Today is the first Sunday in a season that we, in the church, call Lent. But what is Lent? I’ll give you a hint, it’s not that fuzzy blue stuff that you pull out of your dryer after you do a load of laundry…that’s l-i-n-t lint, not l-e-n-t Lent. So let me ask you again, what is Lent?
Well, I personally like the way the author Sarah Parsons explains Lent in her book A Clearing Season when she writes that Lent is a time when we:
look at our lives and ourselves, not so we may criticize ourselves more harshly but so we can identify the obstructions that keep us from following God. Lent gives us a chance to look at such obstructions and to move them gently away so that we can come closer to the one that gives us life, the one whose triumph we will celebrate on Easter morning.
What Parsons is saying here is that Lent is a season of both reflection and action. It’s a time when we look at our lives so we can try to find the things that keep us from following Jesus. And it’s also a time when we recommit ourselves to following Jesus as we move forward.
But you know what? You can’t really recommit to following Jesus if you don’t know what that means. So throughout the season of Lent at Melbourne Heights, we’re going to work our way through a series of sermons called Follow Me? where we’re going to talk about what it means to follow Jesus.
But that’s not all that we’re going to be doing during this series. Because if you look closely at the graphic up on the screen, you’ll notice that the title of this series isn’t a statement…it’s a question. So throughout this series, we’re not just talking about what it means to follow Jesus. We also want you to realize that following Jesus is a choice.
Following Jesus is a choice.
And every day you get to choose if you’re going to follow Jesus or not.
So with that being said, let me ask you if someone were to walk up to you right now and ask you what it means to follow Jesus, what would you tell them? Would you tell them that following Jesus means that you spend an hour at church every Sunday morning? Would you tell them that following Jesus means going on a mission trip halfway around the world? Would you tell them that following Jesus means that you have to find a few minutes every day to read your Bible and pray? Would you tell them that following Jesus means wearing a shiny silver cross around your neck, or trying your best not to cuss, or avoiding R-rated movies?
You know, at one point or another, I’ve heard people say every one of those things. I’ve heard people say that if you want to follow Jesus you have to be at church every Sunday, you have to go on mission trips, and you have to spend plenty of time reading the Bible. I’ve heard people say that if you want to follow Jesus you need to wear Christian clothes, avoid 4-letter words, and only watch movies you’d be willing to take your grandma to see.
But is that really what Jesus had in mind when he said, “Follow me”?
If we’re going to answer that question, there’s really only one place for us to turn. If we want to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Follow me,” we have to see what Jesus had to say about following him.
Now, you may or may not realize this, but Jesus uses those two words a lot. Jesus says, “Follow me” about twenty times in the Gospels. But there’s one passage where Jesus talks about what it means to follow him more than any other. So if you’ve got a Bible close by go ahead and grab it, and turn with me to Luke 9. Luke 9, and as you’re turning there, let me tell you a little bit more about the book of Luke.
Luke is one of the first four books of the New Testament – you have Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – and we call these four books the Gospels. We call them Gospels because the word “gospel” means “good news,” and these four books tell us the good news of Jesus. So they’re essentially biographies of Jesus.
So inside the Gospel of Luke, you can read about Jesus’s birth and his baptism, his ministry and the miracles he performed, and you can read about his crucifixion and resurrection. But today we’re going to be looking at what Jesus has to teach us about what it means to follow him. So let’s take a look at Luke 9 together. We’ll start reading in verse 57, which says:
57 As Jesus and his disciples traveled along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Luke 9:57 (Common English Bible)
So in this passage, someone comes up to Jesus and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And how do you think Jesus is going to respond? You’d expect Jesus to sign him up. You’d expect Jesus would tell him, “Come on.” You’d expect Jesus to welcome him with open arms. But that’s not what Jesus does. What Jesus does is tell this man what it means to follow him. So let’s listen to what Jesus says. In verse 58, we read:
58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Luke 9:58 (Common English Bible)
Jesus tells him, “Foxes have dens. Birds have nests. But Jesus does not have a place to lay his head.” And that means that if you want to follow Jesus, you may not have a place to lay your head either. That’s what it means to follow Jesus, you may never have a place to call home.
And the story doesn’t end there. In Luke 9:59, we’re told:
59 Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.”
He replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
Which seems like a perfectly reasonable request, but Luke goes on to tell us:
60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”
Luke 9:59-60 (Common English Bible)
Now that sounds harsh. I mean, in these verses Jesus calls this guy to follow him, and all the guy asks for is the chance to bury his dad. But Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own…you go and spread the good news.” So again, Jesus is telling us what it really means to follow him. And this time the catch is that we may not be able to bury our loved ones.
And that’s still not the end of this story. Luke picks back up in verse 61, telling us:
61 Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”
62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”
Luke 9:61-62 (Common English Bible)
So once again, we find someone who is willing to follow Jesus. But instead of inviting them along for the journey or encouraging them along the way, Jesus explains what it means to follow him. And he says, “No one who looks back…is fit for the kingdom of God.”
And, can I be totally honest with you right now? I mean we’re in church, so it seems like the right thing to do. But if I’m being totally honest with you, this passage of scripture doesn’t sit well with me.
And it doesn’t sit well with me because everything we’ve just heard Jesus say is the complete opposite of what we’ve actually experienced in our lives. I mean nobody’s ever walked into Kroger and asked to sign up for their rewards program and been told, “We’d love to have you sign up, but before you do we want you to understand what it means to shop at Kroger.” Nobody’s ever gone in to register to vote and been told, “You can’t mark your party affiliation until you really understand what it means to be a Democrat or a Republican.” And nobody’s ever gone in to pick up a marriage license only to be told, “You can’t obtain this license unless you understand how much your life is going to change once you’re married.”
But that’s what Jesus does. Jesus doesn’t let any of these people follow him until he tells them what they’re getting themselves into. But why?
Well, to understand that we’ve got to go back a few verses because we picked up in a story that was already in progress. If you remember back to how this passage started, it said, “As Jesus and his disciples traveled along the road.” But that doesn’t tell us what road they’re on, why they’re on it, or where they’re headed.
We have to go back to Luke 9:51 to better appreciate what’s happening in this story. This is what it says:
51 As the time approached when Jesus was to be taken up into heaven, he determined to go to Jerusalem.
Luke 9:51 (Common English Bible)
So this verse is basically saying that Jesus knew it wouldn’t be long before he returned to his Father (in heaven) so he knew it was time to go to Jerusalem. So that’s the road Jesus is on. Jesus is headed to Jerusalem because Jesus knows that’s where he’s going to die. Jesus knows the religious leaders and the Roman authorities are going to capture and crucify him in Jerusalem.
So as Jesus is making this journey, as he is walking this road, what looms ahead is the only thing he can really think about. With every step he takes, Jesus is thinking about what it means for him to follow God…and it means that Jesus will ultimately have to lay down his life for us. And he knows that anyone who wants to follow him is going to have to be willing to lay down their life for him too.
That’s why Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 16:24:
24…“All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.”
Matthew 16:24 (Common English Bible)
Or to put it another way, when Jesus followed God he laid down his life for us, when we follow Jesus we lay down our lives for him.
When Jesus followed God he laid down his life for us, when we follow Jesus we lay down our lives for him.
So Jesus wants anyone who wants to follow him to know that it’s not going to be easy. I mean, it’s one thing to hear Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head,” or “Let the dead bury their own,” or “No one who looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God;” but it’s a whole different ballgame when you have to live it out.
And I’ve learned that from firsthand experience.
When Jesus says, “the Son of many has nowhere to lay his head,” I know he means it. I mean just stop and think about what our church has been through in the last few years. In the last three years, we have worshiped in four different locations…and that doesn’t count the year we spent worshiping together online only. And even though we’ve been in our new church home for five months now it doesn’t mean we’ll be here forever.
And when Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own,” I know that it sounds harsh. But I also know that I have missed a lot of funerals as a minister. You see, in ministry when you leave one congregation to go and serve another, you leave behind people you care about. And when you get the news that those people – people you shared life with for years – pass away, you wish you could be there. But all the miles and all your other responsibilities often keep you away.
I also know that when Jesus says, “No one who…looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” he means it. Because I can’t constantly look back and reminisce while continuing to lead God's people going forward.
So I know everything that Jesus says on the surface sounds extreme and even a little crazy…but I also know he means it. I know that following Jesus can demand everything that he mentions in this passage and more from you.
But I also don’t think that’s exactly what Jesus means when he offers his warnings in this passage of scripture. What I think Jesus is really trying to tell all of his would-be followers is that you can’t just follow him for an hour a week or for a few minutes of quiet time each day. If you want to follow Jesus you have to make Jesus your first priority.
If you want to follow Jesus you have to make Jesus your first priority.
Because what we need to remember here is that when this passage in Luke’s gospel begins, Jesus is about 75 miles away from Jerusalem. Now that doesn’t sound like much to us, because we can hop in a car, hit the interstate, and cover 75 miles in an hour. But in Jesus’s day, there weren’t any interstates and there definitely weren’t any cars.
So when Luke tells us that Jesus determined to go to Jerusalem, it means that Jesus was ready to make that 75-mile trip by foot. At a minimum, it would’ve taken Jesus at least four days to make that kind of trip, but when you read the rest of the Gospel of Luke, it’s pretty clear that Jesus was traveling at a more leisurely pace. Jesus is stopping and teaching all along the way.
So why does that matter? Well, I don’t know about you, but whenever I take a long trip, I have a tendency to get distracted. Instead of focusing on the road and covering the miles as quickly as possible, I’ll decide to stop and stretch my legs at a rest area, or I’ll want to check out a local restaurant, or I’ll get sucked into one of those tourist traps that put up billboards every half mile on the interstate. I’ll have the best intentions to get where I want to go as soon as possible…but lose my focus.
And Jesus knew that he would be tempted to stop on his journey too, because, let's be honest, there's not a lot motivating him to make it to Jerusalem. Jesus isn't going to be reuniting with family at his final destination or enjoying a week-long vacation. The only thing waiting for him is an angry mob that wants him dead. So Jesus knows that if he is going to finish his journey, if he is going to make it to Jerusalem, he has to avoid temptation, he has to stay focused, he has to be committed.
And Jesus tells us that if we want to follow him, we have to be that committed too. We have to be willing to look past anything that pulls us away from God. Even if it’s having a place to sleep, or burying our loved ones, or saying goodbye to our friends. If anything pulls us away from God – and all of these things were pulling people away from Jesus in this story – we have to be able to walk away from them and remain committed to following.
Because following Jesus isn’t easy. It demands everything from us all. So before we get on this path, before we start following Jesus, Jesus wants us to know what we’re getting ourselves into. He wants us to know if we’re going to follow him that Jesus has to be our first priority no matter what.