Conversations with Christ – 9. The Three Apprentices
Christ Speaks to the Problem of Convenient Excuses Luke 9: 57 - 62
My text for today contains 3 brief snapshots taken as Jesus walked along the road. Jesus had “resolutely” set out for Jerusalem. He was determined to go there even though he knew what awaited him. Because he was the Son of God, he knew in advance that when he got there, he would be betrayed, falsely accused, convicted of crimes he had not committed, beaten, spat upon and finally crucified. Instead of running away, he “set his face like a flint” to go to Jerusalem in obedience to the will of God. As he walked along, 3 would-be disciples met him on the road. Each man wanted to follow him, but each man had a hesitation, a reservation or a convenient excuse. These 3 “rookies” wanted to be disciples but they weren’t yet ready to pay the price. We will discover that these “convenient excuses” are amazingly modern. The call of Christ in the 21st century is the same as it was 2000 years ago. Follow me! No deals. No conditions. No excuses.
1. Count the Cost! v. 57 - 58
The Enthusiastic Disciple - probably a young man - in his late teens or early 20s. There is much to commend about him. He is obviously sincere in what he says and he is definite as well. He says, “I will follow you,” not “I might follow you” or “I’m thinking about following you.” He is unconditional—“wherever you go.” This is all to the good because there is far too much caution in the church today. Too many of us sit back and wait instead of jumping into the fray for Christ. We want to see how things go before we commit ourselves. God bless this young guy. He didn’t wait - jumped up and volunteered to follow Christ.
Christ didn’t say, “Thank you. I welcome you as my newest disciple.” Jesus doesn’t seem overly impressed by his enthusiasm. I think this man is saying something like, “I want to join the circus.” He’s attracted by the crowds and the carnival atmosphere. He’s amazed by the miracles and astounded by Jesus’ teaching. He loved it when he heard about Jesus walking on water and he was astounded by the multiplication of the loaves and fish. Who wouldn’t follow a man who could raise the dead and turn water into wine? Don’t get me wrong. This man is sincere in his desire but he has not yet counted the cost.
Following Christ is more than going forward at camp; it’s more than walking an aisle; it’s more than praying with your friends at a rally. At best those things are just a starting point. It’s what happens later that really matters. That’s where the words of Jesus become so powerful: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Jesus owned nothing but the clothes on his back. He never owned a home, never had a bank account, never had a place he could call his own. Do you realize that we are called to follow a homeless man? He had none of the things we take for granted: No home, no car, no computer, no pension, no retirement, no investments of any kind. He lived day-to-day trusting in God to provide for his needs. He grew up in poverty and never rose far above it during his earthly life. He traveled from place to place, depending entirely on the generosity of his followers for his food. Jesus is challenging this enthusiastic follower to count the cost before he signs up. “If you follow me, you’ll have a stone for a pillow and not much more. We’ll get up each day not knowing where our food will come from. If you stay with me long enough, you’ll run into some big time trouble. There are some powerful people who wish I was dead. Sooner or later, they’re going to kill me. You may think I’m exaggerating but I’m not. The road ahead is hard and the worst is yet to come. Don’t be fooled by the big crowds. They’ll vanish like the mist. They don’t understand who I am and why I came. I don’t want any thrill seekers on my team. If you follow me, you’re going to give up all your earthly security and trust me to take care of you. Are you in or out?” When I look out over our congregation, I don’t see very many homeless people. Most of the folks look well fed and well bred. Most of us look to be upper-middle-class. Not too many broken down cars in our parking lot. I’m not making a moral judgment, I’m simply stating a fact. But it’s not that way for the followers of Christ around the world. Look at the body of Christ in Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Mozambique and Malawi. Christians in those countries can identify with the words of Jesus better than we can. To say that is not to condemn our own prosperity or to suppose that poverty is morally superior to wealth. It isn’t, and the Christians in those other countries are working diligently to raise their own standards of living. But sometimes we take our prosperity as a kind of spiritual birthright as if we deserve to live like this simply because of who we are and where we are. We’re not supposed to be comfortable here. We’re citizens of heaven living as pilgrims and strangers on the earth. We’re never going to feel “at home” here. Maybe some of us are getting too comfortable and forgetting that we are “resident aliens” who are on our way to heaven. Don’t pity Jesus for having no place to rest his head. Pity the man so chained to his mortgage that he can’t respond to the call of Christ. Don’t pity Jesus for sleeping by the campfire. Pity the woman so sold to her career that she cannot follow Christ to a foreign land. Don’t pity the disciples who are called the “scum of the earth.” Pity those who are enslaved to the opinions of the world. Don’t pity the meek that are taken for granted. One day they will inherit the earth.
2. No Delays! v. 59 - 60
The Reluctant Disciple. Unlike the first man who volunteered, Jesus calls this man personally. His answer seems reasonable. We all understand the need to properly bury our parents. What child would not want to honour his parents this way? He is sincere, serious, and evidently more thoughtful than the first man who seemed quite caught up in the excitement of the moment. He had tried to count the cost. That is all to the good. The statement, “Let me go and bury my father” does seem puzzling. The Jews buried the dead almost immediately, usually the same day. “I’ve got a funeral at 2:30 p.m. but I can be on the job by 3:00 p.m.” It’s possible that this is the meaning but it doesn’t seem likely. The Jews took the responsibility of burying the dead very seriously. If a son buried his father properly, he was considered to have performed a good work and was even excused from certain religious duties during that period. 1 Timothy 5: 8 - if a man doesn’t take care of his own family, he is worse than an unbeliever. So it would not seem as if Jesus is attempting to pit a man against his own family. “Bury my father” may mean that the father is elderly and near death and the son feels the need to take care of his father until his death and then to properly care for his estate. However, it may also mean that the son wants to stay with his father until his father dies, even if it is some distance in the future. In that case, the man is making an excuse that allows him to delay following Christ for a long period of time. In any case the reply of Jesus appears very harsh: “Let the dead bury their own dead.” What could it mean? How can dead people bury other dead people? The answer is that death comes in several varieties. There is physical death and then there is spiritual death. In Jesus’ mind, anyone who is not following him is spiritually dead (and separated from God). The real meaning is something like this: “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.” The affairs of this world are mundane compared with the importance of preaching the gospel. It is by the preaching of the gospel that the lost are saved and the spiritually dead are raised to life. Jesus is telling this man that the Kingdom must come first and Kingdom work must take precedence over the affairs of this world. In a sense he is presenting a challenging question to this man: “Would you rather bury the dead or raise the dead?” At this point we come face to face with a “hard word” to hear. Your family must not become an excuse not to serve the Lord. You can’t say, “I’ll wait until the children are older and then I’ll serve the Lord” or “I’ll wait until Mom is in the retirement village and then I’ll be baptized” or “When the kids are out of the house, then I’ll serve Christ.” No! Those excuses are not open to you if you are a disciple of Christ. I must not look to my wife or to my three daughters as the ultimate source of meaning or happiness in life. I must not ask of them what only God can provide for me. Life is more than marriage and family, as good and sacred as that is. If I place my family above my loyalty to Jesus Christ, then I have created an idol out of something good and I am not a true disciple of Christ. There is a tension inherent in those words, and it is a tension that I cannot and would not try to resolve. But better to live with the tension than to water down the words of Jesus or to make his call less radical than it really is. When Christ calls, I must not delay. One delay (no matter how well-intentioned) leads to another and to another and to another. Finally we end up not going, or doing it at all.
3. No Turning Back! v. 61 - 62
The Divided Disciple - contradiction in terms, if you think about it. “I will follow you, Lord; but first.” 2 simple words: “Lord, but.” If he’s really the Lord of your life, then don’t say “but” to him. If you want to say “but,” then don’t call him Lord! If the first man was a volunteer, and the second man was drafted, the third man is a weekend warrior. He’s ready to serve the Lord but he wants to tie up some loose ends at home first. His request does seem reasonable. All he wants to do is to say goodbye to his parents, his friends, maybe his girlfriend, and so on. Maybe they will throw him a farewell party and make speeches in his honour. No doubt there will be tears shed and a few people will question his decision. But that’s to be expected, isn’t it? So why can’t he go home and say goodbye to his family? It’s not that saying goodbye is wrong in itself. After all, Elijah granted a similar request made by Elisha who wanted to go home, kiss his parents, and have a farewell party. If it was okay for Elisha, why isn’t it okay for this man who is setting out to follow the Lord? All car salesmen know the answer to that question. If a potential buyer says, “I’m going to go home and talk it over with my wife,” you know the chances are good you’ll never see him again. You’ve got to close the deal when the customer is in the building. Let him leave and his cold feet will freeze over. Perhaps Jesus knew that his man was easily influenced and his family might talk him out of his decision. Once you put your hand to the plow, don’t look back. Plowing is hard work. It takes time and effort and concentration to keep the plow moving in a straight line. If you look to the left, the ox will turn to the left. Look to the right and the ox will wander to the right. If you look back, the ox may soon be plowing in circles! If you’re going to plow for Jesus, you can’t look back. You’ve got to keep your eyes focused straight ahead. Evidently this man wanted to keep the back door open. Perhaps he wanted to make a deal to protect his family. Certainly he wanted their approval. None of this is wrong in itself. But being faithful to Jesus Christ and following his call on your life may mean that from time to time you will do things that seem to your loved ones as if you hate them. You don’t hate them at all, but your obedience to Christ may cause them to think that you hate them. Such is the price we all must pay to be a disciple of Christ. Steven Curtis Chapman song, “For the Sake of the Call”—“Simply because it is Jesus who calls, and if we believe, we’ll obey.” Let me wrap up this message with 3 statements of application drawn from the 3 men who met Jesus on the road. Following Jesus is More Important - 1. Than Personal Comfort. 2. Than Family Obligations. 3. Than the Approval of Others. The real meaning of our text is quite plain. Following Jesus is the most important thing in life. Everything else pales by comparison. It is not an emotional, spur-of-the moment decision. It is not a decision that can be postponed till later. It is not a phase we go through while we keep our options open. Following Jesus means signing away the rights to your own life. You sign on the bottom line and let him fill in the details. It means Jesus first. No conditions. No delays. No buts. No excuses. May God help us to follow Christ at any cost, without delay, no turning back, wherever he leads. Amen.