How to be a Good Disciple
Self-help books are all the rage and some of them have been for some considerable time now. Look up "How to…" in the Books department of Amazon and the first page of suggestions (out of an unlikely 75 pages!) and you'll see titles such as:
How to Win Friends and Influence People
How to Fall in Love
How to be a Woman
How to train your Dragon
I don't mean to imply that there was any particular link between those last two titles.
Most of these titles address some felt need – you'd only bother to read them if you thought they might offer you some practical help.
I'm making some assumptions this morning as we look together at these few verses from Luke's Gospel:
a Christian will want to be a good disciple
a non-Christian thinking about becoming a disciple will want to be a good disciple
anyone looking at a person claiming to be a disciple will want to know how to assess that claim and will be interested in knowing what a good disciple should look like
The examples of Elizabeth and Mary taken together give us an idea as to what is involved in being a good disciple. We will look at their example this morning.
You can't be any kind of Christian disciple at all apart from God
Many folk think it is an easy thing to become a Christian – something which is entirely up to them. Some go so far as to equate becoming a Christian with adopting a particular lifestyle and whether wittingly or unwittingly leave God entirely out of the picture altogether. This really will not do.
As we think about Elizabeth and Mary God is very much involved and it is he who takes the initiative – something which stands out very clearly indeed in Mary's case.
It was Gabriel who came to Mary, sent as he was from God. He told her what God's plans were.
To begin with Mary heard what Gabriel said but she didn't understand it all. However when he explained further Mary did understand and she responded with faith and trust: she believed God and submitted herself to him.
From Mary's example then we learn that a disciple is one who believes God. Now this does not mean that we are free to make up our minds about what God is like and about what God is going to do.
No, true spiritual belief listens to what God declares, receives it and responds appropriately to it.
And if God made nothing known to us about himself and spiritual matters in general we could not exercise what the Bible calls faith!
This same general pattern is present in Elizabeth's experience too. She well knew that it was because the Lord had acted in her favour when she conceived Zechariah's son despite her age. As Luke describes her ongoing discipleship he tells us quite specifically that she was filled with the Holy Spirit when Mary came to visit her and the baby leaped in her womb.
Both these women we may call early Christian disciples because God was at work in their lives.
And that is where we all must start if we are to be Christian disciples – none of us can make ourselves Christians we are all utterly dependent upon him. Jesus would teach this later when he entered his ministry:
Jn.3:3, 7-8 Jesus answered (Nicodemus), "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God."… Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Do you know anything of God breaking into your life? With some folk he comes quietly and calmly – you might not remember a time when you didn't believe there, certainly was no one dramatic life-changing experience that you can point to – but you do know that God is real and that your relationship with him is real too. For other folk God has entered your life in something of a whirlwind and your life was totally transformed – once you didn't believe but you certainly do now.
It doesn't matter which is your route to faith but true faith will bring you to God.
Have you ever been aware of God coming and speaking to you? I'm not talking about 'hearing voices' but as you hear the Word of God you know that it is speaking and speaking not just in general terms but in very personal terms to you.
If you have then you must respond to that Word and we'll come to this in just a moment. But what if you haven't? Well then ask him to speak to you. Listen to his Word, the Bible read and preached. Plead with him not to pass you by but to send his Spirit to you so that you too may hear his voice – it is important you do.
Having begun by focusing our thoughts firstly upon God we now come to think about our responsibilities. Let's think some more about Mary. Mary did more than merely hear God's voice mediated to her through the angel Gabriel – she showed an intense interest in it.
I wonder does that describe me and does it describe you? Are we people who take what God says to us seriously?
In Mary's case God's word came to her completely out of the blue, as far as she was concerned it was totally unexpected. In addition to the surprise caused by the angelic messenger the content of the message she heard was so unusual, unbelievable even.
But how did Mary react?
Well her initial response was that of curiosity – she wanted to know more – she showed an active interest in what the angel had said to her.
How easy it would have been for her to dismiss it all simply because it was so unexpected and so unusual! But she didn't. And yet how many folk do refuse to give Jesus Christ a second thought simply because they find fault with his choice of messenger or because they baulk at the enormity of the message?
Wouldn't it have been easy for Mary to reject what she had been told? After all it went against everything she'd ever heard before – a virgin conceive? don't make me laugh! But she didn't, instead she asked questions because she wanted to understand what it was all about:
v.34 "And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?""
But once things were explained to her and she understood her reaction moved from curiosity to faith and trust.
A little later having understood and embraced the message she had heard and understood she followed it up by going to visit Elizabeth. This was the only way in which she could relatively easily and quickly verify Gabriel's truthfulness. So Mary was off, not really to see if it was true, but to have the encouragement of seeing that it was true.
And what about you?
How have you responded to hearing the truth? Have you moved beyond hearing to understanding?
This is the message you must hear and understand:
there is a God in heaven who made you and who will hold you to account
this God is morally upright and you are not
all would be lost for you but for the fact that God has done something for you that you don't deserve
he has sent his son, Jesus, to be the Saviour of sinners
Jesus succeeded in his mission and now you must personally put your trust in him if you would benefit from the salvation he freely offers to you
Have you responded to that message?
In 1843 Charles Dickens' book A Christmas Carol was published. In it the main character Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by a ghostly spirit. The spirit's first visit greatly troubles Scrooge who doesn't want to admit what is happening to him. The ghostly spirit accuses Scrooge of not believing in him and then asks him a question:
"Why do you doubt your senses?"
"Because," said Scrooge, "a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!"
Scrooge was not much in the habit of cracking jokes, nor did he feel, in his heart, by any means waggish then. The truth is, that he tried to be smart, as a means of distracting his own attention, and keeping down his terror; for the spectre’s voice disturbed the very marrow in his bones.
Dickens work is one of fiction and I'm not asking you to believe in ghosts but many people, it seems to me, react to true spiritual matters in just the way in which Scrooge reacted. Instead of facing up to what was happening Scrooge tried to brush it all aside by trying to make a joke out of it. Deep down he was frightened.
I wonder if that is how some of you are reacting to God's word. Instead of facing up to it you are trying to make light of it, perhaps because you're frightened of taking it seriously, frightened of the possible consequences.
You see it's not enough to know it, it's not even enough to understand it, you must personally respond to it with faith.
Luke tells us that that was just what Mary did. Having heard and understood she didn't try to go on as before, she didn't try to brush it off but instead she committed herself:
v.38 "And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word."
Elizabeth, speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, also spoke openly of Mary's faith response to God:
v.45 "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord."
Urgency and Promptness
A good disciple will demonstrate a certain promptness in doing what the Lord says. A good disciple will not dilly dally and prevaricate for as long as he can but will act swiftly.
This too applies to taking the first steps of faith:
Mary had heard the message, she had understood it and she committed herself to the God who sent it. We don't find any great delay in any of those steps and I would urge you not to delay either. When you hear and understand move along quickly to commit yourself to the God of your salvation.
Heb.4:7 "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts."
But I don't want to focus only upon the very beginning of faith. When we respond to God's call we haven't reached the end of our journey in reality we've only just begun it. A life of discipleship stretches out ahead of us and we must press on.
Mary's prompt obedience to Gabriel's instruction to "Behold Elizabeth…" is highlighted for us and sets us a good example to follow:
Lk.1:39 "In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah,"
As soon as Gabriel leaves her she knows what she has to do and she gets on with it. When we compare the relevant details we find that Mary acted swiftly:
Elizabeth was already in her 6 th month (v.36)
Mary stayed with her for 3 months (v.56)
John the Baptist was not born until after Mary left (v.57)
How easily Mary could have prevaricated – after all she was now pregnant and the journey was a long one 90 miles minimum and more likely 120 But no she went quickly.
This is a factor that reappears regularly in the pages of the Bible:
When Abraham was told to offer his son Isaac we read:
Gen.21:14 "Abraham rose early in the morning…"
Caleb one of those who had been sent to spy out the Promised Land rejected the majority pessimism of his fellow spies and urged prompt action:
Num.13:30 "Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, "Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.""
Cornelius explained to Peter the vision he received when praying and which told him to send for the apostle:
Acts 10:33 "So I sent for you at once…"
Do you want to be a good disciple? Then as soon as you possibly can do what you have been told to do. Don't put off till tomorrow what you should do today. You know all too well that the diet that begins next week won't see you lose any weight. And you know the saying, don't you, 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions.'?
We've been thinking up till now mostly about Mary's example but Elizabeth's has lessons for us too.
I want us to think for a moment about three things that stand out in Elizabeth's life.
Unselfish joy – Elizabeth was in a remarkable position – she had conceived a child when she was well-passed the normal child bearing age and her child was to be someone very special. How easy in such circumstances having been granted centre stage for a time to want to cling on to it! Don't we see that attitude in many of the politicians of the world? Once they have tasted power they have no desire to pass it on.
But Elizabeth doesn't see Mary's coming to visit as anything other than a cause of rejoicing. Mary's conception eclipses that of her own, Mary's son will eclipse her own, but she feels no jealousy, has no hesitation this is great she says and rejoices.
v.41, 44 Elizabeth "exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!... For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy."
Would you be a good disciple? Then learn to rejoice with others in the blessings afforded to them and don't allow any jealousy or bitterness to invade your life.
Genuine joy-filled humility – what a response this is from Elizabeth. We are probably all aware of another of Dickens' characters – Uriah Heep - who liked to describe himself as being "ever so umble" or as the "umblest person going". But his "humility" is false, nothing other than a strategy to advance himself. No-one likes that sort of humility and Elizabeth's is not like that at all.
She has been privileged to bear a baby in her old age who will develop as the forerunner of God's long-promised Messiah surely she can expect some of the "trappings of office" to come to her as by right. But not a bit of it! She doesn't react to Mary's visit and the visit of the baby she's carrying as her right but is amazed that this further privilege should be extended to her!
v.43 "And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?"
Would you be a good disciple? Then recognise that God has been so remarkably generous to you and he has been so not because you deserve it but because he is gracious and loving and kind. The moment you begin to think that you are somehow better in the eyes of God than others and that you are somehow deserving of his blessings you are beginning to move away from the position of the true disciple. The true disciple is, according to Jesus, the one who says with others at the end of the day:
Lk.17:10 "We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty."
Determined encouragement – Elizabeth is not content to give expression to her own joy or to demonstrate the humility of her own spirit but she wants to go further and be an encourager of others and that is just what she becomes as she shares truth with Mary.
Inspired by the Holy Spirit she passes on truth to Mary which will help sustain and strengthen her in difficult days. There are times sadly when we may do the right thing but with little if any personal enthusiasm – not so here for Elizabeth as she cries out with a loud voice:
v.42 "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
It won't be long before she follows it up with more:
v.45 "And blessed is she who believed that there would be (or: for there will be) a fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord."
Elizabeth affirms her own confidence in the ongoing unfolding plan of salvation and encourages Mary at the same time. Mary is not left thinking she is alone in believing what she does Elizabeth stands with her rejoicing in the goodness of God!
Would you be a good disciple? Then learn to encourage others in the faith – the most natural place for the Christian to do that is in the church to be understood not as an activity limited to Sunday's in a particular building but to the gathering of God's people. The church is the institution that God has promised to bless, to expand and to protect. Don't be a reluctant participant intent on doing as little as possible – rather be a joyful, humble participant intent on encouraging others as far as you can!
How are these things possible?
Well as we began this morning by declaring that Christian discipleship begins with God and must focus upon a real relationship with him, so Christian discipleship is possible because Jesus came into the world via the womb of the virgin Mary. And Jesus was no ordinary baby. Elizabeth refers to him as "my Lord" reminiscent of the words found in Ps.110:1 "The LORD said to my lord…"
The meaning of such words is that Mary's son is truly divine – God in the flesh. And if God has so come to the rescue there is surely reason for hope and rejoicing!