A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on March 13, 2011.
O Lord, you know what is best for us. You know which of our prayers are in accordance with your desires. You know which ones are voiced out of selfishness or blindness or even our limited knowledge. So we ask that you give us as much as you will and give it all when you know it to be best for us. Do with us as you know what needs to be done. Do with us in all ways that would bring glory to your name. We confess that you are our Lord and we are servants of your will. Put us where we need to be and send us where we need to go. Place before us those to whom we might minister in your name and grant them your grace. We confess that we do not find this an easy prayer. We would prefer to make requests for our families, our jobs, our worries, our anxieties, for the things that take first place in our minds, but we have pledged to follow you and your Son, and in this Lenten season, we re-commit ourselves to you and your leadership once again. We do this both because you are Lord and because we know it is where our true blessing will be found. We also pray today for those around the world who have been affected by tragedy, for those whose lives have been torn asunder by the tsunami. We find ourselves wanting to help and not knowing what to do. So we lift up all these to you and ask that your love would mend their lives. Bless those who are displaced from their homes. We pray that you would grant hope to those who long for missing ones to be found. Bless children who are orphaned and parents who are frantic with missing children. Comfort each one. May your spirit descend on them as gentle as a dove and as strong as your right hand. Grant courage and endurance to those who rescue. Grant wisdom to those who lead. Grant faith to us all. In Christ’s name. Amen.
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside. He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.
—Albert Schweitzer in Quest for the Historical Jesus
I am going to start off with a Bible test today. Don’t worry. I will not be taking up your papers or asking you to write it down. Do you know what miracle Jesus performs the most in the New Testament? The feeding of the multitudes is recorded as an individual story most often. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all record feeding of the five thousand. Matthew and Mark both have an extra feeding—the feeding of four thousand. There are six stories of miraculous feeding in the New Testament. If you are looking at sheer numbers of times that Jesus performs a particular type of miracle it would be healing. In the ancient days, people often associated evil with illness and sometimes exorcism was casting out illness as well. Definitely illness and curing illness would be No. 1.
Do you know what Jesus taught about most? The answer is money. More than heaven and hell combined, more than prayer, Jesus talked about money, particularly our relationship to our money.
Someone has done the calculation. I have not had a chance to do the math myself, and I am not sure exactly how to do it. One out of seven verses in the Gospel of Luke is about our relationship to money. Eleven out of thirty-nine parables are about our relationship to money.
Do you know what command Jesus gives to us more than any other? Some are very familiar to us like turn the other cheek, but that is only mentioned once. There are other commands. There are three different accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke where someone says, “What is the greatest commandment?”and Jesus answered, “You shall love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength, and the second is like unto it, love your neighbor as yourself.” There are three accounts of probably the similar story, but the command that is given most often, over 20 times in the four Gospels, is very simple: Follow me.
It is the first word that he speaks to Peter. In Mark 1, there by the Sea of Galilee as Andrew and Peter are mending their nets, Jesus comes by and simply says, “Follow me.”
In the 21st chapter of John, after the resurrection when they have met there on the beach, and the disciples there have been given their orders about what they are to do, Peter is protesting a little bit. The last thing Jesus says to him is, “Follow me.” In between all that is Peter’s following of Jesus Christ until Christ ascends, and then the following continues.
Jesus comes and offers the command to so many. He comes to Levi who is a tax collector and he is there in the tax office collecting money. Jesus walks by and says, “Follow me.” Levi gets up and follows him.
Jesus comes to James and John who are also about the family business of fishing. Jesus says to them, “Follow me,” and they get up and leave their boat and follow him.
In the story from John 1:42-51, Jesus comes to Philip and he says, “Follow me,” and immediatelyPhilip begins to participate in the work of Jesus.
I don’t know about you, but I wish I knew more about the way it happened. There is so much here that appears that Jesus just comes along and there is an incredibly power of presence where Jesus walks up, sees these people at their work, and says, “Follow me,” and they get up and they go. There was no indication that there had been any relationship before.
Galilee is really a very small area and it is not that far from village to village. We know that Jesus later in the Gospel of John will go to a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee which is not that far from Nazareth. There is no reason to believe that he might not have already done this. Jesus’ father was a carpenter and we know that Jesus took up the carpenter trade. Perhaps he and Joseph had delivered goods that they made in their shop to Bethsaida or Capernaum. Maybe he had attended other family gatherings in some of the other small towns.
We know already that as a small child when Jesus’ parents took him to Jerusalem, the elders in the temple were amazed at the questions he asked and the answers he gave in response to their questions. Isn’t is possible that as Jesus was on other trips like this before his ministry began that there was a group of young men who gathered around the fringes of the wedding festivities and engaged in conversation about the things of God and they were amazed already at Jesus and his perception. Maybe this is the day they have been waiting for, a day they knew would come somewhere in their heart of hearts. They knew the day would come when Jesus comes and stands off to the side and they see him as they are mending nets, collecting taxes or whatever they do, and the time has come. He looks at them and says, “Follow me.” They have known that they would need to do it. When he came and asked, they knew they would need to go.
We have this impression that somehow in the First Century it would be simpler to leave everything you have and just get up and go, but this isn’t simple. We know that some of those who were fishers were involved in family business. The family was counting on them. How were they going to go out and man the boats, cast the nets, and bring the catch back if two members of the family are gone? They are leaving their family in a lurch.
We know that they have families so we also know that part of the family livelihood was probably going to be missing. How would the family eat if they were all following Jesus and they are not there helping with the other things to do?
We know that Peter had a family. In Mark, he tells us that Jesus healed his mother-in-law so we know he was married and that his mother-in-law was living in the house. Peter had a family. They left everything. Jesus said, “Come, follow me,” and they got up, they left, and they followed him.
Later in one of the teachings, Peter says to Jesus, “Master, we left it all. We have left everything. What about us?” Jesus acknowledges that they have sacrificed. This is a clear, decisive word that Jesus brings to us all. It reminds me of Mark Twain who said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me. It’s the parts that I do.” This is something that everybody can understand. Follow me.
Christians have had a tendency over the centuries to argue about some of the craziest things. Early on, there was a very serious argument about how many fingers to hold when a blessing is given. Theologians really did argue about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. We argue about which denomination gets you to heaven and which one will get you left behind. All of these things are so much easier to focus on than the clear command of Jesus Christ that says, “Follow me.” Wouldn’t we rather argue about denominations or angels on the head of a pin than to have to make the decision about whether or not we will do like Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Levi, and the others who heard the call and knew there are nothing else to do but to follow.
Jesus comes and says the word to us, “Follow me.” When a person says, “Follow me,” they know where they are going. If a Boy Scout leader is taking a troop camping and they are looking for the campsite and the leader says, “Follow me,” he knows where he is going. If you go to one of the large super stores and you are looking for plumbing supplies to fix the toilet at home and you ask a clerk and they say, “Follow me,” they know where the plumbing supplies are. When someone says, “Follow me,” they know where they are going. Jesus knows.
The word in Greek for follow is also related to the word for road. We understand that if we follow, we know we are on the road, the path, the journey for Jesus.
Before Christians were called Christians, before followers of Christ bore that name, before people really started calling groups of Christians churches, we read in the Book of Acts that they were called The Way, because they were on the way with Jesus. If we pay attention to where Jesus leads, we are always seeing that Jesus is leading us forward. Read the scriptures and see how little Jesus cares about the past. See how little Jesus cares about what has already happened.
In the Book of John, we read about the woman who was caught in adultery. It says, she was caught “in the very act of adultery.” So they drag her out of the house and they bring her there wrapped in a sheet or whatever she could gather around her. Jesus doesn’t say, “What do you think you are doing?” He says, “Go, and sin no more.”
Nicodemus comes to Jesus locked in his legalism and starts to debate theology and Jesus says, “Wait a minute. You need to be born again.”
One of the most familiar parables of Jesus is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Son comes home, and the father doesn’t say, “I told you that you would blow all your money. Where have you been?” The father says, “My son is home. Let’s celebrate.” Jesus is always moving us forward. Do you realize that forgiveness is really not about the past? People often argue whether or not somebody should be forgiven and say, “I can forgive but I can’t forget.” Of course, you can’t forget. Forgiveness does not obliterate the past. If we have been cruel and unkind, if we have been dishonest, if we have broken commitments and promises, forgiveness does not mean all that has gone away. Forgiveness gives us back our future. When God forgives us, it is as if those things never happened in our relationship with God so that, in the future, we can be close to God. It is the same thing when we forgive one another. It doesn’t take it away. No, the memory will linger, but it does give us back our future. Jesus is always leading us forward.
There are two things that Jesus will give to those who will follow. One, is the opportunity to participate in the task. He gives us something to do. Philip is a great example of this and there are others. Jesus says to Philip, “Come, follow me,” and immediately Philip is about the work. He goes and finds Nathaniel and says, “We have found the Master.” This is what Andrew does with Peter in John. They all begin to participate in the work of telling people about the love of God in Jesus Christ. They change a life here and they change a life there, and soon, they have changed enough lives that they change the world.
We always want to say, Everybody can’t leave. Everybody can’t go off, but there are things that each of us can do in our daily lives. There are things that young people can do as they choose their vocations. There are things that any of us can do at particular junctions in our lives that participate in the work of Jesus Christ when we follow him.
There is one other thing he offers. He offers us the opportunity to see the glory of God. Nathaniel is really impressed because Jesus knew he was under the fig tree without seeing him. Jesus said, “Look, that’s nothing. Come, follow me. Very truly I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. Come, follow me and you will see God at work. Come, follow me and you will see the power of God and the goodness of God. Come, follow me and you will have life. Follow me, take on my task, and witness God at work.”
Our theology of the Living Christ and our theology of the Word of God tells us that when Jesus says to Philip, “Come and follow me,” and when he says it 19 or 20 others times, we are not simply reading about when he said it to someone else. The Living Christ speaks from these pages. He calls to me and he calls to you. He calls to each one of us and says, “Come and follow me.” The decision is for each of us, “Will we follow?” How do we do that? How do we follow Christ? Do I have to leave my work and my family? Do I have to sell everything I have and give it to the poor? If I want to follow Jesus Christ, tell me how I can do that?
George McDonald was a great British preacher and a significant influence on the life of C.S. Lewis. George McDonald said, “Do this. Do one thing today because Christ tells you to do it. Do one thing today because Jesus says so.”
Peter says, “Lord, how many times should I forgive my brother?”
Jesus answers, “Seven times seventy.”
It is a number that means forever. In Hebrew culture, it is a word that means you don’t stop. Keep on forgiving.
So today, maybe it is for one of us to forgive. Jesus compliments the widow who gives her mite. Maybe for one of us, it is to give lavishly and generously some way in our lives.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Return good for evil. Bless those who persecute you.” Maybe for one of us that is what we need to do.
Do one thing today simply because Jesus says it or don’t do one thing today. Refrain today from doing one thing because Jesus tells us not to. Don’t retaliate. If someone in your life is at odds with you, do not retaliate. If there is someone in your life that you find difficult to love, don’t hate them. Jesus says, “Love your enemies. Even the pagans love people who love them.” Don’t hate other people.
The call comes to each of us. Come, follow me. Do one thing today just because we know it is what Jesus would have us do. Stop doing one thing today because we know Jesus would have us stop doing it. Then we are on the path, we are on the way, we are participating in the work and who knows where the road will take us tomorrow or the next day or next week.
Twenty times he says, “Follow me.” We know about Andrew, Peter, James, John, Philip, Levi, and a few others. But there are some whose names we do not know because they were busy and preoccupied. The word comes to them and Jesus says, “Come, follow me,” but they have something else to do. What are their names? None of us know. They are simply footnotes in the New Testament about what could have been if they had gone.
Come, follow me and participate in the work of the kingdom and see the glory of God.
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.