Are you also going to leave?
As Jesus was starting out on his way to Jerusalem, a man came running up to him, knelt down, and asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
“Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. “Only God is truly good. But to answer your question, you know the commandments: ‘You must not murder. You must not commit adultery. You must not steal. You must not testify falsely. You must not cheat anyone. Honour your father and mother.’”
“Teacher,” the man replied, “I’ve obeyed all these commandments since I was young.”
Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
At this the man’s face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God!” This amazed them. But Jesus said again, “Dear children, it is very hard to enter the Kingdom of God. In fact, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!”
The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked.
Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.”
Then Peter began to speak up. “We’ve given up everything to follow you,” he said.
“Yes,” Jesus replied, “and I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. But many who are the greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then.
I must say that in my time as a pastor (and I celebrating my 50th anniversary of ordination in a few month’s time), one of the big things I pray for every single time before I preach or give a message, is that I don’t get in the way of God’s Word. It is such an easy thing to do when you do it regularly. I don’t want you to tune out because of my inability to speak clearly or in truth, or because there is something about me that you don’t like.
Today God has a message for us that I am passionate about. It is a message that I pray you will hear God speaking more than me.
Today God is asking each of us: “Are you also going to leave?” The fact is that some many are leaving him. So many people having doubts about their faith – feel they don’t need God – or don’t need fellowship in a church or congregation – or in a small group. Many people are drifting.
And I think it’s really important that we come to understand why that is happening and what can be done about it.
Earlier this week FaceBook crashed. Oh and did the people pray!! When FB went down for 6 hours there were people who thought their right hand had been cut off. After all, more people count on FB for making friends & contacts than any other social media. Well, it’s the place where I find out what my family, especially my grandchildren, are doing. FB also has a place where you can see who is following you. When I look at FB I can see that I have 200+ friends, & when I put something on it, they can immediately see what I have posted.
And there is also a tab you can click that says you “follow” someone.
So the question today that we all need to ask is: “Whom are you following?” These days so many follow a celebrity, an actor or sports star – even super rich people have followers – it seems to be an automatic conclusion that if you are very rich, you must also be very wise. So when people have a need, they are more likely to turn to a celebrity than to anyone else.
That reminded me of the movie, where the theme song had these words:
If there’s something strange
In your neighbourhood,
Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!
If there’s something weird
And it don’t look good,
Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!
And today many people don’t know who to turn to in times of trouble, so they look around for heroes, for people they would like to be, for someone who can reassure them & tell them what they want to hear. They want something they can believe in, & they rely on these people to tell them what they think is the truth – something they can hang their faith – their lives – on. Or they are even prepared to throw their faith in God away because someone they admire & trust says that the Christian Faith is a lie.
In John’s gospel, chapter 6, Jesus speaks very plainly to his listeners. He said things that are not always easy to understand. He said some very strong words
“I am the bread of life that came down from heaven.” “The one who believes in me has eternal life.”
And some of those listening got very upset. They listened only as long as they weren’t challenged to change their thinking. So there were many who decided then & there that Jesus was not for them. They stopped following him.
And so Jesus turned to his disciples, his chosen followers & asked straight out: “What do you want to do?”
“Are you also going to leave?”
Now, as I said before, Jesus never pulled any punches when talking about the cost of following him. At one time he told his disciples
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves, and take up their cross and follow me.”
He didn’t say, Pick up your pyjamas, pick up your car, pick up your house, pick up your bank account, pick up your security blanket, whatever that might be. He said, pick up your cross.
Because following Jesus is not always going to be a ball – a party. Following Jesus involves a lifetime of walking, running, crawling, struggling to remain faithful to Jesus. It’s not a stroll in the park, this Christian journey. And we need to see this journey through to the finish line, where Jesus will say,
“Well done, good and faithful servant.”
There were a couple of texts that came to mind as I thought about these words of Jesus, “Are you also going to leave?”
The first is in Hebrews:
We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.
The second passage is in Hebrews 3:1, which is similar to my favourite passage in Hebrews 12:2. But this one says:
Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest.
And that brings me to one of the main points that I think God wants us to hear today – that we pay careful attention to what we have seen and heard – and remind ourselves from whom we have heard the good news.
Today one of the great tragedies of our time, which is definitely happening in our church – in our denomination – is that more and more people are no longer reading the Scriptures: that is, no longer meditating on the Bible. These days most of us would have a number of Bibles in our homes, in different translations. I hear that people are reading the Bible less, and rather reading a devotion each day. Now that’s good. But on its own this is not enough to change our hearts. A devotion tells us what one person thinks about a verse in the Bible, but doesn’t get us thinking much about the passage ourselves. The devotion I read each day also has a passage of Scripture that I am invited to read and meditate on, so that God can speak directly to me through his Word.
Many, many years ago I started in a new congregation and decided that we really needed to start some Bible studies. I mentioned this to some of my leaders – we called them ‘Elders’ back then – and asked that they all sign up to set an example to their fellow members. Well, one of them became quite indignant. “I don’t need to know anything more in the Bible. I was baptised, confirmed and marriage in the church. At my confirmation I knew my catechism backwards. So I won’t be attending.” So I replied, “That’s great. I understand. And I’m impressed. Look, can you do me a favour? And I’ll make it easy for you. I won’t ask you to recite the catechism backwards now. Just recite it forwards.” He said nothing. Then I asked, “Can you give me six or so verses from the Bible that really make a difference in your life – verses that instruct you, that you turn to when you need forgiveness, or need a reminder to be loving and serving, or need comfort in difficult times? He said nothing. When the Bible studies started, he was there.
Back then there began the idea that everyone should have a plan to read the whole Bible in a year. It sounded good. But most people who tried it got through Genesis, Exodus and half way through Numbers, and then hit the “wall”. It’s pretty hard to read through all the laws and regulations of the time. So there was this idea – and it is still a strong idea today – that reading the Bible was all about how much you read, rather than about understanding or believing what you read. The clear teaching that every word, every phrase, every sentence and text is God’s word to us was – well, it wasn’t lost, but it was blurred. We are to pay the most careful attention to what we have heard, because we are to see every word as God speaking to us. And we cause ourselves a lot of grief when we get involved in doctrinal debates, or when we tell God that we have discovered all we need to know. Rather, we are to read the Scriptures as the humble children of God, who know our need his Word, that we need his Spirit to lead as we read and meditate. We need the wisdom that comes from God’s Word. We receive courage to live from God’s Word. We are given words of good news and hope from God’s Word.
I understand why people are drifting away. One of the reasons is that they no longer hear or read the Word of God. They stop hearing the very words of Jesus. They lose the desire to follow him because they didn’t see the need to grow in their faith. But the apostle Peter stated very clearly: Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Our faith needs to keep on growing. Jesus said we needed nothing more than a faith the size of a mustard seed in order to be saved. But that seed then has to be planted in the soil of the word, so that it can grow. And if we our faith is not growing, it is dying. Yet the Word of God is very clear that it has the power to change lives – and to do so every day.
I understand that people like to be part of a crowd. We like to be liked and accepted. But now, going to church – better – going to worship – is not as accepted as it used to be. There is a desire to belong in community, which is why kids want to belong to a group of friends, or want heaps of friends on FB. They don’t want to be seen as naïve or gullible, which is how many people see Christians today. So if they no longer do anything that feeds their faith, or if they have nothing to hang their faith or hope on, then they can do little else but drift. And that is clearly what is happening today. And it’s not just happening to other people. There is also the danger that it can happen to us. We’re no different to those who drift away and no longer follow Jesus. We also like to be liked and accepted. We face the same temptations to neglect the Word of God and become slack in making sure that our faith is getting a healthy, regular dose of “God’s vitamins”.
I believe that we need to be aware of what is happening in society today. We need to know the changes that are taking place in our modern culture, so that we can understand the people of this current generation, and be aware of the dangers as well as affirm the good things. The facts show clearly that denominations are dying. There is a clear, united message from many Christian writers that the church as an institution in our western world is dying. And if we don’t get back to what the basics of Christianity are all about; if we don’t let the traditions go that no longer matter; if we don’t focus on the gospel and the freedom Jesus gives through his death and resurrection, then we will continue down the road of focusing on the wrong things.
So let me give you a quick reality check.
In the 1996 Census 88% of Australians claims to be Christians. In 2016 the number was 52%.
In the 1996 Census there was no category for “No Religion” (the ‘Nones’). In 2016 the people who had ticked “No Religion” had grown to 30% of Australia’s population.
And let’s look at some LCA statistics.
When the Lutheran Churches united in 1966 our baptised membership was 100,051.
By 2011 that number fell to 67,131 and in 2016 to 32,964.
The average number of Lutherans in worship on any given Sunday was –
1996 – 43,380. 2011 – 28,722. 2016 – 15,643.
It is my conviction that this has partly happened because we have spent far too much time on things that really don’t matter, and blurred the things that are vital for salvation. What’s important is not maintaining a building, although I believe that congregations will continue in some form. The really important matter is that we retain our faith and help others not to drift away. You know that we are so good at getting sidetracked with issues that have nothing to do with growing our faith. We need to go back to the ‘Source’ – the place where we learned about Jesus and faith. We need to hear again the words of Jesus, where he said, I am sending you the Holy Spirit for one main reason: to remind you of everything that I told you. The purpose of the Holy Spirit is to always work through the Word to show us Jesus. And when we see what Jesus said and did, then we understand what it means to follow him.
For instance, Philippians 2 says: Have the same attitude that Jesus had.
Even though he was God, he didn’t hang on to his glory, but humbled himself – the Greek word means “emptied” himself and became a human being so that he could suffer and die in our place. Following Jesus involves having an attitude that we find hard to have by nature – to turn the other cheek, go the extra distance, do things for others even if it’s not ‘fair’ for you, to forgive people – always, and to love and serve people whether we think they deserve it or not.
So we come back to Jesus’ question: “Are you also going to leave?” We’ll come back to Peter’ reply in a minute.
We love this verse from the Psalms, but it can easily become nothing but words if we don’t allow the Word to do what it says it does:
Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.
In 1 Thessalonians 2:13 Paul writes:
And we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.
So we come back to our Hebrew texts, which don’t need any further commentary from me. Listen to them – read them – carefully! The Holy Spirit wants you to hear them clearly today:
Hebrews 2:1 – We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.
And the second verse Is Hebrews 3:1 – Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus . . .
And I also want to highlight Paul’s words to Timothy in his first letter – ask the Spirit to speak to you through these words:
But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you. You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.
So we come back to the question that Jesus asked his first twelve disciples, and now asks each one of us: “Are you also going to leave?”
Can you answer that question confidently and boldly today? If you can, please give Jesus your answer now, in Peter’s words.
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
God grant that you will always keep that faith, and that commitment to follow Jesus, always anchored in the Word of God.
And the peace that only Jesus can be give, be yours always. Amen.