He set his face to go to Jerusalem

A sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, June 26, 2016

Trinity Church of Morrisania, Bronx, New York

“When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Today’s gospel reading is the beginning of the large middle section of the Gospel of Luke. Basically before this, Jesus has been preaching, teaching and healing in and around his home district of Galilee, but now, after the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus in God’s glory on the mountaintop, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In other words, he made his firm decision to bring his ministry to Jerusalem, the seat of the temple and the spiritual heart of Judaism.

This passage sets the tone. Jesus is not just wandering around, seeing what will happen or making occasional pronouncements. This journey is serious business. Much of the imagery is derived from the scriptural descriptions of the prophet Elijah, even when what Jesus says contrasts with the earlier prophet.  Elisha says to Elijah, “Let me kiss my father and my mother; and then I will follow you.” Elijah’s response was, “Go back again; for what have I done to you?” But Jesus’ response was, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” I don’t think Jesus was undermining respect for family, and family obligations in this. However, his journey to Jerusalem, which clearly included his own crucifixion, was nonetheless an urgent journey to life. There was no turning back to focus on death.

Jesus had sent out messengers in advance to prepare the way for his journey. And some came to a Samaritan village, and that village rejected this journey to Jerusalem.  Most people don’t know much about the Samaritans. A small group of them still exists in Israel.  The Samaritans were the descendants of the inhabitants of the Kingdom of Israel—the northern part of the Kingdom of David that split off after the reign of Solomon. During the time of Jesus, there was a pretty substantial population of Samaritans in Palestine, definitely a minority in an area that was predominantly, but not exclusively Jewish. The Samaritans regarded themselves as descendants of Abraham who worshiped God properly, in the place and manner that Moses had spelled out. For the Samaritans, that place was Mount Gerizim, where they still offer sacrifices to this day, NOT in Jerusalem. The Samaritans had definite opinions about Jerusalem and most of them were unfriendly at best. So it isn’t that surprising that when these advance men for a trip to Jerusalem came into town, the Samaritans gave them the heave-ho.

James and John, the brothers also known as “the Sons of Thunder,” wanted to rain fire down on the Samaritan village and destroy it. After all, can’t those stupid Samaritans see the truth? Don’t they know that this is the Savior and he’s going to Jerusalem to save everybody? Shouldn’t we teach them a lesson? Jesus turns around and says, “No!” This is not a show of power, the Kingdom of God is about life, not about force and punishment and death.

And with Jesus, they moved on to the next village. His remarks make clear this is not a casual journey; it’s not a camping trip just for fun. This is a journey to life, and for life—but that life encompasses all the difficulties of real life, including danger and death. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head,” Jesus said to someone who glibly said he would follow him anywhere. This journey is serious business and it’s not about following some celebrity or hero around.

I love the final saying in this lesson, but it doesn’t make sense unless you’ve worked on man plowing field with horsesa farm. When you plow a field or plant seeds, whether you are using a tractor, or a mule to pull your plow, it is important to plow straight furrows, next to one another or the ground won’t be thoroughly or completely cultivated, or planted or mowed. Doing this is relatively simple—you look at a point ahead of you at the end of the field and keep going straight toward it. If you turn your head, you won’t go straight, usually you will veer off toward the direction you are looking. Just like driving a car in traffic without paying close attention. So Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

The Kingdom of God is God’s life-giving compassion for God’s people, which is to say—us, living in that compassion and living out God’s compassion in the world. In this whole lesson, Jesus is making clear that focusing on life is not trivial or easy. You can’t take your eye off the goal of abundant life, or turn around into self-indulgence or arrogance. There is no compassion or life in fire-bombing the Samaritans, or playing at following Jesus while being unprepared for Christian life in the long haul.

Here at Trinity, I have experienced life in the Kingdom. Remembering God’s compassion for all of us, mourning with those who mourn, and rejoicing with those who rejoice. We walk with Jesus, and offer him our hospitality, he who has no place to lay his head.  With him we carry in us the gift of life and of love which we have received from those who have gone before us, and those with whom we share this day, and those who will continue to grow in Christ into the future. We share with him the path of life. Let us be thankful. Let us receive his generosity.

From today’s psalm:

O Lord, you are my portion and my cup;

it is you who uphold my lot.

My boundaries enclose a pleasant land;

indeed, I have a goodly heritage.

I will bless the Lord who gives me counsel;

my heart teaches me, night after night.

I have set the Lord always before me;

because he is at my right hand I shall not fail.

My heart, therefore, is glad, and my spirit rejoices;

my body shall rest in hope.

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