Sunday, April 26, 2015

Clash of Kingdoms: A Message on Your Tombstone

What will they write on your tombstone? Well, can you think of a more morbid way to being a sermon? But, this sermon really is not about death rather it is about life. When they write on your tombstone, they will describe you in some way. Likely, they will write a word or two about who you were in life.

These pictures were taken in the summer of 2005. The first one is of me holding Ben. He is only a few months old in this picture. He never knew my father. He was born a couple of years after my dad passed away.

The next picture is of Luke and me bending over the same headstone. Luke was only a few months old when my dad passed away. He really has no memory of him. So, my sons’ recollection of my father, their grandfather, comes only through pictures, stories, home videos and those words that appear on my dad’s tombstone. You cannot see it clearly from these pictures, but on my dad’s tombstone are just a few words: “Dad” (what we called him), “Papa” (what the grandkids called him), and “Psalm 23” (a passage that talks about God’s shepherding presence). Generations from now, those words will be all that is left to tell people who my father was. You know, reflecting back on his life, I think that is a pretty good depiction of who he was. He loved his family and he loved God.

What about you? What words will they write on your tombstone? What words describe you more than any others? There was a guy we read about in the Bible that, I think, was wrestling with that question. He was a good man, a respected man, a wealthy man, but he still was not sure what people would write about him on his tombstone. So, one day, he went to Jesus to ask for some help.
A man approached him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to have eternal life?”
Jesus said, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There’s only one who is good. If you want to enter eternal life, keep the commandments.”
The man said, “Which ones?”
Then Jesus said, “Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Honor your father and mother, and love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
The young man replied, “I’ve kept all these. What am I still missing?”
Jesus said, “If you want to be complete, go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come follow me.” But when the young man heard this, he went away saddened, because he had many possessions. (Matthew 19:16–22)
We have used this text in the past as a jumping off point to talk about money and possessions and certainly, that is a significant teaching from this text. Money isn’t everything. Money can become an idol. Our attachment to money can keep us from attaching to God! But, I think there is something even more important going on here. I believe this man came to Jesus because he wasn’t really sure whom he was. This encounter between Jesus and this rich man occurs in all three synoptic gospels. So, by placing them side by side, we can learn a bit more about this guy. All three synoptics say he was “rich.” Luke says he was a “ruler.” Matthew says he was “young.” So, traditionally, this fellow has been known as the “rich young ruler.” I wonder if that is what he would have wanted written on his tombstone: “Here lies the Rich Young Ruler.” You know, at that point in his life, that might be exactly who he thought he was. Because his identity was tied up in those things, he was a young rich man who had come into power. Maybe he was wise beyond his years so he moved up the ranks quickly. Maybe his family was well off so he got a significant head start. Whatever the case may be, we know that even at a young age, this man had accumulated wealth and position and when Jesus asked him to give it up, he just couldn’t. Because at that point in his life, this man thought he was nothing but a “rich young ruler.” But Mark’s account of this story tells us something very important. When Jesus looked at this man, He saw something else. Mark remembered something about this encounter that Matthew leaves out…
As Jesus continued down the road, a man ran up, knelt before him, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except the one God. You know the commandments: Don’t commit murder. Don’t commit adultery. Don’t steal. Don’t give false testimony. Don’t cheat. Honor your father and mother.”
“Teacher,” he responded, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a boy.”
Jesus looked at him carefully and loved him.
Mark says that Jesus looked upon this man and loved him. Jesus recognizes in the young man before him a fine, religious, good-living, decent citizen. This guy went to church, tithed, and was a leader in the business world. This guy would have been very comfortable here this morning. He probably would have been a leader among us and Jesus loved that about him!

But notice this… As good as this man was, he himself recognized that something was missing. Unlike Mark’s gospel, in Matthew, the young man asks the question, “What is missing?” Even though this guy seemingly had everything in place, he knew something was not right. He knew God had something else, something bigger, in mind for him. He just didn’t know how to get there and the great tragedy of this story is that when Jesus finally told him how to do it, this man had been looking for answers, he came to Jesus searching for answers, and when Jesus finally gave him the answer he’d been waiting for, he just couldn’t do it! Douglas Hare, a Matthean scholar writes:
He could have been shamed into giving a much more substantial portion of his income to the poor. What he minded was giving up all that wealth means: privilege, status, and economic power. He was not ready to surrender his comfortable and secure world for the unknown, frightening world into which Jesus was calling him. He was identified by his wealth; he did not want to find a new identity.
I think Hare nails it. This guy was having an identity crisis and Jesus was finally able to get the mirror up in front of him. He could clearly see what was most important to him. He could clearly see what had come to define him. Money, power and position, and by the time he had this encounter with Jesus, he was so attached to those things, he just couldn’t let go.

I don’t think it is an accident that this episode in all three synoptic gospels follows Jesus’ encounter with little children. Most of the stories in the gospels, even those that appear in all three gospels, appear in different orders, but not this one. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, just before Jesus has this encounter with this rich young ruler, He is talking about little children.
“Allow these children to come to me,” Jesus said. “Don’t forbid them, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like these children.”
These gospel writers wanted us to see these two stories together. They interpret each other. Why does the kingdom of heaven belong to “people like these children?” Because children are not so entrenched in their false identities that they cannot let go. If Jesus tells a child, “Give everything you have to the poor and follow Me…” a child would go. In this brief encounter, two kingdoms collide. To move from the old kingdom into the new the young man must become like a child, but even though he is “young,” he is already too old!

This encounter between the rich young ruler and Jesus began with a simple question: “What must I do to have eternal life?” “Eternal life,” contrary to popular belief does not mean life after death. Jewish people had no concept of life after death the way that Christians do. He was not asking “How can I be saved after I die?” He was asking, “How can I have life?” Real life, NOW? A complete and full life? The life God designed me for? And Jesus’ ultimate answer to that simple question? To experience the life God always wanted for you, you have to put your complete trust in God alone. You must find your identity as a child loved by God. Everything else in this life will let you down. Your job (you will lose it), your family (they will disappoint you), your money (you will never have enough), your friends (they will also disappoint you). Only God is perfect. Only God is 100% faithful. Only a life that puts its complete trust in God is fully complete.

So, what will they write on your tombstone?

“Here lies a man with lots of toys!”
“Here lies a woman who had a closet full of shoes!”
“Here lies someone who was always right!”
“Here lies someone who was “The Boss!”

Or, maybe they could write something else…

“Here lies someone who experienced Life…” Real life. Eternal life.

If that is what your tombstone will say, it could also, just as well say this:

“Here lies someone who followed God.” Pure, simple, like the faith and life of a child. Because, after all, the kingdom of heaven belongs to people like that.

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