
The Word of God is constantly calling us to fullness of life, and frequently pierces through our facades to illuminate the ties that hold us back. This is nearly always uncomfortable!
I want to remind you for a moment, at least for the purposes of my initial illustration, that you folks are my employer. You, as a group, have the power of hire and fire over me, and it is up to you to assess whether I am doing a good job, whether I am earning my pay. Thats partly why we did that pastoral review survey a few weeks back - so that you could have your say on whether I am fulfilling my expected role as pastor.
Now with that in mind I want you to imagine your reaction to the following scenario. A well known and well respected young woman walks into the church office one day. She is well known because of her role in the media as a TV show host, and she has also released two albums as a singer that have charted reasonably well without being top ten or anything. She is of course stunningly attractive, although unlike many of her industry peers she has kept her reputation fairly clean and stayed out of the scandal sheets. Her last headlines were when she was re-signed by the TV network on a salary reported to be well in excess of a quarter of a million dollars a year.
Any way one day she walks into the church office, asks to see the pastor. I tell her that I am the pastor and we sit down to talk. She tells me that despite all her success and the trappings that come with it, she has a strong sense of something major missing in her life, and shes come to the conclusion that she has neglected her spirituality. She now recognises her need of God and she wants to know how to become a Christian and join our church.
However, when I report all this to you in a church meeting, as an example of what my work involves, I explain to you that despite her clear indications that she wanted to become a Christian and join our church, I talked her out of it. I described what being a Christian meant in ways that were pretty much guaranteed to make her change her mind and they did just that.
Now, you folks are my employer, hows my performance report card going to look? How would you react if I hadnt just made all that up, if that was actually what Id done? What sort of questions do you think youd be putting to me????
Generally our churches are falling over each other to sign up the latest big name convert. You can bet that Torquay Baptist did not mind letting people know a few years ago that Gary Ablett was a member of their congregation. And lets face it, those of us who were here three years ago didnt mind dropping into a conversation every now and again that Karen Knowles was going to our church. Were not wanting to talk anyone out of coming to church, let alone someone whos well known and well to do.
Well, as bizarre as it may seem, in todays gospel story we have an account of Jesus doing exactly what weve just agreed that no one would want me to do. A wealthy young man runs up to Jesus, kneels at his feet and asks, What must I do to inherit eternal life? and Jesus talks him out of it. Jesus looks straight into his heart, picks out the one thing that this bloke will surely balk at, and hits him with it as the answer to his question. Well actually he goes a bit easy on him at first, You know the commandments, You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal etc. etc. but then when the bloke reckons hes always kept all those but isnt there something more, Jesus hits him with the knock out punch. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor; then come, follow me.
And Mark tells us that when he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
Jesus has talked him out of it. One minute hes a would be convert, the next minute hes out of there.
What was read for us just before? The word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double edged sword. It cuts all the way through, to where soul and spirit meet, to where joints and marrow come together. It judges the desires and thoughts of the heart.
Now as much as some of you would perhaps like me too, Im not going to preach a sermon on the impossibility of being wealthy and being Christian, or even a sermon on the necessity of living a simple lifestyle. It is not my opinion that this story of Jesus and the rich man lays down another law that says that everyone has to give away everything they own in order to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus was not on about writing a whole bunch of new laws. For the most part he was on about setting us free from excessive laws, not loading us up with new ones.
What I think this story is, is an illustration of the statement read to us from the letter to the Hebrews: The word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double edged sword. It cuts all the way through, to where soul and spirit meet, to where joints and marrow come together. It judges the desires and thoughts of the heart.
Jesus Christ is constantly calling each and every one of us - calling us to follow, to commit ourselves to the journey into wholeness and holiness and fullness of life. But each and every one of us have various attachments that hold us back, that tie us to the life that we have always lived. The gospels have numerous stories of Jesus calling people to follow him, and we are frequently told that they left their business, or their family or their fishing nets or something. Todays gospel speaks of disciples leaving house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for the sake of Christ. Everyone of us have had things in or about our lives that have had to change in order to follow Jesus, and we all have further things that will have to go or change before we can follow him any further.
And nine times out of ten, facing up to that need for change is going to be uncomfortable. We are rather attached to the things we are being called to leave behind. I sometimes feel a little envious of those people whose lives are totally stuffed when they first encounter Christ, because choosing to leave their past behind them is often so much easier for them. But Ive always done rather well. My life has been rather more conventionally successful, and the reasons for needing to change are not nearly so pressing.
But, the word of God is alive and active, sharper than any double edged sword. It cuts all the way through, to where soul and spirit meet, to where joints and marrow come together. It judges the desires and thoughts of the heart. The Word of God cuts through all the crap. The Word of God, when allowed to do its work, will soon reveal what is really of value in my life and what is just superficial trappings of worldly success and needs to be discarded if I am to be free to embrace the fullness of life that God intends for me.
There is an old story of the way they used to trap monkeys in some parts of Africa. They used to tie a kerosene tin to a tree and then drop some peanuts in the tin. The monkey would come along and stick his hand in the tin to grab the peanuts, but with a closed fist, couldnt get the hand back out, and so unwilling to let go of the peanuts, the monkey would be trapped and easily caught.
We can often be like that. All we have to do to be truly free is let go of something, but were not willing to do it. The most treasured thing in our lives becomes the trap that enslaves us, that stops us from travelling down the road to freedom and fullness of life.
Now Jesus uses wealth and possessions in this passage, not because it is the only one, but because it was the key one for this man, and because it is a particularly frequent one. It is possible to be rich and Christian, but the Bible and Jesus in particular are very hard on wealth because it is a particularly difficult combination and the people who manage to be wealthy and Christian with integrity are few and far between. Wealth and power are the most alluring seductive creatures in the universe. They make Elle McPherson look like Edna Everidge. And it takes and incredibly strong, incredibly determined and incredibly gifted person to cope with them without selling their soul.
When Jesus said that it was harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, he wasnt saying it was impossible, but he was saying that youre stacking the odds against yourself if you try it. It might be possible to outswim Kieran Perkins while wearing shoes and socks too, but youre not improving your chances. And if youre fair dinkum about following Jesus, then why would you want to start with odds stacked against you.
But for most of us, money is not the only issue, or not the primary issue. For the man in this story, it was the love of money and nice things that was exposed when the Word of God cut through like a two edged sword to where soul and spirit meet, but for most of us there will be something else, some other sacred cow, individual to each one of us. Some other precious untouchable place that we dont want to examine for fear of recognising that it is holding us back, stuck in our own little rut, unable to experience the freedom and fullness of life Christ is calling us to.
How can you avoid facing it? How can you get out of having to confront the call to let go and follow? How can you avoid having the Word of God lay you open and exposing this sacred cow? Easy. Dont ever read the Bible. Dont ever listen when the Bible is read. Avoid silence, reflection, meditation etc. And start talking furiously any time a still small voice starts murmuring within you.
If on the other hand youre serious about travelling the road to freedom and fullness of life, then do all you can to expose yourself to the Word of God. Take time regularly to allow the Word of God to penetrate into you and cut through to where joint and marrow come together, to where soul and spirit meet. Ask God to open your eyes, to allow you to see as God sees what are the things that hold you back, the peanuts in your fist.
God will not only graciously allow you to see what it is, but will graciously strengthen you and enable you to loosen your grip and move on. As the Hebrews reading went on to say, when we feel naked and exposed before the God to whom we must give account, we can take comfort from the fact that we have a high priest in Jesus Christ who has sympathy for our weaknesses having been tempted in every way as we are.
If youve got the guts to make time and space for Gods Word to penetrate into your innermost being, then you will not only find the painful places of separation and loss that are necessary to discipleship, but you will also find yourself taken into the very throne room of God where you will receive mercy and find grace to help you just when you need it.
Thats why we are coming again this week to this table. Because it is here at this table that we see what it cost Jesus to win freedom for us, as the broken body of Christ is placed into our hands. And it is at this table that we are nurtured and strengthened for the journey ahead, for the journey into the fullness of life promised to us by the God whose covenant will not be broken.