(shared with the people of Friendship Church, September 5, 2004)
This past week, I heard a radio news interview with a young woman in Florida. She moved there in the three weeks since Hurricane Charley. Now, as a reporter spoke with her, Hurricane Frances was on its way. She'd gone to a shelter. “I never knew anything about hurricanes,” she said. Apparently, she had never considered the possibility that a hurricane could hit the State of Florida!
Whatever decisions we make in life, even when we decide on a hard or difficult course of action, it’s always a good idea to consider everything involved. Especially important is determining what our decisions may cost us in commitment, in time, in effort, in money, in risks, whatever. A good dose of unvarnished truth can help us make better decisions in our lives. Or at least, decisions with which we can later live.
Our Bible lesson finds Jesus being tailed by a huge and growing throng of people. They’re more gah-gah for Jesus than the delegates at this past week’s Republican Convention were for W. If Jesus were like the rest of us, I suppose, He’d have ridden the wave of popular support into Jerusalem, tossed out the Romans, and set up His own government. That’s no doubt what the adoring crowds hoped for. In the backs of their minds, as they shouted encouragement to Jesus, they were probably already toting up the personal benefits He would give them: lower taxes, new houses, better jobs, national health care.
But Jesus' agenda is different from that of the crowd. His approach reminds me of that of an inner-city pastor I once read about. This pastor went to serve a dying church. On the strength of his charisma and amazing sermons, hundreds of people flocked to the church. After the church had experienced this growth, he began to acquaint people with the truth of what really is involved in following Jesus. He wanted them to know that while things like forgiveness and everlasting life are free gifts for all who follow Jesus Christ, we also need to yield control of our lives to Christ for that gift to come our way. We need to turn from sin and selfishness and sometimes even from good things in order to welcome the best thing into our lives: Jesus Himself. After preaching like that, attendance dropped from an average of 200 to a tenth of that number. The pastor later bragged, “I preached ‘em down to twenty!”
Our lesson finds Jesus setting to work to “preach down” the crowds who are following Him. He urges them, unlike that young woman in Florida, to take a dose of the unvarnished truth, to learn the truth about what it means to follow Him.
“If you’re following Me without knowing a few facts,” Jesus says, “you’re like the owner of a vineyard, wanting to build a tower from which you can spy thieves or wild animals, who hasn’t figured out if you have enough money to build it or not.
"You’re like the king who decides to go to war before knowing if he has enough soldiers to beat the other guy. Just so, you need to know the truth about Me.”
And so Jesus identifies three kinds of people who cannot be His followers, His disciples.
First, Jesus tells us: “Whoever comes to Me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be My disciple.” Now, that word hate that Jesus uses in the Aramaic language He spoke every day didn’t have the same meaning that we have when we say hate. It means to be detached from, to keep something lower in our priorities.
We all have known men or women, for example, who have destroyed their marriages by detaching from mommy and daddy. I love the sitcom, Everybody Loves Raymond. But after watching an episode, I often say to Ann, “There is no way Debra, Ray’s wife, would remain married to him---and to his family---for more than a few years.” In Jesus’ Aramaic, Ray needs to hate or detach from his parents.
When Jesus says that we can’t follow Him unless we hate our parents, spouses, siblings, and even our lives, He’s saying that He has to be the absolute boss of our lives. We can’t let anything have the place in our priorities which is reserved for Jesus. Now does Jesus say this because He's an egomaniac? No, it's just that until we empty our priorities and to-do lists of other stuff, we can't take all the good and wonderful blessings He wants to give to us!
Second, Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow Me cannot be My disciple.” I hear people talking about carrying their crosses a lot. They refer to the difficulties of life---everything from ingrown toenails to cancer---as their crosses. “I guess we all have our crosses to bear,” they say.
But when Jesus talks about carrying our cross, He’s not referring to the bad stuff that happens in an imperfect world. Every person here is subject to being afflicted by accidents, disease, relational turmoil, death.
The crosses that followers of Jesus bear are those bad things that happen to us because we follow Jesus. Our young people who go to school each day among classmates who are contemptuous of Jesus and of those who follow them know what it means to bear the cross. Jesus says that unless we are willing to so give ourselves to Him that we risk ridicule and even death for Him---unless we bear our crosses, we cannot follow Him.
Third, Jesus tells us, “...none of you can become My disciple if you do not give up your possessions.” Jesus is not telling us that we should sign the deeds of our houses over to the institution of the Church. He is saying that we need to give Him access to all that we own. At a conference I attended, I was stunned to hear about a guy who had just learned of a neighbor who lost his job. The guy went to his neighbor and said, “Look, my car is your car. My house is your house. Whatever I own that you need, you can have.” Giving up our possessions in Jesus' terms, is recognizing that everything we own is a gift from God and ours for only a short period of time, all to be used for God's purposes in the world. Jesus says that unless we’re willing to shift to that mindset, we cannot be His disciples.
In a nutshell, Jesus is telling us that unless we surrender to Him absolutely, we cannot be His disciples.
If Christian faith were one of the Eastern religions, this would seem like a rotten deal. In those religions, people are urged to surrender themselves so that they can be absorbed into some great godlike entity, losing their identities and themselves. But Jesus says that those who lose themselves---who give themselves to Him---will find themselves. In other words, when we surrender to Him and let Him take control of our lives, He begins to use all the experiences of our lives---the good, the bad, and the ugly---to shape us into becoming the people God designed us to be and which, in our hearts and souls, we want to be.
I heard this past week that something like 86% of Americans with televisions watched some of the recent Olympics. We admire athletes in part because they exercise discipline in order to become the champions that they suspect and hope they can be. And so, they exercise and practice and sleep right and drill and pass up doughnuts, M & Ms, and Ho-Ho’s in order to give themselves the chance to become champions.
God wants you and me to become champions! He wants us to become our best selves: people who love Him completely, who love our neighbors as ourselves. He wants us to be people who, with confidence and humility, use our bodies, minds, talents, interests, and passions to be the people He made us to be, the best people we can be, here and in eternity. The world tries to beat us into conformity with its ways. But the God we know through Jesus Christ says, “Give Me yourself and I will give you your best self back again. I will free you to be your God-customized self!”
Following Jesus (being a disciple), isn’t easy. Surrendering our lives to Him each day in order to make room for His free gifts of forgiveness and life and purpose is the hardest thing we can do in life, bar none. Like athletes in training, we’re likely to have setbacks: we will sin, we will forget to put Him first. But to those willing to let God be first, willing to accept His forgiveness and grace, willing to accept His discipline and correction, the greatest prize of all is ours. We will be God’s champions forever. Those who surrender completely to Jesus Christ can be His disciples. With God’s help, that’s what I hope all of us will be.