?Almost… It’s a sad word in anybody’s dictionary. It keeps company with expressions like “if only” and (in the South) “near ’bout.”
Almost is a word that smacks of missed opportunities and fumbled chances.
Tim KcKee was edged out for first place in the Olympic 400-meter race by two-thousandths of a second. He almost won a gold medal.
Max Lucado gives us these sad statements that revolve around almost:
“He almost got it together.”
“We were almost able to work it out.”
“He almost made it to the big leagues.”
“I caught a catfish that was bigger than me. Well, almost!”
As they say, almost doesn’t count except in horseshoes and hand grenades.
Our Scripture lesson focuses on an “almost” kind of guy. We call him “the rich young ruler.” In terms of disciples, he was the big one that got away. He could have been the powerful establishment figure who might have won half the Jewish power structure to Jesus. One day he met Jesus and hovered on the brink of commitment. He almost claimed Jesus as the Lord of his life. But almost is not good enough.
The story of the rich young ruler is in three of the four gospels-Matthew, Mark and Luke. Each version is slightly different. We tend to blend the three into one composite story. All three tell us that the man was rich. Only Matthew mentions that he was young. Only Luke notes that he was a ruler. Mark’s Gospel tells us that the man ran up and knelt before Jesus, indicating that he was earnest and respectful.
“Now a man came up to Jesus and asked, ‘Teacher, what good things must I do to get eternal life?’” (Matthew 19:16).
The Greek word translated here as “eternal life” really means joy, fulfillment and peace with God. It is the most wanted commodity on earth, in the first or the 21st centuries. The rich young ruler had everything in the world except what he wanted most-this eternal, or abundant, life.
In one of his books, Bruce Larson tells about a Presbyterian conference that was held in Omaha. It began with a worship service. As the people entered the auditorium, they were given helium-filled balloons attached to strings. They were instructed to release those balloons at any point during the service when they felt real joy in their hearts. Larson noted that since they were Presbyterian, they were not free to say, “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” (Sometimes we Methodists have a hard time with that, too.) All through the service, balloons ascended. But when the service was over, it was discovered that one-third of the worshipers were still holding on to their balloons. They had not felt the joy. It’s sad but true. Lots of folks in churches have never felt the unique joy of knowing Christ personally.
Jesus responds to the young man by asking a strange question: “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only One who is good” (Matthew 19:17). Jesus was really asking, “Do you have a clue as to who I am?” In the Living Bible, Jesus’ question becomes this statement: “When you call me good, you are calling me God.” Jesus was gently probing to see if there was within the young man a smidgen of faith, the kind of faith that could transform his life.
You know, we are about halfway through 2009. Actually, the year is 2009 A.D. “A.D.” means in Latin Anno Domini or “in the year of our Lord.” In our secular society we usually omit the A.D. Nevertheless, all of history is divided into two parts-B.C., or before Christ, and A.D., in the year of our Lord.
Not only that, each person’s life is divided into B.C. and A.D. Until you meet Christ and receive him by faith, you are living in a B.C. world, regardless of the year.
Jesus asked the rich young ruler long ago, “Are you still living in a B.C. world? Do you have that glimmer of faith necessary to cross over into the beautiful land of Anno Domini?”
Golf is on many minds. Let me tell you about a former great touring pro, Rik Massengale. Rik admits that early in his career, golf was his god. This not only caused him inner turmoil but also created marriage problems. His wife decided to file for divorce. But before the divorce was finalized, they had a long talk. They decided to attend the Tour Bible Study. The guest speaker happened to be Billy Graham, who was playing in the pro-am of the Kemper Open that year.
Billy Graham made a statement that rang Rik’s bell. He said, “Christianity is not a religion; it is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.” Rik had grown up in church. He had assumed that being a Christian just meant attending church. Rik was honest enough to admit that he did not have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Through the guidance of a friend, Rik found out how he could start a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He confessed his own sin and trusted in Jesus Christ as his Savior and Lord. His wife made that commitment at the same time.
Rik says, “I didn’t experience an overnight change, but over the next six to eight months I realized that God was making significant changes in my life.” In 1994, Rik and his wife celebrated their 25th anniversary, very much in love and very committed to Christ. Today Rik is the director of College Golf Fellowship, a Christian ministry to college golfers and coaches.1 Now Rik’s life can be neatly divided between B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (in the years of our Lord).
In Matthew 19:21, Jesus makes both diagnosis and prescription. Since the signs of wealth were all over this young man, Jesus suspected that his soul might be in the bank with his stocks and bonds. So Jesus said, “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.”
That gives me a slight touch of the “willies” every time I read it. What if Jesus were to tell you or me in a vision too real to deny: “Son or daughter, I want you to quit your job, sell your house, cash in your investments, and become a missionary.” I always try to be mighty gentle with the rich young ruler because I’m glad Jesus doesn’t deliver the same challenge to me.
Jesus was not saying that all persons should liquidate their material assets in order to be good disciples. When Jesus talked with another rich man named Nicodemus, He did not order him to sell off his possessions. Jesus had nothing against wealth. Money is morally neutral. It can do great good or terrible harm, depending on who is in control of it. But money is dangerous. It is the most seductive false god on earth, and more Americans go to hell because of love of money than all other sins put together.
Jesus was really saying to the rich young ruler: “You are carrying a security blanket that you rely on more than God. God will not agree to be co-champion in your tournament of favorites. That false god must be de-throned in order for you to experience the glory of God.”
Then in Matthew 19:22 we find one of the saddest statements in all of Scripture: “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.”
The young man had caught a glimpse of a magnificent, God-centered way of life. Something in the eyes and spirit of Jesus sent shivers of excitement down his spine. It was as if his whole life had been preparation for this pivotal crossroad.
But oh, the price was so high! His money had always been his magic carpet to comfort and connections and opportunities. How could he live without this familiar security blanket? So he went away sorrowful. One doesn’t have to be a psychiatrist to conclude that the young man probably became a grumpy old man, unhappy with his money, always looking back sadly to that day when, face to face with the Master, he almost became a disciple.
Let me give you a slice of truth that you won’t hear very often in nice respectable churches like this. Not everybody here is going to hell; but everybody, including the preacher, deserves to go to hell. Why? Because all of us are sinners. Most of us don’t realize how awful sin is in the sight of our holy God. It’s cosmic treason. It’s a puny little sinner like you or me shaking his fist in the face of Almighty God, saying, “I don’t care what You command or prefer. I’m going to do what I want to. If You don’t like it, tough!”
God’s patience with us is incredible, and His grace is truly amazing. Because He loves us so much, He arranged for all of our sins and foul-ups to be transferred to the shoulders of Jesus when He died on a cross. In exchange, we can be clothed with the righteousness of Jesus. What a trade! But that gracious offer can be accepted only if we endorse it by faith. Each of us must confess our sin and trust in this risen Christ as our personal Lord and Savior.
The well-known pastor from Chicago, Bill Hybels, was on an airplane one day. The passenger beside him asked Bill what he did for a living. When he replied that he was a minister, an interesting conversation ensued. The man said, “I believe in God, but I don’t attend church. I don’t see why I need it. I am an honest guy, and I try to treat other people decently. One day when I die and meet God, I believe that my record will be acceptable to Him.”
Bill Hybels took a legal pad from his brief case and said, “I agree with you that God will judge all people. Let’s do some preliminary figuring on how we might stack up before God. I’m going to draw a line across the middle of this page. Let’s say that this line represents a passing grade with God. Who is the best person you can think of, the one who grades out highest with God?”
The man thought for just a moment and replied, “Billy Graham.”
“Fine,” said Bill, “let’s put Billy Graham on our chart, but we must place him here where Billy Graham himself says he ought to be. Billy Graham has said repeatedly that he is a sinner who deserves to go to hell; but in fact he is going to heaven, only because Jesus paid for his sins on the cross. So, we must put Billy down here beneath the middle line.” Then Bill said, “I’m going to put my own name on this chart well beneath Billy Graham’s name. Like Billy, I’m a sinner whose only hope is the cross.”
Bill Hybels noticed that his new friend had suddenly become strangely quiet, perhaps anticipating the next question.
Bill turned to him and asked, “Brother, where should we put you on the chart? You don’t want to be ranked above Billy Graham, do you?”
After a considerable pause, the man replied, “You have certainly given me food for thought.”
Today is a day of decision and commitment. Don’t be like the rich young ruler who was almost persuaded. He walked away from the best offer on earth, and his life thereafter was a tale of sorrow. Today is a wonderful time to beome a forgiven, redeemed child of God!
1. Darden, Robert, and Richardson, P.J., The Way of an Eagle (Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 1996), pp. 141-144.