How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!
(1 John 3:1)
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” When’s the last time someone asked you that? Some who are already grown ups are still trying to figure that one out. It’s a fun question to ask little kids, because they really shoot for the moon. Ask a group of four year olds “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and you’ll find that those little people have some big goals. “An astronaut! A doctor! A dinosaur!” In their minds, these are all plausible career options. Then some time goes by. They live a little. They learn some more. They get smacked in the face by a thing called life, and realize that even though they thought they were a shoe-in to be the next Neil Armstrong, boy, NASA is pretty selective about who they let in. And even though they had every intention of going to medical school, donning the fancy, white lab coat, and helping people – med school is kind of spendy, it takes a long time, and it’s a lot of work. And that kid who wanted to be a dinosaur, well, about that… Life has a way of tempering our expectations, and that’s OK, I guess. There are plenty of people who wanted to grow up and do some great thing, but did quite get there. They didn’t calculate what it would take to actually arrive at their goals. They didn’t count the cost – whether it was money or effort or time – and they didn’t make it.
Today, Jesus wants you and me to count the cost – not the cost of more schooling or years of training – but the cost of following him. This is where you are – a follower of Jesus, not by your choice, but by the Holy Spirit calling you to faith through the good news of the gospel. And Jesus tells us, his followers, to count the cost. You do know there’s a cost involved, right? Large crowds were traveling 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. How’s that Jesus? Hate my family? Hate is a strong word. When I was growing up, my mom would correct me whenever I even said the word “hate,” and suggested I soften it to “I don’t care for” something. But Jesus doesn’t soften a thing. Instead, he doubles down. And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. A preacher only has to read about that far in our gospel lesson before he decides to preach on the Old Testament lesson! We hear Jesus say these kinds of things, and the first question that comes to mind is, “Is he serious?!” Well…yes. He means every word of it.
These words didn’t come like a lightning bolt out of the clear blue sky. All communication takes place in a context, and the context can help us understand these hard sounding words, though it doesn’t make them any easier to hear. Jesus had just told a parable about a man who threw a huge banquet, but when the time came for the guests to show up, they all made excuses. I just bought a field, and I must go and see it…I just bought five yoke of oxen and I’ve got to try them out…I just got married. Sorry, can’t come. (When you say those out loud, they sound kind of absurd, but to the one saying it, it makes all the sense in the world). The master who threw the banquet was furious and told his servant to go out and get the poor, the crippled, the blind, and lame. The master wanted his good gifts to be enjoyed and his house to be filled – send that invitation to anybody who will listen. The master had his banquet and the only people who didn’t get a taste; the only ones on the outside looking in were the people who loved other things more than the master’s gracious invitation. They missed out because they had misplaced priorities.
Jesus wants his blessings to be enjoyed and he wants his house to be full, so he wants us to count the cost of following him. As I said before, the Holy Spirit has brought you to faith through the gospel. Since Jesus is serious about having serious followers, he wants us to be ready to hate, to fight, to get rid of anything that threatens to come between us and him. But still, this doesn’t seem to make sense. This is the same Jesus who said, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, he certainly wants us to love our family, too. So, what’s Jesus driving at? Realize what your most important relationship is – it’s not with your money or your kids or your spouse or even yourself; it’s with your Savior. Period. End of sentence. Full stop. There are a lot of things Jesus will put up with, but being second isn’t one of them. Jesus wants us to count the cost of following him so we don’t miss out on the most important relationship that he’s established with us.
To illustrate this a little further, Jesus gives two examples: “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Will he not first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.” When I hear these words of Jesus, the first thing I want to do is find some wiggle room around them. But Jesus’ point is clear. Can you imagine someone starting to build a big watchtower without first looking at his checking account and determining whether or not he’ll even be able to get past the foundation? Or can you fathom a king blindly marching to war even though his army is outnumbered 2:1? The answer is obvious – of course not! You can’t imagine someone doing these things, because it’s absurd. So here’s the point Jesus is making. It’s just as absurd and just as unrealistic as coming to faith in Jesus and, right off the bat trying to say, “I’ll follow you Jesus, but just know that my parents and kids are always going to be more important than you.” It doesn’t work that way. Or, “Jesus, I’ll follow you, but I’m never going to go for that whole suffering thing.” Jesus won’t have it. Instead, he’s clear: “Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.”
You can imagine after saying these things, the large crowds that were following Jesus would thin out a bit. What’s Jesus doing? Is he serious? Doesn’t he want followers? It seems kind of backwards. Today, when so many have given up on all things religion and church, we’re trying to gather as big of a crowd as possible to hear about Jesus. But when Jesus was preaching, it seems like the crowds come and then he says something that makes them noticeably smaller or upset. I understand the appeal. I’d like to tell you that being a Christian means life is smooth sailing, but Jesus says it means a cross. My sinful nature would love it if following Jesus meant prosperity, but Jesus demands my willingness to give up everything rather than lose him. It would be convenient if being a disciple of Jesus meant I could squeeze him in when something opens up, but Jesus won’t play second fiddle. But we still try, don’t we? I’m glad to be on Jesus’ team…except when Jesus says something that I don’t like, or I know will ruffle feathers in my family. I’m happy to be called a Christian, except when I want to gratify some not-so-Christian desires of my flesh. I love to hear the word of God, I eat it up, only when it works with my crazy schedule – you know Sunday’s my only day off, right? And obviously God would want us to be together as a family doing anything but gladly hearing and learning his word, right? When you say it out loud, you realize the absurdity. Jesus pulls no punches. He’s painfully clear about the kind of followers he’s looking for, which makes me painfully aware of the kind of follower I’ve been. More often than we’d care to admit, our lives of discipleship are just a walking contradiction – kind of like un-salty salt.
Jesus speaks some tough words today, but don’t miss the beating heart of the gospel that drives them. Like I said before, all communication takes place within a context. When did Jesus say this? Where was he? Where was Jesus going when he said these things? To Jerusalem. And he’s taking you with him. For what? To be fully committed to you; saving you; forgiving you; making you his own. And he wasn’t going to let anyone or anything stand in his way. Jesus went to the cross and shows you and me in no uncertain terms that this is for you. Jesus was fully committed to saving you, and now he shows you that living a fully committed life as a Christian isn’t really all about you – it’s all about him, who he is, where he leads, and that he’s bringing us with him. Does following Jesus mean that life in this world will be a Sunday stroll in the park? Hardly. He tells us there’s a cross, and a cross is painful. Does being a Christian mean that nobody will push back against me for my faith? Well, no. I means precisely that they will. Does following Jesus mean that because I hold to what Jesus says simply because he says it, we’ll never butt heads with friends or family about the claims that Jesus makes? Well, no. And Jesus anticipated that, so he makes it clear that his love and commitment for us are a love and commitment that never flinch.
Most often, when you hear about discipleship and following after Jesus, we focus on the cost, the cross, and the hatred. Which, Jesus tells us, is to be expected. But don’t miss the more beautiful point: following after Jesus means we’re going where he’s going. The hate that he calls me to have for anything that gets in between me and him shows me the depth of his love and how he let nothing stand in his way when it came to saving me. Yes, Jesus leads us and that means a cross, but you know the rest of the story. What did a cross mean for Jesus? Death…and then life; an empty tomb; and a heavenly home. Jesus took upon himself our half-hearted discipleship and he died to pay the price in full. Jesus doesn’t just lead us to the cross, he leads us to an eternity with him in heaven. When we consider the cost of being Jesus’ disciple, that will mean giving up things that once were dear to us, but even in that we’re called to remember the way Jesus gave up absolutely all so that he could give you everything.
Jesus calls me to give up everything so he can show me that he is my everything. Recently I heard someone explain this in what I thought was a really helpful way. This is kind of like what God does in the Ten Commandments. In the First Commandment, God says, “You shall have no other gods.” He’s making a claim on you – I’m your God. You don’t have any others. This is it! In a sense, he’s taken everything away from us to show us that he is everything. And then in the rest of the commandments, he gives it all back to us so we can live with all the rest, reflecting the fact that God has made us his own. Think about it – in the 2nd, he gives us his name and prayer; the 3rd he gives us his Word; 4th he gives us our parents and children to parents; 5th he gives us our life; 6th our spouse; 7th our possessions; 8th our good name; 9th and 10th contentment with all his gifts. At first, it looks like God takes everything away, but only to show us that he is everything we need. Then, he gives it all back, and sets us free. In that, there is freedom – freedom from our sin, because he’s taken it away in Christ; freedom from guilt and accusation; freedom from the gods of my own making; freedom to live in a world uniquely our own, a world that’s been given back to us, reflecting the fact that we are his own. Jesus and his forgiveness are the foundation for everything we have and everything we are. Remembering that Jesus gave up all he had so that he could give you everything makes us bold to follow him, no matter what the cost.
So, a sermon about following Jesus with the theme “Count the cost” – it would be really easy to make this all about you. But I think that would be to do you a disservice. Today, Jesus certainly does call on us to count the cost of following him, but not before he reminds us that he counted the cost first. That’s right – Jesus counted the cost of what it would mean to leave behind the eternal praise of angels to be born in a stable – for you. Jesus counted the cost of what it meant to take on our humanity and be put under his Father’s law in our place. Jesus counted the cost of what it would mean to take the world’s sin upon himself – even yours and even mine – and pay for them with his own life. Called by his grace, you’re bold to follow him, because you know where he’s leading, and he’s bringing you with him, all by his grace. Count the cost – Jesus did. And, to him, you’re worth it.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power, and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen.