Sunday, September 05, 2010

How to Be What You Cannot Be

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

Luke 14:25-33
When I was a boy, our family took a fishing vacation to Michigan with my grandparents. We had done this several times before, but the cabin my grandparents rented this particular year was in a different spot next to a different Michigan lake. My grandfather was pleased because, though he had never seen the cabins before, they were owned by an old friend of his and he felt that he had gotten a good deal. The brochures his friend sent to us pictured this as a great place that all of us would enjoy.

When we first pulled up to our cabin, we were all disappointed; the lake was a little more than a pathetic pond and the cabin itself was a dump. The disappointment continued when we went inside and searched in vain for a bathroom. My grandfather confronted his friend: “The brochure said that the cabins had bathing facilities." With a sweeping backhanded wave, his friend drew our attention to the water and said, “There’s a whole lake right there.”

A little truth in advertising might have spared a friendship and our family having what turned out to be a fairly rotten week. Of course, both of those outcomes could also have been avoided had my grandfather followed a simple old motto: Buyer, beware! A few questions, a little research, and he wouldn’t have even booked those cabins in the first place. One of the last things any of us want to do is make decisions that we later regret.

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.

Turn once more, to the Celebrate inserts and find this morning’s Gospel lesson, Luke 14:25-33. Read along as I read just the first clause of verse 25: “Now large crowds were traveling with him.” Whenever references to 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. Like many people today, they wanted just enough of Jesus to get from Him what they wanted, but not enough to change their personal priorities.

Read on with me, please: “and he turned and said to them, ‘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.’” If Jesus were writing a promotional brochure, it’s hard to imagine Him doing a worse job of attracting people to Christian discipleship than in starting out like this! In Jesus’ hands, the brochure sent to us by my grandfather’s friend might have said, “The lake is really a pond. The cabins don’t have any bathrooms. And, oh, by the way, the fishing is lousy! Call to make your reservations now!”

What is Jesus saying here about being a disciple, then? In Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke every day, the word “hate” didn't imply hostility, but often had the meaning to love less, to hold one thing or person as having less important 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.”

To modern narcissists who talk about needing to take care of themselves, look after themselves, or find themselves, Jesus says, “Finding yourself, being happy, is not the most important thing in the world. I am.”

Jesus refuses to be just another item on a religious buffet table. We can’t take one from Column Buddha, one from Column Mohammad, one from Column Joseph Smith, and, oh, a side of Jesus. Jesus is saying that He will either have first place in our lives, or He will have no place in our lives.

I like what one Lutheran wrote on Facebook this past week 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 does Jesus and His Word found in the Bible fall on your list priorities in life? Is Jesus everything or nothing to you?

 Read verse 28 now [Jesus is still speaking]: “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” One scholar writing about these words, says: “The language of cross bearing has been corrupted by overuse. 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 [I would add, even death] 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 then, means breaking with the world’s values, radically turning from what is popular or politically correct 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, as if to totally turn off His original listeners (and us), Jesus says, “None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” I don’t think that Jesus means that we all have to sign the deeds to our houses over to the Church. It’s one thing to read the Scriptures for their literal meaning, which I do, and quite another to read them literalistically. If you read the Bible cover to cover, which I hope every Christian will do more than once in their lifetimes, you’ll read about believers in Israel’s God and followers of Jesus who had a lot and others who had very little. They all belonged to God. The only person I can recall who was told by Jesus to sell everything he owned, give it away, and follow Him, was a rich young man who, Jesus saw, valued his wealth more than anything. Jesus knew that unless this young man got rid of his wealth, it would get in the way of his following Jesus. Wealth in itself is not a bad thing. Nor are the things Jesus mentions in today's lesson: parents, siblings, spouses, children, or life itself. All are gifts from God. A literal, if not a literalistic reading of the Bible will tell us that if we value any of God’s gifts more than we do Jesus, we cannot be His disciples.

Now, if these words of Jesus for this morning are as daunting—almost frightening—to you as they are to me, as we close, I want you to consider some important good news.

Three times in our lesson, Jesus uses the phrase “cannot be my disciple.” Look, it's 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 don’t have the power or ability to be my disciples unless you put me in first place, take up the cross, and give me access to your whole life.”

Martin Luther said that if we want to understand passages of Scripture that confuse us, the best thing to do is to go elsewhere in Scripture to clear things up. It might interest you to know that Jesus uses that word for power or ability in another place in Luke’s Gospel. It comes on the heels of His encounter with that rich young man, 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 be pushed through the eye of a needle. The disciples, who had 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, I can’t imagine why anyone who gets to know anything about Jesus wouldn’t want to follow Him. 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, these gifts cannot come to us.

The good news is that your ability to follow Jesus 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. This is what Luther called “daily repentance and renewal.” Today, as you come to receive Jesus’ body and blood, I invite you to say a silent prayer:
“Jesus, help me to be what I most want to be, but what I cannot be without You. Make me your disciple. Help me to live in the covenant of Baptism You’ve made with me. Take control of my whole life.”
Now, if you’re anything like me, one nanosecond after you’ve prayed that prayer, you’ll start making your own plans, dreaming your own dreams, obsessing on your own thoughts, maybe even committing your own favorite sins. Just 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. Jesus will make you His disciple.

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