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The Man Who Could Run But Not Hide

Matthew 19:16-22

“When were you converted?”

That’s what he said to us. A fellow preacher and I were walking down the seemingly endless concourse of Chicago’s O’Hare Field when suddenly a young man with long hair and a bright smile, carrying a Bible under his arm, walked up to us and said: “When were you converted?” My friend’s reply to him was quite remarkable. He said: “I was converted 2000 years ago, 20 years ago and 20 minutes ago.” Confusion crossed the young man’s face and he sputtered out a response: “What do you mean by that? You can only be converted once. Give me the day, the hour, the month.” My friend then replied very gently, but very firmly: “I was first converted when Jesus died on the cross—He finished it there for me. And then I was converted about 20 years ago, when I publicly surrendered my life to Jesus Christ and entered the ministry. And then about 20 minutes ago, before we headed to the airport, my friend here (he pointed to me) and I were praying for each other’s ministries and I realized that my relationship with one of the Elders in my church is not good. I have just now realized that God is calling me to change that. So I am on my way home to Ohio now determined to love that man with the love of Jesus Christ.” The young man didn’t say anything more—just shook his head in bewilderment and walked away.

You know, so many people think of conversion as a once-in-a-lifetime experience which comes only to special people. But that’s not altogether true. Oh yes, the New Testament does speak of that kind of conversion—the conversion of one who turns dramatically from having no belief in the God of our Lord Jesus Christ to having a deep, life-changing relationship to God. But the New Testament also uses the word “conversion” to refer to those who are within the church but who, through growth in Jesus Christ, discover the life changing power of the doctrines and beliefs they profess. Conversion, in this sense of the word, is not once-in-a-lifetime. It is a constant, frequent occurrence in the life of growing Christians. It may even happen every day. That’s what my friend was trying to say to the young evangelist in the Chicago airport—that the true Christian is being constantly changed and reshaped by the power of faith in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, today, I want to call your attention to the need we all have—the need to turn our lives around and start them off in a new direction—the need to be constantly opening our lives to the power of Jesus Christ which can be ours—the need to move out of self-centered living to Christ-centered living which He alone controls—the need to be converted afresh every day. To help us catch this truth of Scripture, I want to hold up before you the story of “The Man Who Could Run But Not Hide.”

First, let’s focus on the man in the story.

If he were sitting beside you this morning you would be moved to think to yourself: “My word, he has it made!” Well-dressed, attractive, still in his twenties, he would have earned already all the marks of success: a cottage and a sailboat at the lake, country club membership, paid-up mortgage, backyard pool, company presidency in the offing, a beautiful wife, and attractive children. “Yes,” you would think to yourself as you looked at him, “yes, he has it made.” He is the Rich Young Ruler. At least that’s what we call him. Only Matthew calls him “young.” Only Mark calls him “rich.” Only Luke calls him “ruler.” So we have combined the Gospel accounts to give him a title: The Rich Young Ruler. And when you read about him, it is clear that he was successful and respected. It is clear that he had things going his way in life. He did appear to have it made.

Notice the word “appear”—he did “appear” to have it made. When you look at his life from the outside, you can see so much that was right with him. But when you look at his life from the inside, you see something different. He knew in his heart that something in his life was missing. So he came to Jesus for help.

It is important to notice, at this point, that he was a perfectly normal church member. He attended worship regularly (Oh, of course, there were a few Sundays when he slept in or went fishing). He contributed some of his money (It was nice to have the tax deduction). He sat on the official board (That looked good on his resume). But he seemed to wonder where, in the midst of all the church work, he could find living water for his parched soul—where in the midst of a frightfully busy life, he could find something to fill the emptiness in his heart. There are some listening to these words who will know how he felt. Their faith, their religious life is not really a source of meaning and power in their experience. In fact, sometimes it is nothing more than another burden to be borne.

So this young man came to Jesus. Now get the picture clearly. Jesus was talking with a group of people when suddenly this good-looking, well-dressed young man interrupted the proceedings with a question. “Teacher”, the young man said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Now you might think Jesus would be impressed by that—here was a brilliant and powerful young man seeking the guidance of Jesus. Why, you would think that Jesus would have been overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude and accomplishment that at last He was beginning to attract the attention of the prominent people of His day. But Jesus had no such thoughts. Instead, He quickly replied to the man’s question with these words: “Obey the commandments and you will find God. Take God seriously in life and you will know Him.” Then Jesus proceeded to tick off a list of some of the commandments. That must have been a shock to the Rich Young Ruler. After all, he had come with a deep theological question and Jesus had offered him a kindergarten lesson in the law. But the young man quickly concealed his dismay and said: “I have obeyed the law of God.”

Now if we are honest with ourselves, what happened next is nothing less than shattering. For we are like the Rich Young Ruler, fooling ourselves into thinking that we are serious about God. We go through the motions—we come to church and we worship as if we take God seriously—but all the while our minds wander over subjects like “What’s for Sunday dinner?” or “What are we going to do this afternoon?” or “What are the tasks facing us in the week ahead?” But Jesus sees right through us just the way He saw through the polished veneer of the Rich Young Ruler. He said to the young man: “You lack one thing. Go and sell what you have and give it to the poor and come and follow me.” Wham! That did it. The young man slammed the door in the Master’s face. He couldn’t take that. He thought he was so serious about God, but he just was not ready for what Jesus said.

Why, he would have been willing to do almost anything—to pray for hours, to lose himself in the study of the Scriptures, to undertake a pilgrimage—but to give up all that he had earned? That was asking too much. You see, he wanted God as an extra, not the whole of life. He wanted to reserve certain areas of his life for his own control—he did not want to surrender them to God. He regarded God as a kind of “good luck charm,” handy to have around in time of need, but that is all. And when Jesus Christ confronted him with God’s total claim upon his life, he turned and ran away.

But now let’s focus on the message of the story.

Here it is as simply as I know how to state it: there is no cheap, easy, painless way to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. But that’s tough for us to take, isn’t it? Stuck on our own selfish interests, we bridle at any suggestion of sacrificing anything. We come to church talking about how serious we are about God, but when God calls for total commitment, like the Rich Young Ruler, we turn and walk away. We don’t like those kinds of ultimatums. So we begin to twist the meaning of this story around. We try to blunt its cutting edge. We dismiss it by saying things like: “Suppose everyone gave everything away.” But that wasn’t Jesus’ intention at all. Jesus knew that the Rich Young Ruler’s money kept him from being completely committed to God. And Jesus knows that you and I have something that keeps us from being completely committed as well. Maybe it’s our money. Or maybe it’s our prejudices. Or maybe it’s a cherished hobby or an immoral habit. Maybe it’s our job. Maybe it’s our family. Or maybe it’s even our religious beliefs. Does that sound strange? Perhaps. But many of us attend worship and casually repeat the Apostles’ Creed—yet what it says has never really pierced our hearts. The great truths of the Christian faith have never moved our spirits and set our hearts to pounding and our lips to singing. We have never had tears leap into our eyes because of the sheer depth of our belief.

Well, the message of the story is that you can’t hold out on God. You can run from Him, if you like, but you can’t hide. For if you try to hold something back, if you try to hide something from Him, if you let anything—anything at all—stand between you and your service to the Lord, then sooner or later, God’s going to back you into a corner and demand that you give it up. There is no escape. There is no hiding place. Sooner or later, God’s spirit is going to come flowing into our hearts and into our lives, and when He does, then we shall have to decide whether to yield to God or go on our way.

The Rich Young Ruler got the message. He couldn’t hide from it. Jesus said to him: “You’ve got to give up the one thing that keeps you from being totally committed to God—in your case, it’s your money.” But when confronted with that decision, the Bible says: “The young man went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”

Now let’s focus on the manifestation of the story.

In other words what about us? How does the story impact us? I know of no better way to express it than to tell you a story. It’s a true story.

It happened in a chapel at one of our seminaries. The pews were filled with students studying for the ministry. They knew a lot of Theology, but the Christian faith, in all of its power, had not made much impact in their daily lives. Scheduled to speak to them that day was a man named Karl Barth, widely regarded as being the greatest theologian of this century. Barth was quite advanced in years at the time, and slowly he made his way up into the chapel pulpit. The students leaned forward in anticipation of some deep, stimulating address from the great man. Once in the pulpit, Karl Barth picked up his Bible and held it lovingly in his hands. He raised his head, looked out across his young congregation and said:

“Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so.”

Those young seminarians looked uncomfortably at each other, embarrassed by his age and the seemingly pathetic simplicity of his remark. Some of them began to snicker nervously. But the great old man just stood there. Tears began to trickle down his face. In a few moments, one of the students slid out of his pew and went to his knees in a position of prayer. An awesome stillness fell over that chapel as those young Christians studying for the ministry reflected on those simple words. Within five minutes, every person in the chapel was on his knees experiencing the same gripping feeling as the old man.

“Jesus loves me, this I know
For the Bible tells me so.”

That was a conversion experience for those people in the chapel. They discovered that you cannot hide from the inrush of God’s spirit to your life. God came crashing into these intellectually, sophisticated minds on the wings of a childish song.

Now I want to ask each of you today: When were you last converted? When did you last feel the mighty power of God surging into your life? When did you last come to the end of your own resources and die with Christ that you might be raised up with Him? When did you last say to God: “Lord, take me—all that I have and all that I am—take me and use me as you wish”? Yes, when were you last converted?

I pray to God that the last moment you were converted is right now!

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