How many of us really take Jesus’ words seriously? I don’t mean picking and choosing the teachings we can tolerate. I mean ALL of them. Most of my greatest challenges and hardships in life have been the direct result of taking some of Jesus’ more difficult words seriously.
I recently preached a sermon challenging MainStreet to be both a “Safe and Holy Place.” In that context, I was referring to being “safe” from shame, condemnation and the graceless legalism of the Pharisees.
I was in no way speaking of a church that is “safe” in terms of being a risk-free, controlled environment where there are few surprises and we all stay within our own personal comfort zones. The Bible, as I read it, is largely a story of unsuspecting people getting yanked out of their comfort zones and invited into the dangerous and demanding life of “risky obedience”. Safety, risk-management and comfort are precious American values; but they are not biblical values.
The lives of Abraham, Moses, Noah, David, Elijah, Paul, Peter, John and the rest all seem to involve leaving something of value and comfort behind, being led into a time of testing, facing great hardship and sacrifice because of their faithfulness to God, and experiencing God in profound ways because of their faithfulness.
The past couple weeks I have been unable to escape several passages God keeps bringing to my attention. I believe everyone involved with MainStreet needs to wrestle these words, too. Some of the key passages include:
“We have given up everything and followed you. What will there be for us?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life” (Matt 19).
“Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
“Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matt 16:24-27).
Commenting on this theme, Craig Keener says:
Only a cause worth dying for is truly worth living for, and a generation of Western youth, deprived of causes worth their lives and of elders personally committed enough to point the way, have become restless and disillusioned. “Taking up one’s cross” in antiquity hardly meant simply putting up with an annoying roommate or having to live with ingrown toenails. It meant marching on the way to one’s execution, shamefully carrying the heavy horizontal beam (the patibulum) of one’s own death-instrument through a jeering mob (Jeremias 1972:218-19 and 1971:242). Although genuine Christians may fall short on their commitment at times (26:69-75), those who wish to follow Christ should understand from the start that they are surrendering their lives to Christ. Those who do not acknowledge Jesus as Lord — as having the right to demand of them anything, including their lives — have yet to be truly converted. Today Christians continue to debate the character of the gospel: to be saved, does one need to accept Christ as Lord or only as Savior? Throughout the New Testament, however, the question is more or less a moot one. Jesus came to save us from our sin, and accepting him must include recognizing his right to rule our lives. This does not imply that Christians are perfect; it does indicate that they recognize who their Lord is…Yet how few disciples we have; except for going to church and paying tithes, many Christians today do with their time and money much the same as what morally upright non-Christians do. (IVP Commentary: Matthew).
There are few opportunities today more risk-filled and faith-stretching than being part of planting a new church. If you want to experience what you have always read about in the New Testament, then be part of a church planting effort.
Friends, the fields are ripe for harvest in Mound as MainStreet pushes ahead. But the workers are still few. In fact, I’m beginning to wonder if the greatest challenge isn’t the number of workers, but rather the level of commitment we are able to give with our busy, over-extended schedules. Let Jesus’ words challenge us today with a few direct questions:
- The disciples gave up “everything” to be part of Jesus’ mission. What, if anything, have we needed to leave behind in order to serve at MainStreet? They did not add Jesus’ mission to a long list of other activities. They needed to let go of other good things in order to embrace the greater task. Jesus specifically mentions leaving “home” and “family” for the sake of his mission. In our case, might God be asking some to leave a beloved church home in order to be obedient to God? Would we be willing to make that kind of a sacrifice? If it doesn’t hurt, we’re probably not sacrificing to the degree that Jesus desires.
- Jesus warns his disciples of the temptation to get sidetracked or turn back. Have you put your hand to the plow and are now being tempted to turn back before the task is done? We believe our mission in Mound is of life-and-death significance. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being invested in our vision, years of preparation have brought us to this crucial point, and the spiritual condition of an entire city hangs partly in the balance.Years from now we will look back on these days, and tell stories of the wonders we saw God perform among us — because we said ‘Yes’ and stepped out in faithful obedience. Let us not miss out on the harvest because we looked back, lost our focus, or quit too soon. “Let us not become weary in doing good. For at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we don’t give up” (Gal. 6:9).
- Following Jesus means a lifestyle of self-denial and painful sacrifice for the sake of the Kingdom mission. For the first Christians self-denial usually meant being disowned by one’s family, facing public ridicule, violent persecution, imprisonment, and often death. Today we feel like we are denying ourselves and taking up our cross if we give up a relaxing night at home to attend a church meeting, get up two hours earlier on Sunday to set up chairs, volunteer in the nursery, or open our home to host a LifeGroup. We make a mockery of the Christ’s cross when we consider such small sacrifices our own version of “taking up our cross.” Again, if we’re not hurting, losing sleep, exhausted and daily depending on God’s strength to carry us forward, then we’ve yet to enter into the kind of discipleship Jesus requires.
Will you be bold enough to ask God to increase your burden until it starts to hurt? Will you increase your commitment to God’s work at MainStreet, not because you feel like it, but because the mission demands it? (A person once told me they were leaving MainStreet because their “heart just isn’t in it.” This is usually a nice way of saying, “I don’t really feel like helping.” Honestly, should one ever expect to really feel like taking up a cross? The question isn’t, “Is my heart in this mission”; but rather, “God, show me what breaks your heart, and help me move toward that cause whether my heart is in it or not.”) We serve because people are perishing, and God’s marching orders are clear: “Deny yourselves and take up your cross.” Not because we get a warm, fuzzy feeling when we do it, but because we somehow participate in Christ’s suffering: “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:13).
I want to thank you all for heeding God’s call and for stepping into this MainStreet journey. Some of you chose this. Some of you, like me, were chosen — quite against your will. Some of us are having a blast. Others are tired but faithfully pressing on until the mission is accomplished or until God releases us. We all need to seek the Lord in these things.
As for me, in seeking God’s will, I have never heard God speak to directly from a cloud. I have never pursued a ministry task because I felt like it. I have always heard God’s clear call on my life as I have read the Scriptures and made Jesus’ challenge to his original disciples his challenge to me. May you do the same.
I close with a word of encouragement from Mike Brown, our Director of Church Planting, from an email he sent to all of us church planters recently. These words apply to you as well:
“The church of Jesus Christ is the hope of the world. God’s first and only plan is to reach the world through His church. That’s why I’m confident each day that what you are doing not only matters but is in the center of God’s will. You are all God’s chosen ones, selected for the time, place, and call that you are currently living into. Even though planting is hard, the one thing I am convinced will result in an inner peace and a fruitful ministry is a total dependence on God and His power. We are not powerless in this world, but are told, “the very power that raised Jesus from the dead is available to all who believe.” As one of our planters so eloquently put it, “It’s not my church…it’s God’s church.” So God will do as He pleases with us as we are yielded to Him…. I thank God daily for each of you, and pray for your ministry to bear much fruit.”