Posted on Jun 30, 2019 by Pastor Dave Whetter
Today’s Gospel text is filled with statements that probably make many of us cringe. Luke begins by telling us that Jesus had “set his face toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). In other words, Jesus was now steadfastly determined to fulfill the mission God had for him, and in fulfilling that mission, when he got to Jerusalem he would be arrested and killed. Jesus knew the difficulties he was about to face, but he wasn’t going to let anything, or anyone, stop him.
Now, to get to Jerusalem he had to pass through Samaria, and as we know, the Jews and the Samaritans didn’t exactly like each other. One big issue between the two had to do with where they should worship. For the Jews, Jerusalem was the key place to worship, but for the Samaritans, that place wasn’t Jerusalem, it was Mt. Gerizim. So, if Jesus was set on getting to Jerusalem, the Samaritans probably figured he wasn’t going there for them and so they wanted nothing to do with him. Luke doesn’t tell us exactly why the Samaritans rejected Jesus, so I can only surmise that they figured they weren’t part of his plan, so they refused to accept him. How would they know that Jesus’ mission was for the salvation of all people? So it doesn’t bother me that the Samaritans wouldn’t accept Jesus, but what makes me cringe in this first part of the story is James’ and John’s response to the Samaritans’ refusal. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”. That’s a little over the top, don’t you think? And by now, after all this time with Jesus, don’t you think they should have known better. Jesus is not about condemnation and judgment, and the good news in this part of the story is that Jesus didn’t rebuke or condemn the Samaritans for refusing him. No, instead he chastised the disciples for wanting to hurt them and for not having empathy for them. We might refuse Jesus now, but the good news is, he will wait for us to come around.
With that said, this story doesn’t get any easier. Jesus leaves the Samaritan village and goes on to another place. Along the way, people begin to want to follow him. Fantastic! All is well, right? Well, you would think so. I mean, in the Samaritan village no one wanted to follow him and now, suddenly, people want to follow him. That ought to get him excited! But instead, Jesus starts in on how hard this is going to be if they follow him. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). In other words, if you follow me, we have no place to stay, we will never know where our next meal will come from, and we have no money to support ourselves. And, to add to that rosy picture, in most places we go, we will be rejected. I cringe here, because it seems like just when he is getting people to buy into his mission, he tries to talk them out of it. It’s like the car salesman who hasn’t made a sale in weeks and suddenly a customer walks up and says, “Hey, I want to buy that car. Here’s my money.” But instead of making the sale, the salesman says, “Well, I don’t think you want to buy a car. Gas is expensive. There’s a ton of maintenance to think about, and besides, we have great mass transit, so maybe it would be better to ride the bus."
And, as the story goes on, Jesus’ selling skills don’t get better, when another person says, OK, I’ll follow you, just let me go bury my father first. Jesus says, no, you can’t do that. Or to another who wants to follow, but he’d like to say goodbye to his family first; Jesus says, nope, can’t do that either. These seem to me to be reasonable requests, and, yet, Jesus says, no. Don’t you find these rejections on Jesus’ part disturbing? I know I do.
So, what is happening here? Why is Jesus being so harsh? As we look closer, we realize that what is happening is that Jesus wants to be completely open and honest with those who say, yes, I want to follow. Jesus doesn’t want just any followers. Jesus wants followers who will be committed and who will be able to withstand the rejection and the struggles of living out the gospel. Jesus is seeking followers who will desire to “set their faces” to Jerusalem, just like he has done, and in so doing, he wants followers who won't let anything, or anyone, stop them.
When Jesus says, follow me, he doesn’t want to hear excuses as to why we can’t do it now, or excuses about needing more time, or more experience or more… In our story today we hear Jesus saying to those who wish to follow, that’s you and me, “You’re in or you’re out.” Answering his call and living the life of discipleship requires no less than everything. It requires us to give our whole life. It requires us to listen to the Holy Spirit in our lives and be willing to change ourselves for the sake of the gospel, but all too often, we want to say yes, I’ll follow, but give me some extra time. We all have lots of other commitments and we think if we can just take care of those first then we will be good followers, but what Jesus is saying is, no, if you want to be a follower, this comes first.
These passages are difficult because they show just how demanding God’s call for our lives is. No wonder we cringe when we feel or hear the Holy Spirit calling us. For many of the ancient followers, and us today, we just want the “good ole days.” The Jews that were following Jesus wanted the old Kingdom back. They wanted the “glory days” of King David and King Solomon. But those days were over, and God was calling her people into a new kingdom, a kingdom that was built on that old kingdom, but would be different. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). What’s behind us is important, but if we keep looking back, we will never see where we are going. Jesus' mission, our mission, is to work toward the kingdom God is offering, the kingdom God is inviting us into here and now, and if we keep looking back, we will never see what is right before us, and like Jesus, who set his face to Jerusalem, nothing should distract from his mission.
Being a disciple in those days was hard, and in fact it could cost you your life, but I don’t think much has changed today. It’s hard to be a faithful follower in this broken and violent world. It is risky to dedicate our lives to Jesus. What if we say the wrong thing? What if we make our friends mad because we won’t succumb to the peer pressure to do what is wrong? What if our friends stop wanting to be with us? What if I try to follow and I do it wrong?
But here is the awesome thing about being a disciple. We don’t have to be perfect at it. We can fail. We can mess up. We don’t have to fear taking a risk. If we do it and we fail, Jesus isn’t going to send down fire to destroy us. No, instead, Jesus is going to say, I forgive you, now go do better. There will be times that we will get distracted from that mission, but as baptized children of God our mission is still to love, serve, and seek justice in an unjust world.
Yes, it’s risky, but when we give our whole life to Christ we get a whole new identity. But, to do this, we have to let go of the control we think we have in our lives. We have to let go of our pasts. We have to be willing to take risks, and when we can do this, then we can go knowing God will meet us there, because God is already there.
When we trust and take risks, we are invited into something big and great: the miracle of Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection. It won’t be easy to let go of our past. It won't be easy letting go of the control we think we have in our lives, and it will be downright risky, but when we do these things and when we set our face toward Jesus, our lives will be changed for the better, forever.
And here is the best part of all. If we can find a way let go of our past and our need to control our lives, then we are freed to follow Jesus. We won’t be perfect at it, but that’s OK, because Jesus is waiting for us, and all he is asking us to do is stop making excuses and start being the disciples we have been created to be. Amen.