Luke 9:51-62 – The Cost of Following Jesus

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. Then he and his disciples went to another village.

As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

He said to another man, “Follow me.”

But he 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.”

Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”

Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” (New International Version)

“The will of God, to which the law gives expression, is that men and women should defeat their enemies by loving them.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

In his earthly ministry, Jesus made it clear to the large crowds of people following him that the life of a disciple is of utmost importance. People are to discover what following Jesus truly entails. They are to count the cost of Christian discipleship.

Following Jesus in Christian discipleship requires radical obedience. 

Love of family must not stand in the way. Jesus insisted our primary loyalty must lie with following him over every earthly relationship. To follow Jesus means that we will not use family responsibilities to avoid obeying Christ or use other loyalties and commitments to work and/or school as a reason to lay down our cross. 

This talk of Christian discipleship might smack of being like a cult. I don’t believe it is. Whereas a cult typically requires a radical withdrawal from the world so that the leader has complete control over the group, Jesus requires a radical engagement with the world.

Following Jesus is meant to impact the world with grace and love. Jesus went out of his way to not be like other leaders who use power, control, and gaslighting as the means of ruling and leading. Instead, Jesus shares his power with others. Christians are to bless the world and be involved in it.

The call of Jesus to Christian discipleship not only takes precedence, but it also re-defines the other loyalties we have. 

This call involves some level of detachment in order to pursue following Jesus. All of life is to be infused with being a disciple of Jesus. If we insist on making other commitments and loyalties as high a priority as following Jesus, we will find ourselves torn between two masters. 

Several years ago, I took a trip with some other church leaders into the Canadian wilderness. We were so far out in the boonies that we needed special first aid training because, if someone got hurt, it would be hours before help could come. 

We canoed the lakes and carried our backpacks and canoes between lakes for an entire week. Whatever we took with us, we had to carry. Some people thought they needed all kinds of clothes and other accessories. Not far into the week, they quickly began to leave things along the trail and learned, over time, that what they thought was important in their life, wasn’t really important to what they were doing.

It’s good to get back to basics and do what is essential. And what is of most importance is following Jesus. 

An un-salty disciple is worthless. Making a profession of Christ, without counting the cost, is foolish. Christian discipleship was never designed to be easy; it was intended to be a public display that Jesus is Savior and Lord in every area of life. That means we will struggle with questions, such as: 

  • How do I be a faithful follower of Jesus in my family? 
  • How do I be a disciple, and do the work of discipleship at my job? 
  • How do I practice following Jesus in my neighborhood, and everywhere I go?

If we do not plan to follow Jesus at home, at work, in the neighborhood, and in the world, we won’t, because all kinds of competing loyalties will take over.

Christians need to be very intentional about being disciples who loyally follow the words and ways of Jesus.The going will get difficult. And that’s okay.

“Jesus has many who love his kingdom in heaven, but few who bear his cross. He has many who desire comfort, but few who desire suffering. He finds many to share his feast, but few his fasting. All desire to rejoice with him, but few are willing to suffer for his sake. Many follow Jesus to the breaking of bread, but few to the drinking of the cup of his passion. Many admire his miracles, but few follow him in the humiliation of the cross.”

Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ

“Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”

Jesus (Luke 14:27)

Joy comes not by pursuing happiness; it comes through discovering that to live is to die to self. Until we come to grips with that reality, we will likely be frustrated with our circumstances and other people.  

So, rather than trying to fit Jesus into our calendar, we are to let our calendar fill-out around the center of following Jesus. If Christians feel too busy for prayer; or for daily reading of Holy Scripture; or for loving one another; or for making disciples, then they have lost their way and must listen to the call of Jesus to be his disciple.

How, then, shall we live? What shall we do?

“Jesus stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other people and things. Christ is the Mediator, not only between God and people, but between person to person, between humanity and reality.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship

Imagine that in our heart is a big conference room including a big table, leather chairs, coffee, bottled water, and a whiteboard. A committee sits around this table in your heart. There is the social self, the private self, the work self, the sexual self, the recreational self, the religious self, and others.

The committee is arguing, debating, and voting. They’re agitated and upset. Rarely can they come to a unanimous, wholehearted decision.

We tell ourselves we’re this way because of our many responsibilities or our high level of stress. Yet, the truth is that we are internally divided, unfocused, hesitant, and feeling trapped. 

One way of dealing with this situation is to invite Jesus to come sit as a committee member. Give him a vote, too. But then he becomes just one more complication.

A better way is to say to Jesus, “My life isn’t working. Please come in, become my CEO and fire my committee, every last one of them. I hand myself over to you. I am your responsibility now. Please run my whole life for me.” 

Being a disciple of Christ is not just adding Jesus; it is also subtracting the idols that are in my heart. 

Following Jesus is not for the faint of heart; it is for those who humbly acknowledge that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. This is the path of Christian discipleship. Let’s give Jesus his due: our very lives.

Gracious and almighty God, all hearts are open to you, all desires known, and no secrets are hid. Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit so that we may perfectly love the Lord with all our hearts and magnify the holy Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Ezekiel 11:1-25 – A New Heart

Then the Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the gate of the house of the Lord that faces east. There at the entrance of the gate were twenty-five men, and I saw among them Jaazaniah son of Azzur and Pelatiah son of Benaiah, leaders of the people. The Lord said to me, “Son of man, these are the men who are plotting evil and giving wicked advice in this city. They say, ‘Haven’t our houses been recently rebuilt? This city is a pot, and we are the meat in it.’ Therefore, prophesy against them; prophesy, son of man.”

Then the Spirit of the Lord came on me, and he told me to say: “This is what the Lord says: That is what you are saying, you leaders in Israel, but I know what is going through your mind. You have killed many people in this city and filled its streets with the dead.

“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says: The bodies you have thrown there are the meat, and this city is the pot, but I will drive you out of it. You fear the sword, and the sword is what I will bring against you, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will drive you out of the city and deliver you into the hands of foreigners and inflict punishment on you. You will fall by the sword, and I will execute judgment on you at the borders of Israel. Then you will know that I am the Lord. This city will not be a pot for you, nor will you be the meat in it; I will execute judgment on you at the borders of Israel. And you will know that I am the Lord, for you have not followed my decrees or kept my laws but have conformed to the standards of the nations around you.”

Now as I was prophesying, Pelatiah son of Benaiah died. Then I fell face down and cried out in a loud voice, “Alas, Sovereign Lord! Will you completely destroy the remnant of Israel?”

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, the people of Jerusalem have said of your fellow exiles and all the other Israelites, ‘They are far away from the Lord; this land was given to us as our possession.’

“Therefore say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.’

“Therefore say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will gather you from the nations and bring you back from the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you back the land of Israel again.’

“They will return to it and remove all its vile images and detestable idols. I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God. But as for those whose hearts are devoted to their vile images and detestable idols, I will bring down on their own heads what they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.”

Then the cherubim, with the wheels beside them, spread their wings, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. The glory of the Lord went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. The Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the exiles in Babylonia in the vision given by the Spirit of God.

Then the vision I had seen went up from me, and I told the exiles everything the Lord had shown me. (New International Version)

God’s heart is a heart of justice. The Lord abhors unrighteousness, injustice, and oppression. Thankfully, God will not sit idle and put up with systemic evil for long.

Ezekiel is one of those Old Testament prophets that thoroughly uncovered the true state things, especially of the human heart. Through a series of visions given to Ezekiel for the Israelite exiles, one of the main messages of the prophet is that God would give them a new heart. 

There is hope for the exile, for the one in captivity because of sin’s destructive, demeaning, and deluding power. Conversely, for those conforming to such ways, for the ones who caused the exile of others, the high Judge of the universe will deal with them according to their errant and rascally ways.

Dark shadows exist within the human heart. Although humanity has a great potential for altruistic good, people also have a large capacity for evil. Arrogant pride, self-centered behavior, and sheer ignorance can take such root within a person’s heart, as well as the heart of an organization or institution, that oppression becomes the norm, with fat cats ruling over an indigent people.

At best, the heart apart from God contains a miniscule vestige of its ancient Creator’s image; at worst, the heart is desperately wicked and on a highway to hell. 

The issue, then, is whether the heart only needs to be modified, or whether there is needed a complete heart transplant. The prophet makes it quite clear which option must be done.

Jesus Christ sacrificed himself on the cross so that we could be transformed into new people. He did not come to tweak a few things in life and improve upon it – he came to bring wholesale change and transform the heart. 

If all we needed was a motivational speaker who would inspire our hearts to live better and reach our personal goals, then we would have not needed an incarnation, a crucifixion, a resurrection and ascension. Jesus is the risen Lord and Savior who replaces our hard stubborn hearts with a soft new heart of flesh. 

We need transformation of life, not life modification.

Awesome God, you have graciously and surgically removed my old heart, which was bound for destruction, and replaced it with a new heart, oriented toward living and loving like the Lord Jesus. May my heart always be inclined to the doing of your will, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Luke 13:1-9 – Jesus Will Have None of It

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree growing in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it but did not find any. So, he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’

“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (New International Version)

Jesus stood in a crowd of thousands of people. They peppered him with questions about all kinds of issues and situations. Christ responded with a combination of direct exhortations and pointed parables, designed to leave the people reflecting and thinking about what he said.

Christ’s direct exhortation is this: Repent. Change your mind. Christ’s pointed parable message is this: Bear fruit. Change your behavior.

The two go together. A fruitless life points to the need for repentance; and repentance results in bearing the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.

Jesus, throughout his earthly ministry, relentlessly went after the fruitless dead religion of his day. Jesus believed that such religion needed to be cut out and thrown away. 

Therefore, the Lord exposed the assumptions that people have about sin, faith, and judgment. Jesus challenged four false assumptions or presuppositions that people often hold. In dealing with them, Jesus wanted to foster a change of heart which would lead to a change in behavior.

First Wrong Assumption: Other people’s sin is more serious than mine.

It’s a common human tendency to focus on the bad things in the world what other people do, rather than focus on our own heart and life. We can always identify people who are worse sinners than us! 

The crowd believed Pontius Pilate was a terrible sinner who needed to be dealt with, and they wanted Jesus to get on board to their way of thinking. The people wanted to talk trash about the Romans.

“Repentance is nothing else but a reformation of the whole life according to the Law of God.”

John Calvin

We must beware of people who constantly bemoan the state of the world and the sins of others, while ignoring their own issues or how they might be contributing to the problem. It’s so much easier to scapegoat a person or group of people, believing that if “those people” change, then everything will be okay.

But Jesus will have none of it.

Christ steered the discussion to personal repentance. Although you and I cannot control, change, or fix anyone, we can practice self-control, change our personal habits, and be the solution to our own problems.

Everywhere we go, the world is rife with criticisms and accusations of others. It’s always somebody else’s fault for the ills of the world and even the church.

Republicans blame Democrats. Democrats blame Republicans. Anti-vaxers blame the government. The vaccinated blame the previous government. Everyone thinks that if the other changes, all will be well. 

In the church, when things aren’t right, Christians might ask things like, “Who sinned, the pastor or the congregation, the church or the denomination?” With the decline of religion in the land, we look for a scapegoat. 

But Jesus will have none of it.

Christ cut through all the scapegoating and blame-shifting by saying that every single person needs to repent, without exception. Then, Jesus upped the ante with a parable by challenging us with a very probing thought: 

Are we bearing fruit, or just taking up space? 

Whenever we howl for judgment on others, but insist on grace for ourselves, we are the ones in need of repentance.

Second Assumption: My sin isn’t that serious.

When King Frederick II, an eighteenth-century King of Prussia, was visiting a prison in Berlin, the inmates insisted they had been unjustly imprisoned – all except one. That one sat quietly in a corner, while all the rest protested their innocence. Seeing him sitting there oblivious to the commotion, the king asked him what he was there for:

“Armed robbery, your Honor.”

The king asked, “Were you guilty?”

“Yes, Sir,” he answered. “I entirely deserve my punishment.”

The king then gave an order to the guard: “Release this guilty man. I don’t want him corrupting all these innocent people.”

We may concede that we are all sinners, but then struggle with believing that our personal sin really deserves imprisonment. So, we see no need for repentance. It isn’t that bad.

But Jesus will have none of it. 

Here are some questions raised by today’s Gospel lesson: 

Do I continually locate sin outside of my life, or do I discern the sinfulness of my own heart? 

Do I believe people in hardship are more sinful than me? 

Can I envision that I must change for the church and the world to change? 

Is my life fruitful, or fruitless? 

How can I become fruitful? 

What must I repent of? 

What will happen if I don’t repent?

Third Assumption: God will not judge me.

Some might concede we are all sinners, and my own sin is bad. “But is it really so bad that God would judge me?”  Again, the two big ideas Jesus is working with here is that everyone needs repentance, and everyone needs to bear spiritual fruit in keeping with such repentance. 

Jesus alerts us that the future involves a Judgment Day. All shall be held accountable for fruit-bearing, or the lack thereof. No fruit on the branch means it will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

Jesus was talking to a crowd of people who were quite religious. They were faithful temple worshipers, and had weekly practices of giving, fasting, and prayer. But they needed to repent of trusting in self and stuff. 

They believed God would judge the evil Romans and everyone else who did not live or think like them. They were God’s people; the Lord would not judge them!

But Jesus will have none of it.

The Lord almighty looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
    for righteousness, but heard cries of distress. (Isaiah 5:7, NIV)

Learn to do right; seek justice.
    Defend the oppressed.
Take up the cause of the fatherless;
    plead the case of the widow.

Isaiah 1:17, NIV

Jesus wants spiritual fruit in keeping with repentance. Believing the right things and doing the right service never justifies indulging in hate, rage, anger, discord, selfish ambition, envy, impatience, unkindness, and ungraciousness. Doing a particular set of religious duties never gives one a license to use their attitude, their tongue, or their life in whatever way they want.

Fourth Assumption: I have plenty of time.

Okay, other people’s sin is not worse than mine. My sin is serious. God will deal with my sin if I do not repent. But I have time to deal with it, right? I will get around to it when I get a chance. 

But Jesus will have none of it.

Jesus was establishing a sense of urgency into the crowd. Repentance is not something to put off until tomorrow. Today is the day to deal with sin. If a lack of fruitfulness persists, judgment is imminent. Jesus was not trying to scare people into repentance; he was just letting them know that procrastination puts us in a precarious position. We don’t have unlimited time. We are on the clock.   

Just because God is gracious, merciful, kind, and patient does not mean that he won’t cut the dead religion tree down.

Today is the day of repentance, the day to quit looking for everyone else to repent and change, the day to take our own sin seriously, the day to discern that God does not show favoritism and will judge all persons equally and fairly. 

Today is the day because the hour is almost here when Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead.

Conclusion

So, we must repent of a lack of fruitfulness. The spiritual fruit God is looking for is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. 

When an apple trees bear fruit, some of those apples do not just bear the apple’s skin, some the apple’s core, some the apple’s meat. No! When an apple tree bears fruit, it bears apples – whole ones with all the things that make an apple an apple. 

There is no leg to stand on with the notion that I have love, but no patience; or display a lack of peace, but practice self-control. We either have the fruit of the Spirit, or we do not! If we have some of these, but not others, we have genetically modified fruit which has not been raised in the soil of the gospel.

Each one of us needs to look in our heart in this season of Lent and accurately assess the current state of our lives before God. Then, we need to repent, to change those things which the Spirit of God identifies. And, like a farmer, we are to cultivate, fertilize, and tend to our hearts in ways that will produce a crop.

Gracious God, our sins are too heavy to carry, too real to hide, and too deep to undo. Forgive what our lips tremble to name, what our hearts can no longer bear, and what has become for us a consuming fire of judgment. Set us free from a past that we cannot change; open to us a future in which we can be changed; and grant us grace to grow more and more in your likeness and image, through Jesus Christ, the light of the world. Amen.

Isaiah 5:1-7 – A Parable of the Vineyard

Let me sing for my loved one
    a love song for his vineyard.
My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside.
He dug it,
    cleared away its stones,
    planted it with excellent vines,
    built a tower inside it,
    and dug out a wine vat in it.
He expected it to grow good grapes—
    but it grew rotten grapes.
So now, you who live in Jerusalem, you people of Judah,
    judge between me and my vineyard:
What more was there to do for my vineyard
    that I haven’t done for it?
When I expected it to grow good grapes,
    why did it grow rotten grapes?
Now let me tell you what I’m doing to my vineyard.
I’m removing its hedge,
    so it will be destroyed.
I’m breaking down its walls,
    so it will be trampled.
I’ll turn it into a ruin;
    it won’t be pruned or hoed,
    and thorns and thistles will grow up.
I will command the clouds not to
The vineyard of the Lord of heavenly forces is the house of Israel,
    and the people of Judah are the plantings in which God delighted.
God expected justice, but there was bloodshed;
    righteousness, but there was a cry of distress! (Common English Bible)

God is the owner of the vineyard. Israel and Judah are the beloved. The Lord graciously chose them, gave them divine promises, and set his steadfast love upon them. God sang over them with affection and took care of them.

The Lord God put time, effort, and love into the relationship. God anticipated good things, looked forward to a bright future, and expected a flowering of justice and righteousness from the people.

It didn’t happen. The relationship went sour. Nothing but rotten grapes.

God builds. God gives. God sustains…. God destructs. God takes away. God ends it.

The Lord didn’t put all that work into the people to have them perpetuate injustice toward the poor and disadvantaged. God didn’t choose Israel so that they would then neglect God’s law by mistreating others and ignoring the right.

The bloodshed of the people was that they squeezed and bled the poor to death. Their cries and anguished responses were ignored. There was no mercy. So, God was not about to idly stand by and let such rotten grapes abuse and ruin the good, the just, and the right.

The relationship between and God and God’s people was an ancient love song that went off key and struck a minor chord. The Lord has extreme love and patience… until he doesn’t. There’s no way the just and right God is going to put up with abusive, ignorant, and bad folks forever.

Defend the rights of the poor and the orphans; be fair to the needy and the helpless.

Psalm 82:3, GNT

Jesus had this allegorical image of Isaiah in mind when he spoke in parables about the impossibility of good fruit coming from bad vines and trees, and the necessity of removing dead branches. (Luke 6:43-45; John 15:1-17)

If the grapes are bad, the vine is bad. If the words are hateful, sarcastic, passive-aggressive, manipulative, conniving, racist, hurtful, mean, foolish, and either subtly or overtly abusive, then the person has a dark heart and is need of redemption, not excuses.

Learn to do good.
    Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
    Defend the cause of orphans.
    Fight for the rights of widows.

Isaiah 1:17, NLT

Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. The wicked heart will not be able to speak ill of others and act hatefully with impunity forever. They will be called to account for their abusive words and actions, whether overtly violent, or subtly undermining.

The righteous heart, however, shall experience divine pleasure and reward, as if the careful construction of helpful and building up words with loving deeds wins first-prize at the great heavenly fair for their plump juicy grapes.

The good person loves and does not hate. They are so far from harming anyone that they even pray and wish well for their enemies. They pray for blessings on those who curse them. There is an honest striving to speak good words to everyone, regardless of who they are.

The upright heart thinks the best of everyone and holds nothing over someone else’s head. Such a good heart condemns no one, leaving all judgment to God alone. It is patient with the most exasperating of people, praying they might come to their senses and become spiritually healthy.

The righteous are able to use their speech to admonish their neighbor with care and affection. They freely forgive, happily give, liberally encourage, and use their tongue to speak words of life. Indeed, their speech is wise, humble, full of grace, and above all, loving.

The just and right person uses their hands and feet to build good things for others, especially the most vulnerable and needy among us. They willingly meet needs without bitterness or with a begrudging heart.

If there is a problem with words, it will not do to simply change the speech. That’s because it is a heart issue. And the heart must be willing to change and be transformed by sheer mercy.

If there is an issue with actions, it will not do to merely enforce a change in behavior. That’s because it’s a heart problem. And the heart desperately needs to acknowledge sin and repent from evil.

Fortunately, God is the expert on renovating dilapidated hearts and performing effective heart transplants.

Oftentimes something needs to be destroyed for a building to be erected. There always needs to be a death before there can be a resurrection. New life cannot occur without forsaking an old life.

In this Christian season of Lent, believers in Jesus are mindful that our life of faith, hope, and love comes from a death. So, we journey with Jesus along the road of suffering, up Calvary, and are crucified with him so that we might rise with him.

This is the way.

It is the way of repentance, of genuine change, of new habits, of Christianity. So now, let’s go to him outside the camp, bearing his shame. We don’t have a permanent city here, but rather we are looking for the city that is still to come. (Hebrews 13:13-14)

May justice, righteousness, and peace be yours in abundance through him who gave himself for us and for our salvation.