Count the Cost
Luke 14:25-35; Deuteronomy 30:15-20
16th Sunday After Pentecost (Proper 18C)
September 8th/9th, 2013
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
Choice. There is a choice before you today, a choice of cosmic significance. It is a choice whose consequences will last far longer than the consequences of intervening Syria or staying out. It is a choice of eternal significance. It is a choice that will set in motion a series of events far more life changing than new regulations imposed by Obamacare. It is a choice with eternal ramifications. Robert Frost’s dilemma over two roads diverging in a yellow wood is nothing compared to the roads before you today, before you every day, as it is before every man, before every woman. With heaven and earth as witnesses, before you today are good and evil. On the one side life, on the other death, the one path filled with blessings, the other with curses. Which will you choose?
Are you uncomfortable yet? Does all this talk of choosing make you squirm in your seat a little? Are you thinking to yourself, “Doesn’t Pastor know that you can’t talk about decision in a Lutheran church?” The dominance of decision theology on the American Christian landscape makes most Lutherans bristle at the word “choice” or talk of “choosing,” and rightfully so. I know my theological Spidy Sence tingles whenever I hear Christians talk of choices in their spiritual lives. Yet Moses does not mince words. As the Israelites’ days of wandering in the wilderness were drawing to a close, Moses stood before the people and laid out the situation. Life in the promise land was before them. When they took possession of the land, they would have a choice to make. If they obeyed the commandments of the Lord their God, by walking in his ways, and by keeping his commandments and statutes and rules, then they would live and multiply, and the Lord God would bless them in that land. But if their heart turned away so that they would not hear God’s Word, if they instead worshiped the false gods of the Canaanites, they would surely perish.
Joshua placed the same choice before the Israelites a few short years later when their conquest into the promise land was done. When all their enemies had been defeated and the land belonged to the Israelites, Joshua looked to the people and said, “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
The Israelites had a choice to make. Serve the only true God, Yahweh, or serve something else. But anything that is not the true God is nothing more than the imagination of people. Anything that is not the true God is Satan in disguise. The true God alone brings life, so anything else can only bring death. The true God alone brings blessing, which is why the man who meditates on God’s Word is blessed. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields it fruit in season, and its leaf does not wither. Anything else can only bring curses, making the one who trusts in it like the chaff that blows away in the wind.
The Israelites had a choice to make, and history shows that they made the wrong one. You have a choice to make today, between life and death. You will have a choice to make tomorrow, between good and evil. The choice between blessing and curse is something you will face every day you walk this earth. Each and every morning you wake up, the Joshua’s question is put before you: Choose this day whom you will serve. Each new sunrise brings with it the two paths of Moses: the way of life and the way of death. Which way will you choose?
On some level, it sounds like a stupid question. I mean, given the option between life and death, who wouldn’t choose life? Given the alternative of blessings and curses, who wouldn’t choose blessing? Given the alternative between good and evil, who wouldn’t choose good?
If only it were that simple.
You have before you today life and death. But remember that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. In him all things live and move and have their being. To take Moses’ advice and choose life, one must choose Jesus. It seems so obvious. Yet Jesus has a warning for all those who would seek to choose him. Jesus tells his would-be followers, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”
The thought of hating our family is a tough one. But we have to hear these words as they were spoken by a first century Israelite. This is not hate in the sense that the sight of your family fills you with loathing. This is not hate in the sense that in order to be a disciple of Jesus the mere thought of your parents or children makes you nauseous. No, Jesus doesn’t even allow us to feel that type of hate for our enemies, much less our family. To hate in this sense means to recognize the lack of value in something. To hate something in this sense means to recognize that it’s not good enough. To hate something in this sense is to reject it in favor of something else. Jesus is telling those following him that anyone who relies on anything else other than him cannot be his disciple.
The typical first century Israelite would have placed great emphasis on his family line. Most of them assumed that their place as an ethnic descendant of Abraham guaranteed them a place in the kingdom of God. Jesus tells them that they couldn’t be farther from the truth. Your ancestry doesn’t get you into heaven – Jesus gets you into heaven. If you would choose life, you must first recognize that all earthly options are lacking, that nothing else comes close to what Jesus gives. You must hate not only your ancestry, but even your own life. You must recognize that anything you offer could never measure up to the debt you owe, that nothing you do could ever cover the sin that stains you.
No, to be a disciple of Jesus, one must take up his own cross and follow Jesus. To take up your cross means to die, not in the sense that you literally kill yourself, but in the sense that you stop trying to offer things to God. You stop relying on your own abilities and instead act before him as a dead person acts. To follow Jesus is to get behind him, not as if Jesus were the line leader, but in the sense that we might get behind a politician or team or program. To get behind Jesus in this sense means to be identified with him. In short, what Jesus is saying is that anyone who does not recognize the lack of value in his own life and what he has to offer to God cannot be a Christian. Anyone who wants to be his disciple must die to himself and identify with Jesus.
“For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? . . . Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand?” The choice before you is one of eternal significance. It is a choice of cosmic proportions. “Weigh the options,” Jesus says. “Consider the cost.” Hadn’t you better see if you have enough resources to finish the project, like a builder who counts his money before building a tower? Hadn’t you better make sure you’re not entering into a no win situation, like a king who sends his army into battle even though he is outnumbered two to one? Count the cost of discipleship.
The point of these illustrations is not simply to warn us that the cost of following Jesus is high. The point is not to simply warn us against making a hasty decision to be a disciple of Jesus. The point is that neither the builder nor the king had what was necessary to complete his task. When we count the cost of our task, when we count the cost of discipleship, when we count the cost of choosing life, we see that we are pitifully underfunded, and our tower to heaven will never be complete. We see that we are woefully outnumbered, and we don’t stand a chance against the army of death. That is why Jesus says that anyone who does not renounce all that he has, who does not renounce all that he is, cannot be a disciple.
So what do you offer to God? With what do you seek to impress him? With your humility? Your devotion? Your praise? Is it your faithfulness in attending worship? Why are you here today? Are you here to give something to our Lord as payment for your sinful life, to make amends? Or are you here to take up your cross in repentance, die to yourself, and rely on the salvation Jesus gives? Why do you have your children enrolled in this school? Is it to teach them to be good and moral? Or to teach them how to take up their cross and die to themselves, to teach them to rely only on Jesus and what he gives. What does it mean to be a Christian, to be a follower of Jesus, to be a disciple?
There are two ways before you today, but ultimately it’s no choice at all. I could tell you that the Red Wings are for sale for the bargain price of 100 Million Dollars, but you don’t have that kind of money. You couldn’t afford to buy a pro sports team. That’s the point of what Jesus says in the Gospel today. What is necessary is not that you count the cost of following Jesus so that you understand the gravity of what you are in for if you choose to live your life for him. What is necessary is that you count the cost of discipleship to see that you are totally and completely helpless. Go ahead, count the cost of salvation; you can’t pay it. Look at the army you are facing; you can’t defeat it. For it is not against flesh and blood that we battle, but against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil. You can’t win that battle any more than Sauron’s army of darkness could defeat the army of the undead before the White City in The Return of the King. It is a battle you just can’t win. You don’t have the right weapons, and the weapons you do have are not able to harm your foe.
Therefore, renounce everything that you are, turn away from everything you could offer, and cling only to Jesus and what he has done for you. For in him, the cost of your discipleship has been paid. He considered the cost of our salvation. He looked out at what it would take to build not a tower from earth to heaven, but a ladder from heaven to earth. He knew what it would take to defeat the army of Satan and all his minions. He considered what you would cost him, and declared not only that he could pay it, but that he would, that you are worth the price. He took on human flesh knowing full well what would happen to that flesh, but he did it for you. He lived a human life knowing exactly what he would suffer in that life, knowing that such a life would end in agony on the cross. But he did it willingly for you. The Lamb goes uncomplaining forth. He counted the cost of your salvation, looked at your price tag, and then paid all that was owed. He purchased and won you not with gold or silver, but with his holy precious blood, and his innocent suffering and death.
There is indeed a cost to discipleship, but that cost is not ours to pay. Jesus paid it. And because he did, now we will with saints be numbered where praises never end, in glory everlasting. Amen, O Lord, amen!