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Once in a Lifetime

As you all probably know by now, Billy Graham passed away this week at the age of 99. Whereas Billy Graham was a household name to many around the globe, he was, to our family, a personal friend. As I said to another friend this week, it is a strange feeling losing Billy Graham. I lost my father over 20 years ago. But he and Billy were the same age, and their lives were so intertwined, that it is like losing part of my father all over again; and Billy’s passing is a reminder that we are losing a great generation, a generation I very much look up to.
As I was reflecting on all of this, I decided to listen online to the sermon that Billy Graham preached on November 6, 1949, in Los Angeles, the night my father committed his life to follow Jesus Christ. It gave me an uncanny feeling to discover that sermon was on the text I have planned for months now, to be preaching on today, Mark 10:17-31. Coincidentally, this is also the text that I spoke about in my first sermon during my time as an intern at Billy Graham’s home church, Montreat Presbyterian Church, in 1986.
With that introduction in mind, listen for God’s word to you from Mark 10:17-31….
As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money[a] to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is[b]to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another,[c] “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news,[d] 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
People talk about a “once in a lifetime” experience. I believe this story we have just read talks about such an experience. Therefore, I want to talk with you today about the question of a lifetime, the invitation of a lifetime, and the response of a lifetime. First, let’s look at The Question of a Lifetime….

In this account from the ministry of Jesus there is a man who approaches the Master in haste—thinking that if he waits another moment his opportunity may be lost, and the teacher will be gone to another city. Dispensing with formality, the man rifles his question at Jesus, even as he is running, then kneeling, before him.

Mark tells us this man was rich. Matthew tells us that he was young. And Luke tells us that he was a ruler of some sort. Thus, this character in the Gospels who remains nameless has forever after been known as The Rich Young Ruler.

People like this Rich Young Ruler, living in Palestine in the first century, seldom if ever ran anywhere. And if they did run, they certainly did not kneel before anyone else. But this rich young ruler does both. He runs to Jesus. He kneels before him. There is amazing humility displayed here before this rich, young, powerful man says anything.

Then, comes the question of a lifetime. I have recently asked all of you to share with me your ultimate questions. You can write your question and put it on the bulletin board in the narthex, or you can email me your question. All questioners will remain anonymous. But I hope to take those questions and formulate a sermon series in the future.

That said, this question, posed by this rich young ruler, may be the ultimate, ultimate question:

“Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now, in order to understand this young man’s question, you have to understand the mindset of the first century Palestinian Jew. They viewed all of life as divided into two parts. For them, there was the present age filled with sin, and pain, and trouble, and oppression by a foreign power—Rome. But every Jew believed there was going to be a future age, a coming age, in which they would be set free from sin, set free from pain and sorrow, set free from oppression.

When this rich young ruler asked this question of Jesus he was asking: “What must I do to inherit the life of the ages, the life of the age to come?”

This man runs to Jesus with keen anticipation. He kneels before Jesus in recognition of the teacher’s greatness. This man had some idea that Jesus would be able to help him. He recognized Jesus as a good teacher, but he did not realize the full significance of that goodness.

Jesus responds to him,

“Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.”

Jesus presses this man to make him realize who he is speaking to. Jesus is in effect saying to this man:

“If you call me good, then you are saying that I am God.”

Now, if you were to ask this young man’s question of any Jew in the first century, you would get a two-part answer. If you asked any Jew in Jesus’ time, “What must I do to inherit the life of the age to come?” he would tell you first to obey the Mosaic law—the Ten Commandments.

And that is what Jesus does here. He reminds this rich young ruler of the law, but Jesus does that in a unique way.

  • Jesus starts with commandment number six: “You shall not murder.”
  • Then Jesus moves on to commandment number seven: “You shall not commit adultery.”
  • Then commandment number eight: “You shall not steal.”
  • Then commandment number nine: “You shall not bear false witness.”
  • Then Jesus adds another commandment, not part of the ten: “You shall not defraud.”
  • Then Jesus goes back to number five: “Honor your father and mother.” 

What is Jesus doing? Jesus mentions only those commandments that pertain to this rich young ruler’s relationship with his fellow human beings. Jesus does not speak of the first four commandments that pertain to this young man’s relationship with God. Jesus reminds the young man of the commands that he is keeping—and it makes the man all the more aware of what he lacks. In a way, the man is keeping a proper relationship with other human beings, but he lacks a relationship with God.

And thus, the man says to Jesus,

“Teacher, I have kept all these commands from my youth.”

From his own perspective, this young man had been moral all of his life. He had never done anything to hurt anyone. He had an external obedience that exemplified a life of steadfast deliberation and determined discipline… but he was alone.

Picture it this way: this young man had been to the bridge called religion. He had ventured out as far as that bridge would take him. And he found that religion cannot bridge the gap between human beings and God. This man had gone all the way out to the end of his religion and read the sign: “BRIDGE OUT.” He had looked down to the immeasurable depths below him and knew that he had to turn back and find another way.

And thus, this young man came to Jesus asking him how he might inherit the right to enter the age to come. He knelt before Jesus of Nazareth yet…he did not fully comprehend who this Jesus was.

That leads us to The Invitation of a Lifetime….

If you had asked any Jew in the first century, “What must I do to inherit the life of the age to come?” He would have given you a two-part answer. First, obey the law. Second, follow our group—whether that group be the Pharisees or the Essenes or whoever.

Now notice the second part of Jesus’ answer to this rich young ruler….

We read that Jesus looked upon this young man and loved him. He looked straight through to the core of this man kneeling before him. Jesus knew this man’s need, and he knew how to fill that need. He told him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.”

Just like every other Jew in the first century, Jesus responded to this young man’s question by reminding him of the commandments, but then instead of saying follow this group or that group, Jesus invites him: “Follow me.”

Remember when Jesus was quoting the Ten Commandments to this rich young ruler, Jesus left out the first four commandments that have to do with our relationship to God, and Jesus also left out the tenth commandment: “Thou shalt not covet.” Those five commandments that Jesus left out represent this rich young ruler’s sore spot. He lacked a relationship with God—and he was coveting—and the things he was coveting were getting in the way of him having a relationship with God.

So now let’s look at The Response of a Lifetime….

We read that in response to Jesus’ words this young man went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions.

Perhaps he was thinking, “Sell what I have? All of it? But you don’t understand, Jesus. I have a career on the line. I’ve gone to college; I’ve studied, worked hard, done my bit for society. What do you mean, sell all I have? I’m sure the coming kingdom will be nice and all that, after all, that is what I want, the life of the ages. But what about here and now? What about tomorrow’s meal? And the day after?”

This young man did not seem to understand that to cross the bridge of Jesus Christ and enter into the life of the ages he would have to remove all of his excess baggage. The bridge to the life of the ages is narrow. If we try to cross it, holding on to our works, our religion, our possessions, our stuff…we won’t make it. We will be blown off the bridge and go crashing to the bottom with the first gust of wind. We must cross the bridge of Christ without baggage—any excess weight will make us unstable and the journey will be impossible.

I think of the Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge in Northern Ireland. It is a bridge between the mainland and a little island with a hundred-foot drop to the sea below. It’s not a bridge you want to stop on to take a photo halfway across. Whenever I have crossed it I have wanted to keep my grasp firmly on both handrails.

The young man in our story for today had excess; he had great possessions. And those possessions were keeping him from venturing all on a relationship with God, those possessions were keeping him from stepping out on to Jesus. He did not want to let go of those things that were so important to him—even at the expense of life itself.

In response to this young man’s decision, Jesus said, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 

The disciples were perplexed at this statement, as we might well be. You see, the first century Jew thought of riches as a sure-fire sign of God’s blessing. “What do you mean, Jesus, by telling us that riches might be a road-block?”

Rather than softening his stance, Jesus makes it even harder when he says: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Jesus is most likely using deliberate hyperbole here to make the point that it is impossible for rich people to enter the kingdom of God on their own strength.

There is a story that has circulated since the ninth century of a small gate in the Jerusalem wall that would be used at night to enter the city when the large gates would be closed. This small gate is called “the eye of the needle”. If you see a photo of it, you can tell it also would be too small for a camel to get through.

In any case, the disciples were greatly astounded at Jesus’ statement. And they asked, “Then who can be saved?”

And Jesus responded: “With human beings this is impossible. But not with God. For with God all things are possible.”

The salvation of a human being is a God thing. We cannot save ourselves, whether we are rich or poor.

Peter, probably feeling a bit desperate, said to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything to follow you.”

Jesus assured Peter that he would not lose his reward. But the hierarchy of Jesus’ kingdom is different than the hierarchy of this world.

So, if you are wealthy, does this mean you have to give up everything to follow Jesus?

Well, obviously, Jesus spoke these words to one wealthy young man two thousand years ago. Jesus apparently knew these were the words that this young man needed to hear.

I think the question for us is: what gets in the way of our following Jesus? Whatever that thing is that gets in the way, whether it be riches or something else, then we need to get rid of it.

Allow me to close with these words from playwright, Thornton Wilder. He once wrote:
There is a land of the living
And a land of the dead
And the bridge is Love.
The only survival
And the only meaning.

I believe Jesus is that bridge of Love. He is the bridge to the life of the ages—a life of fullness, a life of meaning, a life that can begin here and now, and will never end. Jesus’ invitation is the invitation of a lifetime. What is your response?


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