Here’s the mp3 link to this sermon from Sep 9, 2007. 

Text:  Luke 14:25-33

An Invitation to Die

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the martyred German pastor and theologian, said most eloquently, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Not the kind of invitation most people are looking for, but the one we encounter in this passage from Luke 14 today.

The stage is set for us in Luke’s description in verser 25 — “Now large crowds were traveling with him…” William Barclay translates this phrase, “Great crowds were on the way with Jesus.” While lots of people may have been physically “on the way” with Jesus, Jesus turns to them to tell them what it really means to follow him — to walk in the way he walks.

Jesus begins with a harsh statement – “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.” Wow. You can see the folks turning back now — “Well, if he’s going to insult us, I’ll just go home!” “Who could do that? Who’d want to do that — hate your family — that’s it for me, I’m done.” No doubt the crowd thinned out about then.

In the past, I have explained this statement by Jesus like many others have: Jesus really doesn’t mean “hate” your family; he just means to love God more than your family. For people who like to take the Bible literally, we have a funny way of explaining away the tough sayings of Jesus. Jesus was not inarticulate, and Luke, a physician, records events in great detail. So, we have a teacher who uses the words he intends to use, and a writer who has an ear for detail. “Hate” must be what Jesus said, and meant. Which is a really big problem for us because we’re all about family values, and loving our spouses, children, and today on grandparents’ day, loving our grandchildren. If Jesus had left out that his disciples had to hate “even life itself” we might could explain away the family reference as hyperbole in the extreme.

The Story of Masada

Do you remember the story of Masada ? In 73 AD (CE), Romans overran the hilltop fortress of Masada, only to find that all 900+ Jewish rebels — men, women, and children — were dead. The story of Masada says that rather than be captured by the Romans, the Jews at Masada chose ten men who would kill all the others, turn on themselves, and leave only one man to commit suicide, thus avoiding violation of Jewish prohibitions against suicide. Can you imagine that scene? Families have fled Jerusalem because the temple has been destroyed and Romans have overrun the city. They have fought their way to the top of Masada, defeating Roman soldiers stationed there. From Masada, they carry out raids on Roman positions, until the Roman army tires of the rebel assaults. The Romans methodically lay siege to Masada, built a ramp of tons of stone and rammed earth up one side of the mesa on which Masada is built. The Jews on Masada know it is a matter of time before they are taken. Whispered conversations among the men spread to wives — we must now be taken alive. Fear of capture, torture, and other indignities of war are on their lips and in their minds as they make their decision — we will die here together. Reminiscent of Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre, men move swiftly through the maze of buildings on Masada. Quickly and sadly they carry out their tasks, killing mothers, fathers, and children — their families — in the name of their belief. They acted as though they hated mother, father, sister, and brother — even life itself — in this act.

Masada happened after Jesus spoke his challenge to those following him, but perhaps this was what he had in mind. A willingness to die, to sacrifice family, for something greater than ourselves or our families or our nation.

Carry Your Cross

Carrying your cross illustrates Jesus point about hating your life. We speak of illness or inconvenience or a dark moment as “our cross to bear” but when Jesus talked about crosses, he meant the instrument of torture and death. He’s on his way to Jerusalem to literally carry his own cross. Everyone around him knows what it means to ‘carry your cross’ — it means you have been found guilty by a Roman judge, and sentenced to die. To add humiliation to the penalty, the prisoner was required to carry his own cross to the place of execution. So, when Jesus tells the crowd they have to carry their crosses to follow him, he is telling them that they will follow him to his death, and they will die as well. Gruesome, unappealing, and horrific. Not an invitation likely to draw a big response. So, we’re called to die to family and even to life.

Count the Cost

But Jesus goes on to explain that following him requires some thought, not just emotional response. The crowds were hearing what they wanted to hear from Jesus. He was the new messiah, sent by God to overthrow the Roman rule of Judea, and establish the kingdom of God. Great stuff, and the stuff that emotions feed on. An appeal to patriotism — Jesus is going to save the nation, our identity, our way of life. So the crowds thronged to hear him, followed him down the road, grew in number as he neared Jerusalem. Until Jesus brought them up short with the ‘hate your family and your life’ sermon.

But, now Jesus says, you’ve got to ‘count the cost’ of following me. He looks out over the valley and sees an unfinished vineyard tower. Vineyard owners built towers so workers could watch over the rolling hills of the vineyard for thieves who would steal the harvest, and pests that would destroy it. Whether literally or figuratively, Jesus points out an unfinished vineyard tower — testimony to failure to figure how much it would take to build. Whether the owner ran out of materials or money, the outcome was the same — an unfinished tower and a ruined reputation.

The Washington Monument

On July 4, 1848, the cornerstone for the Washington Monument, a memorial to the life of George Washington, was laid. The monument design was an obelisk, which was to rise 600 feet in the air. The elaborate design of Robert Mills, a well-known architect, was simplified and altered during construction. By 1854, the monument had only risen to a height of 150-feet. Political intrigue and the growing rift between North and South hampered the collection of funds to complete the monument. Then the Civil War broke out, and the monument stood 450-feet short of its design for 22-years. Finally, in 1876, President Ulysses Grant signed a bill giving the Federal government responsibility for completing the obelisk. Work resumed in 1880, and the monument as we know it today was substantially completed by 1888. Counting the cost, when building a tower is important. Jesus cautioned his followers to count the cost of discipleship.

Then, Jesus told another story. A king with 10,000 troops is faced with doing battle against 20,000 troops. He counts the costs, then seeks terms of peace — surrender — with his opponent. What’s the meaning here? More than just toting up the numbers, there is a strategic response called for. The outmanned king is prepared to surrender — to give up his kingdom — rather than face an insurmountable foe. Again, the image is of giving up that which is held dearly.

And, finally, for those who still don’t get it, Jesus says, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Jesus has talked about family, life, and counting the cost. To plagiarize the MasterCard ad —

Sandals — 3 denarii

Cloak — 5 denarii

Lunch of a loaf and two small fish — 1 denarii

Following Jesus — priceless

Dying and Rising

Jesus says this another way in John’s gospel — “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” John 12:24-25

This business of dying is tough. Who can do that? Everything in us wants to live. But, it’s not just dying. It’s dying-and-rising. It’s death-for-life. It’s giving up that which is least desirable to get that which is most desirable. It’s letting go and letting God. It’s the good news. It’s the tomb-that-becomes-a-womb of new life.

Before Jesus there was only death. Romans killed Jews, disease killed Jews, war killed Jews, uprisings killed Jews, starvation killed Jews. But Jesus calls those early followers to death-which-leads-to-life. And amazingly, every major religion has this concept. In Islam, the very word “islam” means ‘surrender.’ In Buddhism, there is a ‘letting go’ — a desire for nothingness. But Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” I am living proof of what God is doing. Follow me. We’ll die, but then we will all live. We’ll lose family, friends, fortune, and our reputations. But we will gain back a thousand-fold the life in God, life eternal, life not based on the brutishness of this fallen world. Life that will never end, family that will never forsake us, treasure that will last forever.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says —

29″And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother[a] or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.” — Matthew 19:29

So, when we talk about dying to family, fortune, and our future what Jesus is really asking is that we “let go” — release our grasp, our control of those things most precious to us. Jesus, again, is our example for this “letting go.” In Paul’s great hymn to Christ, he tells us that Jesus let go of the glory that was rightfully his, and died —

5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature[b] of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

But in his dying, God took that letting go, that death to his rightful glory and made it something wonderful —

9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This dying-and-rising, this bringing life out of death, is part of the mission of God — to make all things new. So, when we die to family, to fortune, to our own future, we allow God to make all those things what they should be — family, fortune, and future for his glory.

What seems repugnant and disturbing to us — hating our families, giving up our dreams, counting the cost — all of those given to God become our offering, our gift to the glory of God. And, God gives it back to us 100-times, both in this life and the life to come.

In America, it’s often said that it doesn’t cost us much to follow Jesus. If it doesn’t cost us much, then maybe we’re not really following afterall. The invitation is to die to all we hold most dear — family, life, reputation, freedom, possessions — so that we can live in God. The cost — everything. The resurrected life — eternity.