Following Jesus is For Losers

            The story is told of a father who was driving down the road and his 5-year-old son was in the backseat.  And the boy says, “Dad, how do you spell God?”  And his father is thrilled.  Because he thinks to himself, “Finally!  After all those nights reading Bible stories, going to church, being a godly example.  Finally, it’s doing some good.  My son really cares about the things of God.”  So, with great pride, he said, “Son, you spell God G-O-D.”  And the little boy said, “Thanks, dad.  Now, how do you spell Zilla?”

            And the point of that story is that sometimes people are not nearly as committed to God as they might appear to be.  And there was an occasion when Jesus came in contact with a man like that.  And we learn from this encounter that Jesus does not accept half-hearted decisions.  The story is found in Luke chapter 18, but before we turn there, let me share with you what I think is the essence of Jesus’ teaching on discipleship.  It’s found in Luke chapter 9. 

            In Luke 9:23-24, Jesus said to his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”  There’s a principle here that I hope you will remember – because it will affect how you understand discipleship.  The principle is this — Following Jesus is for losers. 

            And we have a very hard time accepting that in a culture that likes to quote Vince Lombardi who said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”  We like to win.  And we like winners.  That’s why owners of professional sports teams will give millions of dollars to athletes with horrible character issues.  Because those players help the team to win and we care more about winning than we do about character. 

            And that’s why we came up with the policy that every child gets a trophy.  Because we all like to win!  And, quite honestly, when Jesus began teaching and his movement was gaining momentum, this was the reason that most of the people followed him.  Because they looked at Jesus and they said “This guy’s a winner!  This is the winner we’ve been waiting for.  This man can defeat disease.  He can defeat demons.  He can even defeat death.  We’re confident that he can defeat the Romans and we can finally get the big win we’ve been wanting all these years.”

            In fact, they believed this so much that, on one occasion, Peter felt it necessary to correct Jesus about his mission.  Because Jesus said, “I’m headed to Jerusalem and when I get there I’m going to lose, big time.”  “[I’m going to] suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.” (Matthew 16:21).  And Peter said “Wait a minute, Jesus, we didn’t sign up for that.  This is not going to happen to you!  We signed up for the big win.” 

            But Jesus would not alter his mission to lose his life.  And he wouldn’t change the conditions that he set forth to those who wanted to follow him.  Jesus said, “If you want to follow me, you’re going to have to choose a cross and lose your life.”  And it didn’t matter who it was who came to him.  Every person was given the same decision to make – are you willing to lose your life?  And we read about one of those people who approached him in Luke 18.

            By all appearances, this young man was a winner.  He had youth, he had power, he had money.  In fact, we call him the rich, young ruler.  And, on top of everything else, he had good morals.  He was a winner.  This is the kind of guy you want your daughter to meet when she goes off to college.  This is the kind of guy who, when he and his family visit a church, the preacher gets all excited and he says, “I sure hope he places membership here.”  You want this guy!  He is a winner. 

            He has influence, he has wealth, he has good morals, but strangely enough, he doesn’t seem to be certain of his standing with God.  And so he comes to Jesus because he feels like something is missing and he wants to know what it is.  In Luke 18:18, “A ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’”

            And Jesus said, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” (Luke 18:20)

            And, at this point, this young man is feeling pretty good.  He said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” (Luke 18:21).   I’ve got that list covered.  I check those things off every day.  This one?  Doing it.  This one?  Doing it.  This one?  Doing it.

            But in verse 22: “When Jesus heard this, he said to him, ‘One thing you still lack.’”  And the young man has got to be thinking to himself, “That’s not too bad.  I need to do hundreds of things to get to heaven, and I’ve done all of them but one thing.  This should be a breeze.  What’s the one thing I need to do?”

            Jesus said, “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22).  Whoa!  This may only be one thing, but it’s a pretty big thing!  Now, you need to understand that this is not really about taking care of the poor.  Jesus is not primarily addressing the issue of charity.  Rather, he is addressing the problem of idolatry.  

            Because this young commandment keeper, who thinks he’s winning that game, has kept the fifth commandment (“check”), he’s kept the sixth commandment (“check”), he’s kept the seventh commandment (“check”), he’s kept the eighth commandment (“check”), and he’s kept the ninth commandment (“check”).

            But what he failed to realize is that he had been violating the first commandment his entire adult life — “you shall have no other gods before me”.  Because this young man was looking to something else to give him what only God can give.  He had been trying to find meaning to his life in his wealth, in his stuff.  And so what Jesus is doing here is, he is identifying the one thing that is keeping this guy from giving his whole heart to God. 

            And that’s why he came to Jesus in the first place.  He knew something was wrong, he knew something was missing.  And Jesus identified what it was.  He said, “You’ve got something in your life that is keeping you from giving your whole heart to God.  So you need to get rid of it.  You need to lose it!  And Jesus invited the rich young ruler to be a loser. 

            But in verse 23, “When he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.”  It is important that you see here that Jesus refused to compromise.  The bottom line for Jesus was whether or not this man would give up everything to follow him.  And when he wasn’t willing to pay that price, you don’t see Jesus chasing him down the road saying, “Wait a minute, maybe you don’t have to give up everything.  Because I really, really want you to be my disciple.”  No, for Jesus, it was everything or nothing.

            We sometimes make that mistake.  We sometimes get so concerned when somebody we love decides not to commit their life to Christ that we’ll do just about anything to get them to make that decision.  And sometimes we end up saying something along the lines of, “Don’t worry, you don’t really have to make any significant changes in your life, you don’t really have to give so much, you don’t have to be so involved, just please decide to follow Jesus.”

            But Jesus says, “No, I want it all.  Everything you have, everything you are, and the terms are non-negotiable.  It’s everything or it’s nothing.”  And when we are given that choice, we can either accept his terms or, like the rich young ruler, we can turn and walk away. 

            Jesus wouldn’t compromise.  Not everybody that met Jesus left a better person.  Sometimes they left a sadder person.  And it made Jesus sad, too.  And so Jesus looked at him and said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!  For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”  For 2,000 years, we have tried to come up with ways to get Jesus to not mean what it sounds like he’s saying.  Because, for most of us, being rich is the goal.  It is the ultimate proof that you are a winner. 

            And so, we want a religion that allows us to keep all of our treasure and give just a bit to God on the side.  But Jesus says “You must embrace my mission with so much allegiance that you are willing to lose anything that is tugging on your heart.”  And this is not just a one-time decision.  We have to make the decision every single day that we are going to be losers.

            Now, the truth of the matter is that everybody is a loser.  Because winning anything significant always involves choosing to lose something else.

            Let me give you an example.  I am not a golfer.  I used to own a set of golf clubs but I finally gave them away because I couldn’t find anybody who wasn’t embarrassed to be seen in public with me on a golf course.  My idea of a good round of golf is if I can find more balls than I lose.  If I can just do that, Suenane will tell you that I come home a happy man!

            So I don’t really play golf.  But I like to watch golf.  I like to watch the PGA tours on TV.  And there are times when I think to myself, “I would love to be able to play golf like those guys.”  But, that’s not really true!   I don’t really want to play golf like them, because I’m not willing to do what you have to do to attain that level of ability.  I’m not.  I’m not willing to lose what it would take to win that skill.

            I heard about a coach of a sports team who was highly respected in his community.  And he talked about the price he paid to be a winning coach.  The hours it took, how it cost him his marriage, it cost him his relationship with his children.  But he has rings on his fingers from championships.  He has the adoration of sports fans in his city.  And, to him, he believes it was worth it.  He was willing to lose everything in his life for his team to win.

            And, whether you realize it or not, every single day, you are making decisions to lose something so that you can win something else.  Maybe you decide to lose sweets, because you want to gain health.  Maybe you decide to lose arguments, because you want to gain a relationship.  We’ve all been there, haven’t we?  Where you’ve been in a contentious situation and you decide that you could win the argument, but if you do, you’ll lose a relationship with this person.  And so you decide it’s not worth it. 

            Some of you made the decision when your children were born to give up a job so that one of you could stay home with the kids. You lost some income, but you gained time with your children and you thought that was worth it. 

            We do this all the time.  Sometimes, people will say to me, “Alan I just wish I had a closer relationship to God.”  The truth is, you can!  But you’re gonna have to give up some things to do that.  You might have to get up early and spend more time in prayer.  You might have to spend more time in the Word of God and less time on your smartphone or watching Netflix. 

            You can gain whatever you want to gain if you’re willing to lose what you have to lose to get it.  And every day, consciously or unconsciously, you make a decision regarding what you are willing to give up, what you are willing to lose.  So the important question is this — Are you making good decisions when it comes to deciding what you’re willing to give up?

            I read a story years ago about Glen Adsit who was a missionary to China in the 1940’s.  He and his family were arrested by the communist regime and they thought they were going to be executed.  They prayed to God that instead of being killed, they would be deported from the country.  And, eventually, they received word that their prayers were answered — they were going to be kicked out of China. 

            They were given instructions to go back to their home and gather what they wanted to take with them – but they were only allowed to take 200 pounds.  And that’s when the argument in the family started.  Because the father wanted his typewriter and all of his precious books and the mother wanted the heirlooms in the home and the children wanted their toys.  And they argued with each other and negotiated and finally they came up with exactly 200 pounds packed in a big trunk. 

            When the soldiers showed up, they asked the father, “Are you ready to leave?”  He said, “Yes.”  They said, “Did you weigh everything?”  He said, “Yes.”  They said, “Did you weigh the children?”  And all of a sudden, everything in that trunk was garbage compared to the combined weight of their two kids. 

            We spend our lives accumulating stuff.  And we think that it’s all very valuable stuff.  We can’t imagine living without it.  But there needs to come a time in our lives when we are forced to acknowledge that it’s all junk compared to those things that really matter.

            Jesus said that what we gain when we follow him is greater than anything we may have to give up.  He told stories like the one in Matthew 13:44, “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”  This man was willing to lose everything.  But he did it “with joy” because he wanted to gain that treasure. 

            Let me tell you about Satan and his great desire for your life.  His goal is not to get you hooked on porn or to become an alcoholic, although that’s certainly one way for him to achieve his great goal.  Because he knows if he can get you hooked on porn or alcohol or sports or your job or television or Facebook, then he can keep you from seeing the importance of following Jesus, and that’s his goal.  Satan wants you to focus on what you’re going to have to give up, if you completely give your life over to Jesus.

            In Luke 18:28, Peter said to Jesus, “See, we have left our homes and followed You.”  Jesus, we’ve given everything up for you.  look at what we gave up.  Look at what we lost.

            And Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Luke 18:29-30).  In other words, don’t worry about what you’ve lost.  Because what you gain will be so much more than what you gave up. 

            When we start getting serious about following Jesus, we tend to worry about what we have to give up.  We start thinking about what we might lose if we whole-heartedly follow Jesus.  But what we fail to see is what we’re losing because of our half-hearted, lukewarm discipleship.  What we end up missing in our lives is Jesus.  Jesus said the rich young ruler, “If you’ll give up everything you own, you can follow me.  You get life with me.”  And that’s why, if there’s some area of obedience that Jesus is calling you to and you’re hesitating because it feels like you’re going to have to give up a lot and it’s making you sad, it means that you don’t really understand the value of being with Jesus. 

            In the Olympic Games today, they always have the marathon at the end of the games, but when the Olympics started, the marathon was often the first event.  And the winner of the marathon got a bouquet of flowers and got to stand beside the king for the rest of the games.  The story is told that one year, the day of the race came and the runners were ready and in came a stranger who was more athletic, stronger, bigger than any of the other runners.  And they were intimidated.  This man was offered money not to run the race.  He was offered property not to run the race.  But he refused all their offers, and he ran, and he won.  He was later asked the question, “Was it worth it to turn down money and property to get flowers?”  And he said, “I didn’t run for the flowers.  I ran to stand beside my king.” 

            You see, Christianity is a religion for losers because losers get Jesus.  And when you truly follow Jesus, you get a new understanding of what it means to win.  Let me give you an example.  In the Bible, there’s this guy named Saul, we call him Paul.  And by the scorecards of his day, he was a bigtime winner.  He said to the Philippians, “I was a Jew of Jews, I was in the tribe of Benjamin, I was a Pharisee” – I mean you just look at everything they said was important – check, check, check.  Paul was a winner.

            But, he said, “Then I met Jesus.”  And he said in Philippians 3:7-8, “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.  Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”  Paul said that he was willing to lose everything to gain Christ.

            Half-hearted decisions for Jesus are really sad.  And I think that’s the best word to use.  It’s just sad that we can get so close to the life that God has for us and still miss it.  Because we think getting Jesus isn’t a big enough win, and so we feel like we need something else.  But Jesus won’t compromise.  He doesn’t care how rich you are, how famous you are, how powerful you are – he won’t compromise.  He wants to know if you are willing to lose everything in order to gain him. 

            In his book On the Anvil, Max Lucado has a chapter entitled, “Now, Don’t Get Carried Away!”  In this chapter, he reflects on Peter who followed Jesus at a distance the night of his trials and, as a result, he denied Jesus three times.  Listen to how Max describes that night:

“Peter was sharp.

            He kept his distance from Jesus.

            ‘I’ll stay close enough to see him,’ Peter reasoned.

            ‘But not too close, or I may get caught.’

Good thinking, Peter.

            Don’t get too involved — it might hurt.

            Don’t be too loyal — you might get branded.

            Don’t show too much concern — they’ll crucify you, too.

We need more men like you, Peter.

            Men who keep religion in its place.

            Men who don’t stir the water.

            Men who reek with mediocrity.

That’s the kind of man God needs, yessir.

            One who knows how to keep his distance:

            ‘Now, I’ll pay my dues and I’ll come once a week,

            but….well…you can get carried away, you know.’

Yes, you can get carried away….

            up a hill

                        to a cross

                                    — and killed.

Mark these words —

            Follow at a distance and you’ll deny the Master.  Period.

            You won’t die for a man you can’t touch.  Period.

            But stay near to him, in his shadow….

            You’ll die with him, gladly.”

            It is true, isn’t it, that we get worried about being “carried away”.  After all, we don’t want to be known as a bunch of fanatics, do we?  But being a member of the Lord’s church is not like being in a social club.  And Chris­tianity is not simply holding the right beliefs or being more holy than every­body else.  It is rather turning one’s entire life over to Jesus Christ.  It is being willing to lose it all.

            And, by the way, Jesus made the same decision for you.  In order for you to have life, Jesus had to lose his.  And that’s what Gethsemane is all about.  He begged his Father, “Is there any other way?”  And he got down on His knees and he sweat and he wrestled and he prayed.  But he decided to lose, so that we can win.

            So, I ask you this morning, what are you willing to lose?  This is the essence of the call of discipleship.  It is the summation of everything that Jesus taught.  What are you willing to lose?

            We started this lesson with a verse in Luke 9:24, “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”  The very next verse reads, “For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?” (Luke 9:25). 

            Some of you may remember a TV show from a few years ago.  The show was called “Everybody Loves Raymond”.  And the star of that show, Ray Romano, made the decision, after a long successful run, to end the show.  It wasn’t because of bad ratings; the networks would have paid him a lot of money to keep the show going.  And so at the taping of the last episode, he explained to the studio audience why he was doing this. He said “15 years ago, I came out to Hollywood.  My brother hugged me and put a note in my suitcase.  And when I got here, I opened it and it just said this:  ‘What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his own soul?’  I’ve been very blessed and I feel like I’ve gained the world.  But now it is time to work on my soul.” 

            Maybe this morning, you’re honest enough to admit that you need to work on your soul.  You need to start by identifying what it is that’s tugging at your heart, what it is that’s keeping you from giving everything to Jesus.  You need to ask God to help you to identify it and to let go of it and to help you see everything you’re missing when you don’t go all in with Jesus.  Choose to lose.  Because it’s the only way to win in the end.

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