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Monday, July 26, 2010

The Dead and the Living (Matthew 8.18-27)

July 25, 2010
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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As you may know, I am preaching the rest of this summer on the “follow me” invitations of Jesus. The one today is, perhaps, the most unusual sounding to our ears. Someone says to Jesus, “Lord, permit me first (before going with you) to go and bury my father.” And in response, Jesus says, “Follow me… and allow the dead to bury their own dead.” So, we’ll get to that passage, but to really understand it, we have to set it in context, so I’ve chosen the full scene into which that exchange falls, starting in verse 18.

Basically, these verses (18-27) show three different responses to the invitation of Jesus and ends with the kind of experience of Jesus that you can only have by saying ‘yes’ to him. We’ll look at all three responses, with the one about burying the dead being the second or middle response. The lead-in to those responses is in verse 18, where Jesus sees a crowd around Him and gives orders to depart to the other side of the Sea of Galilee. 

Response #1: I Will, But Don’t (vv. 19-20)
19 Then a scribe came and said to Him, “Teacher, I will follow You wherever You go.” 20 Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”

The first responder is a scribe, an expert in the Law. And the scribe says, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” (v. 19) That sounds perfect, right? Jesus says, “Do this,” and someone responds, “I will do whatever you say.” The problem is, the person has not counted the cost. Jesus’ response indicates some of what it will cost to follow him. He replies, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” If you want to follow me, you’ll endure some big challenges. We don’t find out what the scribe chose to do, but the implication is that after such an enthusiastic response, he failed to follow through.

Have you heard the invitation to follow Jesus and enthusiastically said, ‘yes,’ only to find that it was more than you bargained for? Maybe you were part of a retreat, rally, or crusade as a young person, but the Christian life has never amounted to much more than that kind of once-long-ago decision. It’s not a cakewalk; Christians suffer just as much as the next person. In fact, if we are to believe Jesus, it might even be that Christians – that is, radical followers of Jesus – may face more challenges than they might otherwise.

You can’t follow Jesus without counting the cost. 

Response #2: I Can’t, But Might (v. 21-22)
21 Another of the disciples said to Him, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” 22 But Jesus said to him, “Follow Me, and allow the dead to bury their own dead.”

A second person, this one called a “disciple” responded to Jesus’ command to cross the sea. This one had what sounds to most of us like a very good excuse. “Let me tend to a few private matters and I’ll catch up to you.” Said another way, this response might be, “I can’t right now, but I might one day.”

It was a bit of a shock to realize that this passage fell on the week that Jim Longenecker died. I thought, “How can I preach on the ‘let the dead bury their own dead’ text to people who are potentially right in the midst of burying a loved one?” What made this week even more challenging personally is that I had a trip planned for this whole week, and left town the very day after Jim died. What of the expectations and my own desire to minister to the family? To plan the service? To even be present at the service? As I sat down in the cafeteria of a small community college in West Texas to work on this sermon I realized that in leaving town in the midst of this significant time in the life of Jim’s family, I had done (in earthly terms) the very thing that Jesus was getting at with the man in the text.

You see, I would have dropped and rescheduled just about anything to be here for MaryGene, her family, and the service for Jim, as I would for any of you. What in the world would or could take precedent over something as important as a death in the congregation? In my case, it was the first chance to spend extended one-on-one time with my brother in 20 years. We had been talking about doing this for 10 or 15, and this specific conjunction of his sabbatical and my summer schedule for two years. It was something to which I had and was committed.

And that’s the first part of what Jesus was saying. Priority… there is something even more important spiritually than burying one’s own parents. Does that sound shocking? It should! But that is the weight of following Jesus; it is no simple thing like choosing where to shop or what to do on a Friday night (or Sunday morning). Jesus wants your life!

Part two is in the first part of the phrase, “Let the DEAD bury their own dead.” And this is where there is a huge difference between Jim Longenecker’s family and the one to whom Jesus spoke these words. “The dead” refers to the spiritually dead, to those who would not understand the first-order significance of Jesus’ invitation. While I didn’t leave town to follow Jesus, I did leave for very significant reasons, and the fact that the Longenecker’s family understood that made a world of difference. Likewise, the world may not understand some of what you might give up to follow Jesus, but he is worth everything.

You can’t follow Jesus without making him your first priority. 

Response #3: I Do (v. 23)
23 When He got into the boat, His disciples followed Him.

We see a third response simply and briefly in verse 23. When Jesus got into the boat, his disciples followed him. Their response was simply, “I do,” and it was backed up with their actions. Their actions were not unconsidered and these disciples had already made Jesus their first priority, many or all of them having walked away from the only professions they for which they were trained, and some from family and friends as well.

A true disciple is one who not only knows about Jesus, but follows him wherever he leads. This will sound redundant, but I’ll say it anyway: you can’t follow Jesus without following Jesus. 

A Lord Worth Following (vv. 24-27)
24 And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being covered with the waves; but Jesus Himself was asleep. 25 And they came to Him and woke Him, saying, “Save us, Lord; we are perishing!” 26 He said to them, “Why are you afraid, you men of little faith?” Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea, and it became perfectly calm. 27 The men were amazed, and said, “What kind of a man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey Him?”

Now this last part is why it is so important to read in context. We have seen three very brief examples of different responses to Jesus and his invitation to “follow me.” We have seen the importance of counting the cost and of making Jesus first priority. And we have seen that at the end of the day, a disciple is one who actually follows.

I don’t know that I’ve ever heard or considered these responses with this scene that follows, nor have I heard or considered the calming of the sea story with these three responses. But they are tied together – you see that, right? In verse 18, Jesus tells his disciples they are going to cross the sea, and then in verses 23 and following they do it and that’s when the storm comes.

This makes a difference in how we understand the calming of the storm. It wasn’t just a happenstance storm in which Jesus demonstrated his power. This was a situation that came about because of obedience to Jesus. And what I believe Jesus demonstrated in those terrifying moments was that he had them. I am reminded of the verse that Jim Longenecker claimed as a life verse, Isaiah 41:10…
“Fear thou not; for I am with thee: Be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; Yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.”

Said another way, in obedient discipleship, in following Jesus in faith, there need not be fear because if you go where Jesus leads, then he is there with you. And there is no better place to be. Indeed, though the fox and bird have a home and you may not, if you have followed Jesus to get where you are, you are better off than with a soft pillow. If following Jesus has cost you the some of the things the world deems important, but you have made Jesus your first priority, you are blessed. And if you follow Jesus into the storm, there is no better place to be than at the side of the Lord of the wind and the waves.

Following Jesus costs something, but Jesus is a Lord worth following.

Have you counted the cost? Is Jesus more to you than a long-ago prayer or pledge or promise?

Is following Jesus your highest priority? What other things clamor for that priority?

Will you go where he leads? Remember my favorite question of the past year or more? “What is God doing in and around me, and how can I be a part of that?” Have you asked and prayed that question earnestly? Have you acted on it?

Finally, whether you find yourself in still waters, a stormy sea, green pastures, or death’s dark valley, hear this Good News: God is with you in Christ. There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God in Christ. Follow Him, for He is a Lord worth following, and He will never leave you nor forsake you. Amen.

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