Today we will talk about making room for God to burst forth in your life. The story of the young ruler reflects one of the major themes in the Gospel of Mark. Listen to Mark 10:17-31:
And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'" And he said to him, "Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth." And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, "You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me." Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how difficult 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 person to enter the kingdom of God." And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God." Peter began to say to him, "See, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first."
There are two types of backpacking. The first type is traditional backpacking. Traditional backpackers typically carry packs that weigh 30, 40, or 50 pounds. Hikers will typically pack a sleeping bag, a tent, extra clothes, rain gear, a portable stove, propane gas, water bottles, and so forth. For good reasons, there is a disadvantage to over-night and long-trip traditional backpacking. You are more susceptible to injuries because of the heavy packs, and you have less flexibility. Obstacles and the elements of nature, like storms, can become extremely dangerous.
Over the years, another method of backpacking, which is the second type, has developed: ultra-light backpacking. This style of backpacking eliminates all the nonessentials. Packs typically weigh 10 pounds or less. These backpackers eliminate items like chairs, coffeemakers, and so on. They even cut the tags off their clothing, and they cut the handles off their toothbrushes so they can eliminate excess weight. They don't want to carry anything superfluous. They want their packs to be light and slim.
The first time I went backpacking was in high school. Our group was a bunch of city slickers. We had never been before, so we didn't know what to bring. It was a disaster. We didn't bring any essentials, and we nearly froze at night. I was scarred for almost two decades.
When you go backpacking, you want to strip yourself of all the nonessentials, all the weight that holds you back. In some ways, Christianity in America, in Western society, is like traditional backpacking. We try to follow Jesus, but we carry too much. As a result, our lives feel overloaded and cluttered. We are busy, we have little time to develop a rich relationship with Jesus, and we don't give adequate time or effort to hearing his voice, so we end up living off other people's spirituality.
This passage in Mark tells us that following Jesus requires ultra-light backpacking. We need to strip ourselves of what is nonessential so we can follow him wherever he leads us. We have to make room for Jesus in our lives so that he can work his life and power in us.
Experiencing the cross and resurrection
In order to appreciate this each passage, we need to understand the context of the entire Book of Mark. Mark was written around 65 or 68 AD, in a time of great crisis for the Christians in Rome. Nero was emperor, and he was most likely insane. He was reckless. In the year 64, a terrible fire destroyed 10 of the 14 regions of Rome. Many people believed Nero started the fire, but he blamed the Christians for starting the fire. A terrible persecution broke out against the Christians in Rome. Christians were imprisoned and killed. Some of them were dressed in wild skins and lit up as torches. Others were torn to pieces by wild dogs, and others were crucified in public. It was a sick and horrible circus. It was a trying time for the church in Rome. Christians there had to think deeply about what it meant to follow Jesus? So in response to these difficulties, the Book of Mark was written.
So this is the central theme of Mark: the life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The main focus is on Jesus, who will be crucified. But that's not the only thing in view. The Book of Mark also teaches that for Christ's disciples the cross is not just a symbol of our faith; it is the pattern of our lives. This Gospel tells us that whatever happens to Jesus will happen to us in one way or another. Suffering and death, out of which comes resurrection, defines the life of a follower of Christ. That is the central theme of Mark.
Mark is saying that making room for Jesus in our lives will always release resurrection power in our lives. But before new life can burst forth, death has to take place. We have to make room for God.
Confronting the rich young ruler's clutter
We learn from this story that the rich young ruler is probably in his late twenties or early thirties. Jesus probably had 100 to 200 people around him. This young man ran to Jesus and fell on his knees. He says, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" He recognized Christ, and he wanted God. He had wealth, power, and a prominent status. He probably had a good education. He probably had influence over many people. We learn that he is moral, religious, and spiritual. He loves his family; he honors his parents. All around, he is a good guy. But he has no room in his life. After he says, "I've kept the commandments," the text says Jesus looked at him and loved him. Jesus' very words were an act of love. His speaking was a loving gesture.
This guy didn't understand that he was carrying a lot of baggage in his life. Jesus simply looked at him and perhaps embraced him. Jesus looks at you and he embraces you right now, no matter what you are doing or what you have done. Jesus has a phenomenal future for this young man, and he loves him enough to tell him the truth. So Jesus confronts him and basically says: You cannot carry all this baggage, all these nonessentials, and follow me.
So Jesus gives him specific directions: "Go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me" (10:21). Jesus tells him that his sense of control, security, and identity is wrapped up in his wealth. Jesus said: I want you to give it all away. Those things aren't essential; come follow me.
Jesus' directions to this young man are interesting, because Jesus did not ask Matthew, the tax collector, to give up everything he had. He didn't ask Zacchaeus, who was also rich, to give up his possessions. But Jesus tells this young man to give everything away. Why? Because he was depending on it. It was too much baggage and it was killing him. Jesus said, "Go." The young man needed to do something. He had to get moving. Jesus is inviting us to move, too. He says, "Sell all that you have and give to the poor." Jesus loves the poor. Mother Theresa said that at the end of our lives we won't be judged by how many diplomas we have, by how much money we have made, or by how many great things we have accomplished. She reminds us that we will instead be judged by these words: "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me" (Matt. 25:35-36).
But the heart of this passage is found at the end of verse 21: "Come, follow me." Stop what you're doing, and follow me. I'm going to take you somewhere. It's not about being religious. It's not about going to church multiple times a week. It's about you letting go of the nonessentials in your life, the baggage that overloads your life and holds you back. I want you to surrender your attempt to direct your own life. I'm not telling you where we're going. I want you to follow now, and I want you to follow me. I don't want you to follow a philosophy. I want you to follow me so that your life will change.
Releasing our clutter and following Jesus
The Greek word follow is the word for stick, like adhesion or glue. Jesus is saying: I want you to stick with me, no matter what happens. You may think everything's falling apart, but I'm promising you this: following me will be fabulous. I will take care of you. Come, follow me.
From the beginning to the end, this is what the Christian life looks like: follow Jesus and love other people. Everything else is secondary, nonessential. It's clutter. Jesus had an incredible future planned for this young man, but he doesn't follow Jesus. This young man was in his late 20s. He probably had incredible potential in terms of learning and leadership. He may have become Peter's mentor. Jesus says in verse 29, "No one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life." The young man needed to make room. He needed to let go of the clutter or the nonessentials in his life.
We are going to talk about meditating on this promise.
Imagine your house is on fire and you only have three minutes to get out. You can only take with you things that you're able to carry on your back. What will you take? If you are married, I hope you take your spouse. If you have children, they all have to come, too. Some of you think of leaving your teenager behind. But what would you take out? I wrote down what I would take. I have a shoebox filled with important documents. It has our family's social security cards, our titles to our car and the house, our passports, our birth certificates, and so forth. I would take that shoebox. I would also take my wallet, my computer, and some important photos. I would also take my journals. Some of you might take your pet, a musical instrument, your iPod, or some jewelry that has high sentimental value. But we all would leave behind everything we felt was nonessential.
This is the only time in the Gospels when Jesus calls an individual, "Come, follow me," and the person says no. To be sure, crowds refuse Jesus or walk away from him, but this is the only occasion when an individual denies Jesus' invitation. And what an invitation: Jesus looked him in the eye, loved him, embraced him, and said, "Come, follow me." But the texts says the young man walked away sad. Jesus' invitation was too much for him. He had too much baggage, too much clutter, too many nonessentials that he held on to. As a result, he could not see the beauty or goodness of Christ's call. Christ's words, "Come, follow me," were drowned out by the clutter and the nonessentials.
For some of you, the clutter and baggage that you are carrying is simply your involvement with something sinful—addiction, unhealthy relationships, stealing, or something else that is destructive. Until you let go of your baggage, you will not be able to clearly hear his voice: "Come, follow me." But for many of us, it is not necessarily sin that holds us back; it is simply that we hold on to nonessentials that overload us. For the rich young ruler, it was his money. Worrying about money can often paralyze us. It can be almost demonic. Money is by far the most powerful force that impacts us today in terms of making decisions. Our world, especially America, is dominated by economics. Jesus knew that.
That is why we talk about tithing a lot here at New Life Fellowship Church. We believe tithing is a foundational reminder that life is not about money. Giving away your money helps you to be free, and it blesses other people. Giving away your money keeps clutter out of your life.
I believe it is important to save money for retirement, and I think investing is a good idea. But it can lead to fear and worry if that's all we think about and if we don't trust God. Our financial concerns sometimes prevent us from hearing Christ's call: "Come, follow me."
A medical doctor named Richard Swenson spent his life's work studying globally why our lives are overloaded. He made a list of the things that cause clutter in our lives. The first item on the list is accessibility, the fact that people can contact you 24/7—phone, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, you name it. The first thing many of us do in the morning is check our e-mail and Facebook account. Before you know it, half an hour passes, and you have no time to pray or read your Bible before you go to work. It is a huge burden on our relationship with Christ.
The Bible teaches that we are supposed to work to live, but we end up living to work. Our culture is driven by work. We want to make more money, so some of us take a second job. Some of us work relentlessly for promotions. Some of us work seven days a week, not because we live in poverty, but because we want more money and more possessions. Work becomes a huge burden for many of us, and it can add incredible stress to our lives.
Decisions also overload us and complicate our lives. Debt is another item on the list. Thank God for Financial Peace University by Dave Ramsey. Many of our lives are driven by debt, and we spend all our thoughts and energy trying to dig ourselves out of the hole that we've dug. In the midst of that, it's difficult for many of us to imagine, "Come, follow me," because we are carrying a heavy burden.
Swenson also lists expectations. Many of us feel we have to live up to certain expectations. Many students want to get straight As, so they overburden themselves. They put pressure on themselves to ace the SAT and get accepted to the best schools. Of course, those are good things, and students should try their best. However, it can quickly turn into an obsession that takes number one priority in one's life. Overachieving can crush one's walk with Jesus. He says, "Come, follow me," but these kids can't hear it because they are too consumed with the expectations they have placed on themselves.
Swenson also talks about the other areas where we're overloaded—hurry, fatigue, information, education, media, possessions, activities, and commitments. I was pondering this text recently when I was visiting one of my extended family members, who is in his 70s. Because he knows and loves Christ I asked him, "Why don't you let it all go and follow whatever God has for you?" He replied, "Do you know my kids? I have to provide for them." His kids are in their 40s and 50s. He got red and flushed—his veins were popping out—and he said, "I'm working harder than I've ever worked before!" He's carrying such a load, and his life is extremely cluttered. He is working a six-and-a-half day work week. He loves Christ, but he cannot get free, and he can't see the way to get free either.
This often happens to people with children. Once couples begin to have kids, they begin to have the mindset that their kids have to be at the top of the class, get in the best colleges, and have the best extracurricular activities. All of a sudden, their lives are completely flooded. They want to do the best for our kids. But the best thing for our kids is that they follow Jesus. Before we know it, we are bogged down and we cannot see straight anymore. We lose sight of what is most important.
Following Jesus takes a miracle
We need to understand that there is something behind all these overloads, these nonessentials. It's not simply Western culture. The Book of Revelation says it is a demonic power, pictured as a Beast that attempts to severe your relationship with Jesus. That Beast is fine as long as you just act religious—I'm sure the rich young ruler went back to synagogue, but he didn't follow Jesus—but it does not want you to follow Jesus. Demonic powers behind Western culture will do anything to destroy your living, vital relationship with Jesus.
Jesus was inviting this young man to live a radical life. According to verse 26, the disciples realized it was impossible to respond to Jesus' invitation. Peter said, "Who can be saved?" Jesus says in verse 24, "How difficult 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 person to enter the kingdom of God." Camels were the largest animals in ancient Palestine, and the eye of a needle was a tiny opening. So the only way a camel could get through the eye of a needle would be for the camel to shrink, or for the little eye of the needle to get really big so camel could go through it. In other words, a radical transformation has to occur.
In order to clear away the clutter in your lives, a miracle has to take place. A mere decision on your part will not suffice. God has to do something powerful in you so that you become a new person, so that you can hear his voice, "Come, follow me," and you are able to respond positively. The Christian life is not a one-time response to Jesus' call: "Come, follow me." Friends, the Christian life involves a day-by-day, moment-by-moment commitment to following Jesus. It requires that you surrender everything to him. You go wherever he wants to go. But Jesus says, "With man it is impossible" (10:27). If you think you cannot do what Jesus has asked you to do, then you are right. But listen to what Jesus says: "With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God." Beginning a journey with Christ requires a transforming miracle, and remaining on the journey with Christ also requires a transforming miracle. He has to pick you up and hold on to you.
So rather than leaving sad, do you know what the rich young ruler needed to do? He needed to fall on his knees and ask Jesus for power, for transformation, for deliverance from the demonic beast of his culture and from the hold that his possessions had on him. It actually is simple, isn't it? "Come, follow me"—Jesus' invitation calls for a simple response: Love God and love people. But it gets complicated once you get into the nitty-gritty of it.
Following Jesus regardless of the consequences
Let me tell a story about Dietrich Bonheoffer, a German Christian during World War II. Bonheoffer was born into an affluent family in the early twentieth-century. His father was one of the world's leading doctors of the day, and his older brother was brilliant. His family knew many influential people in German culture, government, and academics. The combination of Dietrich Bonheoffer's natural talent and family connections gave him the opportunity to do whatever he wanted to with his life. But at the age of 13 and 14, he felt God calling him to study theology. He decided to become a pastor. His father was extremely disappointed. His father was not a Christian, but his mother was.
While his siblings were becoming professionals in major places, he was studying theology. He became a pastor and moved into a poor area of Berlin. As he was pastoring a small church there, Hitler soon came to power, and Bonheoffer—who was in his 20s at the time—was able to see clearly Hitler's cruel and unjust treatment of the Jews. Hitler passed a law that excluded the Jews, and the German church as a whole all adopted it, because no one wanted to fight with Hitler.
Bonheoffer, however, spoke out and he eventually became a part of the Confessing Church, which disassociated itself from the German church and refused to follow Hitler. Bonheoffer, along with others from the Confessing Church, formed an underground seminary which operated like a new monasticism. They recognized that true disciples could not follow Hitler.
Bonheoffer emphasized the monastic need to stand against evil. He struggled with what it meant to follow Jesus in the midst of the pressure to follow people around him. And so he began to say things like, "Only he who cries out for the Jews has the right to sing Gregorian Chants." He also said if we don't speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, we have no right to call ourselves Christians. Hitler was killing weak and disabled people. Bonheoffer saw all of this, and he knew he needed to speak and act against it.
At one point, he accepted a teaching job at Union Seminary in New York City, but he realized Jesus was calling him back to Germany. Things were heating up in Germany, and all his friends told him, "Do not come back." And even though he was wanted by the Gestapo, he went back anyways.
When he returned to Germany, he became a part of a conspiracy to overthrow Hitler. He believed God was calling him to take part in the assassination of Hitler. Can you imagine a pastor on a mission to kill someone? He was wrestling with the complexity of the horrific evil going on around him, and he realized that for him following Jesus meant killing an evil leader. In order to do this, he pretended to be part of the Nazis, even though he really wasn't. So people who once liked him now hated him. Nobody trusted him, he no longer had friends, and he was deeply misunderstood.
He was involved in three attempts to assassinate Hitler, but every attempt failed. In the meantime—he was in his late 30s—he fell in love with a young girl, Maria, who he wanted to marry him. He was eventually imprisoned for 18 months, and then he was put in a concentration camp. He lost his security, his reputation, and the possibility to marry the girl he loved. Hitler was furious about the last assassination attempt, so he made sure Bonheoffer was hanged in the gallows at a concentration camp along with tens of thousands of other people.
What is most striking about Bonheoffer's story is the simplicity of "Come, follow me." Every step along the way he decided to follow Jesus, regardless of the consequences. It was simple, but it was also complicated. You think you have a lot going on in your life, that your life is full of distractions and clutter? So was Bonheoffer's. Here is the beauty of it all: God sees the big picture. He has you and your situations at this moment in history for a purpose. And his word to you is, "Come, follow me."
But we need to realize Christ's call, "Come, follow me," includes a great promise:
Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life (10:29-30).
Imagine you have a thousand dollars. I have a checking account right now, and I get less than one percent interest. I check my statement at the end of the month, but there is not much interest coming my way. But Jesus says he does not want us to miscalculate our lives. Unfortunately, many of us do. We hold on to our baggage out of fear, and we don't understand we are hurting ourselves. He said that if we leave everything and follow him we will receive it back one hundredfold. So if you have a thousand dollars, Jesus is saying you'll have one-hundred-thousand dollars. That's an explosive multiplication. If we let go of our fears and trust Jesus, he will take us on a journey about which we never dreamed, and he will give back to us a hundredfold in this present life and in the age to come.
You might be thinking, But Bonheoffer got killed. That's right, but Christ's promises reward. He has a life for you that the rich young ruler was afraid to test. God will give you peace that transcends everything else in this world (see Philippians 4:7). Bonheoffer had incredible peace, even right before he went to the gallows. The people who hanged him wrote about it because it was so extraordinary. Jesus says he will give you a hundredfold of that because it comes from heaven. Words cannot describe the peace of God.
So making room for Jesus in our lives always releases his power. Jesus lived the essential life. There was not clutter in his life; he wasn't overloaded. Instead, he was focused. Do you know what Jesus was focused on? He was focused on you. You're his treasure. He basically told the rich young ruler that he was essential. He communicated the same thing to the woman with the alabaster jar and to the little children who wanted to be blessed by him.
Perhaps your boss has given up on you. Maybe your doctor has given up on you. Maybe your teachers or your parents have given up on you. But Jesus—who hung on the cross, naked and humiliated—says he will never forget you. To him, you are essential, and nothing can separate you from his love. No one can snatch you from his hand. He left heaven in order to save you. And if the house was burning, he would come to get you, even if it meant that he would get burned.
The simplicity of life to which Christ calls us requires a miracle. Jesus is the true rich young ruler; he left heaven to come to us. He left all his wealth and took on our poverty so that we might become wealthy in him. Make room in your life to receive Jesus, to hear his words, "Come, follow me."
Here at New Life Fellowship Church, we talk a lot about five Ms. The first M is monastic. We try to practice disciplines like silence, solitude, Sabbath-keeping, and daily offices so we can hear God's voice. But if you feel overloaded and overwhelmed, I want to invite you to pray: Jesus, help me. I need a miracle so I can come follow you.
He has a great future for you. You cannot let your fears—Where will I go? How is this going to work? What are people going to think of me?—hold you back from following Christ, because he offers you a wonderful promise: No one who has left everything for my sake will not receive a hundred fold in this life and in the age to come.
A Jesuit leader named Pedro Arrupe once put it this way:
Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute final way. The person or thing you are in love with affects everything in your life. It determines what you do when you get out of bed, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you spend time with, what breaks your heart, and what brings you joy. Fall in love with Christ. Stay in love with him. Your love for him will decide everything.