“Counting the Cost”
Take his teaching in our Gospel reading today. Hate your family? Renounce your very life? Carry your cross? This is not the self-help guru Jesus that many have come to believe in. This is not the love and peace Jesus that many think he is. “Count the cost of discipleship”, Jesus teaches today. And the cost is high.
It's worth noting, perhaps, that Jesus gave these hard words as his popularity was reaching a fever pitch. “Large crowds followed him”. And perhaps not for the right reasons. Whatever they were looking for, it wasn't what Jesus had come to do and be. I think it's much the same today.
You look at some of the largest churches, the fastest-growing with the big budgets. Their pastors are on TV and they buy old sports stadiums to hold the crowds. But if you listen to the message – it's empty. There is little talk of sin, and therefore no need for a savior. Jesus, if he's mentioned at all, is reduced to a rule maker, an example to follow, or just somebody who wants you to be happy with yourself.
And we can see why the temptation is so strong. Even though we are at a church which takes its doctrine seriously, which is well grounded in the gospel but not afraid to speak the law. Even though Messiah seeks to be faithful to our Lord and his teachings, and to all that we hold dear. Still, we are sinners. And our sinful nature wants success. It wants glory. It wants numbers.
We look at the bulletin and the numbers aren't what we want them to be. And this makes us uncomfortable. Anxious, maybe. Where is our faith that no matter what, the Lord will care for us? Aren't we tempted to measure our success by the outward growth we see here, and not by how faithful we are to the Word? What will happen to our congregation if we don’t change with the times, adapt to the world, get with the program? Ah, but we can pine for the glory days when things were easier, and people were more involved and when society wasn’t against us and the church wasn’t a pariah. But nostalgia won’t do us any good either. Being faithful today, in the context we find ourselves now, is what we are called to do.
The same holds true for our personal lives. Living as a Christian means sometimes we don't have all the goodies, the success, the pleasures of our worldly counterparts. Sometimes it means trouble. It could even mean strife in your family, suffering, shame or loss. You might even have to die for your faith, as so many Christians have.
Jesus says to count the cost. If you want to be his disciple, it means an ordering of priorities that is at odds with the unbelieving world. Seeking first his kingdom and his righteousness. All these other things, good gifts that they may be, come after that.
And so again, it's a matter of Law and Gospel. To those seeking glory and earthly success and worldly things – Jesus throws a roadblock. You better think twice. Being my disciple is no walk in the park. It's like a king going to war – he knows there will be bloodshed and turmoil, even death.
It’s almost as if Jesus doesn’t want disciples! What a terrible politician he would make. What a poor salesman. It’s almost as if he’s talking you out of following him – trying to scare you off! The cost – it’s just too high.
But friends, these are not the only words of Jesus.
This is also the Jesus who said “come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest”. Who said, “if anyone thirsts let him come to me and drink – for free”. Or “come and eat this bread from heaven and live forever. He who believes in me will live even though he dies. Don’t worry about tomorrow, for your Father knows what you need, and are you not worth more than many sparrows? Seek and you will find, knock and the door will be open. I am the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.”
You see, for those who are already broken, suffering, and dying... For those who aren't so concerned about offending their earthly family as the offense they've given their heavenly Father... for those of us who bear the weight of our guilt, Jesus speaks a different word – the Gospel. And that is an entirely different way of counting.
In Christ, God does not count our sins against us. He reckons faith as righteousness. He gives his greatest riches as a gift. He sends his only son not to condemn as we deserve, but to die in our place, to take the punishment we deserve. God becomes man, to save man from our own rebellion.
And certainly God knew the cost – when he sent Jesus to do the work of salvation. And Jesus knew the cost – blood, a cross, a tomb. The cup of God's wrath. A far cry from the glory of the crowds – but the cry of crowds for his blood – crucify him!
The God of mercy who counts even the hairs on your head will certainly care for you in every way, down to the last detail.
So Christianity is both easy and hard, depending how you count it. It's both costly and free.
So now – for you - what really counts? Jesus calls us to count differently. He turns our corrupted wisdom on its head. The first shall be last. The least shall be the greatest. In death there is life. That's how God counts.
If you would cling to the things of this world – your sins and the corrupted creation – even your family or your life – then it seems very costly indeed. Maybe too much so for some people. A burden, a chore, a downer and a drag. Who would want to be a Christian anyway? This is the way of the Law.
But to those who have ears to hear, the Gospel shows the true kingdom is free. Disciples are born, not graduated. We don't earn our way in, we are adopted as sons. And our Lord continues to do the work of discipling us, teaching us, strengthening us. He continues to give freely and without cost, according to this Gospel. Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, Holy Communion, the free and clear proclamation of His grace. All of these come at no cost to you, all for the sake of Jesus.
It's a wise person that knows that nothing in this life is truly free. The bigger the sign and the more exclamation marks, the more closely we should look at the fine print. But it's a wiser person who knows even better. That in Jesus there are no strings attached. In Jesus salvation is truly free for sinners. That in Jesus Christ our Lord, our cost is covered, and it's on him.
The free gifts of his kingdom bring us to count differently, too. By his Spirit we consider ourselves no longer #1, but our neighbor. We consider the things above as more precious than the things below. We even see suffering through the eyes of faith – and rejoice amidst our troubles, all for the sake of Christ. What really counts – he has already counted to us – righteousness in him forever. And we can always count on him.
In Jesus Name, Amen.