SERMON – JUNE 30, 2019 – REV. PAUL DAKIN

EXCUSES, EXCUSES

A sermon based on Luke 9:51-62

First Baptist Church of Lynchburg

June 30, 2019

By Paul Dakin

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

There is a book in my library that has the rather eye-catching title The Difficult Sayings of Jesus.[1] Its author is William Neil, a well-known Scottish theologian who taught for decades at the University of Nottingham in central England. The book examines thirty-four of the most startling statements made by our Lord Jesus. Professor Neil tries to make sense of each of them and to understand the point that Jesus was making. The book is not very large and is very readable. However I find that it has something significant to say on almost every page. It is a book that I find myself returning to from time to time when I am preparing Bible lessons or sermons.

 

And when you think about it, Professor Neil is right. The Jesus revealed in the gospels said some pretty astonishing things—outrageous things—things that we perhaps have grown so accustomed to hearing that they have lost their shock value to us over the years. For example, consider these five statements from the lips of our Lord recorded in the gospels. I want you to put on some “fresh ears” and tr y to listen to them as if you were hearing them for the very first time:

  • “All who take the sword die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52)
  • “The man who has much will be given more, and the man who has not will forfeit even what little he has.” (Mark 4:25)
  • “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.” (Mark 9:43)
  • “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:53)
  • And perhaps the most astounding statement of all: “Anyone who has seen me has seen God.” (John 14:9)

 

Pretty shocking stuff when you stop to think about it, isn’t it? Those statements bear little resemblance to the sentimental picture of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” that we usually encounter in Sunday School literature and in popular thought. [2] While the image of “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild” has some measure of truth about it, it is a distortion of the Jesus presented in the gospels…

 

This morning’s sermon text from Luke 9 contains a couple of these difficult sayings of Jesus that Dr. Neil talked about in his book. At least on some level, these sayings challenge popularly held assumptions about who Jesus is and what he desires from each of us…

 

In the text this morning, Jesus was approaching the close of his Galilean ministry. He was already bent on challenging the established authorities in Jerusalem which he knew was bound to end in his death. Indeed, verse 53 plainly tells us that Jesus’ “face was set toward Jerusalem.” Jesus was resolute and unflinching in his determination to see his mission through.

 

In his ministry so far, our Lord had hoped that his message would gradually win the hearts and minds of the multitude that followed him along the roads and beside the shores of Lake Galilee. He was hoping that his message would make them ready to commit their lives to the service of the coming Kingdom of God. Unfortunately that had not happened. Instead, his message had been met with apathy, misunderstanding, and opposition from many quarters. That was especially true from the religious leaders who seemingly hounded him at every opportunity. What our Lord was looking for was a cadre of chosen followers who would spearhead an attack on the world’s values and who would spread the good news of God’s freely offered grace to those who would receive it. He would not find many willing to take up the challenge…

 

In verse 57, we encounter the first of three difficult sayings of Jesus contained in this passage. The text tells us that someone came up to Jesus as he was walking along the road and told him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Now at first blush, one would think that this is exactly what Jesus would want to hear from a potential follower, isn’t it? It is an unqualified statement of the desire to follow Jesus. I mean, don’t we sing that song from time to time, “Wherever He leads, I’ll go”? Well, that is essentially what this person from the crowd was offering to do—to follow Jesus wherever he went. We would assume that Jesus would welcome such a response—at least I would think that. But instead of saying “Great! Welcome aboard! Glad you’ve made this decision,” Jesus tells the would-be follower, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

 

Hmmmmm…It’s an odd response to the man’s statement, don’t you think? Instead of welcoming the person into the fold to become one of his followers, it seems as if Jesus attempts to discourage the man from following him. Jesus does this by reminding the man that he is a homeless person. Jesus has no place to stay—he has no permanent address. The implication seems to be that, if this person is serious about following Jesus, then he could likely suffer the same fate. He might become just as homeless as Jesus was. Perhaps Jesus sensed that the man was not yet ready to make that kind of commitment and he was warning him about the potential cost…

 

In the second exchange in this passage, it is Jesus who initiates the conversation with someone in the crowd. Verse 59 tells us that Jesus said to this other person, “Follow me.”

 

This is the same kind of language that Jesus used when calling his first disciples. Matthew 4:19 and Mark 1:17 both tell us that when he encountered Peter and Andrew. Jesus called out to them, “Follow me.” And we are told that they immediately left their work as fishermen to follow Jesus.

 

But in response to Jesus’ call to this man to “Follow me,” Jesus received a different response. Instead of rising up to follow him, we are told that the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

 

Again our Lord gives a curious response. Instead of saying something pastoral like, “Okay—sure. I completely understand. Family obligations are important and we all need time to grieve when a loved one passes away,” Jesus tells the person, “Let the dead bury the dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” It seems like a rather callous thing to say, doesn’t it? Not very compassionate…Not very “Jesusy” of the Jesus that we all know and love to say the least…

 

Perhaps if we knew a little bit more about the situation, we could make better sense of this conversation. For example, what did the person mean when he said, “First let me go and bury my father?” Was his father already dead…or perhaps near death? Maybe…Or perhaps this person was just going to be a good son and stay with his family until such time as the father passed away. Was that the situation—or was it that, if he left to follow Jesus right then, he might have missed out on an inheritance that he would receive. An inheritance would make his journey with Jesus less costly and decidedly more comfortable. Who knows? The text really does not give us any indication. But whatever the situation was, Jesus would not hear of the man’s excuse. Instead, he charged the man to go and proclaim the kingdom of God…

 

In verse 61, Luke records a third exchange between Jesus and another wannabe follower. This person begins by telling Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord; but first, let me say farewell to those at home.” Our Lord’s reply stings no less than the first two. He says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.” In essence, Jesus tells the man that, just like you have to be paying full attention to what you’re doing when you are plowing a field, you cannot be distracted if you are going to be a disciple of his. So what is Jesus’ point? Surely he is not saying that loving our families and having normal attachments to them disqualify us from discipleship. That cannot be right. So why does he say that? What’s wrong with Jesus? Doesn’t Jesus think that family is important?

 

Excuses, excuses…

 

                I am reminded of a parable that Jesus told later on in Luke 14. The parable goes like this:

A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests. At the time of the banquet, he sent his servant to tell those who had been invited, “Come, for everything is now ready.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first one said, “I have just bought a field, and I must go and see it. Please excuse me.” Another said, “I have just bought five yoke of oxen, and I’m on my way to try them out. Please excuse me.” Still another said, “I just got married, so I cannot come.”

 

[Sidebar here: I always have wondered about that last one. What is it about being newly married that would preclude one from going to a fabulous banquet? I know that when Miriam and I were first married, money was very tight and we certainly would not have passed on any invitation to a nice dinner at someone’s house. Obviously, for whatever reason, this guy did not see it that way…Anyway, back to the story…]

 

The servant came back and reported this to his master. When the servant reported this to his master, he became angry…[And he told the servant], “I tell you, not one of those men who were invited will get a taste of my banquet.” (Luke 14:16-21, 24)

 

                Excuses, Excuses…

 

We like to believe that the gospel of Christ is for everyone. We like to believe that anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. We believe, along with the Apostle John, that “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, [Jesus] gave the right to become children of God.” (John 1:12) We all believe the words that we learned in Sunday School so many years ago: the words of John 3:16, which says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.”

 

And all that is true. We know it is true. The kingdom of God is open to everyone—regardless of race, ethnic background, age, gender, financial status, social standing, how good you have been, how sinful you have been—regardless of anything else. None of those things matter to Jesus. The love of God is so all-embracing that anyone can become a child of God through faith in Jesus.

 

EXCEPT…Jesus offers us one big caveat. He says that there is an exception to the all-inclusive call to follow him. There is one kind of person that our Lord said is not fit for the kingdom of God.

 

That one big exception is the person who gives only half-hearted commitment.

 

This is the common theme that runs through all three of the difficult sayings of Jesus that we have considered this morning. Jesus says that a half-hearted commitment to him is unacceptable. If you are going to follow him, then Jesus says that you have got to be all in. Nothing else will do.

 

A little bit later in Luke 14:27, Jesus tells the multitude, “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 own cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

 

It would probably be fair to say that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is still one of the most widely read theologians of the 20th Century. He was executed by the Nazis at the age of 37 for opposing Hitler’s regime and for his role in an assassination attempt on the dictator’s life in 1944. His most famous book is titled The Cost of Discipleship, in which he writes these words concerning what it means to follow Jesus:

 

The cross is laid on every Christian. The first Christ-suffering which every man must experience is the call to abandon the attachments of this world. It is that dying of the old man which is the result of his encounter with Christ. As we embark upon discipleship, we surrender ourselves to Christ in union with his death—we give our lives over to death. Thus it begins: the cross is not the terrible end to an otherwise God-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.

 

When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die. It may be a death like that of the first disciples who had to leave home and work to follow him [or it may be something else]. But it is the same death every time—death in Jesus Christ, the death of the old man at his call.[3]

 

Such talk surely seems to be a bit over the top, doesn’t it? Surely we are not to conclude from these verses that followers of Jesus may not sleep in their own beds at night. We are certainly not to take away from these verses that funerals (if not grief over the loss of loved ones) are forbidden to the followers of Christ. Surely we are not to conclude that loving our families and having normal attachments to them count as disqualifying looks back from the plow when it comes to kingdom work. If that we true, then many of Jesus’ choicest followers throughout the last two millennia would have offered service to our Lord that would not have been acceptable. So no—I do not think that is our Lord’s point at all.

 

Not all believers are called to leave family and home behind—but it must be said that some are—and have been through the history of the church. But whether or not we are called to leave our families behind or not, we are all called to a radical commitment to the gospel. And if in the midst of our lives that may mean turning down a promotion…or saying hard things to our children…or denying our families the dream vacations taken by others…or any number of other sacrifices both great and small in service to the truth and power of the gospel. When that happens, well then, we ought not to be surprised.[4]

 

Perhaps instead we should ask ourselves a different question: “Why is it that the gospel so often makes so little dent in our lives?” Maybe that is the question that the Jesus of Luke 9 wishes each of us to ask ourselves this morning…

 

To God alone be the glory! Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Neil, William. The Difficult Sayings of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975.

[2] This is the opening line to a children’s hymn by the great hymn writer Charles Wesley. It was very popular a few generations ago. Thankfully it has pretty much fallen out of use these days, though its legacy continues.

[3] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (London: SCM Press, 1948/2001), 44.

[4] I am indebted to Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary for much of the material in these two paragraphs.

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