Summary: A New Year’s message on excuses and priorities and the preeminence of Christ--what it means to be a disciple.
“First Things First” ~Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
Count the Cost
Jesus encounters three volunteers who are eager to swear allegiance and follow Him, but who have certain conditions. They figured they were ready to follow Jesus, and they seem quite confident--because they have little idea of the challenges disciples face. Jesus doesn’t exactly make things easy for them; He’s not as accommodating as we’d expect. If we were recruiting these three, we’d probably have accepted them and their excuses. Jesus doesn’t reject them, but He confronts their excuses, and in so doing, He helps them and us to understand the challenges of true discipleship, which is no casual endeavor.
The first person sounds ready; he doesn’t have an obvious excuse, but apparently he hasn’t thought things through. Jesus knows his heart. He cautions this potential follower that the path of discipleship isn’t necessarily a comfortable or predictable one. Would this eager volunteer follow Jesus to Jerusalem, knowing that his teacher’s death was certain? Jesus wants to prepare His followers for the difficult days that lie ahead. He’s saying in effect, “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know” (The Message).
Normally being a disciple of a learned teacher meant becoming a student. While school is for some people an unpleasant prospect, for many it is seen as a great opportunity. They’re motivated by a love of learning and a desire for self-improvement. There’s nothing wrong with enrolling in a school, but Jesus warns that He’s not your typical teacher. He’s more like a prophet, and they live hazardous lives. Signing up with Jesus isn’t like taking up a hobby. His “class” may involve hardship--a risky business.
I’ve had soldiers tell me, “I signed up with the Army for the college money, not to be away from my family and get shot at!” But that’s what military service may well involve. The only one of the twelve disciples to die a natural death, of old age, was John, and he was banished to the Greek isle of Patmos. The rest were martyrs. We need to enter Christian service with our eyes open. In the military and in the service of Christ, all we can count on is uncertainty…and God’s sovereignty.
Jesus puts this volunteer’s commitment to the test. “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.” Foxes and birds are wild animals not generally cared for by people, yet God cares for them. God will take care of us, but not in ways we might expect. Jesus can’t guarantee we’ll be comfortable when we follow Him. When we give our lives to Him, we die to self. We are “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20).
Back in verse 2 Jesus directs His disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God and heal the sick and take nothing for their journey. He has a mission for us. When we learn what He wants from us, we either obey or go our own way. Even our strongest desires need to be subordinated to the purpose of God. We surrender to His will.
Excuse #2: The 2nd potential follower needs to first bury his father. On the surface, his request seems acceptable and Jesus’ answer seems harsh. In the military when soldiers’ parents die, they’re granted emergency leave. It’s a very reasonable excuse. However, the father referred to here was most likely not dead but elderly; otherwise this man wouldn’t be talking to Jesus--he’d be at the funeral. Due to climate and custom, people in the Middle East were buried the day they died. There were no funeral parlors or means to preserve the body. What’s really being said is: “I’ll serve you when my father passes on, but I can’t go until then.” Jesus isn’t saying we should neglect our parents, but He is stating that to follow Him could take us far from home. Family ties are important, but not the most important thing in life.
Some think Jesus is saying here, “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.” If we wait for ideal conditions to follow Jesus, we might never follow Him. Jesus is telling this volunteer, “First things first. Your business is life, not death; and life is urgent” (The Message).
Excuse #3: In the third encounter we hear a similar request: “I need to say good-bye to my family.” Jesus isn’t looking for half-hearted service; He wants our top devotion; He deserves first place in our lives. Nothing should distract us from our high calling. To say “yes” to God, we may have to say “no” to ourselves (and maybe even to others). He warns this wannabe, “No procrastination. No backward looks. You can’t put God’s Kingdom off till tomorrow. Seize the day” (The Message).