COST-BENEFIT ANALYSIS

I assure you that everyone who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or property, for my sake and for the Good News, will receive now in return a hundred times as many houses, brothers, sisters, mothers, children, and property—along with persecution. And in the world to come that person will have eternal life. [Mark 10:29-30 (NLT)]

mockingbird dangerLast year, Forbes magazine published a list of the most and least trusted professionals. It should come as no surprise that, with only an 8% approval rating, members of Congress and car salesmen were at the bottom of the list. Nurses were at the list’s top but, even then, only 84% of the public thought them honest and ethical. After all, too many nurses have promised, “This won’t hurt,” when it really did. Jesus, however, was brutally honest about life—it would hurt and life wouldn’t be trouble-free when people took up their crosses and followed Him.

After the rich young man who was unwilling to give up his possessions and follow Jesus departed, Peter reminded the Lord that His disciples had given up everything to be His followers. Having met the requirements of discipleship given to the rich man, implicit in Peter’s statement was the question, “What’s in it for us?”

In His answer, Jesus promised blessings both in this life and in the next. Whatever His disciples had sacrificed would be returned one hundredfold. Getting back 100% would be getting back exactly what had been forsaken but a return of a hundredfold is one hundred times better! This, however, is not a prosperity promise; while Jesus tells his disciples their lives will be richer, He never promises they’ll be wealthier. The people and things they lose are literal but the people and possessions gained are spiritual. After all, while not of substance, a soul is irreplaceable and its worth is incalculable. When adopted as one of God’s children, Christ’s followers get a new family in His church, a home in His Kingdom, and eternal life.

But then Jesus got brutally honest; tacked smack dab in the middle of those blessings and the promise of eternal life is His promise of persecution. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus reiterated that the cost of discipleship would be sacrifice, persecution, suffering and trials. Unlike nurses, He told us that it would hurt. Life doesn’t necessarily get easier when we follow Jesus, but He promises it will become better (and the two are not the same thing).

Living in Florida, like being a disciple of Christ, comes at a cost. A cost-benefit analysis shows that the cost includes dangers like venomous snakes, black bears, poisonous cane toads, toxic plants, hurricanes, feral pigs, alligators, sink holes, fire ants, panthers, and even stinging caterpillars. Other negatives include the expense of air conditioning, seasonal traffic, and mosquitoes! That cost, however, is more than offset by the benefits of living in a tropical paradise of forever summer, beautiful birds, beaches, colorful flowers, ocean breezes, early-bird specials and no state income tax!

A cost-benefit analysis of discipleship tells us the price we pay is our lives but the benefits of God’s Kingdom and eternal life outweigh the cost a hundredfold! There certainly are times serving Jesus and His church with our time, talents, and money seems a heavy price to pay but true discipleship (and all of the sacrifice, trials and even persecution that arise from it) comes with the territory just as learning to live with hurricanes comes with Florida! In both cases, it’s more than worth it.

Not one man has ever sacrificed for his Lord without being richly repaid. If the cross is only contrasted with earthly pleasures lost, it may seem hard and threatening. But when the cross is weighed in the balances with the glorious treasures to be had through it, even the cross seems sweet. [Walter J. Chantry]

If any of you wants to be my follower, you must give up your own way, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? [Mark 8:34-36 (NLT)]

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THE RICH YOUNG MAN

The disciples were astounded. “Then who in the world can be saved?” they asked. Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:26-27 (NLT)]

great blue heronThe book of Daniel makes reference to the resurrection of both the wicked and righteous, with the destiny of the one being shame and disgrace and the other being everlasting life. By the time of Jesus, many Jews believed in some sort of eternal life and that it would come by obedience to the Law. Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell of the rich young man who asked Jesus what good deed he must do to have eternal life. He wanted Jesus to check his resume of good works and, if found lacking, to give him a task that would assure his immortality.

Before answering, Jesus clarified that goodness only comes from God rather than things or actions and then told the man to keep the commandments. As if some were more important than others, the man asked which ones. After listing several commandments dealing with man’s relationship with man, Jesus summarized with the command to love your neighbor as yourself. The man proudly responded that he obeyed them all. Had he been truly honest about himself, he would have admitted his inability to keep the law perfectly and acknowledged that he couldn’t attain eternal life on his own merit. But, sure his ticket to eternity was safe in hand, the man asked what else he should do. When Jesus told him what needed to be done to be “perfect,” He didn’t mean faultless; the Greek word translated as “perfect” means goal or end. So, to achieve or perfect his goal of eternal life, Jesus told him to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Him. Hearing this, the rich young man departed. In spite of his claims, he clearly didn’t love his neighbor as himself.

At first, it seems odd that Jesus didn’t mention the first four commandments—the ones having to do with man’s relationship to God. But Jesus could see into the man’s heart and knew the man loved his wealth far more than God or his neighbor. So, after he claimed to love his neighbor, Jesus asked him to put his money where his mouth was by giving his wealth to his neighbor!

That Jesus gave the rich man a requirement wasn’t unusual for a rabbi. When prospective students came to study with rabbis, the teachers often gave them a condition as a way of weeding out those students who really weren’t serious. The young man, however, hadn’t come to our Lord to learn; he’d come to be commended for his righteousness!

When people read this story, they often fear that it means Christians must live a life of poverty, but Jesus wasn’t setting financial requirements for salvation. His demand merely revealed what was in that rich man’s heart. He loved himself and his possessions far more than God or his neighbor. Although this encounter demonstrates the implications of discipleship, it never demands that we sell our possessions or live a life of asceticism. Jesus wasn’t teaching salvation through philanthropy; He was demanding that God be first place in our hearts.

Obedience to the commandments does not qualify any of us for eternal life; there is nothing we can do to merit the gift of salvation and eternal life. That only comes by grace through faith. Nevertheless, obedience to the commandments—loving God and loving our neighbor—is evidence of our faith. Is there something more important to you than loving God? What would Jesus ask you to relinquish? Do you love Him enough to do it?

Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-39 (NLT)]

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GOATS AND SHEEP

Let me give you a new command: Love one another. In the same way I loved you, you love one another. This is how everyone will recognize that you are my disciples—when they see the love you have for each other. [John 13:34-35 (MSG)]

goatsIn Matthew 25, Jesus uses a long simile to describe the final judgment. As for whether this occurs at the beginning or the end of Christ’s millennial kingdom, is unclear; that it will occur, is not! When it happens, God will separate people the way a shepherd does his goats and sheep.

Sheep are known to be docile, quiet, gentle and easily handled by the shepherd. Throughout Scripture, we find them representing God’s people: the righteous. While sheep will follow the shepherd, goats are far more independent and tend to wander off. With a tendency to be unruly, aggressive, and poor followers, they represent those who are not true disciples of Christ. During the day, both kinds of animals intermingled in the pasture, as do believers and unbelievers (and pretenders) in the world. At night, the shepherd separated his flock. Less tolerant of the cool night air and having a tendency to stray and butt heads, goats were herded tightly behind a secure fence. Sheep, with their heavy coats of wool, welcomed chilly nights and, less belligerent than their horned relatives, weren’t crowded into their sheepfold. Like the shepherd, God will separate his flock—the righteous from the unrighteous—at Judgment.

The shepherd easily separates his herd by looking at their tails: a sheep’s tail hangs down and a goat’s points up. The King uses a different criteria; he looks at our tales: how we have treated our neighbors! The people to His right, the sheep, are those who fed the hungry, gave water to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited prisoners. The people on His left, the goats, did none of that! The King informs them that by doing (or failing to do) any of those things for those who suffered, they had done (or failed to do) those same things for Him! Those who did for the least will inherit the Kingdom and those who refused will face eternal punishment.

At first reading, this begins to sound like salvation through works rather than by grace through faith. A closer look, however, tells us otherwise. The righteous weren’t surprised by the King’s reward but rather by His reason. Their behavior hadn’t been motivated by ulterior motives as a way to buy their way into the Kingdom; their behavior was the natural result of their love for the King. Works aren’t necessary for salvation and won’t earn the keys to the Kingdom; works, however, are evidence of that salvation and confirmation that the person holds the key!

Rather than looking at our tails, God looks at our works—not because they produce righteousness, but because they are proof of that righteousness. We can’t love our neighbor if we don’t love God and, if we truly love God, loving our neighbor naturally follows! How we treat others reveals whether our tails humbly hang down or self-righteously point up!

With an estimated 2.5 billion people who claim to be Christians [Fact & Trends], I wonder why the world isn’t a kinder gentler place. Perhaps it’s because there are way too many goats who think they are sheep!

I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.” Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove. [James 2:18 (MSG)]

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THE VIRTUE FARM

But I did find this: God created people to be virtuous, but they have each turned to follow their own downward path. [Ecclesiastes 7:29 (NLT)]

When living in rural Illinois, I loved walking along the country roads, passing by fields of soy beans and corn, and seeing the horses, cows, goats, and sheep grazing in the fields. Virtue was a common name in the community and I often passed by the Virtue Farm. Thinking Virtue a noble name, I wondered if the Virtue family lived up to its promise of good character and moral excellence.

After Pope Gregory listed what came to be known as the seven deadly sins in 590 AD, he also listed seven virtues considered fundamental to Christian ethics: prudence (care and moderation with money), temperance (moderation in needed things and abstinence from unneeded ones), fortitude (never giving up), justice (being fair and equitable with others), faith, hope, and love. While it’s easy to recognize those last three virtues as coming from the Apostle Paul, the Pope’s list isn’t explicitly Biblical and the first four come from the Greek philosophers. When Peter listed the attributes of a Christian’s character, he included faith, moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, patient endurance, godliness, brotherly affection, and love for everyone. [2 Peter 1:5-7] Paul listed the fruit of the spirit in Galatians as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control [5:22-23]. Looking at all of these lists, we can get a good idea of what qualities determine virtue. Unfortunately, we seem to have lowered the bar a bit since the time of Aristotle, Peter, Paul, and Pope Gregory. Nowadays, someone usually is considered of good character if they’re honest (most of the time), work hard, and don’t cheat on their spouse. While that’s a start, it hardly defines moral excellence.

With virtue in short supply these days, it would be nice if the Virtue Farm actually planted and harvested virtue as they do beans and corn. Of course, once it got to market, would there be any buyers? From what I see in the media, people aren’t much interested in things like chastity, modesty, self-respect, or fairness and good sportsmanship. Words like temperance, industry, and thrift are rarely used and the qualities of humility, courtesy, and self-control aren’t held in high regard.

We’re not born with virtue; it’s not like the blue eyes or musical talent we might have at birth. Moreover, virtue doesn’t grow on trees and can’t be purchased at the local farmers’ market or grocery. Virtue is something we choose; while the Holy Spirit provides us with His fruit, it is up to us to develop those virtues into good habits. While the Virtue Farm continues planting soy beans and corn, we must cultivate the seeds of virtue in our own lives. The Apostle Peter assures us that it can be done: “By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life.” [2 Peter 1:3]

Father, we are faced with moral choices every day. Teach us with your word, guide us by your example, and strengthen us with your Holy Spirit so that we always choose the virtuous path.

Throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God—truly righteous and holy. [Ephesians 4:22-24 (NLT)] 

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PRAY, SEND, GO

The Lord now chose seventy-two other disciples and sent them ahead in pairs to all the towns and places he planned to visit. These were his instructions to them: “The harvest is great, but the workers are few. So pray to the Lord who is in charge of the harvest; ask him to send more workers into his fields. Now go.” [Luke 10:1-3a (NLT)]

daisyThe story is told of a minister who made this announcement just before passing out the offering plates: “The good news is that God has all of the funds necessary to fund His church’s ministry.” As the congregation started to return their checks and cash to their wallets, the pastor added, “But the bad news is that it’s still in our pockets!”

Having been called by the Holy Spirit to serve, a young woman in our church shared her plans to become a missionary. Just as being a teacher, nurse, plumber or electrician is a career choice, so is being a missionary. Unlike those other careers, however, as a missionary, she has to provide the funds for her paycheck! Like everyone else, missionaries need a salary and insurance along with money for travel, ministry tools, professional support, and even retirement. A love for Jesus and a desire to obey His call won’t put food on the table or pay rent!

When Jesus told his disciples to count the cost of discipleship, He reminded them that builders don’t start construction without calculating the cost and being sure they have enough money to finish the project. This woman is doing that by working with an evangelical Christian mission organization to determine her funding needs. This charitable agency requires her to have a full year’s salary raised or pledged before she goes abroad. Technically, she will be their employee, but the monthly checks she receives from them will come from the funds that she has raised, and she is actively seeking financial partners for her ministry. Perhaps a missionary’s biggest obstacle is raising the funds needed to go out and share God’s word.

We rarely think about the business side of ministry and certainly not of Jesus and money. Nevertheless, in their three years together, Jesus and His disciples had financial needs. After all, they’d quit their jobs to follow the Lord. I suppose, miracle worker that He was, Jesus easily could have multiplied their few provisions or had Peter catch fish with gold coins in their mouths every morning, but that’s not how He did things. Scripture tells us they all shared a common purse and that Judas was in charge of it. From where did that money come? Luke tells us that Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna, and “many others” provided for them out of their financial resources. When Jesus sent seventy-two of his followers out into the countryside, He told them to take nothing with them. They were to live on the kindheartedness of those they visited. Even Jesus depended on the generosity of others; he rode a borrowed donkey into Jerusalem and was buried in a donated tomb. Generosity fueled by the faith of His followers is how Jesus started His ministry and how we must continue it.

When Jesus sent out those seventy-two, He used three verbs: go, pray, and send. While all of us are called to share the gospel message, not all of us are called to go out and do missions work as a career. All of us, however, can pray both for more workers and for their funding. Some of us (perhaps many) also are capable of sending those workers to the harvest. The good news is that we have the funds to further spread Jesus’s message by financing those who do go. The bad news, however, is that the funds probably are still in our pockets!

“Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? [Romans 10:13-15a (NLT)]

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RENEW – NEW YEAR’S DAY

But this is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days,” says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. … And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins. [Jeremiah 31:33,34b (NLT)]

Come, let us use the grace divine, and all with one accord,
in a perpetual covenant join ourselves to Christ the Lord;
Give up ourselves, thru Jesus’ power, his name to glorify;
and promise, in this sacred hour, for God to live and die. [Charles Wesley]

queen butterflyJohn Wesley had an excellent alternative to making a New Year’s resolution that’s unlikely to be kept. Believing that Christians should reaffirm their covenant with God, in 1755, he introduced a covenant service to the Methodist Societies. By 1775, this service was usually held on New Year’s Eve (and called a Watch Night Service) or New Year’s Day. This was a service of renewal in which believers would gather for self-examination and reflection and then renew their covenant with God by dedicating themselves wholly to Him. The practice of a covenant renewal service held on the Sunday nearest January 1st continues in some Methodist churches today and is a practice that has crossed denominational lines.

A covenant is a promise between two (or more) parties to perform certain actions. The covenant of the New Testament between God and man is that He will restore fellowship with and forgive the sins of those whose hearts are turned to Him; it is a covenant of salvation by grace through faith. Our part of this promise is our faith in Jesus and a giving up of self so that He can fill us with His Spirit; it is the taking of His yoke and a commitment to follow Him. Unlike a resolution to eat healthier or exercise more, it is God’s power, not our good intentions, that keeps this covenant in place.

I don’t know if you’re making any resolutions today, but let us all join together in renewing the covenant of grace—to be God’s people, trusting in His word, empowered by Him to be His hands and feet, seeking to bring His light into this dark world. Our prayer can be as simple as, “O Lord, I dedicate my life to you and will serve you in every way I can!”

Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will. Rank me with whom You will. Let me be employed by You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low by You. Let me have all things. Let me have nothing. I freely & heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are mine and I am Yours. So be it. Amen. [John Wesley]

Now may the God of peace—who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great Shepherd of the sheep, and ratified an eternal covenant with his blood—may he equip you with all you need for doing his will. May he produce in you, through the power of Jesus Christ, every good thing that is pleasing to him. All glory to him forever and ever! Amen. [Hebrews 13:20-21 (NLT)]

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