School starts in a couple of days, so I thought it might be fun to start today off with a test. Don’t worry, it will be a fun test. I’m going to show you a whole bunch of pictures. Your job is to take a look at each person and tell me whether or not they look like a follower of Jesus Christ. Ready? Let’s go.
Various pictures of people – some reading the Bible, praying; a pastor; some with tattoos and piercings
That wasn’t too hard, was it? Every day, we look at people and make assumptions about who they are and what they believe based on their appearance. Most of the time, our assumptions hold up. If you asked somebody carrying a Bible and walking into church about their relationship with Jesus, you might get an intelligent answer. I don’t recommend this, but if you go to a woman dressed a certain way on a street corner downtown and ask her about her relationship with Jesus, you may get a different answer.The result is that we define a list of markers that tell us who’s in and who’s out. For instance: if you get pierced in certain places, or tattooed, you’re out. If you go to church and read the Bible, you’re in.After a while, we forget that these markers are just assumptions. They begin to become important. They become ironclad rules and ways to view everyone we come in contact with. The problem is: the markers are bogus. They’re dead wrong. As we’re about to find out today, these markers may lead us to wrong conclusions about others, and even more dangerously, about ourselves.Let’s look together at Matthew 21 today. I’m going to read a story that every parent can relate to. It starts in verse 28:
28″But what do you think about this? A man with two sons told the older boy, ‘son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ 29The son answered, ‘No, I won’t go,’ but later he changed his mind and went anyway. 30Then the father told the other son, ‘You go,’ and he said, ‘Yes, sir, I will.’ But he didn’t go. 31Which of the two was obeying his father?”They replied, “The first, of course.”Then Jesus explained his meaning: “I assure you, corrupt tax collectors and prostitutes will get into the Kingdom of God before you do. 32For John the Baptist came and showed you the way to life, and you didn’t believe him, while tax collectors and prostitutes did. And even when you saw this happening, you refused to turn from your sins and believe him.”
When Jesus told this story, the eldest son had twice the privilege of any other child. He would inherit a double portion of the estate. Essentially, the father was telling him: “Son, you know you’re getting the lion share of what I have. I need your help in looking after your future estate.” What’s shocking is how gruff his response is. It’s completely lacking in respect. There’s no politeness or regret shown. It’s a simple refusal. It would have been shocking for a son to be that disrespectful in the culture Jesus was addressing.The second son didn’t have the same vested interest in the estate, but his answer was a lot more respectful. He said, “Yes, sir, I will.” He spoke well, but he didn’t follow through. Jesus then asks the question, “Which of the two was obeying his father?”Let’s think about that for a minute. On one hand, you’ve got the son who showed his father no respect, but who at least did what the father asked in the end. On the other hand, you’ve got the son who showed great respect for the father, but didn’t follow through. Who’s the better son? The first one. Jesus then looks at the group of religious leaders – the group that had been trying to trip him up and discredit them – and says something that they would have found incredibly offensive and disturbing. I’ll read what he said from the Message paraphrase:
Jesus said, “Yes, and I tell you that crooks and whores are going to precede you into God’s kingdom. 32John came to you showing you the right road. You turned up your noses at him, but the crooks and whores believed him. Even when you saw their changed lives, you didn’t care enough to change and believe him. (Matthew 21:31-32)
There you’ve got a group of people who had all the right markers to identify them as followers of God. If you asked the religious leaders if they attended synagogue, they would have said, “Absolutely. We never miss. We even go when we’re sick.” If you asked them if they studied God’s Word, they would have said, “Every day. We love to study God’s Word.” If you asked them if they obey it, they would have said, “We make a career out of obeying God’s Word. We’ve even set our standards higher than what it requires. We don’t just read it, we live it.” Yet when Jesus stood before them, he told them that they were like the second son, who said all the right things but did not listen to the father. Despite all the right markers, they completely missed the point.I hope you’re catching the significance of that. We have a lot in common with this group. We read the Bible, we go to church, we try to obey the Bible. Yet Jesus says we can completely be off base in our efforts to follow him.Then he refers to this other group. He calls them crooks and whores. If you asked them when they attend synagogue, they’d probably say, “Not very often. Don’t fell too welcome there.” If you asked them about their Bible knowledge, they might lose every sword drill going. If you asked them how they obeyed the Bible, you’d probably get a long list of all that they’ve done to mess up. If you asked them if they were faithful followers of God, they might even look down at the ground in embarrassment. Yet Jesus says that these crooks and whores are going to precede the religious people into God’s kingdom.On the Day of Judgment, I think of the religious leaders trying to make their way to the front of the line. “Excuse me, religious leader coming through. Let me through to the front.” But pretty soon they realize that they don’t have front of the line status. They’re behind the prostitutes and crooks. The whores and crooks make it into God’s Kingdom. But when the religious leaders get to the front, they discover they’re not allowed in. This is a completely different way of thinking.The reason why is simple. It’s about our response to Jesus, our willingness to change. Those of us with all the right markers, all the right approaches, who haven’t responded by making a complete turnaround of obedience in our lives, will miss out. Those of us who have none of the right markers, who have made all the mistakes in our lives, who measure 0 out of 10 on the religious scale, are accepted if change our direction and follow Jesus.I want to give you a new model for thinking about this today. I’m not even sure it’s the correct model, but it may provide a good, or at least a different picture of what it means to follow Jesus. Up until now, a lot of us have believed that following Jesus starts with a crisis or conversion experience in which we accept Jesus as our Savior and then begin to do certain things, like pray and go to church. I want to suggest a different model today.Here’s the model I’d like to suggest. You may have some people who look close to Jesus, but they’re moving away. In other words, they’re close – they do certain things like pray, read the Bible, go to church, and live moral lives. The only problem is that they’re moving away from Jesus. They’re close but the distance between them and Jesus is increasing, not decreasing. The trajectory of their lives is taking them away from Jesus.Then you’ve got some people over here who are distant from Jesus by every standard you can imagine. They don’t know the Bible. They might not go to church. They haven’t lived moral lives. Yet, despite their distance from Jesus, they’re moving closer to him. They’re following him. They may be far away, but they’re headed closer to Jesus, just as this other group is moving away.I’d like to suggest that the key issue isn’t our current proximity to Jesus. It’s the direction of our lives. The key is whether we’re following Jesus, no matter how far away we’ve been. If we are, that counts a lot more than those who are close to Jesus but moving away.Do you see what this model does? It breaks down the markers or the boundaries that define who’s in and who’s out. You may have some who are within the boundaries, but who are moving away from Jesus. Then you may have some outside the boundaries – who dress or act a certain way – who actually are going to be welcomed into God’s kingdom, because they’re getting closer. We’ve got to maybe keep some of the markers that are good – certain ways of thinking and acting – but to tear down the fences between the boundaries that define who’s in and out. Keep the good things like spiritual disciplines and activities that might help us follow Christ, but stop judging who’s in and who’s out by the boundaries.The truth is that I know a lot of people who look a long way from Jesus, and who say the wrong things and look the wrong way. But when they talk about Jesus, they talk with such a tenderness that you know they’re following. They’re far away, but they love him and want to follow him with all of their being.I know some others who look the right way and say all the right things. They live good, moral lives. Yet you never sense a tenderness or a closeness with Jesus. If anything, you sense a brittle spirit. They’re closer, but they’re either stopped following Jesus, and if you stop even for a minute, you get further away because Jesus keeps moving. Or else they’re consciously moving away from him.I want to ask you to throw out your old ways of thinking about what it means to be a follower of Jesus. I don’t know where we got the idea that praying a prayer one day would get us in. It’s much more than that. It’s a complete turning around of our lives. It’s not about a respectful answer when Jesus asks us to follow him. It’s about a complete change in direction in our life (repentance), and in following him from that day forward.It’s interesting that one of the earliest names for Christianity was the Way (Acts 9:2). I like that. The Way implies a journey.I still believe in justification, and all the other good stuff that Paul teaches about our position in Christ. But our relationship with Christ is much more than a one-time event. It’s something that’s lived out every day from that point on. Paul’s a good example of that. His life was never again safe or comfortable once he started to follow Jesus.A couple of questions. I’m not going to ask you about how close you are to Jesus today. I’m going to ask you a more important question. What’s the trajectory of your life? Are you getting closer, or getting further away? Are you following, no matter how far away you are?Answer honestly. You may have said all the right things to God. You may always talk to him with the greatest of respect. You may go to church and read the Bible and do all the things that the religious leaders did. But you may be getting further and further away from God without even realizing it.You may be here today feeling so unworthy because you’re so far away and you’re so discouraged about all the things you’ve done. But Jesus says it doesn’t matter. You’re following. That’s all that matters.Let me challenge you with one more image. Our kids are the age that they’ll go anywhere with us just because we’re going. I tell our kids, “Get ready and hop in the car,” and they do so without even asking where we’re going. I know that will change one day. They even leave all their stuff behind and go with us and a tent and a couple of sleeping bags to camp somewhere, just because we tell them we’re going. They’d follow us to another country if we asked them to.Contrast that to me. When Charlene asks me to get in the car, I say, “Where are we going?” Depending on how she answers, I either go along or tell her I don’t feel like going.What if this is a picture of what it means to follow Jesus? What if we act like kids and be willing to go anywhere and leave anything, simply because Jesus asks us to go? Maybe on the way we’ll ask him where we’re going, but we would never think of not following him. We’ll go whenever and wherever he asks.Prayer:
Father, help us move beyond the markers today. Help us to see what it really means to follow you.I’ve been so wrong in the past about what it means to follow Jesus Christ. It’s not about the boundaries or markers. It’s about following Jesus, whenever, wherever he asks.Examine yourself: ask God to show you your heart.Ask him to grant you a willingness to follow Jesus, no matter how far away you are.Thank you, Father, that it doesn’t matter how far away we’ve been, or even how far away we are today. What matters is that we do what Jesus asks us to do, and follow him beginning today. May you give us the courage to follow, in Jesus’ name.