Sermon 09-04-2022: “How to Do the Impossible”

Scripture: Luke 14:25-33

Let me preface what I’m about to say by asking if anyone here works for a pharmaceutical company. No? Good… Because I’m about to poke fun at them—or specifically, I’m poking fun at their television commercials. One popular drug to fight insomnia and help you get a good night’s sleep literally spends more than half the commercial warning you about possible scary-sounding side-effects. Listen to what the narrator says—and I promise I’m not making this up:

When taking [this sleeping pill], don’t drive or operate machinery until you feel fully awake. Walking, eating, driving, or engaging in other activities while asleep without remembering it the next day have been reported… In depressed patients, worsening of depression including risk of suicide may occur… Allergic reactions such as tongue or throat swelling occur rarely, and may be fatal.

The commercial ends with a soothing voice reassuring us: “There’s a land of restful sleep. We can help you go there.” And a cynical part of me can’t but wonder, “When they say ‘land of restful sleep,’ do they mean, like, when you die from taking this drug?”

Oh boy… What a way to sell a product! And look, I’m sure that the company would prefer not to have to tell consumers about possible side effects. But they’re required by law to do it. It’s what, in print advertising, would be relegated to “the fine print.” In some commercials, it’s the stuff the voiceover artist speaks very quickly at the end of the commercial!

My point is, when someone is trying to sell you something, they’re reluctant to give you the fine print!

Wouldn’t it be crazy, therefore, to lead with the fine print—to emphasize the fine print: “I’m going to tell you up front just how difficult it will be for you to use this product… I’m going to tell you up front how costly it will be for you subscribe to this service.” 

Yet that’s kind of like what Jesus does in today’s scripture! He leads with the fine print.

Because, to say the least, Jesus isn’t like us. He isn’t selling a product or a service.

Indeed, today’s scripture includes some of Jesus’ most difficult words about the costliness of following him—especially these words from verse 26: “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.”

So in this sermon, I’ll be talking about costly discipleship in three ways: Point Number One, by showing you that Jesus’ words here aren’t as bad as they sound. Point Number Two, by showing you that being a disciple requires our hearts… The only problem? And this is Point Number Three: We need new hearts in order to be disciples of Jesus.

But for Point Number One, I want to explain why Jesus’ words about “hating father and mother,” etc., aren’t as bad as they sound. They’re not bad at all, of course, but you know what I mean… And I want to do so by referring you to Genesis chapter 29. There, Jacob is madly in love with Rachel, the younger of two daughters of Jacob’s Uncle Laban. Laban promised Jacob that if only he worked for him for seven years, Jacob could have Rachel’s hand in marriage. So Jacob did so. Only on his wedding night, Laban made sure Jacob was good and drunk and substituted his older daughter Leah for Rachel. When Jacob woke up sober, he realized what his uncle did. And his uncle explains that in their culture, it’s out of the question to marry off a younger daughter before the older daughter is married. So only then does Laban give Jacob his daughter Rachel in marriage—on the condition that Jacob work another seven years for him. Which Jacob is happy to do, because—as I said—he’s madly in love with Rachel. She’s totally worth it to him.

So, do you get the picture? Jacob has two wives—only one of whom he’s madly in love with.

Look at Genesis 29:31: “When the Lord saw that Leah was hated, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren.” Leah was hated. The Hebrew word for “hatred,” unlike the word in English, doesn’t imply active hostility toward someone; it doesn’t mean that this person is your enemy and you wish them harm. That can’t be the case because if you look at the previous verse, Genesis 30:30, we’re told that Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah.” It’s not that he didn’t love Leah at all; he just loved her less than Rachel—even much less in this case.

So is that a contradiction? I mean in one verse we’re told that Jacob loves Leah less than Rachel; and in the next verse we’re told that he hates her. 

No, it’s not a contradiction… it just means that the Bible is using the word “hatred” differently from the way we use it today. It’s all relative. Relative to Jacob’s love for Rachel, his love for Leah was much, much less.

And if you read the story of Jacob in Genesis, you see that it wouldn’t make sense that Jacob “hated” Leah the way we mean the word “hatred” today: After all, he had a lot of kids with Leah! He obviously cared for her and had affection for her—and looked out for her safety and welfare.

It’s like my love for Neko. You don’t even know who Neko is, do you? I never talk about her. She’s our other dog—a black terrier mix—a rescue dog who’s now 12 years old. Since I talk so much about Ringo, I have been accused over the past few years—even by my own family—of hating Neko. Because, after all, I just absolutely couldn’t love Ringo more than I do. When I post pictures of Ringo on Instagram, for instance, I will inevitably have one particular friend—from a previous church—ask me, “Where’s Neko? Why don’t you post pictures of Neko? I want to see pictures of Neko.” Because this person wants to pretend that Neko is a photogenic and good-looking dog, too—when clearly, let’s face it, she’s not.

But it’s not that I don’t love Neko! I feed her. I care for her when she’s sick—I’m always the one who makes sure she swallows her pills when she needs to take them. I’m concerned for her safety and welfare. I worry about her. And for the first ten years of her life—before she got too old to run with me—she and I ran—I’m not exaggerating—thousands of miles together.

In a biblical sense I might “hate” her, but it’s only because, when it comes to loving dogs, my heart belongs to Ringo.

And Jesus is making a similar point, except about himself: The love we have for the people we love the most in the world—our parents, our spouse, our children, our siblings—and you can throw in friends and significant others, too—our love for them ought to pale in comparison to our love for Jesus Christ.

But it’s not that we don’t also love parents, spouses, children, siblings, friends, or signifiant others… But there’s no question who comes first. So—in part—it’s about priorities. Christ must be our priority above any and every other person or consideration.

Jesus shows us what this priority looks like, for instance, in Mark chapter 3. In verse 21, Jesus’ family has heard reports that Jesus has lost his mind. We don’t know if Mary and her other sons think it’s true or not, but they’re likely afraid for Jesus’ safety and welfare—and that if Jesus keeps stirring up trouble the way he’s been doing, he will likely get himself killed. Jesus’ family doesn’t understand that his atoning death on the cross is part of God’s plan. So they want to protect Jesus. So his family comes to get him and bring him home, where he’ll be safe. In Mark 3, verses 32 to 35, Mark writes,

And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

Sounds harsh… In refusing to go with his family, was Jesus hating his mother and brothers—or worse, was he breaking the fifth commandment to “honor your father and mother” by refusing to obey his mother?

Of course not! Although Jesus’ rebuke of his mother and brothers might have felt in that moment a lot like hatred—it might have felt disrespectful or dishonorable; it might have felt like a slap in the face… But that’s not what it was at all. It’s just that, when Jesus had to choose between love for and loyalty to his heavenly Father, on the one hand, and love for and loyalty to his earthly family on the other, well… the choice was clear: love for his heavenly Father, loyalty and allegiance to his heavenly Father, comes first.

We must do the same thing!

For many years, the now retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon was a chaplain at Duke University. He said that every year he would receive calls from anxious parents who were fearful about decisions that their good Methodist sons or daughters were making. Willimon said, “They would never call and say things like, ‘I’m worried that Meghan is sleeping with her boyfriend,’ or ‘I’m worried that Steve is drinking and partying too much.’ No, it was never that,” he said. Instead they would call him to complain, “We’re paying good money to send Suzy to law school. But she has become so involved in the Wesley Fellowship that she has now decided she is going to become a missionary to Honduras. How could you let this happen? You have ruined her life.” 1

Yet I am sure that that this young woman who has answered a call to be a missionary loves her parents—who paid good money to send her to Duke Law School… but guess what? She loves Jesus much, much more. That’s what Jesus is talking about when he says to “hate” father and mother—and everyone else you hold most dear.

So… I hope I’ve made this scripture at least a little easier to swallow…? It’s not as bad as it sounds, right? That’s Point Number One.

But… This brings us to Point Number Two… Loving Jesus the way he commands is in part about priorities, by all means, but that’s not all it is. Following Jesus is not just some dry, intellectual exercise. It isn’t merely a decision we make; it isn’t something we simply reason our way through; it also isn’t a matter of willpower—like sticking to a diet, and eating broccoli instead of French fries; andit isn’t merely “doing our duty”—whether we want to or not. 

While I’m not denying that following Jesus won’t at times feel like that—like a chore, like a duty, like something we’d rather not do—but that’s not mostly what it’s about. 

No… because… If we’re going to do what Jesus demands in today’s scripture, Jesus is going to have to first capture our hearts! There’s no other way! Following Jesus will involve our deepest emotions and feelings!

If you don’t believe me, consider just one of the loving relationships Jesus mentions in verse 26. Jesus says we need to love him more than we love our spouse. We love our spouse with romantic love. And that’s an incredibly powerful kind of love. Nearly everyone in this room of a certain age knows what it feels like to fall in love. That’s the kind of love Jesus is talking about. It might be the strongest, most all-consuming passion we can know—it’s intoxicating.

Speaking of romance, I officiated a wedding for some dear friends recently. It was an outdoor wedding—and the bride processed in—not to “Here Comes the Bride” or Pachelbel’s “Canon in D.” Much better! The bride walked down the aisle to a real love song. A song that captures exactly what it feels like to fall in love: I’m referring, of course, to “A Groovy Kind of Love”—the Phil Collins version, which was a hit in the ’80s.

You think I’m kidding about loving this song, but I’m not. Listen to some of these words:

When I kiss your lips

Ooh, I start to shiver

Can’t control the quivering inside…

When I’m in your arms

Nothing seems to matter

My whole world could shatter

I don’t care

Wouldn’t you agree?

Baby, you and me

Got a groovy kind of love

That’s some good songwriting! “Nothing seems to matter/ My whole world could shatter/ I don’t care.” Yes. That’s what being in love feels like. You would be willing to make any sacrifice for that kind of love: “My whole world could shatter/ I don’t care.”

We’re supposed to love Jesus like that! In other words, Jesus is supposed to be our Rachel and not our Leah! You’ve got to admit that if only we could love Jesus like that, then “bearing our cross” in verse 27 and following Jesus up that hill of execution known as Calvary suddenly makes a lot more sense. If we could love Jesus like that, then “renouncing everything that we have” in verse 33 suddenly makes more sense. 

After all, Jesus is only asking us to sacrifice our lives in precisely the same way that so many popular love songs pledge to do, right?

But in order for us to do that, Jesus must capture our hearts. As I said, Christian faith can’t be something that merely lives up here, in our heads. It must permeate our hearts. The Bible implies that if Christian faith were just something that lived up here, in our heads—if faith were merely intellectual agreement, a set of propositions that we believe are true—then the devil himself would a faithful Christian 2 … the devil believes Christianity is true from first hand knowledge and experience. But no… following Jesus takes more than mere belief. It requires our hearts. Which means it requires our emotions… our feelings.

Paul makes this same point in Ephesians 5:18 to 20. He talks about our need to be “filled with the Spirit”—which happens when we love Jesus the way he describes in today’s scripture. Paul says that this causes us to “sing and make melody to the Lord with our hearts.”

Sing and make melody with our hearts. Jesus is supposed to cause us to do that? Yes! But in order to do that, Jesus must capture our hearts!

But this brings us to Point Number Three: We need new hearts! That’s the problem!

Listen to what one modern commentator said about these words of Jesus: “Jesus makes it clear that being his disciple will cost a person everything that they have… Jesus requires every person to renounce one hundred percent of what they have, whether that be very little or very much.” 3

If what this author is saying is true—and I believe it is—then what Jesus asks us to do isn’t hard… It’s impossible!

See, when I hear words like that—“you must renounce one hundred percent of what you have”— you know what I think? I think, “I’m in trouble! I can’t do that!” Or at least I should say, “Even if I can renounce one hundred percent of what I have at some point in the future, rest assured I haven’t done it yet.” And you probably haven’t, either!

So… Are we in trouble?

No… I think there’s hope for us! 

And our hope is found in these two very short parables that Jesus tells in verses 28 to 32: One is about a builder who starts building a tower and runs out of money before it’s completed. And I can’t help but think of the Washington Monument. Our country started building it in 1848. By 1854 the project ran out of money. It was only half finished. The work didn’t resume until 23 years later, in 1877, and it was completed in 1884. You can see to this day the bricks from the first half of the construction are of a slightly different color than the bricks from the second half.

So that’s what Jesus describes: a half-finished tower. That’s embarrassing, he says.

And the second parable is about a king who goes to war with his army of 10,000 against an enemy army of 20,000. Who do you think is going to win? That sounds like some poor planning on the king’s part. And it is… But look at verse 32: Jesus says that if the king realizes he hasn’t planned properly, “while the other [king] is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.”

Please notice: Both parables assume failure. While both the builder and the king give everything they possess, in spite of this fact, neither of them possesses what they need to succeed in their task. Left to their own devices, each will fail. But at least in the second case, the king has a way out: he can make peace with his enemy and avoid ultimate disaster.

I believe Jesus is saying the same about us in our relationship with God. You and I simply can’t give enough, we can’t do enough, we can’t work hard enough to make ourselves acceptable to God. We can’t be righteous enough. And if we try to please God by simply trying harder—“Lord, I know I only renounced seventy-three percent of what I had yesterday, but today I’m going to do better”—if our strategy is to “try harder,” we’ll make ourselves miserable… we will be filled with guilt… and we will still fail. The Bible says in many places that even if we managed to give 99.9 percent, that still wouldn’t be enough!

Jesus wants one-hundred percent… That’s true… He wants one hundred percent of our lives. And we can’t do that… at least apart from God’s grace. So what do we do instead? We do what the king does in verse 32: we “send out a delegation and ask for terms of peace.” In other words, we wave the white flag of surrender to our King Jesus, we confess our inability to do what Jesus says we must do, and we recognize that our only hope is for Jesus to do for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. 

That’s the gospel, friends!

It’s like this…

In 1689 the city of Windsor, England, commissioned the famed architect Sir Christopher Wren, who designed St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, to design a new town hall for the city. And so Wren completed his design—except there was one small problem.

You see, the city fathers wanted their meeting rooms to be above a “corn market”—an open space for farmers and others to display and sell their products. But when they inspected the new building they were worried. Wren had used a new technique for supporting the ceiling above the corn market—a technique that required no pillars, except on the edges of the market space.

Do you get the picture? Imagine a vast room that has a ceiling, with meeting rooms on the floor above the ceiling… lots of people walking on top of it, in other words. That’s a lot of weight bearing down on the ceiling! How could this building support all that weight without pillars holding it up? What would stop the ceiling from collapsing on top of the people in the corn market below? And killing people? To the city fathers and others, it seemed obvious that the ceiling of the corn market would soon fall unless… they supported it with these additional pillars!

So the city fathers insisted that Wren add four pillars in the middle of the corn market to support the floor of their meeting rooms above. 

And Wren hated the idea! It would not only ruin the aesthetics of the room… But even more, it was just completely unnecessary! Who knows more about designing a sound building? Christopher Wren… or a bunch of amateurs like these city fathers?

Reluctantly, however, Wren gave in. He added the pillars as they demanded!

Except… Christopher Wren got the last laugh. 

Years after the celebrated corn market building was dedicated, the ceiling needed to be re-painted. When workers built scaffolding to reach the ceiling they noticed something: Those four pillars, which the city fathers insisted were necessary to support the weight of the ceiling, didn’t quite reach the ceiling… Wren left a tiny gap, maybe an inch or less, between the ceiling and the pillars… unnoticeable to the people on the floor below… It was his way of telling the skeptics that they were wrong… that they were placing their confidence, their faith, their hope, in the wrong thing. 

It was as if Wren were saying, “Don’t base your confidence in these phony pillars, these false supports—which, as you see, accomplished nothing; they don’t do anything to keep you safe and secure… No… Trust in the master architect. He knows what he’s doing!

And so we must trust in Christ to save us, not in our own efforts!

Doing what Jesus says to do in verse 27—“to bear one’s cross and follow Jesus”… It doesn’t mostly mean doing something that’s really hard… No, it mostly means trusting in Christ to do what would otherwise be impossible for us. Let me repeat that: Bearing one’s cross and following Jesus doesn’t mostly mean doing a difficult thing. It mostly means trusting in Christ to do an otherwise impossible thing—for us, on our behalf. Only Christ lived the life of perfect obedience to his Father that we are unable to live. Only Christ died the God-forsaken death that we deserved to die.

So if, when we reach the end of our lives, we were able to look back over our history and see all the good and the bad that we’ve done, we would all see how much less than 100 percent we’ve given to Christ. But if we are in Christ, when we stand before God in final judgment, God will not see it that way. God will look upon us as if we have given one-hundred percent…because his Son did for us what we were unable to do for ourselves!

But, but, but… I can’t leave it there… There’s more good news: as we learn to trust in Jesus in this way, he will empower us by his Spirit to do what would otherwise be impossible—he will enable us—even us—to give a hundred percent! That’s because our Lord is changing our hearts; he is remaking our hearts; he’s in the process of giving us new hearts!

Many people were inspired last week by this tweet—including my friend Glenn Peoples from New Zealand, a Christian apologist and philosopher who retweeted it. It was originally tweeted by a retired Scottish clergyman, who’s now in the final stages of terminal cancer. He wrote these words last Tuesday:

Dying Update. God is good and gracious and merciful. My time is coming. No longer eating. Tired weary. Weak. All as expected. Lived longer than predicted. Doubt I’ll see September out. But it’s ok. As I said to the doctor on Monday it’s not a bad way to go, this cancer is ok. All for God

All for God… Even his dying is for God! 

That’s a hundred percent! That’s a hundred percent! That’s what it looks like! That’s a love for Jesus that puts all earthly loves to shame! I don’t know how many years it took this dear brother in Christ to get to this point in his own life, but I’ll guarantee you this: there was a time earlier in his life when these words he’s speaking now would have seemed impossible to him. But the Holy Spirit changed his heart. The Holy Spirit gave him a new heart!

I want what this man has! I want a heart like his! I want to do the impossible! 

Don’t you?

Dear Lord, Let us love you like this! Let us trust you like this! Change our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit so that we can! Amen.

  1.  Stanley Hauerwas, “The Radical Hope,” in The Hauerwas Reader (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001), 505-518. Paraphrased.
  2. James 2:9
  3.  Mike McKinley, Luke 12-24 for You (Charlotte, NC: Good Book Co., 2017), 52.

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