Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Counting the Cost

Last week the greatest basketball coach in modern history, John Wooden, died at the age of 99. Wooden led UCLA to 620 victories in 27 seasons, and 10 national titles. Wooden knew the cost of building a championship team. He understood the cost of winning. He was loved by his University and became an icon of sports history. The importance of counting the cost before taking on some great endeavor is well known, which is why Jesus -- for all his popularity -- was very sober in the way he warned the large crowds that began to follow him. Take the story of The Builder & the King which Jesus begins by saying these shocking words:

"Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14: 26-27). Now that doesn't sound like any formula for church growth that I've heard of! Is Jesus trying to discourage the crowds from following him? NO. But he does want them to understand what being a disciple really means. That's because Jesus knows that it’s possible to travel with him without being his disciple. So what keeps us from being true disciples of Jesus? According to Jesus, We cannot truly follow him until we decide that life with him in his kingdom is more valuable than anything else. In his story of The Builder & the King, Jesus recommends a process for making that decision:

Take the first step, and sit down (25, 28, 31). “For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down….Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first….” Jesus wants those who are travelling with him to stop everything sit down, and take some time to consider what it is that they are doing.

When Jesus “sat down” he was often preparing to do something very important. Before he preached the Sermon on the Mount, he sat down (Matt. 5:1). Before he healed the sick, the lame, and the crippled in Matt. 15: 28-30, he sat down. When he was about to feed the five thousand he had them sit down on the grass (Luke 9:15); and when he shared the bread and the cup with his disciples before his arrest…he sat down at the table with them. Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, we’re told, but he wanted them to stop, sit down, and consider what they were doing (25).

Jesus was a rising star. He was a compelling speaker. He had the power to make sick bodies whole. Mothers wanted him to hold their babies. If he was walking the earth today…we would be pressuring him to run for governor…and so the crowd began to build. (By the way, I understand he’s not on the ballot again this year). But Jesus was heading for Jerusalem; and while the crowd was ready to make him king…he was looking to the cross. Did they know what they were getting themselves into? Jesus literally says, “Which of you, wishing to build a tower, does not first, sitting down (the Greek word is kathisas), consider the cost.” I know, grammar is boring, but kathisas, which is an aorist participle, emphasizes a long, serious consideration -- and that's important to understand here. When someone calls and says, “Are you sitting down?” – what goes through your mind? Before we continue to follow Jesus, he calls and says, “Are you sitting down?” Are you willing to seriously consider what you’re doing and why?

Let's face it, it’s hard for us to sit down. We are constantly on the move…heading for work…walking to class… phoning, emailing, texting, twittering, and facebooking. In one online survey, a majority of men and women under 25 said they would answer a text message during a meeting, while eating a meal, sitting on the john…and while having sex. I was performing a memorial service yesterday, and there was an older gentleman there who was a former colleague who worked with the woman whose life we were honoring. After he got up and spoke briefly, I noticed that he immediately sat down and began working his "crack" berry. He had no time to even listen to what other people were saying about the one he just got through telling us was his "close" friend and colleague. Unbelievable -- and this was no 20 year old! Into the midst of our absurdly crowded lives, Jesus invites us to stop everything; to quietly step away from the crowd for a moment, and while sitting down -- consider what it means to be his true follower. In other words, to...

Take the second step and figure the cost (26-33): “Which of you” asks Jesus, “intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it?" What is the cost of following Christ? Jesus mentions three things:

First, we must value him more than family relationships. Jesus says is that if we do not “hate father and mother…even life itself” we cannot be his disciples. Now how can Jesus, who called us to honor parents, care for children and love those who hate us, use the word hate in a sentence? He does so to grab our attention! He means that we are to love him first, above all others (see Matthew 10:37 for an alternate version of this story). My wife Lisa experienced the rejection of her father when she chose to get her MFT degree at Fuller Seminary's School of Psychology. This led him to say terribly hurtful words, disown her and refuse to come to our wedding. She never once heard him say, “I’m sorry…” before he died, but God empowered her and the rest of us to love and to forgive him. What Jesus inspired in us (and only he could have done this, believe me) made it possible for Lisa's dad to see the love of God in action. My wife chose to follow her Heavenly Father, and in doing so was given the power to love her earthly father sacrificially.

Second, we must value him more than our possessions. In v. 33 Jesus says: “Whoever of you does not renounce (lit. say good-by to) all that he has cannot be my disciple” (33). The phrase “all that he has” means more than material possessions: it literally means: “everything that is under our control.” To value Jesus more than anything else, means that we will say good-bye to the idea that we are in control, and consciously put ourselves under Jesus’ guidance and control. As Christians in the west it is easy to confuse the material things we have with God’s blessing and with Jesus himself. Think about your own church community (if you have one)…would you still follow Jesus if there was no church building, no music, no staff, no youth and children’s programs, no clergy, no freedom to worship in public? Today there are Christians all over the world who follow Jesus without any of these benefits....

Nicky Gumbel describes the reaction of a man living in the former USSR when he gave him a Russian Bible (at that time, illegal). The man… “had an expression of almost disbelief. Then he took from his pocket a New Testament which was probably 100 years old. The pages were so threadbare they were virtually transparent. When he realized that he had received a whole Bible, he was elated... We hugged each other and he started to run down the street jumping for joy, because he knew that the Bible was the most precious thing in the world" (Nicky Gumbel, http://www.htb.org.uk/one-year-bible/word-god). Can you imagine running down the street, jumping for joy because someone put one of these (hold Bible) in your hand? This man could, because Jesus was his greatest possession. How about you?

Finally, we must value him more than our own lives. In some countries, physical persecution is a reality. According to Gordon-Conwell Seminary (2006) an average of 171,000 Christians worldwide are martyred for their faith per year. Many more face the loss of job, jail, or physical harm if they are caught reading their Bible or worshiping with other Christians. Here…valuing Jesus more than our own lives will not usually mean physical death, but it will mean the death of our own selfish and self-centered goals....

On April 21st, a terrible accident took place on an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The rig exploded, eleven people were killed…and now millions of gallons of oil are flowing into the ocean from a depth of 5000 feet…destroying the environment, wrecking havoc on the livelihoods of those who make their living from the sea, and threatening the economy of several states. How did it happen? Robert Bea, an engineering professor at the University of California, Berkeley, concludes that the primary cause was “hubris, arrogance, and ignorance... combined with a natural hazard.” Bea is an engineer, but he is not using scientific language here…he is speaking moral failure. Self-centered and selfish goals trumped safety, accountability, and common sense. You can have the most sophisticated scientific and engineering technology available to you…but they are no match for human sin. The costs of discipleship to Jesus are nothing compared with the costs of non-discipleship. Jesus does not want to see us destroy our lives or this world with the oily sludge of pride, arrogance, and selfishness…he wants to save our lives and this world, which leads us to consider not only the costs of valuing Jesus above all else, but to...

Take the third step, and consider the benefits (14: 1-4, 15-16). The costs of following Jesus are real…but they do not compare with the benefits. Dallas Willard rightly points out that no one goes reluctantly into discipleship with Jesus. As the Son of God, he has the best information available on how to live the eternal kind of life.

Valuing Jesus before family relationships means that we can trust him to be the healer and savior of our families. I know that many of you have a spouse or family member who is not a believer; you are praying for them daily; but I want to encourage you. Let your patience, love and forgiveness speak for you as you trust Jesus to do the healing! This week, as I mentioned above, I officiated at the fifth memorial service in as many weeks in our congregation. The common thread? I’ve seen families in grief united and inspired by the gospel over and over again. In our family, Lisa and I know that her dad was deeply touched by the love of God through his children…and it’s given us great peace.

Valuing Jesus more than possessions means the blessing of living and giving with purpose to those in need, to his mission and ministry, to making this world a better place; not just a more dangerous, wasteful, self-centered place. In recent years, some churches in India have been burned, and church leaders killed. But they are also seeing great miracles among the poor at the Divine Retreat Center in Mumbai and Kerala, India…a handicapped and brain damaged child healed, a 21mm hole in a woman’s heart, healed, an 18 year intestinal ailment completely healed. (LA Times: Divine Retreat Center in Kerala, India). Here are people who have next to nothing…but have everything they need in Christ…

Valuing Jesus more than our own lives, means recognizing that he is our life, and that by losing our lives we gain them for eternal life…that in him death is not the last word, but a defeated foe.
As I began by saying, when I consider a man who sat down and figured the cost and benefits of building and winning (in sports and in life) my thoughts go to John Wooden. He was a legend of sports, but the possession of those 10 national titles was clearly not the most important thing in his life: “I have always tried to make it clear that basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live” he said.
Wooden developed The Pyramid of Success which became a classic of motivational thinking… but strangely enough, he never copyrighted the material, prompting a friend to say he didn’t have a marketing bone in his body. “I hope not,” Wooden said. He intended the ideas to be freely shared…and he could do that because there were other things more important to him.
Wooden was married to his beloved wife Nelli for 53 years until her death on March 21st, 1985. He kept a monthly ritual (health permitting)—on the 21st of every month he visited her grave, and then wrote a love letter to her. After completing the letter, he placed it in an envelope and added it to a stack of similar letters that accumulated over the years on the pillow she slept on during their life together. No one could have loved his wife more…but was she the ultimate, the most important thing in his life? Was she the secret to a winning life?
No. He tells us in his book, They Call Me Coach: “There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior” - John Wooden (2003). Wooden valued his Lord above all else, because in Christ everything that was truly valuable and important to him (his wisdom, his wife, his very life) was redeemed. This man who knew the cost of winning in sports and in life placed himself in the hands of the Savior. Here's one more thought. Jesus does not ask us to do what he did not do himself. For he sat down, counting the cost of our salvation, not considering his own life too dear a price to pay. Therefore, what cost him his own life can never be cheap for us. Isaac Watts has it right: "Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all" (When I Survey the Wondrous Cross)!

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