Encounters With Christ: The Somebody Who Became Nobody
I wish to read for you these words from the Gospel according to Mark. This is the Word of God:
“As Jesus started on His way, a man ran up to Him and fell on his knees before Him. ‘Good teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ ‘Why do you call me good?’ Jesus answered. ‘No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”‘ ‘Teacher,’ he declared, ‘all these I have kept since I was a boy.’ Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ He said. “Go, sell everything you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow Me.’ At this, the man’s face fell. He went away sad because he had great wealth.”
May God bless to us the reading and the hearing of this portion of His Holy Word.
Pray with me, please.
Lord, nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to Thy cross I cling. Amen.
I don’t know if, over these last several months, you’ve figured this out or not, but I love to preach. Oh, to be sure, there are other dimensions of the ministry that I enjoy, but what I love to do more than anything else is to share with you the gospel of God’s only Son. I love telling the stories of Jesus. I love to preach. Now, that does not mean that preaching is always easy. It is not. Sometimes, it’s hard. Sometimes, it’s incredibly hard. And it’s hard sometimes because, sometimes, the Word of God which comes to us from scripture is a hard word to hear. That is certainly true of the passage we are encountering today, for I will tell you that this story begins happier and ends sadder than any other story I know in the Bible. I am referring to the encounter between Jesus Christ and the rich, young ruler.
By the way, that is the name we give to him. That is not what the Bible calls him. Understand Matthew called him rich, Mark calls him young, Luke calls him ruler, and so we have simply taken the three Gospel accounts and woven them together and dubbed him the rich, young ruler, and that’s how we know him. But the fact is, whoever he may have been, we can safely deduce that he was successful, he was respected, he was in the prime of his life, he had everything in the world going his way. There was so much about him that was right, and there was so much about the way he came to Jesus that was right. He came at the right time. He came while he was still relatively young. He came in the right way. He came enthusiastically. He came asking the right question. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And he came asking the right question in the right manner. He asked it respectfully and reverently. He came to the right person seeking the right answer to the right question. He came to Jesus, and everything about his coming to Jesus was right.
I have to tell you, I don’t know that you could find a better beginning to a story than the one we are given in this particular passage. However, the tragedy is that is not the way the story ended. It did not end happily ever after. It ended enshrouded in shadow and gloom. The Bible says of the rich, young ruler, “He went away sad.” Here was a young man who might well have been enshrined in the Bible’s hall of fame and instead, he wound up being consigned to the Bible’s hall of shame. Here was a young man who might have walked at the side of Jesus right into history, but instead, he chose to walk by himself right into oblivion. He was a somebody who became a nobody. And there is no joy in the telling of his tale. In fact, I would suggest it is downright hard to preach about this encounter between Jesus Christ and the man we call the rich, young ruler. It’s hard to preach about this story because it’s hard to hear about a Christ who insists on keeping the Commandments.
Get the picture, please. Here is this distinguished, young man, rather comfortably fixed in life, has all that he wants or needs in life, and he comes to Jesus ready to strike a deal with the Master, and what does Jesus say? Does Jesus say, “Welcome on board”? No, no, not at all. Jesus says, first crack of the bat, Jesus says, “You’ve got to keep the Commandments.” That’s kind of tough. I mean, if we were Jesus and we are confronted with this wonderfully promising young man, we would never have delivered such a demanding word, at least not at the outset. But then, let’s be honest. We prefer a Christianity that is pleasant and comfortable and easygoing, right? We prefer a Christianity minus the cross, but that’s not the way Jesus worked. Did you catch it in the story? It says, “Jesus looked at the young men and loved him.” Jesus loved him and yet, Jesus says to him, “You’ve got to keep the Commandments.” What kind of love is that? I mean, come on.
Well, let me tell you what kind of love it is. It’s Christ’s kind of love. Christ’s love is not weak, spineless, permissive. No, Christ’s love is demanding. Are you aware of the fact that, at least eight times in scripture, God says, in one way or another, “Those whom I love I discipline.” That’s Christ’s kind of love, a tough, demanding love. And that’s why Jesus could say to this rich, young ruler so filled with promise and potential, this rich, young ruler whom Jesus loved, Jesus could say to him, “You’ve got to keep the Commandments.” Now, we don’t always like to hear that, do we?
I mean, there are a lot of Christians today—there are far too many Christians today who actually seem to believe that the Commandments no longer mean very much in living in this modern world of ours. Now, these folks suggest that, in order to be a Christian, all you have to do is to be loving. That’s all. Just loving. They actually go on to suggest you may even violate some of the Commandments as long as you do it in a loving manner. Rubbish. That is a gross distortion of the love of Jesus Christ. Jesus never said that love means never having to obey the Law of God. Instead, Jesus said, “Love actually means a heightened desire to obey the Law of God.” That’s what Jesus meant when He said, “I have come not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” True love, true love always begins with obedience to the Law of God. God gave us the gift of life. God knows what’s best for us in life. And therefore, God gave us some rules to govern the way we live in life. And that’s what Jesus was saying to the rich, young ruler. If you are going to love God, you’ve got to follow the rules. That’s a hard thing to hear. That’s a hard thing to preach. But there it is. Jesus says, “If you’re going to love God, follow the rules.” Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
And this story is hard to preach about because it’s hard to preach about a Christ who will not compromise.
In the story, we are told that the rich, young ruler came seeking Jesus. Jesus didn’t have to go looking for him; he came looking for Jesus. He was ready to become a disciple. He was all set to go. He did ask for one consideration in return; he wanted to keep a little cushion. He wanted to hang on to his bank account, just in case things didn’t work out as he planned and hoped. And so Jesus says to him, “Listen, if you are going to follow God, then whatever it is that is your security in life, whatever it is you’re counting on to keep you going when all else is gone, whatever that is, that is your God. And in your case,” He said to the rich, young ruler, “In your case, that is your money. Therefore, sell what you have and give the money to the poor and then come and follow me. Whatever it is that’s keeping you from following God, get rid of it,” Jesus says. “Cut it out. No compromise.”
Now, let me be crystal clear at this point. Jesus is in no way suggesting that money in and of itself is wicked. Jesus never said anything like that. It’s worth remembering that several of the original 12 Disciples were quite well-to-do. It’s worth remembering that Joseph of Arimathea is described in the Bible as being very rich, and he’s also described as serving Christ. It’s worth remembering that, in the early verses of Luke 8, we are told that a small group of very wealthy women actually underwrote the earthly ministry of Jesus. It’s worth remembering that the friends of Jesus who owned the Upper Room in Jerusalem were obviously comfortably fixed. But Jesus never said to any of those people, “Sell what you have.” No.
It’s also worth remembering that two men approached Jesus: one was a wealthy lawyer, the other was the affluent Nicodemus. They approached Jesus. They actually asked Jesus the very same question the rich, young ruler asked. They said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus did not say to them, “Sell what you have.” No. He said to one, “You’ve got to start loving your neighbor,” and He said to the other, “You’ve got to be born again.” Do you get the point? Jesus does not say to everyone, “Sell what you have.” But what Jesus does say to everyone is, “Whatever it is that is your ultimate concern and security in life, whatever it is that is the driving, motivating force in your everyday experience, that is your God. If that is not the one true God, then whatever it is, get rid of it. Cut it out. No compromise.” That’s a hard word to hear, but what Jesus says to the rich, young ruler, He’s also saying to us.
Maybe it is our money, or maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s our prejudice. Maybe it’s some immoral habit or relationship. Maybe it’s our possession of things. Maybe it’s even our family connections. Maybe it’s our intellectual snobbery. Maybe it’s our gossiping or bullying, either in person or on the social networks. Maybe it’s our inordinate devotion to work, to the exclusion of the Lord and all else. It doesn’t matter what it is. Whatever it is that keeps us from following Jesus Christ wholly and completely, Jesus is saying to us, “Whatever it is, get rid of it. Cut it out. No compromise.” That’s a hard word to hear. Now, let me just tell you, that’s a hard word to preach, but there it is. There it is. Jesus says, “Whatever it is that keeps you from belonging completely to the Lord, whatever it is, get rid of it. Cut it out. No compromise.” Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
Ah, but then, it’s hard to preach about this story because it’s hard to preach about a Christ who compels us to choose.
The rich, young ruler came to Jesus, and Jesus, in essence, said to him, “Choose this day whom you will serve. Decide now or not at all.” And the Bible says, “He walked away sad because he had great wealth.” Sad. Do you think about this fact? This is one of the few people I have ever heard of who actually left the presence of Jesus feeling sad. Wow. Do you know, if we actually look at the rich, young ruler, I think we begin to catch a hint of the cause of some of the great sadness that exists in our world right now. It’s not that people don’t believe in Jesus, but rather, it’s that people, knowing deep down in their hearts that Jesus is right, nevertheless decide against Him because they do not wish to give up their non-Christian ways. Make no mistake about it. Jesus will force us to decide. Jesus will compel us to choose.
We live as if it’s perfectly all right for some people to live with too little, and then we encounter the Christ who says, “If you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me,” and we have to decide, His way or ours. We live as if the only thing in all the world that matters is what’s happening in capital cities or corporate board rooms, and then we encounter the Jesus who says, “Seek first the Kingdom of God,” and then we have to decide, His way or ours. We live as if being a Christian means, “Oh, an hour of worship on Sunday or an occasional check,” and then we encounter the Christ who says, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me,” and we have to decide, His way, or ours.
Years ago, the armies of Alexander the Great the then-known world. And at the tender age of 33, Alexander became the most powerful man on the face of the Earth. On one occasion, a young soldier was brought to stand before the throne of Alexander the Great. The young man was a soldier who was charged with turning away from danger on the front lines. Ordinarily, in the court of Alexander, that would have meant instant death. But in this case, Alexander looked down at this 19-year-old, young soldier with warm eyes and a winsome face, and Alexander decided that he would be lenient. And so Alexander smiled and he said to the young soldier, “Son, what is your name?” And the young soldier answered, “My name is Alexander.” With that, the smile left the king’s face. “What is your name?” he demanded. The young soldier snapped to attention. His voice began to quaver, and he said, “Alexander, Sir. It’s Alexander. It’s the same as yours.” And with that, the king rose from his throne, his face crimson with rage. He grabbed the young soldier by the tunic and he cried, “Soldier, change your conduct or change your name.”
Do you understand that that is precisely what Jesus says to all of us who go by the name Christian? Jesus says to all of us, “Choose this day whom you will serve. Change your conduct or change your name.” That’s a hard word to hear. It’s a hard word to preach about. Jesus says, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” There it is. I confess to you, I love to preach, but it’s hard to preach about a Christ who insists on keeping the Commandments, about a Christ who will not compromise, about a Christ who compels us to choose. But there it is, my beloved people. Choose this day whom you will serve. That is the Word of God. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
Pray with me, please.
God on high, hear my prayer. Enable us to say today, “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back. No turning back.” Amen.