Lead by Following

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I am super sad not to be with you personally. I look forward every Sunday to be with you, to hear your stories, your joys, your struggles, to pray with you. And I was trying to figure out a way to make it work, because this past week I was near someone who tested positive. I asked if I could preach from the drum cage, but that got shot down. So, here we are. Let’s look at Mark 1.

Last month, Ben Sixsmith wrote an article entitled “The Sad Irony of Celebrity Pastors.” The subtitle is long. “Instead of Making Me Want to Become More Like Them, It Looks Very Much as If They Want to Become More Like Me.” He’s talking about Christians, specifically pastors, who seem to be so enamored with everything the culture is enamored with — money and fame and celebrities and sexual freedom and political power — yet with a “twist of Christianity.” That’s his phrase, “with a twist of Christianity.” He spends much of the article highlighting the fall of Carl Lentz, tragic story, who is the former pastor of Hillsong Church, recently removed for infidelity. And then he ends the article. Whether you agree with these examples or not, I think it’s really important to hear what he has to say as a non-believer writing to believers or about believers. He says this.

“We can see the ‘… with a twist of Christianity’ trend elsewhere. [Not just in the Karl Lentz story.] Falwell [He’s talking there about Jerry Falwell, Jr.] was representative of the right-wing, business-oriented evangelicals who offer capitalist self-enrichment and hubristic jingoism … with a twist of Christianity. Then there are progressive Christians of whom Nadia Bolz-Weber is an extreme example, who promote the usual left-wing causes … with a twist of Christianity. While different in beliefs, such people share patterns of thought: the former believe secular individualists mysteriously share God’s wishes for what should be done with money while the latter think that secular progressives mysteriously share God’s wishes for what should be done with bodies. So, if Christianity is such an inessential add-on, why become a Christian?

“I am not religious, so it is not my place to dictate to Christians what they should and should not believe. Still, if someone has a faith worth following, I feel that their beliefs should make me feel uncomfortable for not doing so. If they share 90% of my lifestyle and values, then there is nothing especially inspiring about them. Instead of making me want to become more like them, it looks very much as if they want to become more like me. That, sadly, appears to have been true of Lentz and his celebrity acquaintances.”

Now, I have no desire to pick on the people mentioned in this article. I am well aware of my own brokenness and we are all people who desperately need grace. But this, Ben Sixsmith’s article, does raise a big question. And that is, if everyone is following someone, is it obvious who we as Christians are following? If everyone is following someone, is it obvious who we are following? So, let’s pray and then dive into this.

Father, as we pray over our elders today, as we have been wrestling with so much moral and political chaos in our country, as we face so many social and medical and financial challenges, as many of our families mourn over the loss of loved ones, and as many battle sickness, we pray that today you would take us back to the basics. Who are we following? And teach us what it means to follow Jesus. In Jesus’ name, amen.

Mark 1:16, Jesus was

“passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen.” [Verse 17] “And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’” Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men. Can you say that with me here in Taylors, Northwest, at home? Out loud. “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” One more time. “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.”

There are four parts to that call. Let’s unpack those eleven words carefully. Number 1, follow. Follow. You are not the leader of your life, Jesus is. You are not the leader of your life, Jesus is. Now, Mark says this several different ways here. Notice in verse 17, “follow me.” And the word he uses there for follow is literally “come after.” Come after me. And then in verse 18, “And immediately they left their nets [To follow, you have to leave something else in order to follow], and they followed him.” And that’s the normal word for follow. Different word than he used in verse 17.

Verse 19, “And going on a little farther, he saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boats mending the nets [verse 20]. And immediately he called them [another way to describe what it means to follow is to be called], and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed him.” A different word for follow is used. So, regardless of what word, the meaning is shocking. This is a shocking call. And according to John 1, the Gospel of John, chapter 1, and chapter 3, these men already knew Jesus. They had served with him, assisting him. But now they are being summoned to leave their jobs, to leave their families to be with Jesus. This is radical. Listen to what Tim Keller writes.

“We know from reading the rest of the Gospels that these men did fish again, and they did continue to relate to their parents. But what Jesus is saying is still disruptive. In traditional cultures, you get your identity from your family. And so, when Jesus says, ‘I want priority over your family,’ that’s drastic. [Notice when he said follow me, James and John left their family. That’s drastic.] In our individualistic culture, on the other hand, saying good-bye to our parents isn’t a big deal, but for Jesus to say, ‘I want priority over your career,’ — that’s drastic. Jesus is saying, ‘Knowing me, loving me, resembling me, serving me must become the supreme passion of your life. Everything else comes second.’”

This call in verse 17 cannot be divorced from what we just talked about last week in verses 14 and 15, where we ended the message last week. Look at verse 14. “After John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, proclaiming the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.’” So, following Jesus cannot be an add-on. It’s a regime change. Jesus is our King, not our spiritual guru, not a tack-on, not everything else “with a twist of Jesus.” Jesus is calling us to a completely new way of living, even more than just an apprenticeship.

Revelation 14:4, if you remember in our series on Revelation a couple of years ago, Christians were defined as those who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” For Peter, Andrew, James, and John, following Jesus meant leaving their jobs, leaving their families … and being with Jesus. Jesus didn’t always require this. For example, we’re going to see in Mark 5, the man set free from demonic oppression. In verse 19 he asked Jesus if he could come with him, follow him. And Jesus said, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you.” So, whatever following means, it obviously for these men right now there in the text, it means to physically follow and be with Jesus. But there are obviously different kinds of ways of following Jesus.

So, it raises the question for us. How do we follow someone we cannot see? Jesus anticipated this question as he was preparing to die, to give his life, to leave his disciples. He taught them. He talked about many gifts, but two big gifts that every follower of Jesus will receive. See if you see the hints at these in John 14:23.

“Jesus answered him, ‘If anyone loves me, he will keep my word [So one of the ways you’ll know a true follower of Jesus is if they keep his word.] and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’”

Wow! So, did you see the two gifts? One of them is his Word, the other is his Spirit. And the two are inseparably connected because his Spirit … He’s giving us his Spirit to fill us with the manifest presence of Christ. And then he’s also giving us the Spirit, as he tells the disciples, because the Spirit will bring to their remembrance the things that he has said that comes from the Father. They will be inspired to write those things down so that we today have the very words of Christ and follow them. And that is why even though the language of following that we see in Mark 1 does morph some throughout the New Testament, it’s still very real, very present, even after Jesus died and rose and ascended to the Father. Let me show you an example. Ephesians 2:1, notice first, we are all following someone.

“You [before you were a Christian] were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, [This is walking language, following language.] In which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience — among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved.”

Now, here you see the contrast in these five verses. We were following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, carrying out the desires of the body, flesh. But by God’s grace we repent, believe. We’ve been made alive. The being made alive together with Christ is the contrast to being swept away following the course of this world — trying to be like those we’re supposed to be modeling Christ to rather than following Christ. Look at how this language continues through Ephesians.

Ephesians 4:1, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk [it’s that following language, that walking language], walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”

Ephesians 5:1, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”

One more from Ephesians 5:6, “Let no one deceive you with empty words [In other words, people are going to try to get you to follow them], for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore, do not become partners with them; for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.”

1 John 2:6 says something similar. “Whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.”

So, here it is. You are not the leader of your life, Jesus is. And I want us all just to take a moment to take that in as we begin 2021. What is it like to walk into a year when we don’t know how it’s going to go financially, medically, vocationally, relationally? We don’t know. And yet we know we follow Jesus. So, Lord, I’m in for whatever you have for me, for us. Because we are not in charge of our lives. We follow you.

Second, Jesus said follow. Follow me. Follow me. Your identity is not found in merely affirming propositions, but in a person, in Jesus. Now, this call is intensely personal. Let’s be clear. What you believe matters, and the best way to understand this distinction is the difference between belief that and belief in. Belief that and belief in. Let me show you two examples from John 14. John 14:10, Jesus said, “Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” Jesus is saying, “Do you believe this theological statement about the Trinity, about my relationship with the Father? All true Christians believe that this is so.” Then he goes on a couple of verses later, verse 12, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do.” Jesus is showing that both of these are vital, one without the other is deficient. For example, Satan believes that Jesus is God, but Satan has not believed in Jesus as God. There’s a big difference.

Now as believers, we’ve got to know certain truths, propositional, theological truths, that are so. But then truly following is more than just knowing. We are following. Jesus is saying, “Follow me.” There’s something intensely personal about that. Follow me. No one says that unless they’re either crazy or God. Follow me. Paul illustrates how personal this is in Colossians 3:1-4.

“If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”

So, Paul is … I’ve said this before and I think it’s so important, because so many times people talk about Colossians 3:1-4 as if it’s a plea to talk more about heaven. That’s a good thing to talk more, to seek more about heaven, to think more about heaven, to speak more about heaven. But that’s not the primary goal. And you see that if you read the whole chapter, because Paul is going to go on to talk about speech, marriage, family, kids, job, community — all these things. And the point he’s making is, your hidden life in Christ shapes the way you think about all these areas of your life. You can’t know your life apart from Jesus. You don’t really know who you are apart from who you are in Jesus. This is intensely personal. And so, your identity is not found in merely affirming certain propositions, but in a person, in Jesus.

Number 3, “and I will make you become.” I will make you become. You are not the primary agent of change in your life, Jesus is. Now, it is highly unusual for Jesus to call his disciples. In that culture, students normally pick their teacher. You look around for a teacher who’s smart enough or respectful enough or knows things that you don’t know about something. And you say, “I want to study, I want to follow, I want to be an apprentice of you.” But Jesus flipped this. We get a glimpse here as to one reason this is so significant. As J. Marcus writes,

“It is thus not principally the brothers’ detection of some special quality in Jesus that leads to their becoming his followers, as in the typical disciple-teacher relationship … but his perception of them, his prophetic vision of what they will become under the impact of his presence (‘I will make you…’).”

Think about that. He knows what he’s making us. He gives us everything we need to become what he’s making us. He knows our strengths and our liabilities and the challenges that will be there for us to be made what he is making us. And many of us forget this. We live with this perpetual sense that Jesus chose poorly. Kind of like, if you’re on the playground as a kid, and they’re picking teams, and the captain points to you. And then you start walking out to his team. And as you’re halfway out, the captain’s like, “No, no, no, no, no. I didn’t mean you. I was pointing to the person behind you. You.” And so, you turn around, and you make the walk of shame back to your clump waiting to be picked. And some of us feel that way. “Well, I may be in the church, but it was kind of a mistake. I’m not sure how that happened. It was something I did or the family I was raised in, or … maybe Jesus chose poorly, or whatever reason. I’m not supposed to be here.”

But, what Jesus says here is, “Follow me and I will make you become.” I did the calling. I do the transforming. I give you everything you need. And what this does, a recognition of this does, is being with Jesus allows us to be with ourselves. Think about that. Being with Jesus enables us to truly be with ourselves. And by “with ourselves,” I don’t mean condone sin or be lethargic. I mean to truly be honest and available and present in the presence of Christ. This is who I am. You knew that before you picked me. You called me. I didn’t call you, or I didn’t call me. I was summoned. And therefore, what that enables us to do is to recognize that he is not calling us to live some hypothetical thought bubble life. You know what I mean by that? I have it in my imagination that if I’m truly godly enough, then I’m going to become this. And if I don’t have the liability of the problems in my family, my spouse, my marriage, my friends, my failures … If all these things weren’t there, I would truly be this. No, hear me. If you live a bubble life, you’re going to live a double life. If you try to live a bubble life, you’re going to live a double life.

What I mean by that is if you try to live a life that consists of this thought bubble of your imagination, your dream Christian life, and then you know you’re never going to achieve that. But that’s not what Jesus is calling you to. Because that leads us to fake it and deceive, and pretend, not to be honest and open with our brothers and sisters, and not to be honest and open in the presence of Christ. Jesus is just saying, “Hey, listen. I didn’t pick you for anything you could contribute. I’m going to make you become. I gave my life for you.” We’re going to see this in the Gospel of Mark so powerfully because the disciples are so dense. They don’t get it. And Jesus patiently, persistently opens their blind eyes, transforms their hard hearts, and he’s doing that for us today.

And then finally, fishers of men. “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Your development is not just for you, but Jesus will use you to help others. Now the metaphor Jesus uses here should not be pressed inappropriately, as if Jesus is recommending we become fishermen using nets and worms to hook people, catch people. That’s not the point. The sea in that culture was a symbol of darkness and chaos and danger and evil and judgment. And so, when he says, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men,” he is saying, “Come with me, and I’m going to transform you to become someone who lives for something beyond yourself. I will fill you with the Spirit, my Spirit. I will empower you and guide you through the Word. And I will use you as you proclaim the gospel, the good news, to the lost, to the hurting, to the hopeless, to the ones caught up in the chaos, so that you are helping people out of the darkness, by my power.”

Now you can see the flow of this whole call — “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men” — follows the overall movement of our church purpose. Believe in God’s Word. We are called to follow, to believe in Jesus. Connect with God’s family. Think about Mark 1. This is not a solo call. Jesus doesn’t just call one. He’s not just calling an individual. He’s calling a group. He’s building a body, a church, a family, a people. He’s offering this up as his church. So, connect with his family. And then share God’s story. The overflow of this spills out into our communities, our workplaces, our culture, our country, the world, for the life of the world. I will make you fishers of men.

In the book, “A Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” Charles Marsh describes a time when historian Wilhelm Niesel visited Bonhoeffer’s monastic-like seminary at Finkenwalde. And Niesel, in his words, “felt out of place” and wondered if Bonhoeffer was being too serious in his lectures and too disciplined in his lifestyle, not giving enough time to leisure and to pleasure. Now, let me clarify. Bonhoeffer did have a strict regimen at the seminary. However, he played soccer, loved playing games, going rowing, all those things.

But Niesel expressed this. And the next day Bonhoeffer took him out on a rowing expedition on the Oder Sound. And when they reached the far shore, Bonhoeffer led Niesel over a hill where they could see, when they crested the hill, they could see this massive field filled with German fighter planes landing and taking off, with massive squadrons of soldiers that looked like mechanistic ants — training, moving, running, everything frantic and in formation. And Bonhoeffer looked at all this happening and said to his friend, this training is, in Bonhoeffer’s words, “for a kingdom … of hardness and cruelty.” And the implication that Bonhoeffer was making was, if the church is not going to be swept up with, at that time, Nazi fanaticism, she must be crystal clear who she is following and how she will train, what she will be trained with, so as not to follow this culture of fanaticism, cruelty, hardness.

Today we are in the same place. Naziism is not what it was in Germany at the time. But we are still tempted to ape the world, to follow the world system, to follow the prince of the power of darkness and just add “a twist of Christianity” to that, add a little church on Sunday. Jesus is not an add-on. “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” Let’s pray.

Father, we are not the leaders of our lives, you are. I pray that you would burn that into our hearts, our hearts as elders, as pastors, as we seek to humbly lead as servants this year, following you. I pray that you would burn that into the fathers and mothers who are concerned about health, about education, about finances, about all these things that we can be wrapped up in. I pray that we would remember we are first and foremost followers. That we would lead in our homes, and in our churches, in our workplaces as first followers. That our identity for all of us — single, married, teens, kids — our identity is not found in just propositions, but in you, Jesus, your person, who we are in you. We cannot change ourselves. We don’t have the power. We’ve tried. We cannot fight flesh with flesh. We cannot fight fire with fire. We saw, we saw even this week, when you try to fight fire with fire, it does way more damage. Our transformation comes from you, and it overflows to others. So, may we be a people who follow you, and you make us fishers of men for your glory. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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