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The Transforming Touch: Chained By A String

Mark 10:17-22

Years ago when my children were small, one of the greatest thrills our family had was the joy of meeting, in person, the great star of the Ringling Brothers Circus, Gunther Gebel Williams. He is regarded by almost everyone as the greatest circus animal trainer who ever lived. When we were living in Columbia, South Carolina, and the Ringling Brothers circus came to town, we got to spend some time with the great Gebel Williams and his elephants. I was fascinated to see the way he handled those enormous animals, and how they responded to him—not just in obedience, but in apparent devotion. I was even more fascinated with what he did with the elephants after their training time was finished. He secured the elephants by simply tying a small rope, not much bigger than a string around the back right leg of each elephant, and then he tied the other end of the rope to a small wooden stake in the ground. The elephants could easily have broken loose if they had tried. It would have taken no effort at all on their part to snap the string, or yank the stake from the ground. But they never even thought about doing it. They simply stood there, completely immobilized by a little piece of string tied to a small wooden stake. Gunther Gebel Williams explained it like this. He said: “When an elephant is quite young, he is chained by the back right leg to a permanent stake, set in concrete. For several weeks the baby elephant does everything in its power to break free, but cannot. Little by little, over time, the elephant is conditioned to believe that it cannot move about freely when it is tied by the back right leg. Once this conditioning process takes hold, you can tie the elephant with a string, and it won’t move because it believes it can’t. The chains in the elephant’s minds are stronger than any man-made tether.”

I think that’s exactly what happened to the rich young ruler in this story in the Gospel of Mark. He was immobilized, paralyzed, frozen in place by the chains in his mind that told him that he couldn’t move in a new direction. He couldn’t change. He couldn’t become anything more than what he already was. He came to Jesus seeking a new life—a new sense of meaning and purpose for his life. But when Jesus told him what to do—when Jesus called him to devote his financial resources to building the kingdom of God on earth, he froze up. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t do what Jesus called him to do, and consequently, he missed out on one of the greatest joys this life can offer—the joy of being obedient to Jesus Christ. The same thing can happen to us. We long to know the peace and the power Jesus can give us in life, but when we are confronted by Jesus’ call to share our financial resources for the building of the kingdom, suddenly, we freeze up. We become shackled by our selfishness. We become trapped and immobilized by the chains that exist only in our minds. Like those elephants in the circus, we can be chained by a string. Let me show you what I mean.

First of all, we can be chained by destructive appetites.

Dr. Harry Emerson Fosdick, when he was the pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, told a fascinating story about a vulture who was ultimately destroyed by his own appetite. It was a wintry day on the Niagara River near Buffalo, New York. This vulture, a bird of prey, had lighted on the carcass of a dead animal which was floating in the river. The vulture began to feed upon the carcass as they floated toward the Niagara Falls. It was the vulture’s intent to feed upon the carcass right up to the last second, until just before the falls, and then he would break away and fly to safety in the sky. But the vulture made a catastrophic mistake. Just as the falls came into view, the vulture tried to fly away and escape, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t get away, because on that cold wintry day, his claws had frozen to the carcass he was feeding upon, and as a result, he was carried over the falls to his death. He was destroyed by the clutch of his own claws. There’s a sermon in that. Our hands freeze to that which we feed upon.

Sometimes, we are destroyed by the clutch of our own claws. We can be frozen by our selfish appetites. If we are self-centered, we are frozen in selfish egotism. If we feel defeated, we can be trapped in a prison of negativism. If we are hooked on alcohol or tranquilizers, or food, then we are locked in a spirit of escapism. If we continually feed on jealousy or resentment, then we are frozen into an iceberg of hatred. If we repeatedly talk ugly about other people, we are crammed in a cage called gossip. If we live only for ourselves, then sooner or later, we are headed for a fall.

The truth is that too many people today are indeed slaves to their appetites. They let their personal desires take control of their lives and immobilize them. If we feed on things like that, we can be frozen in our tracks by our appetites. How is it with you? Is there one thing in your life that is enslaving you? The story of the rich young ruler is a clear reminder that we can be chained by selfish and destructive appetites.

And then we can be chained by our negative attitudes.

Stewardship Season in the church is always a bitter-sweet experience for me. It’s sweet because it’s the time when I see so many people get serious about their faith and their commitment to Christ, and I hear all kinds of wonderful stories about how tithing has made a profound difference in people’s lives. But there’s always a raw edge to this time of the year as well. The call to commit financial resources to the church of Jesus Christ always unearths a few people who are being eaten alive by their own negativity. They don’t seem to like anything about the church, and they are against everything the church is trying to do. It makes you wonder what’s eating away at the center of them, and it makes me want to get at them with a message of Christ’s love. In recent years, I have come to have a deep love and respect for Dr. Leonard Sweet. He was the President of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, and he’s one of the brightest lights on the church scene today. He tells about a woman who was a member of the church he served some years ago. Her name was Wilma. Dr. Sweet said that Wilma had the worst attitude he had ever encountered. She was always sullen and somber, cynical, and sour. She was angry with life. She was against everything and critical of everybody. Dr. Sweet wondered why. He looked into it, and discovered that some years before she had not been like that—she had been bright and happy and energetic and optimistic. He found out that five years earlier, a drunk driver had run his car up on the sidewalk and had hit and killed Wilma’s two-year old daughter, Christy. Wilma was devastated. In the midst of her grief, someone (I suppose someone who meant well) had said a terrible thing to Wilma. Trying to explain Christy’s death, this person had said: “Now Wilma, every now and then God gets tired of stale, worn out flowers. He wants a fresh, young rosebud for His bouquet.”

Dr. Sweet said that when he heard that, he understood why Wilma was so bitter and negative. He was then able to say to her: “Wilma, don’t you believe that for one more minute. It was not God’s will for your little girl to die. It was because a man made a bad decision. He tried to drive while he was drunk. That’s what did it—not God. In fact, that day, God’s heart was broken, along with yours.” Somehow, that conversation with Leonard Sweet touched a chord deep down in Wilma’s soul. It thawed her frozen heart. Her attitude changed. She wasn’t angry at God anymore. She wasn’t angry with life anymore. Slowly, but surely, she became a positive, productive, person again.

Here’s the point. Our theology affects our attitudes. How we feel affects greatly how we feel about life. Jesus put the rich young ruler in a position where he had to declare his feelings toward God. Sadly, he loved his money more than he loved his Lord. Consequently, he turned away from his Christ. The Bible says that he went away sorrowful. It doesn’t say it specifically, but I would be willing to wager that he never had another happy day as long as he lived. Jesus spent a lot of time talking about attitudes. The inner life was very important to Him, and that’s why He said over and over things like this: “God loves you. God is on your side, and God is at your side. You can count on Him. He will always be there.” And if you hear that and believe it, it will change your attitude. It will make you a happier, more confident person. It will make you more productive and optimistic. That’s why the story of the rich young ruler is important for us to remember. It warns us that we can be destroyed by our negative attitudes.

And then, we can be chained by our crippling anxieties.

There’s a wonderful little story about four people who were flying in a private plane over the desert when the engine sputtered and then conked out. One of the four people was the pilot. The other three included the world’s most brilliant scientist, a minister, and a boy scout. The pilot reported that regretfully there were only three parachutes on board. He then proceeded to take one of them and bail out, thus leaving only two parachutes for the remaining three people. At that point, the world’s most brilliant scientist said: “Listen, I’m a brilliant scientist with several critically important projects underway; the whole world is dependent upon my expertise. My survival is of greatest importance.” With that he grabbed one of the remaining chutes, strapped it on, and jumped out. The minister and the boy scout remained. The minister said to the boy scout: “Son, I’ve had a blessed and useful life, and you’re just beginning yours. Why don’t you take that last parachute, and I’ll go down with the plane?” The boy scout smiled and said: “Not to worry, Rev, we’re in great shape. Stick with me. You see, the world’s most brilliant scientist just jumped out of this plane with my knapsack on his back!”

When the rich young ruler was confronted with Christ’s call to share his financial resources, his worries and anxieties got the best of him. He probably thought to himself: “That’s asking way too much”, or “I need to hold onto what I have for a rainy day”, or “How am I going to make the next mortgage payment?”, or “Don’t forget I’ve got kids that need an education.” His anxieties paralyzed him. But to the rich young ruler, and to all like him, Jesus says: “Not to worry. You’re in great shape. Stick with me.” Oh, I know that’s not exactly what He says, but do you know the phrase which Jesus repeated most frequently in His earthly ministry? It was: “Do not be afraid.” In other words, “Do not let your fears, worries, and anxieties imprison you. Stick with me. Together we will win.”

A few years ago in Marlburgh, Germany, a young mother took her little daughter to the circus. Suddenly, the child slipped away, and disappeared. Imagine that mother’s horror when she saw that her little girl had managed to squeeze through the bars of the lion’s cage, and was there in the midst of those ferocious beasts. What did the mother do? She rushed down to the cage, pulled open the door, charged in amongst the lions, grabbed up her little girl, and ran out of the cage and slammed the door in the faces of those pursuing lions—and then she promptly fainted! You see, the woman feared the lions as much as you or I would, but she was a mother, and her love for her endangered child overcame her fear and anxiety. The point is clear—when you love someone enough, your love will cast out fear. It will release you from whatever imprisons you. It will enable you to do things you never dreamed you could do. Mark it down. Love for Jesus Christ sets us free from destructive appetites, from negative attitudes, from crippling anxieties; and it enables us to respond to Christ’s call in our lives, and to become everything Christ wants us to be. The rich young ruler missed all of that. He was chained by a string, and as a result, he turned away from Jesus.

Well…on the credenza in my office is a little plaque. On the plaque are inscribed these words:

“Only one life
Twill soon be past
Only what’s done for
Christ will last.”

We do a lot of things in this world; we give to a lot of things in this world; we support a lot of things in this world which simply will not last. But, dear friends, what you give to the church will last. Not just for a lifetime, but forever.

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