Sermons from Rev Canon Dr Ian Davies

2015

Sunday 11th October (whilst preaching at St Martin's, Dunvant)

(I thought you’d like this one: and it’s actually courtesy of Sir Jeremy Cooke the Christian High Court Judge who was lecturing at Swansea University a while back). A man goes to his doctor complaining that he can’t stop singing the ‘Green green grass of home’. “Oh that’s Tom Jones Syndrome”, the doctor said. “What you mean it’s a common complaint?” asks the man. “Well it’s not unusual”. ( – & by the way that has nothing to do with the sermon whatsoever! – but given our national team’s heroic effort yesterday I thought it appropriate!)

Nowhere is the cost of God’s kingdom brought out more clearly than in the story of this rich young man. We don’t know his name - all we’re told is that he was very wealthy, he was still young and he was powerful. (We have many in our day – at least in our affluent society who’d fit that bill, I think). It’s likely he’d heard that Jesus had this ‘thing’ available – this ‘eternal life’ – and perhaps like speculating in other commodity markets he wanted to get in on it. He had everything else, so why not this? Or perhaps he came to Jesus seeking what his money couldn’t buy and his power couldn’t achieve. Perhaps here was a challenge.

As we read the gospels it’s important to understand that we’re reading a complete story – so what’s gone on before and what surrounds it – its context – is really important.

Back a few verses (if you remember), Mark tells of how people were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, and when the disciples tried to prevent them Jesus was indignant. "Let the little children come to me, and don’t prevent them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these – and I tell you the truth, anyone who won’t receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."
Amongst other things, Jesus is saying to those listening that it’s the kids that are a living picture of the kind of trust and acceptance needed to be one of his followers. Here’s the uncluttered simplicity of a child’s heart – the kind of follower Jesus is seeking – and then we have the stark contrast of this story which is all about the complications and tangles that are part of the adult experience: the obstacles to faith if you like

"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
A simple question – publicly aired, with people all around listening – from  a wealthy, powerful man pleading on his knees with Jesus for the eternal life he’s offering.

(-> Don’t you find it interesting that Jesus was very popular amongst ordinary people for much of his ministry – but only a small minority actually end up as true followers. He always seemed to be looking for ‘true’ disciples as our Bishop was saying yesterday up in Brecon. So it begs the question: what was this rich guy likely to become?)

Maybe because it seems like a fairly self-absorbed kind of a request Jesus asks the man a few questions:"Why do you call me good? No one is good--except God alone.” And you just wonder whether Jesus is making a thinly veiled statement here that maybe this guy is face to face with God, even if he doesn’t know it. Anyway he continues: ‘You know the commandments…’

And the man’s going ‘yes yes…’ “A good Jew would be all too familiar with these” – he’s saying – “and well I haven’t really done anything wrong – I’m a good bloke – and Jesus, just cut to the bottom line will you? Tell me what I need to do to get this new life and let me get on.”

I don’t know what picture is emerging for you, but if you try and visualize a busy, self-obsessed yuppie who just wants to cut the deal – who wants this thing that his money couldn’t buy. I think it might fit.
But (are you still with me?) now notice the next statement from Mark:
Jesus looked at him and loved him - in his desperate self-centred seeking for eternal life, Jesus loved him. He didn’t get angry with him because he was coming with wrong motives or because he was being pushy or difficult. He loved him. And if you’re here today grappling with what it means to follow Jesus then maybe you need to hear this above anything else. However you come– whatever’s going on in your life that isn’t healthy, no matter how ugly or rotten  – Jesus loves you. Even if right now you don’t really have a sense of God’s love for you – it doesn’t change the fact that he does..

So it’s out of love that we get his next statement:
"There’s just one thing you lack, Go, sell everything you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
Whoa!! What a thing to ask!!! To someone who just wanted to sign off on the eternity deal Jesus says it’s a little bigger & more important than you think.

So let’s think for a moment what that conversation must’ve felt like:  You come to Jesus – you want what he’s offering – eternal life, peace, purpose, hope and then he calls you to sell everything you own and (by the way) not invest the money or put it in the bank for later but rather do the most unproductive and indefensible economic thing you could think of - give it away to the poor. Do you think Jesus might have sent him off and then called him back saying : ‘nah – just testing?’ No this was serious. But why this instruction?

Well because then this rich, powerful totally self-sufficient young guy would have to be completely dependent on Jesus rather than his own ingenuity or financial acumen – then he would have discovered that Jesus really is gold standard security and hope, and not his other investments. Jesus was calling him to be an apprentice, a disciple - to completely rework his life and his values. (And it’s a conversation that is about such very different values than the would-be apprentices of Sir Alan Sugar who squirm and writhe and lie their faces off to seek his approval and win the big salary). I think it was Mother Theresa who once said ‘you will never know Jesus is all you need, until Jesus is all you have’.

And his response? We’re told the young man’s face fell. He went away shocked and sad, because he had many possessions. He knew the consequences of his choice -and he also knew that Jesus wasn’t negotiating – and he chose his money instead.

(I wonder) are we any different? Would we be prepared to follow Jesus - to surrender the things we’d been banking on for happiness and security? (and ours may not be money – there are other things we store up).

This teaching about coming under God’s reign and rule is really hard isn’t it? And why does Jesus teach this way? Because he is seeking followers – not fans.

The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once said “to become an admirer of Jesus’ is much easier than to become a follower.” If the gospel doesn’t turn our lives upside down then we need to ask what our churchgoing is all about. We get so afraid in the church about losing potential members that we’ve been willing to take them on their own terms. Then we wonder why the church doesn’t shake society to its very roots.”

Which it has done – in recent history as well as in the first-just down the road a little over a hundred years ago (in Moriah Chapel, Loughor at the start of the Welsh Revival) - and it could happen again – if – (big) IF -  God’s agenda starts to become more important that our own.

·         Perhaps if we followed Jesus with simple childlike trust rather than convoluted adult reasoning, scepticism and fear – and a measured investment

·         Perhaps if people were ‘converted’ to Jesus rather than made church-goers; if they were called to a living relationship with him, rather than to church attendance.

I think maybe we need to admit that the man in the story is a lot more like us than we’d like him to be. And the question Jesus asked him is the same one we face day after day.

Now for Jesus to watch this young man walk away must have been so hard. After all he loved him – he wanted him to be a disciple – he wanted his loyalty – but the guy had made his choice. And Jesus calls disciples – not admirers.

There was a Christian writer called Dallas Willard who sadly died recently. He was a Philosophy Professor at the University of Southern California. I managed to meet him up in Oxford when he came to talk to my theological college. In speaking to church leaders Dallas Willard says “The leading assumption in the American church today – and I think probably the British one too – is that you can be a Christian but not a disciple. We invite people to come to church, participate in our services and give money. But we see churches that know nothing of commitment, that settle for survival and carry this awful burden of trying to motivate people to do what they don’t want to do.”

His argument is that we must call people back to discipleship even if  (heaven forbid) it thins the ranks.

In a world that worships bigger and better and more Jesus seemed to be a consummate crowd-thinner rather than a crowd builder doesn’t it?! Jesus allowed the crowds to hang around, had compassion for them – but he wasn’t after them, as such. He wanted disciples - not perfect people – just people who were willing to follow him and face up to the issues that go with that – people who were teachable, open and willing to do what he asked of them, even if they didn’t have a clue where it might all end up. What Jesus is asking us to do is ‘normal’ practice for a disciple. It’s about letting go of our own agendas. It’s about a trusting childlike faith. That’s why the story that precedes this one really brings home the meaning.

As we’re praying for vision and direction over the coming years together we need to let Jesus be the centre of everything. Because this is how we “discover the love of God – in Jesus Christ.” Perhaps it’s a really simple call to surrender to him – knowing that he is already devoted to us – knowing that he loves us to bits– knowing that we don’t have to be afraid.

It’s the paradox of ‘life in all its fullness’ that it comes through self-denial – de-cluttering of ‘stuff’ that weighs us down. But if we’re listening to Jesus it’s the only way true discipleship works.