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Amazed by Grace

March 13, 2014

  Mark 10: 13 – 27

A young man ran up to Jesus – he had a question for him. People often had questions for Jesus. Sometimes they did so with the intention of tricking him. At the start of this chapter for example the Pharisees were trying to trip Jesus up by quizzing him on the rights and wrongs of divorce.

After that Jesus had spent some time blessing the children who were being brought to him. There could hardly have been a bigger contrast. In fact the disciples did their best to prevent this by turning the children away.  After all Jesus was far too busy to waste his time on them. His time was better spent discussing divorce with the Pharisees, teaching the adults and healing the sick. Isn’t it funny how Jesus followers can be so wrong about what Jesus is like and what he wants to do? People can be attracted to Jesus but totally put off by his followers. Jesus tells them they are wrong. Child

And now as he leaves a man arrives on the scene. Now if the disciples viewed the children as time wasters, chances are they were much more interested in this man. He was a young man of considerable wealth. A man in authority. He would have been a real catch for the Kingdom of God. What support he could have given financially. He was successful. He would no doubt attract his well to do friends. This could only be good. This was the kind of man Jesus needed to concentrate his efforts on. No the disciples weren’t turning anyone away now.

Mark tells us that this man of standing fell to his knees before Jesus. Extraordinary that would have seemed to those around. A young wealthy ruler kneeling before a young carpenter. It seems this was a man with a mission. He was deadly serious. He wasted no time with his question, after kneeling and addressing Jesus as the “Good teacher”, he asks, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

As he often did, Jesus responds to the man’s question with one of his own. “Who are you calling good? Only God is good”. “You want to know what to do? You know what to do already:

Do not kill.

Do not be unfaithful to your wife.

Don’t steal.

Don’t lie.

Don’t commit fraud.

Respect your parents.

That’s what you have got to do”.

Sounds simple and straightforward enough, but…

Well actually with this young man there was no ‘but’.  He was ticking them off on a checklist.

“Yes teacher, no problem, I have done all those things since I was a boy”. Perhaps he started to relax, thinking “This is it. I’m OK”. It’s interesting isn’t it that he seemed so sure of himself. Would you or I be so confident? OK most of us would stand sure in the knowledge that we have never killed anyone. We’re not that kind of person! Never told a lie? Never cheated? Always looked out for our families? Hmm. Anyway, young man is alright. He has NEVER done any of those things.

Nobody questions that. Jesus doesn’t challenge him in his thinking about himself. There’s no “O come on, you must have done something wrong!”

But challenge him Jesus does. If the man relaxes as he hears Jesus initial answer, he is left reeling as Jesus continues. We are told that Jesus loved the young man. Mark adds that detail. But out of that love came a command that rocked him – “You need to do one more thing. Sell everything you’ve got. And give the money to charity. Then you can be my disciple. Then you’ll have the riches that I give you”.

Silence. Weigh it up.

Eternal life – possessions?

In the Kingdom of God or wealthy?

An inheritance of eternal life or more possessions?

It was great when the man thought he had it all and he had done it all. Jesus would welcome him with open arms. But while the man’s goodness was not disputed, he was not accepted on those terms. Keeping a list of rules, even God given rules was not enough.

See his question was what can I do? The Irish pop group the Corrs sang “what can I do to make you love me? What can I do to make you care?” And that approach no more works in our relationship with God than it does in our human relationships. Love is not something we earn. We do not force the other person’s hand with our good deeds.

The man boasted that he had done it all. And yet for Jesus it was not enough. What at first seemed a very promising situation turned into a tragedy. The man weighed the eternal against the here and now. What God could give him against what he could gain in this world. And he chose what he knew. He turns and walks away. Maybe without another word. The reply was anything but what he expected. We are told he was sad. But he was gone. We might imagine Jesus would chase after him and maybe offer a compromise. But he didn’t. Jesus’ disciples rarely understood him but now they were stunned!

A prime candidate for the kingdom. Surely Jesus has got it wrong.

But what this exchange proved was that actually this man had something in his life that when weighed up was more important to him than his relationship with God. His wealth. And actually it proved that he had not and did not keep all of God’s commands. It may not be accidental that Jesus was selective as to which of the ten commandments he mentions. We are told that he only mentioned 6 out of 10.

But you see, while I am actually suspicious that anyone could keep all the 6 that were mentioned when we look at the list of 10, this man fell at the first hurdle.

“Number one. You shall have no other gods before me”. Sure this man worshipped the true God, he maybe didn’t bow down and worship idols made of wood or metal. But he had something that came before God. His material wealth. And that was his god. Some of us may have faced the challenges of wealth, some maybe not. Maybe for us there is something else that we will hold on to when all else fails and God will get second place. Jesus put his finger firmly on the problem. Nothing he could do would change that.

Rather than chase after the man Jesus explains “How hard it is for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God”. As the disciples look on amazed he famously compares the dragging a camel through the eye of a needle with a rich person dragging themselves into the kingdom. However you look at it, Jesus meaning is plain. He’s not just saying it’s difficult. It’s IMPOSSIBLE.

Nothing anyone can do. Even the best most accomplished and moral of people. All are doomed to failure in trying to get God’s approval by what we do. IMPOSSIBLE.

Devastation for the disciples. When they think they are beginning to understand, Jesus says something like this.

“If this man can’t be saved then who can?”

Jesus immediately turns the conversation on its head.

“I said it’s impossible for you people”.

“But God can do what no one else can. Through him people can be saved”. Through him they can find a way into his kingdom.

You see it is never about what we do. It is about what God does. We can keep most of the commandments, but still not be acceptable to God. On the other hand we can fail to keep any of them and find God’s acceptance.

Bill Hybels of Willow Creek church in Chicago reminds us of the difference between religion and Christianity.

It is the difference between DO and DONE.

All religions tell us it is about what we do. Keeping the rules, living a good life. Uniquely Christianity tells us it does not matter what you have done. You can still find God. It’s all about what he has done. It’s all about grace. The grace of God is to give us everything that we don’t deserve. We don’t have to measure up. God has done it through Jesus. Later when Jesus died on the cross he cried out “It is finished”. That wasn’t a voice of defeat, but a cry of victory. Jesus had done everything that he had come to do. He had faced up willingly and received the punishment that our failures deserved.

That’s why they call it grace. Amazing grace. Hanging at Jesus’ side that day was a thief. Nailed to a cross as well. He was there because he deserved to be. The perfect Son of God was there because he chose to be. All our failures all our rebellion. Laid on him.

The thief had certainly gone wrong. Amongst the mocking voices of others, he turned his head towards Jesus “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom. He did not ask what he had to do. Jesus did not recite the commandments back to him. Jesus simply replied “Today you’ll be with me in Paradise”. If ever we could allow ourselves to believe that we can earn God’s favour, this thief, perhaps more than any other proves this is not the case. He would never be able to make amends for his crimes. But he experienced the grace of God. Just by asking. Forgiven. With Jesus.

You may feel that God will never accept you. That you are beyond rescue. The Psalmist tells us that God “forgives all my sins”. We cannot say he just forgives others but not us. We cannot say that if he knew what I’d done he would not forgive because he knows everything about us – and loves us just the same. He offers forgiveness. That is grace. Will you receive it?

So remember Christian, what did you do earn God’s love? What reason do you have for pride? None at all. You did nothing. It was all of Jesus. All you did was accept what he had done for you. Received the gift that he offered. You didn’t have to pass some kind of test, show yourself good enough, say a particular formula of words even. You reached out and received the gift of life. An expensive gift too. Bought by the blood of Jesus.

The Apostle Paul seemed to regularly come up against churches full of people who were boastful. He indeed listed many of his own achievements, but concluded “you won’t find me boasting about me. Only about the cross of Jesus”.

The fact is that, as Philip Yancey puts it (What’s so amazing about grace?) “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more”. So why is it that as Christians we forget that and we still slip all too easily in trying to earn God’s approval. Having received the grace of God we now think it is all about what we can do for him.

When we receive the grace of God it changes us. And our motivation in living for God is not to gain his approval, but it is gratitude for the grace that God has shown us. It is because grace has been shown to us that we show grace to others. Our acts of love are poor reflections of his supreme act of love. True faith will show itself in good deeds as James reminds us in his letter. But those good deeds stem from gratitude for grace not legalism.

Philip Yancey reminds us too that there are 2 sides to the coin. “There is nothing we can do to make God love us more”. Equally “There is nothing we can do to make God love us less”. As we live for God we continue to live in his grace.

We will often fail, but he is there to forgive. When we let go of grace, he is full of grace. When we fail to show grace to others, he is gracious.

Amazing grace? How amazed are we actually by God’s grace? Do we even recognise it? Do we too easily forget it? Do we think it’s all too good to be true?

The rock band U2 have a song called grace. It begins:

“Grace
She takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

Grace
It’s a name for a girl
It’s also a thought that changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything”

The lead singer Bono talks about grace as his “favourite word”. It is a word he depends on. He talks about “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”.

He says “then enters grace and turns that upside down. Christ’s ministry really was a lot to do with pointing out how everybody is a screw up in some shape or form, there’s no way around it. But then he was to say, well, I am going to deal with those sins for you. I will take on myself all the consequences of sin. And so grace enters the picture to say ‘I’ll take the blame, I’ll carry your cross”.

Grace.

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