The Three Rookies: Christ Speaks to the Problem of Convenient Excuses
March 18, 2001
I am writing these words at the end of our annual World Focus Week. Last Sunday many of our missionaries joined us for a few days as we focused on God’s work around the world. For the first time since becoming the pastor of this church 12 years ago, I was unable to take a significant part in our annual missions conference. Many of you know that our youngest son, Nick, had surgery earlier this week, and since Tuesday Marlene and I have been invisible at the church because we have been at the hospital more or less around the clock. I am very grateful that Nick is doing well and also very grateful for the prayers and expressions of love from so many people.
But I am sorry I could not spend time with our missionaries because I love them and consider them the true heroes of our church. They represent the best and the brightest among us and we honor their willingness to lay down their lives for the sake of the gospel. Many of our missionaries serve in places that are difficult both physically and spiritually. They certainly deserve our love and our support.
The Joy of Sacrifice
I was struck by the theme chosen for this year’s conference: “The Joy of Sacrifice.” Those two words—joy and sacrifice—don’t often go together. Joy we associate with good times and sacrifice, well, that’s what the missionaries are supposed to be doing. But if you talk to any of them, you soon discover that they have found great joy in doing what God has called them to do.
And that leads me directly to my text for today. Luke 9:57-62 contains three brief snapshots taken as Jesus walked along the road. A few verses earlier we learn that Jesus “resolutely” set out for Jerusalem (Luke 9:51). 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, scourged, 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, three would-be disciples met him on the road. Each man wanted to follow him, but each man had a hesitation, a reservation, or if you will, each man had a convenient excuse. These three “rookies” wanted to be disciples but they weren’t yet ready to pay the price.
As we study these brief snapshots, we will discover that these “convenient excuses” are amazingly contemporary. And 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.
I. Count the Cost! 57-58
As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Luke 9:57-58).
We can call this first man the Enthusiastic Disciple. Although I can’t prove it, I think he was a young man—possibly 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.” And 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. Well, God bless this young fellow. He didn’t wait. He just jumped up and volunteered to follow Christ anywhere.
On the other hand, I find it interesting that Christ didn’t say, “Thank you.” And he didn’t say, “I welcome you as my newest disciple.” In fact, Jesus doesn’t seem overly impressed by the enthusiasm the fellow expresses.
As I read between the lines, 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. And 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.
Walking the Aisle in Tears
In a way he reminds me of teenagers who go to summer camp and go forward in tears, offering themselves in full dedication to the Lord. Or he reminds me of people who come forward at the end of one of our worship services, deeply moved and wanting to draw closer to God. Or he reminds me of what happened to our men when we went together to a Promise Keepers rally at Soldier Field in Chicago. It is extremely moving to put your arms around a group of men and dedicate yourself to being a better husband and father and a better and more faithful man of God. I’ve been there. I have done all those things, and I would not for a moment lessen their value or suggest that those decisions are not genuine.
But 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 PK rally. At best those things are just a starting point. It’s what happens later that really matters.
And 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.” This is literally true. 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. Did 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.
The Scum of the Earth!
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 summer mist. They don’t understand who I am and why I came. I don’t want any thrill seekers or ‘Good Time Charlies’ 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?”
Lest we think that Jesus is not serious, consider the words of the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 4:11-13, “To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.” Ponder that last sentence for a moment. “The scum of the earth.” That’s what we are. It’s always been that way since the very beginning. When I look out over our congregation in Oak Park, I don’t see very many homeless people. Most of the folks look well fed and well bred. And most of us look to be upper-middle-class. Not too many broken down “beaters” 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 Haiti, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Mozambique, and Irian Jaya. Christians in those countries can identify with the words of Jesus and Paul 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 I do think we in America sometimes 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”
Our problem may be that we’ve become altogether too comfortable with the status quo. Two weeks ago I taught the book of Galatians to 500 eager students at Word of Life Bible Institute in upstate New York. This was my second time to teach Galatians there and I came away convinced that WOLBI is the best place I know for a young person (of any age!) to get a one-year course that covers the Bible, theology, and the Christian life. I should also mention that the rules there are fairly strict, especially regarding male-female relationships. Basically, they have a “no physical contact” rule.
A week or so before my trip, I received an e-mail from one of the students. It turned out that she had been raised in our church although her family moved away from our area about seven or eight years ago. One afternoon during my stay in New York, I talked with her and asked how it was going. She spoke with deep conviction about how her time at the Bible Institute had changed her life in so many positive ways. But it wasn’t easy making the transition from life as it had been to life under the rules at the BI. I remember exactly how she described her reaction when she first heard about the rules: “Don’t touch boys! Are you nuts?” It sounded almost like a convent to her. But over time she had grown spiritually and come to understand a fundamental spiritual truth: “We don’t belong in this world. We’re not supposed to be comfortable here.”
She’s exactly right. And that’s exactly what Jesus is trying to explain to this enthusiastic disciple. 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!
I love the words of Corrie Ten Boom. A true disciple, she said, has “shallow tent pegs.” Why shallow? Because we’re moving on in the morning!
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.
II. No Delays! 59-60
He said to another man, “Follow me.” But the man replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59-60).
We’ll call this fellow the Reluctant Disciple. Unlike the first man who volunteered, Jesus calls this man personally. His answer on one level seems reasonable. Surely we all understand the need to properly bury our parents. What child would not want to honor his parents this way?
We can say this much in his favor. 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. In the first century, the Jews buried the dead almost immediately, usually the same day. It’s hard to understand this if it means that the father died at 10:00 a.m. and the man is talking with Jesus at 11:00 a.m. and is saying something like, “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. We do know from the Old Testament and from the Talmud that the Jews took the responsibility of burying the dead very seriously. If a son properly buried his father, he was considered to have performed a good work and was even excused from certain religious duties during that period. The Apostle Paul reminds us in I Timothy 5:8 that 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.
Let the Dead Bury the Dead
There is another way to understand the phrase. “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.” It sounds almost curt. And 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. And 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 kids are older and then I’ll serve the Lord” or “I’ll wait until Mom is in the nursing home and then I’ll be baptized” or “When the kids are out of college, then I’ll serve Christ.” No! Those excuses are not open to you if you are a disciple of Christ.
I have pondered this carefully because all week long I have focused almost exclusively on my own family. For the last few days my wife and I have spent almost all our waking hours at the hospital during and after Nick’s surgery to remove his spleen. And I freely confess that during those hours I didn’t think much about the church or about my job as a pastor. My thoughts were almost exclusively for my son’s health. I am happy to report that he is doing well and mending quickly, but I can also say that as Sunday has approached I have thought about the hard truth of this text. I do not believe I have been wrong to spend the time with my son this week. I suppose any parent would do what my wife and I did. But there is more to the story than that. As I think about things, the following truth crystallizes in my mind. I must not look to my wife or to my three boys 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. And finally we end up not going at all.
III. No Turning Back! 61-62
Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:61-62).
Let’s call this third fellow the Divided Disciple, which is a contradiction in terms, if you think about it. A great many effective sermons have been preached from his words, “I will follow you, Lord; but first.” Just consider those two 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 a draftee, 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. And 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 honor. 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 bid his family goodbye?
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.
Plowing is Hard Work
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 mule will turn to the left. Look to the right and the mule will wander to the right. If you look back, the mule 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 remember the words of Jesus in Luke 14:26 “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.” You can check the word “hate” in the Greek and you’ll discover that “hate” is exactly what it means. But the “hate” of this verse doesn’t refer to personal animosity. 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.
For the Sake of the Call
On Friday I received an e-mail from someone who is preparing to leave in a few months for the mission field. Her words graphically illustrate what it means to put your hand to the plow and not look back. I have changed one or two words to protect her privacy. Here is part of what she wrote:
We are scheduled to leave in a few months for the mission field. To be quite honest, it is kind of overwhelming right now. We are under so much pressure. We are under emotional pressure, leaving behind family, friends, and our country. We are under financial pressure, trying to purchase numerous items for our trip, raise thousands of dollars for support, and just handle the day-to-day expenses of living.
We hear comments that cut at us, like, “Why would you take those precious babies so far away from their grandparents” … and “Why a foreign country?!? Can’t you serve God somewhere else?” … and all the while, as I am sure you can empathize, there is a kind of presence it seems we must maintain. We’re MISSIONARIES, so, like pastors, we aren’t “allowed” to complain, or doubt, or show any hesitation. We’re supposed to be pillars of faith and strength and encouragement.
The reality is that we are discouraged and sometimes the sacrifices seem so overwhelming. We don’t WANT to take our babies away from their grandparents. We would LOVE to somehow avoid the shots and paperwork and leaving behind the country we were raised in. But that isn’t what God has called us to do. He said to go, and so we go. I think often of the Steven Curtis Chapman song, “For the Sake of the Call”—”Simply because it is Jesus who calls, and if we believe, we’ll obey.”
And, in comparison with Christ, our sacrifices are so small. They may not FEEL small, but we know that they are. Thank you. And please pray for us. We’ll try and keep in touch.
Let me wrap up this message with three statements of application drawn from the three men who met Jesus on the road.
1)Following Jesus is More Important Than Personal Comfort.
2)Following Jesus is More Important Than Family Obligations.
3)Following Jesus is More Important 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.