Monday, August 1, 2016

Follow Him

(A word of note: This was not the final form of the sermon delivered this past Sunday.  The gist of the final product is included below, but there were some significant changes as I was led to deliver the sermon quite differently.)

 For the majority of our lives, we are constantly having to prove ourselves, and we have developed a system that uses rewards to ensure that we work hard at proving ourselves.  What do I mean by that?

 Well, think about how our lives generally operate, especially when we enter into school.  There are certain things society deems important for us to know, so we develop a grading system.  If you study and work hard, you get higher rewards–higher grades.  To prove that you are ready to advance in learning, you must reach a certain standard, and if you do not, then you are required to repeat a class or a grade.  Once you manage to prove yourself in the advancement of basic knowledge, you move into specialized knowledge.  Once again, you have to prove that you can master a set of knowledge and its application.  You either head to a trade school or to college.  Once again, the same set of rules apply.  Master the knowledge and you will be rewarded with grades according to how well you have learned.  If you prove yourself capable in these areas, then it is usually time to apply for a job.

 The job process is once again where you must prove yourself to your employer.  You must convince a person or a group of people that you have the personality and capability of handling a job.  You produce a resume.  You show your knowledge of a given subject.  You call in others who can vouch for you.  If you do a good job of proving yourself to an employer, you are hired.  But the process of proving yourself does not stop there.  You must then prove yourself as you work.  You must be able to accomplish the tasks of your job. The reward is your paycheck.  For if you do not prove yourself and produce, you can easily be fired.  And, if you are at a company where you are reviewed on a yearly basis, you know that this is again, you having to prove yourself that you are worthy of a raise or worthy to stay on for another year.

 Sometimes, this process even trickles its way into our families.  Oftentimes we are unconsciously proving to our family members that we still love them.  We strive to receive affirmation from our parents, grand-parents, children, and grand-children.  The reward is the affection they give to us; the respect they give to us; perhaps as we grow older, the time they share with us when they are not working.  What I am saying now, is that even when you might retire from working, there are still places where you must prove yourself.

 You must prove that you can still see well enough to drive a car.  You must prove that you have insurance to have your car inspected.  You must prove that you have enough finances to obtain a loan.  If you move into some areas of our state and nation, you must prove that you care for the land and the community in order to be accepted by the “locals.”  And even then, you will not necessarily be accepted even if you have lived in that place and cared for it for 20 years or more.  Over and over you must prove yourself in order to receive rewards.  This is the world we live in, and it is costly.

 Over and over, we have to invest ourselves: our time, our talent, and money to prove ourselves.  We have to pay registration fees.  We have to pay for our education.  We have to use up time that we could have spent with family and friends to earn our way and further our knowledge.  We have to constantly sacrifice ourselves to hopefully earn that reward at the end of the day.  And if something happens that we don’t achieve the reward; if we are somehow unable to prove ourselves; the effects on our psyche’s can be devastating.  We see this over and over again particularly in sports when an athlete’s body begins to age and fade and no matter what they have done in the past; not matter how big of a star they have been; no matter how many championships they have won; they are summarily cut, benched, or excluded from the team.  No longer able to prove themselves, they sometimes spiral into depression because they sense that they no longer have value.

 I took a little bit of time to set this up because I want to starkly contrast the way the world works with the way that Christianity works.  The two are vastly different, and this becomes blatantly apparent in our Gospel lesson today from the book of Mark.

 This is a very short text about Jesus calling the first disciples, and without understanding the historical situation, one is left with the idea that this is really no big deal.  Jesus walks up to some fishermen, says, “Follow me,” and they follow Jesus.  It’s over and done with in a matter of moments.  But this is just what we see on the surface.  There is much, much more going on.

 For you see, Jesus is unlike any other Rabbi of his day.  In almost every instance that we know of, in order to follow a Rabbi, you had to undergo a rigorous application process.  You had to prove yourself.  You had to approach a Rabbi and inquire as to whether he was accepting student.  You had to pass that Rabbi’s entrance exam which would be to see whether or not you knew the Jewish Bible backwards and forwards.  For instance, the Rabbi might begin a sentence from Leviticus 20, and you were expected to finish that sentence.  Then, you might be asked what it meant.  If you passed the Rabbi’s examination and proved that you were capable of learning from him, then he may accept you as a student.

 We see no such examination from Jesus.  The first disciples do not approach Jesus; rather Jesus approaches them!  This was unheard of!  And it could be one of the reasons Peter, Andrew, James and John leave their nets immediately and follow Jesus.  This was something new.  This was something extraordinary–a rabbi calling his students and not vice versa!  A rabbi calling students without having them prove themselves!  And rabbis usually took only the best of the best of the best to be their students.  They certainly didn’t take fishermen.  This was a huge honor being bestowed upon Peter, Andrew, James and John.

 But the honor did not come without cost.  Let me first quote renowned scholar N.T. Wright:

 We have no idea how many generations the Zebedee family had been fishing on the sea of Galilee, but it was quite likely a lot more than four.  In that country and culture, as in many countries and cultures to this day, a small family business can be handed on not only through generations but through centuries.

 Only when you think a bit about the sort of life Peter, Andrew, James and John had had, and the totally unknown future Jesus was inviting them into, do you understand just how earth shattering this little story was and is.  Leave everything you’ve known, all your security, your family (and family solidarity was hugely important in that culture), and follow Jesus.

 So, following Jesus would be to walk away from your family and your job security.  But that’s not it.

 According to the New Interpreter’s Bible:

 To the ancient reader, the summons to follow Jesus–i.e. to become a disciple–was an extraordinary disruption in a person’s life.  It might even have seemed offensive.  If the labor of the sons was critical to the fishing enterprise in which the two families were engaged, then such a departure might appear to put the welfare of the whole family at risk. 

 So, following Jesus might cause quite a bit of anger to be produced within one’s family.  And it would certainly impact Peter, Andrew, James, and John’s pocket books.  I mean, these individuals weren’t poverty stricken.  There is every indication these folks were pretty well off.  Peter could afford a house where he took care of his mother-in-law.  James and John had servants working with them–poor people did not have servants.  When these disciples left their nets, it was a costly decision.  What could make them walk away in this fashion?  What could make them walk away from lives which were labor intensive but at least provided a pretty good income and manner of living?

 “Come with me and I will begin to make you fishers of men.”

   What was it about this statement that caused Peter, Andrew, James and John to walk away from everything they had ever known; ever trusted; ever invested in?  Let me read to you what Mark Edwards says about this.

 ...Jesus is the unqualified subject of the call.  As he passes along the shore and sees two pairs of brothers, he issues a summons, “Come, follow me.”  On this particular point, Jesus was a very different leader from the rabbis and scribes of Judaism.  There are no rabbinical stories analogous to the calling of disciples, for rabbis did not consummate the teacher-student relationship by the summons, “Follow me.”  Unlike the decisive call that comes from Jesus, entry into rabbinical school depended on the initiative of the aspiring student, not the call of the rabbi.  The personal prominence that Jesus assumes in the call of the four fishermen is highly unusual in Jewish tradition as a whole.  The chief allegiance of rabbinic students was to the Torah rather than to a particular rabbi.

 Let me repeat that last sentence again.  The chief allegiance of rabbinic students was to the Torah–the Jewish Bible–rather than to a particular rabbi.  Jesus wasn’t inviting the disciples to follow the Law.  He was inviting the disciples to follow Him–trust Him–trust that God was doing something through Him.  Little did they know exactly what was happening.  They certainly didn’t know that Jesus was the Son of God at this point, so there must have been something that absolutely grasped them and compelled them to follow Jesus. There must have been something in His demeanor; His call that grasped their hearts and inspired them to take such a risk.  We may never know what it was exactly that grasped them, but we can know the power that grasps us.

 For you see, Jesus still calls to you and I and says, “Follow me.”  He still asks us to become His disciples, and to this day, there is still no qualifying exam.  There is still no need to prove ourselves.  There is no series of hoops to jump through to make ourselves worthy to be a disciple.  The price of our proving has already been paid, but it was not paid by us.  It was paid by Jesus.

 Christianity unequivocally says that we could never prove ourselves worthy enough to be a disciple.  Christianity unequivocally says we cannot know the Bible well enough.  We cannot follow God’s commands perfectly enough.  We would fail miserably if it were up to us.  One example I hope will suffice although I could offer many.  Let’s say you want to be a disciple of Jesus.  Let’s say you want this position tremendously.  Let’s say you are willing to do whatever it takes to be a disciple.  You will put in countless hours of Bible study.  You will attend college and seminary.  You will devote yourself to doing good works and acts of kindness.  You will never cuss; never get angry; never get drunk.  You will promote justice and peace.  You will seek harmony within the church and pray without ceasing.  And here is the kicker; you actually accomplish it.  You actually manage to do these things.  Surely you are qualified to be a disciple.  Surely you have proven yourself worthy of a position as a disciple.  You have dedicated your life to achieving this position.  You are good, right? 

Wrong.  You may wonder how.  Here’s how.  You are striving to achieve the position of a disciple.  You are doing all of these things to become a disciple.  You are therefore doing them because it is something you want.  You are doing it for yourself.  You are not doing it for God and His glory.  You are acting selfishly.  This is not in accord with God’s will.  Selfishness is so dominant a force in our hearts that it often goes unnoticed by us.

 But it does not go unnoticed by God.  He knows we need a change of heart in order to be effective disciples.  He knows that deep down we must have our hearts turned to him instead of toward ourselves.  And how does a heart change?  How does a heart aspire for something other than its own self interest?

 The answer is when it is filled with love for another.  The answer is when it is filled with love for God.  And God knows He cannot force you to love Him.  God knows He cannot legislate your love.  He has to effectually earn it, and so he does this by dying for you.  He does this by loving you when you don’t deserve it.  He does it by dying for you while you are caught up in your self-interest.  He does it on the cross.

 For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him.

 The cross is God’s call to the world, “Follow me.”  It is His invitation to you and me to leave behind all that we once trusted and to put our trust in Him.  And it will be costly–leave no doubt about that.  It will change the way you live, but you will find yourself experiencing freedom.  You will sense deep down that your self worth is no longer governed by the rewards society promises.  You will sense deep down that you no longer have to prove yourself to anyone and everyone.  You will know that you are deeply loved and accepted by the author and Creator of the universe.  Your trust will be in Him and Him alone.  This is the reality of discipleship.  This is the reality of following Jesus.  Amen.

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