This morning's sermon will touch on two familiar passages from the Gospel of St. Mark: The Rich Young Man (10: 17-31) & Jesus Healing the Man Possessed by Legion (5: 1-20).
Taken together, these are two portraits of the same picture: human expectations being upset by God. They contain patterns that are common to our lives. There's a lot of "lost in translation" going on: between the human and divine formulas for relationship, personal fulfillment and life purpose. Sorting out the difference of opinion - between creature and creator - on what we can expect from one another in relationship, is key to the relationship itself.
Specifically, in the story of The Rich Young Man we'll look at why Jesus often fails our expectations. In the healing of the demon possessed man we'll see how The Lord often defies human expectations - and the differences between these two passages can teach us about how God transcends our needs.
1) Why Jesus often fails our expectations.
2) Why he defies them.
3) How he transcends or surpasses them.
1) The Rich Young Man
“17 And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” 20 And he said to him, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” 21 And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.
23 And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how difficult it is[a] to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 And they were exceedingly astonished, and said to him,[b] “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.”
This story is laden with low-hanging fruit. There's a lot that can be said on wealth, heaven's compensations, self-sacrifice, there are matters of Hebraic law and it's fulfillment - but I want to focus in on what's happening at the very beginning of the passage: "a man ran up and knelt before Jesus and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.”
The rich young man is a mistaken man. He doesn't recognize who he's dealing with - and Jesus checks him on it. Jesus clarifies. He implicitly emphasizes the connotations: Good (if I am good) - I am Goodness itself. I am no mere teacher - I am wisdom. If you want me to point you towards knowledge, I can only point you back to me. Follow the law? I am the lawgiver.
The rich young man fails in obeying Jesus - in selling all he has, and following him - because he is mistaken about Jesus. Yes he was rich, and yes his riches tied his tongue and fettered his feet, but not all the rich are similarly handicapped. Remember Zacchaeus - the corrupt official from the Gospel of Luke. He was the little man who climbed up a tree (I suppose it was a little tree) to see Jesus pass by: "8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
The difference between Zacchaeus and The Rich Young Ruler is the difference between a Good Teacher and the Lord. You may learn from a teacher - but you have to obey a master. The rich young man came for a profound opinion - and was disappointed when it became a command.
The rich young ruler's expectations were disappointed. Jesus wasn't what he was looking for. This is one of the foundational patters of the whole bible: humans - in this instance the Jews - being disappointed with what's on offer. With God failing their expectations. So often, they sought the God of their security, the God of their prosperity, insight, worldly dominance, the God that justified them before the nations - all things that God does - but not the God that he is. He is the God above all these things - and often we want him below them.
Sometimes we fall into similar traps: we have the God of protection (for safe travels and surgical operations), the God who guides our future, arranges our marriages, supports our endeavors, brings home the bacon and so forth - which are all good things, no doubt - but it is less often that we ask FOR God, we tend to ask from him.
We can love God with a lot of our heart without actually committing to love God with all our heart. As was the case with the rich young man, myself, and no doubt many others.
We must love God in and above all good gifts - not simply for them.
We must always check why we obey Him. The Why effects the how, and the how long.
If you love and obey God principally because he is wise - you will never have true wisdom. And his mystery will upset you.
If you love God for his generosity - you will never receive the most important gift. And you will resent when he calls you away from farm and field for his sake.
If you love God because he is the great protector - you shall never be fully safe. And illness, loss or even persecution may turn you away.
If you love God, first and foremost because he is God - you love God well, and you will be blessed for it. You will be wise. Protected. Saved. Loved.
We must love God because of who he is: The Almighty Living and Loving God. The Great I Am. The Father of all Nations. The creator of every creature. As Isaiah tells, he is the first and the last, and apart from whom there is no salvation. He is the only God. Maker of heaven and earth.
Until we love God for who he is, and understand that he is the living God, untamed though often tender, the God of us, we will always have certain failed expectations.
Our view of God will be too small to accept the big things he offers.
What we cannot accept from him will become reasons why we cannot accept him - everything we cannot give thanks for, we will come to reproach him with.
Beware that Christ the capstone does not become the stumbling block. There are dangers for those who honor something God does higher than God himself.
From scripture we have three such examples; instances by which people are offended by God – and grounds for just such an offense.
If he is teacher before he is God. Consider John 6: 56-66 "56 Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. 57 As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me. 58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like the bread[a] the fathers ate, and died. Whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
… 60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”
66 After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him.”
If he is Giver before he is God. Think on Luke 9: 23-27.
"23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. 25 For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words, of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”
If he is emotional comforter before he is God. Take heed of Philippians 2:12
"12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,"
Additionally, we must consider our standing from God's point of view. We need to be sensitive to what he is wanting to do. He isn't out to crush us with the weight of his almighty stature, instead, he is trying to elevate us into loving relationship with him. He says to the Rich Young Ruler, "come and follow me."
But as before, our expectations are often inaccurate. Jesus often defies them. The story of the demon possessed man is just such an instance. We naturally presume what relationship with God looks like - and he shows us another way.
2) Jesus Heals a Man with a Demon
"5 They came to the other side of the sea, to the country of the Gerasenes.[a] 2 And when Jesus[b] had stepped out of the boat, immediately there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit. 3 He lived among the tombs. And no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain, 4 for he had often been bound with shackles and chains, but he wrenched the chains apart, and he broke the shackles in pieces. No one had the strength to subdue him. 5 Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out and cutting himself with stones. 6 And when he saw Jesus from afar, he ran and fell down before him. 7 And crying out with a loud voice, he said, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” 8 For he was saying to him, “Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!” 9 And Jesus asked him, “What is your name?” He replied, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” 10 And he begged him earnestly not to send them out of the country. 11 Now a great herd of pigs was feeding there on the hillside, 12 and they begged him, saying, “Send us to the pigs; let us enter them.” 13 So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the pigs; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the sea.
14 The herdsmen fled and told it in the city and in the country. And people came to see what it was that had happened. 15 And they came to Jesus and saw the demon-possessed[c] man, the one who had had the legion, sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, and they were afraid. 16 And those who had seen it described to them what had happened to the demon-possessed man and to the pigs. 17 And they began to beg Jesus[d] to depart from their region. 18 As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And he did not permit him but said to him, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 And he went away and began to proclaim in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him, and everyone marveled."
Our focus in this passage comes at the end. I'll read it again, "As he was getting into the boat, the man who had been possessed with demons begged him that he might be with him. 19 And he did not permit him..."
One might expect, that if any person was deserving of closeness with Jesus, this man was. This poor wretch had been racked by destitution, deprived of sanity by a legion of demons, wrecked by isolation and neglect, no doubt dispossessed of countless belongings and potentially his property - and all he wanted, with purity and sincerity of heart, was to be with Jesus.
By all human accounts, this was a man deserving of closeness with Christ. To share hours, meals and memories with him. Who else but Jesus would understand how harrowing a supernatural and devastating experience he had endured.
Our natural expectation would be that Jesus took pity on this man, and loving him, welcomed him into his company of followers, and the formerly demon possessed man would offer praise for his heart’s desire was satisfied: to be with the Lord.
We hope no less for ourselves - that having been rescued from sin, we will be enveloped in the savior. But certainly, here is someone who ought to be held in the arms of God.
But he is turned away. In a sense, the mad man is sent out of the arms of god. Away from the One who has healed him, birthed new hope in him, and will ultimately rescue his soul as he already has his body.
Is this relationship with God? Is this an accident? An aberration? Is it so, as the saying goes, 'that what can happen to one, can happen to anyone? Would we - as deserving as him - be likewise turned away?
O - how easily the Lord defies our expectations. How he moves in mysterious ways. But not only does the Lord defy our expectations - the mad man does too.
He departs, with no mention of grumbling or disappointment, and proclaims, no doubt with enthusiasm and gratitude, all Jesus has done for him.
This can be a bit hard to stomach. From a purely human point of view, based on our expectations for a healthy relationship, it is counter-intuitive, if not unendurable.
If there is to be relationship with God, it must be into his arms - not away from them. The fact that the mad man is secure within the heart of God is less important to us if our heart does not feel secure - held within the hands of god. Otherwise, why should we bother with relationship with God? It sounds very one sided.
If we look closer though, we see that God prefers to instill a higher desire in us rather than immediately satisfying a lower one. This is a greater blessing, not a lesser one. In this instance, God delayed fulfilling a pure desire in order to promote the purest one.
We might think that wanting to be in God's immediate company (whether in this life or the next) is the purest desire distinguishable among men. Hence why someone reading the story for the first time might expect Jesus to welcome the mad man into his circle. It is, however, I think, though I could be wrong, the second best desire. The greatest desire is this: to Love The Lord Your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. In doing this we love god for his sake, and he, in return, loves us more devoutly and cherishingly than we ever could for ourselves.
For the mad man, the measure of his love for Jesus was not that he desired to be with him - though he did want that, and it is a pure and perfect thing to want - it was instead that he intuitively followed the command Jesus would later give: if you love me, you will obey what I command. Jesus said go, the mad man went.
In such moments we see the difference between the rich young man and the mad man: with God, all things are possible. When you recognize Him as Lord, there is nothing that is impossible. Worldly treasures can be left, for following the will of God is among this life's truest treasures - with nothing to mention of the treasures yet to come.
For those whose hope is in God, who have him as their Lord and Savior, they can endure, and indeed thrive, in the translation by which our expectations are smashed by God as he simultaneously transforms them. It is not a disappointment, but an excitement. What was impossible for the Rich Young Ruler was possible for the Mad Man.
But these can be far from glamorous events. From a purely human perspective, this process can seem inhumane. It often involves ostensible hardship, toil, stress, disappointment and brokenness. I certainly don’t envy the Mad Man’s circumstances. The translations are conducted in the trials of life- whether they are brief or long. But it's often important that it be so:
It's on the mountaintop that we live in the glory of God - but it is in the valleys that we live for the glory of God. It's in the rough patches of life that God refines us for sole reliance on him and prepares us for the life with him that is to come. With the help of His Holy Spirit, and ample grace and patience, we transition from wanting to be on Earth but willing to be in Heaven, to wanting to be in Heaven but willing to be on Earth.
John Donne, the famous poet and preacher of 17th England, wrote a famous reflection that includes the lines, "no man is an island entire of himself" and "never ask for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee." in the same reflection, written on what he thought was his death bed, though ultimately proved not to be, he writes:
"All mankind is of one author and is one volume. When one man dies one chapter is not torn out of the book but translated into a better language, and every chapter must be so translated. God employs several translators. Some are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice. But god's hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind all our scattered leaves again for that library where every book shall lie open to one another."
This can be, and is, a daunting prospect. God knows it. Jesus endured it. In the garden of Gethsemane, on the cross, Jesus felt the ultimate pain of the great translation, written with blood red ink. He endured the cross so that the cost of sin would no longer be counted against us.
And as for the burden of love we have towards God - there is help there too - no less from whom we are to love.
Jesus reassures his disciples, no less than one sentence after giving his new command to obey him, with the promise of the Holy Spirit.
"And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper,[a] to be with you forever." The Holy Spirit is the promise Jesus gives us to fulfill his commandment: that in loving Him, we do as he has asked.
Jesus atonement was also in part to bring about the true satisfaction and restoration of our human needs. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus alludes to the staples of existence and promises something beyond them.
-Not just for our daily bread - but also for the bread of the new covenant.
-And that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.
-Not just the miraculous wine at the wedding in Cana, but the blood of the new covenant.
-Not just water, but living water.
There is a soul in you, and it restless until it finds and has God.
God is looking for you, and wants to have you back.
Does this mean God is unconcerned with human needs? By no means. He promises help: for this life, and for the next:
Luke 12:22-31. "Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing... But if God so clothes the Lilies and grass with splendor, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead seek his Kingdom and righteousness, and these things will be added to you."
To the Mad Man these things shall be given, and from the Rich Young Ruler they will taken away.
When the rich young man and the mad man are compared - it becomes obvious how those who are last shall be first, and the first last. To the man who had nothing but the desire for God's company, shall go everything that can be given. He shall have his friendship with God, and much more beside. And for the man, who having plenty, could give so little - little will be kept in store, if anything at all.
And to you who open your hearts to the healer’s hands, the greatest gift awaits.
God does not give us a better gift than himself. He promises an abundant life - and declares, I am the way, the truth and the life. Nobody comes to God except through me.
When we get our expectations right, our reality comes alive.
When God is our everything, we can lose nothing that lasts beyond this lifetime.
When God is our life, we do not need to look at its end in the same way as the world.
There's a recent documentary that was made of the world-renowned Brazilian formula one driver, Ayrton Senna. He had won three world championships (the most of any driver at the time), he was rich, famous, handsome, accomplished, very generous, well loved by millions and many a woman, and he was a child of God. In 1994, at the Italian San Marino Grand Prix, Senna awoke in the morning to a profound sense of uneasiness. The day before during the practice round, another driver had been killed in a crash. Senna prayed for assurance from God. According to his mother, he opened his bible and it fell to a passage that said "God would give him the greatest of all gifts, which was God himself." later that day Senna's car mysteriously, famously and fatally crashed due to an unknown mechanical malfunction. He died at the precious age of 38.
At the end of the race, I have little doubt that Ayrton heard the words, "well done, good and faithful servant... You have fought the good fight, you have finished the race, you have kept the faith." And Aryton's Great Expectations will not be disappointed, and nor will yours.
TWS Hunt is a recent graduate of Trinity Western University and has spent time as a visiting student at the University of Oxford and has interned in the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada.