To Follow Jesus
According to the online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, about one quarter of the world’s population adhere to Christianity. This same source also tells us that in the UK one third of the population considers itself to be in some way Christian.
If these statistics are telling us the truth then we would have great cause for rejoicing.
But what does it really mean to be a Christian? The Bible’s most commonly employed word to describe a Christian is a disciple. A genuine disciple was a follower: the disciple was a learner who would follow his teacher. He would believe what his teacher taught and try to put what he said into practice.
If these criteria were used to assess the population of the UK today I think the percentage of those who could accurately be described as being Christian would be smaller, much smaller. Following Jesus is a good thing but we must do so with good motives. Following Jesus is also a costly business if we take matters seriously.
This morning we are going to look at some of what is involved in being a Christian disciple.
Follow your Leader
Luke has just told us about the determination with which Jesus directed his life and in particular how he was determined to accomplish his mission. This mission was to climax in Jerusalem with his sufferings, death and subsequent resurrection. In accomplishing this mission Jesus would be called upon to pay the ultimate price – he would have to lay down his life voluntarily on behalf of his followers in order to save them from their sins.
It is in this light that Luke moves us on to think about what his disciples might expect to come their way as they set out to follow Jesus as their Lord and Master. To help us consider the true nature of discipleship Luke presents us with three encounters that Jesus had with three different people he met as he went about his regular business. We will look at each example in turn to see what light they cast upon the question of costly discipleship.
The first two examples are also recorded in the gospel of Matthew but the third encounter is uniquely recorded by Luke.
The Rash or the Hasty man.
This first man, who Matthew describes as a Scribe (Mt.8:19-20), proposes himself as a volunteer. This is how he spoke to Jesus:
"I will follow you wherever you go." v.57
On the face of it this is a very attractive statement as the man makes a great open-ended commitment to follow Jesus and yet the way in which Jesus responds to him makes it clear that all was not as rosy as it first appeared. In fact it is a rash statement that has not been properly thought through.
It is somewhat surprising that a Scribe should want to declare himself openly in this way as in nearly every case the Scribes are hostile in their reaction towards the Lord Jesus. As a group the Scribes were usually critical of Jesus who in turn included them along with the elders and chief priests as rejecting him and calling for his death.
But for the moment this individual Scribe sees things rather differently and sees a real advantage for himself on being on Jesus’ side. Jesus was still going round performing miracles, healing the sick and exerting a real influence upon the ordinary people. Dazzled by the possibility of easy success the Scribe is eager – it’s a part of that success that he is after, a part of that influence.
Down through history plenty of folk have looked on Christianity as a short-cut to prosperity and there are plenty of that kind of person still around today – both those who want it for themselves and those who foolishly offer it to others.
But Jesus wasn’t enthusiastic about this man’s commitment at all. Instead he responded in a way that reveals that this man had not done enough serious thinking before committing himself. This man simply hasn’t stopped long enough to consider what discipleship will entail for the serious follower.
Listen to what Jesus said to him:
"Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." v.58
Jesus knows what is driving this man just as he knows what is driving you, and he isn’t fooled by fine-sounding words. This man just hasn’t thought about what discipleship will really be like. There are hardships to be put up with and there is rejection to be faced and there is a lack of ease and of comfort.
Jesus himself had already suffered rejection and would do so again and again - the follower cannot expect anything else. So in other places we find Jesus urging would-be followers to sit down and carefully count the cost of discipleship before launching into it. He would tell stories about men building towers or kings going to war – stories designed to encourage careful reflection and cold calculation before engaging on a project. And there is no greater project than discipleship! It will, when rightly understood call for just the sort of commitment that this man had too hastily made.
I want to encourage you all to be followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. I want you all to be ready to go where he leads and to do what he says. I don’t want to see any of you miss out on the salvation that Jesus offers to those who trust in him, who receive him and who persevere to the end. For any of you to fail to become genuine followers of Jesus Christ will not simply be sad but it will be a catastrophic disaster from which you will never recover throughout eternity. But please don’t take the decision to follow Jesus lightly or without reflecting on what such a decision will involve. If your decision is an impulsive, thoughtless one then when the going gets tough (as it is likely to do at some stage) then you are likely to abandon the path of discipleship and you’ll be worse off than before not to mention the negative effect you may have on others who know you and the further dishonour you will bring to Jesus.
Well if the first encounter highlights the dangers of being too hasty in taking a decision the second encounter shows us the dangers of being too hesitant to follow Jesus.
The Postponing or Delaying Man
The scene changes and this time we are not confronted with a volunteer but with the recipient of an invitation:
v.59 "To another (Jesus) said, "Follow me."
Matthew in his gospel refers to this man to whom Jesus spoke as a "disciple". Evidently he belonged not to the inner circle of Jesus’ followers but to a wider group of adherents and sympathisers. He spoke positively about Jesus and was definitely favourably disposed towards him. He possibly even aspired to be included in the inner circle of Jesus’ friends – possibly but not quite yet it would seem.
What a privilege it was for this man to receive this invitation from Jesus! What a privilege it is for all of us too!
I wonder whether you have realised just what a privilege is yours in being invited to follow this man? In a world where there are still so many people don’t even know the name "Jesus" and where millions more know virtually nothing about him, why he came, what he did, what he offers etc. you know so much and you’re being urged week after week to get serious with this Saviour of the World.
This man was no opponent or enemy of Jesus and he was no sceptic either – no, he was enthusiastic in his support for Jesus and doubtless was ready to speak up in his favour too. But he wasn’t ready quite yet to commit himself to following Jesus in a more closely personal way.
I wonder if that is the condition that some of you find yourselves in this morning.
This man had an excuse and doesn’t it sound like he had a good one?
v.59 "But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father."
He doesn’t reject Jesus’ call to follow he simply says yes but not yet! He doesn’t try to impose his own terms but he does try to delay and isn’t it all so reasonable? Surely Jesus will be happy with his good intentions! But it is the road to hell that is paved with good intentions.
But is he? It doesn’t look like Jesus was overly impressed because this is how he responded:
v.60 "And Jesus said to him, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
Now what are we to make of that?
Well while some groups, like the sect known as the Children of God or Family International, have encouraged converts to make a complete break with their parents and other family members the Bible’s consistent teaching is family friendly with children urged to show due respect to their parents. So we are not to understand that Jesus is telling us that we must cut all our family ties when we begin to follow him. What Jesus is concerned to emphasise is that we are not to allow our legitimate love for our family members determine how we will react to Jesus. If we are to follow Jesus we must be prepared to go against the opinion and wishes of those same family members.
Perhaps Jesus knew that this man had a particular need to be challenged over this very point and his words are chosen as being especially relevant for him in his own unique situation rather than as being a general statement.
There is a further possibility for us to consider too. When we read the man’s plea about burying his father we tend to assume that this man had actually already died and that the request for a delay was a request for a very short delay indeed – to refuse such an appeal would make Jesus look really quite churlish now wouldn’t it?
But had the father actually died? In the Middle Eastern culture of first century Israel and because of the climate burial took place the same day as death occurred. If the father had actually died why was this man out with the crowds at all? Why wasn’t he at home getting on with the funeral rites that where we would expect him to be?
It seems rather that this man’s father was still alive and that he is using his father as a reason for not responding to Jesus’ call to follow. Jesus response to him suggests that using legitimate family responsibilities, as a pretext for disobedience, is unacceptable.
Are any of you in danger of doing that? Are you too busy thinking about family to think about God? It was the same Jesus who also said:
Mt.10:37 "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me."
So we have seen a decision can be taken too hastily or it with procrastination it can be put off for too long.
Finally we come to the third encounter where yet another type of response is brought into view.
The Irresolute of Dithering Man
This man is only mentioned here in Luke’s gospel – and at first sight there is very little difference between this man and the last one we considered. But that there is a difference becomes clear when we consider the different answer that Jesus gave to this person.
How glad we should be that Jesus knows what is in the heart! How glad we should be that God can read us like an open book! Others may fail to discern exactly what our particular problems and issues are but not Jesus.
This third man also speaks to Jesus with very positive sounding words; it all seems so positive, his mind appears to be made up:
Lk.9.61 "Yet another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.""
Again on the surface this sounds such a reasonable request. Such a request might fool others and it might even fool the man himself but Jesus’ answer suggests that it hides an altogether less worthy sentiment:
Lk.9:62 "Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
Jesus’ warning against "looking back," tells us that this man’s discipleship was not yet thorough and his separation from the world not complete. This is not really a case of going back to the world but of being reluctant to break with it. Deep down in his heart this man hasn’t really decided that he must at all costs follow Jesus – the pull of the world still tugs very strongly at him. A return to "those at home" will inevitably involve him in discussions as to the wisdom of his choice and pressures and appeals will be put upon him to change his mind and not follow through on the decision he thought he had taken.
The picture of putting one’s hand to the plough and looking back is very vivid. To plough a straight furrow the eye must be focused, and kept focused, ahead. The moment the head is turned that moment the furrow becomes crooked.
What Jesus means by this is that if this man (and any man or woman for that matter) tries to make headway but allows himself to be distracted and keeps looking longingly back to what he has left behind he will come up short of salvation, having failed to attain it.
Jesus addressed this man seriously because he knew him to be wavering still in the decision he had nearly taken to follow Jesus.
Again I must ask: Is this the condition of someone here this morning? You admire Jesus, you approve of his teaching which you know to be true, you even like the company of his followers – you’re ready to follow him for yourself, well almost. You have a list of priorities and while Jesus is on that list you’re not quite sure that following him is N°1. Instead of deciding definitively for Jesus and acting now you’re putting things off under the guise of wanting one more opportunity of saying your goodbyes to your friends and old way of life. How dangerous your situation is! So close to following the Saviour of the World yet so vulnerable to being deflected by the pleas and pulls of a Christless world.
John Bunyan wrote his famous book Pilgrim’s Progress well over 300 years ago but how helpful it still proves to be. Listen to how he describes the setting of his main character Christian on the way of salvation. Evangelist has shared the gospel with Christian who acts decisively. He showed himself to be anything but a wavering disciple though his example shows the dangers that confront any who is thinking of following Jesus:
"So I saw in my dream that the man began to run. Now he had not run far from his own door when his wife and children, perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the man put his fingers in his ears, and ran on crying, Life! life! eternal life! So he looked not behind him, but fled towards the middle of the plain.
The neighbours also came out to see him run; and as he ran, some mocked, others threatened, and some cried after him to return; and among those that did so, there were two that were resolved to fetch him back by force."
My friends this morning have you started to follow Jesus Christ? Or do you perhaps need to shut your ears to the tempting voices of the world that plead with you not to take Jesus so seriously and decide to follow him?
Following Jesus involves cost but what a reward is held out to all who do follow him – eternal life! What has the world to offer that can truly compete with that?