Jesus would have made a terrible salesman.
At times, it almost seems as if he’s trying to put people off from following him.
Bible passages like this are hard to preach from. I’m instinctively a salesman. I’d love everyone to follow Jesus. I want to sell him to people. I want everyone I know to sign on the dotted line. So passages like this are a bit of a nuisance. Jesus takes the small print, and makes it the largest writing on the page, with bright highlighter pen through it. It makes it much harder to sell Jesus to people when it feels like you’re putting them off.
The reality is, of course, that we don’t trust people who hide details in the small print and hope we don’t notice them. This passage is exactly what we would expect from the Jesus whose honesty and integrity always shine through in a wonderfully attractive way.
These days we’re obsessed with numbers. How many will turn out to vote at the General Election? How many in church last Christmas? How many people used to use our church hall?
Jesus is not interested in numbers. He wants people to follow him wholeheartedly. If someone is not ready to do that, he’s not the slightest bit interested in having them tag along just to make the numbers look good. With Jesus it’s all or nothing. And so he spells out what it looks like to follow him with everything we’ve got.
So, yes, the demands Jesus makes of us are high. So much so that you start to wonder why we baptised these children? Is this what we’ve signed them up for?
Let’s look together at Matthew chapter 8. It’s page 973 if you’ve lost the place. Matthew’s telling us what it means to follow Jesus, and I’ve got three headings for us about following Jesus as we look at this short section.
Following Jesus is the best decision
First, following Jesus is the best decision anyone could make Following Jesus is the best decision.
This does not come from the verses we had read, but from the rest of the chapter these verses occur in.
We’ve just seen Jesus cleanse a leper, heal a Roman centurion’s valet from some distance away, cure Peter’s mother-in-law’s malaria, and despatch every disease and evil spirit that was brought to his door.
Matthew is showing us Jesus’ unrivalled authority. Jesus is the one who can clean our hearts before God, who is in control of the world and can do anything he wishes.
He’s the one who died on the cross to deal with our rebellion before God.
He’s the one who will one day come back and bring about a perfect world, free of sickness, pain, suffering and death. He’s the one you’d be nuts not to follow.
We dream of a better world. The advertising industry thrives on it. They show us tantalising scenes. Holiday beaches with unspoilt sun, neither too hot nor too windy, and not another soul in site. Cars that gleam perfectly, driven along empty roads by smiling drivers. Perfect skin. Perfect health. Perfect teeth.
Jesus is the one who came to turn that dream into reality. It cost him his life, and the healings he performed are the first glimpses of it. One day, he’ll come back, and that dream world will begin for everyone who trusts and follows him. It will be reality.
Following Jesus is the best decision anyone could ever make.
But then comes our passage, and with it the no-so-small print.
Following Jesus is not comfortable.
Following Jesus is not comfortable. Following Jesus is not comfortable.
In our short reading, two men come up to Jesus to express an interest in following him. Jesus is about to leave the region, and to cross the lake to another area. These men want to go with him, to join his band of followers.
We meet the first in verses 19 and 20: Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nets, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.
Jesus had a job to do on earth. He travelled around, calling people to follow him, preaching the good news that everything God had promised comes true in him. He often would have had to spend the night in the open, or in a boat.
If you wanted to follow him, you were signing up for a life where you never knew where you’d sleep the next night.
It’s a little different today. We don’t follow Jesus by literally going to the same places that he goes. But in another way, nothing has changed. Following Jesus still means putting our lives at his disposal. We let him call the shots. You hand him the keys to your life.
It may not be a nomadic existence. But it’s still far from comfortable to let someone else drive.
I’ve known people come to the realisation that they were living in a larger house than they needed. Their life was indulgent, so they decided to downsize, and to put the money to growing Jesus’ kingdom instead. I’ve known other people give up a job they loved, because they realised it was demanding too many hours and couldn’t serve their family and their church were suffering for it.
Those will not be the same decisions that every follower of Jesus will make. But the point is that Jesus asks us to hand him the keys and ask him to drive. He asks us to do that before we know where he’s going to take us. Who knows where that decision will lead?
Following Jesus is not comfortable.
Following Jesus is our highest loyalty
Third, following Jesus is our highest loyalty. Following Jesus is our highest loyalty.
In verses 21 and 22 we meet our second potential follower: Another disciple said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus told him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.’
I don’t know how people ever say that Jesus was a wise teacher who said some simply wonderful things. This is about as offensive as you can get.
Here was a man who wanted to follow Jesus, but he had some unfinished business to attend to first. He wanted to bury his father.
The background is in a number of Jewish customs. People who have studied this debate differ over as to whether the man wanted to arrange the funeral for his recently deceased father, or whether his father was elderly and he wanted to take care of him until he died. Either way, these were duties that the Old Testament scriptures demanded. We are to care for our parents, and we have a duty to bury our own dead with dignity. Jesus himself said that we should not neglect our parents in the name of our loyalty to God.
So you see how shocking, and just plain rude, Jesus is here. Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.
He’s saying that a call to follow him has to take priority over all our other duties, our other responsibilities and our relationships.
Many of us are in a dream in life, never questioning our apparently endless loyalty to a whole string of people – our family, our work, our grandchildren. We’d say yes to anything that these people ask us. Jesus is as rude as he is because he needs to be this stark to wake us up. If we are going to follow Jesus, he needs to be our highest loyalty. He needs to be more important to us than anything else in our life.
Now, let me reiterate. Jesus is not saying that Christians should neglect their parents, their marriage or their children. He is saying that our loyalty to him is to be higher than our loyalty to anybody else. In fact, slightly off topic, but it so happens that the key to being a good husband, wife, mother, father, son, daughter, or employee is actually to make sure Jesus is right at the centre.. Jesus first, everything else behind.
In a previous church, there were a number of people who were otherwise very committed to the church, but you could not depend on them because of two loyalties that often took precedence over everything else. Caravans and grandchildren. Some owned a caravan, that they parked on a site throughout the summer months, and would spend every other weekend there. Others had grandchildren, and no matter what plans they might have had, they’d drop them if they were needed to look after them.
Nothing wrong with caravans. (Well, we could debate that. Nothing wrong with holidays. Let’s stop there.) And nothing wrong with grandchildren. But there’s everything wrong with those things holding a higher place in our lives than Jesus himself.
Following Jesus is our highest loyalty.
There’s a song with actions. We don’t sing it here, but I’m quite fond of it. It goes like this: Jesus never, never, never turned anyone away. No, no, no! Jesus never, never, never turned anyone away. He welcome the young, he welcome the old, he never left anyone out in the cold. He welcomed the hungry, he welcomed the lame, Jesus welcomes everyone the same.
And then you read this story, and it looks as if Jesus did turn these two men away.
But Jesus didn’t actually turn them away. He wanted them to follow him. He just wanted them as wholehearted followers. Not tagging along half-heartedly. He wanted them to sign up, but to do so with eyes wide open.
Probably some of us here want to follow Jesus. But we only want to do so as long as life can remain fairly comfortable. As long as we can determine the priorities. As long as we set the pace. As long as certain other relationships and responsibilities are allowed to take priority.
Jesus doesn’t want us to do that. He says to these two men, and he says to us: If you’re going to follow me, it’s everything or nothing.
Some people will hear this, and decide to go for nothing. Jesus asks too much. He’s overreached himself. It’s time to stop pretending to follow Jesus and just admit I’m not really up for it.
But to do that is to miss out. It’s to miss out on God’s kindness, God’s forgiveness, God’s blessing. To be left out when Jesus returns to make that dream future a reality.
This is a story about missing the boat. Jesus was about to get into a boat and go to the other side. Two men wanted to go with him, to follow him. Jesus spelt out what following him would cost. And we don’t know what they did next. Did they follow him? Or did they slink off? Did they miss the boat?
Jesus is so wonderful, that when you get the chance to follow him you really don’t want to miss the boat. But he won’t let you just tag along, follow from a distance, sign up but not really join in.
So if you’re feeling a bit inconsistent, the way to resolve that inconsistency is not to give up altogether and miss the boat. It’s what He said to the second man in the story: Follow me. That’s what Jesus wants us to do. It’s to follow him, and to do so wholeheartedly. It won’t be comfortable. He becomes our highest loyalty. But it’s the best decision anyone could ever make.