“Following the Voice of Jesus” on Matthew 4:1-11, 4:18-25 by Joe Ellis — September 11, 2022
We are preparing to climb the Sermon on the Mount, but last week and this week, we are doing a little training in base camp work first. The Sermon on the Mount refers to the collection of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5-7. Last week, I brought a map to help orient us around what the sermon is all about. It was the acronym VIM: Vision - Intention - Means. Which is basically a framework for working towards a goal you want to achieve. In order to set about accomplishing any difficult task, like becoming a concert pianist, you need to be clear on those three things. For that example, your Vision for being a concert pianist might be what it’d be like performing at Carnegie Hall, playing a particular piece of music. Once you have the Vision, you need Intention to do it. You can’t simply dream about it, you need resolve, or Intention to pursue the Vision. When Vision and Intention are in place, you need to figure out the right Means necessary to go after the Vision. So an aspiring concert pianist would get the right training, practice all the time, and start to do performances. Vision - Intention - Means.
I brought this up last week because when you read the Sermon on the Mount, you’ll be struck by how strongly Jesus emphasizes the Means, things we need to do. We can feel like it’s an impossible climb if we don’t keep in mind where we are going — the goal behind everything He teaches. So, last week, I suggested that the Vision behind the whole Sermon on the Mount is that Jesus is showing us what it looks like to live in the Kingdom of God. That’s the peak we’re aiming for, living a life in God’s Kingdom. Jesus came to announce that God’s reign is breaking into this world, and throughout his sermon, Jesus teaches us how to practice living in His Kingdom. If we practice these teachings, Jesus tells us that we will flourish and God will be glorified (these two things will be present at the same time)— that’s what happens when we live under the rule of the Kingdom. That’s what I believe is the Vision behind the Sermon on the Mount. That’s the peak we’re aiming for.
Today, my intention is to talk about Intention. We must consider the cost of discipleship and whether we Intend to embark on what can be a difficult road as we follow Jesus’ and His teachings. At the beginning of the week, I thought I would encourage us to consider the costs that Peter, Andrew, James and John paid to follow Jesus — Later, Peter says to Jesus, “We have left everything to follow you.” He didn’t know the half of it. In addition to leaving behind their fishing business and their family, two of these brothers would themselves be crucified. One was killed by King Herod on account of Jesus. This all invites us to soberly consider our own Intention to follow Jesus and His teachings.
In the months to come, as we listen to Jesus’ teachings, let’s consider how deep our own Intention runs to actually do what he says. We will hear some challenging words from Jesus, calling us to love our enemies, practice prayer regularly and faithfully, seek reconciliation with people who are ticked off with us — will these words be like water off a duck’s back? Or will we intend to really practice doing what he says? Yet today, I don’t want to talk about being Intentional in doing what Jesus teaches. That’s important, but before we can talk about being intentional in following Jesus’ teachings, we first need to talk about being Intentional in following Jesus himself. There’s a very big difference between those two. It is possible to follow Jesus’ teachings without following Jesus.
This was hit home to me last Wednesday night. I was at home reading a book on the Atonement (what else am I going to do?). As I was reading, a thought popped into my mind that was really troubling. I started remembering this Bible study program that I was in when I was in middle school growing up in my church. We studied Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible and used different coloured pens to underline certain passages. That program took place over three years, and we met every Wednesday. Then another thought popped in my head about how some other pastors teach youth the Heidelberg Catechism every week. These thoughts popped into my mind because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how we can foster discipleship in the minds of our youth. I desire to do more, but that night I had this really negative feeling that I was just a lousy person because of what we weren’t doing.
If I were to translate that feeling into a thought, it’d go something like this: “You are a hugely lazy pastor. If you really cared for the youth you’d be with them every week. If the youth grow up Biblically illiterate, it’s going to be all your fault.” I tried to ignore those thoughts and feelings for a while. I kept trying to read my book about the Atonement, yet I kept feeling worse and worse about myself. Finally, I stopped reading and had the thought that even though these thoughts were about discipleship, they didn’t feel like they were from God at all.
So I prayed something like this, “Lord, you know that I have a strong desire to see young people grow to know you, grow to love you, grow to feel cared for and nurtured in this church. I desperately want to see that happen. But I know this guilt and shame is not from you. Please lead our church in knowing how to disciple young people so that they experience deeply your grace and love.” I prayed something like that, though I probably polished it up for the sermon. The shame and guilt I was hearing was not from God, even though the content was about God and Jesus. It wouldn’t even be that hard to find a Bible verse to go along with it, something like when Jesus said, — “Go therefore and teach them everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28) But if I had obeyed that thought, even with a proof text, I would not have been following Jesus. I would have been driven by something else, not Jesus. Who knows, the Spirit of Jesus may eventually lead us to do something like I did in middle school, but he wasn’t the one speaking to me that night.
I was in a good place to recognize that someone or something else was working on me, because I’d been reflecting a lot on how the devil attacked Jesus in the wilderness. I remembered how the devil starts out by attacking Jesus’ identity. He kept saying to Jesus, “If you really are God’s Son,” “If you really are God’s Son.” Remember, “God’s Son” was a title for the Messiah — and here the Devil is trying as hard as he can to get Jesus to doubt who he is, to doubt whether he’s worthy of that title.
I was hearing a similar voice: “If you really were a good pastor, you would..…”, and who of us hasn’t heard a similar voice — “You call yourself a Christian and that’s what you do?” “If you really loved God, you would…” “If you really were a good son, daughter, brother, sister, teacher, farmer, husband, wife, mechanic…”
The devil attacks the core of our identity, either trying to lead us into shame about ourselves, into feeling terrible about ourselves and throwing up our hands in despair. Or maybe we try to prove him wrong and inadvertently do what he says.
What if Jesus said, “Not God’s Son, eh? I’ll show you! “Poof, there's a delicious crusty loaf of sour dough bread, it's still steaming.” The devil even quotes the Bible to get us to follow him. “Surely you know that the Bible says…”
The Devil can use the Bible to really derail us. So, the devil might say, “If you really do love God, you’d read the Bible more. You certainly don’t live on bread alone. You should read through it every year.” Then when we fail, we even feel worse about ourselves.
Or, he might say, “If you were a Christian you’d pray more, Jesus does tell you to pray.”
Or “The church really needs volunteers, if you were a better Christian you’d volunteer at the church more.”
Or “If you really were a Christian, you’d sell you boat. Look what Jesus said to the rich man, Sell everything and follow me.” .
Or “You’re not a Christian, if you were, you wouldn’t lose your temper. You certainly missed the boat on turning your cheek there, didn’t you?”
So, coming to us disguised like a sheep, the devil bates us with shame and guilt into responding to him. He leads us by bating us to do things that seem like good Christian things to do — who knows, the Holy Spirit might even lead you into very similar practices further down the road. But Satan has a very different reason and goal. He’s trying to get us off track of following Jesus. He’s trying to get us to follow guilt and shame and become his miserable servant. Jesus says you can tell false prophets by the fruit they produce — and if the fruit is shame and guilt and despair, we’re responding to someone else’s call, not Jesus. It is possible to follow Jesus’ teaching, but not follow Jesus.
On a side note, my intent isn’t to attribute all negative thoughts and feelings to the devil. We can just as easily be led off track by our own troubling thought patterns. We can just as easily be led off track by a community of people who are driven by their own shameful or guilt-inducing tendencies. Often, it's probably a confusing mix of all three — devil, our own fallen nature, and the fallenness of our surroundings. What’s important for us to realize is that just because a condemning thought has some sort of religious backing, doesn’t mean it’s from Jesus. Sometimes we’ll recognize this on our own, sometimes it’s brothers and sisters in Christ who can help us see — our community will, hopefully, help us to hear Jesus more clearly. For some of you, saying no to volunteering in the church may be exactly what Jesus has for you. For others, it may be a good first step.
There is no guilt and shame when Jesus calls. He walks up to Peter and Andrew saying, “Follow me! I’ll make you fish for people!” Likely, they had no idea what that meant, but “Straightaway they abandoned their nets and followed him.” They follow him with cheerful abandonment. This even continues after His death and resurrection. I love the pictures we see of disciples following Jesus after the resurrection. Peter is so excited that he practically jumps naked out of the boat and swims as fast as he can to be with Jesus. The two on the Road to Emmaus said their hearts were burning within as He walked with them.
In the passage we heard this morning — Jesus is announcing the reign of God, and people from all over Syria came to follow him, they were healed, demons were cast out, they were filled with hope at God’s Kingdom breaking in and what it might be like to finally live under God’s reign. The fruit of following Jesus is not guilt and shame. Jesus has this powerful and radiant way of drawing us out when He calls. Peter and Andrew left their business without looking back. No guilt. No shame. Sure, their hearts may have felt like they were dropping into a roller coaster, but they were drawn by the thrill, the joy, the adventure, the wonder, the power of Jesus.
So, when we talk about Vision, Intention and Means — I’m saying that we need to be Intentional about following Jesus, not simply following someone else’s manipulation of his words. We need to intend to listen to Jesus himself. Thus, it’s helpful to learn what his voice sounds like. Having a regular practice of drawing near to Jesus, spending time in his presence through prayer and Scripture are really helpful ways of becoming familiar with his voice. Remember, Jesus says, “My sheep listen to my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” One of the fruits of spending time in prayer and Scripture is that we learn the voice of the Shepherd. We’ll be able to tell His voice from the one who only wants to steal and hurt the sheep, even when he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Let’s keep this in mind as we work through the Sermon on the Mount. As we come up against some of the things that Jesus says, you may experience feelings of guilt and shame. If you experience some of those thoughts and feelings, I want to invite you to talk to him about your experiences of guilt and shame. For example, Jesus words on lust or divorce may be very difficult for you. Try not to stuff it. Talk to Jesus about your experience of His words. Talk with someone else about your experience. Don’t let guilt and shame rule your heart. Trust that as you openly talk and pray about your experience of guilt and shame, you’ll have the same experience as Paul, who found that when he prayed to God, “the peace of God transcended his understanding, and guarded his heart and mind in Christ Jesus.”
This could take time. It could take a long time. This could take some serious wrestling — but peace is what comes with the Intention to follow Jesus,and to draw close to Him with our difficult feelings. The spiritual masters remind us not to follow the spirit of desolation — which is characterized by shame, guilt, hopelessness, and despair. Rather, a sign that we are following Jesus is that we experience consolation, peace, and trust. If we are not experiencing consolation, if we are experiencing desolation, that is an invitation to be still, to place ourselves before Jesus, and wait until the peace returns. When he leads you, it will be through peace, not despair, not guilt, not shame.
So, when we think about our own intention to follow Jesus, we’re invited to be a bit more nuanced than mechanically follow all that Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. You are, of course, to learn from his teachings, to strive to follow them, but more than that, you are called to follow a person. That means you are asked to follow Jesus. That means you are invited to listen to how Jesus is particularly calling you to follow Him in this moment. For some of us, it may look pretty similar. For others, it may be different. We’ll hear some hard and challenging words. But as he leads us, he will empower us. Peter, Andrew, James and John couldn’t seem to help but leap out of the boat. When Jesus calls us, what before was impossible, suddenly becomes possible.
St. Augustine says, “Give us what you command, and command us what you will.” Were it not Jesus who gave the command, the paralyzed man could do nothing when he heard, “Pick up your mat and walk.” As we hear Jesus’ words and commands, let us trust that He will empower us to do what He says with love, peace, joy, hope, excitement, and, often, trepidation. When the voice of Jesus speaks, let us hear and obey — trusting that He is leading us deeper into His vision for the Kingdom.