This summer I had a chance to enter the world of a socially connected teen. I was at Six Flags with a friend and her kids and, while we were waiting in line to go on rides, Josh shared with me his activities on social media. What struck me about our conversation was how intent he was on gaining followers. Regardless of what app he was using, he would always comment on the number of “likes,” or “followers,” or “friends” he had.
As pastors, we too are intent on followers. Not people following us, but people following Jesus. We want them to grow in their discipleship and we are rightfully concerned about how to deepen their following of Christ in faith. Which is why this gospel reading is so challenging.
To be frank, when Jesus says things like He does in our gospel reading, it only makes calling others to follow Jesus harder. I know this sounds irreverent but preaching a text like this with such a radical call to discipleship is difficult.
Having just told a parable where the master tells his servant to go out to the highways and byways and force people to come in, Jesus turns and sees a great crowd following Him. We would expect Jesus to be delighted people have responded to the master’s invitation. Instead, Jesus asks these people to reconsider whether they should be following Him or not.
In a shame and honor culture, Jesus’ words are offensive. He calls upon people to dishonor their families and then be willing to suffer public dishonor, carrying a cross. His parables declare how if one is not able to do such things, then one ought to turn back now rather than be found wanting in the end. Unlike our friendly appeal for followers, Jesus is radical and demanding and strangely silent when it comes to the promises of God.
Faced with these words, we are tempted to wriggle out from under them. We can try watering down the demands of Jesus (“to hate” really means “to love less”) or we can spend time in the sermon offering cultural explanations of carrying crosses, building towers, waging wars, and using salt in first-century Palestine… anything to avoid saying what Jesus says.
So, how do we say what Jesus says and draw Christ followers closer to Him? How do we preach these words to people who are coming to church and trying to follow Jesus, so they are drawn ever more closely to Him and His ways?
For me, it depends upon the people to whom we are speaking. This radical call to discipleship will preach differently depending upon our hearers.
For example, if I were faced with those who have bought in to American Christianity’s prosperity gospel, these words would serve as a clear rebuke. [i] This sermon would proclaim that following Jesus is not a rags-to-riches story. The blessing of God lies in the midst of suffering, not apart from it. To follow Jesus is to hear His call, to endure suffering, and to trust in His presence amid suffering rather than to seek His presence apart from it.
If, however, I were faced with those who have learned to limit religious belief to Sunday morning and then go about their lives as they want during the rest of the week, my emphasis would be different. The sermon would work with training disciples. I would proclaim how Jesus forms our entire lives in discipleship. What we say on Sunday relates to what we do on Monday. Because we are baptized into Christ, His Spirit governs all our lives and following is not something we do one day a week. Christians will face hard choices in relation to their families, their possessions, their status in the eyes of this world. The One who calls us to follow is aware of this and His grace is sufficient for it.
The people on my mind right now, however, are not those who seek earthly prosperity and not those who have separated Sunday from Monday. They are those who hear words like this and lead lives of quiet desperation. They come to church, wanting to follow, but hearing these demands wonder if they should walk away. They have counted the cost and wonder if they will come up short. This courage, this commitment, this confidence lies beyond them and they are about to walk away.
To these people, the sermon would offer consolation. Consolation does not soften the demands of Jesus. It lets them stand in their radical, burdensome clarity. But what it does do is proclaim the life, death, and resurrection of the One who is making these demands.
Throughout Luke’s gospel, Jesus has revealed Himself to be the Savior of the lost. As early as Mary’s song, we hear of God as the One who raises the humbled, strengthens the weak, and fills the empty with good things.
Jesus speaks a radical command that makes us stand there empty before Him, but He lives a radical grace which takes the lost and claims them as God’s. When His words reveal our radical emptiness, His life reveals God’s radical grace. God comes for people who cannot follow. He finds them. He calls them. He saves them. And then leads them in His Kingdom. So, I follow Jesus not because I have counted the cost and determined I am able, but because I have counted the cost and realized I am unable. This radical demand invites me to live in faith, to trust that my inability is the occasion of His power so what is impossible with humans is possible with God.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 14:25-35.