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Count the Cost

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[Jesus said:] “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” (Luke 14:26-28).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Jesus is at the height of His success as we measure it. People are flocking to Him—the numbers growing as He gets closer to Jerusalem. Yet, Jesus has to ruin it by telling the people a bunch of hard truths they can’t handle. He can’t help it. Jesus never compromises the truth, for that would be compromising Himself.

The Lord’s criteria for discipleship are as simple as they sound horrifying: “If anyone comes to Me and does not hate his father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” You can almost hear the church growth gurus gasp. “That’s not the way to win a following. You have to give the people something they want. Jesus, we know following You involves sacrifice, but if You can, please keep those demands to a minimum. Otherwise, they’ll go and listen to the preacher down the street.”

But that’s not Jesus. He doesn’t want anyone to be His disciple who hasn’t “counted the cost,” for such will not be disciples for long. And let me tell you: The cost of discipleship is high! Remember, Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem. He knows what awaits Him there. He knows that this crowd will reach its peak on Palm Sunday as He rides triumphantly into the city. He knows that as the week wears on, the crowds will thin. By Friday, they will not cry “Hosanna!” but “Crucify Him!” He knows, in the end, He will be alone. His many followers will abandon Him. Even His Twelve closest friends will scatter. One will betray Him for the price of thirty pieces of silver. Another will deny even knowing Him.

Jesus knows all that, and so He sets forth the conditions for following Him. First, there must be a willingness to leave family ties. The word “hate” sounds harsh to our ears. Jesus means to shock you, to make you realize that nothing dares come before Him in your life as a disciple.         

No, Jesus Christ—Love Incarnate—isn’t commanding you to “hate” as we use and understand the word in English today. For Jesus, “hate” is not so much a feeling, but a choice of the will, a matter of priorities. To “love” one thing and to “hate” another gives preference to the former. Jesus is not calling for you to despise your family members; He is calling upon you to love Him more than them. He is telling you to keep the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” That’s what Jesus means!

But before you breathe a sigh of relief and say, “Oh! That’s all He meant!” you must realize that even this level of commitment is far beyond you. Quite naturally, you place family above the Lord. Stalwart supporters of sound doctrine and church discipline may find fault with a pastor or congregation when that doctrine and discipline is applied to their own wayward children. Spouses and children give in to the temptation to skip worship at the request of an unbelieving family member. And who is courageous enough to correct a false teaching when the family is gathered around the table for Christmas dinner? Nobody. You believe that keeping the peace is more important. The cost of discipleship is high, way more than you are willing to pay.

And just so you understand this clearly, Jesus gives it a second go-around: “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple.”

What’s Jesus doing? Not only does He not understand all the latest marketing techniques, He seems to have some crazy death wish. Crucifixion is a cruel and agonizing way to die, a form of punishment reserved for the vilest offenders and sub-human slaves. For the Jews, it was the death of the damned. But here, it looks like Jesus is telling you that you have to embrace this terrifying, shame-filled way of dying, this cross and its curse, in order to be His disciple.

That’s right! That’s exactly what’s He’s saying. If you don’t bear your own cross, you’re incapable of being His disciple. Following Jesus means self-denial. It means the sacrifice of your own will for the sake of Christ.

“Cross” here, does not refer to the troubles that commonly come in life to all people. Many of those come as a consequence of our own foolishness or the sins of others or of just living in a fallen world. Rather, for a believer, “bearing a cross” means to accept whatever suffering might result from a sincere commitment to Christ and His kingdom. Sometimes it means standing toe-to-toe with those who are speaking lies or teaching falsely. Other times it means not speaking up for yourself when you are personally attacked, but rather taking the blows for the sake of the greater good of the Church. For most of the disciples present on that day Jesus spoke these words, bearing the cross was more than just a figurative expression. Their confession of Christ meant their own martyr’s death—often on an actual wooden cross. But even if it does not mean literal death for you, the cost of discipleship is high. It is way more than you can pay. And you better realize that before you begin.

Jesus gives two examples to emphasize this point. The first involves counting the costs of constructing a tower. If you were to launch a major building project, wouldn’t you first sit down to find out how much money you need and how much you have before you begin? Otherwise, you may be mocked for starting something you couldn’t finish. Think also of a king. He’s planning for war, but then finds out he’s outnumbered two-to-one. Knowing he will face certain defeat, wouldn’t his best course be to seek terms of peace before he engages in battle?

Count the cost. You simply can’t afford what it costs to be Jesus’ disciple. You don’t have the necessary level of commitment. You don’t have enough to defeat your enemy. You simply can’t do it. No one can meet such impossible demands. The cost of discipleship is just too high.

So what are you to do? Do you throw in the towel, give up, and say, “Why even bother?” Are you like the rich young ruler who wanted to be a disciple? When he heard what Jesus told him to do—to sell all his possessions and give them to the poor—he simply gave up his desire to be a disciple. Jesus says: “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be My disciple.”

This news should leave you disturbed, troubled, anxious. But before we go on for relief, let me point out two other things.

First, this text well illustrates why I waste no time telling you that you are saved by your commitment to Jesus or by how much you love Him or how hard you are trying—because no one can do it. No one can achieve the level of commitment to hate his family, hate himself, prepare to die, and renounce all things. I certainly include myself in that list!

Second, and far more importantly, I must point out that I have only spoken in terms of the Law so far. Remember, the purpose of God’s Law: It tells you what God demands of you if you are to be perfectly holy and righteous before Him. It is also to show you your sin, to show you that you cannot do it. When Jesus says this, He is preaching the Law. He is declaring to all who hear that the cost of discipleship is extraordinarily high, and it is one that you in your sinfulness are incapable of paying.

Being Jesus’ disciple is impossible! Believe it; get used to it. You don’t have enough “hate” for the things of this world to love God enough. You certainly don’t have the commitment to bear the cross for your own sins. You don’t have the money, the ability, or the strength to build a bridge across that chasm or a stairway to heaven. That’s what Jesus wants you to learn today. When you count the cost, you’ll discover that the cost of discipleship is just too high!

I said earlier no one can meet such impossible demands; but that’s not completely true. There is one exception! The God-man Jesus Christ. Jesus loved His heavenly Father more than His family and His own life. We read in the Gospels that Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see Him to plead with Him to stop teaching, maybe even to haul Him away. Rather than give in for the sake of family peace, Jesus continued to do the Father’s will that He might go to the cross for us.

Jesus put His heavenly Father’s will over His own. We hear His prayer in Gethsemane: “Father, if it is Your will, take this cup away from Me; nevertheless not My will, but Yours, be done.” Though He did not wish to suffer, Jesus gave up His own life to complete His Father’s plan for your salvation.

Jesus kept the Law for you and He gives you the credit for His obedience. By His grace, He covers you with His righteousness. Therefore, the Father looks upon you and does not see your sin; He sees Christ’s perfect obedience. Jesus does not demand that you die for your sin, because He has already died for it. Instead, He calls you to confess your sin, to acknowledge that His death is the one you deserve. And then He declares that He shares His death with you. He joins you into His death so that you do not have to die for your sin yourself.

What you cannot do, Jesus does for you. From the cross, He builds His Church. You can’t do it. I can’t do it. No one can pay what it costs, except Jesus. Only He frees you, a lost and condemned creature. Only He has purchased and won you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil, not with silver or gold, but with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.

For you, it’s impossible. The cost of discipleship is too high, way more than you can pay. You just can’t do it by your own reason and strength. But the Holy Spirit has called you through the Gospel, enlightened you with His gifts, and sanctified, and kept you in the true faith. He does what is impossible—to make you Christ’s disciple, to make you God’s own dear child.

And surprisingly, you will find that you have taken up your cross and followed Jesus. How did this happen? The Apostle Paul says in Romans 6: “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, that, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with Him in  a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His” (vv 3-6).

In baptism, you were crucified into the death of Christ and raised to life in His resurrection. You have eternal life. And you have the promise that though you die, the Lord will raise the bodies of you and all believers on the Last Day.

The baptismal life is one of dying and rising. The Old Adam must be put to death daily. The Old Adam in you should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.

That makes bearing your cross an entirely different matter. To bear your cross is to bear Christ’s cross, and it is not nearly as heavy as when He carried it to Calvary. In fact, your burden is as light as a feather—even lighter! You bear His cross when it is traced upon you in Baptism. This is the cross that you might outwardly sketch upon yourself as you hear the Invocation and receive the Absolution—you will feel no greater a weight or pain of Christ’s cross than that, for He has suffered all the weight and all the pain for you.

Rather than demanding your body and blood as a sacrifice for your sin, Jesus gives you His body and blood into death for the forgiveness of your sins. In His Supper, He now gives you His risen body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. That is what it means to bear your cross—it means to be forgiven, for in forgiveness Jesus shares His cross with you, taking away your death and giving you His resurrection.

Therefore, set aside all pretenses of your commitment to Christ, for the Lord exposes how weak and unsatisfactory that commitment is. Instead, boast in the Lord. Confess your sins—including your pride in your dedication to Him, and trust solely in His grace and mercy. Give thanks that He has made you His disciple by His commitment, by His sacrifice, His once-for all ultimate sacrifice.

This is the Good News we proclaim to the world: Yes, the cost of discipleship is high, but it has been paid by Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior. For His sake, you are forgiven for all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sermons

Are You Ready for the Journey?

“Jesus Goes Up to Jerusalem” by James Tissot

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As they were going along the road, someone said to [Jesus], “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.” To another He said, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow You, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:57-62).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

A few years ago I read about a place called “Eden by the Sea.” A Lutheran pastor and his wife started a ministry in which they invite pastors and their families to come to Hawaii for a time of rest and relaxation. They have some very fine accommodations near Waikiki beach with canoes, surfboards, and snorkeling gear. They even serve a romantic candlelight dinner.

When I suggested to Aimee that this might be a nice place to go for our 25th anniversary, she said she’d have to think about it and get back to me.

No, that’s not true. She was very receptive. She thought it sounded like a wonderful way to celebrate 25 years of marriage. She’s always wanted to go to Hawaii. So, I contacted Lynda Mueller and made reservations. We had two years to save money and plan. And twelve years ago this July, we headed on a journey to Hawaii for a wonderful second honeymoon!

But what if I would have made this proposal to Aimee? “Aimee, I’ve made up my mind, no matter what you say I’m not going to change it. I’m going on a journey. I want you to come along with me. I can’t give you very many details, so you’re just going to have to trust me.   

“What I can tell you is that the journey’s not going to be easy. You can expect many hardships and sacrifices. We’ll have to walk or hitchhike. I haven’t saved up any money, so we’ll just have to rely on the generosity of the people that we meet along the way. I’m sure that somebody will let us stay with them.

“By the way, you’re going to have to leave everyone else behind—our kids and grandkids, our family, friends and co-workers. You may never see them again. And since we need to get going right now, there really isn’t any time for us to say good-by. You should also know that a lot of people won’t be happy having us around. Some will even threaten us with bodily harm. I won’t fight back, and I know for a fact that they’ll put me to death. But I’m going anyway. You can’t change my mind.” Do you think she would be going with me?

What about you? Are you ready for such a journey? It would have to be a fantastic destination to be worth it all, wouldn’t it?

But that’s very much the kind of proposal that Jesus lays before those who would be His disciples in our text as He sets His face to go to Jerusalem.

The phrase, “He set His face” sounds strange to modern ears, but it alludes to Jesus’ prophetic role. For God to “set His face” against a person, city, or region is for God to show His wrath. The opposite is for God to “make His face shine on you and be gracious to you” (Numbers 6:25). But here Jesus “set His face” to go to Jerusalem, not to show wrath or mercy to Jerusalem, but to face and overcome all temptation and opposition that would turn Him aside from traveling to the cross.

In Ezekiel, we are told that God made the prophet’s forehead as hard as flint so he could endure the hostility of rebellious Israel (3:8-9). In Isaiah, the Suffering Servant says: “I offered my back to those who beat Me, My cheeks to those who pulled out My beard; I did not hide My face from mocking and spitting. Because the Lord Yahweh helps Me, I will not be disgraced. Therefore have I set My face like flint, and I know that I will not be put to shame” (50:5-7).

Jesus, the Suffering Servant, “set His face to go to Jerusalem.” He is resolutely determined to go to the cross, fully aware of the torture and humiliation involved. He trusts in eventual vindication by the Father (Isaiah 50:8-9), and He knows that the cross is the only way to obtain salvation for humanity.

To reach Jerusalem, Jesus proposes to journey through Samaria, but the messengers whom He sends ahead of Him get a hostile reception. James and John ask Jesus if they can “tell fire to come down from heaven to consume them.” Clearly, they do not understand Jesus’ mission as the Messiah. He Himself will “be baptized” with the fire of heavenly wrath (Luke 12:49-50). His mission as Messiah is one of mercy and compassion, not of condemnation (John 3:17). Punishment of those who reject the Gospel will come at Judgment Day. Rather than lash out, Jesus simply moves on to a different village.

Along the way Jesus is met by some who wish to join Him. The first comes as a volunteer promising to “follow You wherever You go.” It is a bold promise, but Jesus dampens his zeal by warning him that he doesn’t know what he is asking. That is the meaning of Jesus’ answer: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”

Jesus wants this man to count the cost of following Him. The path may look appealing as the crowds sing Jesus’ praises. But like enthusiastic troops marching off to war on a sunny day with bands blaring and crowds cheering, Jesus’ followers will soon find the cheers turning to the big guns of enemy opposition and the sunshine replaced by cold rain and muddy battlefields.

The Son of Man, while destined for glory, must first take the lonely route of suffering and rejection, culminating at the dead end of a despised cross. He calls His disciples to follow Him on the road of service and self-sacrifice. The way of discipleship always means putting the kingdom first, last, and all the time, and letting God attend to the rest.

Did this man follow Jesus? We are not told.

What about you? If you had been in that man’s position, what would you have done? Are you ready for the journey with Jesus?

The second man is asked by Jesus to follow Him. While the first man was over-ready and had to be cautioned, this man wants to delay and join Jesus later. “Lord, let me first go and bury my father,” he says.

Jesus’ answer is puzzling, and purposely so: “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.” At Jesus’ time, the Jews considered burial a religious rite which took precedence over everything, even reading God’s Word. But Jesus is saying that the Gospel is so important, it takes precedence over all family ties and worldly cares.

So, do you think this man stayed with Jesus? Would you have stayed if you had been in his shoes? Are you ready for the journey with Jesus?

The third would-be disciple, like the first, thinks that following Christ means that he must make the offer on his own initiative, as if it were a career he had mapped out for himself. There is, however, a difference between the first would-be disciple and the third, for the third is bold enough to stipulate his own terms: “Let me first say farewell to those at my home.”

Jesus’ answer shows the futility of the man’s offer: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” It makes little difference to what part of the worldly life the heart looks back with longing and is unable to tear itself away, the effect is always the same: not fit for the kingdom.

Do you think this man followed Jesus after hearing His Word? What would you have done in his place? Are you ready for the journey with Jesus?

These are hard sayings. They dare not be interpreted in isolation from the rest of Scripture. In these statements Jesus is obviously making a strong statement to get across the point He want to make for all who would follow Him: you will need to be ready to make sacrifices. To be a disciple of Jesus means to be ready to reorder the priorities of this earthly life. The way of new life requires staying on the hard road of pilgrimage that leads to the cross, through death, and finally to resurrection. It calls for an unhesitating departure from ties to the old life, even ties to family. The family that matters, says Jesus, is the family of God.

Luke does not record the responses of the three would-be disciples in this text, suggesting that more important than the question of whether they heeded Jesus’ words is your response. Are you ready for the journey with Jesus?

An honest examination of our own discipleship will show that we often have failed. At various times, we have been just like the three would-be disciples. We have eagerly volunteered for service but have failed to count the cost. We have made excuses for not being able to follow Jesus when and where He wants us.

I personally can relate best to the third man, the one who wanted to be Jesus’ disciple, but only on his terms. It was January 1, 1995. I was planning for the coming year as a Lutheran Brotherhood representative. But I felt the tug to go into the pastoral ministry. On that day, I prayed two prayers: “Lord, I really enjoy my career with Lutheran Brotherhood, but if you want me to go to the seminary, let me know. If you have to, make me miserable enough to know that I should move on.” I also gave God another option: “Lord, if you’ll only come through with $12,000 so we have a little financial cushion, then I’ll go to the seminary.”

Neither one of these is a proper prayer. As disciples of Christ, we are in no position to bargain with the Lord. God is under no obligation to keep such an agreement. I might also add a word of warning here: you should always be careful what you pray for. You might get it!

From that day on, my life got miserable. The business that had been going along well suddenly dried up. We barely had enough money coming in to pay the bills. But God does have a sense of humor. After I finally committed to going to the seminary, He provided for our family very well. Less than a week after we put our house up for sale it was sold. And guess how much money I earned the last month I sold insurance? You’re right! $12,000. I dare say, more than I’ll ever make in one month for the rest of my life.

 It’s a good thing our journey of discipleship doesn’t depend on our faithfulness but on Christ’s. He already completed the trip for us. He “set His face” and went to Jerusalem, never once looking back. He died on the cross in our place, exchanging His perfect obedience and righteousness for our sin and disobedience. He rose again from the dead, and because He rose, we know that while suffering and the grave are still steps in our journey, they are not the end of the journey. In Christ we have been given the gift of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.

We follow Jesus in faith by His grace. Discipleship is not our work; it is Christ’s work in us. He calls us through His Word and Sacrament. In Baptism He makes us His own and baptizes us into His death and resurrection. He makes us His disciples and calls us to journey with Him to the cross.

In Holy Absolution, He grants us remission of all of our sins. By His Holy Spirit, He increases in us true knowledge of Him and of His will and true obedience to His Word, to the end that by His grace we may come to everlasting life. In His Holy Supper, Christ gives us pardon and peace, and strengthens us in service to Him as He feeds us His very body and blood.

Through each of these means of grace, Christ calls you to follow Him on the journey of discipleship. He equips you for the journey and promises you Paradise as your eternal destination.

Are you ready for the journey with Jesus? You most certainly are! Jesus gives you everything you need. For His sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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