A couple of months ago while at a yard sale I stumbled across a book, and like 70 percent of the other used books I’ve purchased, I actually read it. The author Kyle Idleman is a pastor of Southeast Christian Church in Kentucky, the fifth largest church in America. Now let me say, while I have nothing against such large churches, I’m always a little curious or even skeptical, you all know how I feel about some churches and preachers who claim such an audience through offering the gospel in a way that presents comfort without suffering. Kyle admits it himself that he might have belonged to that group, but one day he had an epiphany. He says that one day when contemplating his sermon for Easter Sunday, and what kind of message he would give that would make people come back, he turned to the scriptures and realized something about the gospel, and about Jesus. Kyle discovered that Jesus more often taught in a way that offended, or that put people off, or made them not want to follow him, than anything else. Countless times we hear of large crowds following Jesus, and Jesus turning back to them for a reality check. Jesus desired quality over quantity throughout his entire mission, and to the point of Kyle’s book “Not a fan,” Jesus wanted followers, not fans. This morning we begin a three week series, taking a look at some stories in the gospels, discovering who might have been a fan, and who was a follower and what the difference is, who might have missed out on the chance to be a follower because they were content being a fan, and what this means or looks like for us and prepare you all to personally answer the question, are you a fan? Or a follower?
I’ll give you a bit of a hint in the difference between the two, the keywords are going to be things like dedication and devotion, surrender, a willingness to go wherever, whenever, and do whatever for Jesus. To illustrate the difference, we’ll begin by taking a look at one of my favorite biblical characters, Nicodemus in John 3: 1-8. The key to this whole passage for today’s purposes lies in the very introduction, “He came to Jesus by night.” Nicodemus had heard of Jesus, all of the wonderful and unexplainable things that were happening, he wanted to seek Jesus, he needed answers for himself, but he was a Pharisee, being seen with Jesus would likely lead to him being stripped of his status and cast away from his peers. He wanted Jesus, but not the consequences that would come with being seen with him, or following him. We’ll come back to Nicodemus later, but you can see how at least for the moment, he is more fan than a follower, admiring from a distance, not yet willing to forfeit or sacrifice his position, status, or wealth. Contrast this story with the one we heard last week of Zacchaeus, who in an instant gave up everything to follow Jesus. Or a story Kyle offers in his book, while he was on a mission trip in a tribal part of Africa two young men accepted Jesus as their savior. Kyle later saw those two men carrying large bags over their shoulders, they had been outcasted from their families and their village, and they knew well that’s exactly what would happen. To be a fan may require nothing, fans can sit on the sidelines and cheer, but don’t ask them to put any skin in the game, don’t ask them to take the field. To be a follower of Jesus requires taking up our cross, it means self-denial and sacrifice. Following Jesus isn’t something we say, it’s something we do, making a decision to put Him first, above all else every day, no matter what that means. For Nicodemus to become a follower and not just a fan would mean the same thing it did for those two African men, it was going to mean a willingness to relinquish everything, to be rejected and outcasted by his own people.
Kyle tells a couple of stories of something that I myself have heard too many times to count, this idea that we can love God, we can follow Jesus, go to and contribute to church, but we don’t have to, and shouldn’t get “carried away” is the term I often hear. A young single father began coming to Kyle’s church and began his life as a committed follower. He participated in all that he could, he gave all that he could despite his struggle with finances as a single father. He gave up working extra hours during worship time so he could be at church on Sunday morning, despite how much the extra money could have helped him. Rather than being excited about what was happening to her son, his mother was frustrated, and asked the pastor, Kyle, “Can you please tell him the bible teaches everything in moderation? Can you please tell him that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing?” You know I can’t even entirely blame the mother for her response, because the church throughout the last century, particularly within the past few decades has all but preached that very concept. We’ve somehow become comfortable with half-baked discipleship, everything in moderation, but yet we couldn’t find a single scripture I bet to back or support that claim. Jesus never preached that message, it was clear from the beginning that anyone who wished to follow him must hate father and mother, brother and sister, must be willing to sacrifice and suffer, must be willing to go all-in, to take up their cross, deny themselves, and follow him. If the apostles and disciples had that mindset we wouldn’t be sitting here this morning. Do you know what happened to the twelve disciples and the apostles? All but one were martyred, because they were all in, willing to follow Jesus, willing to sacrifice, even willing to die, fans don’t do that, fans aren’t willing to go the distance. You know I have to tell you, a couple of weeks ago I was with a friend of mine who I haven’t seen in a while, a father of a friend who I’ve known long before I entered ministry. He’s a great guy, but like much of the world and this mother, he doesn’t quite grasp this concept. He said he was glad that in all of this, and entering ministry, I didn’t lose who I was. He meant it as a compliment, but to me, it was one of the worst things he could have possibly said to me and called me to a moment of serious self-reflection, and that’s how all of us should feel. I love how Kyle responded to this woman the mother, he quotes scripture from Revelation in which Jesus speaks to the Christians in Laodicea “You are neither hot nor cold but lukewarm-I’m about to spit you out of my mouth.” Jesus never wanted, and still doesn’t want admirers, he doesn’t want lukewarm fans, he doesn’t want as Kyle says people who wish to practice in moderation, he wants all or nothing, and that is the cold, hard truth that we have lost in the church. Jesus wants, desires, needs our everything, not just what we want to relinquish. Those who wish to truly follow Jesus are demanded to be willing once again, to go wherever, whenever, to do whatever.
God called Abraham away from his homeland, he called Moses to return to Egypt where he was exiled and wanted for murder, Jesus called Peter out onto a stormy sea, he called Paul and all of the apostles to places where they would be persecuted, tortured, and even killed. In another favorite book of mine Draw the Circle Mark Batterson tells a story of two missionaries who felt called to evangelize in Africa, but weren’t sure where exactly, but trusted God would tell them. They came to a place where they felt God’s calling and asked the captain to let them off, and the captain responded: “this is cannibal country.” Yet John and Jessie Perkins knew that wherever meant wherever. A fan wouldn’t have gotten off the boat, but thankfully for Africa and that region, where hundreds of Christian churches would be erected, those two men decided to be followers. When anyone says they will follow Jesus wherever Jesus points to Jerusalem, he points to the cross, he points to places that are dangerous or uncomfortable for us, he points to surrender, self-denial and sacrifice.
Will you follow Jesus wherever? What about at work? What about around your secular friends? What if it means hardship? What if it means sacrifice? What if it means standing out or even being rejected by your family or peers? What if it means literally or metaphorically getting off the boat somewhere you may not like? What if it means giving up your family vacation to go on a mission trip somewhere Jesus is calling you? Within three centuries of the death of Jesus Christianity would be the official religion of the greatest empire in the world at the time, this was done by followers, not fans, who truly knew what wherever meant. Some of the greatest mission stories in the world, some of the greatest accounts in the bible, all by followers who were willing to go wherever, not fans who didn’t want to get too carried away, or people who say “I’ll follow you wherever Jesus, as long as it doesn’t make me uncomfortable, as long as it doesn’t make me look weird in front of others, as long as I don’t need to give up too much.” Where does wherever mean for you? Where is God calling you, or what places in your life is he looking to go, to touch? The premise is very simple, we can’t call ourselves followers if you refuse to go where Jesus went, to places that were uncomfortable, places that cost him everything. Being a fan is watching from a distance, being a follower means joining him.
Let’s go back for a moment to Nicodemus, because there is more to his story. Some would think maybe I didn’t give him enough credit, I mean after all he was willing to risk being seen to seek Jesus, that’s at least brave and even admirable. But see that’s just it, Nicodemus wasn’t willing to pay the price, he was still at the moment a fan. Jesus wants more from people than to follow him when it’s convenient for them. Nicodemus went from fan to follower when he put skin in the game in chapter 7 of John. The Pharisees are doing their best, but failing at arresting Jesus, and as they’re squabbling amongst themselves Nicodemus speaks up on behalf of Jesus for a fair trial. The Pharisees reply “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you?” Now that doesn’t seem like much, but understand that would be meant to be an insult of the highest order, as Galilee was an insignificant town that nothing good could come out of as they saw it. But more than that Nicodemus has now allowed his belief about who Jesus was to interfere with his life, he came to a point of risking his livelihood and his reputation. He didn’t come totally out and say it, but I think in these moments, Nicodemus was going from admiring fan, to faithful follower, because the third time we hear of him is after the death of Jesus, where Nicodemus meets with another disciple to take away the body, and Nicodemus provided Jesus with a burial of royalty. We don’t know for sure, but it seems Nicodemus was no longer hiding it, he had moved from that realm of cautious admirer and fan to follower, willing to go wherever, even to the cross. It’s not likely such a gesture would go unnoticed, and there were likely going to be consequences. The decision he made to follow Jesus was going to impact and touch every part of his life because again, that’s what wherever means. And that friends, is what Jesus desires from us. He wants us, demands us to follow him so closely, to seek him so strongly, that we become less of ourselves, and more of him, that we hide nothing from him, that we don’t leave him on the porch when we enter our homes, that we don’t leave him in our cars at 8:00 when we start our shift and pick him back up at 5. Choosing to follow Jesus means denying ourselves every day, choosing him not when it’s comfortable, but always and in all places. To be a follower means picking up our cross, dying to ourselves daily, and it’s not something that just happens, it’s a decision we must make.
Jesus calls many would-be followers and those who did follow to give it up, give up your possessions, give up your livelihood, give up your family, I want it all, hide nothing and no place in your life from me. My question to you all, and believe me myself included this morning, is where might have you been holding back? Where in your life does Jesus not follow? If Jesus calls you to witness to a coworker, despite how you might look and how awkward and uncomfortable it might be, will you do it? If God asks you in the grocery store to share your faith with a stranger, will you do it? If Jesus calls you onto stormy waters, will you go? Jesus went wherever, went the distance for you, all the way to the cross, but not so you could feel good, not so you can spend an hour a week worshipping him, but so that he could give you life abundant by becoming your life. Jesus asks you, do you love me? Will you follow me? Are you a fan? Or a follower? The answer only you can give, but just be sure that you are prepared to pay the price, and remember that saying yes to him, will mean saying no to yourself.