Do we follow Jesus or does he follow us?
The question is less simple than it lets on. One of Jesus’ signature quotes is, “Follow me.” Simple. Direct. Unmistakable. Evocative. He looks an individual in the eye and draws the whole person in, body and soul, with just two words: Follow me. And so we drop our nets, our ledgers, our iPhones and follow him.
We are followers. And when we get on God’s Road, we follow Jesus the Way.
But one of our best call-to-follow stories gives us pause when we think about who is doing the following. Here is Mark 2:13-17 —
He went out again beside the sea, and all the crowd was coming to him, and he was teaching them. And as he passed by, he saw Levi the son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.
And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. And the scribes of the Pharisees, when they saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
The first scene in the story shows the call. Jesus isolates Levi bar-Alphaeus and utters his two-word command and Levi gets up immediately and follows Jesus.
But then the scene changes abruptly. We’re not told what happened in between and no amount of speculating will help us. We don’t know if Jesus invited himself over to Levi’s house like he did with Zacchaeus. We don’t know if Levi invited Jesus over. We’re not even sure how much later this second scene takes place — same day, same week, same month? All we know is that Jesus is now at Levi’s house.
Jesus has become the follower. Levi went home and Jesus followed him there.
And all of a sudden, we know something about our Lord that we only guessed at before: He’s just as keen to follow us as he is for us to follow him.
We’ve seen this all over the place in the Scriptures if we’ve been paying attention.
Elijah hides in a cave and God comes to him in a still small voice.
Jonah runs away from God and God comes to him with storms and a large fish.
Moses is herding sheep out in the wilds and God comes to him in a flaming but unburned bush.
Job sits on his dung heap and God comes to him in a whirlwind.
Jacob camps outside with a stone as a pillow in the middle of nowhere and God comes to him with a stairway to heaven. And in a similar place, he comes to Jacob again as a wrestling angel in the night.
Over and over again, we find God’s people off in the oddest of places, places that you and I would have to trek to, but it’s there that God comes to them. Our God follows us.
Now, that begs the question: Is God following us to these places or is he actually leading us there? And I’d really like to answer with a simple Yes. He’s doing both.
If our God is in fact omnipresent, he’s there before we are. And we might also agree that our lives show us that God leads us to the places we need to go in order to be ready to meet with him. So, we can look at Abraham following God’s command to take his son Isaac to the mountain in order for Abraham to give his everything to God so that God can turn around and give it right back.
We see this omnipresence operating in Psalm 139:7-10 —
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
But when we look at this Jesus story, it’s not a matter of omnipresence or of Jesus manipulating the situation for the sake of an ah-ha moment. No, Levi goes home and Jesus goes with him. It’s that simple. Jesus is the follower.
I find great comfort in this. Both that Jesus is the initiating leader who looks me in the eye and says, “Follow me,” and that he is the gracious follower, going with me into places no one would expect holiness to reside in.
This is why the religious leaders ask Jesus’ disciples why he is eating and drinking with thieving, collaborating tax collectors and notorious sinners. They’re honestly perplexed. If God will not allow anything unclean or unholy or blemished or broken to enter into his temple, then why would his Son sit down at table and express agreement with those who flaunt the Law of God? If God is anywhere absent, it should be from that table.
But that’s where Jesus follows us. That’s where Jesus chooses to be found.
Jesus is like the dog who followed us home and made our home into his home. When he takes up residence in the places we bring him, he changes those places. He changes us.
This is the kind of God we worship: The one who follows us. And as we follow him in turn, we find him leading us into the most unlikely of places as he follows others.
So, where are you taking Jesus today? And where, in turn, are you following him? Whose house is he leading you to? Who will you meet and who will you become as you follow him there?