Monday, June 27, 2016

Sermon on Luke 9:51-62, 6th Sunday after Pentecost, "He set His face"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Something new that I learned about the Gospel of Luke, in preparing for this sermon, was how much of Luke’s Gospel focuses on Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. For 9 chapters Luke describes Jesus’ birth, childhood, baptism, and early Galilean ministry. The next major chunk of the Gospel of Luke focuses on Jesus’ movement toward Jerusalem—a shift toward His ultimate goal and mission. And then, like all the Gospels, the last major section focuses on Jesus’ Passion, in Jerusalem. But today’s reading introduces that major “travel section” or the beginning of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. And the things that Jesus encounters in this reading today, become recurring themes along this journey building up to Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension. Themes of rejection, and instruction in the cost of discipleship. Warnings of the things that would hinder or prevent us from following Jesus or entering the kingdom of God. This focused period of Jesus’ ministry shows His eyes set on the goal, and He’s teaching His disciples to focus their eyes on the same, so that we avoid all things that would distract or hinder us, and join Jesus on His journey to the cross and resurrection.
Our first verse: When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem. There is a determination and single-minded focus of Jesus on what lay ahead of Him. Jesus’ death on the cross, His resurrection, and ascension to heaven are all in view here. Jesus is focused on the task that lays ahead, and will not be deterred from it. This is apparently part of the reason that the Samaritans reject Him—as it says in v. 53 They did not receive Him because His face was set toward Jerusalem. Samaritans, if you remember, were long-time bitter enemies of the Jews, and believed that Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem, was the proper place to worship God. They also were divided from the Jews, their partial-blood relatives, by their intermingling of pagan worship with worship of the true God. Jesus regularly crossed this divide of animosity, and willingly came and taught amongst Samaritans—most famously with the woman at the well—but He also did not stay long where He was not welcomed or received.
Again and again on His road to Jerusalem, Jesus would face rejection—His way to the cross was an uphill battle, with no one urging Him along. Rather rejection and obstacles faced Him all the way. But we begin to see here, and you can see all through the Gospel, how Jesus faces that rejection. It’s not by calling down destruction upon people, as James and John asked. Jesus rebukes them for that. His ministry on earth, and from now until His return, is a time of grace and favor, the day of salvation. Jesus allows no thoughts of vengeance or condemnation from His disciples, but simply moves on to another village, where there may be free course for the Gospel. The Good News of Jesus will face resistance and rejection—Jesus clearly tells us that—but the Gospel marches on wherever there is an open door and receptive ears.
Martin Luther once described the Good News of Jesus like a passing rain shower that moves from place to place, and that we should not despise God’s grace, or take it for granted, because, like rain, it may move on from us, and bless another place. Doubtless Jesus had hopes that even if the Samaritans did not receive Him now, they might still receive Him in the future. After His resurrection, Jesus said to His disciples, “You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Samaria. The Gospel would return to these lands, and eventually find receptive hearts.
Do you face rejection today, if you are identified as a disciple of Jesus? Do people know that you are a Christian? Probably, if any of us face some form of rejection, it’s pretty mild—though I don’t know everyone’s personal circumstances. But even with the changing climate of our culture, Christians are still in the majority, and have influence in society, even if it’s decreasing. None of us, I’d wager, experience the fear of death or persecution in the way that our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world do. But there still are temptations to hide our faith, or to withdraw from sight when we hear Christianity insulted or ridiculed. How inconstant we can be, even under light pressure!
Do you ever find it hard to maintain your faith around unbelieving friends or family? Is it easier to just blend in and follow the ways of the world, than to represent Christ? Or, do we hold strong to our faith, regardless of what others think, but it’s our convictions that suffer—the things we believe start to get eroded around the edges, and worldliness creeps in. Jesus’ teaching here on discipleship reminds us that there will always be earthly things that will compete with and draw our focus away from Him. There will always be things to distract or hinder us, so that we are tempted to put those things first, instead of God first.
In the next part of the reading, verses 57-62, Jesus meets three would-be disciples. Jesus speaks to each of them in a way that seems harsh to us, almost as though He rejects their discipleship. He does not actually reject them from following Him, but presents to them the costs and challenges of discipleship, and their response is not given. It’s left open so as to invite us also to consider Jesus’ words. Count the cost of discipleship, and consider what it means to truly follow Him. Let’s briefly consider Jesus’ words to each.
To the first who will follow Jesus wherever He goes—Jesus answers, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Jesus warns any would-be disciple that following Him doesn’t bring any promise of earthly gain or material reward. Even Jesus traveled as one who was homeless, dependent on the hospitality of others. Being a disciple of Jesus was no protection against material hardship or poverty, and no promise of getting rich. Elsewhere Jesus reminds us not to store up treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal—but to store up treasures in heaven.
The second disciple hesitates when Jesus calls, and asks “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” But Jesus replies, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” We would miss Jesus’ point if we thought that with this or the next disciple, that Jesus is teaching us to dishonor family or that one should ignore family obligations. Nor is the point about funerals per se. Rather, this man had been called by Jesus, and he gave excuses and delayed. Jesus makes a play on words, and His meaning is “let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.” In other words, those who had no concern for the kingdom of Jesus could attend to the human affairs and customs of burial, but this disciple was to join Jesus in the spiritual duty of proclaiming God’s kingdom. We might have all our own excuses and delays, reasons why we’re too busy to think of God, or concern ourselves with following Jesus. Life is busy and full of obligations—things that may not even be bad in themselves—but will they take priority over our devotion to God? Will God have to wait, while we make our career, while we earn our degree, finish that project, watch that game, or whatever it might be? Or are we ready to heed and follow His call now? Are we putting Jesus on hold?
The third disciple, says he will follow Jesus, but first must return and say goodbye to his household. Again this sounds like a reasonable request to us. It’s even a request that Elijah grants his student Elisha in our Old Testament reading today. But Jesus says, “No one who lays his hand upon the plow and looks behind him is fit for the kingdom of God.” Now the meaning of the saying is fairly easy to figure out. If one is driving a plow across a field, and is constantly looking backward, instead of focusing ahead of themselves, they won’t be able to cut a straight furrow in the soil. Driving a car while looking backwards might give you the same idea. Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospels that no one can serve two masters, you will love the one and hate the other, you cannot love both. So here we cannot have divided loyalties, split between following Jesus and wherever else our heart might be. Our heart must be in one place—for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Jesus’ demand for discipleship seems very high. No certainty about shelter or material things. No time to delay or finish earthly business when God’s kingdom calls. No splitting loyalties with Jesus. Jesus wants every disciple to count the cost. Know the sacrifices involved in discipleship, and that Jesus is above all other things—even family. When we see Jesus’ demand for discipleship, surely we also start to examine ourselves, and consider where we have fallen short. Our walk with Jesus has not always been one of unflinching constancy, or pure devotion. We have hesitated, doubted, or stumbled. Like James and John, we’ve been caught in a spirit of judgmentalism at times. Like Peter we’ve grown weak and failed, when courage was needed the most. And the question nags us: Am I fit for the kingdom of God?
The answer is to look to the One whose face was set towards Jerusalem. To the One whose hand was set to the plow with undivided focus, aiming straight ahead for His cross. The One who left behind house and home and family, and attended to the work of His kingdom. Jesus Christ, the only One who is truly fit for the kingdom of God. It is in His perfect life lived for us, in His perfect constancy and trust in the Father, and His sacrificial laying down of His life for us, that we are given the forgiveness of sins. It’s through Jesus that we are made disciples. Our “fitness” for the kingdom of God doesn’t come from within ourselves, but it comes through Jesus Christ. He is our sufficiency, through Him we are able. He wills and works in us according to His good pleasure, to make disciples who will follow Him with constant love and pure devotion. Love for all that He has done and continues to do for us. In Jesus’ Name, Amen!

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Luke 9:51 marks a thematic turning point in the Gospel, when Jesus turns His face to Jerusalem, to fulfill His prophetic goal, of death and resurrection. In the Gospel of Luke, this sets up a “journey” theme that is marked by this passage, Luke 13:22; 17:11, and 19:28. How does the theme of “journey” relate to our Christian life? What is our destination?
  2. Jesus’ journey encounters frequent hindrances and obstacles, that also hinder His disciples. How does Jesus remove or proceed around them? What kind of rejection do you as a disciple of Jesus face today? Luke 10:16; John 12:48. Does rejection as a Christian make it hard for you to maintain your Christian faith around unbelieving friends or family? What about your convictions?
  3. The Samaritans maintained that the true place to worship God was on Mt. Gerizim, while Jews maintained that Jerusalem was the true site for for worshipping God. John 4:20-24. This is likely why Jesus was rejected in the Samaritan village in Luke 9:52-53. Where is the true place of worship, according to Jesus? Or is it better to ask, “how”? John 4:20-24.
  4. James and John think this rejection should be answered by destruction, and fire from heaven. Elijah had called down fire from heaven, but not to destroy God’s enemies, but to demonstrate who the true God is. Why does Jesus rebuke James and John’s attitude? What is Jesus’ purpose from now until He returns? John 12:47-48; 3:17-18. What is this present time for the world? 2 Corinthians 6:2
  5. Jesus addresses three would-be disciples in Luke 9:57-62, with statements that seem harsh to us. The responses of the individuals are not given, inviting us to examine how we would respond. What sort of comforts are we not promised, by following Jesus? Why is it necessary to stay focused and not have a divided attention? Luke 9:62
  6. Jesus “set His face” to Jerusalem, 9:51. This parallels the theme of putting your hand to the plow and not looking back. How was Jesus focused and undeterred from His goal? Why is that important for our salvation?

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