A Big Question gets a Big Answer

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15, Mark 10:17-33

Ivan the Terrible was one of the great Tsars of Russia. He ruled in the sixteenth century and was famed for his intelligence and his cruelty. He was a busy man, with all that ruling and conquering, and being Terrible and he had no time to find a wife. So a point came when his courtiers pointed out that this was a problem - without a wife, he had no heir. Would he like them to find him someone suitable? He agreed and his people set off across the known world to find Tsar Ivan a wife. 

After some time they reported back; ‘Sire we have found someone for you to marry - she is the daughter of the King of Greece. There is just one condition. You must become a member of the Greek Orthodox Church.’

‘Very good’ said Ivan, ‘I will’. So a suitably learned priest was sent from Greece to Russia to instruct Ivan in the faith. Ivan was smart, and he quickly learnt every element of Greek Orthodox doctrine and belief, and was judged worthy of baptism into the church. So a date was set, and Ivan set off for Athens, accompanied by 500 soldiers from his personal body guard.

When they arrived, his soldiers, loyal as they all were, asked to be baptised as well. Where their Tsar led, they were ready to follow. So now 500 priests were sent out to instruct the 500 soldiers in the faith. It was all going swimmingly until a problem arose. The Greek Orthodox church taught that you could not be baptised if you were a professional soldier. To be a trained killer and a follower of Jesus Christ was thought incompatible. What to do? These soldiers really wanted to be baptised, but they also really wanted to be soldiers. They has really come to believe, but they didn’t want to give soldiering up.  A solution was needed. And one was found. 

On the appointed day the Tsar and his soldiers arrived at the place of baptism - a large pool into which they would be fully immersed. One by one they stepped into the water, drawing their swords as they went. As the priests spoke the words over them, they entered the water, and as they did so they carefully lifted their sword hand in the air. Under they went, every part of them, legs, torso, head; every part except for their fighting hand. They were baptised - except for the one part they were not willing to give up. 

1500 years earlier, a rich man had faced a similar dilemma. Running up to Jesus, desperate to go deep in faith, desperate to be immersed in the fullness of a life given over to God he asked this man, who he knew could give him the answers he needed - ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’. And he was right - Jesus did have the answer, Jesus knew exactly what this man needed. And he loved the man for asking such a great question, and for seeking God with such honesty and such whole heartedness. 

There’s only more thing you need to do’, Jesus said. ‘Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and then come and follow me.’ 

That young man was ready to be completely immersed in God, to give his life to Jesus. He longed for it. But he wasn’t ready to give over his wallet. He was, as it were, baptised, except for the one thing he was not willing to give up. And so he walked away. 

The thing is, God knows that every part of us needs Him. It’s not just the nice parts, or the acceptable parts; the parts of our lives that we’re proud of; the bits we think are ‘good’. He knows that every part of us needs His love. The bits we’re ready to give him, and the bits we want to keep for ourselves. 

Which part of your life remains unbaptised? Which part of your life are you not yet willing to give up or to give over to God? Which part of you, even as you long to know God more fully and to go deep into his love, do you keep out of reach of the Lord’s grace? 

Because we all have an unbaptised sword arm, or a wallet that we keep for ourselves, or a view of the world that we will not let go of, or a way of behaving that we will not change, or possessions, or prejudices, or a wrong view of God, or of ourselves, or of our family or a story that we tell about how the world is, and who we are. We all hold something back from the Lord. 

What do you hold back from the Lord?

What do you hold tightly, because without it you fear you couldn’t survive? 

What would Jesus say to you, if you asked him that question - what must I do to inherit eternal life? 

We’ve been talking recently about ‘going deep’ - about the desire in many of us to go beyond living at the surface and to get to the deep parts; the places where we meet God, and where we are changed. And God longs for us to go deeper. And because he longs for that to happen, and because he loves us - just as Jesus loved that rich man - he’s going to tell us the truth. 

When we ask - ‘Lord, what must I do to inherit eternal life’ - or another version of the same question, ‘what must I do if I want to live a deeper life?’ He won’t give us a cheap answer or a shallow response. 

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a nice, easy fix on offer. I would really love an easy fix. I want God’s forgiveness without having to really challenge any of my selfishness. I want to be known as a good Christian without having to choose a lifestyle that is different from the world around me. I want to feel that God loves me, without having to fall to my knees and accept the ways that I mess up. I really want to go deep with God, but I’d like to do it on my own terms.

Wouldn’t that be great? A nice easy answer to the question ‘Teacher, what must I do to live a deeper life’. But Jesus isn’t in the business of easy answers. His business is the truth.

Someone once said of this passage, ‘The young man asked a big question, and he got a big answer. Small answers to ultimate questions are insulting’ - and Jesus never, ever insults anyone.

So the rich man said, ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ and Jesus replied, ‘Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and then come and follow me.’ 

We say, ‘what must I do if I want to live a deeper life?’ and Jesus replies, ‘Give everything over to me - including the things that you hold to most tightly.’

We say, ‘how do I discover real freedom, love and joy?’ and Jesus replies, ‘Give everything over to me - including the things that you hold to most tightly.’

We say, ‘here you are Lord, here’s everything…..or nearly everything, I’m just going to hang on to this one thing’ and Jesus replies, ‘Give everything over to me - including the things that you hold to most tightly.’

And so we have to choose. Do we want to live at the surface of life or to go deep? Do we want to keep one arm out of God’s reach, clinging on to whatever it is we cling to, or are we ready to trust Him, to give it all over to Him and to discover the joy of eternal life?

Hugh Nelson