Mark 8.31-38 (Lent II)
"What does it profit you to gain the whole world?"
Chance would be a fine thing! You can't get a decent return on your investments anywhere these days can you? I'm sure you've all been fretting over this - worrying how to invest your millions. We were all brought up to save weren't we? It was the sensible thing to do - save up a bit of money and invest it wisely - some in the bank on deposit for a rainy day; some in a fixed high interest growth account, some in nice, safe government bonds and some in the stock market, where they would grow like billy-oh (though of course the value of your investment could go down as well as up). This was what prudence dictated - a nice, balanced investment portfolio. That was how you accumulated savings and looked after yourself.
Well, not any more it isn't. I know that my life savings have just fittered away. I might as well have gone out and spent it all on one enormous and very memorable bender. At least that way I'd have enjoyed the money instead of watching it disappear. The value of your investments can go down as well as plummet. Not for the first time in my life I find that money lets you down.
But that doesn't stop us trying does it? Even me. For some reason, we spend an extraordinary amount of time and effort trying to build up our nest eggs, only to find that our best laid plans "gang aft agley". No wonder Jesus found us rather an odd bunch.
Now Jesus had rather a different perspective on all this. In fact he used quite strong words to describe the futility of our financial behaviour. In effect, he says, when we spend our lives trying to gain for ourselves, we lose our souls. And if we lose our souls in the process, then even if we were successful, even if we gained the whole world by it, what would it profit us? And if we lose our souls for the sake of 1.5% gross interest and a pitiful pension fund, then we really must be crackers!
Wake up folks! (Jesus is saying). Weigh up the returns on your investments before you invest. Investing in the things of this world will profit you nothing. Devote your life to saving up and you'll lose it. But lose your life for the sake of the Gospel...then you will be saved.
Not for the first time, we've got things so completely the wrong way round that Jesus has to turn everything on its head in order to straighten it out. "Those who seek 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."
It seems counter-intuitive to us, and yet the history of the world shows that Jesus' logic is spot on the mark. Surround yourself with security and heavy defence and you become a target for thieves and murderers. Spend your life running away from your fears and you'll end up accumulating fear upon fear. Try to find financial security and you'll become ever more dependant on something completely unreliable - and lose your soul in the process. But be profligately generous and you'll be rich in a way you've never dreamed of.
I can testify to this from personal experience. If I have found repeatedly that money lets you down, then I've also discovered repeatedly that Jesus's words are absolutely true.
You see, I have always been a materialistic person and devoted my young adult life to getting rich. It didn't work particularly - however much I earned, I never seemed to have any money. And my life was passing me by. I rarely saw my wife or baby daughter (as she was then). I rarely drew breath in the very expensive house we owned and I drove my nice car only in traffic jams in the dark commuting to work. Frankly I was losing my soul.
Now I have none of these things, but I enjoy my life hugely. There is never any shortage of interesting things to do! Sometimes it gets so interesting that I even crave just five minutes of boredom! But the point is this - in giving up part of my life for the gospel, I have found riches I could never have imagined: family, community, a purposeful life and, above all, of the daily companionship of the God who loves me deeply and in whom I have my destiny. Jesus was absolutely right.
But, I deliberately say "giving up part of my life for the gospel", because I know full well that I have still got more to relinquish. Like all of us, I still feel the tug and lure of worldly security. For all I've discovered about God's goodness, I'm still reticent about trusting it further. And yet the evidence is staring me in the face! I hope I'm not alone in this. Maybe some of you feel the same way. So, as a fellow struggler, let me encourage you, in the hope that I too will find the courage I need.
At bottom, this is about living life out of the abundance of God's generosity. Doing that is life-giving and enriching. To do otherwise is deadening (literally - it kills our souls.) You see, Jesus is telling us here that God, our creator God, is eternal. And if that is true, then it means that the God who created all this is as creative today as he was on day one of creation. And he will still be that creative tomorrow. And the day after tomorrow. And the day after that...
Now, if that is true, the implications for the way we live are mindblowing. The good things you have - that come from God, because "all things come from you O Lord" - those good things have from God as a result of his creativity and his care for you. We who, in comparison to the overwhelming majority of humanity, are so rich, have more reason than any to know how potent God's creativity and care is for us. Because he has provided for us with lavish abundance. And so we, above all others, ought to know how to trust him - so much so that whatever we lose for his sake - even if we were to die - we would receive it all back, and more, from him, because he is eternally creative.
Now if that is the case, then we can afford to be generous, too because we know how well this God provides for us. We know that his creativity does not end. We don't need to hoard, to build up treasures on earth, because tomorrow God will be as generous and creative as he was today.
But this ought to challenge us - why has he given me so much? What does he want me to do with it? That is the challenge that Jesus is articulating for us. Everything you have, everything you are comes from God. Are you going to use it for your own ends and lose your souls in the process? Or are you going to lose it all for his sake and gain eternal life - life lived out of his eternal creativity?
It's a little bit like that old TV quiz, "who wants to be a millionaire?" Every right question wins you certain amount. And after every question you have the choice to walk away and bank it or to stay in the quiz and receive more. With the things God has given us, we can walk away and bank it. But if we do that, we shut ourselves off from the generosity he still had to bestow upon us. Our assets gradually dwindle and when we reach the end of our resources, that's it. Or we can stay in the game - we can risk everything he has already given us, because we can trust that he's got so much more to give.
But the only way to discover how generous God is, the only way to learn to trust in his eternal creativity is for us to give - to give so freely that we become dependent on his generosity. Now I know that's not easy, especially when you think you haven't got much to begin with and when economic times are tough. But spiritually, surely this is the best time to give? When the returns in this world are so poor, when you haven't got the remotest hope of gaining the whole world, but it still costs you your soul, is this not the best time to invest in the kingdom of heaven? Is not this the best time to discover God's eternal creativity?
So, I've persuaded myself at least. I'm going to go home and review what I'm giving back to God. I'm not ask myself how much I can afford to give, but I'm going to ask God what he intends me to retain. I think it's what Jesus would call "denying yourself, taking up your cross, and following me."
Will you do the same? And maybe together we can find out just what a creative and generous God we worship - oh, and maybe we might just save our lives in the process!
Preached: - Morland, Great Strickland, 4 March 2012