Let’s get it out there from the first: our topic today, as we start a new sermon series, “For God All Things Are Possible, is “Fear of Surrender.” And let’s be honest: of course, we fear surrender. Who here is wild about the idea of surrender? Surrender means giving up: the losers surrender to the victors after a war…criminals surrender to the police. In our competitive culture the notion of surrender is almost unthinkable… even in church...
Willowcreek Community Church, just outside of Chicago, is one of the largest, if not the largest congregation in the US, worshipping over 20,000 people every weekend. For years, they hosted a conference that was called “The Prevailing Church…” How popular would it have been if it were “The Surrendering Church…” or the “Submitting Church…”
I hate the idea of surrender- it means giving up control, and who wants to do that? Let me speak for myself, and wonder if it doesn’t include lots of you, but control is important: I like the idea that I make the decisions that impact the course of my life- even better when they impact the directions of others’ lives- that’s one definition of being powerful, or influential…
And that’s why I- and I’m guessing, many of you- can identify with the man in our Gospel reading from Mark today- certainly at first at the beginning.
We have a confident young man today, even as he presents himself by humbly kneeling in front of Jesus. And he says, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He is asking about the promise of final inheritance- life in God’s presence after death, so this is a very serious conversation... And from the tone, it looks like he thinks he has a pretty good idea that he’s “got it...”
Jesus calls him on the flattery- “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone...” “Cut the small talk,” is what Jesus is saying, “if this is really what you want to talk about.”
And then Jesus continues, you know the commandments, and he lists the last half of the Ten Commandments, in random order. When I was teaching the Ten Commandments to confirmation students, I would share this story with them, and they loved it: Jesus recites the commandments out of order! But they’re all there...Don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness, don’t defraud and honor your parents...
I can see the man start to smile: “Yes! I have kept all these since my youth! I’ve got this down!” And Jesus, looking at him, loves him, Mark says. And then Jesus says, “You lack one thing. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
What happens next is heartbreaking- certainly to Jesus, and to the man, too: “when he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions...” And Jesus- even though he loved him, lets him go- doesn’t reduce the level of commitment- keep half of what you own- he lets him go...
And don’t miss the irony here: while Jesus lists the last half of the Ten Commandments, the man’s inability to give up his possessions means he is violating the First Commandment- to have no other gods than God. His possessions are his god!
The man thought he was in control- of the conversation with Jesus- of his relationship with God. He was really very devout- and the next thing he knows, the conversation- the relationship with God has spun out of control! He doesn’t get to mediate his relationship with God; that’s not how it works- for him- or for any of us!
Jesus wants the man’s life, not his piety. Do you see the difference? Think back to the beginning of the Gospel- when Jesus sees Peter, Andrew, James and John, working their fishing boats, he calls to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people!”
And what do they do? Immediately, they leave their nets, their boats, everything they have, the things that define them as fishermen, and they follow Jesus. Giving up everything is not what you have to do to follow Jesus; it is the result of following Jesus.
It is about trusting wholly in Jesus- in God to meet your needs, and not letting anything come between you and that relationship with God!
It is about surrender- of giving up control. And it’s a frightening thing. Our possessions are only one aspect of our clinging to control, but they illustrate the issue perfectly.
We love our stuff, and have great difficulty letting it go. Have you seen the new ad on TV about the married man who refuses to give up anything for a garage sale? “I wore this shirt to the prom!” he says... And so to protect it, and the rest of his stuff that he hasn’t looked at in years, he takes it to a permanent storage place- open twenty four hours, well lit, air-conditioned, so he can visit his stuff whenever he wants... That Storage business is, by the way, one of the fastest growing businesses in the United States.
Let me say this as gently as I can: if you have something you can’t part with, you don’t own it; it owns you. You don’t control those possessions; they control you. And they come between you and God.
In fact, there is precious little you do control in your life. Let me share some other quick examples:
India has been really helpful for me in this area of control- when I go, I am at the mercy of my hosts- I have very little control over where I stay, how I get around… You have a flight to catch? Have to get to the airport by what time? Don’t worry… You want to start the seminar when? Don’t worry…
I used to love auto-rickshaws- they’re a motor scooter with a back seat, you fly around town, zipping in and out through traffic- what fun! But on my second trip, I was in an accident: the van in which we were traveling was struck head-on by a rickshaw that had somehow lost control. The people in the rickshaw were completely unprotected, and they died- it was like being thrown from a motorcycle with no helmet. Now I know how dangerous they are.
But often, when I am traveling there, the only option is the rickshaw. My hosts can’t afford cars, taxis are expensive and hard to find- and everybody travels in rickshaws- it’s the middle class transportation all around India!
When I was in Chennai this past November, it was during the monsoon. Rain so hard you can’t imagine. And to travel between the hotel and the seminary where I was teaching, I would climb in- giving up control- trusting the driver (and all the other vehicles around us), as he drove down the middle of the street where the water was less deep. I was smiling grimly, and did what I had to do… Control?
How about work? Are you really in control? I’m not (and don’t want to be!) There are talented people all around me- staff and members, with thoughts and ideas of their own, and we work them all together… I get to provide some sense of direction, but control? No way…
Businesses get sold, and a job you thought was secure is gone in a flash…
Or how about at home? Do you control the people you love? Any parents here? Enough said… You can’t make someone love you when they’ve stopped- you can’t make someone behave the way you want them… And I haven’t said a word about health- or any of the random things that can happen to us with no warning at all…
SO, let me say it clearly: YOU’RE NOT IN CONTROL- NOT REALLY, CERTAINLY NOT ULTIMATELY! FORGET IT! GIVE IT UP!
And if we can’t control, life is really about surrender. And I’m not talking about giving up, and crawling into a cave, and saying “forget it,” although there have been some who have tried that…
When I got married, I gave myself to my wife- surrendered myself- and she to me. You give yourself to your job- whatever it is- there is some loss of control in how you live when you agree to go to work…You become a parent and control is lost forever!
And sometimes we surrender to things we shouldn’t… There are far more damaging things that beckon us to surrender- give in- submit…pride, greed, lust, power…
So the question is not whether we surrender, but to what- or to whom- we surrender.
That’s why I love the second half of the story in our reading from Mark. Jesus says to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the Kingdom of God. The disciples are dumbfounded by this- and by the earlier exchange with the wealthy man; the rich folks were thought to be favored by God.
Jesus replies with the now famous saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God...”
Several things: Jesus is being funny here: First century Jewish humor was humor by exaggeration. Think about it; it is a hilarious picture- or would be, if the stakes weren’t so high. And, whether you want to admit it, by the standards of Jesus’ world, and by the standards of our own world, where billions don’t have clean drinking water, and billions are illiterate and billions work for less than two dollars a day, everyone in this room- each and everyone of us is rich!
And if left to our own devices, we would be separated from God and from each other, surrendering to the things that bring death and not life; we see this all around us. But Jesus offers you and me words of hope that are completely unexpected: For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God, all things are possible...
It is God who makes it possible for us to believe; it is God who makes it possible to surrender, it is God who wants us to be a part of his Kingdom, even when we have questions; even when we think we’d rather not.
And the conversation ends with what we receive as we surrender: Peter, bless his heart, says, “Look what we did- we left everything to follow you. And Jesus promises that those who follow will receive a hundredfold now- houses, brothers, sisters, parents, children, and fields, with persecution...”
Jesus is NOT talking about health, wealth and prosperity. He’s talking about the community to which we belong- in which we have family, places to stay, food to eat, wherever we are- even when there is persecution! I know- as does anyone who has traveled with us- to India, South America, Israel/Palestine, Scandinavia, that we have family around the world in Jesus’ Name! Even when there is persecution- even when things go wrong, the promise is that you and I have people to walk with us!
And when you and I follow, when you and I surrender, we see that our possessions- our wealth can be used to share the Good News of Jesus in so many ways... to feed the hungry, shelter the poor, and clothe the naked... They become the tools God uses- the tools that God has entrusted to us. They lose their dominance, and we gain freedom from them!
A life of surrender to God was what Jesus was all about. Living among us, preaching, teaching and healing, he showed with his life what it meant to live in harmony with God’s will and desire for his creation: that all people were valuable, even those who were poor and outcast, that death and disease was not God’s will, that creation could be restored. And he invited us to be a part of the incredible work he was doing, and to follow him in surrender to God.
And when we said no- rejected him- nailed him to a cross and let him hang there until he died, our God raised Jesus from the dead- and says to you and to me:
“Will you lay aside your fear of the unknown- that causes you to try and act like you’re in control, even when you know you’re not? Will you lay aside your pride, which makes you want to pretend you run the universe when you know you can’t and don’t?
Will you lay aside your possessions, which you don’t get to keep forever, and which get in between me and my love for you? Will you let my Spirit work in you, and cause you to see in the crucified and risen Jesus my eternal love for you?”
To surrender to God is to place your life in the hands of the one who has loved you since before time began- it was what you have always been meant to do. It means giving up any pretense of control, and learning what it means to trust in God.
And God promises you peace- the battle to control can be overwhelming and as we know, it is a losing one. Paul writes, “the peace that passes understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus…”
God promises you freedom: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom,” Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 3: 17. It is slavery to pursue something we know we can never reach! And in Christ, we are offered forgiveness- freedom from our past, freedom to live as God’s children…
It is when we finally surrender to God that God is able to use us in wonderful ways- ways that God has always wanted to use us- ways that bring us more satisfaction than we ever could imagine.
How might God use you- if you were to surrender totally- if you were to trust completely in the One who created you – who loves you so much that He gave you Jesus- the presence of his Spirit in your life every day?
One last thing- this giving up control- this surrender is a process. Paul talks about dying daily to sin; Martin Luther once said, “We need to be born again every day…”
Surrender is a habit we need to practice- for some of us, we may need to surrender fifty times a day. I would suggest asking yourself what one possession is the thing that most gets in the way of your relationship with God, and ask God how it can be used for God’s glory.
Or when you have a question about what you’re doing, ask “How does this show my relationship with God?” Or, ask, “Does what I am doing show that Jesus is Lord of my life?” Or simply pray: Lord, help me keep you in control…
And as we practice- as we learn, as we grow, we see God at work in our lives in wonderful ways. We see God build our faith, make us strong- and use us, in ways we many never have expected- but in which we find more satisfaction and blessing than we could ever hope to know.
But it begins with giving- surrendering ourselves to God. So I invite you now to join me in this prayer of surrender- it’s the prayer we’re asking you to pray daily through this Lenten Season. I’ll pray a line and I ask you to repeat it, either aloud or in your heart:
Thank you God for your son Jesus, who gives us life and hope in this life and always. Help me to learn, live and love his story for the sake of the whole world. May your church be open to where your Holy Spirit leads. Show me my part, and give me courage to act. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.
We’re hoping to move this spring, so I recently made a list of a few houses for sale that fit our needs and emailed it to my spouse. Not a week later, I was shocked to see that three of them had already sold. “How dare someone buy my houses!” I thought. Rationally, of course, I knew this reaction was absurd. But disappointment over my own helplessness – my inability to control “the market” – was still surprisingly hard to shake.
It’s a Control Issue
In this week’s text, a wealthy man asks Jesus about eternal salvation. Jesus teases the man by saying, “You know the commandments,” but then drops the surprise, saying he must give away all he has and follow Him. I usually get hung up on the wealth aspect of this text – the fact that I, like this man, haven’t done this, and am therefore stopped at the proverbial gate. But these words from Pastor Chris Nelson jumped out at me:
“The man thought he was in control of the conversation with Jesus, and of his relationship with God. (But) he doesn’t get to mediate his relationship with God; that’s not how it works -- for him or for any of us.”
Pastor Chris points out that in reciting the highlights of the Ten Commandments to the man, Jesus deliberately leaves out the first – you shall have no other Gods before me. “He wants the man’s life, not his piety,” Pastor Chris says. The man walked away. Because he thought he was in control, he grieved over his possessions. He probably thought, “I can’t possibly do that,” and his mind closed to any other possibilities. But if he had put Jesus in control – if he had decided, you know, this is important enough that I’m going to pray about this, or come back again tomorrow, maybe ask some more questions -- things might have turned out differently. Little by little, he would relinquish control. And with God as driver, he definitely would have been surprised.
For God All Things Are Possible
In the second text, Jesus says how hard it will be for those wealth to enter the kingdom of God. We see all around us and in our own lives how deadening it is to live for possessions, fame, success – all of the earthly things we put before God. Yet it is extremely hard to surrender all this that we think we control. God knows this, and this second text, Pastor Chris says, tells us that Jesus knows this, and he promises that we won’t be alone. “Giving up everything is not what you have to do to follow Jesus,” Pastor Chris says. “It is the result of following Jesus.” Every day, probably many times a day, we need to surrender that control over our lives – which we know we really don’t control at all – to God.
As Pastor Chris said:
“To surrender to God is to place your life in the hands of the one who has loved
you since before time began -- it was what you have always been meant to do. It
means giving up any pretense of control, and learning what it means to trust in
God. And God promises you peace. The battle to control can be overwhelming and as
we know, it is a losing one. Paul writes, “The peace that passes understanding will
keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Thank you God for your Son Jesus who gives us hope in this life and always. Help me to learn, live and love his story for the sake of the world. May your church be open to where your Holy Spirit leads. Show me my part and give me courage to act in Jesus' name. Amen.