Luke 14. 25-33 Jesus’ Show Stopper Challenge
The Great British Bake Off. It’s one of those TV programmes that a lot of blokes, me included, love to scoff at – “oh no, you’re not watching that again” – but then you pause at the door, take a closer look at the Viennese whirls or apple pies being prepared and before you know it, you’ve been sucked into a world of puff pastry, chocolate ganache and soggy bottoms.
And so it was that I found myself this week watching GBBO as the contestants faced this week’s Show-Stopper Challenge – to say something about themselves in a 3-dimensional gingerbread story, which had to be at least 30cm tall and have at least 8 characters or objects. The contestants gamely rose to the challenge: we had Louise making a gingerbread model of the church where she would be getting married next month; we had Benjamina and her gingerbread Chrysler building from New York; we had Andrew and his gingerbread bridge and punting scene from his time as a student in Cambridge; and we had Candice, who made her parent’s pub in which she had grown up, complete with pool table and sticky gingerbread carpet representing the sticky beer soaked carpet she remembered as a girl.
What was really striking was that the contestants who did best had prepared and planned best. Andrew is an engineer and he carefully measured and cut out the 37 different gingerbread pieces which would go into his creation; the programme for baking the pieces was meticulously planned and – lo and behold – he was among the winners. But poor Louise, who just cut out a few shapes and went for it, found that the walls and roof of her gingerbread church just wouldn’t hold together and at the end of the 4 hours she presented the judges with – well, a gingerbread disaster.
Today, Luke’s gospel presents us with, in Great British Bake Off terms, Jesus’ Show-Stopper Challenge. Jesus is bluntly saying to his followers and to us: “Look – it won’t be easy to come with me, to be my disciple, so you need to come into it with your eyes open. You need to be prepared for what’s involved.”
So he tells two little stories to illustrate the point. In the first, a man thinking of building a watchtower must do the calculations in advance to make sure that the whole project is feasible, otherwise leaving the building half-finished will make him the subject of mockery among his neighbours.
And, secondly, if you’re a king going out to make war, you do your homework, get your intelligence right – you make sure that your opponent isn’t coming at you with twice the number of soldiers, otherwise you’ll have to lose face by negotiating for peace.
Being a disciple of Jesus means being willing to carry the cross, however that may present itself to each of us. It won’t always be an easy ride, says Jesus, and it’s not meant to be. You have to recognise that and you must be prepared for that. You need to know that being a Christian isn’t just about saying you believe in what God has done to bring us into relationship with him through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Of course that belief is fundamental and essential to our faith, but things don’t stop there. Christianity is about a way of being, of living, of doing things differently because, as Paul puts it, we now live in and for Christ, not solely for ourselves. We have a new way of seeing things, of being of living, of doing and that changes our priorities.
And that’s not an easy thing and don’t kid yourselves that it might be, says Jesus. It will involve now, as then, indifference, opposition and sometimes ridicule from others, and sometimes struggles with doubt and with ourselves. It will involve making God a priority in our lives and that may involve making some difficult life choices and sacrifices. Like it or not, that’s what true discipleship entails. And if it doesn’t have these things, says Jesus, in this hard-hitting passage, then it just ain’t real.
But Jesus doesn’t leave us to flounder. We have the encouragement, the comfort, the empowering, of God’s Holy Spirit to help us become more like Jesus. We have the love, support and encouragement of our fellow disciples – us, here, gathered this morning – to help us along the way. But we do need to understand what we’re getting into and we do need to be prepared and, if you like, trained for the way ahead.
We get that training, that preparation, by making time to be with God – in prayer, in reading the bible, in just making time to rest in his presence and to listen.
Just after the end of the Olympics, I was very struck by a feature on TV about a young girl of around 13 or so who was determined to represent Team GB in swimming at the next Olympic games in Tokyo. She gets up every morning, whatever the season, at 4.30am so as to be able to get to the swimming pool and put in couple of solid hours of hard training before breakfast and school. She trains again most evenings after school and again at the weekends if she is not travelling the country to attend high level swimming competitions. And around this, she somehow fits in her schooling and homework, family and friends. But the number one priority for her and her family is swimming – she is utterly focussed on that and her goal of swimming in the Olympics.
And that means making choices about lifestyle and it means making sacrifices – she can’t just eat anything she wants, she can’t stay up late most nights, she can’t just curl up under the duvet in the morning, no matter how much she may be tempted.
That level of commitment is common of course amongst all those who want to be elite athletes. You can’t succeed without it. It involves being willing to make sacrifices because the goal is seen to be worth it.
Sacrifice sounds scary but actually we’re all used to making choices and sacrifices in our lives. Lots of parents give up big chunks of their weekends to transport their children to sports fixtures at all levels. Lots of career-minded folks put in very long hours in jobs they don’t always love, in order to achieve financial reward, to secure their futures or, sometimes, just to make ends meet. Lots of people give up time to look after aged or infirm relatives. Lots of parents make financial sacrifices in order to fund school or university education for their children. We’re all used to making choices and sacrifices.
I’m not, of course, criticising any of these choices. We all make them. But what I do want us to consider for a moment is why we make these and other sacrifices. The reason, of course, is that these things are important to us – so important that we choose to make them a priority. We sacrifice according to our priorities. Psychologists tell us that we actually value more highly those things for which we sacrifice. As Jesus says in another challenging passage we read in Luke’s gospel a few weeks back: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also”.
These things which drive our choices and sacrifices come from a desire deep down in our hearts. Why would we as Christians want to make them? Because we recognise that aligning our lives with God is to receive life in all its fullness, to live as we were intended to live. That’s a prize worth grasping, better than an Olympic medal, and it’s going for free. And because in our love of God, we simply want to give him the best and to give him the best we sometimes have to let go of other things.
Of course, we can’t make ourselves change our priorities, we can’t force ourselves to make sacrifices for God by sheer effort of will. Those things only come when we recognise that our whole way of life, our whole being, has changed from within. Then we are simply responding to the love and grace which God has first shown us.
In today’s gospel passage Jesus challenges his disciples. He’s saying that the kingdom of God he proclaims and the kingdom life he models should be a priority for us, actually the priority in the way we live. Jesus asks his followers then and now to sacrifice. He uses what seems to us to be hard and almost brutal language – talking about being willing to hate parents, children, brothers and sisters, even life itself – but we mustn’t take that too literally and out of context. Rather, Jesus is deliberately using hyperbolic language – grossly exaggerating – in order to put over an important point. That point is that the life of a disciple requires a willingness, when the crunch comes, to put our allegiance to Jesus and his way of living our lives first, before anything else.
Jesus’ Show –Stopper Challenge is a tough one. But we don’t take it on alone, and we don’t have to do it all in one leap. It’s like what we were saying a few weeks back about faith. It doesn’t matter how much faith we have, more that we have the right direction of travel, motivated by a desire to follow Christ. It’s the same with all this talk of sacrifice. If like the teenage swimmer we have our sights on a clear target – in our case going deeper with Jesus – then our preparation, our training, takes us gradually towards the goal, faltering step by faltering step.
So this week I want to ground the Show –Stopper Challenge for us. Will you, with me, consider before God one sacrificial step to reflect your love for him, to deepen your relationship with him, to be a better disciple for him? That could be looking at your financial giving to the mission and ministry of the church – both here in the benefice and wider afield. It could be looking at the time you give to God each day in prayer or reading the bible or just resting in his presence.
Ask yourself: Is following the way of Jesus really a priority or have I let other things shove him down the pecking order? Do I care about that? If I do can I pledge to do something tangible about it this week? What might I have to sacrifice to make that happen? Am I willing to make that sacrifice?
Are we up to the Show –Stopper Challenge? God has made his choice. In his infinite love he has made us his priority and sacrificed all for us. If we want to show our love for God, shouldn’t we go and do likewise?