“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” I’ve used that quote a dozen times to illustrate unrelenting commitment. Here was Edison, the inventor of the electric light bulb, struggling to find a filament that would not burn out after a few illuminating moments. But it was Edison’s perseverance; his commitment to excellence, innovation and light that propelled Edison to carry on, failure after failure. And when he was asked if he was frustrated after trying so many things that did not work, Edison’s response was an encouragement to all of us to endure, regardless of the obstacles in our lives. Ask anyone for a picture of unwavering, courageous commitment and they will point to Edison, the inventor of the light bulb. Except for one thing: Edison didn’t really invent the lightbulb. Seventy-seven years before Edison (in 1802), an English chemist named Sir Humphry Davy made an arc lamp glow by passing electricity through a platinum wire and the light bulb was born (invented). But seeing no-practical purpose for his glowing lamp, Davy dropped it and moved on to other things (I know, he wasn’t too bright). Almost 50 years later, an American by the name of JW Starr found enlightenment. He took Davy’s ideas and improved them by using a vacuum bulb with a carbon filament (effectively stealing Edison’s intellectual property, even though it was two years before Edison’s birth). Unfortunately, Starr died way too early; but he left his designs to an Englishman named Joseph Swan, who continued his work. But the filament issue still was a problem. After just a few minutes, each filament would burn out. But in the race for the sustainable filament, Edison in 1877, after 10,000 attempts, found a solution – the carbonized cotton thread! It was Edison’s shining moment. It would have been even shinier had Swan not come up with the same solution ten months prior. Swan had even filed a patent for his invention so that when Edison sued him for stealing his invention, the courts ruled in Swan’s favor. But Edison is also known for another quote: “If there’s a way to do it better—find it.” And so, Edison found a better way. He formed the Edison and Swan United Electric Light Company and made Swan a business partner. And then, as soon as he could, he bought Swan out, took his name off the door and started pushing the idea that he alone invented the lightbulb, something he desperately wanted on his resumé. See, Edison was a great illustration of commitment, but not in the way we thought.
We don’t often talk about it, but commitment is a huge aspect of what it means to be a Christian. Jesus is constantly calling his disciples to follow him with all of their heart and soul. That doesn’t mean he expects us to follow him perfectly, but that we would give ourselves completely—intellect, emotion and will—to advance his kingdom. Consider the three sayings of Jesus in Luke 9. The first saying (Luke 9:57-58): “As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’” Jesus says, my disciples follow me no matter what the cost to their personal comfort or their own status. That takes an enormous amount of commitment. The second saying (Luke 9:59-60): “He said to another man, ‘Follow me.’ But he replied, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’” Jesus says, my disciples follow me no matter what society says ought to be our primary priorities, including family obligations. That takes an enormous amount of commitment. The third saying (Luke 9:61-62): “Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’ Jesus replied, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’” Jesus says, my disciples follow me no matter what. They don’t look back. They don’t give up. They don’t take their hands off the plow. Ask Jesus what a Christian is, and he would say that a Christian is someone who is utterly committed to him and his Kingdom dream. He would probably make it even more definitive. A Christian is someone who refuses to let anything interfere with that commitment.
Now, that is one thing to say, but another thing to do. Consider the “Rich Young Ruler” in Matthew 19. He comes to Jesus because he wants to know what good thing he must do to guarantee eternal life. If someone came to me with that question, he would automatically become my favorite church member. Jesus’ response is interesting. He doesn’t say, “Believe in me.” He doesn’t say, “Follow me.” He doesn’t say, “Read Romans.” He says, “Keep the commandments” (vs. 17). Let that sink in for a minute. When pressed on exactly to which commandments he is referring, Jesus seems to say, “All of them.” Let that sink in for a minute. And then the Rich Young Ruler says, “All of these have I kept.” And apparently, he wasn’t lying. I’ll say it. If someone came to me with that resumé, he automatically would become an elder, probably my favorite elder. And then the RYR says, “What do I still lack?” (vs. 20). Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t point out the arrogance in saying such a thing, probably because the RYR wasn’t being arrogant, but honestly seeking how he could grow in his faith. That’s all the proof I need. This man is now your new associate pastor. He might even be your new pastor because, as far as holiness goes, he has me beat. In fact, if we had bishops in the PCA, he would be, even now, receiving his shepherd’s crook in the mail. This is a man who longs to do everything required of him. He is that committed. And Jesus says to him (vs. 21): “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” You’ve got to feel for the guy. He has done everything you would think ought to be required of him and more. But he is not totally committed to Jesus. His heart is divided. He loves Jesus, but he also loves money. The next verse says (vs. 22): “When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.” Let that sink in and then look at your own heart. Here’s the truth: if giving up everything, including my basic comforts, my commitment to my family, and all my money is what is required to be committed to Jesus, I may be joining the Rich Young Ruler on the sidelines. Let’s face it, commitment sounds so nice until we actually have to do something.
And that’s the problem because Jesus does not just demand our allegiance over these three things. He overflows with unreasonable (my word) commands. The whole Sermon on the Mount is one wild call to commit ourselves completely to Jesus after another. Jesus says, if you are committed to me, you will not get angry at people (Mt. 5:21-26). Strike one. Jesus says, if you are committed to me, you will not lust (5:27-30). Strike two. Jesus says, if you are committed to me, you will not resist an evil person and, instead, turn the other cheek (38-42). Strike three. Jesus says, if you are committed to me, you will love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (43-47). Strikes four, five and six. But Jesus doesn’t stop when the Sermon on the Mount stops. He says, if you are committed to me, you will forgive those who wrong you. He illustrates this with the parable of the Unforgiving Servant. He makes it even worse (my word) by emphasizing why we should forgive our enemies by saying (Mt. 18:33), “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’” I have to ask myself if I really want to be committed to doing this. Jesus goes on. He says, if you are committed to me, you will be a blessing to everyone who crosses your path by doing good to everyone. He illustrates this with the parable of the Good Samaritan which concludes with this commission (Lk. 10:37), “Go and do likewise.” And I have to ask myself if I am willing to commit myself to such a life of service. Again, Jesus says, if you are committed to me, you will use your money wisely to advance the kingdom. The parable of the Rich Fool ends with Jesus saying, (Luke 12:21), “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” And yet another painful question: Am I more committed to using my money on me and my needs and wants or on using my money to advance God’s kingdom? And again, Jesus says, if you are committed to me, you will clothe yourself, not with status and power, but with humility. The parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector drives this point home poignantly with the tax collector praying, (Lk. 18:13), “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Tolstoy once said: “Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing themselves.” Jesus says, if you are committed to me, you will commit yourself to change, to repentance, to dying to self, to struggle and to growth.
Here’s the bottom line: Jesus calls us to commit ourselves to him. He even tells us what that commitment looks like. And he underscores all of that with one fact: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” And now, he asks us one simple question: “Will we follow him?”
And yet, there is grace and forgiveness and hope. The good news is that once we commit ourselves to Jesus, he commits himself to us. Once we commit ourselves to change and to grow, Jesus changes us into his image. Once we commit ourselves to follow Jesus, Jesus commits himself to walk with us through all of life’s ups and downs and varied priorities. Edison is also known for this great quote. He said: “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.” As followers of Jesus, we will never follow perfectly, but maybe commitment doesn’t mean being perfect, but instead being committed after every failure, to try just one more time.