Monday, February 06, 2017

Following Jesus

Following Jesus
Matthew 4:12-23[1]
I think most of us would have to admit we don’t much like being told what we “have” to do by someone else. We like the notion of being in charge of our own lives, free to do as we please. This isn’t something we have to learn. We see it emerge as soon as our children learn the words “me,” “my,” and “mine.” When our children insist that something is “mine,” we remind them that they must learn to share. And when they make the demand, “me first,” we teach them to take turns. Unfortunately there are many in our society who have intentionally embraced “Me, my, and mine” as a way of life. And there is a whole philosophical rationale for why “me first” is a valid approach to relationships.[2] 
It may come as a shock to you how popular this point of view is in our society. What I find truly astonishing is how many self-professed Christians actually embrace this version of “morality.” And yet, I cannot think of anything more completely opposed to the teaching of Jesus. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).[3] By contrast, the prophets of self-interest advocate pursuing one’s own desires no matter what the cost or whom you may hurt in the process. Many of them actually believe that it is immoral to give up your own selfish interests to benefit someone else.
On the other hand, as our lesson reminds us today, Jesus came preaching a very different message. He called those who would follow him to devote their lives to loving others, to trusting God for their needs, to putting justice and mercy into practice for the “least of these.” Jesus called his disciples to “do to others as you would have them to do you” (Matt. 7:12).  He called them to follow him in “laying down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12) and in “loving your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). Again, I must say that I cannot think of anything more different from the “philosophy” that defines selfishness as the greatest virtue.
The way Jesus expressed that call in our lesson for today was “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near” (Matt. 4:17). It could be said that this was a kind of “mission statement” for Jesus. All that he was about related to the rule of God’s justice, mercy, peace, and freedom.  I will admit that “repent” is not a word that we use much in our daily vocabulary, except perhaps at church. But it was an integral factor in Jesus’ call to those who would follow him. In order for them to do so they would have to undergo a “radical change of heart and mind.”[4] The reason for this is that the only way they could follow him was by adopting a way of living that shuns the selfishness and self-interest that lies at the heart of so much of what is wrong with our world. I think most of us know that’s no easy task.
The reason for this radical change of life was that “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Although “the kingdom of heaven” was the main subject of Jesus’ teaching, I’m afraid many of us may find it confusing. It sounds like something that exists in an otherworldly realm, some kind of home for angels living in a cloud city. But nothing could be further from the truth. The kingdom of heaven refers to the same thing as the “kingdom of God”: it’s God’s activity of reigning over our lives. And it’s something that happens here on earth. When the kingdom comes, God comes to rule in such a way that God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven.[5]
But that’s another part of the message that may not be so clear. Jesus says that the kingdom “has come near.” If you’re like many, you might be wondering whether it’s here or not. In part, Jesus recognized that God’s will is not yet fully done on earth as it is in heaven. That means that God’s kingdom is still on the way. According to the New Testament, it awaits its true fulfillment on the day when Jesus comes not as a humble servant but as the Lord of all creation. On that day, God’s kingdom will have come fully, because the prayer that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven will become a reality.
But the more pressing claim in Jesus message was that the kingdom of God is here. And the reason he knew that was because he was the one who was bringing it. In his teaching, in his healing miracles, in his very presence, Jesus brought the kingdom of God to all who would receive it.[6] In the light of this “Good News” Jesus called those who would follow him to radically change the way they lived. No longer could they go about their own business: they had to leave everything behind and follow him. When he said to the first disciples, “follow me,” it was not so much an invitation as a summons.[7] And they responded by obeying immediately. In fact, part of the point of this story is that this is the only appropriate response to the call to follow Jesus.
In our day, it would seem that not every follower of Jesus has to leave behind home, family, and livelihood in order to serve the kingdom. Some do receive that call. But all of us are called to the radical change of making the kingdom of God the primary focus of their lives. Following Jesus requires self-sacrifice: “denying ourselves and taking up our cross.” The kingdom of God demands that we serve not our wants and desires, but the needs of others. Obeying that call means putting into practice the mercy and compassion of God for the sake of the least and the lost and the left behind.[8] The message is clear: taking a “me first” approach to life is incompatible with following Jesus.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/22/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] The Russian-American author Ayn Rand is the current apostle of this self-interest taken to extreme. Among other fairly shocking facts, she infamously celebrated a cold-blooded murderer—not because he committed murder but because he believed that “what is good for me is right.” She wrote of him that “Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should.” The disturbing part of this is that of many in our society and in our political context have embraced these ideals as expressed in her novels Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.
[3] Cf. Luke Johnson, Learning Jesus, 201: “The imitation of Christ in his life of service and suffering … is not an optional version of the Christian identity.  It is the very essence of Christian identity.”
[4] Cf. W. D. Davis and Dale C. Allison, Matthew 1-7, 388.
[5] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 391-92, where they point out that in Matthew’s Gospel the phrases “kingdom of heaven,” “kingdom of God,” “kingdom of my Father,” “kingdom of the Son of Man,” and “the kingdom” all refer to the same thing: “God’s rule, present and coming.”
[6] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 390, where they summarize the “now but not yet” aspect of the kingdom of God in Jesus’ teaching by saying, “When Jesus announces that the kingdom of God has come and is coming, this means that the last act has begun but not yet reached its climax: the last things have come and will come.”
[7] Cf. Davies and Allison, Matthew 1-7, 397: “Jesus’ words, which contain no why, are not invitation. They are unconditional demand.”
[8] Cf. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 283, where he says that following Jesus means that “I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life.”

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