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When The ‘What-Ifs’ Strike

Mark 10:17-22

Shel Silverstein, in his delightful children’s book, A Light in the Attic, shares a poem called “The Whatifs”. For those of you who know it, listen again. For those of you who don’t know it, listen hard.

“Last night while I lay thinking here,
Some ‘Whatifs’ crawled inside my ear
And pranced and partied all night long
And sang their same old Whatif song

“Whatif I’m dumb in school?
Whatif they’ve closed the swimming pool?
Whatif I get beat up?
Whatif there’s poison in my cup?

“Whatif I start to cry?
Whatif I get sick and die?
Whatif nobody likes me?
Whatif a bolt of lightning strikes me?

“Everything seems swell and then
The nighttime ‘WHATIFS’ strike again!”

Here we see the longing of a young child to touch the world, to taste life, but who is shackled by fear. The child is afraid of the risks, afraid of the unknown, afraid of the demands, the challenges, the responsibilities. The “whatifs” creep in, and raise disturbing questions and debilitating doubts.

But the “whatifs” are not just a problem for children—they are a problem for us all. Certainly they were a problem for the rich young ruler. You will remember how Jesus said to the young man, “Come, follow me.” But the rich young ruler couldn’t make the leap of faith because all those “whatifs” were pounding in his brain. What if He’s wrong? What if I follow Him and He leads me nowhere? What if I follow Him and it gets me into trouble with the leaders of the Sanhedrin? What if I follow Him and lose everything? The “whatifs” kept him from becoming all that God wanted him to be. Sound familiar? It does to me. Sometimes the “whatifs” have been a problem in my life.

But you know, I am always amazed at how the Bible gives us the guidance we need for our living. This story is a case in point. I was reading along in Mark 10, the story of the rich young ruler and pondering how he had been shackled by the “whatifs” in his life. And then I discovered just a few verses later, in that same 10th chapter, the story of blind Bartimaeus, a man who wouldn’t let the “whatifs” stop him. I realized that there is a wonderful lesson to be learned in looking at both stories together.

First, the rich young ruler. Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, on His way to the cross when he encountered this remarkable young man. Notice, please, that the Bible says that the man “ran up and knelt before Jesus”. He “ran up”—a sign of enthusiasm. He “knelt”—a sign of reverence. Therefore, we can assume that the young man was quite sincere when he asked: “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered: “You know the commandments”—and then Jesus listed them for him. The young man quickly replied: “All these I have kept since my youth.” And Jesus then—and hear this please—”looking at him, loved him, and said: ‘You lack one thing: Go sell what you own and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me!'” Jesus loved this young man. Jesus longed to have the young man in the company of the faithful. But the rich young ruler turned away and left sorrowfully, trapped in a prison of his own making, paralyzed by his own fears.

But now Blind Bartimaeus. What a contrast! Jesus was leaving Jericho, headed towards Jerusalem, and a great crowd pressed in upon Him. Lots of noise. Lots of commotion. Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting there by the side of the road. No doubt it was the place where he spent everyday, hoping upon hope that a compassionate passerby might throw a few coins his way. Now evidently Bartimaeus had heard of Jesus, because when he learned that the commotion around him was being created by the presence of Jesus, he cried out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd tried to shush him up. They didn’t want to be distracted by this poor wretched fellow screaming from the roadside. But Bartimaeus would not be denied. He simply cried louder. Suddenly, Jesus stopped. Above the hubbub of the crowd, He had heard the desperate cry. Jesus then said: “Call him here.” With that the Bible says that Bartimaeus “sprang up and came to Jesus.” The Scriptures go on to tell us that Jesus restored his sight and then the story ends with these words: “and Bartimaeus followed him on the way.”

Two men. The rich young ruler and Blind Bartimaeus. One misses out on glory, trapped by his own fears. The other gets past his fears, makes the leap of faith, and finds new vision and new life. Today I want to focus on that contrast, because it is my observation that too many people, far too many people become paralyzed by their own fears and miss out on the supreme glory of Jesus Christ.

We can become trapped, for example, by our fear of commitment.

In a cemetery up in the state of West Virginia, there is a tombstone which carries this inscription:

“I’ve gone ahead as you can see,
So trust my lead and follow me.”

Some wag came along later and wrote beneath the inscription these words:

“To follow you I am not content,
Until I know which way you went!”

Light touch, heavy point. We are cautious about making commitments; sometimes to a fault. We become so guarded, so suspicious, so frightened, that we are scared to death to commit ourselves to anything or to anyone—and that is tragic.

In the early days of the church, a young Christian was arrested for “preaching Christ”, and he was dragged to trial. He was shown the executioner’s axe and was told that unless he renounced his loyalty to Christ, he would be beheaded on the spot. With tenacious, unswerving commitment, he turned to his adversaries and said: “You can take my head from my shoulders, but you will never take my heart from my King.”

Now that’s real commitment, isn’t it? Think about that. What would happen if every member of our church had that kind of commitment. It would change not only our church, not only our city—it would change the whole world. The rich young ruler turned away sorrowfully because he could not make a commitment. Sometimes neither can we—and that is a sorrowful thing indeed.

Also, we can become trapped by our fear of failure.

Look at Bartimaeus. He had nothing going for him in life. He easily could have surrendered to the fear of failure or inadequacy. But he wouldn’t do that. This was his moment. He took what little he had, and he cried out unashamedly to Jesus Christ. And look at what happened.

It happens still. Earlier in this century, when George Washington Carver was a young man, he went out for a walk one day. As he walked along, he asked God to bless him with something great and wonderful in his life. You see, he had just read the promise of Jesus in the Bible: “Ask and you shall receive; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened to you.” And so he decided to ask God for something great and wonderful, fully expecting that God would give it to him. But then he opened his eyes to see what God had given him, and all he found was a single peanut in the palm of his hand. He was disappointed and confused. He didn’t understand. “A peanut, God? Is that all you have for me?” But you know, after carrying that peanut around for a day or two, he began to make peace with the fact that perhaps this was his entrustment in life, and he needed to make the most of it. And so he said to that little peanut: “You know, little fella, you’re not much, and I guess I’m not much either. But God put us together, so let’s see what might happen.” You know what happened. That was the beginning of one of the most remarkable stories in the history of this great country of ours. George Washington Carver invented more than 300 different products from that peanut. All because he took what was given to him, however small and obscure, threw off the shackles of fear, and he did something quite wonderful.

Yes, it does happen still. It is time for us to select another Miss America. In the midst of all the hype surrounding the pageant and in the midst of all the furor over whether they wear bathing suits in the contest, don’t miss celebrating the last days of the reign of the most amazing, the most inspiring Miss America we have ever had. She’s inspiring not because she is beautiful and talented, but because of her indomitable spirit. You know her story, don’t you? How she had a negative reaction to a tetanus shot when she was just 18 months old, and how she wound up being totally deaf in one ear, and 95% deaf in the other. In a way she was handed something infinitely worse than just a peanut at the beginning of her life. She was handed a bitter pill to swallow instead.

But look what she has done with it! When she was a little girl, her mother did two things for her. Her mother gave her the gift of a powerful faith in Jesus Christ and her mother told her that she was an American, and that the last four letters of American are I-C-A-N…or I can! Her mother kept saying to her over and over again: “Don’t forget, Honey, you can, you can, you can, you can do anything you want with God’s help.” So instead of giving up, feeling sorry for herself, and wondering why she didn’t get a better deal in life, Heather Whitestone took off in a different direction. She took what she had—it wasn’t much—and she cried out for God’s help, and together they turned her life into something wonderful and beautiful. For the last year, her story has touched the hearts of millions of people. She is, I repeat, the most inspiring Miss America we have ever had.

What about you? Have you been handed a peanut or a bitter pill to swallow in life? Remember George Washington Carver. Remember Heather Whitestone. Remember Blind Bartimaeus. Cast aside your fear of failure or inadequacy. Cry out to Jesus for all you are worth. For then you will discover that in Him you are worth a lot!

Now I think we need to acknowledge that we can even be trapped by our fear of God.

Jesus came to set us free from that. John Killinger once put it like this: “Jesus was God’s way of getting rid of a bad reputation.” People do tend to misunderstand God. They assume that since He delivered the Ten Commandments outlining what we are to do and not do in life, that He must be hard and restrictive. They see Him looking over our shoulder ready to lower the boom on us if we step out of line. But God isn’t that way at all, said Jesus. He is like a father in the best, warmest, purest, most loving sense of the word! So often Jesus said: “Do not be afraid. God is like a loving father and God is with you.”

I remember so well a little girl in a congregation I served in South Carolina. Her name was Lindsey. She was four years old. She was talking to me one day and telling me that she was going to see the movie, “Snow White”, and while she was excited about it, she was also a little nervous about the “wicked witch” in the story. But, then she smiled and said with confidence: “But it’s okay. My father is going with me. So when the witch comes on, I won’t look at the witch, I’ll just look at my father.”

I can’t say it any better than that. We don’t have to be afraid of anything in life. God is like a loving father and God is with us in Jesus Christ. When we keep our eyes upon Him, we can face anything in life with strength, with confidence, with poise, with hope, and with love.

Well …

There you have it. The contrast could not be drawn more clearly. The rich young ruler came to Christ seeking new life, but he let his fears shackle him—and as a result, he turned away from glory. Blind Bartimaeus cried out for Christ in his life. He refused to be stopped in his quest to reach the Savior- and as a result, he gained new life here and hereafter. What else is there to say except …

Those who have ears to hear, let them hear!

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