Texts: Jeremiah 18:1-11; Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
There is a choice to be made: choosing God has a cost; not choosing God has a cost. There are no cheap choices. There is a choice that leads to life for oneself and others. It is the hard, costly road of following Jesus.
The preacher faces an embarrassment of riches this week – the difficulty will be choosing what to focus on, because not all of the material can receive the attention it deserves in one sermon. But maybe that is appropriate because the passages are about choosing.
The choice confronting the reader, preacher, and hearer of these texts is choosing between God and God’s way, on the one hand, and not God and not God’s way, on the other. As the texts make clear the choice is not as easy to make as one might think. The preacher is invited to make two things clear:
Conversion is not easy. Neither the first time, nor daily as the Christian chooses anew to continue on the path of conversion.
Conversion is not a one-time thing. The Christian community is called to continual conversion, both individually and corporately.
In Deuteronomy 30, we find a covenant renewal ceremony. Moses speaks compelling about why the people should choose God. As Craigie notes below Moses is insistent that the people of Israel choose God. They had chosen God before – numerous times in the wilderness they had been faced with the choice – and now on the edge of the Promised Land as Moses last act with them, they are being asked to choose again. The preacher is called to invite their hearers to re-affirm their choice of God on a regular basis. Even developing rituals which remind the follower of God of the chose made.
The Jeremiah text describes what happens with clay that will not allow itself to be formed as the potter wants. Clay that is resistant will not be able to become what the potter wants, and there is a price to pay for not being malleable in the potter’s hand. The preacher wishing to highlight this passage will need to help hearers understand the balance between human free will – “I can resist God’s action in forming me for God’s purposes” and God’s sovereignty – “God is the potter who forms me, I am clay in his hands.” But two of the larger theological questions this text raises are: Can human beings say “no” to the divine “yes”? If they can, is the divine “yes” in some way limited?
The New Testament passages take the question of choice from the other side. Instead of warning those who say “no” to God of God’s judgment, these texts invite readers to carefully consider the cost before saying “yes” to God.
In the Luke passage Jesus is explicit, “count the cost” before deciding to follow. Jesus wants his hearers to understand that following Jesus will be costly, and he does not want anyone surprised by the cost part way through their following of him. He does not want people quitting halfway through because they did not consider the full import of his demands.
It is easy to spiritualize the cost of following Jesus. Following Jesus is about loving Jesus from the heart; following Jesus is about having Jesus as my BFF; following Jesus is about prayer and Bible reading – and we limit the cost to those issues. And then we read the letter to Philemon. The cost is very real – very practical – revolutionary. Philemon is called to treat this runaway slave as a Christian brother which means freeing Onesimus and seeing him as an equal. There is a financial cost to doing that, there is also a social cost for Philemon’s neighbors will not take kindly to this decision.
Saying “yes” to following God has a cost and Jesus does not want us to be naïve about that. It is costly to choose God and God’s way; just as it is costly to choose not God and not God’s way. The preacher is called to honestly put the case: choosing God – choosing conversion is expensive – but it leads to life for oneself and for others.
When I was in elementary school years, two or three summers my family spent a week apartment sitting for friends who had a place up in the mountains. It was great getting out of the hot, steamy city. Next to the apartment building where we were staying was a partially finished apartment building. It remained in that same partially built state for the three years I remember going up to the friends’ place in the mountains. The rumor was the man who owned the partially built building had miscalculated the cost of the building, and when he realized he would not be able to complete the building for the amount of money he had available, he ordered a stop to the construction. There the partial building stood; an example of Jesus’ warning about counting the cost ahead of time.
Christ insists that no-one can be a disciple of his without carrying his own cross and following him (see 14:27). The disciple must be prepared to accept the same hostility from the world as Christ suffered. But more. A man carrying his own cross along the street of some ancient city was normally a condemned criminal or a defeated rebel sentenced to death, deprived of all rights and possessions, and his way to execution. Everyone who claims forgiveness because Christ died as their substitute, thereby confesses themselves as a sinner who has forfeited all their rights and everything except what the grace of Christ gives them.
When, to his surprise, Philemon discovers that Onesimus, his own runaway slave, has returned, Paul doesn’t want him just to see Onesimus standing there. He wants him to see Paul himself.…What we are watching here, of course, is a living example of the Christian practice of reconciliation….This letter shows how costly it is, but also how explosive. Where in your world does reconciliation need to happen today? How can people who believe in Jesus make it happen?
N. T. Wright
On Deuteronomy 30
In the last resort, the matter came down to a decision that had to be made. God and his ability were not for one moment in question; the responsibility now rested on the people themselves. The making of a decision, however, involved more than simple affirmation; it involved a whole way of life based upon that decision.
Moses urges the people to make the proper choice. He does not ask for a dispassionate choice, for the whole course of his address has been leading up to this moment in the renewal ceremony when the people would declare their allegiance. Hence his words are virtually a command: “you shall choose life, in order that you and your offspring shall live” (v. 19b).
On Jeremiah 18:4:
The precise meaning of this verse is crucial to the interpretation. It is commonly held that the world of the potter was an illustration of the fact that Yahweh would work patiently with his people to make them the “vessel” he intended them to be. But the inference to be drawn from the verse, and from the more specific application of vv. 7ff., is clearly that the particular clay that lay on the wheel at the time was not suitable for the vessel the potter had designed, that is, the quality of the clay determined what the potter could do with it. He could make something else from the same clay, but not the particular vessel he had hoped for. The clay could thus frustrate the potter’s original intention and cause him to change it. Yahweh the potter was dealing with a clay that was resistant to his purpose. The quality of the people in some way determined what God might do with them.
- Spirit of the living God
- Jesus put this song into our hearts (Kendrick)
- We are one in the Spirit / They’ll know we are Christians by our love (Scholtes)
- Will you come and follow me / The Summons (Iona / KELVINGROVE)
- Lift high the cross
Prayer of Illumination
you form us on the wheel of life
as a potter molds the clay.
Shape us into holy vessels,
bearing the mark of your wise crafting,
that we may remain strong and useful through years of faithful and obedient service
in Christ’s name. Amen.