Why Wait So Long To Begin Living?
If I had my way there are some words from the lips of Jesus which I would like to erase from the pages of the New Testament. Mind you, I wouldn’t want to throw out the words we love to hear—words like “Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” Or “Fear not little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom.” Or “In my Father’s house are many mansions, if it were not so I would have told you.” Or “Whosoever comes to me I would in no wise cast out.” Or “Suffer the little children to come unto me and forbid them not, for of such is the Kingdom of heaven.” What wonderfully encouraging and uplifting words those are and I am glad that Jesus said them.
However, there are some other things that I would just as soon He hadn’t said at all, precisely because they have such a hard and demanding edge to them. They are words that I do not like to hear and so I would like to red pencil them right out of Scripture. This passage from Luke 9 is a case in point. For here we bump up against tough teachings from the lips of our Lord. Even a spoonful of sugar won’t make them go down easy. Here, you see, is Scripture designed to make us squirm. So hold on tight and let’s dare to look at it together.
Let’s describe the action.
Jesus was passing through Samaria on His way to Jerusalem and the cross. A certain man approached Jesus and offered his allegiance. He said, “Lord, I will follow you wherever you go.” The words rolled off the man’s lips quite easily. Too easily for Jesus. So Jesus promptly reminded this man of the high cost of true discipleship. He said to this would-be disciple, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” Jesus’ retort hit the man like a slap across the face and he recognized that he wanted no part of a discipleship which carried such a lofty price tag. And so this ersatz disciple turned silently away.
Jesus then encountered another man and Jesus extended to him the call “Follow me.” The man replied, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Now you need to understand that the man’s reply was an idiomatic phrase still used in the Mideast. It does not mean that the man’s father had just died and that the funeral arrangements were pending and that once the services were over he would be free to follow. Rather the phrase “let me first bury my father” is a phrase of indefinite delay. It meant that this fellow had long-term obligations to his father and his family and he was going to make them the priority of his life. And so Jesus said to him, “If you are going to be obedient to dead priorities, then you cannot follow me.” And so one more potential disciple turned silently away.
A third man then approached the Master and he said, “Lord, I will follow you but first let me say farewell to those in my home.” Surprising, isn’t it, to find a person who believes that in order to follow Jesus you have to say goodbye to everything at home. You have to sever your ties with family and loved ones. And yet there are those even today who seem to think that if you come to faith in Jesus Christ you have to give up the things that give you the greatest joy in life. That is not so. To follow Jesus Christ in life is to experience the greatest joy you’ll ever know. It is to truly live life at its fullest and best. It is to confront new opportunities, new obligations, and new doors opening. But this particular enquirer was not ready to seize those new hopes and joys and so he turned silently away.
Jesus, you see, never pulled His punches in His teaching about discipleship. There are no cards of commitment played beneath the table. There are no shortcuts to the Kingdom. There are no special discount fares on our faith pilgrimage. Jesus laid it all out. No hidden costs and you take it as He offers it or you do not take it at all. Long ago, according to Luke, there were some folks who did not take it. They tried to cut the cost of discipleship. Just so, there are people today who try to do the same thing.
So now let’s delineate the application.
First, there are some of us who try to cut the cost of discipleship in our words. You may remember the story about the preacher who preached his sermon from note cards and one Sunday in the midst of his sermon a playful zephyr of wind blew his cards on the floor. He never missed a beat. He simply asked the congregation to pray and while their heads were bowed he quickly scooped up the cards from the floor. What he did not realize was that in his haste, he got the cards out of order. And so he resumed his sermon and he came to the bottom of a card and it went like this: “And Eve said.” He flipped to the next card and it was the wrong card. To cover himself while he searched he repeated the words, “And Eve said.” And he flipped another card and it was still wrong. “And Eve said…there must be another leaf here somewhere!”
Well, if there is a leaf missing from our discipleship, it’s the leaf of this open, verbal proclamation of Jesus Christ. There are many people who are ready to follow Jesus so long as it can be a silent and secret discipleship. That’s true for many of us, isn’t it? I mean, if we were to be accused in a court of law of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict us? Would our co-workers testify that we were known for our religious beliefs at work? Would our children testify that we discussed the things of Christ at home? There are some people, who if they were charged with being members of this congregation, would be acquitted because of insufficient evidence. Yet their names are on our rolls. Some of them come at Easter, some at Christmas. They remind me of the fellow who complained that his church was in a rut because every time he went there they had a Christmas tree!
Oh, I know. There are lots of people who say that the only thing that matters is living decently and doing good in your life. But I want to tell you, my friends, the world won’t be saved by nice guys doing good deeds. Decency, no matter how dynamic it is, will not bring the world to its senses. Only Jesus Christ can do that. In other words, to live life to the fullest and to experience the joy of being Christ’s disciples, we have to be willing to put our faith into words. And so when someone says to Jesus, “Lord, I will follow you but silently and secretly,” Jesus turns away. That’s hard to hear, but it is true.
Secondly, there are some of us who try to cut the cost of discipleship in our wallets. You and I are living in a very materialistic society. In America we measure the value of things in terms of dollars. We determine worth by money. Therefore, when a person does not put a significant amount of his or her money in the service of the Lord, that means that that person does not count discipleship to Jesus Christ as being worth very much.
I must tell you that I have a kind of inverted admiration for Mohammed Ali, not because he is probably the greatest heavyweight champ of all time, but because of the uncompromising stand he took for his faith. You remember that he became a Black Muslim and his practice of that religion ultimately cost him his heavy weight title and untold financial gain. Do you know what he said? He said, “What can any nation or individual offer me that would be worth turning my back on my religion?” Many people do not understand that. If he had given up his religion in pursuit of the championship glory, people would have understood that. But when he gave up what the world called “good” on behalf of his faith, that the world does not understand. Oh, I don’t have much regard for that particular expression of faith. The Black Muslim faith is a crude eclecticism at best, but at worst it tends to foster the same virulent racism it purports to reject. But I have always been moved to awe by Mohammed Ali’s commitment to his faith. He believes, and so he lives, and no cost is too high for him to pay.
John Calvin, the founder of our Presbyterian faith, was once described by the Pope whom he opposed in these words: “We will never defeat Calvin for he trusts more in God than he does in gold.” Can that be said of most Presbyterians today? Too many of us, I fear, try to cut the cost of discipleship in our wallets and Jesus simply turns away. We miss the joy and thrill of living as Christ’s true disciples. We don’t like to hear that–but it is true.
Thirdly, there are some of us who try to cut the cost of discipleship in our works. For years we in the church have done a good job of marketing our product. We advertise our services, we put in block letters on our bulletin board “Everybody Welcome.” We are quick to invite people to come in to have faith, to participate in our activities, to be followers of Jesus, but we are not so quick to ask “Have you calculated the cost? Have you calculated how much you are going to have to change what you do in life?”
You see, there is no way we can be true disciples of Jesus Christ and remain as we are. There is no way we can claim His name as our own and continue living as we do. We cannot continue to be selfish persons and yet follow a Lord who is willing to give His life for others. We cannot go on holding a grudge against our neighbor and yet be disciples of one who prayed for His executioners. We cannot persist in finding security and intellectual achievements or material possessions or social status and yet call a poor, dispossessed, bleeding figure on the cross “our Lord.” We cannot continue to trust God occasionally or when it is convenient and yet claim to follow one who trusted the Father even to the end. When we throw in our lot with Jesus, we have to put aside our old ways of doing things.
That’s a hard word to hear, I know. It reminds me of that story of W. C. Fields, who, one day to his great chagrin, was caught by a friend while reading the Bible. His friend, in shock, asked: “Why on earth are you reading the Bible?” Fields, as ever, had a swift retort. He replied, “Looking for loopholes.” But, friends, there are no loopholes. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we shall find the matchless joy of living for Jesus Christ in life. See, we need to remember that time is always clutching at us and we never have enough of it. Our lives are like a finger snap—a conjunction between sentences—a match flare against the darkness of eternity. All too soon there will come a time when our “I love you’s” will not be crossing our lips. There will come a time when our “I am sorry’s” will faint from lack of breath. There will come a time when “Here’s hoping” will become “Here lies.” Yet, so many people say, “Lord, I want to follow you, but I am not ready yet. I want to change the way I live, but I will do it later.” They think they are marking time when in fact time is marking them. And there will come a time when there is no time left. Such a shame. There are so many people who want to delay their discipleship. They want to postpone their promises to Jesus Christ.
They say, “Lord, I know the things you want me to do in life, but I’ll get to that later.” And Jesus turned silently away. We don’t like to hear that, but it’s true!
Do you know what I have discovered? The great tragedy is not that life ends so soon, it’s that so many people wait so long to begin living.
Jesus says, “Come, and follow me and you will have life, and you will have it abundantly.”
How do you respond?