Quantity or Quality, what’s your preference? Is it better to be able to walk into Kohls – and honestly alert: I shop at Kohls – and buy many items off the clearance rack, or to walk into say a Von Maur at the Corners and buy one outfit for 100 bucks? Is it better to go to goodwill and buy a bunch of used shoes, or to go Allen Edmonds and barely afford one shoe of the pair? How about this? A wonderful steak entrée at Flemings Steak House or a big old tray of food at Taco Bell (that last one is tough, I know). Quantity or Quality? It would be nice to have both, right? But many times, that’s just not possible. So, quantity or quality?
You and I might answer that question differently, but it sure seems that we live in a world that prefers quantity over quality. On social media, many people seek to gain the most “followers” and the most “likes” often resulting in rushed stories, clickbait headlines, or the oversimplifying of complex issues. We, consumers, are often lured by cheap prices of cheaply made products all in the pursuit to have more of, well, everything and anything. Even in a place like this, a church, we often fall into the temptation to focus on numbers, be they attendance numbers, financial numbers, or class size numbers. You see the bigger the number, the more stuff we have, the more likes we receive, it must mean we are doing something right, right?
So, why does Jesus do this? As large crowds are following him and as Jesus is growing in popularity, he turns to his adoring fans, and he speaks the hard truth. He asks the people to reconsider whether they should be following him or not. And it’s not that Jesus didn’t want those crowds to follow him. It’s not that he changed his mind and decided that not everyone was worth saving It’s not that he was trying to scare people away from him, but it is that he was serious about the quality of his followers. He wanted their love. He wants our love. So, what hard truth did Jesus speak that shows this desire for quality over quantity? Well, let’s take a look.
Start at verse 25, “Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” Uh, there was this guy – rather famous – his name was St. Augustine. St. Augustine was a Christian in the early church and one of the things he wrote about was this topic of disorder loves. Augustine taught that so much of life, and love, and conflict, and sin, can be explained by the order of the things you love. For instance, there is nothing wrong with loving your work, but if you love it more than your family, then your loves are out of order and you may ruin your family. Or if you love making money more than you love justice, then you will exploit your employees, again, because your loves are disordered.
So, go back to Jesus’ words here. He’s looking at these crowds, these people who supposedly love him, but what was their order of love? Did their love for Jesus rank higher than their love for their families, for themselves? Jump down to verse 33. There Jesus wondered if possessions, things found in this world, things God had given to them, if those things ranked higher on their love chart than Jesus.
Uh, there is this commandment – I think you know it. We call it the first commandment. Do you remember how it goes? “You shall have no other gods.” Now, our friend Martin Luther, he added to that commandment, not in a sinful way, but he asked the good question, “What does this mean?” I bet you know that too…”We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.”
That’s what Jesus is saying here. “It’s great that you’re all following me, but do you love me? Do you love me more than them? Do you love me more than that? If you don’t…look what Jesus says…”you cannot be my disciple”. That’s hard! And scattered throughout these frank honest words from Jesus are these short asides about marching off to battle, and building a tower, and tasteless salt, and these asides all simply declare that if we can’t or won’t order our lives so that love for Jesus is at the top of the list then we ought to turn back now rather than be found wanting in the end. So, what do you do with that, with these words from Jesus?
Well, isn’t the big question this: what do you love the most? Some of us are passionate about school. Some of us are all about our families or friends. You maybe love your health or your job. Maybe you’re focused on sports, or just yourself. And you have this tower, this ranking of the things that you love, and it’s often different from person to person. Jesus is calling us to think about those things that we love today, because it’s important to know your priorities in life, other people’s priorities, and God’s priorities. You and I won’t ever love each other well or have a close connection to the God of love unless we get this order right. And the right order is simply this: God, Jesus, is our first love.
Now, the question is why would we love God first? Why would we love Jesus more than all these other things and all these other people in our lives? Why might I even hate, that is not have affection, for members of my own family, so that I can better love Jesus? Hm. Good questions. Here is God’s very logical answer, “Love me, because I’m the only person in the universe whose love will not fail you.” Let’s flesh that answer out a bit though.
When Jesus demands your love, when he tells you to hate family and give up possessions, when he says these are the crosses you must bear to follow him, he isn’t saying any of that to burden you or to make you feel like you’re failing in your Christian life. He’s saying this because he loves you. He’s saying this because his order of love has you at the top.
Think about God’s love with me for just a moment. Next time you have some free time, dive into the book of psalms and as you read just look for the word “love.” In the book of Psalms that word “love” will show up around 160 times – you can’t miss it!. And do you know what word often accompanies that word “love?” The word “unfailing.” Again, and again God reminds us through the psalmists that his love will not fail us. Now, we might question that at times, but think about God’s first act of love. It was a promise to send a Savior, then throughout the Old Testament, you can watch as God’s love shaped history to keep his promise. Then that Savior was born – a promise kept! And, in the biggest act of love in human history, that Savior, Jesus, went and rearranged God’s natural order. His Father’s love, which he, Jesus, had enjoyed from eternity, was taken from him on the cross so that you could have that love for yourself. God made you his priority, the top love of his life.
And this is why Jesus was standing there that day in front of those large crowds speaking those hard words. He needed to empty the people, empty us of anything that might draw us from him and his love. You see we maybe don’t always think like this, but when Jesus isn’t our first love in life, every day we are flirting with heartbreak. If your family, your girlfriend, your son, whatever, is the source of your life, eventually they will fail you, which means your life will fall to pieces. If your identity is in your student life, or in your health, or in your work, you are one mistake, one grade, one sickness away from having your heart broken. All these things that we invest our time, our energy, and our love into, can be taken from us in an instant, but not Jesus.
Which means, if Jesus is at the top…if you love your wife but you love Jesus more, if you appreciate good grades, but God fills your heart, you will have peace, because your life’s greatest love is the one person, the only person, who will not fail you. Why then would you put God first and make him everything? Because he started it. We love because he loved us first.
So, we follow Jesus, we put him first in our lives, not because we have counted the cost and determined that we are able, but because we have counted the cost and realized we are unable. And so this radical demand of Jesus to hate our families, to give up our possessions, to count the cost, this demand invites us to live only by faith, to trust in God’s unfailing love, and to know that it is only through that love that we can follow our Lord and Savior to the eternal home that he has prepared for us.
So, as strange as it may seem, I pray these hard words from Jesus bring you comfort. Because here is a God who doesn’t just care about the quantity of his followers but is ever concerned about the quality. He wants you and me to always order our lives around him, to make him our first love. So, that when life starts to fall apart and those things you love disappoint you, or even when life is fairly good for you, Jesus is still at the top; you still have him. More importantly, he still has you.
Now, as you leave today, here’s two or three practical things you can take home with you. First, take some time to figure out your priorities, your loves in life. What matters more than this or that, and where does God fit in the picture? And if you struggle to rank some of these things, just ask yourself which of those things excite you the most? How much time do you spend on those different things that you love? How much money do you put down on that gym membership or that vacation, how much effort do you make to get to those events or those games. What have you left undone? I think as you do this you’ll come to some solid conclusions about your life and, for many of us, this might then lead to some heavy hearts and guilt as you realize that maybe the order of your loves is a little disordered. Our love for God and the things that he loves, maybe isn’t at the top, or even close to the top. But you and I won’t know that unless we are honest about our time and our priorities. So, do that.
Second thing…think about what other people in your life and consider what might be their top loves in life. This is worth considering because it will help us to love other people better. If I can know where people are coming from and what they prioritize in life, it can be a lot easier to love them, and it can be easier to build a relationship with them that, Lord-willing, will lead to a conversation where you can tell them about their Savior who loved them first.
Finally, as you do all this, praise God. Praise God that you are first in his life. Praise God that even when our loves are all disordered his order remains constant. You are his priority. He loves you. He found you. He calls you to repentance. He offers you forgiveness, and he will lead you to your eternal home. So, praise God, and may he always be your first love. Amen.