[This is the sermon as prepared for both worship services with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, on Sunday, September 8. It represents a slight reworking of a sermon given about three years ago.]
An old bit of wisdom tells us, “Buyer beware.” It’s a good idea whatever we’re in the market for to be careful not to buy a “bill of goods” and to make sure that whoever’s trying to convince us of anything is engaging in “truth in advertising.”
Our Gospel lesson from Luke for today finds Jesus engaging in “truth in advertising.” He wants people to know exactly what is involved in following Him. God’s grace, His forgiveness and favor, is a free gift; but to grasp hold of it costs us everything, our whole lives. Jesus is intent on our knowing that. Jesus wants us to understand that there is a cost to being His disciple. He tells people, "Would-be believers, beware of what it means to follow Me."
Take a look, please, at this morning’s Gospel lesson, Luke 14:25-33. Verse 25 starts: “Now great multitudes went with Him [Jesus]...” Whenever references to multitudes or crowds appear in Luke’s Gospel, Luke is talking about people who are interested in Jesus, maybe even hopeful that Jesus will do something for them, but who haven’t committed to following Jesus. They wanted just enough of Jesus to get from Him what they wanted, but not enough to change their lives. I confess that there are times when I prefer the safety of blending with the crowd to sticking my neck out for Jesus. So, if you’re like me in this way, what Luke records Jesus as saying today applies not just to “those people” out in the world somewhere, but to you and me.
Read on with me, please: “And He turned and said to [the crowds], ‘If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and his own life also, he cannot be My disciple.’”
What is Jesus saying here about being a disciple? In Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke every day, the word hate didn't necessarily imply hostility, but often had the meaning to love less, to hold one thing or person as having less importance than another. In this verse, Jesus is telling us to love our families and our own lives less than we love Him, to love Him more than these things.
The so-called “family values” crowd of today will be appalled to know that Jesus doesn’t agree with them when they say, “Family is the most important thing.” Jesus says, “No. Your family is not the most important thing. I am.”
And to modern narcissists who talk about needing to take care of themselves or look after themselves, Jesus says, “You will only be truly happy, you will only find yourself, when you lose yourself in Me.”
I like what a person wrote in an online article a few years ago about the God Who comes to us in Jesus: "God does not offer us a choice. He comes, not hat in hand, but ready for battle. He breaks into the strong man’s house [that is, He breaks into our wills, held captive by sin from the moment of our conceptions] entering into contention against the heart, soul & mind of the [sinner]. The rational free will of [human beings] cannot believe or accept this & as such God always ...appears as the opposite, contrary to our expectations, confounding appeals to choice." Where do Jesus and His Word found in the Bible fall on your list priorities in life? Is Jesus everything or nothing to you?
Read verse 27 now [Jesus is still speaking]: “...whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” One scholar says of these words, says: “Bearing a cross has nothing to do with chronic illness, painful physical conditions, or trying family relationships. It is instead what we do voluntarily as a consequence of our commitment to Jesus Christ. Cross bearing requires deliberate sacrifice and exposure to risk and ridicule in order to follow Jesus. This commitment is not just a way of life, however. It is a commitment to a person. A disciple follows another person and learns a new way of life.” That person Who calls us to a different way of life is Jesus. Discipleship means breaking with the world’s values, radically turning from what is popular or politically correct in order to follow Jesus and the Word of God alone.
After this, Jesus tells two parables, each meant to urge those considering following Him to count the cost involved. In one, Jesus says that farmers, who in first century Judea where He lived, often built towers to give themselves early warning about marauding thieves or wild animals, would be crazy not to figure out whether they could afford the structures before starting to build them. Similarly, Jesus says, a king who didn’t know about the strength of an opposing army would be foolish to start a war with that army. Again, Jesus wants us to know that following Him isn’t easy.
Then, in verse 33, Jesus says what may be the most dumbfounding thing of all in this lesson. Now, in the New King James Version we have in our pew Bibles and bulletins, Jesus is quoted as saying: “...whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.” That’s a fine translation, but the New Revised Standard Version renders it more literally: “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”
What do we make of this? Please pull out a pew Bible and turn to James 1:17, page 701. James writes: “”Every good and perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights...”
Every penny that comes into our possession, no matter how hard we work for it, is a gift from God to be used not just for our own needs, but for the glory of God, the sharing of the Gospel, and the good of others. We may say, “But I earned the money through brain and brawn and hours of over-time or extra work.” But who gave you the brain and the brawn and the power to put in extra time? Who made the resources from which our daily bread and our luxuries are made? One of our hymns has us sing: “All that we have is Thine alone, a trust, O God, from Thee.” Jesus is not asking every Christian to take the vow of poverty. He’s calling us to allow His grace to change our attitude about our money and possessions. He wants, in effect, to be the signatory on our bank accounts. He wants to be the Lord of our money, our life, our families, our everything. We can have nothing of Jesus’ kingdom unless we are willing to let Him be our only King.
He has that right! On the cross, we were bought out of slavery to sin and death by Jesus’ suffering and death. In response to such unfathomable grace, He calls us to give Him the final say on how we spend not just our time and our lives, but also our money. The old saying tells us, “You can’t take it with you!” That’s true. But we can invest it in the kingdom--in sharing the good news, in expanding the ministries of churches, in helping the poor. In short, we’re to use our money for the same purposes for which we’re to live our lives as grateful recipients of God’s amazing grace: To love God, love neighbor, love the Church, tell the good news that all who believe in Jesus Christ have everlasting life with God.
Now, if these words of Jesus for this morning are as daunting to you as they are to me, I want you to consider some very good news. Three times in our lesson, Jesus uses the phrase “cannot be my disciple”: in verses 26, 27, and 33. In the original Greek, the same words are used in each place, giving the verses this literal meaning, “You do not have the power to be My disciples unless you put Me in first place, take up the cross, and give Me access to your whole life.” Jesus uses that word for power or ability in another place in Luke’s Gospel. It comes after Jesus tells the disciples that it will be harder for a rich person—someone who is more tempted than others to rely on their money rather than on God—to enter God’s kingdom than it would be for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. The disciples, who to that point, thought that wealth was a sign of God’s favor, ask Jesus, “Then, who does have the power or ability to get into the kingdom?” Jesus says, literally, “The things that human beings cannot do [or don’t have the ability to do], God can do.”
Folks, those who follow Jesus have all the gifts He came into our world to bring: forgiveness of sin, lives lived for good purposes, strength when we’re weak, and eternity with God. But unless Jesus rules over our lives without rival, Jesus Christ alone, these gifts cannot come to us. The good news is that your ability to follow Jesus, the Savior Who died and rose for you, doesn’t depend on you. If you want Jesus to take first place in your life, all you need is to make yourself available to Him and ask Him to help you do just that. Right now. Every day. The Holy Spirit will take care of the rest!
Now, if you’re anything like me, immediately after you tell the Lord something like, “I’m available, Jesus. Be first in my life. Be Lord of my life,” you’ll start making your own plans, dreaming your own dreams, obsessing on your own thoughts, maybe even committing your own favorite sins. Keep asking Jesus to take first place in your life.
But, just as the buyer should beware, the would-be follower of Jesus should be aware, too: Let Jesus in and He will start to make of you what cannot make of yourself. Despite the temptations you face, despite the sins for which you must repeatedly repent, as you turn to Jesus, He will relentlessly, lovingly, and in ways you yourself be unable to perceive or understand, turn you into the person God wants all people to be, the person our secret hearts most yearn to be.
Jesus will make you His disciple.