Invitation Service

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If you have got a bible you might like to turn to Luke chapter 14 where we are this evening. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Well that’s certainly one way of gaining recruits! Imagine José Mourinho touting for a job in the premier league. ‘Unless you hate your family I don’t want your support.’ It’s not an obvious opening gambit is it? And maybe you’re watching Dragon’s Den on the TV, budding entrepreneurs making their pitch. “Morning Dragons. Unless you hate your company, hate yourself, and give everything away, I’m not interested in your investments.” I doubt they teach you that on your MBA! In fact if you just think about it, if you were to put on a guest service at a church and you were to invite your friends to come along and check out the Christian message, surely the last thing you would do with such frankly embarrassing small print in the bible, is to headline them for all at the top of the page. Short of having this talk on Mother’s Day in a few week’s time, “Unless you hate your mother you can’t be my disciple.” ‘What kind of crazy church is this?’ you think. Are we trying to accelerate the sinking UK church statistics we are told about? Well let me be perfectly clear. I am not going to do that, and in fact I am praying that this talk will convince somebody to become a Christian, or at least move you on the road towards faith in Christ and giving Jesus the serious thought he demands. Because Jesus is so intriguing isn’t he?

In fact it is passages like the one we are looking at this evening that convince me more and more that Luke’s gospel isn’t just a collection of myths, or exaggerations, or wish-fulfilments that the sceptics often throw at it. If you and a bunch of friends were trying to rustle up a religion for people to fall for, there is no way at all that you would include this passage, is there? Out with the embarrassing small print, the invasive Jesus, the Jesus that takes himself just a little too seriously. No one is going to buy that! And yet of course this passage does make the final cut of Luke’s gospel and I think therefore has the ring of authenticity about it. If Luke can be trusted on the hard bits, the bits you would easily axe, well surely we’d want to trust him on everything else. Well at any rate, back to our passage and the extraordinary words of Jesus. What are we to make of them? I have two very simple points to make this evening. Here is our first point:

1. Jesus is completely worth following

Now the concept of following someone has taken a surprising turn in the last couple of years. The idea that you or I might follow Justin Bieber, or Lady Gaga, or Stephen Fry only three years ago would have just sounded weird. But now (for example) over five million of us in the UK follow Stephen Fry on Twitter. Now if you are interested, Justin Bieber has over thirty four million followers and Lady Gaga just behind him. They are the global top two most popular ones on Twitter. Now I want to say for the uninitiated, by ‘follow’ I mean ‘have clicked on a button on a web site.’ And now everything that that celebrity or friend (or friend who thinks they’re a celebrity) thinks is important, everything they say or ‘tweet’, comes into your computer to read - very deep I know! – following your hero is just one click away. Well once upon a time the word ‘follow’ actually meant something. I guess in a similar way, long ago, in ancient times, in the medieval period before Facebook, the word ‘friend’ meant something too! Anyway in the days of yore, the old fashioned meaning of the word ‘follow’ was ‘to pursue something’ or ‘to go after someone wherever they led’, and it is that meaning that we are talking about here. And Jesus is completely worth following.

Now this point actually doesn’t spring out of our passage directly, but it’s kind of assumed in the passage and the context surrounding it and we need to get that clear before we move on. For there is nothing worse than being taken out of context. If you’re at McDonalds and you overhear a Dad on the phone and he says, “I wish my son was more messy” and all the while the kids are throwing chips at each other and squirting each other with tomato sauce! You think, “More messy?! I think you are doing pretty well, friend!!” And then you realise that he is actually talking about the school first eleven football trials. And ‘I wish my son was more messy’ – well every dad wants their son to be more ‘messy’! I would love my son to be more ‘messy’, more Lionel Messi, the Barcelona Argentinian wonder kit. If we take the quote out of context it makes no sense.

And the context for Luke 14 is crucial. The big story context is that Jesus is on a journey. He is going from his home region of Galilee in the north, Chapter 9, and all the way through the next ten chapters up to Chapter 19 he is travelling back down to Jerusalem. And on his journeys he is meeting people, and he is telling stories (bible word, parables). And the stories are to do with what it means to follow Jesus. And he is getting quite a following so that in verse 25 of our passage you’ll see, “Now great crowds accompanied Jesus.” There is a great train of interest surrounding this man. Understandable curiosity has been raised. He has recently healed someone. But it seems that it’s his teaching that is so unmistakably so compelling. If you were to look over to the next chapter 15, vs 1, you will see, “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus.” These were people who would not normally associate with a religious leader, but they’re all crowding in, desperate to hear what this man has to say.

And what he is saying is that God loves to throw a great party. In the middle of chapter 14 vs 15-23, is the parable of the great banquet. There we have a man, who clearly represents God in the story, who throws this great, great party. He invites loads of people, excuses are made and so the host, what does he do, he goes out after the waifs and the strays and drags them in to celebrate with him. In chapter 15 we have got three stories of lost - lost sheep, lost coin, lost son - and in each case you will see that as the sheep, the coin and the son are found, again there is great celebration. Friends are invited round, the barbecue is fired up, the beers flow, and the dancing goes on into the night. But if you are honest God and parties don’t often go in the same sentence for most of us, do they? Jesus, if he exists, he’s the kind of guy who turns wine into water. He takes you to McDonalds and makes you order a McSalad. He wants to tie you up in his “Thou shalt nots!” and ruin your life. My friend, Jesus is not like that at all! Jesus came to turn water into wine. He came to bring life in all its fullness. Ultimately we see if we read on in Luke’s gospel, he came to rescue people, from hell, yes, for heaven! And the way he does that is by dying on the cross for us in our place. That’s where his journey is heading. He offers us free forgiveness and acceptance with God. So when we get to verse 25 of our passage and there is a large crowd gathering around him, it’s no surprise because Jesus is completely worth following! That’s the first point for tonight. And it set the scene that context is in place for now at controversial teaching if Point 1 Jesus is completely worth following, secondly:

2. Jesus must be followed completely.
Look down again to verse 25, “Now great crowds accompanied Jesus.” I imagine there would have been a whole load of curious people in that mix. ‘Give us a story Jesus.’ ‘Give us a miracle Jesus.’ But Jesus doesn’t really want to make people just curious or mere spectators. He is not interested in the number of followers he’s got on Twitter – ‘Yes I’d love a bit of Jesus, thanks’ – click! No, he’s not interested in that. He wants good old fashioned Monday through Saturday/Sunday disciples, every day disciples. He wants people who will step over into the circle of personal faith and commitment. That’s what he wants! And he says that the act of stepping over into the circle of personal faith and commitment will cost you everything. it’s not simply a case of giving up Haribo or Pringles for Lent (which I guess is a bit of a relief.) But it is actually much, much more than that.

Three times we read in verses 26 and 33 where we are going up to tonight, Jesus uses the same phrase, “Unless you do..” x or y or z “.. You cannot be my disciples”. And it is here that we get the H-bomb dropped! Let’s go for the jugular, verse 25, Jesus is saying “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother, and wife and children and brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” What can he be meaning? Well to start with let’s be clear (and you knew you I was going to say this) ‘hate’ cannot actually mean hate. Four chapters earlier in Luke 10 Jesus famously calls his disciples, to “love your neighbour as your self”, as one of JPC’s ‘theme verses’ runs. In Luke 6 he even tells us to “love our enemies”. And in the next chapter very soon after this little exchange at the end of Luke 14 verse 15, Jesus gives the illustration of a loving father, whose prodigal son returns home and he runs out to meet his son and he hugs him and he kisses him and he knocks him to the floor in love. And that’s not the most obvious way to show that you hate someone (unless you are squeezing them really, really hard I guess.)

But if ‘hate’ doesn’t mean hate, well what does it mean? Well what I am going to do is to have a look at the Old Testament, and the same word that is translated ‘hate’ here in our New Testament is in the Old Testament. I will put up on the screen some of Genesis chapter 29. The context is that Jacob the father of Joseph, and his ‘Technicolor Dreamcoat’ fame, and he (like a number of ancient characters) had two wives: Rachel and Leah. “Jacob made love to Rachel. And his love for Rachel was greater than his love for Leah. When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” You see there? Within two verses Leah, vs 30, is loved, and vs 31 she is hated. The bible word hate often has the sense of love less than. Jacob loved Leah less than he loves Rachel, which in verse 31 is described as Jacob hates Leah. And we think ‘That’s a bit strong, Jacob’, but Jacob says ‘No, no, it’s a comparative word. My love for Rachel is so great – so massive in comparison with my love for Leah that is makes my love for Leah look like hate.’ Come back to Luke 14. Jesus is not saying literally. ‘Hate your family, hate yourself, or you can’t follow me.’ He is saying to

a) Put him first

That is the point of our first reading from Deuteronomy chapter 6. We are to put him first. Jesus is saying that love for family (especially in the first century context where family is absolutely everything, like in many other cultures around the world today and unlike our individualised or atomised West) – whether that is a love for your parents or your spouse or fiancé, girlfriend, boyfriend, sibling, even love for yourself – when that love stands next to love for Jesus it is to be so utterly dwarfed, so on different scales, that family love will actually look like the opposite. It will look like hate. You see that Jesus is looking for followers who will put his desires and concerns ahead of expectations of our Mum or our Dad, or our girlfriend or our boyfriend say, ahead of what you yourself would naturally choose to do and to be, but to put him first. Which means being ready to

b) Take the hit

That is the heart of Jesus’ second challenge of discipleship. Verse 27, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” The English language has adopted talk of having a cross to bear as a metaphor for any slight inconvenience. If you are short sighted or you are lactose intolerant, or you are not very good at catching a ball, well we have all ‘got our cross to bear’ I suppose. In the first century there was nothing trivial about bearing your cross. Convicted criminals were made to carry their crosses on the walk of shame and abuse and terror up to the hill where they would be crucified on the cross they had just carried. So for ‘bearing your cross’ you may as well read – ‘load the gun for the firing squad’, ‘wire up your electric chair’. Friends, I need to be as honest as Jesus was, if you team up with Jesus in a world that finds their worth in Him, he says, ‘Expect to be caught in the cross-fire too.’ It might come from those near you, those family or friends. They don’t get you any more. Behind your back they smile, they snigger and smirk. They become a bit further away from you, lecturers or the media. They kind of give the impression that if thinking goes up then surely faith goes down. Which means that if your faith is going up then you’re losing it in your head. For many people around the world and throughout history it has meant a lot worse. Following Jesus means putting him first. It takes a hit and it means you

c) Give your all

Back to verses, 28 to 33, and here Jesus gives just two illustrations. We don’t have time to work through it in detail, verses 28 to 30 are about building. You get half way through a loft extension or building a great big skyscraper in the city of London, but if you have not got the money to put the roof on, and there is a snow storm on its way- that is not cool at all! Or verses 31 to 32 are about war time, you don’t get into a battle if you haven’t worked out your strategy first. Can we go all out for victory? Do we go the diplomacy route? In those instances you plan first and you count the cost. And the summary verse is there in verse 33, “Therefore any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.” Being a lifelong follower of Jesus is like the builder who gives up his money, he is like the king who gives up his planning, and he is like the professional sportsman spending hour after hour of brutal training, early mornings in the dark, in the wet, the cold. It means giving up the plans and dreams, the schemes, your money, your all for the sake of Christ, handing it over to Jesus and allowing his perfect and loving agenda and priority to take control. For Jesus must be followed completely.

Let’s try and wrap things up. It has been a very strange sales pitch from Jesus hasn’t it? ‘Rollup! Roll up! Come and die with me!’ Why is he saying it? Can’t he settle for more like Twitter, ‘Yes I’ll click ‘Follow Jesus’, I’ll follow him like I’ll follow anyone else.’ Why does he have to be so demanding? I think the answer is because he wants to save us. He knows that naturally the good things around us that we love, be that work or family or relationships or sex or money (which are all good things given to us by God) but when any of them becomes our first love, our supreme love, we are looking for them for salvation, but they enslave us. Chris Evert was one of the world’s best tennis players in the seventies and eighties. But she was petrified at facing retirement. She admitted, and I quote, ‘I had no idea who I was or what I could be away from tennis. I was depressed and afraid because so much of my life had been defined by my being a tennis champion. I was completely lost. Winning made me feel I was somebody. It made me feel pretty. It was like being hooked on a drug. I needed the wins, the applause, in order to have an identity.’ Tennis had become Chris Evert’s functional salvation. But it enslaved her. Maybe for you, you have to have to have the clothing, or the relationship, or the ‘Likes’ on your Facebook status, the followers on Twitter, the recognition, without them you are doomed. They have become your functional salvation. But they will enslave you yet. When Jesus calls us to follow him completely he says, ‘I am your salvation! I am your freedom!’

As the American writer Tim Keller says, ‘Jesus is the only God, who, if you get him, he will satisfy you. But if you fail him he will still forgive you.’ And necessarily taking hold of Jesus as No.1, will mean relinquishing our hold of a parent as our first love, or our child or our spouse, real or imaginary, or our girlfriend or our boyfriend, real or imaginary, or work or sport as Adam did, or music or anything else as No.1. It will mean ultimately letting go of yourself as No.1, in order to take hold of Jesus.

And friends the reason we want to do that, the reason we want to give up ourselves to follow Jesus completely, is because as we saw at the start Jesus is completely worth following. He loves us! He will never fail us. He will always, always forgive us, because supremely the one who calls us to give our all to him is the one who gave his all, who went to the cross, carried the cross – for us. So friends, can I urge you this evening to turn around and make Jesus your first love.

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