Sunday, August 11, 2019

Following Jesus

A key question for every Christian is simply this: How can I do a good job following Jesus? Boil everything down, and that is one of the fundamentals of Christian living. So, today we are going to take a look at an answer to that question. And to do that we’re going to take a look at Abram. What God did with him will provide some insight so that you can answer our question well.

Listen as I read the first recorded interaction between Yahweh and Abram.

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. Genesis 12:1–2a

The first thing that we need to do is to be clear about what it is that God is saying to Abram. Once that’s in place we’ll be able to see how this helps to answer our question of doing well at following Jesus.

God speaks to Abram. He utters a call to Abram. He wants Abram to leave. And God is specific about what it is that Abram is to leave.

First, he is to leave his country. He is to leave what is familiar to him and travel to a place that he does not know. Next, is to leave his kindred, his extended family. Abram is to leave relationships that he has enjoyed. Bear in mind that this was in a time when family bonds were much more important than they commonly are now. Abram is to break those bonds. Then, Abram is to leave his father’s household. He is to leave what commands his loyalty. Now, that is a really big deal. Loyalty to one’s father was a high priority. To neglect that was no slight matter. But God tells Abram to leave it behind.

So, Abram is to leave behind what is familiar, important relationships and a fundamental loyalty.

And leaving these behind, where is he to go? God doesn’t say. All that God tells him is that he is to go ‘to the land that I will show you’.

I find all of this quite interesting. Abram is to leave all of what is home to him to go to - he doesn’t know where. God, in effect, has told him, ‘Just start walking and I’ll let you know where it is’. For people who like to plan things out in some detail, people like me, that would not be at all comfortable, to say the least.

But God isn’t finished. He also makes some promises. In fact, He makes some rather grand promises.

And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Genesis 12:2b,3

Now this is quite something. God first promises Abram that he and Sarai will produce a large number of people. You need to remember that, at this time, Abram and Sarai had no children. And it isn’t that they had just gotten married. Abram is seventy-five. The hope of children has dimmed, to say the least. But God has promised.

Next, God promises Abram that He will make Abram’s name great. Abram will not end up as some forgotten desert wanderer. No, he will become famous. Of the many who have lived, how many have become famous, remembered down through the centuries? Abram is promised to become one of the elite of human history.

And then last, God promises that Abram will be pivotal for the lives of many. Those who, out of loyalty to Abram, bless him, God will bless. And those who, out of hatred of Abram, curse him, God will curse. And this blessing and cursing will involve all the families of the earth.

Now, if you take a moment to consider things, those are some pretty amazing promises. And, as you know, God has kept each of those promises to Abram. God did that because Abram heeded His call, even though it cost him dearly to do so.

So, here is an event out of the life of Abram. And what I claimed earlier is that this event will help you to answer that key question: How can I do a good job following Jesus? What happened to Abram serves as a model for your lives. Let me show you how.

We start with the call of Jesus. And it is a call to follow Him. As you read through the Gospels you see this happening often enough. Jesus calls all sorts of people to follow Him. I want to make clear at the outset that you should not think of this as simply Jesus’ call at a person’s conversion. This is not a once and done kind of thing. To be sure, there is that initial call to follow Jesus, a call that results in being regenerated by the Spirit, in being born again. But Jesus also calls Christians at different times after that to some new aspect of following Him. So, as I apply God’s call to Abram to what Jesus does, remember that this is something that happens time and again in a Christian’s life, time and again in your life.

Just as God did with Abram, Jesus calls people ‘from’. He calls people to leave things. So, just as God did with Abram, Jesus calls people from what is familiar. It might be that He will call a Christian from his country to live in a distant land and serve Him there. But it is important to remember that sometimes Jesus calls people to leave the familiar even though they will not be leaving home. Sometimes Jesus will call someone to leave what is comfortable in order to pursue something difficult. That, after all, is what God was calling Abram to do. This aspect of the call doesn’t have to mean going far away. It’s about doing something unfamiliar, something very different.

God also called Abram to leave close relationships, his kindred. Finding good relationships is difficult these days. So, when you come to know someone as a good friend, a really good friend, leaving that person behind can be very hard. Now, there are those who extol the glories of modern technology so that you can stay in touch. And it’s fine to use some of that technology to do that. But let’s be honest. When it comes to enjoying a really good friend, and seeing that friendship grow and blossom, there is nothing like regularly sitting face to face, preferably over a good cup of coffee, and discussing life. Once a person experiences that, leaving it behind hurts. And yet, Jesus, at times, calls His disciples to do exactly that.

Then, there are those loyalties. Abram was called to leave behind his father’s household. When life is working properly, first order loyalties will be to the other people in your family. And yet, consider what Jesus teaches about those loyalties.

Here, He describes what just may happen to His faithful disciples.

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household. Matthew 10:34–36

And then, just to be sure that He is clear, Jesus adds this.

Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. Matthew 10:37

Is it possible that Jesus will call you to leave behind the deepest loyalties that you have ever experienced? Yes, it is.

Sometimes it’s not a matter of coming into conflict with other members of your family because of the Gospel. Sometimes Jesus calls for a deep loyalty to be left behind when He takes a dear friend from you by that person’s death, someone like a wife or a husband. Sometimes Jesus’ call requires leaving behind precious loyalties.

After making clear what He was calling Abram to do, God then promised those rewards. Does Jesus offer any rewards to those who heed His calls? Of course, He does.

For one good example of what this is about, consider Jesus’ call to the rich, young ruler. Listen to what Jesus said at the climax of that conversation.

You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. Mark 10:21

There it is. The call for that man to follow Jesus is clearly defined, selling all to give to the poor. And the promise of reward is also clearly stated, treasure in heaven. Jesus promises rewards.

But, just to satisfy curiosity, let’s take a moment to consider this reward. Treasure in heaven? What good is money there? This is where a word study on wealth is helpful. I’ll mention just one place that I found so very helpful.

And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: ‘The words of the first and the last, who died and came to life. ’I know your tribulation and your poverty (but you are rich) and the slander of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.’ Revelation 2:8–11

How would you like to have been a member of the church in Smyrna? Tribulation, poverty, being slandered; looming suffering, prison and death. How would you like for those words to describe your life? And yet, Jesus tells these saints that they are rich. This highlights the supreme contrast between the priorities of the world and the priorities of the kingdom. What is one of the key lusts of our age? Wealth, but it’s wealth defined as money. It’s when you can quit your job and really enjoy life. That’s the dream of many as they think about retirement.

But what is true wealth, the wealth that Jesus promises and gives, the wealth that those saints in Smyrna enjoyed? It’s things like contentment, deep and lasting joy, a life that makes sense, one that is clearly working. A favorite of mine is tied to Immanuel. It is the sense of the Father’s presence with me, whenever and wherever, that I find so very comforting and encouraging. The saints at Smyrna were rich because, while they had little of what the world has to offer, they had much of what Jesus has to offer.

Jesus makes promises of reward. He begins to keep those promise in the here and now. But when we get to the age to come, we will all be astounded at what those promises fully kept will feel like.

Now, I’ve connected the dots between God’s call to Abram and Jesus’ call to His disciples, His call to you. Time for some questions.

What might you be called from? I’ve drawn three categories from what we saw in God’s call to Abram: the familiar, relationships, loyalties. There are other kinds of things that Jesus might call you from. Are you prepared to respond well to His call? Are you ready to leave some things behind? And just like so much else, you prepare for the big issues by dealing well with the little issues. So, this past week, how did you do when Jesus called you from something relatively small? You expected to do this but, in His providence, He called you to do that instead. A change of plans. Not a big deal, but still an unexpected change. How well did you handle that? Did you respond with an attitude that basically said, ‘Oh, okay, sure’? Or did you grouse about it? Jesus still calls His disciples. He still calls you to leave these things in order to do those things. Be ready.

I described some of the rewards. Here’s the question about that. How well do you believe that there are rewards? One of Jesus’ goals in offering rewards is to encourage you to heed His call. You might say that He is telling you that submitting to His call is worth it. But that won’t work if you aren’t actually very engaged with the idea of His rewards, that they are real rewards, rewards that matter, both in this life and in the next. So, do you believe that Jesus offers worthwhile rewards? And does that belief make a difference in how you live?

So, I’ve offered an answer to our question, ‘How can I do a good job following Jesus?’ But nothing of what I have described will touch your life unless there are some rather important things going on.

First, you have to be able to hear Jesus’ call. Now, being a good Reformed pastor, this is where I’m supposed to talk about the importance of the Scriptures. And that’s what I will do. I will tell you that you really do need to know your Bible. And we’re back to being curious and meditating on the Word. Very important.

However, knowledge of the Bible is not enough. What needs to go with working at knowing the Scriptures is prayer that goes something like this. ‘Lord Jesus, what would You like me to do? I want to obey Your call.’ That needs to be a persistent prayer. And it’s the kind of prayer that you offer up on a regular basis, as well as in those critical moments.

But even that’s not enough. Know your Bible. Pray as a willing disciple. But then, expect an answer to that question you asked Him in your prayer. What good is praying to know Jesus’ call for your life without expecting that the Spirit will somehow let you know exactly what to do?

And all of this is about actually hearing Jesus’ call. Without this, without an ongoing conversation with Him about what He calls you to do, what do you have? Without this, the Christian faith becomes another religious philosophy instead of an intimate walk through life with Jesus.

Then, there’s this. If you’re going to heed Jesus’ calls, you’re going to have to take some risks. Isn’t that what Abram had to do? And consider what Jesus was requiring of that rich, young ruler. Life with Jesus, a faithful life heeding His call, will include taking risks. But most of us been taught to minimize our risks. We’re supposed to play it safe. At some point, that will need to go. And the church word for ‘risk’ is ‘faith’.

Now, none of this will be easy. Here, I want to remind you of where the opposition will come from: the world, the flesh and the devil. Each one of those, by itself, is quite formidable. And that is why you need to pray for grace. The lack of prayer, when it comes to heeding Jesus’ calls and doing that in the face of the opposition, is simply tremendous foolishness with a good bit of pride thrown in. Bear in mind that prayerlessness can be fatal. When it comes to the call of Jesus, there are things that you will need to pray about. And where you focus your prayers will depend on where you are in your walk with Jesus and what’s going on in your life.

One thing that I have been praying about has to do with my impending move. I have never handled moving well. I want to be able to obey His call for this next part of my life without being anxious about all the details that need to fit together, many of which are out of my control which increases my temptation to be afraid, which is what anxiety is about. That’s just one area that I’m praying about, praying for grace to respond well to the temptation to be anxious and thus sin. I’m sure that there are things that you need to be praying about, too.

One last thought. This is about those rewards. I count myself rich. That is certainly not how our very secular world would understand my situation. But at my age, I have a certain perspective on my life. I have a good idea about where I’ve come from and where, by the grace of God, He has brought me; who I was and who He’s changed me into. And as I look at all the changes, I know that I am rich. I am rich beyond what I could ever have imagined. And then, as I think about that, I tell myself, ‘Just wait. When you finally get to see Jesus, it’s going to be incredibly better’.