A Question of Priorities
With the Olympics in Athens on the horizon in 2004, Ian Thorpe was training for his swimming events. I had read that he has a training schedule of 20 hours a week in the pool and 3 hours a week in the gymnasium. That is his minimum amount of training per week. For him to have any chance against the world’s best he needs to have one focus, to make sacrifices, reorder his priorities and be single-minded, determined and committed to being the best in the world. Without that determination and perseverance he would soon tire of the routine and his ability to be the best would soon fade.
This is the extent to which people are prepared to go in pursuit of the glory of winning a contest of human strength and agility. It’s tough trying to be the best in the world – but if you want an Olympic medal then that’s the way it has to be.
The reading from Luke 9:57-57 is also tough. In a nutshell Jesus is saying that if you want to be a disciple, if you want to respond to Jesus call to "follow" then be ready for some tough decisions and demanding actions.
A man comes up to Jesus and says, "I will follow you wherever you go." That’s quite a promise. No matter where Jesus went, he was prepared to be there right beside him. The answer that Jesus gave must have flawed not only the enthusiastic man but also those who had been quite impressed with this man eagerness to be a follower. Jesus throws a wet blanket on the enthusiasm of that first would-be disciple when he says: "Foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lie down and rest." And that is right, we never hear of Jesus being "at home" during his ministry, or "going home" after a heavy day of miracles and teaching. He is always on the move, helping people in their needs, finding little rest, going from this place to the next.
Jesus tells the man who is dead keen on following Jesus that being a disciple is more important than personal security and comfort. It is true a basic human need is having a place to live – a place where we find support from those we love, where we find refuge and help, a place of security and safety where we can rest and relax and be ourselves. Jesus isn’t denying the fact that we all need a place to call home. He is pointing out that being a follower is not comfortable and easy. In fact, if we find discipleship cosy and easy then there is sure to be something wrong with our commitment and obedience. A part of the difficulty in following Jesus is this - there is nothing more important than following.
When Peter, James and John left the security of their jobs as fishermen and the comfort of their homes to follow Jesus, they risked everything to follow him, they took him at his word,
they took the leap of faith and trusted Jesus to care for them as they followed him. Later they committed themselves to Jesus and went throughout the world preaching the good news of forgiveness, spending a good deal of time not in warm homes but in dark and damp dungeons. At the time Jesus called them, they had no idea of what was ahead of them. Their future, their security and their home was in the hands of the one who called them.
Like the athlete, the disciple must be ready to make personal sacrifices. It may mean giving up what we regard as comfortable and cosy in our lives or in the church in order to show the love of Christ and to proclaim the kingdom of God. To carry out the work of Christ, we are most likely to be challenged to do something that we have never done before, help people we have never considered helping in the past, tell about the love of Jesus to people whom we have always been afraid to tell, talk to someone even though we don’t have a clue who they are or what we will talk about, risk our reputation by sticking up for what is right or befriending someone whom everyone else think is a loser.
The call to follow Jesus means take a risk, to step out boldly for the sake of the love of Jesus.
The second would-be disciple responds to the call of Jesus with: "Sir, first let me go back and bury my father." This request seems reasonable enough. This man has a sense of human responsibility. And not only that, he knows what the law requires of him - he is to care for his aging father and to see that he is given a proper funeral. Even the high priest was allowed to interrupt his duties to carry out his duties to his family.
Again Jesus is saying that to follow him is the most important priority that we have. The world’s athletes right now are focussed on only one thing – that is winning a medal – preferably a gold medal. Jesus told this would-be disciple "Let those who have no interest in following me bury the dead. You go and proclaim the Kingdom of God." Jesus is telling this person that nothing on earth, no matter how sacred, must be allowed to stand between him and the person he calls to follow. Don’t put off following Jesus, being obedient to his call to serve him until another day. Don’t we use excuses like
"I’ll do more when I’m retired and have more time",
"when the kids are off my hands",
"when things slow down at work",
"when I have a bit more spare time",
"when we’ve paid off the house".
Jesus is calling us now to obedience. Who knows, there may not be a tomorrow for us. He’s calling us to do the work he has given us as the church and members of the church right now. Discipleship is a matter of getting your priorities right.
There is no place for conflicting loyalties when we travel with Christ! This is what Jesus told the third would-be disciple who said: "I will follow you, sir; but first let me go and say goodbye to my family." This third would-be disciple is making terms - "I will follow, but first...." It’s a bit like Ian Thorpe saying to his coach, "Yes, I’ll be there at practice but let me first eat these 6 cream buns and the delicious chocolate cake that my mum made for me. Then I have a TV appearance to make and then model my designer swimwear. But be sure I am coming." I’m sure his coach would not be impressed by this kind of commitment.
Jesus isn't interested in half-hearted or undecided or conditional discipleship. Jesus is only interested in an unconditional acceptance of his call. It’s important to see that Jesus isn’t saying that we should neglect our families, spouses, or work and use our devotion to church activities as a substitute for being at home with our families. What Jesus is implying is that when you follow me as first priority then you will be a better father, mother, grandparent, son or daughter, or employee.
Ian Thorpe must give priority to his training and follow his coach’s instructions with dedication and perseverance if he wants to win gold medals. But even more important than winning gold medals is the call to follow Jesus. When we are called to "follow" then we must be careful of our priorities.
It’s worth noting that the true conflict we face when called to follow Jesus is not a conflict between what we love and what we ought to hate. Rather the conflict that arises is between what we love. Giving priority to those things we love over against what we hate – that’s easy. What is tough about following Jesus is giving Jesus priority over the things and people we love.
When thinking about our discipleship and reordering our priorities, putting first things first, it is tempting for us to draw up a list of priorities with discipleship being the most important among a whole lot of other important priorities. But that is not what Jesus is saying here at all. The call to follow Jesus is the priority over all other priorities.
When discipleship is the only priority, when it is the only and the most important thing in our lives, then all the other things will fall into their right places. It is wonderfully true, that when we make the radical leap of faith and commit ourselves to a life of following Jesus, and I really mean, responding to his single-minded and unswerving love for us with a discipleship that is single minded and unswerving, then all the other important things in our lives find their right places.
At this point I wonder if you feel the same as I do when talking about this whole matter of following Jesus and giving that our first priority.
Do you get an uncomfortable feeling when Jesus is so straight to the point, so blunt, and talks about total and complete unconditional loyalty to him?
Do you squirm a bit when you hear Jesus talking about following because the question that inevitably follows is– "how well have I followed Jesus?"
I have heard his call, what has been my response?
How often have I offered all kinds of excuses, rather than obediently following my master when he calls "follow me"?
Our sinful nature gets in the way of truly following Jesus with all our heart, soul and mind. It is just for those times when we get our priorities all mixed up and upside down that Jesus died on the cross. Daily we need to go to Jesus in repentance and own up to our failure when we offer so many excuses and put the most important things last. Daily we need to experience the cleansing that Jesus gives through forgiveness and reconciliation. Daily we need a fresh realisation of the never-ending love that Jesus has for us.
And as we are forgiven, we are again called to “follow him” and offer the commitment and dedication that comes as a response to all that Jesus has done for us.
If an athlete can make personal sacrifices, reorder his priorities, and commit himself completely to winning a medal at the Olympics, then surely, we can do the same as we run for a much greater prize - eternal life.
May we respond to his calling with confidence because of his faithfulness to help us in the tasks he calls us to carry out whether they be big or small, spectacular or mundane. He can use us in all kinds of ways to call others to follow Jesus. He has given his Spirit to work in and through those who answer his call to follow.
The Dangers of a Shallow Faith - A W Tozer
Vince Gerhardy Blog
Broken but Blessed - Rebekah Domer
Encounters with Jesus - Timothy Keller
Brave by Faith - Alistair Begg
Winning the War in Your Mind - Craig Groeschel
Counter Culture – David Platt