Sermon 04-21-13: “The Word Is Love, Part 2”


“All you need is love,” the Beatles famously sang. Were they hopelessly naive and idealistic? In light of events in Boston last week (not to mention the Vietnam War in 1967, when the song was #1 on the charts), we should be forgiven for thinking so. We may rightly ask, “How will love protect us from senseless violence?” And the answer is: It won’t. Ultimately, nothing will—certainly, nothing that money can buy.

We can’t trust in ourselves for true security and peace. Can we trust instead in the One whose very nature, according to 1 John, is love?

Sermon Text: Matthew 19:16-30

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

I’m a big fan of roller coasters. A couple of weeks ago on spring break, between Busch Gardens, Legoland, and Disney World, I rode about a dozen of them. Busch Gardens has famously fast and furious roller coasters, with steep hills, free-fall drops, corkscrew turns, and multiple “inversions”—which mean you go upside down. They’re awesome. It’s hard to believe roller coasters used to just go up and down hills! With all of these loops and corkscrews and steep drops, the amusement parks really want their riders to be safe and secure. At Busch Gardens, for instance, nearly all their roller coasters include not merely a seatbelt or a lap bar, not merely a shoulder harness which you pull down over your head and locks securely in place, but also a belt that buckles onto the shoulder harness—just in case the harness comes unlocked. These days, riding a modern roller coaster is like being strapped in for an Apollo moon-launch.

Do you remember the Mind Bender at Six Flags? It had three loop-de-loops. It was the first roller coaster my friends and I ever rode that went upside down—and, originally, it only had a simple lap bar keeping you your seat. And when I was a kid, I used to worry about it… How will that little bar keep me from falling out of my seat when the thing goes upside down?

The Mind Bender at Six Flags over Georgia. The first inverted roller coaster I ever rode.
The Mind Bender at Six Flags over Georgia—the first inverted roller coaster I ever rode.

And the answer is, it won’t. Or it least doesn’t need to. What keeps you from falling out of your seat in one of those loop-de-loop roller coasters isn’t a seatbelt, or a lap bar, or a shoulder harness, or the belt buckled to the shoulder harness: what keeps you from falling out of your seat in a loop-de-loop roller coaster is the laws of physics—something called centripetal force! The force seems to push you into your seat, not pull you out of your seat. So the other stuff is mostly for our peace of mind.

And the reason makes perfect sense: we like to trust in something we can see and touch, rather than something that’s invisible. If we can’t see it and touch it, it doesn’t seem real. And we feel insecure.

We’re reminded of our lack of security when something happens like the events of Boston last week. We’re so vulnerable. Life is so fragile. We can all lose our lives in an instant. And there’s not much anyone can do to change that fact. Right? One Christian blogger that I read linked approvingly to a columnist from the CNN website, who wrote the following, in the aftermath of the marathon bombings:

All of the laws, the creation of Homeland Security, the trillions spent, the political grandstanding and debates and yet the best we can do is make the country safer. We will never, ever be safe again. Not in the way many of us remember being safe growing up….

Spare me, please! I had to comment on this blog post. In my comment I pointed out that I grew up in the ’80s. As a sensitive, impressionable kid, I was reasonably convinced that I was going to die in a nuclear holocaust triggered by the Soviet Union. It was only my conversion to Christianity that eliminated this fear.

The world may not seem safe now, but… it didn’t seem safe back then, either.

So, in the midst of this risky, unsafe, and insecure world, the Beatles said, “All you need is love.” Were they hopelessly naive and idealistic? In light of events in Boston last week—not to mention the Vietnam War in 1967, when the song was #1 on the charts—we should be forgiven for thinking so. We may rightly ask, “How will love protect us from senseless violence?” And the answer is: It won’t. So maybe we say, “All you need is love… and a strong national defense. All you need is love… and skillful law enforcement officers. All you need is love… and a well-armed citizenry. All you need is love… and a good security system. All you need is love… and the money to buy all this safety and security.” But as events of last week show, we can have all those things and still be unsafe and insecure. We better look for safety and security somewhere else.

So maybe the Beatles were wrong when they said all you need is love, but they weren’t wrong by much. We may need something in addition to love, but whatever that something is, it isn’t something that money can buy for us. Whatever it is, it isn’t something we can see or touch.

Consider today’s scripture: This rich young man is rightly concerned with what he must do to have eternal life, and he asks Jesus about it. Good question! After all, our lives in this world—even long, healthy, prosperous, and happy lives—are only a blip in light of eternity. By all means, we better use our short lives in this world to figure out how we might obtain life in the world to come. So whatever the answer to the rich man’s question is, it’s nothing less than the meaning of life.

And please notice what Jesus’ answer to the question about the meaning of life doesn’t include: it doesn’t include money and possessions or any material thing—because Jesus tells the rich man that somehow he can live his life without all of those things. And although Jesus doesn’t come right out and say it, his answer would also include those intangible things that money often buys or at least helps to secure—like power and influence and popularity and good looks and even good health.

Jesus says, in so many words, that the rich man can live without all of these things. Yikes! Just last week in the New York Times technology section I read about how something called “smartwatches” might be the next big thing in consumer electronics. I don’t even know what a smartwatch is, but if Apple makes one, I’m not sure I’ll be able to live without it!

See, that’s why today’s scripture makes me so uncomfortable! I know… I know… I know… what I’m supposed to say—what preachers always say about this text: “Of course Jesus doesn’t call all of us to sell all of our possessions and give the money to the poor, and that what counts is our attitude toward money and possessions.” I’m supposed to say that the New Testament includes many wealthy followers of Jesus who didn’t have to give everything away: Joseph of Arimathea was wealthy. Nicodemus, who became a follower of Jesus by the end of John’s gospel, was wealthy. Zacchaeus the tax collector, even after he gave away half of his wealth, was likely still wealthy. We’re told in Luke 8 that wealthy women financially supported Jesus and his disciples, including Joanna, the wife of Herod’s servant Chuza. Lydia of Thyatira in Acts 16, a merchant who dealt in purple dye, was wealthy. Paul acknowledges wealthy people in the church in 1 Timothy, telling them to also be rich in good deeds.[1]

I’m supposed to say that of course you can be rich and be a disciple. And if you can be rich and be a disciples then of course you can be middle class or even upper-middle class and be a disciple too. I’m supposed to say that even poor people can be greedy with their modest possessions.

I’m supposed to say all these things, as if saying them make it all better!

So Jesus hasn’t called me to sell all my possessions and give them to the poor. Fine. It’s not money and possessions, per se, but a person’s attitude toward them that’s the problem. Fine. But what is my attitude toward money and possessions? What if… just suppose… Jesus called me to do the same thing that he called the rich young man to do? Could I do it?

The truth is, I like the security of the seatbelt, and the lap bar, and the shoulder harness, and the belt that buckles onto the shoulder harness. I’m not so sure I’d want to ride the Mind Bender, or the Cheetah Hunt, or the Rock and Roller Coaster, or Space Mountain without the security that these things provide! Yet when Jesus calls us to be his disciples, it’s as if he were telling us to get on board the fastest, tallest, scariest roller coaster—with multiple loops and inversions and corkscrew turns and steep hills and free fall drops—and to do so without any visible means of security… with our hands up in the air… and even when our height falls below the cartoon character’s hand saying we need to be this tall to ride the ride. Instead, Jesus is telling us, “Get on board anyway and trust me. Trust me! Trust that your life is in my hands. Trust that I love you. Trust that you’ll be O.K. And that you’ll be O.K., even if, heaven forbid, trusting me gets you killed. Because even if it kills you, it’s not like death can separate you from me and my eternal love. But please… trust me. I’ll take care of you.”

See… Maybe love isn’t all you need, but trust is. All you need is to trust in the One whose very nature is love. Even the Beatles song hints at this kind of trust: “There’s nothing you can see that isn’t shown.” Really? Who do we believe is doing the showing and why? “There’s nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.” Really? What unseen force or power means for us, or intends for us to be there and for what purpose? The song implies that something—or we would say Someone—in this universe is looking out for us, guiding us, directing us. Jesus says, “Trust in that Someone.” Stop trusting in yourself. Stop depending on yourself.

If we pay close attention to the song’s lyrics, it has a similar message. Please notice: John Lennon isn’t saying, “There’s nothing you can’t do that can be done.” If he were saying that, then the song’s message would be, “You can do anything you set your mind to. Just believe in yourself.” But the lyric says the opposite: “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done. There’s nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.” If you can do it, that means it’s doable. If you can sing it, that means it’s singable. In other words, you’re not capable of doing the impossible. You’re not a miracle-worker. Be humble! Don’t think too highly of what you can accomplish—there’s a limit to what you or anyone else can do. Far from celebrating the power of the human spirit, the song emphasizes our limitations. In fact, the song goes on to say, “There’s nothing you can do/ But you can learn how to be you in time.” Really? There’s nothing you can do?

Even that has the ring of gospel truth. Think of the rich young man: “What good thing must I do to have eternal life?” The truth is there’s nothing he or any of us can do in order to gain eternal life for ourselves. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works”—not by anything we can do—“so that no one can boast.”[2] It’s true, as Jesus says, that loving God, keeping the commandments, and loving our neighbor as ourselves is the way to eternal life, but we human beings haven’t been able to do that since Adam and Eve. The song’s right: There’s nothing we can do. Which means someone better do it for us—the good news is that’s exactly what happened through Christ’s obedience, suffering, and death on a cross. He did it for us. Out of love, he paid the price to secure eternal life for us!

So living a successful, happy, peaceful, and contented life, free from fear, is all about trusting in the One who did it all for us.

I saw these baboons in Kenya recently.
I saw these baboons in Kenya recently.

I heard a funny story about baboons when I was in Kenya recently. Baboons are a common sight there. You will often see them foraging for food on the side of highways. And since they have thumbs, they can be especially annoying. If you park your car near the woods, for instance, and leave your windows rolled down—or even cracked open—watch out! They’re like Yogi Bear looking for a picnic basket. They will rummage through your car looking for something to eat. My missionary friend Chat saw a baboon steal a woman’s purse on a safari and run up a tree with it. And this woman was panicking because she was in Africa and her purse contained her passport, her smartphone, her malaria pills, and her wallet. Chat saw this and said, “Don’t worry. Just go underneath tree and wait.” See, the baboon’s only interest was food. So they watched the baboon unzip the purse, and begin discarding everything in the purse that wasn’t food. So eventually it threw down the smartphone. It threw down the passport. It threw down the wallet. It threw down the malaria pills. And finally it threw down the purse itself—anything that wasn’t sustenance. But the baboon thought that the package of “Breath Savers” was delicious!

We could stand to be a little more like that baboon. What do we really need in our lives to sustain us? If something doesn’t sustain us, then may we have the courage to throw it away!

I wonder what happened to the rich young man when he left Jesus. Notice Jesus doesn’t say that he can’t be saved. It may be easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle, but as he also says, “All things are possible with God.” The man’s wealth was preventing him from trusting in God. His wealth had become an idol, a false god. Now suppose later on he suddenly lost all his money in a bad investment—and he ended up poor? Would that be a tragedy? Or would it be the best possible thing that could happen to him for the sake of his soul?

See, part of living a Christian life means voluntarily giving up our idols, those things in which we place our trust other than God—whether it’s wealth, or possessions, or popularity, or power, or good fortune, or good looks, or good health. And if we don’t voluntarily give them up, God may forcibly remove them from us—not to harm us, but to help us. I believe this is what the writer of Hebrews had in mind when he wrote, “[T]he Lord disciplines whomever he loves, and he punishes every son or daughter whom he accepts.”[3]

Discipline and punishment from God? You bet! Because God loves us that much. All that to say, next time you’re going through a painful or difficult experience in your life, prayerfully ask yourself what God might be trying to teach you through this experience. It might be a severe mercy. As C.S. Lewis wrote, if you see it as discipline or punishment, it becomes easier to bear—because you know that even in the midst of pain the Lord is taking care of you.

Living a Christian life is nothing less than the process of learning to let go of those things that don’t sustain us and trust in the One who does. May the Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ make it so.

[1] 1 Timothy 6:18

[2] Ephesians 2:8-9

[3] Hebrews 12:6 CEB

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