Counting the Cost

Christmas is just ten days away. It is, according to the old song, “the most wonderful time of the year.” And yet it seems that people are even more stressed than usual; I’ve noticed, this year especially, that the season of Christmas seems to have become, for many, a time that’s more about just getting through it, a time of just trying to survive it, than it is a time of joyful celebration for the greatest gift the world has ever received. 

Jesus says, in Matthew’s gospel, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:27-30).

 “Come to me”—do you know what an astonishing invitation this is? Have you ever really stopped to think about this?

Jesus says, “Come to me and I will give you rest.” He doesn’t say, “Go to God”—He knows that we would never find the way. He knows that what we need is someone to come and rescue us—and so He came. Came into the world on Christmas to live among us, to show us how to live, to teach us—and then to die for us.

And He doesn’t say, “Some of you can come to me—those of you who’ve lived just the right way and always done just the right things.” He doesn’t say, “Come and apply to be one of my followers—maybe you’ll make the cut.”

He says, “Come to me—I have come to seek you out.”

Luke 19:10 says, “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” He says this right after He saves Zacchaeus, that worst of the worst sinner.

Jesus says, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). “When you’re with me, you can let go of all that stress, all that anxiety. Not because your life will suddenly get easier, but because I’ll be carrying more of the load.”

These words are about letting go of the old and taking on the new. The burden Jesus is inviting the Jews to let go of is the endless list of regulations and duties that have become their religion; He’s telling them that, with Him, they can find new life. A way that is not necessarily less demanding—because to truly follow Jesus is, in fact, quite possibly more demanding. But to walk with Jesus is to take on the yoke of love rather than duty. It is, according to the gospel of John, to be reborn to new life.

Luke’s gospel doesn’t include Jesus’ words about the easy yoke; it doesn’t include His conversation with Nicodemus about the need to be reborn—but this idea of rebirth is very much the message of all of Luke.

Luke uses his picture of two groups of people to show us the new life that’s possible with Jesus. And he shows us clearly what differentiates these groups, and how Jesus changes not just individual lives, but how He creates a whole new people. And in doing so, we see how Jesus brought peace and joy even to lives that were stressed out or anxious or troubled. Even to lives that were hopeless.

Luke has two major themes that run throughout his gospel—two themes that separate the people into two groups: they are the Jerusalem Temple and prayer.

Luke’s gospel begins and ends with the Jerusalem Temple.

King Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem nearly 1000 years before Jesus was born. That temple was destroyed by the Babylonians almost 600 years before Jesus was born. After the Israelite people returned from their exile in Babylon, they rebuilt the temple. About 20 years before Jesus was born, King Herod began his massive renovation of the temple.

It was the Jerusalem Temple that had been, for centuries, the very heart of the faith of Israel. It was the place where man could meet God—where heaven and earth intersected.

When King Solomon dedicated the first temple, he asked God to answer the prayers of His people when they came to this house of the Lord and “turned again to God and acknowledged His name and prayed and pleaded with Him” (I Kings 8:33).

And so Luke begins his gospel with Zechariah the priest entering the Temple to burn incense. While he’s there, Zechariah receives an answer to his prayer for a child. He’s told that he and his wife Elizabeth will be the parents of a son named John who will “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:18) and prepare them for the coming of the Lord.

Then, in chapter 2, Mary and Joseph bring their eight day old son to the Temple to be dedicated, where we meet Simeon, who was “righteous and devout” (2:25), and Anna, an 84 year old widow, who “never left the Temple but stayed there day and night, worshiping God with fasting and prayer” (Luke 2:37). 

Anna and Simeon both recognize in the infant Jesus the Messiah who has come to bring salvation. And Luke clearly connects their recognition of this to their devoted prayers in the temple.

Then Luke gives us the 12 year old Jesus in the Temple, listening and asking and questions. When His parents find Him, Jesus clearly identifies the Temple as His “Father’s house” (2:49). “And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them” (2:50). Because, of course, no one has ever called the Temple their Father’s house before. No one would have dared to do so—it would have been blasphemy.

But with Jesus’ words that He has been in His Father’s house, Luke has given us our first clue that everything is changing, that nothing will ever again be the same. He wants us to read the rest of this gospel keeping that idea firmly in out minds: he’s not just giving us an account of some good things that someone said and did. He’s recording the greatest and most life-changing event in all of human history.

Jesus doesn’t return to Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel until Palm Sunday; and the first thing He does after He weeps over the city for their failure to recognize Him as the Son of God, is to go into the Temple and “drive out the people selling animals, saying to them, ‘It is written, ‘”My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of robbers’’” (Luke 19:45).  

1000 years earlier, at the dedication of the Temple, King Solomon’s prayer included the words that “when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes … and prays toward this house, hear … and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to you, in order that all peoples of the earth may know your name …. And that they may know that this house that I have built is called by your name” (I Kings 8:41-43).

When Solomon built the Temple, there was included an area known as the Court of the Gentiles; this was the only area of the Temple complex where foreigners, or non-Gentiles are allowed to enter. It had been built specifically for non-Jews to enter into God’s presence and pray, that they, too, might come to know the God of Israel. But now, in Jesus’ day, this area is filled with money changers and merchants selling animals for sacrifice. It’s noisy and chaotic and certainly not conducive for a Gentile—or anybody else—to come and pray. Mark, in his version of Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple, writes that Jesus said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mark 11:17).

Jesus has come for everyone, for every tribe and every nation. For every race and color. God is changing everything with Jesus, but it’s nothing new that God cares about every nation. God called Abraham and Abraham’s descendants to be a blessing to the whole world—to show all the pagan people in the world a better way to live.

God’s chosen people hadn’t done a very good job of it. So now God is growing a new people, a people that will come out of the nation of Israel, a people who will come out of the root of Jesse—a people that will be called Christians. While the Israelite people were quite literally the descendants of Abraham, this new people will not be descended from Jesus by biological birth. Rather, they will be brothers and sisters of Jesus through new birth.  

This is what Luke’s gospel is all about—for the first 19 chapters, he’s given us the growth and development of this new people. A development that involves Jesus bringing together a community of people to follow Him, to learn to do what He does, to live as He lives. And a key piece to living as Jesus lives is to be in constant prayer with the Father.

And everything is changing—Jesus is introducing a new covenant, although clearly no one understands what’s happening. Jesus will die and on the third day He will rise. Forty days later, He’ll return to heaven. Seven days after that, His Spirit will descend upon His followers—and His new Body, the Church, will be born.

It will be another 40 years before the Jerusalem Temple is destroyed, never to be rebuilt, but this new plant has already begun to sink deep roots into not just Jerusalem, but into all of Judea and Samaria—and will soon be spreading toward the ends of the earth.

Luke has shown us how Jesus began His time in Jerusalem by cleansing the Temple, by reminding everyone there that His Father’s house was created to be a house of prayer—a place where people could come to meet God. But then, as the leaders of the Temple, the chief priests and elders, challenge His authority, it soon becomes clear that the Jewish leaders weren’t prepared to let the Temple be cleansed. The Temple represented to them the system of faith and life that they had created—a system where they were in charge. They weren’t willing to let it go.

Luke 19:47 says that “the chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him.”

Then, in chapter 20, Luke chronicles a series of confrontations between Jesus and the temple leaders—a battle that must surely lead to the elimination of one group or the other.  

And so, in Luke 21:6, when Jesus says, referring to the Temple: “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down,” He’s not just talking about the temple building—He’s talking about the whole religious system that the temple had come to symbolize.

And so Jesus is arrested, He’s beaten and hung on the cross—betrayed by one of His own disciples, Judas. Betrayed in the Temple, when Judas agrees to turn Jesus over to them in exchange for money. And it appears that the Jews have emerged victorious. They’ve succeeded in destroying Jesus—or at least they think they have. But Jesus has already said, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (John).

And on the third day, Jesus did indeed rise from the dead—but it was more than just a coming back to life of the human Jesus. It was the rising of both Jesus’ physical body, but also His mystical or spiritual body, which is the church. New life has begun—the new Temple is about to come into being.

40 days after Jesus rose from the dead, He rose again—this time as He returned to His Father in heaven. And seven days after that, His Holy Spirit fell upon His disciples on the Day of Pentecost. The Church, the new people of God, had come into being.

And we discover that, in the long term, it is Jesus who won the battle. And we know that it is Jesus who wins the war.

But the battle continues.

And in the midst of Jesus’ battle with the Temple leaders, we find this brief little paragraph about another widow in the Temple, a widow who puts “two small copper coins” in the offering box. And Jesus says to those who are listening to Him, “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has given more than all the rest of them. For they have given a tiny part of their surplus, but she, poor as she is, has given everything she has” (Luke 21:3-4).

So what does all this have to do with stress and finding a way to the easy yoke that Jesus invites us to? Luke gives us his answer right here: the poor widow, like the widow Anna that we met at the beginning of this gospel, has given all she has to the Lord. These two women have given their entire lives, devoting them to serving God, to prayer—and in learning to trust God for all things, they have come to a place of peace.

The poor widow who gave all she had to live on is living as Jesus lived—Jesus, who is about to give everything He has.

Jesus, who is about to give His life for that poor widow, for his disciples, for the chief priests and elders, for all those people in that crowd who haven’t yet decided if they’re willing to follow Him. Who gave His life for you and for me.

Luke 8:21 “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.”

Luke 9:23-24  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”

Luke 14:26-28 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?”

Peter in Luke 18:28-29 – “Peter said, ‘See, we have left our homes and followed you.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

So how do we find relief from the stress of daily life in this world? We count the cost. We count the cost of following Jesus—and then we count the cost of not following Him. A cost that involves stress and anxiety and uncertainty; a cost that involves the loss of peace and joy even in the trials of life.

For Peter and John and the rest of the disciples, it was easy to tell if they were following Jesus—to follow Him was to a physical act of committing to proximity to His body. And we often think that following Him today is just some spiritual thing. But to follow Jesus today continues to be a very concrete decision—one that requires proximity to His body the church.

Luke wrote another entire book about what this looks like—we call it the Book of Acts.

Just as for those first century Christians, following Jesus today involves the ability to recognize His presence—it also involves our own personal decision as to whether we’re willing to trust God with the life He gave us. Or whether we’ve decided that we’re going to remain in charge—nobody’s going to tell us what to do?

For those of you who have decided that your relationship with Jesus is going to be about believing in Him as Son of God, but not letting Him, through His Holy Spirit, direct and guide every aspect of your life—how’s that working for you?

Have you counted the cost of being boss of you?

Maybe you really want to follow Jesus but just aren’t sure how to do it. Maybe you’re really longing to let go of the heavy burden of stress and anxiety that you’re hauling around with you.

Maybe you really want to be yoked to Jesus so that your burden can be light and you can really experience peace and joy this Christmas season—and in all the seasons to come.

According to Jesus, you do this by remaining in close proximity to His body the church and in close proximity to His Spirit. We do this both by being physically present in the church through worship, prayer, Bible study and relationship with brothers and sisters in Christ. And we live prayerfully with the Spirit living inside of us.

So … let’s say that you’re battling a computer that’s just wiped out an important document or a broken water pipe that’s flooded your house or a work deadline that seems impossible to meet. Or maybe you’re frustrated by a difficult coworker or family member or neighbor. Or maybe you’re just feeling overwhelmed by life, by all the things you have on your to-do list.

Or maybe your seven month old grandson is spitting up blood in the hospital and nobody can figure out why.

The first thing we do is remember that it’s not just you and the computer or the broken pipe or the work deadline or the difficult person or the sick baby or anything else.

You invoke the presence of God—you expect to see something happen that’s not a result of you. You remember that when you’re a follower of Jesus—not just a fan, not just a believer, but a follower—you can be absolutely certain that, no matter what happens, God will never say, “You’re on your own on this one.”

Because it’s never just you and your computer; it’s never just you and an impossible work project; it’s never just you and the dinner you just burned; it’s never just you and the homeless person dying in your arms; it’s never just you and whatever overwhelming circumstances you’re facing.

Jesus came to bring the Kingdom of God—it’s still available to every one of us. We can walk in it at any moment.

Have you counted the cost? May today be the day that you say, “Yes, Jesus. I’m coming to you. I’ll accept the rest for my soul that you’re offering.”

Let us pray.