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Isn't it actually a question of faith?

And a ruler 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. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honour your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.”
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”
But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.
Jesus, looking at him with sadness, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For 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.”
Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?”
But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” (Luke 18:18-27)

He's clearly perfect church material: he's rich, eminently respectable and sincere in his pursuit of righteousness. Who wouldn't want this guy? (That's a rhetorical question: the answer is pretty much everyone, Jesus included.)

What makes the deal go bad? What is the one thing that he lacks? A first glance might seem that material poverty is a pre-requisite: the instruction to "sell all that you have" would seem to suggest that.

But it's not that.

In order to understand what's going on here, I think we need to look at the example of Abraham in Genesis 22:2 "Take your son, your only son, whom you love ... and offer him as a burnt offering." It's a pinnacle at which Abraham's faith in God is most clearly seen: he is convinced that God will honour his promise: that he will give him an heir; make him the father of many nations; bless the world through his offspring and Abraham is therefore willing to obey and offer his only son (Hebrews 11:17-19).

He is convinced that his future is safer in God's hands than his own. He has finally reached the point in his life where he trusts God's strength and faithfulness more than his own.

It seems that the ruler who met Jesus hadn't got this kind of faith. We don't know exactly what it is he loved about being rich - whether it's the prestige in amongst his peers, or the comfort that he can afford to enjoy, or the feeling of safety that such wealth brings. But it's clear that he feels that he needs his wealth more than he needs God.

Or, to put it another way, he doesn't trust God with his wealth.

The problem is not that absence of poverty: it's the absence of faith.

What does this mean for the church's mission in the world?

  • We must remember that God is in the business of salvation, not insurance. Making a "decision for Christ" has no necessary correlation with actually trusting him.
  • We must regularly idol check our lives - is there something we are trusting more than God?
  • We must be careful to describe biblical faith not just in standard kitsch clichés, but with stories and examples that accurately portray how hard it is. Because faith may be simple, but it certainly isn't easy.

The offensive Jesus

I preached at a local church a few months back - on the offensiveness of Jesus. The guy who challenges the racial pride in his home synagogue by emphasising the way God blessed gentiles (Luke 4). The guy who tells the rich man to sell it all (Mark 10). The guy who derides the Pharisees for their failure to keep the law. The man who insists you take up your cross and follow him before crosses were chic or cool or fashion accessories.

People tend to end up with a view of Jesus that is suspiciously like a projection of their prejudices. A Jesus who is passionately concerned about sexual morals. Or who is passionately concerned about social justice. Or who is the model citizen. Or who is the ideal revolutionary. Or who is rich. Or who is poor. Or who is meek and mild. Or who is strong and wild. Or who is friendly and engaging. Or who is manly. Or who is child-friendly. Or who hangs out with fluffy animals. You get the picture. And the point I was trying to make was this: until Jesus offends you or demands that you to give up something you're not willing to, it's pretty hard to be sure you're hearing him rather than projecting him.

It seems like Jesus is dead popular: but find yourself a live Jesus and pretty soon even sworn enemies will unite to kill him.

The reason that this is A Good Thing™ is that the fact that Jesus offends and confounds us is an indicator that he is not a product of our wishful-thinking, conjured into being by an over-active desire-fuelled imagination. And when we realise that we don't "get" or understand him, it becomes clearer that he is real and that the solution, or the salvation, he offers is real too.

(I'm reminded of this because I came across a written summary of my preaching in their magazine - and no mention was made of the offence, only the positive aspects of the gospel.)

LW08 - Morning 2 - Torn apart : faith and doubt

Jeremiah 20:7-18

The wednesday morning session was introduced by Mark Seager (Paulsgrove Bapist). We sang "When we walk with the Lord" and then I read the scripture.

Jonathan introduced this difficult passage by telling us about a conversation a friend of his who is a pastor in London. This man had many years experience as a Christian - but had recently been involved pastoring a young couple whose 4 year old daughter had a serious illness which eventually proved fatal. And he described how this trauma brought in its wake a wave of doubt; questioning things he had been certain of for half a century.

Only blind faith is invulnerable to doubt. And there is no merit in blind faith. A schoolboy definition of faith goes: "faith is believing something you know aint true" - a similar definition is taken by the so-called "New Atheists."

He spoke of students who had tried assiduously to keep the studied discipline completely separate from their faith - lest their faith be threatened.

Biblical faith does not recognise these options. We are encouraged to ask impossible questions. To wrestle with them. Habakkuk starts his prophecy with questions and ends with worship. A christian who claims to have no doubts should be treated with the same degree of skepticism as a husband who claims never to have arguments with his wife.

If we try to live consistently and allow our faith to inform our lives there will inevitably come a seemingly inexplicable problem which confronts and threatens our faith. Nevertheless we should distinguish between doubt and unbelief. Only a believer can doubt - doubt is the questioning of an already held belief.

Jeremiah's doubt: Faith in two minds

v7,8,10 He felt isolated. "I am ridiculed all day long: everyone mocks me." He had just received a humiliating and painful punishment in the stocks. He was nicknamed "Terror on every side" - a phrase that often cropped up in his prophecies. He was somewhat paranoid fearing a whispering campaign against him.

Isolation is demoralising and often leads to doubt. And yet it's common. Being the only Christian in your workplace. Or in your family.

v7 He felt betrayed. God had given him prophecies but had yet to make good on them. Jeremiah was looking increasingly like a false prophet as the doom he predicted didn't take place. He felt as though he'd been sent out on false pretenses.

v14-18 He felt depressed. He ends the chapter despairing to the point of being suicidal. "I would rather have been aborted than live the life I have" is the essence of his message. The incredibly graphic language describes the way he feels, rather than being specific curses.

But he is not alone in this depression. Elijah, after the showdown with the prophets of Baal in which both he and God were vindicated, pleaded with God to take his life.

Battered emotions can produce a crop of doubt more devastating than an atheists hardest questions.

An then there was another prophet, alone crying out "My God! my God! Why have you forsaken me?" from a cross against a darkening sky...

Jeremiah's faith: talking straight with God

He was totally honest. "We need not attempt to bottle it up because God invites us to pour it out." -- John Goldingay

There is no point or room for pretense with God. "Unreality towards God is the wasting disease of much modern Christianity" -- Jim Packer

This honesty is not merely emotional catharsis: it is an adult and appropriate way to deal with issues in a trusting relationship.

v9 He felt compelled to speak. "His word is like a fire. I am weary of holding it in; I cannot." Going on is hard, but not going on is impossible. This works because true faith is not something we conjure up, but a gift of God. Irresistible grace. It is there - and in times of doubt we can experience the strength of God's grip on us as our grip on him seems to weaken.

v11-13 He was sure of God's presence and power. "The Lord is on my side like a mighty warrior." God was there and Jeremiah was confident of rescue.

When they are in Doubting Castle in Pilgrim's Progress, Hopeful reassures the doubting Pilgrim by reminding him of the great things that he was already seen accomplished.

We can look back at the cross and consider what Jesus Christ has accomplished for us on our behalf. We may not understand what we are experiencing and it may not fit neatly into a box, but the cross assures us that it is not God's indifference or abandonment.

"faith ... is the art of holding on to something your reason has once accepted in spite of your change of moods" -- C. S. Lewis

He spoke of a family he knows where the father is suffering from cancer. His latest prayer letter was characteristically upbeat - asking for prayer that they would not spend time looking inwards so much as upwards.

We need, as Martin Lloyd-Jones put it, to spend more time speaking to ourselves than listening to ourselves.

This is not false comfort, nor a cheap hallelujah - a dark night of the soul can be used to build a stronger, more adult, godliness.

It is not so much great faith we need as faith in a great God." -- Hudson Taylor.

We closed by singing "I know not why God's wondrous grace"