"I'd Love To, Lord, but ..."
(Delivered Sunday, January 12, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James version.)
Jesus Christ, the holy Son of God, has given us the most wonderful invitation sinners could ever receive: He invites us to follow Him as His disciples. He welcomes any one of us - no matter what our backgrounds may be, no matter what limitations or liabilities we might suffer from, and no matter how terribly we may have failed in the past; and He invites us to pick up from where we are, and follow Him into a new, exciting life of adventure in His footsteps. What a thrilling offer of grace it is that Jesus invites us to leave our old life and our old ways behind, and follow Him.
This being true then, what a tragic thing it is to respond to that offer by saying, "I'd love to follow You, Lord Jesus; but ..." When we insert that word "but", we turn Jesus' wonderful offer into our own sad loss.
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To be a "disciple" of Jesus means to be His faithful, fully-devoted student-follower. The terms of discipleship are that we lay our whole life on the alter, and completely surrender to His curriculum for us; so that we permit Him to take us where He wants us to go, and teach us the lessons He wants us to learn, and equip us to do the things He wants us to do. Tuition in the School of Jesus is the offering of our whole selves over to the Teacher. He Himself established the terms when He told us,
If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and himself is destroyed and lost? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father's, and of the holy angels (Luke 9:23-26).
Personally, I tend to visualize this idea of discipleship as if I were walking on a road or path, with Jesus immediately in front of me leading the way. I imagine walking on such a path with Jesus until I come to a fork in the road. One path on the fork looks smooth and easy; and it leads toward some goal that I would want to reach - perhaps toward personal comfort, or toward affluence, or toward the gratification of some craving or desire. The other path looks rough and unpleasant to me, and it heads in a direction that I don't want to go - perhaps toward personal hardship, or humility, or the sort of self denial that leads to maturity. I often see myself with my foot already on the path that I want to take; but then I see Jesus standing on the other path waiting for me. I realize that the path I want to travel is not the path He wants for me; and that the path I don't want to travel is the very path He is determined to make me take. That's when I imagine Him turning to me and saying, "Greg; follow Me."
That's the moment of decision for me. I know I'll never persuade Jesus to change paths. I must either lay myself once again on the alter of discipleship, leave my path, cross over to His path, and follow Him; or else I must ignore His call and go my own way.
I believe that it's at that crucial, decisive moment of seeing the path Jesus wants them to take that so many choose to ignore Jesus' call and say, "I'd love to, Lord; but ..." In all honesty, I have to admit that I've said that to Jesus many times myself; and thus, I have all too often wandered from His good path for me. I praise Him that He always forgives us and welcomes us back whenever we cease from wandering our own way and resume following Him in the path of a disciple. But we always lose far more by taking such detours than we ever think we could gain.
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If you'll think about it for a moment, you might remember several people in the Bible who heard Jesus say, "Follow Me. Many of then left everything they had to faithfully follow Him. Think, for example, of the apostle Matthew - the former tax collector. He had a very lucrative business going on; but when Jesus saw him sitting at his tax office, He said to him, "Follow Me". At hearing those words, Matthew rose up to leave everything behind - money table, profitable business, and all - and follow Jesus (Luke 5:27-28; see also Matthew 9:9). Or think about the apostle Philip. Jesus intended to go to Galilee; and He turned to Philip of the town called Bethsaida and said, "Follow Me." Philip left his own world behind, and followed Jesus from then on (John 1:43-51). And then, there were the fishermen;
... As He walked by the Sea of Galilee, He saw Simon and Andrew his brother casting a net into the sea; for they were fishermen. Then Jesus said to them, "Follow Me, and I will make you become fishers of men." They immediately left their nets and followed Him. When He had gone a little farther from there, He saw James the son of Zebedee, and John his brother, who also were in the boat mending their nets. And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants, and went after Him (Mark 1:16-20).
The Bible tells us that these - along with the rest of the twelve - left everything to follow Jesus (Matthew 19:27). We still talk about them today, because they changed the world.
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I wonder if you've been hearing the gentle voice of Jesus calling you lately, and inviting you to follow Him in some deeper and more committed way. Is it possible that you've been putting His offer off by saying something like, "I'd love to, Lord; but ..."? Perhaps its because you know that following Him will require you to leave some cherished habit or practice behind. Perhaps it's because following Him may mean a period of suffering and pain for you. Perhaps it's because following Him could mean that you'll be misunderstood by others - maybe even laughed at and ridiculed by the very people from whom you most want respect. Perhaps it's because following Jesus will require that you make a break from certain relationships that have grown to be important to you. Perhaps it's because following Him will mean that you can no longer control your own security, and that you will have to live by faith. Perhaps you are struck this morning with the realization that you're on the different path than the one Jesus is calling you to walk; and now you're faced with that important moment of decision.
I'd like to draw your attention to a portion of the Gospel of Luke about three people who heard Jesus' call to follow Him - three people who discovered, by His call, that they were on a different path than the one He was treading - three people who put His offer off with an "I'd love to, Lord; but ..." In Luke 9:57-62, we read all three stories put together in one passage:
Now it happened as they journeyed on the road that someone said to Him, "Lord, I will follow You wherever You go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head." Then He said to another, "Follow Me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father." Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God." And another also said, "Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house." But Jesus said to him, "No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:57-62).
Let's look closer at the stories of these three potential followers. I believe the Holy Spirit has preserved these stories for us, in order to warns us of the excuses we give for not becoming the devoted follower of Jesus that He wants us to be.
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First, we see that one reason we hit a road-block in following Jesus is because of ...
1. A FAILURE TO COUNT THE COST (vv. 57-58).
Luke says, "Now it happened as they journeyed on the road that someone said to Him, "Lord, I will follow You wherever You go." You'll notice that this first man didn't wait for Jesus to call him. He had apparently joined Jesus and His disciples as they traveled along the road; and he took the initiative himself to become one of Jesus' followers.
According to the Gospel of Matthew, this very eager potential follower was a scribe (Matthew 8:19). A scribe was a man, in Jewish culture, who was very educated; a man well trained in the Scriptures and in the law of Moses. Scribes were accustomed to being highly respected as scholarly members of society. But this particular scribe seemed very willing to commit himself to Jesus - affirming that he would follow Jesus "wherever" He was going to go. What an asset he would have been to the team!
Jesus saw a problem with his offer, though. If you'll think about it for a moment, his offer has a familiar ring to it. It sounds an awful lot like some of the promises Jesus heard from Peter, who said, "Lord, why can I not follow You now? I will lay down my life for Your sake" (John 13:37) - a promise he made just a few hours before he denied that he even knew who Jesus was! On one occasion, Peter boldly promised Jesus, "Lord, I am ready to go with You, both to prison and to death;" but Jesus said, "I tell you, Peter, the rooster shall not crow this day before you will deny three times that you know Me" (Luke 22:33-34). Peter's promise was made far too hastily - and so was this scribe's.
Consider, for a moment, what this scribe's motivation might have been. We can safely speculate his motivate, because of the response that Jesus - who sees perfectly into people's hearts - gave to the man. This scribe had, no doubt, seen and heard much about the miracles of Jesus. He knew about the mighty healings Jesus had performed, and about how He fed multitudes of people with a few small fish and a few small loaves of bread. It was clear to this man that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah - the promised King. To follow Jesus would be to follow the King of Israel. No wonder he was eager to do so.
But the eager man didn't understand that the comforts of the Kingdom were yet in the far distant future; and the immediate prospects involved suffering, hardship and persecution. That's why Jesus gave him a dose of reality when He told him, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head."
The scribe's promise to follow Jesus, you see, wasn't a promise that was well thought-out. It was inspired, in an impulsive way, by the prospect of being close to the King of Israel - and of enjoying all the benefits and blessings that pertain thereto. Personally, I don't blame him for that - do you? He rightly perceived that following Jesus is the only pathway to God's blessings; but he hadn't considered the cost involved in following along that pathway.
This is one of the reasons why many people start off following Jesus with great eagerness, but then soon fall away when the going gets tough. They had it in their minds that Jesus would only lead them along pleasant paths down the road to happiness and prosperity. They're right in believing that Jesus leads us to God's blessings; but they don't realize that Jesus often trains His followers for those blessings by leading them down difficult paths - down a path of suffering, for example, so they'll learn endurance; or down a path of trial and tribulation, so they'll learn to trust Him; or down a path of waiting, so they'll learn patience; or even down a path of painful loss and grief, so they'll learn by experience that He's sufficient for their every need.
Everyone who is invited to follow Jesus needs to know that there's a cost involved; otherwise, they're being victimized by false advertising. Everyone who chooses to follow Jesus needs to be encouraged to count the cost before they begin the journey. A great multitude of people was once following Jesus; and no doubt, they all thought He was going to lead them down the road to happiness and bliss. But turned to them, He shocked them all by saying,
"If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life also, he cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it - lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, "This man began to build and was not able to finish.' Or what king, going to make war against another king, does not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is still a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks conditions of peace. So likewise, whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple" (Luke 14:25-33).
Perhaps you began to follow Jesus at one time in a very committed and devoted way, but wandered away after a while because you became disillusioned. Perhaps you were made to believe that following Jesus would make your life easier; and you became discouraged when you found out that, in many ways, it actually made your life harder. There was more sin to repent of than you thought at first, or more changes to be made, or more opposition to endure. And so, you gave up, wandered off Jesus' path, and followed your own way once again.
It could be that, when you were invited to follow Jesus, you weren't told the whole truth - that there's a cost involved. It could be that you were only told about the blessings of following Jesus, but not told about the demands. It seems to me that Jesus told this man the truth, so that he could count the cost before he made the commitment to follow. You need to count the cost too.
Think about this: the One whom we are to follow didn't even have a place to lay His head on earth. He had no home; no permanent dwelling. But now, He has resumed His heavenly place; and He reigns today as King of kings and Lord of lords. Soon, His permanent dwelling will be among mankind, and forever glorious. I believe a good, honest passage to help us keep things in perspective is Hebrews 12:1-6. There, we not only find the truth about the serious cost involved in following Jesus; but we also find encouragement concerning the ultimate blessings that come from following. It says,
Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a could of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against sin. And you have forgotten the exhortation which speaks to you as to sons: "My son, do not despise the chastening of the LORD, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives" (Heb. 12:1-6).
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And so, one of the things that gets in the way of our being a faithful follower of Jesus is a failure to count the cost. Another thing that gets in our way is ...
2. A FAILURE TO GIVE JESUS FIRST PLACE (vv. 59-60).
Luke goes on to tell us about another man - this time, a man to whom Jesus personally extends an invitation. Luke writes, "Then He said to another, "Follow Me.'"
Jesus issues His command in the present tense of the verb - a command which, for this reason, one commentator translates, "Be following Me"1. I believe this indicates that the man was already following Jesus to some degree. After all, Jesus was about to tell him to go out and proclaim the message of the kingdom of God; and it doesn't seem very likely that Jesus would call someone to do such an important thing who was then beginning to follow Him for the first time. I suspect that, at this point, this follower was being invited to follow Jesus in an even more committed way, and to go deeper in following Jesus than he had gone before. He was being invited to make progress in his walk with Jesus. "But," as Luke tells us, "he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father.'"
Perhaps you've read that story before, as I have, and thought, "Well, what's wrong with that request? After all, he's commanded in the Scriptures to honor his father and mother, isn't he? He sounds like he's just being a good son." And, perhaps you've been a little shocked to read Jesus' seemingly-cruel response; "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and preach the kingdom of God."
It's certainly possible that the man's father had died at the same time as Jesus gave this command. Some commentators have thought so. Ordinarily, when someone died in that part of the world, a burial happened immediately; but, according to Old Testament law, the one who did the actual handling of the burial would be considered "unclean" for seven days, and would be required to follow a strict process of ceremonial purification (Num. 19:11-13). If that was the case, then this man would be making himself unavailable to Jesus for a time if he sought to see to the burial of his father first. But personally, I find it hard to imagine Jesus would have made his strong comment to a man whose father had just died.
There's another possibility - one that I tend to think of as much more likely. The great preacher G. Campbell Morgan wrote about a friend of his who was seeking to travel in some unfamiliar territory in the land of Israel2. The man went to a friend of his in that land, a wealthy Arab, who he tried to persuade to go on the journey with him as a guide. The young Arab wanted to go, but he insisted that he couldn't do so right then. He pointed to his father - a stately, robust old man sitting at the door of his tent in seemingly perfect health; and said, "Sir, suffer me first to go and bury my father." The old man was not dead; but the young man was expressing - in a typically eastern way - his devotion to his father by saying that he couldn't go on such a journey so long as his father was still alive.
I believe that describes the case with this man. There was something about this follower that moved Jesus to call him immediately to a particular task; but the man was telling Jesus that he felt an obligation to his father that took precedence over everything else - even over Jesus' call on his life. Jesus' response could be paraphrased this way: "Listen; anyone can bury the physically dead. It isn't essential that you be the one doing it. And so, let those whom I have not called, and to whom I have not given eternal life, concern themselves with serving your father and eventually burying him. I have called you to life; and I have given you a task that takes precedence over everything else. Go therefore and proclaim my message of life to the spiritually dead!" It wasn't that the care of his father wasn't important. It's just that it wasn't essential that he do it. Jesus' call on his life was the only thing that was essential; and such a call demanded the primary place in his devotion.
This is meant to teach us that, when it comes to following Jesus, our Lord and His agenda are to be our main concern. And if the direct call from Jesus to follow Him in some specific way conflicts with something else - even something as important as the obligation one feels to one's own father - then following Jesus and His call on our life is to take first place. Failure to keep Jesus first is another reason why we may fail to follow Him as we should.
Perhaps you're hindered from following Jesus as you should because you've allowed a sense of obligation to something or someone else to take first place in your life. Perhaps Jesus is calling you to follow on one path, and a loved-one is demanding you to stay on another. Perhaps Jesus is calling you to love Him first, and someone else is calling you to love them more than Jesus. Perhaps you even feel torn between following Jesus, and the objection and open opposition of family members and loved-ones to your desire to follow.
Obviously, it's God's will that we love our family members and fulfill our moral duty toward them faithfully. But when we're put in the position of choosing one over the other, we must choose Jesus. I believe that this sense of a greater obligation to Jesus is what He meant when He said,
He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it (Matthew 10:37-39).
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This naturally leads us to a third reason why we may fall short of following Jesus as we should ...
3. A FAILURE TO REMAIN SINGULAR IN OUR FOCUS (vv. 61-62).
The first man offered to follow Jesus, but Jesus stoped him short. The second man was called by Jesus to follow, but his father stopped him short. And now, here's a third man who offered to follow Jesus, but then stopped himself short. Luke writes, "And another also said, "Lord, I will follow You, but let me first go and bid them farewell who are at my house.'"
What did the man mean by this? What did he mean by "bidding farewell" to those who were at his house? There's a story in the Old Testament of how the prophet Elijah called the young Elisha to the prophetic ministry by casting his own mantel on him. Elisha knew that this meant he was to now follow Elijah into the prophetic ministry; and he said, "Please let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you" (1 Kings 19:20). Elijah, of course, permitted him to do this. Elisha made a fire from his farming equipment, slaughtered the livestock, made a great feast, and then arose to follow Elijah from then on. But we can tell that there's more to this man's intention than just kissing mom and dad goodbye, because - once again - of the way Jesus reacted to what he said.
As Luke tells us, "But Jesus said to him, "No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom.'" Jesus here uses a picture of a plowman grabbing ahold of the plow as if to do his work in the field. In order to do his job right, such a plowman had to set his hands firmly to the plow, set his animal in the proper direction, and keep his eyes fixed straight ahead as he plowed. Often, a plowman would actually fix his eyes on a specific point on the other side of the field, and plow in the direction of that fixed point so that the furrows he plowed would be strait and true. If he had the bad habit of taking his eyes off where he was going, and looking backwards to where had been - dividing his attention between the field and the farmhouse - he'd only succeed in making erratic patterns all over the field, and would soon prove himself useless as a plowman.
Similarly, this man was expressing a commitment to follow Jesus AFTER he bid them farewell who were at his home. Now although we aren't told, I personally don't believe that that Jesus was calling this man away from legitimate responsibilities of a wife and children. Rather, I believe it was a man who was otherwise free, but who had allowed the material concerns of an earthly estate to keep him him bound. Jesus could see that the man really wanted to follow; but that he also really wanted to insure that things were cared for at home. He was a divided man. He was willing to follow Jesus; but he also wanted to keep his interests at home well maintained, because that's where his heart really was.
This was an arrangement that would never work. Jesus knew that the man would not be whole-heartedly devoted to following Him, because he'd always be rubber-necking backwards in a homewardly direction. All it would take would be some "emergency" at home, and he'd be gone. He was a man who did not follow Jesus with a singularity of focus.
Now, Jesus often calls us to serve Him and follow Him in the midst of our other earthly responsibilities. Not everyone has been given the freedom by God to enter full-time ministry or full-time missionary work. But whatever He calls us to do, He calls us to follow Him completely. And the fact is that He may well call us - as He has called many others - to leave the comforts and security of an earthly estate behind, and follow Him.
Perhaps you're hindered from following Jesus today because of a divided focus. Perhaps you try to follow Jesus with one eye on His heavenly cause, and too much of another eye on an earthly treasure. Perhaps you try to plow in the Lord's field, while looking backwards longingly to what you may have left behind.
Jesus taught that many a man would hear His word, "and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and he becomes unfruitful" (Matthew 13:22). Likewise, the apostle Paul wrote, "No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier" (2 Tim. 2:4).
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We've been offered the great privilege of following Jesus. But here are three ways we can hear the call of Jesus to follow, but fall short of following fully. If we aren't careful, we can fail to have counted the cost of following; and we'll end up saying, "I would love go on with You, Lord; but I frankly didn't expect that the path You're wanting to take would be so hard." Or we may fail to keep Him as our top priority; and we'll end up saying, "I'd love to go on with You, Lord; but I'm afraid there's something on the other path that's demanding my devotion right now." Or we may fail to give our single focus to Him; and end up saying, "I'd love to go on with you, Lord; but I'm afraid I'll have to run back and take care of a couple of things I left behind."
Jesus requires a complete devotion in our following. May we never let anything rob us of the full blessings that come from following Jesus fully and faithfully.
1R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Luke's Gospel (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), p. 561.
22G. Campbell Morgan, The Gospel According to Luke (New York, Chicago, London, Edinburgh: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1931), p 133.
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