The season of Lent began with Ash Wednesday on March 6th. This is the period of time on the calendar of Christ’s Church when the followers of Jesus around the world call to remembrance the road he traveled during the days when his earthly ministry was coming to an end. In a deeper sense, his ministry as the “Christ of Faith” would never end, on earth or in heaven. For as we now know, the end of his ministry in the flesh was only a new beginning as our crucified and risen Lord, the glorified Christ, the Mighty Savior, the Lamb of God on heaven’s throne, our Great High Priest: “When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on High…all God’s angels worship him…and his servants say, ‘Your throne, O Lord our God, is forever and ever…you are forever the same. and your years will never come to an end” (Hebrews 1:3, 6,8,12; 2:10, 17-18). Jesus’ exaltation in Glory is the result of his humiliation on Golgotha. His crucifixion on earth led to his coronation in heaven!
His ministry on earth also did not really end, for his disciples had been trained to be his representatives, his messengers, proclaiming his Gospel and discipling others who would travel the roads of this world evangelizing “all nations” (Matthew 28:19). The road his followers would travel with Christ in succeeding generations would be the same dangerous and difficult road Jesus had called his first disciples to travel with him. He had warned them it would be a “hard” and “narrow” road (i.e. not easy, but demanding – see Matthew 7:13-14 and Luke 13:24). He never said it would be easy to go on the road with him. He never minimized the cost of discipleship. In fact, he spent almost as much time trying to persuade people not to follow him as he did to follow him, for he did not want potential followers to have any misconceptions. A rich young ruler came to him one day asking what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus told him to give away all he owned because his wealth had become his god. We read these words filled with such great tragedy, for he was almost a disciple: “he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Matthew 19:16-22). In what is now called the “Sermon on the Mount” (Matthew 6), Jesus told all who were listening “No man can serve two masters, for either he will love the one and hate the other. or else he will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot love God and mammon” (i.e. money). Many people seem to think they can do both, so they try, but true followers of Jesus never do!
As the Bible asks, “What does anyone gain, even if he wins the world (i.e. grows rich in the things this world offers), but loses his own soul?” (Luke 9:25). It is so easy in this materialistic and consumer-oriented world to be conformed to the false, fading and fleeting things so many people pursue. People spend a lifetime accumulating things that will pass away, pursuing that which will perish rather than what is permanent, becoming rich in things while being poor in soul. Scripture warns to not allow this world to squeeze us into its own mold (Romans 12:1), and Jesus knew how “laying up treasure on earth” is the devil’s trap. We must “lay up [our] treasure in heaven” for after all that is the only thing we will be able to take with us. He told those who were on the road with him that they must be willing to leave the things of this world behind, and told them their reward would be “great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12, 6:19-21). We are told in the book of Revelations in the risen Christ’s “Letter to the Laodicean Church” that although they thought they were rich, they were actually “…poor, wretched, blind, and naked” (Revelations 3:17). This has been called the “last stage of church history” or the Laodicean syndrome, the last phase of a dying religion when people will say “we are rich and increased with goods and have need of nothing” and the average believers are “neither cold nor hot, but rather lukewarm” (vs.15-16). Does that sound familiar?
Lent is a good time for us to take a long hard look at ourselves as followers of Jesus, for it is supposed to be a time of self-examination, reflection, repentance, and spiritual renewal. I submit such a time is greatly needed in the contemporary church, for we have become accustomed to what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace” in his book that has become a Christian classic, The Cost of Discipleship. Jesus always pointed prospective followers to the cost of being one of his disciples. He told a certain scribe who said to him, “Master, I will follow you wherever you go” that he had better consider the cost: “Foxes have their holes, and the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:19-22). It was as if Jesus had said, “Now wait a minute, do not be too impulsive or impetuous, pause and take a deep breath, stop and give some serious thought to the cost before you make this commitment. Are you sure you want to follow me? Is this the road you want to take? Do you really want to follow one so disenfranchised?”
There is a price to be paid in following Jesus, a cost so many who bear the name of Christ have never really seriously considered. Like the Laodiceans, they are satisfied with things as they are in their casual and comfortable form of Christianity. They participate in worship on a fairly regular basis. They join in singing the hymns, offering the prayers, sharing in the unison responses, and making their contributions to the work of the church to which they either attend or are members. They may take pride in their religious practices when they compare themselves to others who are not as active as they are in the life of their church. Some Christians congratulate themselves with monotonous regularity that they have kept most of the commandments, perhaps even like the “rich young ruler” who told Jesus he had observed “all of them from the days of his youth.” This is often the testimony of those who were born into a Christian family, who grew up in the church, who cannot remember a time when they did not believe in Jesus. They too feel good about themselves, without ever realizing that none of us will ever be as good as we should be (although we may never be as bad as we could be). Just like that young man who had so many good qualities, which impressed Jesus, they have never really considered what they still lack. They have not committed adultery, they have not stolen, they have not murdered, they have not borne false witness, they have honored their parents, etc. Perhaps like the Laodicean believers, they believe they really “lack nothing” but in the eyes of God they are “poor, wretched, blind, and naked” (spiritually speaking). Yes, that is a serious indictment, but that was the verdict of Jesus when he looked at the quality of their commitment. In fact, he used even stronger language in passing judgment on them, saying their brand of Christianity was nauseating to him: “Because you are lukewarm I will spit you out of my mouth!” (Revelations 3:16).
Suffice it to say, the road Jesus traveled, and the road he invites us to travel with him, is by no means a “broad way.” Yes, there is ample room on the road that is “broad,” but Jesus says that the “broad” road is the road that leads to “destruction.” Conversely, the road that leads to “life” (i.e. life with a capital “L” – an “abundant life” in this world, as well as “everlasting life” in his forever kingdom) is so narrow that there are no traffic jams on it! Although it is a narrow road, it is a road Jesus walks with us. We never walk alone. Just as it was a road that had been prepared for him, he prepares the road for us. He not only goes with us but has also gone before us. Just as the Old Testament foretold that God would send one to prepare the way for him, Jesus prepares the way for us, making “the rough places plain” (not easy, but known to us and bearable, so we will not be taken by surprise or fail to finish well).
There is a poem by Leona Gates, In His Steps, that expresses the cost of discipleship so well. It is written in the form of a dialogue between Jesus and one of His future followers, who had found the road he was traveling harder than he had expected it to be:
“The road is rough,” I said, “Dear Lord, there are stones that hurt me so.”
And he said, “Dear child, I understand, I walked it long ago.”
“But there is a cool green path,” I said, “Let me walk there for a time.”
“No child, ” He gently answered me, “The green road does not climb.”
“My burden,” I said, “is far too great, How can I bear it so?”
“My child,” said He, “I remember its weight, I carried my cross, you know.”
“But,” I said, “I wish there were friends with me who would make my way their own.”
“Ah, yes,” he said, “Gethsemane was hard to face alone.”
And so I climbed the stony path, content at last to know
That where my Master had not gone, I would not need to go.
And strangely then I found new friends, the burden grew less sore,
As I remembered long ago, He went that way before.
Yes, for Jesus “…came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (John 1:11). “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief, as one from whom men hide their faces, we esteemed him not (did not consider him worthy of recognition)…He was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that makes us whole, and by his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned each to his own way (not a bad definition of sin), and God has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isaiah 53:3-6).
Is it not ridiculous, even blasphemous, to think that the road we travel with Jesus in our own time should be easy? How can the true cost of discipleship, taking up the cross of Jesus, nailing ourselves down to die, being crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20), ever be reconciled with the alien gospel so many contemporary preachers are proclaiming—a prosperity gospel, a gospel of health and wealth, a gospel offering a cushion rather than the cross of Christ? The Apostle Paul warned young Timothy, “In the last days, distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusers…unholy… swollen with conceit…lovers of pleasure… holding to an outward form of godliness, but denying the power….people will have itching ears, and will no longer put up with sound doctrine….choosing for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth” (2 Timothy 3:1-5, 4:4).
Has that time come? Could these days be the “last days?” I find myself wondering and asking myself this question, for these words of Paul seem to be as relevant for our times, and as descriptive of these times, as any words of scripture could be.