Tuesday 23 March 2010

The cost (Matthew 8:14-22)

When Jesus came into Peter's house, he saw Peter's mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases."

When Jesus saw the crowd around him, he gave orders to cross to the other side of the lake. Then a teacher of the law came to him and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." Jesus replied, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head."

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."

Matthew 8:14-22

1. Introduction - In the crowd

Tomorrow is a big day for teenage girls all over the UK because tomorrow, finally after months of waiting, is the release of the DVD edition of New Moon, the latest series in the Twilight movie phenomenon.

Robert Pattinson who is the leading actor in the movie arrived at Leicester Square, London just a few days ago and he was received by a hoard of screaming fans - mostly teenage girls; a few not so teenage moms- who had waited 32 hours - not minutes; hours - to catch a glimpse of the 23 year-old Hollywood star.

Now all the guys are probably saying to themselves, "How pathetic! That is just sad!"

While it is easy to make fun of Twilight teens, Naruto nutters and Facebook addicts - I wonder if you realize that a lot of people point their fingers at Christians and say, "Are you any different?"

Look at some of the songs we have just been singing a minute ago:

"Come! Now is the time to give our lives (!)"

"Come bow before him now in reverence and fear"

Today's passage is so relevant to us. Because on one hand we have one of the clearest, most consistent calls of Jesus to follow him - Jesus is calling for us to give him our very lives…

Yet on the other hand, Jesus will challenge any expression of blind faith - essentially asking his followers - Are you sure? Do you realize what is involved?

And whether you call yourself a follower of Jesus, or you have never considered the claims of Jesus before today - I think the bible is going to surprise all of us by telling us not just how to be a Christian; but why. Not just how to be a follower of Jesus but the reasons why we should consider following him.

For me at least, questions that deal with the "why" and not just "how" are challenging; they are helpful. Because most of the questions I struggle with every day are "why" questions. Why is there suffering? Why should I trust the bible as God's word?

These questions are helpful and refreshing in a world that is very keen to tell us "how" to live. We come to church and expect to hear 10 steps on how to be a better Christian. Here is how you deal with that problem. Don't drink, don't smoke, don't watch Twilight (!), pray more, study harder, eat your vegetables and pay attention during the sermon!

Today we are going to meet two men who come to Jesus - they want to follow him. And Jesus will turn to them and ask, "Do you know why?"

He helps them think through what it means to be a Christian by giving at least three things to think about. Jesus says to these two men, and he says to all of us today - following Jesus is

  • much harder than you think,
  • it is more demanding than you can imagine,
  • but it is the most worthwhile thing you could do with your life.

3 points: It's much harder, more demanding, but it's the most rewarding, fulfilling thing you could do in your entire life.

2. Much harder than you think

Verse 19: A teacher of the law came to Jesus and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go."

Here is a man who is trying very hard to impress Jesus. Let me give you some background why I say that this man is trying very, very hard to get Jesus' attention.

The passage begins with Jesus surrounded by a crowd. Jesus has his fans and that is not surprising. If you look at verse 16 - people were bringing the demon-possessed to Jesus; they were bringing the sick to Jesus; and he healed them all. Notice that Matthew says that Jesus drove out the spirits with a word. He heals a leper by saying, "Be clean!" (I know it's two words in English - but it's only one in the original language) and the man was completely healed.

(A lot of teenagers wish they had that power - to be able to stand in front of your messy room - socks on the floor, dirty laundry, mould on the windows - and say "Be clean!" Awesome!)

The point the bible is making is that - healing, driving out spirits, miracles - these were a snap for Jesus. He healed with a word. Meaning: not just that it was powerful but that it was impressive. Whoa!

So it isn't surprising that Jesus was popular but what is surprising is Jesus' response to his popularity.

Verse 18 says, "When Jesus saw the crowd around him" his immediate reaction was to leave town. Go to the other side of the lake.

It is at this moment that Matthew introduces us to the first man. He calls him a "teacher of the law"; which doesn't mean he was a lawyer or a teacher - it is a term for scholars. It is a phrase for intellectuals. And notice how this scholar, academic, intellectual addresses Jesus?

Teacher. Professor Jesus. Dr Christ (sounds like a rapper - Dr Christ in da house).

What is he doing? He is showing respect. But he is also trying to get Jesus' attention. "I will follow you wherever you go."

Anyone watch Titanic last night? Celine Dion singing - "Near, far, wherever you are, I believe that the heart will go ooooonnn!"

Or Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act: "I will follow hiiimmm, follow him wherever heee may goo!"

But look at how Jesus responds to the scholar. He doesn't reject him. He doesn't accept everything he says either.

He basically tells the scholar: It is a lot harder than you think. Or at least, it is a lot harder than you expect.

Jesus starts with the positive: by emphasizing God cares for his creation. It is an example of God's care for his creation. The birds have nests, the foxes live in holes. God's care is reflected in his creation.

But Jesus did not come into creation to make himself comfortable. He left his home in order to enter creation. He left the praise of angels to be rejected by men.

John 1:11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.

Jesus shouldn't be rejected, yet the bible says he came with the expectation that he would be.

And here Jesus spells out how following him will be hard - it will be hard - in at least two ways.


Firstly, it will be hard because of our expectations. The crowds come to him expecting to be healed. The scholar admires Jesus for this teaching. If one thing is obvious from these few verses it is that people come to Jesus with all sorts of needs, reasons and expectations. Yet Jesus is always confronts our expectations with the reality of his true mission and purpose.

Remember the Sermon on the Mount? Jesus saw the crowds coming towards him, Jesus saw his disciples gathering around him and Jesus opens his mouth saying, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed at those who mourn (meaning you've lost someone you love)… blessed are you! When people insult you, persecute you, falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me."

Jesus enters this world with full expectation of rejection and suffering. It shouldn't have been that way, but that is the reality. And he doesn't hide the fact that it will be the same for his followers.

The Chinese Church is one of the largest and fastest growing church, whether in China itself, or in migrant Chinese communities in Europe, the US and Australia. It is all too easy to get caught up with the statistics and excitement and the joy, and lose sight of how much this growth has come through suffering.

Someone comes to you saying, "I want to follow Christ!" The bible says in Luke 15: Heaven rejoices over one repentant sinner. We too, should rejoice! Yet Jesus himself is clear about hardship that can snatch this joy away (in the parable of the sower). The bible calls for us at times to rejoice within our suffering (James 1:2 - count it all joy… whenever you face trials of many kinds). And we should, too.

One of the most loving things you could do with a new brother or sister in Christ is to walk though the passages of Scripture which talk plainly about what it means to trust Christ in the midst of pain. To prepare them for times of hardship as they continue to live lives for Jesus in a world that is still under the power of sin and death.

2 Timothy 3:12 - In fact, everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted

Acts 14:22 - "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God"

Philippians 1:29 - For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him

It has been gifted to you two things: You receive a gift from God. It has a big bow on it; you open it only to find two gifts inside. One is faith - faith in Jesus. The other is suffering - suffering for Jesus.

So number 1, it will be hard - says the bible, says Jesus - and we need to come with the right expectation of this hardship at least being a part of the blessing that comes from following Jesus.


But secondly, it is hard because of our ego.

The scholar comes to Jesus essentially with his resume, outlining what he is willing to do. And Jesus turns to him saying it is not about what this scholar is willing to do, but recognizing what Jesus has come to do for him.

"The Son of Man" is Jesus' favourite way of referring to himself (It comes from Daniel 7 which is a prophecy of the one who would receive authority to carry out the will of God). And later on in the gospel Jesus will tell his disciples - in Matthew 20:28 - The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.

Now I think this is one of most misunderstood verses in the bible. We hear these words and think, I must serve more. Especially here in our Chinese culture, in our Chinese Church - we come with a genuine desire to be helpful and to be useful. We want to serve. We give lots of opportunity to serve - tea, playing music, leading bible studies.

But Jesus says he did not come to be served. He came to serve.

His followers had a big problem with this. Peter had a problem with this. LF was talking earlier about Jesus washing his disciples' feet. It was a menial task for the lowest of servants - but Jesus did this. One by one, he got down and washed their sticky feet. But Peter objects - "No… you shall never wash my feet" (John 13:8). How does Jesus respond? Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.

Unless I serve you, you have no place being with me. Jesus did not come to be served but to serve. Has he served you?

Jesus doesn't say to the scholar - you will lose your home, you will be rejected - no, Jesus says the Son of Man - the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.

It isn't about you - and what you can do - your gifts, your talents, your sincerity - it is firstly about what I have come to do for you.

You see, this scholar is so eager to distinguish himself from the crowd. All these mindless people, I am not like them. I've not come to be healed. I've not come to get something from you - I will do everything for you.

But at least the sick know that they need Jesus. At least they see that only he can help them.

Cambridge has its share of scholars. Many define themselves by their academic achievements. And it is all to easy to come to Jesus looking for the same sense of approval. To come to church and distinguish ourselves from the crowd by emphasizing our gifts, our self-reliance, our willingness to share our blessings with others.

But you cannot do that with Jesus. He came not to be served. But to serve… and to give his life as a ransom; as the price for you yours.

Have you been served? Have you come to Jesus not with your pride but with your pain? Not with service but with your sorrows.

And that's hard. To admit that we're far from perfect. We are broken, we have needs and only Jesus can fill them.

It is easier to say, "let's die with him" (John 11:16) - that's brave, that's sacrificial - than it is to confess "Jesus had to die for me". He had to, I could never save myself. I am sinful, wretched, broken.

Following Jesus is harder than you think; when it has to do with our sinfulness, our expectations, our pride and ego.

But secondly, following Jesus is more demanding than you could imagine.

3. More demanding than we could imagine

Verse 21: Another disciple said to Jesus, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father."

And Jesus replies with what I think is the most offensive, disrespectful words anyone can ever say in a Chinese Church - "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."

Choi! Choi! Choi!

You might not have a problem with these words; I do. I struggle with them. Because I think my dad I a great guy. If you have ever met my father - he has visited us a few times; many of you have met him - he's nice, friendly. Let me just say, we have had our problems. There were lots of times I am not proud of - but we always worked things out. Especially when it was something important. Especially when it was something serious.

And it doesn't get more serious than a family tragedy. This man's father is dead. And goes to Jesus saying please let me bury him. I don't know his relationship with his family, but come on, any boss would say - "take the week off". And teacher would give an extension on that deadline. A good friend would say, "Let me drive you home. Let me be of comfort."

But Jesus says, "Let the dead bury their own dead." What's going on?

Firstly: to prepare for this talk I did some reading. People a whole lot smarter than me have been studying this gospel for close to 2000 years. And frankly, many doubt this guy is sincere.

What I mean is this: if you were to read this story in the Middle East - now communities there are very big on family obligations - the family comes first in everything - if you were to tell this story in the Middle East - they would get very upset. But not with Jesus - they would be upset with the son.

They would say, "This son is not sincere! His father isn't dead."

And what they mean is this: There is no way a son would be in a situation where his father's dead body would be left in the open without a burial.

And they would say: this is not a situation of a family tragedy but family obligation. The son is actually saying to Jesus, let me leave you to serve my father until his death. Let me fulfil my family obligations. After that… I will follow you.

Do you see what he is saying? Jesus, you are important; you are right up there - but mum and dad are even more important.

And we get a clue of this from verse 21 where he says "First…. First, let me go."

Family comes first.

We could run a church campaign called "Family comes First" and we would get a lot of attention. It would be popular - activities for kids, visiting the elderly, celebrate father's day, mother's day - make it a really big celebration!

(To the tune of In Christ Alone) :
Family first, God is second,
girlfriend comes right at the end.

Jesus' response

Jesus says no. The son says, let me go - Jesus says - follow me instead.

Who does he think he is?

If you have never asked that question, you've never read the bible. I don't care how you have come to church or called yourself a Christian - if you've never come to a point of amazement; even shock - and asked "Who does Jesus think he is?" You have never read the bible.

Chapter 7 verse 28: The crowds were amazed at his teaching

Chapter 8 verse 27: The men were amazed and asked, "What kind of man is this?..."

Again and again, the persistent reaction is shock, amazement and even anger. If you have never come to the point where you just scratch your head and wonder, "Who does this guy think he is?" You have never read the bible - because you have never met Jesus.

Engaging with the son

And yet, before we get our defenses up - before we start dividing ourselves into those who take the man's side, the those who take Jesus' side - notice that Jesus doesn't question his sincerity. Jesus doesn't say, "Your father isn't dead".

But what does Jesus do? He engages with him on his terms. The same way he deals with the scholar, Jesus deals with the son, on his own terms.

When Jesus says - Let the dead bury their own dead; he is saying - Your family obligations - as responsible as you are in fulfilling them - will not save you. And more importantly: your family obligations - as responsible and sincere and loving are you are in fulfilling them - will not save your family.

It won't save you. But it won't ultimately save them either.

Care for the lost

You know that times I have been tempted to leave Jesus - it's not when bad things happen to me. Quite the opposite actually: When I face trouble I run to Jesus. I pray harder, I find I trust him more fully - no, the times when I have been tempted to leave is not when I face difficulty and hardship - but when those close to me are in pain. When the people I love - are far from God. That's when I think I'm most vulnerable.

I wonder if that's the case for some of us today: you have people you love, whom you care about - and they can't stand coming to church. Jesus is a swear word. Just the other day someone said to me they were walking past a church and their son suddenly said - "I hate Christians. I hate God."

And one of the hardest things the bible has to say to you is… you are not helping them. You are not helping them by leaving Jesus yourself.

It is one thing to love your family. But it is quite another thing to leave Jesus in order to love your family. If you do this: as sincere as you are; as serious as the situation is - you are not helping yourself - and you will not help them either.

Life and Death

It all comes down to what your definition of life and death is. Death is not the end of this life. The grave is not all that there is. Hebrews 9:27 says "man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgement." Life does not end with death; it ends either with judgement, or it ends with Jesus.

The bible says we are dead in our sins, meaning all of us are under judgement, and are as good as dead.

And following Jesus is not just a means towards life. Jesus is saying, following him is the very definition of life. To live - to truly live - is to live in Christ.

Life and Death. Judgement or Jesus.

Conflicting demands

I am sorry if this sounded like too glib an answer. Here is a filial son struggling with demands from home and it almost seems like Jesus is just putting more pressure on him the poor man. You might even think that it's a cheap shot talking not just about the physically dead (his dad), but referring to his living relatives as spiritually dead. But don't lose sight of the focus here - Jesus is addressing him. He is talking to the son.

Take a step back and look at the setting of this account again. Matthew calls him a disciple. Presumably this man has been with Jesus for at least a short while and would have been witness to the remarkable ministry of healing and miracles in his hometown Galilee. Perhaps he was even there at the Sermon on the Mount - listening to Jesus on the Kingdom of Heaven and its demands.

But now Jesus suddenly decides to leave home. Everyone's headed for the boats to cross to the next town and it looks like he will have to leave as well. And the man chooses this moment to say to Jesus, "Lord", or "Master" - recognizing his authority; recognizing his position - but he says to Jesus, "Lord, first let me go."

The first guy - the scholar - his motivations were internal. His expectations. His accomplishements. His willingness.

But the son - his motivations are external. Family obligations. Expectations laid on him.

And his request to Jesus is to "let him go". Meaning to release him from one demand to meet another. It looks very responsible. "I have another pressing engagement". "An emergency has come up".

Forgive me for saying this: but I think that is how we often justify our big life decisions. With excuses. Oh, my family wants me to do this. Aiya, my boss is soooo unreasonable, he is forcing me to stay back.

I hear it all the time with respect to Jesus. "I'm Chinese, I cannot betray my culture" - seriously, someone said that to me once (and frankly many more just don't dare use these words).

What is your excuse for not considering Jesus seriously? Family? Scholarship? Ambition? Your reputation as a scientist?

Jesus isn't laying some kind of guilt trip on this man. He spells out his choices clearly. Is it a demand? Yes. But he calls Jesus his Lord, and that is the right a master exercises over his servants.

And yet, the fuller answer is "No". For this man cannot fully meet the demands of God. Death is a reminder that we all fall short of the demands of God's holiness. But Jesus will lead us to a place where all the requirements of God, for holiness, righteousness and love will be met.

He calls the man to follow him to the cross.

3. The most fulfilling thing you can do with your life

And that brings us to our final point: We've seen that following Jesus is much harder than we think, more demanding than we could imagine, but now we will see that following Jesus is the most fulfilling thing - the only worthwhile thing you could do with your life.

And the key to this is answering a very simple, blindingly obvious question ….

Jesus says, "Follow me!"

And the question is "Where?"

It is such an obvious question isn't it? What is the destination? What is the purpose? Where are you leading me to?

And whether you read Matthew or Mark, Luke or John - all the gospels bring us to the same destination. All the gospels have the same central focus on Jesus making his journey to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be put on trial, he will be tortured, he will be sentenced to die a very public, painful and humiliating death on the cross.

If you can see that; If you see the direction Jesus is taking us in and leading us to - the passage takes on a whole new meaning.

To the scholar, Jesus says, The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. That expression: to "lay his head" occurs one other time in the gospels. In John 19 verse 30 which records Jesus hanging on the cross, right near the very end of his life, he cries out "It is finished" and John says: with that, he bowed his head - same words in the original Greek. The Son of Man lays his head only upon his death on the cross.

And to the filial son who is anxious about his family duties - the cross reminds us Jesus left his Father to be with us. Jesus leads his followers to the place where they will have to bury him, their Lord. Let the dead bury their own dead.

How do the scholar and the son respond to Jesus? We don't know. The bible just doesn't say. But how do you respond? What would you say to Jesus.

Jesus says, "Follow me". Follow me to the cross. There I am rejected. There on the cross, I give my life.

The NIV bible has the heading "The Cost of Following Jesus" and that is absolutely right. There is a cost, but it is a cost paid not to Jesus, but by Jesus. You see, in the original text, there were no subheadings - these were added in much later for our benefit. Instead, the words that introduce this dialogue are found in verse 17.

This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:
"He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases."

On the cross, Jesus paid the cost of your sin, your death - but also for your life and your discipleship.

That's the reason for the bit about Peter's mother-in-law. Notice that here Peter (one of the earliest disciples) still has both home and family. Before this, Matthew records such spectacular accounts of healing - with the leper and the official's son. But why include this incident? A fever?

But what happens after Jesus heals her? The NIV says she began to "wait on him". It is actually the word "serve". Luke records that she served "them", but Matthew is more particular - She served "him".

Before she can serve, Jesus has to serve her. The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve. And he gives his life - we have to see this - he give his life - to make it even possible to respond with ours. By his wounds we are healed.

To the scholar Jesus says - following me is hard - but I have come to endure hardship and rejection on your behalf

To the son Jesus says - following me is demanding - but I have met all the demands with my death.

And on the cross - Jesus says to all of us - this is the measure of how much you are worth to me. Follow me to the cross and there I will take your pain, I will bear your sin and you will receive my joy and my reward.

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