A call with an unexpected demand - Luke 14:25-35

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the evening service on 22nd February 2004.

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We are often being reminded, aren’t we, that we live in the age of the ‘sound bite’? No matter how complex the issue or how tremendous the implications, in order to communicate it effectively it has to be reduced to a short, pithy, memorable, statement. But when you think about it this is nothing new. It may have been taken to new levels of sophistication by the ad men or the spin doctors , but the catchy, punchy line or two has always had the power to make an impact. That is the attraction of graffiti of course: ‘Dyslexia rules- K.O.’ , ‘Apathy Rules - O’. One of my favourites was written on one f the walls of Hull university when I was a student which ran: ‘ To do is to be- Plato. To be is to do-Aristotle. Do be, do be do- Sinatra.’ Now tonight we are going to be looking at some amplified soundbites of Jesus as to what it means to be a Christian, and as we shall see it is all a matter of what we do as Christians. In fact in Luke 14 there are three calls to be and to do which Jesus issues to any would -be follower of his: the call to be committed, the call to be wise and the call to be different.

First of all, the call to be committed vv 25- 26 : ‘Large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-- yes, even his own life-- he cannot be my disciple. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’

Now notice what is happening and what Jesus does which is enough to cause many modern day evangelists to cough out their dentures in horror. Large crowds are following him. These are the numbers the K C stadium people are looking for to help them turn a profit. Here we have the literal fulfilment of the parable which has just gone before with its climax in v 23, ‘Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full.’ It is already happening and here they are en mass. So what does Jesus do? Climb a soap box in order to give a speech to rouse the troops? Pump up the volume on the amp and whip up the crowd into some sort of religious frenzy? Hardly. He stops them dead in their tracks and delivers two rabbit punch sound bites which is enough to make anyone think twice about going any further. First, there is the demand that we put Christ before others, ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters-- yes, even his own life-- he cannot be my disciple.’ That is pretty strong stuff isn’t it? If you do not hate those closest to you then you cannot be my follower. That is what the text says. But what does the text mean? It means this: that if we do not love Jesus in such a way that our love for our nearest and dearest does not appear to be hate in comparison then we can’t be one of his people. Allegiance and devotion to him is to be the sort of allegiance and devotion you would normally reserve for God-because he is God. That is the implication. Remember the two great commandments? The first being, ‘Love the Lord your God with the whole of your being’ and then ‘love your neighbour as yourself.’ Get those in the wrong order and you have idolatry. The 20th century was the century of the second commandment- putting man above God, worshipping humanity rather than the one who made humanity and invariably you end up killing humanity for there is no fear of God to stop you. And sadly, the church has followed suit- promoting the pleasing of man rather than the pleasing of God. How much Christian work has been stifled because the wife wouldn’t approve- the extra money should go on the kitchen not the gospel? Or because the children don’t approve - we want Sundays for other things - our sport, our horse riding our parties- so whole families are kept away from Christian service? But of course we rationalise it - we don’t want to make Christianity too hard otherwise it might put them off, so we have to make it convenient. But that is not what Jesus says here. My son Christopher was telling me of a middle aged couple he met in the church in which he is going to serve in Carlisle. They became Christians later on in life, much to the acute embarrassment of their grown up offspring. And so they were given an ultimatum: the children said- ‘Mum, Dad, it is either us or Christianity. Which is it going to be?’ They chose Christ and they have not seen nor spoken to their children since. That is simply heartbreaking but that is what Jesus means by sound bite one.

Sound bite two: ‘Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.’ This is the demand to put Christ before self. That is what this business about carrying a cross means. To carry a cross was a public statement that the one shouldering it was to be impaled upon it. In other words, he was to die. To these people Jesus could not have been more offensive had he told them as Jews to bathe in pigs blood. The cross was normally reserved for radicals, revolutionaries, those who foolishly chose to go against the might of the Roman Empire. But of course that is exactly what Jesus was doing. Here is Jesus the revolutionary, but we have turned him into Jesus the entertainer. His followers are meant to go against the flow. And such talk of cross carrying is just as offensive to our self-absorbed, self therapeutic society now as it was to Jesus’ society then. One secular counsellor has listed 37 ‘rights’ we should all enjoy amongst them are the following: ‘I have a right to dignity and respect. I have a right to make decisions based on my feelings, my judgement, or any reason I should choose. I have a right to be happy.’ Jesus says, no you don’t, not if you are going to be a follower of mine- I now claim those rights. And Jesus is quite emphatic about it isn’t he? You ‘cannot be my disciple’ without doing this. There is this no nonsense ‘all or nothing’ nature about these kingdom soundbites. The problem is we want to bargain with Jesus, tone down the nature of his demands or turn them on their head altogether to make them more palatable. So we want to talk about Christianity being ‘cool’, Jesus talks about Christianity involving a cross. A former Anglican minister who became a Buddhist, Alan Watts, really does put his finger on the issue when he writes, ‘Without any disrespect it must be said that Christianity is pre-eminently the gambler’s religion. In no other religion are the stakes so high and the choice so momentous.’ Jesus is not playing games here. He is wanting you and me- body ,mind and soul he wants us to gamble everything on him. So we had better know what we are letting ourselves in for. Which is the point of these two parables which amplify the sound bites. And in them we have a call to be wise- vv 28-33.

The first parable is something many of his followers would be able to identify with. Just imagine you want to build a tower on your farm for storage purposes- v 28-that is the picture Jesus is using, then the first thing you will do is a feasibility study. You will get an architect which will cost you an arm and a leg, if not two legs looking at the type of cars they drive. Then you will get an accountant- another arm gone, work out the total costs involved and then you will begin building. What you don’t do is have a grandiose scheme, call the workmen to lay the foundation and perhaps a few bricks on top of that, only to find that you can’t complete the job and all you are left with is a monument to your own stupidity- what used to be called a ‘folly’. And in a shame culture like this one- v 29 -you would avoid that like the plague. In other words. Jesus is saying- count the cost. And there is a cost in being a follower of Jesus. Our difficulty of course is that we live in a credit culture, where we are encouraged to take all the benefits now and put off footing the bill till much later, or preferably let some one else pick it up. And that is something which can easily be transferred into Christianity. Expectations are raised that being a Christian will be all blessing with minimum difficulty. The swipe card of prayer is used and instant answers are called for usually centred on ourselves. That is not the way Jesus presents it. There is no credit, it is cash on demand, up front- make sure that you have got what it takes to follow him. So be thoughtful, says Jesus.

But the second parable raises the stakes even higher, for here is a king who is preparing to go to war. More than a reputation is at stake, it is people’s lives- vv 31- 32. Now a wise king will make sure that he is in a position to win. If it looks like he doesn’t have the resources to counter a foe with a 2:1 advantage, then he will take the diplomatic route if he has any sense. In other words, he will use his noddle before making such an important decision of committing his country to war. All that sounds very familiar doesn’t it? But there is an additional point here. Not only must potential followers of Christ be thoughtful they must be decisive. It will not do for a ruler in a war situation to dilly dally in making decisions. That is why during the Second World War Chamberlain the appeasement Prime Minister had to go and Churchill the warrior had to be brought in- too much was at stake. Who was it who said that he was going to buy the book The Power of Positive Thinking’ and then thought, ‘What’s the point?’? Indecisiveness can be a snare, especially when it comes to matters of eternity. And it could well be that is where you are. You have heard the claims of Jesus, you know that your eternal destiny depends upon responding to him, you are even willing to follow at a distance mingling in the crowd. Well, tonight this same Jesus is stopping and turning to you and challenging you to make a decision. Either follow him and have the courage of your convictions or walk away from him and stop wasting his time.

But then again you may be an enthusiast at the front of the crowd but if the truth be known you feel a little uncomfortable with the words of v 33 which sum up everything Jesus has been saying so far: , ‘Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.’ The test as to whether we are taking these words of Jesus seriously is how we follow him in the day to day routine of life. It was the great Christian writer Oswald Chambers who pointed out that ‘drudgery is the touchstone of Christian character.’ Think about that. He writes: ‘Walking on the water is easy to impulsive pluck, but walking dry land as a disciple of Jesus Christ is a different thing. Peter walked on the water to go to Jesus, but he followed him afar off on land. We do not need the grace of God to stand crises, human nature and pride are sufficient, we can face the strain magnificently; but it does require the supernatural grace of God to live 24 hours in every day as a saint, to go through drudgery as a disciple, to live an ordinary, unobserved, ignored existence as a disciple of Jesus. It is inbred in us that we have to do exceptional things for God; but we have not. We have to be exceptional in the ordinary things, to be holy in mean streets, among mean people, and this is not learned in five minutes.’ So the question is this: Are you a 24/7 Christian or only when it suits? It was John Newton who once said to a Christian who was moaning about not feeling like doing anything, that it was proving too difficult following Jesus: ‘Don’t tell me of your feelings. A traveller would be glad of fine weather, but if he is a man of business he will go on.’ That is precisely what Jesus is looking for in you and me.

And that tone of Newton could well be capturing the tone of Jesus, such that what he really is doing is motivating people to follow him by raising the bar rather than turning people away. Think of it like this. You have an athletic coach and at the first session he typically gives the team members a pep talk. The coach lays it on the line that he or she expects to see everyone turn up for the training sessions on time, to give 100% , to give up anything that will prevent them from giving of their best- unlike George Best- cerosis of the liver and football don’t mix. He wants the best from the best. And then comes the line of which he is in deadly earnest: ‘ OK, if you are not willing to do this then go now, you are not worthy to wear the uniform.’ Sure, I guess that you could slink out at that point- to the ridicule of your team mates-parable one, but you have signed on with both eyes wide open and you have made your decision and you are going to stay!- parable two. Christianity isn’t for quitters. It requires more guts to be a Christian than it does to be a non- Christian because anyone can be big and mindless in a crowd, the Christian has to be twice as sharp and twice as courageous. But of course he is not alone, he has Jesus. Notice that Jesus talks about being ‘my disciple’. We are not committed to a programme or even a movement as such, but to a person- and this is the one person you can rely on.

Now what is it that is going to be so costly in following Jesus? Well, to some extent we have already come across the answer- and it is brought to a head in v 34 which is a call to be different; "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure pile; it is thrown out.’ You see while your attitudes and behaviour are not that different from those around you, then you will not have much hassle. It is because you do not wish to upset your parents or spouse or children that you will be tempted to soft peddle your faith. And the reason why you want to get along fine with them is because you are concerned about your own personal well being - your self and that is why Jesus says it has to be crucified if you are going to be his disciple. This is the point about this third soundbite about salt. It really has nothing to do with being rubbed into society as a preservative, because here its main function is as a component of compost- manure- and salt which has ceased to be salt-that is distinctive- is not even good for that.

So just how should the followers of Jesus be distinctive and so drawing both the opposition and interest of a world on the run from God? Let me say that the way our distinctiveness will work out will all depend upon where we are as a society-its all relative. You see, if Christianity is a matter of being properly related to God and life as he intends it to be lived and one of the main features of our fallen world is that it goes off centre in different directions at different times, then in wanting to live a balanced life, the Christian will be pulling away from society at the particular point at which it finds itself rebelling against God. Let me explain. In a society sold on sexual gratification as ours is at the moment- the Christian will emphasise chastity- that sex is for heterosexual marriage full stop. That will make Christians stand out and attract all the taunts and barbed comments. The Christian girl who cherishes her chastity at university will be made to feel subnormal, no matter what the rhetoric about a woman’s right to choose. That is the way it will go. On the other hand if a Christian finds himself in a society which downgrades sex as something evil but necessary (and they have existed in the past believe it or not)- then the Christian will emphasise the shear wonder of sex as one of God’s most precious and powerful gifts to be cherished and celebrated. Let’s take another example. We live in a society that emphasises emotions above thinking- ‘If it feels good do it’. The more mindless the entertainment, the better, and now we have drugs to help us lose ourselves more so than ever before alongside the most sophisticated technology now widely available. In those situations it is disastrous for Christians to Christianise such trends so that worship events become little more than a souped up version of what the non-Christian is doing anyway, except we add God words to the songs. Then we are not being distinctive. In that situation, the Christian will be counter cultural by emphasising the use of the mind. In a culture where books are not read, the Christian will read books because Christianity if it is nothing else is a religion of the Word. Sure, he will not lose sight of the place of the emotions, but relative to his culture he will appear odd for wanting to make decisions on the basis of careful thought and argument arising out of God’s Word rather than self-centred emotions. Conversely in a culture where the dominance is on cold analysis- the reign of science- the Christian will remind people that we are more than thinking machines, we are people made with hearts of flesh, we feel as well as think. Do you see how it works? Emphasise that Jesus is the only way to God, you will be accused of being intolerant, although we defend the right for anyone to hold whatever views they wish. Stress that all that we need to know of God and to live properly in his world is found in the Bible and you will be criticised for being a fundamentalist. Show joy and emotion in a church service and you will be written off as ‘happy clappy’. Preach the Bible for more than 25 minutes and you will be hounded as being cerebral and intellectual. That is how it goes. Jesus was accused of being a drunked and glutton because he didn’t conform to the tight religious standards of his day. He was also accused of being demon possessed when he was more strict in applying the Scriptures than the religious elite. And if we are going to follow Jesus at this point we can expect draw the same flak. From the viewpoint of the world Christians are always in a lose- lose situation. But not from God’s viewpoint, not from the only standpoint that really matters- eternity.

Friends we live in a day of tremendous opportunity. The West is bankrupt-intellectually, morally and politically. A vacuum is opening up and if we don’t fill it, Islam will. But if we are going to make any headway we have got to stop going with the flow and be radically different- and that means wholehearted commitment to Jesus and his gospel. As he says in v 35 ‘ He who has ears let him hear.’

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