Luke 17:33-37 “‘Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it. I tell you, on that night two people will be in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. Two women will be grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.’ ‘Where, Lord?’ they asked. He replied, ‘Where there is a dead body, there the vultures will gather.’”
The world we live in will one day end, but more important, our own lives will one day come to an end. There is nothing more certain than that, and nothing more uncertain than when and how. So we are always to be prepared. All living is preparation for dying. There is nothing morbid about that conviction and my mentioning it will not bring it a single minute sooner.
Our lives will end as this cosmos will end in a confrontation with God, and he is going to evaluate our lives. Our lives are that significant because we are made in the image of God with never-dying souls. God has given every person a conscience; unlike animals and has blessed us with innumerable kindnesses each day of our lives, and so he is going to evaluate privileges and duties of every single person. How have we used our time and gifts and possessions and relationships? How has it been with us in our temptations and trials and testings?
All men are evaluating and judging everything all the time, Welsh rugby, our political leaders, the behaviour of our pets, our golf, our cooking, sermons, music, the behaviour of students competing on University Challenge, other people’s driving, fashion – where will this list end? We evaluate everything, but God himself is going to evaluate us. Jesus says, “The Son of Man . . . will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matt.16:27).
So much in this chapter is speaking about the coming of the Son of God and about you being ready to meet him. For many of us it will be at death. If you are on the roof pointing the chimney and the summons comes then just think of the living God. Don’t think, “I’ll just pop down the ladder and get my credit cards.” No. Don’t try to keep your life. Just consider him and yourself. Or if you are in the field clearing the ditches and the heralds announce he is coming for you then that is not the time to think of running across two fields to the farmhouse for your wallet. Then it will be just you and God. Deal with God. Don’t try to keep your life. You can’t. This is your last chance because you are going off to judgment. Two people are going to be in a bed, and off to judgment one will go. Two women will be grinding grain when one will be summoned away to judgment. My mother-in-law stood up to sing a hymn in her church in Blaenau Ffestiniog one Sunday night and she never finished the hymn as away to the judgment seat of Christ she was called.
Here is the gospel statement about discipleship. These are the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, words that will last longer than the sun; “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it” (v.33). Those words were often on the lips of our Lord. You will find them in Matthew 10 and Matthew 16 and Mark 8 and Luke 9 as well as here. These were the sentiments he spoke to would be disciples. He made the cost of following him spectacularly clear. His words are the death blow to any man-centred, self-centred invitations. His is not an invitation to health, or wealth, or personal fulfillment, or prosperity, or healing, or boosted self-image, or trouble-free living. This is an invitation to dying to self and living to God.
The gospel is never presented to people like this, “Take Jesus Christ because you get everything if you have him. This is a wonderful offer.” No, this is how the gospel is offered to you, “Everything is in Christ. If you have him you have all things, and so listen! Is this offer so valuable to you that you are prepared to give up everything in order to have him? He is here for you, but if you follow him it is on his terms and these are the terms, ‘Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.’” That is what the gospel says. Remember the most famous words of the Ecuadorian martyr of 55 years ago, Jim Elliot, one of the five missionaries killed by the Auca Indians; “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” In other words, if you hold tight to stuff – which you cannot keep anyway – then you will end up losing everything, but if you lose your grip on stuff and status and the security which the world offers and you come to the Lord Christ and say to him, “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling,” then you gain something that will never pass away.
Jesus is saying that if your one ambition in life is to preserve this life of yours, that you say, “I am content with myself and I am going to hang on to being who and what I am” then you will lose everything, but if you are prepared to seriously examine your life, and you come by the grace of God to the momentous decision that your life needs more than a cosmetic change, that it needs a fundamental change, from within, from your very heart, then, and only then, your life will be preserved. That is the door to the Christian life. That is the way that anyone becomes a Christian.
JESUS’ WORDS ABOUT LOSING YOUR LIFE.
For example, it is there at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Here is a person who has lived with himself and his failures and his weaknesses for a long time and then he turns to God and he tells him he is bankrupt spiritually. He doesn’t have a high view of himself. He doesn’t think he is a very good person; he doesn’t think that he is religious. He has a sense of guilt and poverty. That realization and confession is the beginning of the path to blessedness, Jesus says. That man is a blessed man who is poor in spirit. He isn’t trying to hang on to his life.
You remember again the two men who were seen in the Temple praying. The Pharisee was not at all poor in spirit. He was full of himself and what a great life he lived, and he rattled off his virtues. He was hanging onto his life with all his might, but the other man beat his chest. He has the lowest view of his life; his body language spoke of self loathing; he looked down to the dust as the place he should be lying in; “God be merciful to me a sinner.” He wasn’t trying to keep his life; he despised the man he’d been.
Think again of the apostle Paul. He tells the church in Philippi that there used to be a time when he would rattle off all his religious credentials. He’d been very definitely keeping his life. You remember his words, that he had been circumcised the eighth day, belonging to the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, one of the noblest tribes, a Hebrew of the Hebrews. He was amongst the best people on the planet. He went on describing how he excelled in this life of his. It was a life of zeal for Judaism so that he persecuted the followers of Jesus of Nazareth, and as for the righteousness that comes from law keeping he was blameless. He tells them that he thought this was the most perfect life anyone could live anywhere and that everyone should live in this way. He didn’t want to change it in any form. It was all gain. Every attribute of his was listed in the Gains column and nothing in the Losses.
Then Saul of Tarsus met Christ and all his values changed. In fact he crossed out the word ‘Gains’ and wrote over it, ‘Losses.’ His life before God was in fact all wrong; it was all arrogance and self-righteousness and cruelty and pomposity. It was a nothing life and a lost life. It was when he was accepted by Christ and given the life of God, and illumination, and given values to live by and strength to live day by day according to those values – it was then that he finally found the meaning of life. He experienced the life of heaven for the first time. Saul abandoned all his pride of life and self-effort and cast himself on Christ, and he was joined to God. He discovered what the psalmists would say, first in psalm 34 “The Lord is near to the broken-hearted and he saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psa.34:18), and then in Psalm 51 “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psa. 51:17). That is the new attitude to yourself; that is losing your life.
It’s the Christian hypocrite who will take Christ plus his own pleasures; he will take Christ plus his own plans for his future; he will take Christ plus all his possessions; he will take Christ plus his favourite sins. But the person who is poor in spirit will take Christ and nothing more. Less he does not want; more he does not desire. Just to have Christ is enough. He is prepared to give up everything that he might have Christ. A man came across treasure in a field, Jesus said, and the consequence of that was that he sold everything he had in order to buy that field so that that treasure was his. That is new life.
It is not enough for you to say, “I live correctly. I pay everyone his due. I discharge all my duties to the people I work for. I share a flat with five other students and I am exemplary in cleaning the bathroom and tidying up in the kitchen and not taking any food from the refrigerator that is not mine.’ All that is praiseworthy, but it is not enough. To whom do you live? Do you live to yourself, or do you live for Christ? What is the great end of your life? What is your goal? What motivates you to act as you do? Listen to Paul’s motives for how he acted; “He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cors. 5:13). Paul was constrained by the love of Christ to live as he did. He thought of the Saviour’s dying love for him and he concluded, “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
REPENTANCE IS ANOTHER WAY OF DESCRIBING THIS.
You remember that the first preaching of Jesus was on the theme of repentance. He was building on the messages of John the Baptist. Let me illustrate what repentance is. A driver loses his concentration and turns the wrong way onto a one-way street. He cruises along for a hundred feet and then sees two lanes of cars coming straight at him. He slams on the brakes, flips the gear lever into reverse, lurches backwards into an opening, waits for the traffic to pass, and then he drives off in the opposite direction. Another illustration; a novice hill walker tries an unmarked trail through the woods. She keeps bearing left, as she thinks she should, but the path disappears, the woods get thicker, and the hiker begins to feel waves of panic washing over her. So she turns around and heads out the way she came in. A father watches his prodigal son coming back.
The son and the hiker and the driver all repent. Repentance is more than simply turning a corner or turning over a new page. To repent is to stop in your tracks, pivot one hundred eighty degrees, and head back. To repent is not to determine you will stop smoking or cut down on eating chocolates or on surfing the web. It is to have a totally new attitude to yourself and to turn your life around. There is the first definitive act of repentance, like the publican repented before God in the Temple, but that is followed by a lifetime of repenting.
Most of us have heard of repentance. We may have the feeling that it is somewhat unpleasant. We are wrong. It is entirely unpleasant. Repentance is no fun at all, and yet we dare not be strangers to it. In fact repentance is a special problem to us because only weak and guilty people need to do it and yet only strong and good people can do it. So how can we repent? It’s a gift of God. He gives us a new spirit, new values, a new attitude to ourselves. He gives us strength to pour contempt on all our pride, to die to self and sin and to live to righteousness. Repentance is a gift of God.
So here are the words of Jesus; “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” and the means of attaining true life is by repentance, this turnabout in values and attitudes and enthusiasms. Because of our sinful hearts we have a bias to do wrong—to lie, to envy, to think of ourselves as the best thing since sliced bread, and so on. We also tend to avoid doing what’s right – working hard, for example, or encouraging a person we don’t like very much. We are like a boat with a small outboard motor put-put-putting along on the river Niagara heading downstream toward the mother of all waterfalls. Our tendency is just to let the stream carry us on. That’s easiest, especially if we don’t know or don’t care about the danger. We tend to go with the flow. Then we hear the warnings. The sirens sound; the police launch gets alongside and tells us to head for the bank. We are told of our danger, that only last month a boat was swept off the edge of the falls and there were no survivors. Take precautions, we are told. That is the picture given in this chapter. We are heading for a meeting with God. Remember the defiance of Lot’s wife. Repentance in such a situation is essential; it is a decisive act. We have to see our danger, and turn around, going against the current and getting to safety. These descriptions of repentance are all pictures. They tell what repentance (conversion) is like. Repentance is like a U-turn in traffic. It is like a hiker’s retreat from dark woods or it is a runaway’s homecoming. Repentance is like a boat backing upstream, full-speed astern.
I am saying that what Jesus is speaking about in our passage, losing your life and thus finding it, that this is what repentance, or conversion, is like. It’s as if the old man in us, one that boasts and struts – is killed off, and a fresh new person – one that is humble and sorry for his sins – is newly born in his place. Repentance is a person turning from old to new, from death to life. Repentance is the fruit of being born again. It means feeling the pain of those we hurt. It means running away from evil. It means taking delight in what’s right. It means starting to think of ourselves as being driven by a new engine, by the power of the Holy Spirit. Why do we have to do these things? Because without them we will drown or crash or get lost or die in some far-off pig pen. Without repentance we will lose our lives.
Our whole life needs repentance. The old self we are born with is pushy and ego-reinforcing. It imagines being escorted by the Eisteddfod officials onto the stage to get the crown while the crowd applauds and the music plays. It likes to stand in the winners’ circle. It enjoys the gossip that will bring another person down, and it shrinks from the honest praise that will build another person up.
To tell the truth, the old self in us shrinks from God. We know God is there. There are times, like some evenings when thousands of starlings are flying around the pier before they roost, and the sun is setting over the Bay, and the sky is red, that we have almost felt the breath of God. But because men want to drive their own lives, run their own show, hoist their own flag, they find that God becomes a kind of embarrassment to them. They ignore God. They keep Jesus Christ out of their lives. They don’t pray unless they have to. They daydream through church services. Though they are radiant, pulsing images of God, they try to become instead images of some human soccer player, or a singer, or a star, or a fool.
Keeping your life means keeping all your vain thoughts about yourself and how you don’t need Jesus Christ and his salvation. Losing your life means turning away from all of that. It means feeling the pain of those we hurt or have ignored. It means fearing the anger of the God of the universe. Losing your life includes a softening of your hearts and a turning towards the Father who is always looking out of the farm window for us to come home and when he sees you coming he runs to greet you. He is the only person in the universe who can open a door and welcome you inside.
To lose your life is to muscle aside familiar habits. You have to beat down old attitudes. You have to try to kill somebody – and that is your old self with all its warts and ways. This is hard work. Old selves die hard. You might put out a contract on your old self, but you find that it takes a long time to get up the nerve to go through with the act itself. It is humiliating to be your own hit man. But it can be done. Over a period of time dying to self and living to God works. We are changed. We are not what we could be. We are not what we shall be. We are not what we once were, but by the grace of God we are what we are. God has been working in us in this painful, holy mortification. Like the last notes of a rugby club’s dirty song, like the chant of looters attacking the police dressed in riot gear, the old self slowly dies away. It can still be heard from time to time. But each time its voice begins to sound more and more like the voice of a stranger.
3. THE MARKS OF LOSING YOUR LIFE AND SO PRESERVING IT.
I want to highlight two marks of losing your life so as to preserve it. Animals are like human beings. They’ll respond to a threat either by facing it or by running away from it. They fight or they flee. A herd of sheep will run away from you, but a frightened herd of cows might charge the woman walking along the footpath with her dog on a lead. A deer, hearing the crackling of branches, will turn its tail up so that the white underside shows, and it bounds off. In other words, a deer usually responds to a threat by hightailing it out of danger. But an injured animal, particularly a cornered one, responds to danger by becoming dangerous itself. It may attack.
I’m saying that men are like animals. Some shopkeepers faced with riots and arson and theft this summer banded together, and they stayed up all night with friends and family guarding their stores. But others pulled the shutters down and simply moved out of the neighbourhood. Fight or flight. A person unfairly criticized might speak up in defence and face his critics, or he might just walk away and let history pass its own verdict. Fight or flight; those are the two options that face all Christians as they lose their lives and find their lives. These are marks of new attitudes and values. Consider the fight
i] You find your life by resisting sin. Romans 8 and verse 13; “By the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body – you will live.” Or you think of Paul telling us of his attitude; “I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (I Cor. 9:27). There is a course of action before you, but if you set out on it the result will be disaster for you and for others. Maybe it’s making easy money, cheating and lying, hurting others but getting rich on their backs. Paul says “I will not accept that way of life. I won’t hang onto it a minute longer. I refuse to act in that way. I make my instincts my slave. I don’t give them an inch. They’re not going to lord it over me. I will tell them to be silent. Be gone! I banish them from my life and they will obey me. I will not be enslaved by greed or cheating or I might find after standing in the pulpit and telling other people to resist sin that I myself fall and am disqualified from being a preacher.”
This is your new attitude of losing that wicked way of life. You hate sin enough to want to oppose it and kill it. Somebody wrecks a family by causing a divorce. A Christian will hate that sin, even if he loves the sinner. Here is a preacher tempted again and again to exaggerate and brag about imaginary accomplishments. The boasting and lying regularly get him into trouble with his friends. He comes to hate that sin. He wants to attack it and kill it before it does any more damage. Or here’s a man who bullies smaller and weaker people. As he begins to lose that sub-Christian vain and stupid life he hates his bullying manner more and more. He wants to root out this tendency in himself. For this (and all sin) is an enemy that corrupts him and destroys him. Part of losing your life is coming to feel a hatred of sin and its power to hurt. Repentant people especially fight the sin that they control. They level their biggest guns at their own sin. Fight; then there’s flight:
ii] You lose your life by running from sin. Sometimes the right response to the temptation of sin is to run away from it. Paul tells Timothy to flee from youthful lusts. Get away from the world wide web. Get out of that room. Do what young Joseph did when the hideous old wife of Potiphar tried to seduce him. He left her clinging to his coat, slipped out of it and ran away from her. There was no debate.
Suppose you are alone on a dark street late at night. Three young gentlemen swinging bicycle chains start walking toward you. You’ll feel like a fool if you run, but the truth is that only a fool would stand and fight against those odds. It’s the same way with some sins. We are not strong enough, or wise enough, or old enough to fight some of them – and we know it. These may be sins that are especially tempting to us, sins that easily beset us, sins we especially fear, or sins that are brought to us as temptations by others.
Suppose, for example, that a group wants to play a truly humiliating prank on a weak or unpopular person. You can’t stop them. You are afraid even to try. Perhaps you ought to have more courage. Maybe someday you will. But, for now, you can at least walk out. You can hightail it out of there. If someone accuses you of being afraid, the right answer would be, “Yes, I am. I’m afraid of what this will do to Ifan” (or whoever). And I also don’t like what it’s going to do to you and me.” That is the fruit of losing that lifestyle. You are finding a more loving and caring way of life, a Christ-like life.
The fact is that sin is frightening. Fools will pretend that it isn’t—just as fools will play with live grenades. More mature people have the same healthy fear of sin that they have of a wounded wild animal. They do not snuggle up to it. You have your choice with sin: fight or flight. Dying-away “is to be genuinely sorry for sin, to hate it more and more, and to run away from it.” We have to die as proof that we’ve been born again.
We refuse to hang on desperately to the comforts and luxuries and rights that we Christians so often think we’re entitled to. There was a famous little missionary book written fifty years ago by an American missionary to China called Mabel Williamson and it was entitled, “Have We No Rights?” published by Moody Press. And Miss Williamson, who worked for the C.I.M. (now the O.M.F.), went through the ‘rights’ that Christians think are theirs and can drown in self-pity if they do not enjoy them. She was someone who had lost her life and so she had preserved it.
Here are the chapter headings of her book; 1. Rights. 2. The Right to What I Consider a Normal Standard of Living. 3. The Right to the Ordinary Safeguards of Good Health. 4. The Right to Regulate My Private Affairs As I Wish. 5. The Right to Privacy. 6. The Right to My Own Time. 7. The Right to a Normal Romance, if Any. 8. The Right to a Normal Home Life. 9. The Right to Live With the People of My Choice. 10. The Right to Feel Superior. 11. The Right to Run Things. 12. Christ Had No Rights.
By the sin of our father Adam and our own sins we have forfeited our rights. Now we have duties and the chief is to love and follow Christ and love our neighbours as ourselves. It is in letting your rights go and accepting the privileges of following Christ that you find lasting joy and peace. Of course Christ is not calling us to a pointless denial of this and that. It’s denying certain things in order to substitute them with better things. So deny yourself some sleep in the morning so you can begin your day with prayer. Deny yourself the low pleasure of watching TV so that you can experience the high pleasure of studying Scripture. Deny yourself one thing for the purpose of enjoying another thing better. In this way, your joy will increase and your life will become more meaningful and exciting.
To lose your life for the sake of Christ and the Gospel does not diminish your
happiness, no matter how often the devil tells you this; it greatly increases it to the point that you feel you’ve lost nothing at all. You’re simply pursuing the things that bring the most satisfaction. He went to the cross, and we must also take up our crosses. If we are Christ’s disciples then we have no choice but gladly follow him. Many Christians around the world are faced with this reality every day. And while we may not face the same physical dangers here in Aberystwyth, we need to have a willingness to be mocked for the Gospel, and a willingness to go to the hard places in the world even if it means hardship and persecution and even martyrdom.
The apostles are a great example for us. They loved the Gospel so much that they
Weren’t willing only to suffer for it, but they were joyful when they suffered. It says in
Acts 5 that the religious leaders “called in the apostles, they beat them and charged them
not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.” And do you know how the apostles
responded? It says they “left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted
worthy to suffer dishonor for the name. And every day, in the temple and from house to
house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:40-42). We never get the impression that these apostles were constantly complaining and
grumbling about their obligation to preach the Gospel. They preached constantly,
whether in the temple, or in houses, or in jail!
David Livingstone was the great pioneer missionary to Africa. As an old man he gave an address to the students at Cambridge in which he said: “People talk of the sacrifice I have made in spending so much of my life in Africa. . . . It is emphatically no sacrifice. Say rather that it is a privilege. Anxiety, sickness, suffering, or danger now and then, with a foregoing of the common conveniences and charities of this life, may make us pause, and cause the spirit to waver, and the soul to sink; but let this only be for a moment. All these are nothing when compared with the glory which shall be revealed in and for us. I never made a sacrifice.”
Livingstone is saying: Sure, I gave up the comforts of the civilized world, and I
had some difficult times, but that doesn’t even compare to the contentment and peace I
have experienced in my work, and it certainly doesn’t compare to the eternal delight I
will have with Christ. Lose your life to preserve it. Don’t live a small, insignificant life, wasting it on a dream. Deny yourself those comforts and pleasures, and take up your cross to follow Christ in order that all the nations might rejoice in him.
13th November 2011 GEOFF THOMAS