Monday, March 5, 2012

Taking It With You


You can’t take it with you.  We’ve all heard that phrase before.  It means roughly that we leave our material possessions behind when we die.
Jesus means something like this when he says, “For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”  (Mark 8:36)   However, Jesus shows us the deeper spiritual truth imbedded in that phrase.
Let’s retranslate what Jesus says slightly.  The Greek word for “life” that Jesus uses is “psyche.”  It can also mean “soul.”  So listen to that phrase again with a slight change.
“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)
Waterhouse's "Ophelia"
You can’t take it with you. 
It’s not just your stuff that you can’t take with you.  Depending upon how you live in this life, you can lose your soul.  Let me explain.
The soul is that part of us that endures the death of the body.  When we die, the soul departs the body and waits in the nearer presence of our Lord for the final resurrection, for the new heaven and the new earth.  God promises to give us a new body, what Paul calls a spiritual body.  (1 Corinthians 15:44)
The soul is our identity.  It is who we are.  And we form our identity, we form our soul, by worshipping.  Whatever we devote ourselves to as our highest good will determine who we are.  It shapes our soul.
In other words, if you let this world define you, you lose your soul.  You can’t take it with you.  You become a nobody.  Let’s use one of Jesus’ own parables to illustrate.

Luke’s Gospel records the story of Lazarus and the rich man.  There once was an abjectly poor man named Lazarus and a rich man who wore fine clothes and regularly enjoyed great feasts.  Lazarus huddled  in a corner of the rich man’s porch.  Dressed in filthy rags, starving and sick.  The rich man walked right past him every day.  Lazarus and the rich man died.  Lazarus went to heaven and the rich man went to hell.  To make a long story short, father Abraham told the rich man that he had already received his reward in the world.  (Luke 16: 19-31)
Notice two specific details about life after this life for the rich man.   He received his reward in this world.  And, he has no name.
When father Abraham says that the rich man received his reward in this world, he meant that the rich man worshipped the things of this world.  In all likelihood, he didn’t think he was worshipping his material wealth and his earthly status. He was probably a practicing Jew.  He kept the Law, attended synagogue, and offered the prescribed sacrifices at the Temple.
But the thing he really worshipped was his material comforts and his status.
This is why he has no name.  Like all the rest of us, the things he worshipped shaped his identity.  He has spent his whole life building an empire of dirt (to use a phrase from a Johnny Cash cover of a Nine Inch Nails song).  He couldn’t take it with him.
But more importantly, he could not take that identity with him beyond the grave.  To use a phrase from John Ortberg, when the game is over it all goes back in the box.  All the stuff and all the status he had accumulated in this life and by which he had identified himself passed away with his body.  He couldn’t take it with him.
Rembrandt's "Parable of the Rich Man"
Without that stuff and without that status, he was nobody.  He couldn’t take his worldly identity with him into the afterlife precisely because he had to leave behind everything that he used to give him an identity.
He gained the whole world and he lost his soul.
The key to eternal life is following Jesus.  That is no particular surprise.  But we can take on the external trappings of following Jesus, just like the rich man took on the rituals and ethics of Judaism, without truly worshipping him.
Going to church, reading the Bible, serving the poor, and living a virtuous life are part of a sincere Christian life.  But we can do all of these things and still be building for ourselves an empire of dirt.  
That is precisely what we are doing if we make Jesus one of the many activities we juggle in our lives.  To put it in a different way, we are not worshipping Jesus when he is merely one item on our very full plate.
Jesus puts it this way, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”  (Mark 8:35) 
Let’s continue with the metaphor of filling your plate.  If Jesus is just one more item on the plate, you might get more Jesus one day and less another day.  In fact, on some days you just might not feel like any Jesus at all.
You are using some principle to decide what to put on your plate.  And apparently that principle is not Jesus.  Maybe it’s a diet plan or a desired body image or what you happen to crave that day.  The principle by which you fill your plate is what you worship.  It’s not just the stuff on the plate.  What you worship tells you what to put on your plate and how much.
Following Jesus means letting him tell you what to put on your plate and how much.  Following Jesus into your daily life.  Approaching each day with a sense of vocation or calling.
Instead of looking for Jesus’ help to accomplish what you have on your agenda today, seek to follow Jesus’ agenda for you today.  That means always being willing to drop what you are doing when it becomes clear that he has something else in mind for you.
Here’s how Jesus put it: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  (Mark 8:34)
Van Meegeren's "The Supper at Emmaus"
This can just as easily mean to keep doing the very thing you have been doing every day and to deny yourself the luxury of pursuing what seems more exciting or attractive or exotic.  Both our personal agenda and our fleeting distractions can offer themselves as idols to worship place of Jesus.
So how do you take up your cross today and tomorrow morning and the days that stretch out into your future? For the most part, we do not sit around and wait for Jesus to give us specific marching orders.
Instead, we need to understand something about this life.  The time we have today is not our own.  It is God’s.  The Psalmist says, “My times are in your hand.”  (Psalm 31:15)  It is given to us by God in order to glorify Him.  We glorify Him by serving his good and holy purposes.
In other words, to worship Jesus Christ is to devote our time to him.  This is what the Psalmist means when he says, “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.”  (Ps. 90:12)
My time is not mine to spend or waste or kill or bide.  It is God’s time given to me on loan each day.  One day at a time.  I am the steward of a little portion of God’s time.
Each day when I rise, and throughout the day, I can offer what I am about to do to the glory of God.  It may mean that I change diapers, write a sermon, take out the trash, take a test, or go to the gym.
Whatever it may be, our intention can be to give ourselves to Jesus Christ in that activity.  We make ourselves his and we die to anything else that might lure us to worship it.
When Jesus is at the center of everything we do, our relationship with him is the very center of our identity.  We lose our soul to him.
And when the time we have been given runs out and we shed this earthly frame, we will not face the rich man’s fate.  We will not become a nobody.  That is because we will have attached ourselves to the one and only person that we can take with us.
Or to put it more accurately, because we have put our trust in him, he can take us with him to his Father’s house.  (John 14:1-6)
This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Cathedral, Shreveport, on March 4, 2012.

2 comments:

  1. This following Jesus is no easy task. First, I have to be willing to drop what I am doing when it becomes clear that he has something else in mind for me. But then I have to be willing to keep doing the very thing I have been doing every day. Just when I think I've got it all figured out ...

    You are missed.

    Allan Barr

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  2. Thank you, Allan. You're right, it's not easy. In fact, it's impossible to get right all the time. That is why we are people of mercy and not moral performance. If you haven't already read it, consider taking a look at Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God.

    Please give my love to Kathryn and the kids. I think of all of you often. Happy Easter!

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