The value of Jesus in the cost of following

Luke 9:51-62

5 July 2009

Blenheim Free Church, Maidenhead

Morning service


A few weeks ago, I was having lunch with a work colleague who is from a Sikh background. In the course of conversation the topic of religion came up, as it does, and at one point I mentioned that I had become a Christian at the age of sixteen. "You became a Christian?" He asked, looking very puzzled. "Weren't you born a Christian?"

So I had the opportunity to explain that a Christian is not simply someone who was born in England, or even someone who was christened in a church. But that a Christian is someone who has committed his life to following Jesus. You don't become a Christian by accident of birth, but by a conscious decision to follow.

Following Jesus is foundational to what it means to be a Christian. And what it means to follow him is laid out in these three brief encounters in Luke chapter 9, verses 57-62. In the first, a man says to Jesus I will follow you wherever you goref. Jesus says to the second man Follow meref. And, again, the third man says I will follow you, Lordref.

In each of the three encounters Jesus is both teaching and testing. On the one hand he is teaching us what it means to follow him. On the other hand he is testing us: are we fit to follow?

Following Jesus is Uncomfortable

In the first encounter we find that following Jesus is uncomfortable.

The context of our passage is given by verse 51 at the start of our reading: As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalemref. So when we meet him in verse 57 walking along the road, we know where he is going. He is on his way to Jerusalem, where he knows full well he will be betrayed, captured, ridiculed, tortured, humiliated and killed.

In this context a man says to him I will follow you wherever you go.ref

Have you any idea where I am going?!? You want to come to Jerusalem with me? Do you know what's going to happen there?

So Jesus says to this man, Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his headref. Following Jesus will be uncomfortable. We saw an example of this in verse 53 where Jesus and his disciples were rejected and turned away from a Samaritan village: he literally had no place to rest his head.

People sometimes say to me things like "I think religion is a good thing because it makes you a better person" , or "it's important to believe in something, it makes you feel more peaceful." Have you ever heard this? It's as if adopting a belief is like taking up a musical instrument, or changing your hair-style.

But truly following Jesus is quite different from making a life-style enhancement, isn't it? There are thousands of Christians around the world in prisons for their faith who demonstrate that: 2,900 in Eritrea alone. And thousands more who have been rejected by their families; or who have been beaten and even killed. And there are thousands, even millions, who face daily discrimination because they have chosen to follow Jesus. Some lifestyle enhancement.

Jesus doesn't offer wealth or comfort or earthly security. He simply says, if you're coming with me you're going to be rejected by the world. Are you prepared to choose that?

In this day and age, personal comfort is the great god of our lives. Our whole lives revolve around making ourselves and our families comfortable and content and secure, don't they? We spend and spend on homes, and cars, and things and pleasures.

But Jesus challenges this god. He challenges the most cherished principle in our lives. He says to us, if you want to be comfortable, then don't follow me! Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.ref

These are the terms on which Jesus takes all his followers: Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my discipleref. At the very least, carrying a cross will not be uncomfortable, will it?

Following Jesus is Urgent

So, from the first encounter we see that following Jesus is uncomfortable. In the second we see that following Jesus is urgent. Verse 59.

This time Jesus takes the initiative. He simply says to a man, "Follow me" .

The man's reply is a little difficult to interpret. He says, Lord, first let me go and bury my fatherref, which, on the face of it, is an odd thing to say.

Some people think it means that the man's father was still alive and the chap was saying in an idiomatic way, let me wait until he's died and I've got the inheritance coming to me, then I'll come and follow you. This would have meant an indefinite delay to his following.

Others think it means that the father was dead and the man was going through the elaborate Jewish funeral procedures that could have taken a week or more to complete.

In any case, either one would mean a delay to the affairs of the kingdom of God, so Jesus stresses his urgency with words that sound very harsh. Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.ref

Jesus is concerned not with the physically dead or the spiritually dead, but with bringing the message of life: proclaiming the kingdom of God. And this is a task that is urgent.

Sometimes we see on our televisions the aftermath of a terrible natural disaster, like pictures from an earthquake zone or tsunami. Buildings collapsed; bodies everywhere; bloody and wailing people sitting on piles of rubble.

If you arrive at the scene and you are a doctor, able and equipped to save lives, how would you spend your time? Are you going to dig graves or treat the injured?

Your priority is the living, the ones you can save. While you are diverted, people are dying. There are plenty of others who can bury the dead, but you have the life-saving drugs and the life-saving skills.

On the surface, the world around us looks largely prosperous and comfortable and secure. But look with spiritual eyes — look with Jesus' eyes — and the picture is very different. We live in a spiritual disaster zone. Tens of thousands are wounded and dying right outside the walls of the church, and we have the hope that can bring them life.

Let the spiritually dead concern themselves with the physically dead, Jesus says. We have a life-saving message! Go and proclaim the kingdom of God: it's urgent.

Now, Jesus is not saying that no Christian should ever attend his parent's funeral. But what he is saying to this man, and to us, is, Don't let the business of this world get in the way of proclaiming God's kingdom.

What excuses are you making for putting off proclaiming the kingdom of God? It just starts with telling our friends and our families, our colleagues and contacts about the Jesus that we follow. It's not complicated; any of us can do it; it's a normal part of following him. But it is urgent: there are lives to be saved.

Following Jesus is Uncompromising

So, following Jesus is uncomfortable, and following Jesus is urgent. In the third encounter we learn that following Jesus is uncompromising. Verse 61.

This time someone says I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-bye to my family.ref

Once again, Jesus' reply seems harsh, No-one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.ref

On the surface his meaning is clear: Jesus is demanding 100% focus and single-mindedness in his followers. The picture is of a farmer guiding a plough drawn by oxen. Unless he focuses completely on his goal, the furrows will not be straight, and he's wasting his time.

But there is a richer meaning here that we should unpack. In response to the request from the man, why does Jesus start talking about ploughing? Is it just a handy illustration, or is there something more going on?

What Jesus is doing here is making an allusion to an incident in the Old Testament. His hearers, who knew the Old Testament well, would have known exactly what he was saying.

Let me read a short passage from 1 Kings chapter 19 where the prophet Elijah is calling his successor, Elisha.

So Elijah went from there and found Elisha son of Shaphat. He was ploughing with twelve yoke of oxen, and he himself was driving the twelfth pair. Elijah went up to him and threw his cloak around him. Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. "Let me kiss my father and mother good-bye", he said, "and then I will come with you". "Go back", Elijah replied. "What have I done to you"?ref

Elisha asks Elijah the same thing as the man asked Jesus: Let me kiss my father and mother good-bye and then I will come with youref. And Elijah lets him. With the ploughing connection, Jesus is making a clear link to this event.

But Jesus didn't let the man go back to say goodbye to his family! What's going on?

In short, what Jesus is saying here is, I am more important, more significant, more special than Elijah. Elijah was the most significant prophet in the whole Old Testament, and the Jews rightly thought very highly of him.

In our chapter, Luke chapter 9, Elijah has already been mentioned by name three times. And he is again alluded to in the incident from our reading in verse 54. The disciples James and John, the Sons of Thunder, want to call fire down from heaven to destroy the Samaritan village that had rejected them, and you may have a footnote that says even as Elijah did. But Jesus would not let them. He is greater than Elijah; he does things differently.

So, Jesus is saying, you rightly think highly of Elijah: but I am more important. It was OK for Elijah to let Elisha say goodbye to his parents, but now the stakes have been raised. I am more significant than Elijah. I am more more significant than anything or anyone you have dealt with before.

So Jesus demands that his followers cherish him above all else in the world, even our families. Jesus is the one for whom and through whom the universe was created. He is the radiance of God's glory. Yet he humbled himself to death on a cross. How can we not treasure him with all our hearts?

In verse 61, the man actually utters a contradiction. I will follow you, Lord, but... ref. If Jesus is Lord, there can be no objections. If we impose our agenda on him, then he is not Lord. Following Jesus is an all-or-nothing commitment. Following Jesus is uncompromising.

Have we really fixed our eyes on Jesus, in the words from the book of Hebrews? Are we really determined to follow wherever he leads? Or are we constantly distracted by the things of this world, always looking over our shoulders, frequently being led astray by things that seem more important?

Take care! Jesus says, No-one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.ref Are you fit to follow?


So that's what it means to follow Jesus: it's uncomfortable, it's urgent, and it's uncompromising.

Frankly, it's a wonder, isn't it, that Jesus ended up with any followers at all.

As it happens, this is the very same passage that I heard preached the evening that I became a follower of Jesus, twenty-three years ago. Sometimes, I reflect on how it can be that a message about the cost of following Jesus should have acted not to deter me, but actually to draw me to him. Why didn't I run a mile!?

I think it's simply this: we measure how valuable things are by how much people are prepared to pay for them.

If following Jesus were costless, it would also be worthless. But when following Jesus is so costly, it shows that his worth is immense.

Jesus told two little one-line parables to teach this: The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.ref

Jesus is of infinite value; although it costs us everything to follow him, it's still worth it. It's still a bargain.

This truth is so simple, yet so neglected in our church in the West. Ask yourself for a moment, why does the world out there think that Jesus is worthless? They do, you know.

The world thinks that Jesus is worthless because they don't see us paying any price for him. They see our faith as a little life-enhancing optional extra that brings us comfort but costs us nothing. It barely affects the way that we live: it's never uncomfortable or urgent or uncompromising.

It's no coincidence that the places in the world where the gospel is making the most progress tend to be the places where Christians are persecuted, where following Jesus is most obviously costly.

If we want those we love to treasure Jesus, then we need to treasure him ourselves. They will judge the worth of Jesus by how much we seem to value him. We need to show that we are prepared to make costly choices, because he's worth it.

In preparing to preach this passage I've constantly found myself wanting to tone down the challenge of Jesus' words, to find a few grey areas, to weaken his demands. Not least because, on the face of it, they have big implications for my life and my family's life.

But I hope I've avoided weakening his words. Jesus is blunt and to the point. Following him is costly.

Sometimes the cost of following Jesus does put people off. We read elsewhere, From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. You do not want to leave too, do you? Jesus asked the Twelve. Simon Peter answered him, Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.ref

It seems that Jesus would rather we didn't follow at all than that we follow half-heartedly, holding back from total commitment. And we must take this seriously.

Peter and the other eleven had got it. They had learnt that Jesus is of infinite worth, therefore they were prepared to bear any cost to follow him, no matter how uncomfortable, how urgent, how uncompromising.

We can learn from these disciples. When the cost seems high, let's fix our eyes on Jesus. Let's see his infinite worth as we read our Bibles. Following him is worth it: to whom else will we go?