No one expected it – including Steven Bradbury. He’d made the final of the short course speed skating at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. It was the final lap, and he was coming LAST as the front-runners rounded the final turn. Then, before he knows what’s happened, he’s gone from LAST TO FIRST. Everyone in front goes down like ten pins. And he skates across the line, cool as you like, and wins an Olympic gold medal!
An amazing result for someone who admits he was “THE WEAKEST GUY IN THE FIELD.”
Here’s what he said after the race. “I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS. I don’t know exactly what happened or how it happened.”
But what a turnaround. From last, TO FIRST. But not because he was the best, or most impressive skater. It wasn’t just because of what he did. It wasn’t that he DESERVED it. Steve said it like this. He said, “GOD SMILES ON YOU SOME DAYS, and this is my day.”
So Steve Bradbury now has an Olympic gold medal. He’s A WINNER. But he knows it could have been very different. SHOULD have been different. If God hadn’t ‘smiled on him’ there in Salt Lake City.
I wonder whether something like that’s ever happened to you. Even just A LITTLE BIT. Perhaps it’s an over-the-top birthday gift, or an offer for a holiday or a restaurant or concert that’s out of the blue. When things like that happen, it’s AMAZING. You just shake your head at the sheer undeserved, gob-smackingly gracious, DELIGHT of it. That something SO GOOD could come to someone who’s so UNDESERVING of it.
And when it comes to THE KINGDOM OF GOD, when it comes to being part of God’s family, IT’S THE SAME. It’s a Kingdom of people who know they don’t have any claims of greatness in themselves. Who know they’re not the fastest skaters on the ice, who know they don’t deserve a gold medal. Who know they’re not the rich or the powerful or the good. And who just shake their heads at the undeserving generosity of it all.
It’s people like THIS. Those who know they deserve to be LAST… THEY’RE the ones who are FIRST in God’s family.
But the ones who are FIRST in the world. Those who are greatest in the eyes of PEOPLE – the ones you and I might naturally put up on a pedestal… they miss out altogether. They fall over before the finish line. They DON’T get the gold medal from God. They’re the sort of people WHO DON’T MAKE IT INTO GOD’S KINGDOM.
Now that might sound strange. But that’s because God’s got an unusual way of figuring things. A strange accounting system that makes the last first and the first last. It’s called grace. GOD’S UNDESERVED GENEROSITY AND KINDNESS. That’s the difference that makes people who look like losers, into winners.
Jesus says it, and SHOWS it, in a few different ways here in chapter 19, but you can see it most clearly right at the end of the chapter. There in v30:
30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.
When it comes to judgment day. To the day when all debts will be settled, and all gold medals awarded. Many of those who assume they’re first in line for God’s rewards are going to find themselves up the BACK of the line. And many of those who reckon they deserve NOTHING are going to find themselves receiving a gold medal.
Which is both incredibly COMFORTING, and incredibly SCARY at the same time.
The children (13-15)
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Jump back up to v13, because some parents are bringing THEIR CHILDREN to Jesus. And they want him to pray for them.
Perhaps they’ve been encouraged by words like Jesus said back at the start of ch 18. The disciples ask who the greatest is in the kingdom of heaven. And Jesus brings a little child out of the crowd, and he says (v3)
“I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.
And welcoming little kids is what he’s doing here in ch 19. As the parents bring them to be blessed by Jesus.
But, as usual, the disciples weren’t listening. Rather than WELCOMING little children, they’re SHOOING THEM AWAY. Rebuking the parents.
And I wonder whether sometimes the church has a reputation for THAT sort of behaviour. For not being interested in the unimportant people. For NOT showing grace and acceptance. Do you recognise any of that attitude in YOUR OWN behaviour?
But Jesus will have NONE of it from his disciples. He, in turn, REBUKES them. They’ve rebuked the parents, but now it’s THEIR turn. V14.
“LET the little children come to me, and DO NOT hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven BELONGS TO SUCH AS THESE.”
When it comes to building his kingdom, Jesus isn’t interested in the powerful, connected, important people. He wants CHILD-LIKE people. People who look EXPECTANTLY to Jesus to provide what they need. Who don’t try to pay their way, or earn their keep. Who know their place in their Father’s house, and look to their Father to provide for them.
THEY’RE the ones who are first in God’s eyes. It might not look that way to you, or to me. But that’s the way it is with God.
So how do YOU relate to God? Do you think of yourself as a ‘self-made man’? Or an INDEPENDENT woman? Someone who’s a winner in life, and so you think God’s pretty lucky to have you on his team? You wonder what the church would do without you?
Do you find yourself COMPARING yourself to people around you? Perhaps you puff up with pride when your list of gifts or achievements or efforts is longer and more impressive than THAT OTHER PERSON.
Or maybe it’s the OTHER way around. Maybe you feel SORRY for yourself when you start comparing? You’re not as clever, or popular, or effective, or successful as someone else. And you wonder what’s the point.
Either way, your focus is on YOUR OWN achievements. It’s NOT a child-like attitude. It’s taking your eyes OFF the Father who provides everything you need, and its putting them ONTO those around you. It’s coming to God ON YOUR terms. It’s not child-like trust and dependence. It’s adult-like score-keeping and paying your way.
And Jesus says it doesn’t WORK. The kingdom of God’s not LIKE that. It’s full of FATHER-FOCUSSED CHILDREN, not SELF-FOCUSSED INDEPENDENTS.
The rich, young man (16-24)
The disciples have seen ONE SIDE. (The attitude they SHOULD have). Next there going to see THE OTHER side. (The attitude they SHOULDN’T have).
Because after the CHILDREN have come to Jesus, there’s A YOUNG MAN. And this guy is RICH.
When it comes to comparing himself to others, he ALWAYS comes out best. He’s been at the front of every line he’s ever stood in.
And there’s one OTHER line he wants to be first in. He says to Jesus (there in v16), “WHAT GOOD THING HAVE I GOT TO DO… to get eternal life?”
Show me what the measuring stick is and I’ll stand next to it. Show me where the job description is, and I’ll do it. Show me where I’ve got to go, and I’ll race there FIRST. “What good thing must I do?”
And his goal is to GET eternal life. “I want to make sure I GET it. Take hold of it, like a treasure. Lock it away for safe keeping like THE REST of the stuff I’ve accumulated.”
And Jesus answers by getting him to BACK UP a couple of steps. To examine his assumptions. “Good? Who says you can do ANYTHING good?” There in v17.
17 “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good.
In other words, there’s only one measuring stick you can measure yourself against. That’s God! And you don’t get anywhere NEAR his standard.
And if the rich guy actually got THAT point, it would be the end of the conversation. It would drive him to God is child-like dependence quick as a flash. But he DOESN’T.
Jesus knows it, and so he goes on. To prove his point, Jesus says, “If you want to enter life, obey the commandments.” What does THE LAW say it means to be good?
But the young guy still thinks he’s measuring up ok. “Which ones?” he asks. You set the bar, I’ll JUMP it.
So Jesus points him to some of the OBVIOUS ones. Five out the ten commandments. The five most OBVIOUS ones. The ones to do with EXTERNALS. How you treat your neighbour. And then he adds a SIXTH. Probably meant as a SUMMARY of the previous five. Do all these things, ie “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
The sorts of rules that are quite easy to compare yourself to other people with. You see a murderer on the news – “I’m not a murderer”. Or someone steals from you, or lies to you. “At least I’m not like them – not a thief or a liar!” Perhaps the ones this guy counted off as he looked at himself in the mirror each morning.
But it’s fascinating which of the ten commandments Jesus DOESN’T include. The first four are to do with how you treat God. And Jesus doesn’t mention ANY of those.
No other gods
Don’t misuse God’s name
Keep the Sabbath
We don’t know WHY he doesn’t mention them. Perhaps it’s because they’re this guy’s blind spot. His command-keeping is more about PEOPLE, and not much to do with GOD. Jesus lists them off in much the same way the rich guy would as he compared himself to the people around him.
The OTHER commandment that’s missing? Can anybody work it out? … NO COVETING. It’s the only commandment that’s completely internal. Where’s there’s no comparing with other people. That’s all about ATTITUDE.
It’s the commandment that tripped the Apostle Paul up when he was a faultless Pharisee (Romans 7:7). And it’s one that anyone who’s HONEST with themselves will admit they break. Because thoughts are SO HARD TO CONTROL. Simply WANTING what someone else has – it hardly seems too bad!
Jesus MIGHT have mentioned that one – driven his point home. But he picks the OTHERS. The ones that, on THE SURFACE AT LEAST, this guy thought he was doing ok at.
I think Jesus is just baiting his hook, waiting for the young man to bite. Which he does. Takes the bait quick as a flash. Barely needs to THINK about it. “All these I’ve kept. What ELSE? What do I still LACK? Show me, ‘cause I’m not seeing too many gaps!”
And that’s the problem. He doesn’t think he LACKS anything. Now that Jesus has him hooked, he’s quick to reel him in. v21.
“If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
If you want to be COMPLETE. If you want “no gaps.” If you want to enter eternal life. Then turn away from riches. From STUFF. From earning and accumulating and comparing and competing. Give it all up, and follow me.
What he LACKS is a heart that’s fixed on God. He didn’t think he lacked ANYTHING. But Jesus’ command is DIAGNOSTIC. Designed to identify what’s missing. And while he might have lots of things, the most important of all was missing.
To be first in God’s kingdom, HE’S got to be first in YOURS. You’ve actually got to be pointed in his direction. To be at the front of God’s queue, to have riches that COUNT. You’ve got to treasure God himself. With everything else BEHIND that.
And for this guy, God wasn’t even on the radar. And so, even though he thought he was at the FRONT of the queue, he was actually UP THE BACK. Last in line.
And Jesus has hit the nail on the head, because the guy CAN’T let it all go. He walks away SAD, because he’d rather be first in line at THE BANK than first in God’s line.
And Jesus turns to his disciples, and starts talking about THE RICH. About how HARD it is for them to get into the kingdom of God. In fact, it’s PRACTICALLY IMPOSSIBLE. The people who might naturally impress us don’t necessarily impress God. See how Jesus puts it, from verse 23,
IT IS EASIER FOR A CAMEL TO GO THROUGH THE EYE OF A NEEDLE than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
The disciples can hardly believe it. First they’ve shooed off the kids who no one else has got any time for. And Jesus has said they’re the MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL in the kingdom.
And now they look at this rich, morally-upright young guy, obviously blessed by God in every way. And Jesus is saying he’s LAST in line! If someone like THAT can’t make it in, then WHO CAN?
And look at Jesus’ answer in v26. And it gets right to the heart of the matter. Because until you understand this sentence, you’re just as far from God’s kingdom as the rich guy.
“With man this is impossible, but WITH GOD ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE.”
Impossible with people. On our own, no one can do it. No one can be saved. No one can finish the job without help.
And children don’t have a PROBLEM with that. Kids are ALWAYS asking for help. Always looking to the parents to finish the job. They EXPECT it. “Dad, tie my shoes. Mum, help me reach the top shelf. Dad, drive me to school. Mum, what’s for dinner?”
And that’s what WE’RE meant to be like TOO. Looking to our HEAVENLY father to do the job FOR us. “With God ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE.”
Not in the way some Christian sportspeople think it works. They write on their arm, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” And they think that God will help them win the golf tournament, or kick that winning goal in the grand final.
But with God all things ABOUT HIS KINGDOM are possible. He DEMANDS perfection to enter his kingdom. But then he PROVIDES it FOR us. He provides what he expects.
He sent Jesus to live and die. He counts Jesus’ death in our place as the PERFECT sacrifice for sin. And forgives us. Cancels the debt, restores the relationship, and carries us to the front of the line.
You may not compare too well to those around you. At a surface level, you may not be the most talented. You may not own your own home, or have the most satisfying marriage. Your kids might be a struggle, your job might bore you senseless. You might have health problems, or chronic sin that keeps dragging you back. You might have a painful relationship that’s broken, and you don’t know how to fix it.
You feel like Steve Bradbury stuck in last place in the speed skating race of life.
But Jesus says it’s only people who RECOGNISE that that God can USE. That God can LIFT UP, carry to the front of the line. And award the gold medal to. Their place in the kingdom. “With PEOPLE it’s impossible, But with God ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE.”
Do you BELIEVE that? Will you LIVE THAT OUT? How does that attitude influence the way you think about YOURSELF? About OTHERS? About LIFE?
And the disciples are thinking too. As they process all of this information, they can’t help but make it personal too. There’s the little children. There’s the rich young man. But what about THEM? Where do THEY fit in the kingdom?
Jesus has challenged THE RICH GUY to leave all his wealth and follow Jesus if he wants to enter the kingdom. And the disciples wonder what it means for THEM. Typically, it’s Peter who pipes up. V27.
“We’ve left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”
If God’s going to do the impossible for us. If we’ve jumped on the bandwagon, and left everything behind. Is it going to be WORTH IT?
It’s easy to be critical of the question. To see Peter as being as self-centred as the rich guy. But I wonder if that’s being too tough. After all, the disciples really HAD given up everything. Families, incomes, comforts, clothing, food. And which of us have given up anything LIKE that?
But even if Peter’s question IS a little selfish, Jesus’ answer is GRACIOUS AND COMFORTING. V28. There IS going to be a renewal. A reversal. A restoration. When last things become first, and first things go to the back.
And whatever you’ve given up for my sake. Whatever you’ve put SECOND so that I can be FIRST in your life, I’ll make it up a hundred fold.
The TIME and ENERGY you’ve given up preparing Sunday School lessons, or praying with the kids, or heading out to home group when it’s cold and dark and you’re exhausted. The money you’ve given up to support that missionary, or the holidays you’ve given up serving on a Beach Mission.
The renovations or the upgrades you’ve put off because keeping up appearances doesn’t matter compared to souls won for the kingdom. The embarrassment you’ve endured from workmates when you’ve made a stand for Jesus. The work you’ve put into studying that Bible course, or listening to those tapes, or reading those books. The sleep you’ve lost concerned about that church member who’s slipping away. The rejection that’s burned when you’ve tried to help someone for Jesus’ sake, and been brushed off.
Everything that’s put you BEHIND. That’s dropped you down the pecking order of what’s important, or what matters, or what people notice. Whatever you do for Jesus sake, you’ll get back a HUNDRED TIMES.
V30. But many who are FIRST, (like the rich young man) will be last. And many who are LAST (like YOU, as you keep putting Jesus before everything else) will be FIRST.
Listen to what Paul said to the Corinthian church. 1 cor 1:26-31
26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 BUT GOD CHOSE THE FOOLISH THINGS OF THE WORLD TO SHAME THE WISE; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things-and the things that are not-to nullify the things that are, 29 SO THAT NO ONE MAY BOAST BEFORE HIM. 30 It is because of HIM that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God-that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”
Don’t look SIDEWAYS at where you measure up to everyone else. Keep your eyes fixed straight ahead. Follow Jesus. Look to him, like a little child. Give up EVERYTHING for his sake. And, though you deserve to come LAST, You’ll skate through and claim the gold medal.
How good is THAT!!?