Or as Jedi Master Yoda said, “Do. Or do not. There is no ‘try’.” For anything important, anything that really matters, anything that’s truly a challenge, either you abandon yourself to it and you give it all you have, or you’d best walk away and go somewhere else. Otherwise, “squish like grape.” There’s no three ways about it.
This is truest when it comes to following God. That’s why God is very clear—we see it in Moses, and we see it in Jesus—that either you’re striving to follow him with your whole heart and soul and mind and strength, or else you’re not following him at all. Granted, even at our best, the execution is never entirely there; but the intent and the desire and the commitment have to be. Obedience that wants to make an exception at any point isn’t obedience at all.
To many in this world, that seems draconian. Traditional Christianity, they think, piles all sorts of unreasonable demands on people that keep them from expressing themselves and enjoying themselves. That’s because these folks believe the question is how to have your best life now, in this world, as the likes of Joel Osteen put it. Really, they believe life in this world is lived forthis world, and the only real question is how best to live for this world. Unfortunately, there are a great many people in the church these days (like the Osteens) who basically agree with that point of view. Their message, at bottom, is that Christianity gives you a better life in this world—is a better way of living for this world—than the world’s way of doing it.
Jesus, by contrast, tells us it’s not about two different ways of living for this world at all: it’s about living for two different worlds entirely. Either you live for this world, or you live for Jesus and for the next world, when he returns in glory to judge this one. Like Moses, he makes it excruciatingly clear that one of these ways leads to life, and one leads to death, and there is no middle ground between the two.
There are three things I’d like to highlight this morning. First, we need to take the starkness of this choice seriously. Either we’re intentionally choosing God and his life, or else we’re choosing death, whether intentionally or not. To pull from another movie, The Shawshank Redemption[NB: strong language], you either get busy living, or you get busy dying. It’s easy to disbelieve that. It’s easy to think, “I don’t need revival, I don’t need to grow; I’m doing fine just the way I am.” It’s easy to think that our churches don’t need revival. But revival is the work God is doing, whether on a national scale or in one human heart. He sent Jesus so that we might have life, and have it abundantly—growing, overflowing, spilling over into the lives of all those around us. He’s on about making all things new, including us—and we aren’t all new yet.
Second, Moses says, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse,” but Jesus makes it clear those choices don’t look the way we think they do. What is the way of life? It’s to lose your life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel. The way of life is to deny yourself and walk with Jesus on the road to the cross. This is no mere metaphor about putting up with something unpleasant; as the New Testament scholar Craig Keener puts it, “In Jesus’ day ‘taking up the cross’ meant being forced to bear the instrument of one’s execution past a jeering mob to the site of one’s imminent death as a condemned criminal,” nothing less. To this world, that looks like choosing death rather than life, because to do that is to choose the life of the new world coming, the life of the kingdom of God, overthe life of this world. That’s what Jesus calls us to do.
Three, that includes every part of life, including what we do with our money. As the Psalmist makes clear, you can’t buy anything of eternal value by storing up riches in this world. You can win a lot of praise from others in this life, but you’re only pouring all your time and effort into gathering things you won’t be able to keep. Wise or foolish, rich or poor, everyone dies, and everyone leaves all their stuff behind. You can’t beat that rap with money, no matter how hard you try. If we would choose the life of God, we need to remember the wisdom of the late missionary Jim Elliot: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose.” We can’t keep it because it isn’t really ours, it’s God’s; he’s just letting us use it for a while. If we use it to serve ourselves, we’ll lose it, because we’ll have nothing of it left in the end. If we use it to serve God, we store up for ourselves the true riches of the kingdom of God, which will be truly and eternally ours.
This life and this world are gifts, but not gifts to be used for their own sake. Our lives and everything we have—our possessions, our talents, our skills, our learning—are gifts to be used for God by serving the world. We’re going to lose them all in the end; the only question is how, and why. If we lay down our lives in sacrifice to this world, we may gain everything we desire, but we’ll arrive at the end and leave it all behind with nothing to show for it. If we lay our lives down in service to this world in sacrifice to God, we may have little or much to show for it in this world, but that’s not where the meaning of our lives will lie. In the end, we’ll lose nothing of importance but gain everything of value, because we will have invested our lies in the Eternal One who is making all things new.
If this is true of us as individual followers of Jesus, how much more is it true of the church, which is his body in this world! But while the church ought to be an outpost and signpost in this world of the one that is to come, many churches are run for this world. Many even make it a point of emphasis. “The church is a business and should be run as a business,” they say. No, it isn’t, and no, it shouldn’t. The New Testament uses a lot of images to describe the church; its human authors could have used the language of business if they’d wanted to. They didn’t, and it wasn’t an oversight.
The New Testament calls the church the people of God, the family of God, the body of Christ, the temple of God, God’s field, and the bride of Christ. These are largely organic and relational images which emphasize three things: the church belongs absolutely to God, God gives it life and keeps it alive, and God makes it grow. This is entirely opposed to the idea of the church as a business, which tells us that we are responsible to keep the church alive and make it grow by our efforts, and that the success of our stewardship can be determined by whether we keep the church in business and whether we make it grow. The Bible tells us that whether the church grows or even stays in existence in this world is entirely God’s business and his call. We are responsible to spend our treasure in this world to build up treasure in and for his kingdom in the next, and let God worry about keeping up our supply.
Jesus closes this passage with these words: “If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” I’ve always mentally separated that verse from the ones before it and figured this is about evangelism, but I realized this week there’s a lot more to it. Yes, it applies to evangelism, but that isn’t the context. The context is the gospel imperative to deny ourselves and follow Jesus on the way of the cross, to lay down our lives for him and for the gospel. The context is his declaration that doing so is the only way to true life.
Being ashamed of Jesus and his words isn’t just failing to share our faith with unbelievers, as important as that is. It’s also trying to soften or to ignore the specific challenge he gives in this passage. Jesus lays down a clear line, right over top of the one Moses laid down before: either we live for God and his kingdom, or we live for this world, and living for him is an absolute, life on the line, go big or go home commitment. If we insist on living for this world even a little, we aren’t living for him at all. Denying that, or trying to find some way to soften it, is to show ourselves to be ashamed of him and of his words.