"Set Your Face Toward Grace" - Luke 9:51-62
When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first, let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said to him, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
This is a little more academic than I like to be in worship on a Sunday in the summer, but I want you to forget about Luke, Chapter 9 for a moment, so we can talk a bit about that first reading from 1 Kings, chapter 19. I’m assuming some of you just zoned out at the sound of those names, Jehu, Hazael, Nimshi and Shaphat. And the names don’t matter so much, but it all may make more sense than you think, especially if I can connect it to what we just heard from Luke’s Gospel, with Jesus and his would-be followers, making their way around Galilee, about to head for Jerusalem.
In that reading from 1 Kings, the point for the prophet Elijah, who was looking for his anointed replacement at the direction of God, is the same point Jesus is trying teach his own disciples and for all those who were now watching and wondering and making commitments to follow in his footsteps with some amount of faithfulness.
For Elijah, who’d been given clear instructions about anointing Elisha as his successor, the struggle was similar: his young successor had business to tend to before answering his call and this invitation to follow in Elijah’s footsteps. What’s different in this Old Testament story, though, is that Elijah let’s Elisha have his way. After Elijah, respected prophet that he was, symbolically throws his mantle on the young man’s shoulders, the newly appointed prophet does return home to “kiss his father and his mother,” and has a little farewell party before beginning his new life. He leaves Elijah, slaughters his oxen and feeds his people – presumably his family and friends in a ceremonial kind of meal – and then sets out to follow Elijah as his servant and disciple.
What’s surprising about the parallel in Jesus’ version of the story, so many generations later, is Jesus leaves no room for that sort of thing. When Jesus is approached by some would-be followers, each of them comes up with something they need to do first, before they get to the work of being disciples. One says he needs to first bury his father – a rite and sacred responsibility of the highest order for Jewish men in his day. But Jesus tells him to forget about that. “Let the dead bury their own dead.” “You, go proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Another wannabe says he’ll follow Jesus, but only after he first says goodbye to his family at home. (Very much like Elisha wanted to do in that Old Testament reading.) Again, though, Jesus says to forget it. Apparently, as the farming metaphor goes, once you’ve started to plow a field, there’s no looking back, or else your tracks may be crooked. Again, the implication is there’s more important, faithful work to be done where Jesus is concerned – who was on his way to his crucifixion at Jerusalem, after all.
And the same is true for us, still. And the point Jesus makes over and over today is that this call isn’t always easy. The Christian life isn’t always convenient. This call isn’t always going to fall in-line with all the other things we have going on in our lives.
And that’s what he’s up to as he makes his way to Jerusalem, this morning. When we read that Jesus has “set his face” toward Jerusalem, we’re to read that he’s beginning the last leg of his journey to the Cross. We’re to understand that he knows what’s coming and that his crucifixion is looming in a more immediate way than it has until now. And, I imagine, with that suffering and death so imminently placed on his travel log, Jesus isn’t really in the mood for screw-ups, or wannabes, or half-hearted commitments to the life-and-death sacrifice he’s about to make. (Part of me wonders, too, if – with all of those harsh comebacks – Jesus isn’t trying to convince himself to keep on, keeping on… “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” “go, proclaim the kingdom,” “no one who sets his hand to the task and turns back is fit for the kingdom of God.”)
So yeah, in all of his responses to those who approach him on the road he may sound short, or harsh, or unforgiving, even. But Jesus knows this road he’s on isn’t for everyone. This road to crucifixion wasn’t for anyone else but him, really. And he wasn’t in the mood for jokers and he didn’t want people kidding themselves by pretending that to “follow Jesus” meant they could come and go; take it or leave it; squeeze their discipleship into their busy schedules whenever it was convenient or fun or worth whatever time or money or investment they felt compelled to offer at any given moment.
And this is hard to hear, I have to say. In a world that tells us to measure every investment of our time and energy and money against what it’s return will be for us in the end, it’s hard to admit that we make decisions about the investment of our call to discipleship in the same way.
But we do, don’t we?
We make choices to worship or not, based on whether it’s convenient. We give an offering, or not, based on what’s left or based on what we can do without, a lot of the time. We volunteer or serve, too much of the time, based on what’s comfortable, practical, or convenient to everything else we have going on in our day-to-day lives.
Later this morning we get to baptize little William Molinder, little Charlotte Nichols, and little Kinch Waldrep, and we will welcome them into this life of faith as “fellow workers with us in the body of Christ,” as the liturgy goes. And what I hope we’ll hear in this invitation to these children is the same thing we’re meant to hear in God’s invitation to every one of us. None of it is meant to be harsh words or hard questions. For us and for them – just as it was for Jesus’ followers so many generations ago on the road to Jerusalem – this is about perspective.
What we’re called to this morning, and every day of our lives, by virtue of our baptism, is to set our faces toward Jerusalem. And, as Christian people on the other side of Jesus’ empty tomb, we set our faces toward Jerusalem knowing about the Cross, for sure; knowing about that suffering and that crucifixion and that sacrifice and that death. But we set our faces toward Jerusalem and we baptize one another with that kind of perspective, too, because with our faces set toward Jerusalem, we are blessed, too, with promises of resurrection, new life, forgiveness, mercy and more grace than we deserve.
And with that kind of perspective, we are blessed to follow Jesus, to respond faithfully and sacrificially to the promises of it all, with joy, with gratitude, with humble hearts and with generosity – because we can, not because we have to – and because the reason Jesus asks this of us in the first place, is because God knows our lives and this world will be blessed and better because of it.