No turning back

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Luke 9.51-end

No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

Ploughing was done with a light plough and oxen. The ploughman guided the plough with his left hand while steering the oxen with his right hand. And you had to concentrate to keep the furrows straight. Look away, and you got crooked furrows – no use at all.

Once you’ve put your hand to the plough there’s no turning back

Today I’m going to tell you the story of two men who decided to follow Jesus, two men who put their hand to the plough. We will hear how far they were willing to go, and we will hear about the hymn that links them.

The hymn is an old hymn that we used to sing on Church Army beach missions. The first verse goes like this – and I’m sorry to disappoint you but I’m going to say rather than sing it:

I have decided to follow Jesus,
I have decided to follow Jesus,
I have decided to follow Jesus,
no turning back, no turning back.

It is believed to have been written by Sundar Singh, whose feast day we kept in the Church of England a week last Wednesday. Sundhar Singh was born as a Sikh in the Punjab in 1889. He was sent by his mother to learn from a Sadhu, an ascetic holy man. She also sent him to a local Christian school to learn English. Sundhar’s mother died when he was fourteen, and finding no answers from either his own Sikh beliefs or from the Christian priests, he resolved in his grief to kill himself by throwing himself a railway track.

But first he asked that “whosoever is the true God” would appear before him or else he would kill himself – and that night he had a vision of Jesus. Telling his father that he would henceforth be a missionary for Christ, his father rejected him and his brother tried to poison him.

Fortunately he was rescued by a British Christian, and on his sixteenth birthday he was publicly baptised in church.

I have decided to follow Jesus,
no turning back, no turning back.

The story goes that Sundhar Singh based his hymn on the last words of a man called Nokseng, who lived in Assam in India in the middle of the nineteenth century. Nokseng and his family had decided to follow Jesus as a result of the efforts of an American Baptist missionary. The village chief called upon him to renounce his faith. But Nokseng’s reply was, “I have decided to follow Jesus.”

In response his two children were executed. His wife was then threatened, but he continued, “Though no one join me, I still will follow.”

His wife was then killed, and he himself was executed as he sang, “The world behind me, the cross before me.”

His display of faith is reported to have led to the conversion of the chief and others in the village.

I have decided to follow Jesus,
no turning back, no turning back.

The history of the Church is filled with those who, like Sundar Singh and like Nokseng whose dying words led to Sundar Singh’s hymn, have been willing to respond to God’s calling – or sometimes God’s pushing and goading – by leaving families, careers, homes, riches. And by those who sometimes have been prepared to give their lives just to follow Jesus. Because once they have responded to the call they know that there is no turning back.

But the history of the Church is also filled with those who have felt unable to respond to that call because the pull of the known, the comfortable, the familiar, is too great. Or because they’re convinced that they are doing plenty for Jesus already, or even more than their fair share. Or because they think that following Jesus is all well and good but, after all, there are limits aren’t there!

And that brings us to our gospel reading today.

Jesus is travelling towards Jerusalem to complete his ministry, to fulfill his calling. And he has chosen to cross Samaria, a route often avoided by Jews in those days, because of Samaritan hostility, especially towards pilgrims going down to Jerusalem. Most pilgrims went around Samaria. Yet Jesus travels through their territory, giving them the opportunity to receive him and to hear his message. But his message is not heard because of where he is going. The Samaritan response is hostility not hospitality. The Son of Man indeed has “nowhere to lay his head”.

Indignant at such contempt, James and John ask Jesus to let them call fire to come down from heaven so that the village will be destroyed. Quite why they thought that was an appropriate response isn’t clear – it’s certainly not a very effective method of evangelism! James and John don’t seem to have had any doubt about their ability to call down heavenly fire. So in a way they show great faith, but little insight into God’s Kingdom: Jesus’ ways are those of sacrificial love, not vengeful displays of power. And quite rightly Jesus rebukes them, and they move on to another village.

And then Luke goes on to tell us how even those who say they want to follow Jesus cannot muster the courage to face the cost. One seems deterred by the prospect of an insecure future and the possible hardships ahead. Another wishes to bury his father before joining the master. Whether his father is alive or has recently died we are not told. If his father is still alive, the delay in discipleship might be considerable. And even if his father has just died, Jesus emphasises that the call of God is more urgent than fulfilling Jewish burial laws. 

The final would be follower is reluctant to let go of earthly ties, torn between a longing to go with Jesus and a love for those he would leave behind. Yet Jesus declares there can be no split loyalties for Kingdom citizens.

I have decided to follow Jesus,
no turning back, no turning back.

Now, it may be that you feel a certain amount of sympathy with those in our gospel reading who say they want to follow Jesus but have excuses as to why they can’t just yet – why they express the desire to follow Jesus but hold back.

After all, the excuses they give are all good things to do. But Jesus demands total and unswerving commitment – he demands singleness of intention and an undivided heart. Are we ready to give Jesus that kind of absolute and total commitment?

Jesus – in response to those who would follow him, just not quite yet – is clear in his response. It is all or nothing, there is no in-between.

“No one,” he says, “who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.”

Now, you don’t need me to explain what Jesus means. It’s uncomfortable and it’s uncompromising. Put a hand to the plough, but then look back, and it’s over. That’s pretty clear!

“No one,” says Jesus, “who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.” 

No turning back, no turning back.

Following Jesus is costly – and sometimes costly in the extreme. Jesus never intended it to easy. He tells those who would follow him – and you’ve heard me say this before – to take up their cross and follow him, not to take up their comfy chair and follow him. It’s a costly business, following Jesus, and all the teaching of Jesus in the gospels show us that clearly. 

Sundar Singh set out in 1906 dressed in the traditional saffron of a Sadhu, an ascetic teacher, to lead others to the Christ that he now followed. He was just seventeen years old. “I am not worthy to follow in the steps of my Lord,” he said, “but, like Him, I want no home, no possessions. Like Him I will belong to the road, sharing the suffering of my people, eating with those who will give me shelter, and telling all men of the love of God.” 

Like Nokseng, the Christian martyr upon whose dying words Sundar Singh had based his hymn, he had decided to follow Jesus and having made that decision there was, for him, no turning back – and he spent the rest of his life bringing people to faith. The last verse of his hymn goes like this:

Will you decide now to follow Jesus,
will you decide now to follow Jesus,
will you decide now to follow Jesus,
no turning back, no turning back.

Today Jesus calls us to follow him, to go where he leads, to put him first before all else. It’s a tough call – I’ll be the first to admit that. And those words of Jesus give us a real challenge – but they are his words and we can’t ignore them: “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven.”

And yet, one of the great things about following Jesus is that he doesn’t just leave us on our own – through his grace he gives us everything we need for our journey. And we can follow him knowing that, if we do not look back, he will bring us to our journey’s end, our eternal home.

Will you decide now to follow Jesus?
No turning back! No turning back!