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Life of Christ (1996-1998)

Wholehearted Devotion

Matthew 8:19-22, Luke 9:57-62

In two of the three major interpretations of Revelation it is stated that we are living in the “Laodicean” age; so named for the church of Laodicea, to whom our Lord said,

(Rev 3:15-22 NIV) I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! {16} So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth. {17} You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. {18} I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. {19} Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest, and repent. {20} Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. {21} To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne. {22} He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches."

The church at which I teach is a polite church. No one would dare suggest that this description applies to them. The question is, would no one dare because the description does not apply -- or because we’re too polite to suggest that the emperor has no clothes? The test is applied by our Lord in a short, strange passage this morning.

(Mat 8:19-22 NIV) Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." {20} Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." {21} Another disciple said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." {22} But Jesus told him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."

(Luke 9:57-62 NIV) As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." {58} Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." {59} He said to another man, "Follow me." But the man replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." {60} Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God." {61} Still another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say good-by to my family." {62} Jesus replied, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."

The Scribe

Matthew’s account makes it clear that this man was a scribe, an expert in the Jewish law. (The word “lawyer” is used in the King James, but recall that the law in question was the “Law of Moses.”). Holman’s dictionary says it this way:

SCRIBE Person trained in writing skills and used to record events and decisions (Jer. 36:26; 1 Chron. 24:6; Esth. 3:12). During the Exile in Babylon educated scribes apparently became the experts in God’s written word, copying, preserving, and teaching it. Ezra was a scribe in this sense of expert in teaching God’s word (Ezra 7:6). A professional group of such scribes developed by New Testament times, most being Pharisees (Mark 2:16). They interpreted the law, taught it to disciples, and were experts in cases where people were accused of breaking the law of Moses. They led in plans to kill Jesus (Luke 19:47) and heard His stern rebuke (Matt. 23).

While we have a low opinion of the scribes (perhaps related to our thinking of them as lawyers), the people of that day would have seen the scribe in a different light. This gives rise to the first interpretation of this passage.

Pride?

Look at it this way: Christ’s disciples are, for the most part, taken from the lower classes. From the world’s point of view, the scribe could say, “Lord, it’s time for you and your movement to come up in the world. Look what I have to offer you! I’m an educated man, an expert in the law of Moses. I’m respected as a leader. When people see me following you, it will lend instant credibility to your words. Think how much I can do for you!”

Have you ever thought that your abilities and talents could be a barrier to your relationship with the Lord? They can be, if they cause you to adopt this attitude. If you view your talents as your gift to God (when they are in fact his gift to you). Many of us get the fuzzy feeling that God somehow owes us something for the fact that we (talented as we are) have become a Christian. A little logic may assist us here; this is one of those attitudes that has only to be brought to daylight to evaporate.

First, the servant is not above his Master.[1] We need to remember who’s in charge here -- and why. This is not a collection of the insufferably proud; it is a community (indeed a family) of servants. We need to look to our Master’s example to say, “There is the limit of my pride; this is the height to which my joy in my self may go.” And where is that limit?

(2 Cor 8:9 NIV) For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.

There is the limit, the ceiling. Our Lord Himself, infinitely richer and more talented, became a servant for us. How then can we tell him that he is so fortunate to have us as a disciple? It is an absurdity.

Haste?

There is another explanation. It may not be pride, it may be haste. This sounds almost heretical to us -- raised on altar calls. We are constantly saying that today is the day of salvation, don’t put it off, etc. Yet our Lord has a word of warning:

(Luke 14:28-30 NIV) "Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? {29} For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, {30} saying, 'This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.'

The parable is fairly clear: realize what you’re doing before you attempt it. The kingdom of God will cost you all that you have and all that you are -- and give you all you need and more. It may simply be that the scribe was acting in the haste of emotion, and Christ was simply being honest with him. In doing so, however, he raised one of the chief arguments against the church today: comfort.

Comfort

Christ does not rebuke his lack of zeal nor his haste. He merely points out the obvious: Here is the leader of this movement you wish to join, and he hasn’t two nickels to make change for a dime. Even the foxes and birds have a place to stay; this guy is an itinerant preacher without even a reservation at Motel 6. No one is leaving the light on for Him.

Christ says, in effect, that there is no worldly comfort for Him and thus none for His disciples. He tells us that we need not worry about houses and food; the Father knows we need them and will supply them. We turn that around and say that we know we have to have them -- and we’ll get around to Christ’s kingdom as soon as we have acquired all we need.

So there is the challenge: are the good things of life in the way of life itself?

“bury my father”

This part of the passage makes Jesus seem harsh. After all, the Law was quite specific; burying your dead was a sacred duty. Some scholars have suggested that the phrasing here suggests that the speaker is actually saying, “I will follow you after my father dies.” It does not matter which. It is difficult to read another heart from such few words, but here are some thoughts on this man:

The good is always the enemy of the best

How often we decide to do a good thing instead of the best thing! No one suggest that burying your father is a bad thing; rather -- remember this man was called to be an evangelist -- a “best thing” is at hand. It has not been granted to me to be an evangelist, nor an apostle -- but it has been granted me to be a teacher. It is the best thing I can do. So therefore I must do that. It is no good my going to my Lord and saying, “Hey, I’m willing to sweep and mop, you know. The floors need cleaning, you know.” His reply would simply be, “If I want you to sweep and mop, I’ll tell you. I don’t want that; you go and teach my Word.” No matter how good clean floors might be, if I swept the floors and neglected the teaching, it would be evil and sin to me.

The unwilling mind never lacks an excuse

This just might be the simplest explanation. It may be that the man just didn’t want to do the job -- he was looking for that comfort of the world. So he came up with an excuse. The symptoms are rather clear.

The spiritually dead

Jesus reply seems, at its crudest level, to make no sense. Of course, his hearers quickly realized that he meant the absurdity. They would have concluded that Jesus was referring to those who are spiritually dead. The call, then, is to separate ourselves from those who are spiritually dead.

Note that there is no sense of going back and awakening them. The indication is to let them go on doing what they are doing -- and go preach the gospel elsewhere. This too seems hard, but it is our Lord’s way. If the gospel is not received, we must move on. To do otherwise is to join the spiritually dead. Indeed, we are told that there will come a time when men will not listen to the Gospel:

(2 Tim 4:3-5 NIV) For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. {4} They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. {5} But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.

To “keep your head” in such a situation is not easy. It requires whole hearted devotion.

But first...

To understand the third episode, you must know the Old Testament. The speaker here is actually echoing what Elisha said to Elijah. You’ll recall the story; Elijah has been through earthquake, wind and fire to hear the still small voice -- and the voice tells him to anoint Elisha as his successor. Here’s the dialog:

(1 Ki 19:20 NIV) Elisha then left his oxen and ran after Elijah. "Let me kiss my father and mother good-by," he said, "and then I will come with you." "Go back," Elijah replied. "What have I done to you?"

The life of a prophet in those times was not one to be envied by the world. Elijah is only being kind to the lad. There is, however, a point in it. Elijah is considered by the Jews to be the greatest of the prophets. When they spoke of the “Law and the Prophets” they personified them as Moses (Law) and Elijah (Prophets) -- recall who was with Jesus at the Transfiguration? And if even Elijah permitted Elisha to say good-bye, who then is this Jesus? The greatest of the prophets does not have this authority -- but the Son of God does.

Why does He use this method, then? The answer begins in the nature of the plow. To plow a straight furrow requires a certain technique. The wrong way to do it is to constantly look back at the furrow and make adjustments. The right method is to fix your eye on some distant point and plow straight for it.

There’s a lesson in here for the Christian, as well. So many of us are haunted by our pasts, the mistakes we have made. Trying to fix the past does not work; fixing our eyes on our future -- our Lord and Savior -- does work. It is a paradox of Christian life that we repair our pasts best by looking to our future. In this short reply Jesus is not only claiming to be greater than Elijah but also to be that target on the horizon on which the eyes of the disciple must always be fixed. To look back is to attempt a solution in our own strength; to look ahead is to know His strength.

Three listeners; three called. We have no record of who responded or how. It is a curious thing, but true. You never know who will answer the Lord’s call and become great in the kingdom. Remember the parable of the banquet? The guests invited didn’t make it; the outcasts did. The power of paradox is shown again.

So then, what is answer? It is always in the cross. The only acceptable sacrifice is the pure and contrite heart; love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. Our curse is being lukewarm. If we were cold he could ignite our hearts and turn us to fire. Being lukewarm and comfortable we have enough contact with Him to make us feel good -- but not enough to follow him anywhere he leads us. I find no better words than those of Thomas à Kempis:

BLESSED is he who appreciates what it is to love Jesus and who despises himself for the sake of Jesus. Give up all other love for His, since He wishes to be loved alone above all things.

Affection for creatures is deceitful and inconstant, but the love of Jesus is true and enduring. He who clings to a creature will fall with its frailty, but he who gives himself to Jesus will ever be strengthened.

Love Him, then; keep Him as a friend. He will not leave you as others do, or let you suffer lasting death. Sometime, whether you will or not, you will have to part with everything. Cling, therefore, to Jesus in life and death; trust yourself to the glory of Him who alone can help you when all others fail.

Your Beloved is such that He will not accept what belongs to another—He wants your heart for Himself alone, to be enthroned therein as King in His own right. If you but knew how to free yourself entirely from all creatures, Jesus would gladly dwell within you.

You will find, apart from Him, that nearly all the trust you place in men is a total loss. Therefore, neither confide in nor depend upon a wind-shaken reed, for “all flesh is grass” (Isa. 40:6.) and all its glory, like the flower of grass, will fade away.

You will quickly be deceived if you look only to the outward appearance of men, and you will often be disappointed if you seek comfort and gain in them. If, however, you seek Jesus in all things, you will surely find Him. Likewise, if you seek yourself, you will find yourself—to your own ruin. For the man who does not seek Jesus does himself much greater harm than the whole world and all his enemies could ever do.


[1] Matthew 10:24

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