In Mark 10:17-27, we meet a man who is a lot like us. For one thing, he has clearly been through the part of the spiritual journey where a person discovers faith. He has not only woken up to the reality of a God in the universe, but he has come to the belief that Jesus can lead him into a deeper encounter with this God. Verse 17 says that as Jesus started on his way, [this] man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. Talk about someone on an intentional journey! Here is a person who is willing to put on his running shoes to follow Jesus. But not only is he willing to run after Jesus. He is willing to humble himself and fall on his knees before Jesus, hoping to find the riches of the spiritual life.
It turns out, however, that this man has moved even further along in the spiritual journey than just discovering faith. He has spent considerable time nurturing faith. In verse 19, we see that the young man knows all the commandments. He has apparently gone to plenty of worship services and Bible studies. He has memorized the Scriptures and practiced the prayers. He has mastered the core beliefs, the disciplines, the group commitments. And it's not just head knowledge for him. "Teacher," he declares in verse 20, "all these [commandments] I have kept since I was a boy." In other words: "Jesus, I've refrained from killing my kids or stepping out on my wife—even when I felt like it. I'm not ripping anybody off or lying and gossiping like some other people do. I'm honest in my business dealings. I've taken good care of mom and dad." So, this young man has progressed to acting out his faith.
This young man has the basic "DNA" of the spiritual life. He has discovered faith, nurtured faith, and is acting out his faith. But he realizes that something is still missing. Some things aren't working out for him as planned. Maybe he has discovered that being faithful doesn't protect him or the people he loves from agonizing pain and loss. Maybe he once cried out for answers and the answers didn't come. Perhaps he is close to giving up on his spiritual journey because it just isn't delivering the results he hoped for. In this text, then, with one last surge of faith, he runs up to Jesus and asks the big question: How do I break through this wall I've run into? How do I cross over into that deeper, greater, everlasting kind of life I've always been told spirituality will lead me to. He puts it this way in verse 17: "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
Verse 21 tells us that Jesus looks at this young man and "loved him." He then says, "One thing you lack. Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." And how did the young man respond? Verse 22: "At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, 'How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!' The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, 'Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!' It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."
The hardest place in our spiritual journey
I want to talk frankly with you today about the hardest place in your spiritual journey and mine. It's the place where many of us get stuck in a form of spirituality that doesn't satisfy or transform us. It's the place where a lot of people start to walk away from Jesus or church. It is the place where a lot of people are left sad, disappointed, or jaded. I entered this period of the spiritual journey myself about ten years ago. I had been pastor of this church for a couple of years, trying to enact some ambitious plans for serving God. I helped draft a poorly-conceived building expansion proposal that nearly split the church before we pulled the plug. I then presided over a considerable mushrooming of our church's budget, during which there was a dip in the economy that left us with a huge financial shortfall. We had to lay off several staff members, which in turn precipitated a terrible round of conflict within the membership and remaining staff over the philosophy and direction of the church. Anonymous letters started circulating, asserting that I was a liar and fool, that some of the staff were heretics, that this once great church was now going down the rat hole. Long-time members were leaving the church in droves.
It wasn't any better at home either. Tensions in our family were not pretty. Our personal finances were ugly, and the baby-faced guy I met in the mirror when I came from California to Chicago was looking older than his father. It was all I could do to drag myself out of bed in the morning and snow-blow the driveway for the umpteenth time. I'd scratch my way through the day and spend the night tossing and turning in worry.
I had consistent fantasies of moving someplace where it wasn't winter for nine months. I dreamed of getting a job where no one expected me to have a leadership opinion. In my worst moments, my prayers amounted to this: "In spite of all I've tried to discover of you God, all I've invested in nurturing faith, all I've done to act for you, all the questions I've asked you to answer for me, my faith is failing me. It isn't protecting me. It isn't feeding me. It isn't advancing any of my good plans. So how do I get through this wall? What happened to all those promises of the abundant and eternal life?"
To my surprise, this is the message I began to hear in various ways from God: "I know you're running hard, Dan. I know you've told yourself and others for many years that your spiritual journey has been all for them and me. But this spiritual journey you've been on has mostly been about you, hasn't it? It's been about what your mind could discover, what your spirit could nurture, what your talent could achieve. It's about all the ways that I could bless you—all the ways your life could get richer."
As hard as it was, I had to admit that God was right. Winding through all my discovering and nurturing, my acting and questioning was this vascular system of selfishness. It permeated everything about me. It affected every relationship. "What must I do, God, to really inherit the life you want me to live?" I asked. "One thing you lack," he said, "a willingness to become smaller, so that I, in you, might become bigger." "But how?" I asked. He answered: "I want you to rejoice in the opportunity that every failure and every conflict provides you—opportunities to examine your real motivations and seek mine instead. I want you to start treating every loss and disappointment, every decay of your own strength, as an invitation to put greater trust in me. One day you won't have this job. One day you won't have that gray-haired, old body. You'll only have me. I want you to treat every criticism and each rejection as an opportunity to identify with me, the one who took the place of a servant. I want you to go, sell, shed, crucify all the pride and fakery and vain compulsivity you are so accustomed to using to secure and advance yourself. I want you to redirect your resources toward surrendering to me in full—toward truly living for my kingdom's purposes. And, I promise you'll find treasure there. You'll be given more of myself to live in you there. Then you'll be amazed at how a new season opens up where you will understand at a whole new level what it means to come follow me."
It has been a few years since I first heard that call so plainly, and I'm painfully aware that I am only beginning this season of the spiritual journey—the season of what I would call crossing faith.
The story in Mark 10 encourages me to look back to Mark 8:34-35, which reads: "Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: 'If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself [daily] and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it.'"
In one sense the time of crossing faith is a bit like the sweeping nature of the second hand of a clock. It can come to us at any time on the spiritual journey, and it typically sweeps over us many, many times. For many people, however, the spiritual breakthrough seems to come toward the end of the most difficult period of questioning faith. You realize, as I started to several years ago, that part of the reason you've been questioning God is because you've been living with the assumption that God and religion are supposed to make you bigger, happier, and more blissful. But the proper prayer is the one that John the Baptist offers in John 3:30: "Lord, [you] must become greater; [and] I must become less."
Here's a question for us to ponder: What still needs to become less in you and me, so that we can cross through the eye of the needle and into the even more treasured seasons of faith that lie beyond? God will give you the answer if you ask. What do I tightly cling to because I still think it constitutes my real wealth? Is it always having to be right? Is it being recognized for how smart you are? For how hard you work? For how good you are? Is your wealth all that nice stuff you have or want to have? Is it having the answers, the achieving child, the perfect family? Is it looking great to others?
The saddest thing in the world is someone who clings to this world's concept of wealth and, in so doing, misses the treasure of heaven. In our passage Jesus says in so many words: Rejoice in every circumstance and every opportunity that life gives you to crucify the old self. Whatever it is that keeps you focused on you instead of on me and the life of my kingdom, sell it, give it away to people who might actually need it. For then you'll actually be able to come and follow me.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart?
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.
Whatever it is that keeps you focused on you instead of on me and the life of my kingdom, sell it, give it away to people who might actually need it. For then you'll actually be able to come and follow me.