A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Setting One's Face Toward Jerusalem and the Cross: Luke 9:51-62

In the midst of the leisurely days of summer Luke 9:51-62 comes at us like a tornado in the midst of a thunderstorm. There�s nothing easy about this text, nothing lazy and luxuriously barefoot, like summer. This scripture is all business.

We realize it from the very first verse. We could well divide the Gospel of Luke in two between verses 50 and 51 of Chapter 9. In verse 49, the apostle John complains that someone who doesn�t belong to the apostolic union has been casting out demons in Jesus� name, and John wants to stop him from doing so. Jesus answers, in verse 50, �Don�t stop him. If he�s not against you, he�s for you.� It�s so permissive, you feel that all�s well in the world, and that everything is going the right way.

Then, abruptly, Luke shifts gears: �When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.� This refers, of course, to Jesus� death, when he is �taken up;� and for it to happen, Jesus must go to Jerusalem. This verse reminds us that there is a plan in Jesus� life, and that the plan focuses ultimately on his crucifixion. Some people plan to become rich and famous, others plan to become president. Still others plan to retire early. The plan for Jesus� life was that he would be crucified, so that he might become the Savior of the world. It wasn�t an easy plan, and obviously not a pleasant one. Therefore, when Jesus� life came to the point where the focus was set on Jerusalem and death, he �set his face� for the journey. This is the same kind of language as if we were to say, �He squared his jaw,� or �he gritted his teeth.� Jesus knows what is ahead, and he is going through with it. Jerusalem, here we come! Calvary, here we come! The eternal plot is moving toward its climax.

Jesus doesn�t go about his mission haphazardly. He doesn�t reason, �We�re doing the will of God, so everything will work out all right.� To be sure everything works properly, he sends messengers ahead to prepare the way. But they run into trouble. The shortest route to Jerusalem is via Samaria. The Jews of Jesus� day often avoided that route because of their ancient animosity toward the Samaritans. They would travel many extra miles to avoid going through Samaria. But Jesus had never felt this way. He was a friend to the Samaritans. He sometimes made them the heroes of his stories. One of his most effective times of disciple making was in Samaria. So of course Jesus planned to go through Samaria, both because he loved the Samaritans and because this was the shortest way to Jerusalem. And as I�ve already indicated, Jesus was resolute. He had �set his face to Jerusalem.� The more direct the route, the better.

But surprise! When the Samaritans learn that Jesus and his little company are going to Jerusalem, they refuse them passage! Isn�t this ironic? Jesus has shown repeatedly his love for the Samaritans and the absence of prejudice in his heart, but there is still prejudice in theirs. If Jesus is going to Jerusalem, they want nothing to do with him. They won�t even allow him to pass through their region. Prejudice is an ugly thing, whether for Jews toward Samaritans, or Samaritans toward Jews. Prejudice is not the singular possession of any people, class or religion; and it�s ugly, no matter who possesses it.

So James and John become very defensive. �Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?� they ask. In a sad sort of way it is amusing that James and John speak so casually of calling down fire, as if heaven were at their command. It�s clear they�ve gotten carried away with themselves and their gifts and abilities. What ever made them think they could burn up a village just by issuing a command?

Jesus wasted no time with the idea James and John put forward; he simply rebuked them and went on. There was no time to waste. Luke says, �They went on to another village.� But then Luke gives us three quick vignettes that emphasize how focused Jesus is on his trip to Jerusalem. There�s no reason to think that these incidents happened one right after another. It�s more likely that they were spread out over a day or more. But I think Luke puts them into one paragraph because they all illustrate the same point�that Jesus has no time to waste.

First, there�s someone who says quite dramatically, �I�ll follow you wherever you go.� Jesus answers (if I may paraphrase), �I don't really think you will. If you do, you may find you have no place to sleep one of these nights.� Then there�s a man to whom Jesus said, �Follow me.� This man must have seemed to Jesus to be a true prospect. But the man equivocated. �Lord, first let me go and bury my father.� On the surface, it seems like a reasonable request. We don�t know, however, whether this means that he must also wait for his father to die. What we do know is that Jesus saw the man�s answer as an excuse. This man wanted to postpone his discipleship. Jesus� answer is abrupt and cutting: �Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.� A third person said, �I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.� Once again, Jesus seems quite insensitive. �No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.� In effect Jesus is saying, �Are you going to follow me, or not? If you are, let�s get cracking.�

I sometimes wonder if I would preach differently if I were a pastor in Sudan or in Cuba or in some parts of Nigeria, or if I were leading a forbidden house church in China. Would I, in one of those places, sound more like Jesus does in our scripture lesson of the day? After all, the person who follows Christ in those places may very well pay for it with imprisonment, abuse and even death. I think I would say to them, �Don�t join our movement unless you�re ready to suffer and die.�

But I don�t have to preach so harshly. In our society we aren�t likely to suffer for joining the church. The most we ask, it seems, is loyalty of attendance, some measure of time and some financial support. To be honest, that�s all pretty tame. And to be flat-out honest, there are folks in our society who expect Christianity to be a leisurely sort of religion�what Thomas Paine, more than two centuries ago, called �summer soldier and sunshine patriot.�

Would I be exaggerating if I said during my sermon on a Sunday morning, �We are on our way to crucifixion.� Not here; this is not Sudan or some other violent spot on our planet. But to be true to Christ, I ought to say, �If we�re going to follow Christ, we should be ready to do so in whatever way is required wherever it happens that we have to live out our faith.�

It may not be the leisurely word, but it is the message of Jesus. Thus we must set our faces toward Jerusalem, just as Jesus; we must square our jaws and journey toward the cross.

1 comment:

Ted M. Gossard said...

Thanks Allan, for these insightful and inspiring words. We're so impervious to any suffering, and unfortunately, it seems, any cross, here, as Christians.