June 16, 2019
What area of discipleship do you need to work on?
I. Confidence (37-45) Do I have confidence when Jesus is out of sight? Do I have confidence in his program?
II. "I" Trouble (46-56) Do I have "I" trouble in my relationships? Do I suffer from spiritual intolerance? Am I compassionate toward those who oppose me?
Ill Priorities (57-62) Is Jesus more important than my comfort? Is Jesus more important than my duty? Is Jesus more important than my affections?
According to my calculations I have something like 24 college semesters under my belt. My kids have another 40 or more, I would guess, and as a result of all that I have somewhat of a twitchy relationship with the word “mid-terms” The problem is not a big test in the middle of the semester. The problem is that teachers are devious. They frequently have a hidden purpose in what they do. Their mid-terms have one real purpose that I can see, to shock you into the reality that this course is half over and you're not ready yet for the finals.
Reading the section of Luke we’re studying this morning, is a lot like reading a mid-term exam, that was taken by the disciples. And they didn't do too well on it. Jesus jolts them into the reality that their discipleship is not too good. They still have a lot to learn before the finals. So the question of the day is: what about you? What about me? Do we still have a lot to learn? How would we do on this mid-term exam? What area of discipleship do you or I need to work on? As I see this text it’s a midterm with at least eight essay questions, divided into three main categories: Confidence, “I” trouble and priorities.
We start with Luke 9:37-45 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. 39And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. 40And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” 41Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” 42While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43And all were astonished at the majesty of God. But while they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, 44“Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” 45But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.
The title of this section is confidence, though I might also have called it faith. And the first question on your mid-term is this: Do you have confidence when Jesus is out of sight? Do you have faith when Jesus is out of sight? Remember, Jesus has just been up on a mountain with three of his disciples, and has been revealed as the Christ, the Messiah and the beloved Son of God.
The next day he comes down from the mountain. What have the other nine disciples, been doing while he was gone? Apparently not too much. Jesus is immediately confronted with a case where the disciples, through lack of faith, and possibly lack of prayer, have been unable to heal a boy. He is possessed by a demon that manifests in the form of epilepsy, or possibly the demon takes advantage of a boy who has epilepsy. His father has brought him to the disciples but they have been unable to heal him. Just as Moses came down off the mountain, and found a lack of faith among the Israelites, and evil among them, so Jesus comes down off the mountain and finds lack of faith among the disciples, and evil in the form of this evil spirit who had enslaved the boy. And just as Moses got upset with the lack of faith, so also Jesus gets upset with the lack of faith. His cry seems to be directed not only against his disciples, but against the evil spirit and the entrenched evil of his own age. He says: “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you?” He calls for the boy, and the demon casts the boy into one last convulsion before Jesus, in his effortless way rebukes the demon and, Luke the physician says, heals the boy.
The key issue seems to be that the disciples lacked faith. They were daunted, maybe by Jesus’ absence. This seems to be how Jesus understands it. He turns to his disciples and says: “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” The implicit question is: “Then what will you do? You don't have the faith to do my work when I am on a mountain What will you do after I’ve gone away?” On our side of the cross, after Christ’s ascension to God’s right hand, we face this question every day. Do you have confidence in Christ though you cannot see him? Jesus said to his disciple Thomas “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Peter wrote to the churches in Asia “Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.” If we’re going to grow as disciples, we can only start by trusting even though we don't see him, even when we don’t see his work happening, even when we don’t see his answers to our prayers.
So question one is: “Do you have confidence in Jesus even though you don't see him? Question two is “Do you have confidence in his program?” Jesus heals this young boy, and the crowd goes wild. Luke says they were amazed at the greatness of God and marveled at all that Jesus did. I think the disciples, rightly, got caught up in this wild enthusiasm for the miracle of Jesus, gathering around the boy. But I picture Jesus looking around with a good deal of exasperation, and saying to the disciples “Gentlemen, think deeply about this: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.”
Were the disciples with the program? No. They couldn't accept idea of a suffering Messiah. “But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.” The disciples didn’t understand God’s program for two reasons, which wove together. First, it wasn’t time. Until the sacrifice of Christ was completed, it would have seemed like foolishness. In 1st Corinthians Paul says “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” He says “the god of this world has blinded the minds of unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” But along with the hiddenness of the atonement is the unwillingness of the disciples to believe what God was doing and how he was doing it. This is shown in the simple fact that they weren’t willing to ask. Like so many, they preferred to live in the darkness of their ignorance than to embrace a truth they didn’t like.
So, the second question is “are you with God’s program?” In one sense how could we not be? We know how it turned out. We know Jesus did go to Jerusalem. He was betrayed into the hands of men, suffered and was crucified, and on the third day he rose. We know why. It was on our behalf, because we’ve all sinned, been separated from God, condemned to death. Only his sacrifice and resurrection can save. But we live in a fallen world that longs for flourishing, but urges us to soft peddle and disbelieve God’s program. God is portrayed as violent, judgmental and misogynistic, his word is portrayed as full of errors, violence and hate, his people are portrayed as intolerant, unloving and toxic. Sin itself is mocked, a holdover from a patriarchal age. Right and wrong are relative. Personal choice and personal fulfillment are the only moral absolutes, unless your choices go against what is culturally correct at a given moment.
The sad part is that Christians are intimidated by this new standard of culture into silence, no longer speaking the truth about sin in love, no longer offering the true rescue of trusting God, taking hold of Jesus. By this silence we not only embrace culture rather than truth but we leave unsaid the only words that can offer real hope and real life to those who are blinded and fast bound by sin.
So are you with God’s program? Have you, first, admitted your own sinfulness and accepted that only his self-sacrifice can do for you what needs to be done? Do you believe that his death was on your behalf, and placed your faith and trust in the one who died for you and then rose again from the dead. And if you have, are you convinced that this is the real truth, that all people need to be shown this way of escape. They need to hear it in our compassionate and truthful words, see it in our compassionate community.
The next verses are concerned with "I" trouble. Not "Eye" trouble but “I” trouble, pride and self-centeredness. Here the disciples are flunking their mid-term, caught up in their own position and prestige. This is Luke 9:46-56, but we’ll read it in three chunks. Verses 46-48 An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. 47But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side 48and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”
It’s sad that the disciples, after all they’ve seen, aren’t marveling at Jesus but arguing about their own greatness. I suspect Peter, James, and John, having witnessed the transfiguration were implying that this made them the most prominent disciples, and the others were disputing this claim. Jesus cuts off their childish debate by directing their attention at a little child. He says “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” True greatness is a willingness to care for and serve the least important among you, the little child. When you receive the one with the least prestige and influence, you’re really welcoming Jesus, and by extension, welcoming God the Father.
This makes you important in God's eyes: “For he who is least among you all, he is the one who is great.” In Matthew Jesus says “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” But in that culture children were not valued, and were cared for by the lowest slaves or household servants. Jesus is saying “care for these little ones like a menial slave. That’s what makes you great.” By the way, in the next chapter it becomes even more clear that one of the things Jesus means when he uses the term “little children” is believers, and so this greatness comes from serving fellow believers in need.
So do I have "I" trouble in my relationships? Do I care about my prestige, my image, my needs, or do I honestly care about and care for others? A very practical way to test this is to listen to yourself for awhile. In your conversations do you habitually turn the subject toward yourself, using the words "I", "me", "mine?" Or do you turn the conversation toward others? “How are you doing?”, “Tell me about your week.” “How can I help?” When somebody shares a concern with you, do you focus on their need, or does it remind you of a need of your own. It is so easy to become self-centered in our conversation.
Next “I” trouble question: Do I display spiritual intolerance? Verses 49 and 50: John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” 50But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.”
Later on Jesus will say the apparent opposite, “whoever is not with me is against me.” Jesus looks at the heart, and there are no neutral hearts: whoever is not with Jesus is against him. But we only see externals. We need to give people the benefit of the doubt. If they are not against us, we need to assume they are for us. Even if they seem to be doing things in ways, we consider unwise or inappropriate, we don’t oppose them. Here John sees someone driving out demons in Jesus' name, which Jesus authorized the disciples to do. But since this person isn’t part of the immediate group, then obviously this person's ministry ought to be stopped. Jesus says: “don’t do it. How do you know that he isn’t also doing my work? Don't try to press people into your mold, John.”
Do I suffer from spiritual intolerance? Social media sure make it easy. Any church or organization you look at is likely to have some very vocal critics on Twitter or Facebook, and even if they don’t the rampant atmosphere of criticism and conflict does tend to make judgment an acceptable standard. As a result we get a few people or Christian organizations we agree with, and we just love to hate the others. As John says, we would try to stop them if we could. But mostly we don’t know what we’re talking about. We don’t the people in those churches or groups, we don’t know their true positions or behaviors, and above all we don’t know their hearts. Now I’m not saying that we never speak out against heresy and harm, but we need to do it gently and with respect and fact to face if possible. I can’t tell you how often I’ve judge a group based on a first impression but had to modify my opinion when I learned more.
The fifth exam question is similar: Am I compassionate toward those who oppose me? Verses 51-56 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56And they went on to another village.
This, by the way, is the start of the middle section of Luke, which focuses on Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem. But the disciples are still taking their midterm, and here they flunk the test of compassion. The most direct route from Galilee to Jerusalem was through Samaria, but Jews didn't like Samaritans, Samaritans didn't like Jews, and Josephus reports that Jews were frequently beaten and robbed while going through Samaria. It’s not surprising that Jesus received an unfriendly welcome in the first Samaritan village that he came to. But the point of the narrative is that James and John get really upset at this opposition and they ask the Lord if they can call down fire to destroy the village.
I can't help but think about all the acts of terror and mass murder that have been perpetrated around the world in recent years, and how many were motivated by misguided, sinful religious fanaticism. There is no case where an individual has the right to take violent judgment into their own hands. Rather, in every case, the compassion of Christ, and his command to love our enemies rules. James and John at least were sane enough to ask Jesus, but he replies with the only answer he’ll give to such a request, a stinging rebuke. This was not his way of operating. He does not return anger for anger or evil for evil. Jesus is compassionate to his opponents. Even on the cross, "Father, forgive them”
Are you hot-headed? Most of us are not terrorists, many of us don’t even have terrorist inclinations. But uncompassionate? Oh yeah. Unforgiving? Yeah. Did you ever read Leviticus 19:18? The second half is very famous “but, you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The first half says “you shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge.” If you’re going to fulfill the second half, you’ve got to take the first half seriously. It’s on the midterm.
Part three of the exam is called priorities, verses 57-62. As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Notice that these questions didn't necessarily occur at the same time, or even in this sequence. Throughout this section that chronology is less important to Luke than theme. Anyway, we have three encounters between Jesus and would-be followers. In the first, a man simply volunteers to follow Jesus: “I will follow you wherever you go.” Good. This is what Jesus had commanded, “If anyone wishes to come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.” Yet following requires radical allegiance. Jesus says: “You can follow me, but recognize that a bird has more comfort than I do, more security. I don’t know where I’m going to sleep tonight.” By implication, if we follow Jesus, we will have no security, really no lasting home here.
Is Jesus more important than your comfort? A radical allegiance will pursue service rather than comfort. And Jesus may lead you to a zone comfort wouldn’t lead you to go, to do something comfort wouldn't do, to love someone comfort wouldn't associate with, to give an amount comfort wouldn't give.
Have you done something that stretched your comfort zone in the last three months? Six months? A year? Maybe it was committing yourself to this church. Maybe it was working with Crisis Response in home. Maybe it was volunteering to teach Sunday School. Maybe it was reaching out to someone in need, or reconciling a relationship. Maybe it was joining a small group though you are an introvert. Maybe it was coming alongside a deeply struggling person, though you felt powerless to help them. Jesus in these chapters of Luke, will continually encourage us to stretch our comfort zone. And here he puts it very simply. “You may not even have a place to lay your head, if you follow me.”
Question seven, “Is Jesus more important than your duty?” Verse 59: To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” You have to know that the duty to bury the dead was strong in New Testament Judaism. You were required to violate ceremonial purity in order to bury a dead relative. Even priests and the high priest himself were expected to do this. So, the man is proposing that this very serious duty will keep him from following Jesus for a while. Some have said maybe the man's father wasn't dead yet, and the man was proposing to remain at home, possibly for years, until his father died and his duties as a son were completed. That could be, but we can’t let an explanation like that water down the radical nature of the commitment Christ calls for. He says “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” What this probably means is let those who are spiritually dead remain behind to bury those who are physically dead. You, go and preach the Gospel.
So the question becomes is there some duty in life that would keep us from making a radical commitment to Jesus Christ? Duty to your family, duty to your employer, duty as a provider, duty as a caretaker, duty as a student, duty as a child? None of these things is bad or wrong in any way, but the call of Jesus has to be more important. In our day of international communication, I think we all know people who have made the hard choice to leave behind a birth religion, be it Hinduism or Buddhism or Islam, and very often acceptance in their own family and community, in order to follow Jesus. We are Facebook friends with a gal from Nepal, Izzymeeta Bidari, who has done just that and is now finishing a degree at Moody Bible institute, intending to go back and work against the horrible human trafficking problem in her home country.
Last exam question, again, on priorities. Is following Jesus more important than your affections? Verses 61-62: “Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’”
Here the man is asking simply for a little time to make things right with his family, before he leaves to follow Jesus. On the surface this is reasonable. I don't know if you remember the story of Elisha and Elijah. It's back in I Kings 19. Elijah has been told by God, to go and deputize Elisha as his assistant. When Elijah threw his cloak over Elisha, Elisha understood it to be a summons, and said: “Let me kiss my father and mother good-bye, and then I will come with you.” Now in that case Elijah granted the request, but here Jesus says “No, following me must be more important to you even than natural affections. You can’t put your hand to the task and then turn back.”
I've been reading a bit of Oswald Chamber recently, and Chambers repeatedly says that true discipleship will place a strain even on your family relationships. He says you have to depend on God to take care of those who suffer as a result of your calling. We can trust God to take care of those we love, because he loves them too. We are not abandoning them in pursuing discipleship, but placing them in the hands of Him who loves them, trusting him to take care of them. So that's the last question: Is Jesus more important than your affections?
How are you doing on this midterm? It’s not intended as a test that you pass or fail, it’s intended as series of shocking and convicting questions that help you make midcourse corrections on the journey of discipleship. We’ve asked eight different questions, but you can't work in eight areas at once. So let me ask you to pray, and try to figure discern where Jesus is pushing on you. What area of discipleship do you need to improve? Where is your worst grade? And what can you do to build yourself up in Christ.