Always a Lonely Road

In Sermon Manuscripts by Rachel Schultz

Always a Lonely Road


Photo: Dreamstime

It was a crowded spiritual gathering of the National Religious Broadcasters, held down in Anahaim, California. The ballroom was packed with high-profile names; many of them were media stars and dynamic leaders. One keynote speaker held up his Bible, however, and shared a line that dramatically shifted the paradigm on these ambitious men and women with their television makeup and donor bases. He talked about the reality that leadership is what the entire world aspires to. People want to be leaders. That’s the path to advancement. There are seminars in large stadiums and megachurches on leadership. The world of politics emphasizes a man or woman’s leadership qualities. But then this minister quietly bowed his head and said to that crowded ballroom: “I think what our hurting world actually needs is more ‘followership.’ We need disciples who will go where their Master asks them to go.”

In Matthew chapter four, Jesus walks up to two men one day: brothers named Simon Peter and Andrew. They’re busy; they have lots to do; they’re making a living casting nets into the water. And we all know what Jesus says to them: Come, follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.

This is what we want to explore at our church for the next few Sabbaths together. What does it mean, here in the 21st century, to be a follower of Jesus? That’s one of those dangerously overused clichés that has almost melted on us, but in this Bible story, followership was a whole new life for these two brothers. They left their nets; they abandoned what they were doing before and they literally went down the road with Jesus. This was a new full-time career for twelve competitive men.

Of course, I am a full-time ministry worker for the Lord; most of you are “other things”; you are still cleaning your nets and making a secular living catching fish. Which is precisely where God wants you. I believe that with all my heart. Praise God that your boat is out on the open seas where there are fish to catch for the Lord. But at the same time, there is something called “followership” which Jesus invites you to participate in as you plan your life.

An Adventist church once went through a buying spree where everyone in the congregation was buying a Honda Odyssey minivan. One couple purchased one, and soon everyone else at in the church had to get one too. One lucky salesman at Robertsons Palmdale Honda suddenly was trying to handle this flood of Bible-toting Adventists coming into his office, saying, “I want the same deal as so-and-so.” “Do you go to such-and-such Adventist church?” “Yes.” “Can you recite the fourth commandment?”  “I think so.” “All right, $200 over invoice.” Cool!

Now, there are certain advantages to having everyone in this church all drive the same car. After potluck, if your minivan is getting too many miles on it, just take someone else’s. They may never notice. If your kid is unruly during church, maybe he’ll climb into the wrong silver Honda and accidentally go home in someone else’s family. And if anything mechanical goes wrong with the vehicles themselves, talk about the potential for a church class-action suit!

It takes a lot of courage to stand up tall, face this army of Honda owners and say to them: “I don’t care what you guys say. I’m going to buy a Toyota. Or a Hyundai. Or a lowly BMW.”

You all know that we call this phenomenon peer pressure. Someone ran a sociological experiment once; it sounded like a simple thing. The instructor in a crowded classroom would hold up a white card with two lines on it. Line A and Line B. And all you had to do was to pick: which one is longer? A or B? In most cases, it wasn’t even close. “A” would be hanging off the end of the page, substantially longer than B. But in several of the votes, most of the room seemed to be suddenly delusional. They were voting for what looked like the wrong line. You could see that “A” was longer, but everyone in the classroom was standing up for Line B.

And what one lonely test subject didn’t realize was that the entire room—except for her—had been clued in ahead of time. They’d all been given a coupon for a free Subway sandwich if they would purposely vote for the wrong line.

What happened to the test subject, the lonely voice of sanity and reason? In virtually every case, they would cave and vote for the wrong line too. With so many people all around them going: “A! A! A is longer,” they just could not stand up to that unstated peer pressure.

A college student once approached a classmate and asked if he could interview him about some innocuous topic for an assignment he had. As the interviewee gave him answers, he sometimes seemed very pleased, almost giddy, with what his subject was saying. He would nod; his body English seemed to say, “Yeah. Good answer. Go, Bill!  I’m going to get an A for sure.” On other answers, his body would almost wilt as he glumly wrote down the obviously idiotic replies. Later, when they were done, he told his subject that he had been a guinea pig; the students in this psych class were supposed to try to “guide” and shape answers by bubbling over with affirmation on some responses and scowling on others. In another school, there was a surreptitious experiment about pretty girls in a college classroom, sitting on the front row, smiling flirtatiously and crossing their miniskirted legs whenever male professors would walk in their direction while lecturing. Within about a week, some teachers were so glued to that one side of the room they would hardly leave it to go up to the board to write something down.

Well, there is a reality described for us in God’s Word today. When Jesus Christ invites us to follow Him and be His disciple, it usually turns out to be a rather lonely decision there too. Following Jesus fully will generally be against the flow of peer pressure. Most of the crowd will be surging in the wrong direction, and you see your Savior up ahead quietly beckoning to us: “Follow Me.”

I think we’re all aware that a majority of our natural community is not here. Maybe you think of your high school graduating class. Or your circle of college friends. Many of us can look back with a stab of painful reality and see that, of those we knew in our teen years, many of them are out in the wilderness now. Missionaries hear of defections among people who were the most stalwart of Christian soldiers in foreign lands. And no matter what group you consider, you still being an active follower of Jesus now, decades later, probably puts you in a minority position. Holding together a band of disciples for Jesus is probably always going to be an uphill struggle. “Follow Me” is never going to be a popular campaign slogan.

There’s a wonderful Christian hymn entitled I Will Follow Thee, My Savior, which has five verses talking about the storms and the waves and the challenges a person faces who decides to follow Jesus as a disciple. And the chorus adds this pledge: “And though all men should forsake Thee, By Thy grace I’ll follow Thee.” When others drop away, you’ll keep going. When your own brother or sister quits the faith, you stay on the trail.

That musical line can’t help but make us think of the agonizing New Testament story where this fisherman I just mentioned, Simon Peter, is sitting in the upper room, and he has some brave and boastful words to say about “followership.” Jesus has just said to the eleven, “Thanks, guys, for following Me up until now. You’ve stayed by My side through some pretty hard times; I appreciate it. We’ve been serving instead of being served.” And then Jesus has a message for His close friend, Peter: Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you like wheat. (I’m glad that even Satan can’t do some things without heaven’s permission.) Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back—‘cause you’re going to have a bad night tonight—strengthen your brothers. (Luke 22:31, 32)

And Simon feels like he’s ready to go for it. “Lord,” he says, his warm blood surging through his veins and his sword by his side, “I am ready to go with You to prison and to death.”

Now, those are great words. But what he’s really saying is: “Lord, I think as long as we all stick together and have two swords, we can stay out of prison and we can fend off those who are determined to visit death upon us. I’m ready to follow You away from prison and away from the cemetery. Just don’t ask me to go anyplace hard, and don’t ask me to do anything lonely.”

Just a few hours later potluck is over and they’ve all left the upper room. They’re away from the warm and into the cold. Instead of an alert fellowship, they’re a sleepy and separated bunch of cowards. And suddenly, when there are soldiers around and the steel is clanking and the enemy swords are glistening in the moonlight, following Jesus becomes a very lonely objective. And just like the song says, all men did forsake Jesus . . . and Peter too. He led the way in the hundred-yard dash going in the other direction. Later in the courtyard he denied his best Friend three times. Simon Peter had a bad night. So following Jesus can be a very lonely thing. There’s another song we sing which goes like this: “I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.” And then these prophetic words: “Though no one join me, still I will follow.”

Let’s picture today being those first two men invited by Jesus. “Come, follow Me,” He says to Peter and Andrew.  And they do. They get right up and get on His bus. But wouldn’t it have been a typical response if they had said, “Well, now, wait. Who else have You got? Is there anybody besides us going with You?” That didn’t happen that we know of, but this had to be a lonely decision. Even for some of the other men to join this army, let’s notice that it was always a small army. The biggest it ever got was twelve guys. Most of the crowds were off somewhere else. On the occasions when there was a big gathering, 90% of the mass group just wanted a free meal or to get healed of leprosy. And so when you and I today are tempted to sometimes shake our heads at the childish antics of these sunburned fishermen, let’s remember that they at least followed Jesus when following Him was the lonely thing to do.

A Traveling Community

This is a reality that is not ideal, but still a reality. We find in the New Testament that community and good peer pressure, what C. S. Lewis astutely calls “good infection,” are what we’re invited to create here at this holy place.  It’s easier to be faithful to Jesus when the other ten disciples hang in there too. Someone asked me not long ago, “Pastor, really, what can the church do to help us grow spiritually?” And I think the plainest answer is that it gives us community. We are traveling together toward the New Jerusalem; we sing the same songs, we pray together, we study the same Bible curriculum, we share experiences, we feel better about the fact that we have traveling companions. Sometimes when you are out walking or jogging in the early morning, a pack of fifty bicyclists will come roaring up the hill and gliding by you in one mass body of muscles and friendship.

I’ve found that it’s much less intimidating emotionally to go on a mission trip when my spouse or other loved ones are long, or a huge contingent of family and friends. We’ve said here that new Christians quickly need six friends, six people who will walk the same road with you and encourage you in your spiritual decisions.

But the fact is that sometimes it’s just you and a hard decision. Sometimes you have to get out of bed and drive a long distance by yourself in order to meet some divine appointment God has called you to fulfill. At that moment, there’s probably an element of lonely servitude, a time of decision. Am I going to still keep following in the path of church service, of doing this deed while others are still in their beds?

Not long ago, various Christian groups here in North America organized a nationwide campaign to focus America’s gaze upon the Ten Commandments. And there is often a kind of generic religiousness that exists in our society. “Do you believe in God?” Yes – 80% . “Do you believe in the Ten Commandments as a foundation for a holy life?”  Yes – 75%. “Do you consider yourself a Christian?” Yes – a pretty high number there too. Here in America, there’s a kind of user-friendly, low-calorie, low-demand—or even no-demand—brand of the Christian faith. When the Gallup people call, four people out of five say they are followers. But so much of that—me included—is like Peter there in the Upper Room. In real life, when it comes to obedience and patterning our lives after Jesus, when it involves sacrifice and personal discipline or the hardness of forgiving your enemy, then followership abruptly comes to a halt. We might carry a little Jesus flag or put a fish decal on our car, or a Ten Commandments pin in our shirt collar, but we’re not ready to follow the General when He leads us into a dangerous battle. Not by a long shot.

Steven Curtis Chapman, in his CD, Speechless, has a song where he mentions all the Jesus-y doodads he has.  One-way-to-heaven T shirt, WWJD bracelet, Holy Spirit necklace, John 3:16 key chain, Bible magnet on the fridge. But the chorus goes: What about the change? What about the difference? What about forgiveness? What about a life that’s showing I’m undergoing the change.

I saw a Doonesbury cartoon strip a long ago where a couple was searching for a new church. And the preacher says to them, hoping they’ll join: “Basically, I believe that we’re all recovering sinners. My ministry is about overcoming denial, it’s about recommitment, about redemption.  It’s all in the brochure there.”

And the guy kind of bristles. “Wait a minute. Sinners? Redemption? What are you trying to say? Doesn’t that imply, like . . . guilt?” He doesn’t want anything like that. And even though the brochure has a picture of some racquetball courts, he decides not to join. “The Unitarians have racquetball too,” he tells his wife. “Let’s shop around some more.” And we see here in the funny pages something that isn’t really very funny: a desire for Christianity that doesn’t demand that we actually follow Christ.

I want to be practical as we think about what following means. Here are two ideas to digest today. First of all, Peter and Andrew got up and went where Jesus was going. It involved an act of traveling, of leaving the secular things and following Jesus into a spiritual kingdom. Abraham had to pack up and go someplace; so did Moses. And Paul and Philip. And being very down-to-earth, it may actually be a good thing if you have to drive quite a distance to come here and be a part of God’s campaign. For all of us, following Jesus to His house of worship means coming here. It means a drive. For parents with two small children, it means packing up that Honda Odyssey, getting things ready.  Bringing that potluck dish. Staying into the afternoon for a ministry event or a walk in the park or a social activity with new Adventist friends in the evening. But in a very tangible and heaven-honoring way, these freeway trips are you and your family following Jesus. Being here is not the sum total of the Christian life, but your presence here is what enables us to be a warm and welcoming place to our new believers. They couldn’t come here to be loved if there were no here to come to.

I have treasured the great missionary stories which have been a part of Adventism’s heritage through the decades. But think of those lonely nights on a steamship, or a train, or even on a jet plane. Missionaries say goodbye to aging and ailing parents, knowing they will never see them again on this earth. Why do they still go? In order to follow Jesus’ invitation to go to all the world. That’s the kind of followership that involves a trip and a suitcase.

And then there’s this. Jesus says in John 15:14 and 14:15: If you’re My friend, then do what I ask you to do. My friends obey what I command. And to be a follower of Jesus absolutely does mean that when we discover His will, we obey that will all the time.

Here in this place, that determination has to be the foundation of our community. We are a place obedient to the teachings of Christ. When we find something in Scripture, we have to do it. Vance Havner once wrote: “What our Lord said about cross-bearing and obedience is not in the fine print. It is in bold print on the face of the contract.”  Moses tells God’s people in Deuteronomy 5:1: Here is our Law. Learn it. Follow it. We have to live the will of Jesus. To the best of our ability, we go where He asks us to go.

Jesus tells us to love the people around us. Okay. He wants us to keep this day holy in service to Him. Okay. He tells us to feed the hungry. We’ll try. He tells us we have to forgive each other, and after unclenching our fists and whispering a silent prayer for help, I think we’re committed to doing that. When we have a board meeting where we don’t all agree, He tells us to put our disagreements behind us when we adjourn; we agree to do that. There was a cute cartoon in Leadership magazine—and I guess it should have been in Followership magazine—where the board chairperson says: “So it passes, three to two, that from now on we’ll announce all our decisions as unanimous.” In another one, they all say to the stinker in the group: “Mr. Jones, would you please step outside so that we can take a unanimous vote?”

This is a hard list, isn’t it? Some of these items in the wardrobe of obedience pinch me just as much as anybody here. C. S. Lewis has an essay about what real faith is, real “followership,” and he says this about our common desire to just be cultural Christians who don’t move a muscle to heed God’s will for our lives: “The answer to that nonsense [thinking that obedience isn’t important] is that, if what you call your ‘faith’ in Christ does not involve taking the slightest notice of what He says, then it is not Faith at all—not faith or trust in Him, but only intellectual acceptance of some theory about Him.”

So when the Holy Spirit whispers to me—and notice that He’s described in the Bible as a “still, small voice”—and says, “You’re on the wrong road; you should be over here,” that can be a lonely moment. God is calling us away from compromise . . . and all our friends are compromising. Christian obedience might sometimes involve lonely followership.

Back in 1996, the Adventist Church in the Philippines decided they were going to try to bring 50,000 new people into God’s family in one year. That doesn’t sound like the lonely road; that sounds like a big, comforting mass movement. But there was a man in the city of Polomolok who was the pastor of a large cult group. Now, being in a cult can be a comforting thing because you’re surrounded by people who are carefully programmed to think just like you think. A cult makes sure you’re not alone, that you’re swept along in a stream of single-minded devotion. But this cult leader came to our Adventist meetings; he believed Jesus was calling him to obey and follow. And for him, that obviously meant losing his position as the head of this group; it also happened to lead to estrangement from his own wife.

Other people felt pressure from family members; there were even bomb threats. Ethel was a beautiful 24-year-old woman; she had a high-paying job as a civil engineer. For some reason, becoming an Adventist meant she lost that lucrative job. But there she was, night after night, singing in the choir. There was a family that was making a fortune selling coconut whiskey. For some reason, Jesus said to that family: “Please follow Me into a new livelihood.”  “What, Lord?” “Well, we’re going to find that out later. You just follow me.” That family did; they made that lonely decision and are now part of a community of people who don’t drink coconut whiskey.

Let me finish with this invitation. True greatness and dynamic change happens when a group of Christians make the decision to be followers of Jesus—and they make that a permanent, irrevocable decision. They don’t keep deciding 500 times. They don’t wake up each morning asking themselves: “Shall I or shall I not?” On Sabbath morning, they don’t endlessly ponder their destination for the day; they know they’re coming here.

There’s a man out there who probably could have been President of the United States by now, but Mario Cuomo simply could not decide. Are you running? I’m thinking about it. When will you decide? I’m not sure. And while he waited, other people with much inferior résumés went by him in the fast lane and got to the White House instead. Early in Bill Clinton’s presidency, he tried to put Cuomo on the Supreme Court. When you get a first-choice candidate and woo him, that’s a clandestine political process; you want to make sure they’re going to say yes before you make an offer in front of TV cameras. But twice in a row, the New York governor dithered and waffled, changed his mind, refused to take Oval Office phone calls, pulled 180s, yanked his yeses, and made the administration look absolutely foolish in the groveling process.

And there were eleven men in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John who were like that. They followed Jesus, then they backed away and wanted to find great positions for themselves. They wanted to walk on water, but then got scared and sank. Even the night before Jesus died, all eleven of them backtracked on their loyalty oaths and ran to the sidelines.

But after the Resurrection, when the new Christian Church needed definitive heroes, men who would make a commitment and follow through with it, these were the eleven guys. None of them ever again changed their vote.  They never backed away or rescinded their support ever again. They were done with dithering; they were Jesus’ core team for life. And the world was never the same again.

The Book of Revelation, chapter 14, has a description of those kinds of saints and the sort of followers who will make a difference for Jesus here in our society and in our time. They’re people who do one thing, the Bible says. They follow the Lamb wherever He goes. That’s all. Where Jesus goes, they go. What He does, they do. Where He leads, they follow. Shall we pray?

Lord, we pray today that we will be a community of followers. Please empower our beloved church to create a society where we don’t have to go it alone, where we can savor the camaraderie of obedience and dedication, but make us willing to walk a lonely road if that’s what it takes to be close to the Lamb, Your risen Son and our chosen leader. In His name we pray, Amen.

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