Sunday, June 27, 2010

Following Jesus Means Leaving Your Comfort Zone

(Read Luke 9:51-62 and Isaiah 43: 1-3a, 18-19)

Some people don’t have what it takes to follow Jesus. It’s too scary; it requires too much courage and an utter confidence in God to provide fully for your life.

Our Gospel passage from today talks about such people, the would-be followers of Jesus. They don’t have what it takes. First, we hear about the Samaritans. Jesus sent his disciples ahead of him to proclaim to them the Good News, but the Samaritans were afraid. The Scripture says that “they did not receive him because his face was set toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9: 53) which to me says they heard the prediction about Jesus future in Jerusalem, that the “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected but the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (Luke 9: 22). For those that didn’t know of Jesus well, this must have sounded like the wrong group to get involved with. After all, the one they would be following was going to get killed!

So the disciples said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (Luke 9: 54). This wasn’t a fire to kill them because they were non-believers; it was more like a sign, a miracle to show the Samaritans the power that Jesus and the disciples had from God. This way, the Samaritans would be assured that these men were of God, and then their hearts would be consumed with belief to follow Jesus.

But Jesus essentially said, “Don’t do that. If they aren’t ready to follow me, they aren’t ready. We won’t send them signs and wonders.” It reminds me of the Scripture, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet still believe.”

Next, as they were going along the road, Jesus said, “Follow me” to a man who replied, “Lord, first let me go bury my father” (Luke 9: 59). The Samaritans didn’t believe, and while this man believed, he was too attached to what he had going on in his life to leave everything behind and become a follower. Isn’t attachment a trap we can all relate to?

Jesus reply, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but you are alive, and so go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” But the man couldn’t do it. He felt too much responsibility to his family.

Along the same lines, another man said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” This man too was unwilling to leave his attachments behind him. He clung to his past so as not to create a new future.

Jesus reply, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9: 62). This is a very powerful message from Jesus. Imagine yourself plowing a field, but you have to keep looking behind you to see what’s going on back there. You can’t very well plow a field turned around. Many people get stuck in the past, and then they wonder why their present life is so unsatisfying. Jesus says, “If you’re going to follow me, you have to be ready for forward motion. The past has brought you to this place, but now, it’s time to move on.” It’s time to do a new thing.

So here we have some would-be followers of Jesus. The ones who don’t believe and so do not follow, the man overly attached to his present life circumstance and responsibilities that he won’t leave, and the man afraid to leave the past behind and move into an unknown future.

In some way, we share in these same excuses for not following Jesus. Who here at times doubts Christ and God, and thus puts your energies into worldly affairs? Who here is so consumed in your present life circumstance that you ignore or don’t even hear Christ calling you to new heights, new dimensions in life? And who here is too afraid or too unconfident to move forward because of the uncertainty it will bring into your life?

I know I have suffered from all three at various times. I believe God is calling me to write more and try to publish for the sake of expanding his message in this world, but I have all kinds of excuses to rationalize why I haven’t done more yet. They all boil down to fear and lack of confidence in myself, which is to say, lack of confidence in God.

Let’s talk about what it means to follow Christ for a moment. In the simplest sense, to follow Jesus is to live by his teachings, to do what we are taught in the Bible. Sin stops us from that. So does laziness and selfishness. At other times, the teachings are just too hard. A few verses earlier at the beginning of Luke 9, Jesus says, “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money-not even an extra tunic” (Luke 9:3). Just live off whatever people give you. Who here is willing to give away everything you have worked so hard to acquire and that makes you feel safe, and go wonder around preaching Christ crucified?

There are easier teachings, like the command to love one another and pray for our enemies, so we can follow Jesus by doing those things. You might even have a favorite teaching of Jesus that you adhere to and in doing so create your own unique way of being faithful.

A more complex understanding of what it means to follow Jesus is living your life in such a way that you take action based on the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit inspires you to move to a new land, would you go? That would be following Jesus. If the Holy Spirit inspires you to move into a new line of service or work, would you leave behind what you are already doing, as scary as that may be, and start in a new field? To follow Jesus means to follow the Living God wherever God is leading you.

That takes courage and trust because it’s scary and unsettling to move into unfamiliar territory. But following Jesus often means heading into unchartered waters or going deeper into the waters you are in. Either way, following Jesus means going outside of your comfort zone.

Let’s talk about comfort zones for a moment. For many people, a cup of coffee in the morning is a source of comfort. And people are very particular about how they take their coffee because it’s only comforting when it’s the kind of coffee you want and are used to. Starbucks has made a billion dollar industry out of giving people their coffee just how they want it. Americana. Latte. Frappuccino. Skinny. Soy. Sugar-free. You name it, you can have it. And the coffee always tastes the same at every Starbucks. Heck, even the stores look the same.

People like their lives like they like their coffee -- consistent!

I know a man named Tim, and he liked to call the shots in life. He was a leader, knowing what he wanted, in charge and good at making decisions. Tim’s company hired another associate, Mark, that was very similar to Tim in the way he thought and acted. Although, of course, to Tim, Mark was overly aggressive and too confrontational. They began working closely together. At first, Tim was very frustrated by Mark. Their ideas clashed and so did their personalities. The office became an unpleasant place, filled with tensions between the two.

But Tim is a follower of Christ, and so while praying one night, he realized what he had to do. Tim decided to yield to Mark, at least for awhile as an experiment to see if it made things better. When Mark would make a declaration, Tim would simply listen instead of arguing the point. It felt foreign to Tim to take this “back seat” approach, and it made him uncomfortable, but he remained committed to acting differently around Mark in the hopes that the dynamic between them would change.

Tim wasn’t sure if he was doing the right thing or not because he felt so strange not leading his group at work like he always had. It took time, but one day Tim realized that Mark actually had innovative ideas and effective leadership. Tim became more able to relax and appreciate his work in a new way. He found that he had more time to listen to his co-workers and talk to his clients. One of the things that Tim ultimately realized was that the yielding, as foreign as it felt, wasn’t bad or wrong, it was simply different for him. In fact, this out-of-his-comfort-zone yielding actually had benefits. It was like Tim went from drinking his coffee black to adding whole milk and one raw sugar. Neither way is a right or wrong way to drink coffee, they’re just different, and Tim realized that he could enjoy coffee both ways.

In the end, Tim actually liked yielding to Mark, at least on certain decisions, and the entire work relationship was transformed. Plus Tim found himself enjoying aspects of work he had never really even considered before, like the personal relations aspect. Christ provided the catalyst in Tim’s life, and a prayerful lifestyle helped to transform his inner world. It took courage and fortitude to go into the unknown, but in doing so, Tim reinvented himself. What a willingness on his part to be outside his comfort zone and actually change.

Like Tim, we all have opportunities in our lives that ask us to stretch and grow. This is one of the ways that God asks us to follow Christ. They say that variety is the spice of life, and following Christ demands that we incorporate variety into our old repertoires; it means incorporating the new into the old.

As the prophet Isaiah writes, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old, I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43: 18-19). God is doing a new thing in your life, in all our lives together.

Some people don’t have what it takes to follow Jesus. They’re too scared; don’t have the courage, not confident in God’s grace, but not us. We are the faithful, and today, something new is happening. By God’s grace and our own willingness, we get to be a part of that something new. Let yourself move into foreign territory, even if it feels weird or different. Get outside of your comfort zone. God is going to bless you by this new thing that he is doing.

Just as practice, why don’t you drink your coffee different this week- or have no coffee at all. Go chai. Drink tea. Even better, allow yourself to feel different, think different and act different this week. Because to grow in faith and to follow Jesus into ever higher heights and deeper depths, we have to leave our comfort zones.

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