March 11, 2012

Steep Rates

Well this morning we are going to begin a new journey.  This particular journey is going to take us all the way to Easter.  This is actually a sermon series I have wanted to preach for quite some time and it has finally worked out to hit them now.  And, I won’t be doing all the teaching this time.  Cody Bishop and I are actually going to switch back and forth.  I decided that I didn’t want him getting too comfortable in these last few weeks before he heads off to Chicago.  Plus, this way I could give him the really hard passages.  Actually, they’re all hard, but I’ll tell you about that in just a minute.  Truthfully, I’m really anxious to hear from him because I think he’s done a lot of great work with the Spirit and the word and has some great things to share with you.

With all of that said, let me see if I can get your minds in the place they need to be as we begin this journey.  What are some of your favorite sayings of Jesus?  Just shout them out as you think of them and if you are willing.  As I was sitting writing this a few stood out to me: “I am the good shepherd;” “I will be with you always, even to the very end of the age;” “Come to me all your who are weary and burdened and I will give you rest;” “Do not be anxious about your life;” “For God so loved the world…” “Whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do;” “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it;” and there are probably more, but these are what came to mind first.  Those are all really nice and encouraging sayings.  It would be great if the things Jesus said were pretty much limited to these kinds of things.  You know what I’m talking about: things such as, “I love you,” “I’ll take care of you,” “I’ll give you eternal life,” and the like.  There’s just one teensy-weensy problem…Jesus said a lot of other things as well.  And these other things aren’t as easy to deal with as “for God so loved the world.”  In fact, some of them are downright difficult.  These other things aren’t really all that much fun.  We don’t like to talk about them and generally try and avoid them if we can.  We’d much rather focus on the candy bits of Jesus’ words, not the vegetables.  Yet, as Lisa and I are working hard to drive into Noah’s head, we have to eat some vegetables from time to time because they’re good for us.  Now, some of us might follow that admonition up with, “But we don’t have to like them.”  And that’s okay.  At least we’ll still be getting the nutrients our bodies need.  But how much better is it to actually learn to appreciate the vegetables so that we come to the point of desiring them.  I knew I had finally turned into an adult when Lisa and I went to dinner early on in our time in Denver and the only thing I wanted to eat was vegetables.  So I ordered a meal that was comprised of five vegetables sides.  I ate all of them and felt totally gratified afterwards.  Now, I later curled up in a fetal position crying, “What’s wrong with me,” with cartoons blaring in the background, but other than that I was fine…that’s probably more than you wanted to know.

Anyway, for the next few weeks, including our Special Good Friday Communion Service, we are going to take a look at some of the hard things Jesus said to see if we can make sense out of them.  We’re going to look at things like Jesus’ calls to hate our family and carry our cross and renounce all of our possessions.  We’re going to slog through places where Jesus cautioned that not everyone who uses His name as the banner for the good things they do will be saved.  We’ll try to make sense out of Jesus’ acknowledgement that He was homeless.  And we’ll attempt to wrap our minds around what it means that Jesus is the only way to life.  It is going to be a tough journey, but I think it will be one well worth taking together.

As for this morning, we are going to begin with one of the sayings of Jesus that at first read is, in cultures like ours, among the hardest to reconcile with how we order our priorities.  This is a saying that is rife with the potential for misinterpretation and textual abuse.  Over the course of history it has been abused and misunderstood on numerous occasions.  As we get into it more, however, it will become clear that Jesus was addressing something that afflicts many of His followers today, especially in this country.  You see, because of the nature of our culture, taking up the mantle of following Christ is often seen as a pretty light duty.  Of course no one would say something like that, but the assumption is there all the same.  The truth is that often times, they’re right.  I mean, think about it: when someone becomes a follower of Jesus in most places in our culture, what does it actually cost them?  They might have to clean up their behavior in some places.  There may be some people from whom they need to separate for a time while they learn the basics of the faith.  Depending on the social circles they were in before their conversion and how vigorously they pursue the moral mandates of the faith (at least as they are often taught by the church) they might face some social stigma.  But that’s about it.  And in the grand scheme of things, those aren’t much.  There aren’t many in this country who have faced the kinds of persecutions for becoming a follower of Jesus that are common in other parts of the world and have been common in other historical eras.  Instead of being seen as a journey undertaken at great risk to the individual making a public declaration of personal faith commitment to Jesus Christ is often seen as a kind of rite of passage in some circles.  There are faith traditions in which there’s this great push to get people to make a public declaration of faith and get baptized, and then we treat that as the end of the journey of faith.  We treat it like they have arrived and can sit back and live pretty much as they want to because “at least they walked the aisle and got baptized.”  But I submit to you this morning that this is nothing like what Jesus had in mind when He called people to follow Him.  What if Jesus envisioned something entirely different from how we are often trained to think about following Him today?  What if He had in mind something much harder than we do?  What does it actually take to follow Jesus?  Brace yourselves and open your Bibles to Luke 14:25.  I’ll read these words first and then we’ll try and make sense out of them together.

“Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.  For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.”  Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?  And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.  So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.’”

Let’s just call things as they are: those are tough words.  And let’s go ahead and put on the line what Jesus is getting at here: following Him takes everything.  These are tough words, but, let us not make them tougher than they need to be.  Exploring the historical, cultural, and literary backgrounds a bit can help make sure only the parts that should be hard to deal with are and not any others.  In the linguistic culture of the day, the language of loving and hating something was commonly used to speak of preferring one thing over another.  We still do this today.  I’ll let you in on a little secret.  As one who loves the Kansas Jayhawks I am actually obligated to say that I hate the Missouri Tigers.  But, I don’t emotionally hate the Tigers…except when they beat us a couple of weeks ago…and I don’t love the Jayhawks in the same way I love Lisa and the boys.  I simply prefer one to the other.  Let me go a bit out on a limb and say the same thing applies to Tech fans and UVA fans.  I mean, if this weren’t the case I would have never done Carl and Laurel’s wedding.  So, to start with, Jesus is not contradicting Himself and other Biblical passages which call us to love others.  This was a figure of speech in Jesus’ day much like saying something was “bad” a few years ago actually meant it was good, or perhaps how calling something “cool” makes no reference to its temperature.

Let me hit a couple of other points just to make sure we understand this as Jesus—and as Luke—meant it.  The broader context of chapter 14 has Jesus addressing a gathering of Pharisees, in other words, a group of folks who counted themselves among the most devoted followers of Yahweh.  He challenges their attitudes on a variety of things, but is primarily speaking with the frame of mind that they are among the faithful.  Essentially He is saying, “If you are really a Yahweh-person, then act like it.”  Our passage for this morning, however, is addressed specifically to the crowds—that would be nonbelievers—following Him.  These are folks who were largely there because they were hoping for a good show and weren’t all that concerned yet about Him and His message.  But, there were undoubtedly some who had actually begun to listen and were wrestling with whether or not this was a teacher whose prescribed lifestyle was worth emulating.  It was to this group that Jesus stopped and said these words.  And think for a minute what this would look like today.  Imagine if Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum at their next big campaign event stood up and said, “If you vote for me I will make your lives infinitely more difficult than they currently are.  If you think the economy’s been bad under this administration, I’m going to make it worse.  I’ll do my best to make the unemployment numbers higher than they’ve ever been.  I will raise taxes on everybody.  I’ll get us embroiled in several more wars while gutting our military spending.  Entitlements are going to be completely eliminated in order to give me a bigger salary.  And I’ll make sure there are lots of puppies in the road whenever my motorcade leaves the White House.”  I don’t think people would even boo.  They’d be too confused.  That’s kind of like what’s going on here.  Jesus is walking around with huge crowds following Him at this point in His ministry.  This is something every rabbi desired.  But instead of saying things to encourage them to keep following Him like, “Hey, if you follow me things are going to go well for you, you’ll be happy, and all your dreams will come true,” He throws this nugget, “If you don’t put Me ahead of literally everything else in your life, you’ll never be a real follower of Mine.”  Politically that’s not a very smart approach to creating a movement.  But then, that wasn’t Jesus’ goal.  His goal was for people to come and follow Him with their eyes wide open.  Sometimes, in our haste to encourage young people across the line of faith we’re guilty of not giving them all the information they should have and helping them work through the tough parts to the extent of their abilities.  Because the truth of following Jesus is hard: following Jesus takes everything.

With that picture thus in our minds, let’s turn our attention back to the text itself.    Jesus starts by saying that if people interested in following Him don’t hate everybody involved in their life they can’t learn from Him.  Now, we just said this wasn’t an emotional hate, but rather that our embrace of Jesus and His teachings should be so complete and so overriding that our devotion to everyone else pales by comparison.  All the same, that’s not all that much easier.  But let’s be honest about this: this saying is hard for us to wrap our minds around because so many folks here were raised in a Christian home.  You’ve rarely if ever been put in the place where you’ve had to choose between following Christ and following your family.  As one commentator on Luke put it: “The modern Western phenomenon where a decision for Christ is popular in the larger social community was not true of Jesus’ setting, which complicates our understanding of the significance of a decision to associate with Christ.  Today one might associate with Christ simply because it is culturally appropriate, rather than for true spiritual reasons.  Such a ‘decision’ was impossible in the first century.  If one chose to be associated with Jesus, one received a negative reaction, often from within the home.” [1] Two weeks ago you saw me baptize nine of our young people.  I can guarantee you that their decision to take up the journey of following Christ was met with enthusiastic approval.  I remember when I was baptized.  My parents threw a party.  Let me tell you, this kind of a reception has been an incredibly rare thing in the history of the world.  In Jesus’ day and in many parts of the world today, making a decision to become a follower of Jesus could and can get you killed by your family.  A formerly Muslim and now Christian author who writes under the name Mark Gabriel relates in one of his books that when he learned his father had discovered his conversion he fled his home with his dad literally shooting at him as he ran.  He understands in a real way that following Jesus takes everything.

Because of glad familial acceptance of an initial decision to follow Christ in this culture, let’s focus our attention on actually living that out.  What if you were called by God to mission work somewhere other than Dinwiddie County?  Would you go?  Because if we’re honest, the odds are that initially your family is not going to be supportive of it.  Parents, what if God made a clear call in the life of one of your children to get involved in serving the poor in downtown Petersburg.  Would you stand in their way?  Would you make them choose between what you felt was honoring of you and what they felt was honoring of God?  How would you handle it if your child—regardless of how old—lovingly looked you in the eyes and said she was going do this whether you supported her or not?  Parents, what if you felt moved by God to move your family into the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond and minister the Gospel in that spiritually dark place?  You know what the reaction of your parents would be.  But let’s not be so extreme.  What if you were called to give up baseball or dance or basketball or soccer because God was calling you to serve Him in a more active way in this community?  The goal here is not to find whatever is closest to your heart and ask if you’ve put devotion to that over and against your devotion to Christ…wait, actually, that is the goal.  Because, following Jesus takes everything.

Let me stay with this point for just another minute.  Jesus doesn’t just focus on His follower’s relationship to her family here.  The end of v. 26 and all of v. 27 must not be overlooked, especially for us.  The reason for this is that most of us are not going to experience familial rejection in pursuing the ends towards which God has pointed us.  At least, not in the early stages of such pursuits.  That might change when we start doing culturally radical things, but that’s a conversation for another day.  No, for most of us, our biggest enemy in all of this is ourselves.  We can’t even choose ourselves over Jesus.  He calls us to hate our own lives too.  He calls us to be ready to bear our cross.  And again, that doesn’t carry as much cultural weight for us as it did Jesus’ audience because we’ve never been an eyewitness to a crucifixion processional.  In the minds of Jesus’ audience this said to them that they needed to be prepared to suffer and face enormous embarrassment and rejection and perhaps even die because they were more devoted to Christ than even to their own lives.  Let me speak into our lives for a moment.  What comforts—for we are a comfortable people—are we willing to part with in order to be more free to pursue the demands of the kingdom of God?  Perhaps better yet: are there any comforts or luxuries (which I’ll define as anything unnecessary to sustain your life) which if we’re honest, we’re not willing to part with?  And take this beyond the hypothetical.  We often hear a question like that and follow it mentally with “but He’s probably not going to ask me.”  And that may be true, but where that keeps us from being honest with ourselves it’s not helpful.  Ask the hard questions and hang around to answer them, friends, because following Jesus takes everything.

And if this sounds crazy, or sounds like Jesus is asking the world of us, He is, but at least He gets it.  He recognizes how hard this makes becoming His follower.  Let’s not forget the fact that Jesus was fully human.  He understood the desire for stuff, for comfort, for ease, for doing our thing the way we want on our schedule.  People often make light of that and disclaim, “Well he was God too, wasn’t He?”  Yes, but the worldview expressed in such disclamations is that Jesus wasn’t really as fully human as we are which is a Christological heresy.  Let us make sure we’re not closet heretics without knowing it.  Jesus got how hard this was for people.  That’s why He immediately follows this challenging saying up with a couple of illustrations.  He talks about building a tower or going to war.  In both cases the person leading the way into such an effort makes certain of his ability to succeed in the undertaking.  Because if not, he’s going to look like a fool.  If he gets into a building project and discovers that he doesn’t actually have the resources to complete the project everyone is going to know it and he will be the laughing stock of his peers.  I used to go to my dad’s office with him every Saturday morning.  Just down the road from his office there was this house that had a grass-covered mound in the front yard.  Years before the owners had had a big load of dirt delivered in order to do some project and either ran out of money or effort and never finished.  Now they just had a big ugly testament to their inability to get the job done.  There are a bunch of folks in here who are builders.  Imagine the embarrassment if you started building a house before you had all the money to finish it and then the money dried up.  The illustration about a king going to war makes things even more graphic.  Failure to successfully take into account all of the costs involved in the effort will result in not merely embarrassment but a fantastic destruction of life.  Following Jesus takes everything and if at the outset we’re not prepared to give everything, we’re better off not even signing up.

Now, that’s sounds pretty tough to say, but think about it for a minute.  When we step up to give our life to Christ, we have a hard choice to make.  Really we do.  The reality is not how it sometimes appears.  Walking the aisle and praying the prayer and getting dunked does not mean life is going to be all rainbows and unicorns until we get to heaven.  In fact, if anything, it means the exact opposite.  The Bible never guarantees a smooth road for folks who have signed up to follow Jesus.  There are two guarantees it does make, though.  First, it promises that we’ll never walk the road alone.  Second, it promises that the road will be harder than we can possibly imagine and that taking up the journey will effectively put a huge target on our back.  When we commit to following Jesus we are essentially saying that everything that was important to us isn’t as important as it used to be.  All our priorities get reconfigured such that Jesus and the kingdom are first and everything else is a distant second.  This is a huge cost to count.  But it’s one we have to do because following Jesus takes everything.  And the warning implicit in these two illustrations is that we don’t want to face the reality of signing up and then falling short.   Now, speaking from my personal theological views, I think falling short means you never actually signed up in the first place.  Folks who fall short and stay their either didn’t really sign up or else they penciled their names down and later erased them when things got hard or it appeared something better was coming up.  But either way, the shape of Jesus’ illustrations is that signing up and then falling short in this is worse than not signing up in the first place.  Someone who signs up for all of this and goes gangbusters for a while including recruiting a bunch of other people to sign up, but who later drops out is putting at risk not only their ability to experience the eternal life of the kingdom, but also the ability of the folks they encouraged to sign up who will likely now look with suspicion on the faith and may even drop out themselves.  The collateral damage makes the risk not worth it.  But, don’t miss the details of the second illustration.  The cost of failure is high, but the king’s rival was coming whether he was able to successfully battle him or not.  The benefits of peace in this case were high.  Following Jesus takes everything, but in doing so we gain everything as well.

In the end, then, it sure would be nice if Jesus would come back around and offer us some reassurance.  “Things may seem hard, but they’re not really so hard as you might be thinking after My saying all this.”  But He doesn’t.  He finishes this little section by driving the point home hard one last time: “So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”  Ouch.  Now, again, let’s not hear what Jesus’ isn’t saying.  He doesn’t say to go ahead and get rid of everything we have.  Rather, we must simply be prepared to do so.  The reason for this is simple: following Jesus takes everything.

We often hear it said about grace that it is free.  Grace is God’s free gift to us.  And it is.  There’s nothing we have to pay for grace…kind of.  You see, grace is free, but it isn’t cheap.  It cost God everything to effect it.  It’s only just that it cost us everything to receive it.  Another way popular to speak of becoming a follower of Jesus is that we give our lives to Him.  We say that casually, but think about the imagery of that saying.  If we give our life to someone else, it’s not ours anymore.  This is proper, though, because if we are honest, our life is the thing in this world most precious to us.  Thus, when we sign up to follow Jesus we are giving Him the thing most precious to us.  This is in fact the only sacrifice worth making to Him.  There’s a story about King David where He messed up really badly and God punished the entire nation of Israel because of it.  He tells David that the punishment will stop when he offers Him a sacrifice in a certain place.  The place happens to be owned by someone else.  This other guy offers to give David the place, but David refuses the offer.  His reason is that he won’t give something to God which costs him nothing.  This is right.  David got it.  Everything in this world belongs to God.  If we try and hold anything back from Him or give Him something for free as if we were doing Him a favor—including our own lives—we are by our actions debating the truthfulness of that premise.   There’s no middle ground here.  Either it all belongs to God or it doesn’t.  What we decide in this is up to us, but we can’t be a follower of Jesus if we decide it doesn’t.  Jesus gave everything so that we can follow Him.  Because of this, following Him takes everything.

At the end of all this, then, let’s ask the hard question.  Am I in a place where I choose Jesus over everything else in this world?  Jesus used the example of family members in His day because family was a huge deal then and most people didn’t have much stuff.  Today, family is important, but we have a lot more stuff.  So yes, do you choose Jesus over your family?  But perhaps more importantly, do you choose Him over your stuff?  Have you renounced your claim on everything you have?  Keep it and enjoy.  But don’t start thinking that it’s yours to do with as you please.  Such an attitude is not proper among those who would claim to be followers of Christ.  Or perhaps this is the more relevant question: what are you holding back?  What haven’t you renounced?  Is it a physical thing?  Or is it something more intangible?  Your schedule?  Your hobbies?  Your ego?  Your pride?  Your self-sufficiency?  Your belief that you are capable of handling things in this life?  What?  Following Jesus takes everything.  This isn’t any easy truth, but that doesn’t make it any less true.  It’s actually a freeing truth because it allows us to not be controlled by our stuff.  It’s also a life-giving truth because Jesus’ followers have given Him everything and knowing this allows us to make sure we are truly counted among His followers.  Following Jesus takes everything.  I pray you’ll give it.

[1]Darrell L. Bock, Luke 9:51-24:53 (BECNT) (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1996), 1285.