Sunday, August 31, 2014

August 31, 2014

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC


John 12:20-26

We’re going to keep things simple this morning.  The simplest definition I know of a “Christian” is a “follower of Jesus”.  Today we’re going to talk about what it means to follow Jesus.  And I’m going to tell a story as we go.  Not an opening story with a good laugh line.  Not a closing story that has you reaching for the kleenexes (though you may want to keep them handy).  This is a true story that will take the whole sermon to tell.  I hope it will answer for us the simple question:  What does it mean to follow Jesus?

It’s the story of William Borden.  He was born in 1887.  He was born into wealth.  You’ve heard of the Borden Company.  They specialized in dairy products.  Their mascot was Elsie the Cow.  If you know you’ve seen her somewhere before, here’s a picture to refresh your memory.

The Borden Company also made Elmer’s glue.

So William Borden was fabulously wealthy the day he was born.   When he was seven, his mom became a Christian.  She started taking young William with her to the ChicagoAvenueChurch.  That’s where he heard R.A. Torrey preach, one of the greatest preachers ever.  Soon William Borden gave his life to Jesus.  He became a Christian.  He became a follower of Jesus.

When he graduated from high school, his parents gave him a graduation present.  It was a trip around the world.  It was a luxury vacation available only to the wealthiest of the wealthy.  But all William could see as he traveled around the world was the poverty of those who had so little.  He wrote a letter home to his family.  “I want to give my life to the world’s hurting when I come home.  I want to prepare for the mission field.”  And at that time he wrote two words in the back of his Bible.  “No reserve.”  It was his way of saying to God that he was going to hold nothing back.  He going to give his all.  That’s the first thing to know about what it means to follow Jesus.  To follow Jesus means holding nothing back.

John chapter 12 begins with Jesus having dinner with Lazarus.  Which is pretty amazing when you consider that in chapter 11, Lazarus had died.  But Jesus had brought him back to life.  And so I guess Lazarus figured the least he could do to say thank you was to invite Jesus over for dinner.  We’re told that at this dinner, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, took a pint of perfume and poured it all over the feet of Jesus.

The NIV points out that the value of this perfume was a year’s worth of wages.  That’s a lot of money even if you don’t make a lot of money.  You trade a year of hard work for one pint of perfume.  And then you dump it all out on somebody’s feet.  What a waste!

There are two reactions to what Mary had just done.  One is the one I already gave you.  What a waste!   That was the response of Judas.  “Mary, this is crazy!  We could have sold this and given all the money to the poor.  Think of all the starving, poor people who are now going to die because of what you just did!”

Jesus, who we know cared about the starving, poor a lot more than Judas did, had a very different reaction.  He said, “Leave her alone.  [It was intended] that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.  You will always have the poor among you . . . ”

Those of us who like to think of Jesus as practical and level-headed have a hard time with this.  We also have a hard time with a few other things Jesus said to people who were getting ready to follow him.  In Luke 9 someone says, “I will follow you wherever you go.”  Jesus says, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”  Not exactly the response we might have expected.  On another occasion, Jesus invites someone to follow him and is told, “I will follow you, but first you have to let me go bury my father.”  Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead.”  Not the most pastoral response to someone whose dad just died.  Someone else says, “I want to follow you, but I need a few minutes to say goodbye to my family.”  Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God.”

Worst of all is what Jesus said to that rich, young ruler.  Remember him?  He really wants to follow Jesus.  He is all ready to sign up.  He just has a question first.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus said, “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me.”  So of course, he walks away.  Jesus was asking way too much.  Jesus is driving potential recruits away.  What a waste!  Just like Judas said.   “Jesus, do you have any idea how big that rich, young ruler’s tithe check would have been!?”

So we have all these potential disciples that Jesus has driven away.  Kind of like the church that had a successful membership drive.  They succeeded in driving 20 members away.

It seems a strange way for Jesus to be recruiting new Christians.  He seems so mean and demanding.  Actually, it was the opposite.  He was filled with compassion.  Discouraging these potential disciples was the most compassionate thing Jesus could have done for them.  Because it would have been cruel to let them live under the illusion that they were disciples.  It would have been cruel to let them think it’s possible to follow Jesus half-way or half-heartedly.

So why would anyone ever want to follow Jesus if the expectations are so high?  Why would any sane person make such a sacrifice?  Because though what we give up is great, what we get back is infinitely greater.

Jesus told a parable about a pearl of great price.  It was buried in a field.  Someone knew it was there and sold everything he had in order to buy the field.  The seller thought he’d made a killing.  But the buyer knew it was a ridiculous bargain.  He was giving up a lot, but he was getting back a lot more.

Jim Elliot was killed while sharing Christ with a native tribe in the jungles of Ecuador.  He was 28. We might say it was a wasted life.  Jim Elliot wouldn’t have said that.  He said, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

What about you?  Are you living under the illusion of discipleship?  Or have you said to Jesus, “No reserve”?

William Borden came home.  He went to Yale.  But he was not a typical college freshman.  There was something different about him.  He was a Christian.  An “all the way, no reserve” Christian.  Some of us have had experiences with Christians whose faith just made them weird and made you want to stay away from them.  That was not William Borden.  There was something about him that attracted people.  People wanted to be around him.  He wrote something in his journal that helps us see what his classmates saw in him that was so appealing.  He wrote, “Say ‘no’ to self and ‘yes’ to Jesus every single time.”

He started a prayer meeting with just himself and one other student.  By the end of his senior year, 1000 of the 1300 students enrolled at Yale were attending that prayer meeting.

He also founded Yale Hope Mission.  It started with him going out at night to rescue the drunks, feed the hungry, and find shelter for the homeless.  To him it was just part of following Jesus.  He was called to bring the love of Jesus to others.  And one day the specifics of that calling became clear to him.  He was to go to the Muslim Gansu people in China.

He never wavered from that goal.  He aimed his whole life toward China.  He was a Yale graduate.  He was smart.  He was rich.  He could have become much richer pursuing the American dream.  But that had no appeal to him.  He was going to China.  That was settled.

He went to Princeton Theological Seminary to prepare.  After he graduated, he said goodbye to family, friends, and everything familiar and comfortable about his life.  He got on a boat and set sail for China.  He wrote two more words in the back of his Bible.  “No retreat.”  There was no going back now.  He was on his way.

We read the words of Jesus this morning.  “The [person] who loves his life will lose it, while the [person] who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.  My Father will honor the one who serves me” (John 12:25-26).

The first mark of a disciple is, “no reserve”.  We give it all.  We hold nothing back.  The second mark of a disciple is, “no retreat.”  No matter what happens.  To follow Jesus means no turning back.

It’s interesting to note in scripture when the casual followers of Jesus started falling away.  The crowd of 5000 loved it when he fed them.  They were less than thrilled when he started saying strange things.  Like, “I am the bread of life.”  Like, “If you want to have eternal life, you need to eat my flesh and drink my blood.”  We’re told that, “After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).

Even among his twelve disciples, when the going was good, they were right by his side, but when things got tough, they started bailing.  They were fair weather Christians.  They didn’t stay fair weather Christians.  The amazing story of their transformation and how God used them to start the Church is recorded in the Book of Acts.  We start a six-part series on Acts next Sunday.  They will be our models for Christian discipleship.  Not that they didn’t have their faults and flaws.   We all do.  We are all sinners saved by grace.  But when we give ourselves to Christ without reserve and without retreat amazing things start to happen.

Or, we can be what the disciples were before the Book of Acts.  We can be fair weather Christians.  We can follow Jesus as long as this Christianity thing works out for us.  As long as it doesn’t move us off our career track.  As long as it isn’t too costly.  As long as we can do it and still live a comfortable life.  As long as it doesn’t infringe on what we really want to do.  But the moment the fair weather turns stormy, we bail.  I’m going to tell you something I’m sure you didn’t come to church this morning to hear.  Following Jesus may end badly for some of us.  That’s just the truth.

Here’s how I heard someone say it:

The good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is not that if you follow him everything is going to go well.  The good news of the Gospel is that if you follow him you get him and he is all that you need no matter what circumstances come (from Matt Chandler, pastor at The Village, Dallas-Fort Worth).

I wish I could promise you otherwise.  A lot of pastors these days do.  That if you follow Jesus you will live a charmed life.  God will protect you from all unpleasantness and only good things will ever happen to you and to those you love.  I wish that were so.  But the Bible tells a different story.

Let’s just consider for a quick moment how the lives of some of Jesus’ most devoted followers ended up.  There was John the Baptist.  His life ended with his head on a platter.  James the son of Zebedee also was beheaded.  Peter was crucified upside down.  Peter’s brother, Andrew was crucified on an X-shaped cross.  Philip was crucified in the ordinary way.  Bartholomew, also known as Nathaniel, was skinned alive.  Matthew was killed with an axe.  Thomas with a spear, James the son of Alphaeus with stones.  Ditto for Matthias, Judas’ replacement.  Jude was clubbed to death.  Simon the Zealot was sawn in two.

And I’m sure each of them had every opportunity to turn tail and run away from their commitment to Jesus.  They could have saved their lives.  But for them, there was no retreat.

So how about you?  I know I’m doing a terrible job at making Christianity sound fun and glamorous.  But that’s not my job.  My job is just to tell you the truth.  Will you follow Jesus through broken dreams, shattered hopes, through pain, confusion, darkness, through loss, suffering, cancer?  Will you follow Jesus knowing that whatever happens, you have him, and he is more than enough for you?

When William Borden finished his studies at Princeton Theological Seminary, he set sail for China.  He was on his way.  No retreat.  Since he was going to be working with Muslims, he first stopped in Egypt to study Arabic.  While he was there, he contracted cerebral meningitis.  Within a month, he was dead.  He was 25.

His death created a sensation in the United States.  The story was carried by every newspaper.  And everyone had the same question.  Why?  Why would God take him before he had a chance to do what God had called him to do?  It made no sense.  What a waste.  That’s what the newspapers said.  What a wasted life.

William Borden didn’t think so.  He was on his deathbed.  He knew he would never be able to live his dream of serving God in China.  He knew it wasn’t turning out at all the way he thought it was supposed to.  So he took out his Bible and he wrote two more words.  Underneath the words “no reserve” and “no retreat”, he wrote “no regrets”.

How could he possibly have died so young with no regrets?  I think it was because he knew what Jesus had said and he believed it:

“Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (John 6:24).

William Whiting Borden is buried in the AmericanCemetery in Cairo.  A million dollars from his estate was given to the China Inland Mission and other Christian ministries.  The BordenMemorialHospital in Lanzhou, China is named after him.  It is impossible to estimate the number of people who have been inspired by the story of his life to follow Christ without reserve, or retreat, and or regret.

Dear God, forgive us for using the word “Christian” so casually.   Forgive us for claiming to follow Jesus when the truth is we’d kind of like to know where he’s going first.  The truth is we’ll follow Jesus if he’s going our way.  But if he’s going anywhere near a cross, we quickly turn tail.  Remind us, God, that we are not unlike the first followers of Jesus.  They came around when you got a hold of them.  So may we, as you get a hold of us.  Make us fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ, prepared to live for him.  Prepared to die for him.  May we give what we cannot keep.  May we might gain what we cannot lose.  And may we find in Jesus all we could ever need and so much more.  Amen.