Monday, September 06, 2010

Sermon on Luke 14:25-35, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, "Count the Cost"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our message today comes from the Gospel reading, Luke 14. It would be hard for us to ignore the obvious importance of this passage to our congregation’s own building program and the plans that we have laid ahead for a potential new church and school campus. Jesus advises that if one is planning a major undertaking, like building a tower or some other major project, they should first count the cost and be sure that they will be able to complete it. Make sure that the necessary resources are available and that they have the strength to carry the project through to completion. Today we’ll consider what Jesus taught about counting the cost. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

One could look at our campaign to build the new campus in Waikapu as simply a business matter, like any other company or business planning an expansion. Get the right workers on the job, the architects, engineers, contractors—get the timetable and budget planned out—raise the necessary capital or funds to build the project, and make it a go. Well, that would be fine if we were just any other company or business planning an expansion. But as a Christian church and school, we must realize that we face this plan not as simply a business decision, but that there’s a uniquely spiritual dimension behind all of our considerations. While there is and must be much “business work” to be done, there is also much “spiritual work” to be done. We must count the cost, lest we begin to build, and are not able to complete our project. But you might say, “counting the cost” isn’t anything spiritual. That’s just common business sense, like the examples Jesus gave—a man building a tower, or a king going to war. Nothing spiritual about calculating building materials and labor costs, or counting of troops for battle and estimating the strength of your enemy. What’s spiritual about counting the cost?

What’s spiritual is that as a Christian church and school, we’re working to advance God’s mission of making disciples of all nations by baptizing and teaching. Plainly, our mission is to reach people here on Maui with the love of God shown in Jesus Christ. We’re currently doing that in our church and schools, and by God’s grace we aim to keep doing that and even increase our efforts. And while our resources may be small, what’s spiritual about counting the cost is that we can never “count out” the biggest resource that is available to us, and that is God. God, who has limitless resources, always should be counted into the equation—but not as sort of a “fudge factor.” What I mean by that is that we must constantly be in prayer about such an undertaking, and do the spiritual work of seeking God’s guidance, watching for His timing, calling on His resources for our blessing. But at the same time, we don’t do the one to the neglect of the other. We don’t focus on the business side to the neglect of the spiritual, and vice versa.

To neglect prayer is to find ourselves doing and doing, planning and fretting, counting and struggling to carry out our plans without the aid and blessing of God’s Spirit. If we leave God out of the equation, we’ve forgotten our biggest resource! To neglect work is to expect that God will do everything for us, without our effort and striving. It’s to head into a project without diligent study and preparation, and then expecting God to bail us out when we’re in trouble. That is to put God to the test, rather than to put our trust in God. As St. Augustine famously said, “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”

So have we done our work? Have we carefully counted the cost? We’ve done much planning and estimating, but there’s much more work to be done. Now is a critical time for our congregation to gear up and make sure we’re ready for this building project. Do we know the cost of completion and the sources of all the necessary funds? If we receive offers on our current property, which could happen any time now, do we have a plan for the major transition to take place? We’re also at the end of our three-year pledge cycle, and the commitments that you as congregation members gave to support the building fund are coming to a close. People have been very faithful in paying their pledges, and you’ve brought us this far. I pray that you each consider individually whether you’re able to continue with that same level of commitment. Whether it was $10 dollars a month, $50, or $200. Has God blessed you so that you are able to increase that commitment? Have things changed so that you need to reduce it? Whatever you are able to give, the Bible encourages us to give our “first-fruits”—that is to give “from the top” or of our best, and not just our leftovers. And further the Bible advises us to give whatever amount we have decided in our heart, and to give cheerfully, because God loves a cheerful giver.

To give from our hearts and give cheerfully of our best is something that requires trust in God that He’ll bless and provide us. We should give as we are able. As Wally our treasurer likes to say, “We give by faith. We don’t spend by faith.” So trusting in God to provide and being able to give generously is a product of faith, but that doesn’t translate into spending more than we have or being irresponsible with what we have. So again, our work and planning go parallel with prayer and trust in God. Both the business work and spiritual work are essential. And we can never forget that our biggest resource is God—who can do more than we can ask or imagine, if only we’ll pray and ask Him.

But I’d miss the mark widely if I failed to point out that Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel reading is about much more than teaching good wisdom for construction projects and other plans. The greater meaning that Jesus is driving home in these parables is about counting the cost of discipleship. Counting the cost is about having the wisdom to know the challenges and sacrifices involved in being a disciple of Jesus. Just like the example of the builder and of the king going to war, we don’t want to begin following Jesus only to find we’re unable to complete the path of discipleship. Being a disciple of Jesus is the biggest undertaking of one’s life, and the cost is immeasurably greater than the costs of building a multi-million dollar school campus, or of a king facing an army of 20,000 soldiers. The greater cost and sacrifice of discipleship raises the importance of each believer “counting the cost” of following Jesus.

But wait? Isn’t it free to follow Jesus? Yes it is! Salvation is a free gift by God’s grace and Jesus’ love, but there’s a cost. Now you’re probably confused. Which is it pastor? Is it free or does it cost a lot? Well, Jesus described the cost of discipleship in this way. In the Gospel reading there are three things that a follower of Jesus must do: first to hate family, second to bear our cross, and third, to forsake our possessions. Probably nothing causes us greater surprise and astonishment then Jesus saying: “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.” What could Jesus mean? It sounds so unlike Jesus to say this, when He teaches elsewhere that we’re to love our neighbor as ourselves, to love even our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. What can He mean by hating our family, even our own life, in order to be His disciple? Doesn’t Jesus honor marriage and call it a union made by God, and also teach positively of the love within family, as in the parable of the prodigal son? Yes Jesus does.

So how do we reconcile these seemingly contradictory statements of Jesus? We find some help from the Gospel of Matthew, where in a similar statement Jesus says that anyone who loves family more than Him is not worthy of Him. Have you heard people say “family always comes first?” That’s a statement we usually admire, but Jesus is here saying that He must come first. A proper and healthier arranging of our priorities is God first, family second. Nothing, not even our family should come between us and God. If Jesus is our highest and only good, then we will never run into the conflict of choosing between God and family. And certainly family is a good and noble thing, so it would seem natural for family to rise so highly in importance—but Jesus clearly shows that following Him goes above all other earthly commitments. If blood is thicker than water, then faith in God is thicker than blood. Our relationship with fellow believers is a community even stronger than family ties, as many people have experienced in their own lives. Jesus Himself said that His mother and brothers were those who “hear the Word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). So Jesus isn’t teaching that we should literally hate anyone, but that we should never allow even family to be an obstacle to our faith by loving them more than God.

The second cost of discipleship was to take up our cross. As I’ve said before, the life of a Christian is never promised to be a primrose path, or free from trouble—despite what some best-selling authors and TV preachers might sell you. Being a Christian doesn’t mean that God wants you to be fabulously wealthy and the envy of all your neighbors because God has made you so rich. Nor does it mean that we’re immune to the ravages of disease or other sufferings in our body and soul. Bearing our cross is not an easy road—so count the cost! Be prepared for the troubles that may come by being deeply rooted in God’s Word, so that we won’t fall away. In several recent sermons I’ve talked about the reproach of Christ, and how believers may face ridicule, laughter, and scorn for what we believe—but that this is incomparable to the great treasure that we have in Jesus Christ.

Finally, Jesus says that anyone who does not renounce all that he has cannot be His disciple. One cannot follow Jesus while clinging to all our earthly possessions, as if those things give us security or hope. A sermon that I listened to recently gave an analogy to the attitude of thinking that “the one with the most toys wins.” Some people spend their life accumulating all the material things they can grab. The pastor likened this to a person going through a famous art museum pulling their favorite paintings off the wall and walking through the museum arms full, headed for the door. Someone tells them that they can’t take those things with them, but they respond, “oh no! I can! And look at all I have—people are going to think I’m so cool when I show them all I have. But when they get to the doorway, will they be able to leave? The same way with life, God has given us a beautiful world to live in with beautiful things to appreciate and enjoy—but when we exit through the door to eternal life, we don’t get to take any of that with us. Who owns it all? Who owns the museum, our life and all our possessions? God! So we can’t very well follow Jesus and put all our trust in Him when we’re blind to that truth and make material things our god and our highest good.

So becoming a disciple of Jesus, following after Him by faith, is something that costs you nothing but costs you everything. Salvation is the entirely free gift of God through Jesus Christ, not something you can merit or earn or buy. But the path of following Jesus may mean departing from earthly ties of family and possessions, as well as enduring hardship and difficulty. Counting the cost of discipleship that way makes it seem like no one is ultimately worthy to follow Jesus, and we might question whether we can follow it through to completion. It’s true, the path of discipleship is completely impossible without Jesus Christ. But the good news—the joy and delight is that just like counting the cost with earthly projects—we’re not done in our estimation and planning until we’ve counted God into the equation. Where human resources and earthly strength run short…throw God into the equation and I like to say you’ve got “divine arithmetic.” Counting God in the equation puts His limitless resources into the equation. Where we cannot follow Christ on our own strength, if we lay hold of the grace, mercy and strength of God, we’re able to bear up our crosses and follow after Jesus. For Jesus is the trailblazer and the one who has walked the road before us, as He dragged the heavy cross and the load of our sins to His cross. By bearing the heavy load of our sin, Christ makes our crosses a light and easy load that He shoulders with us. The eternal reward of heaven is already secured for us completely by Jesus victory on the cross. The call for us now is to pray and work our way through this life, trusting in Him, following His path, and counting it all gain for the sake of the kingdom of God. Count the cost and count it all gain! In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. What are the practical implications of “counting the cost” for us in our building program at Emmanuel? Why is it so important? What sort of things must we take into consideration?

2. What is unique about planning our undertaking, that requires a two-fold approach—involving both “business work” and “spiritual work?” Describe each of these and what we should be doing to attend to them.

3. What happens when you work at a task without also praying? What happens if you pray but don’t work?

4. How does planning our personal giving help us to “count the cost?” How should we take care to be good stewards of what we’ve been given?

5. What is the much greater undertaking that Jesus is teaching about, that requires us to “count the cost?” Is salvation something free or something we work for? Romans 4:1-8; 6:23; 11:35.

6. What does Jesus mean by “hating” one’s family in order to follow Him? See Matt. 10:34-39. Who becomes the family of Jesus? Luke 8:21. What are the implications for the Christian of “bearing their cross?”

7. Why must a believer also forsake their possessions and the love for the things of this world? 1 John 2:15; Hebrews 11:25-26; Luke 8:14;

8. When we count the cost of discipleship, it may seem impossible. Indeed without Christ it is impossible! But what factor must we always count into the equation? Hebrews 12:1-2; Phil. 3:8; James 1:2; 2 Pet. 3:15

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