Today’s Gospel passage begins the section in Luke known as the travel narrative. It’s the point when Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem and begins the long trek to the cross. That’s a good thing to note because all our Gospel readings from now until the end of October will be stories about Jesus on this journey. Interestingly though there is not much in the way of a travelogue from this point on; rather the journey seem to be more about the formation of God’s followers. They’re going to have trouble grasping who Jesus is, what his mission is, and what that means for themselves and the world—not unlike the challenges of discipleship many of us have today.
We probably like to think that we have an easier time getting the Gospel because we know how the story ends—the salvation of the world—and because we’ve spent two thousand years listening to the brightest and best unpack the meaning for us; but it did occur to me that knowing more doesn’t always correspond to being better disciples. True conversion—the complete reorienting of ourselves and lives to God—for most of us is a process rather than a one time event. I propose we take this journey with Jesus toward the cross and set our hearts toward transformation with the same unwavering determination that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem.
Let’s take a look at some of the obstacles those in today’s Gospel had with regard to following Jesus. First there were the Samaritans. Jesus sends messengers ahead to let them know that he’s coming to them but the Scriptures say that they did not receive him because his face was set toward Jerusalem. Now it’s not all that clear exactly what was so offensive to them that they’d reject him. It might have been the main bone of contention between the Jews and Samaritans, that the Jews believed that God’s plan of salvation would be revealed in Jerusalem and they did not, but whatever it was, the result was that they did not welcome or accept him.
How often do we refuse to welcome and accept God because God doesn’t do things the way we desire or expect. We sent up a joyous Alleluia this week when the Supreme Court declared DOMA unconstitutional and we gave thanks to God that all marriages can now be treated equally under the law. I think it would have been a very difficult thing to give the same alleluias and praises to the God who is always working on the side of justice, if we’d been disappointed in our hopes and expectations. I don’t know about you but when things don’t go the way I think they should, the first person I want to lash out at is God, but maybe that’s just me.
Or maybe when things don’t go our way we’re more like James and John who wanted to command fire to come down from heaven and consume the Samaritans. This strikes me as crazy for 2 reasons—first, like they actually thought that they were capable of raining down fire from heaven, and second, because as the disciples of the One who came to earth to demonstrate the love of God and save the world, this would not have been exactly appropriate behavior! But either way, we see one of the ways we humans like to respond when our expectations are disappointed or our plans are thwarted—with rage.
This of course is no surprise to Jesus who knows everything about them and us, and he uses this as an opportunity to teach them about what being a disciple means—and you can strike smiting people with fire off your list. The next section sounds extreme because it is. Jesus uses exaggeration and hyperbole to get his message across.
The first person, probably in the impulsiveness of new faith, says that he will follow Jesus anywhere. Jesus says to him that foxes have holes, and birds have nests; but that he has nowhere to lay his head. Now this might be a reference to the fact that he spends a lot of time on the road but it also may be a metaphor for the kind of life a disciple can expect to lead. In my reading this week, someone said that the life of a disciple is more like being a nomad than a pilgrim. We are certainly pilgrims in the sense that we know where we are heading—eternity with God—but as nomads we are “called to go by uncertain paths to a place that will be made holy at some indefinite time by something God will say or do.” In other words, prepare for the unexpected.
Next Jesus invites others to come follow him. The first says he has to first go bury his father and the next one says he needs to go home and say goodbye to his family. Now to our ears, I’m sure these seem like perfectly reasonable requests. But Jesus is not satisfied. He seems to see these as postponements of commitment and action and says that no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. For the non-farmers among us, the metaphor refers to the fact that you cannot plow a straight line unless you are looking forward. To look backward is to swerve from the line. It seems like Jesus is saying that to be a disciple one must lay aside one’s own agenda and to leave the past behind.
Hmmm so being a disciple means traveling uncharted territories, not doing things our own way, and looking forward when everything we know is behind us. A bit daunting, wouldn’t you say? Well, yes, unless you come to realize that living lives of uncertainty where things happen that we did not choose or desire, propelling us forward whether we like it or not, IS the reality of the human life here on earth.
We really like to think that we are in control but any control we have is illusion. We can’t keep the hurricanes and tornados from their destruction, we can’t make our sick loved ones be well, we can’t guarantee how long we’ll live, that those we love will stay, what people think of us, or that our hopes and dreams will be fulfilled. Right about now you’re probably thinking, “Wow, thanks Suzanne for being such an upper—this is your version of good news?!”
But I’m not finished yet. Of course that’s not good news—it’s simply what is. Now I want to share with you something that completely rocked my world this week. David Lose, my favorite writer to the rescue, offered this life giving perspective. In response to us not being in control, what did Jesus do? He set his face toward Jerusalem, toward the place where he would give up all control in order to “thrust himself fully and completely into our out of control lives and to come out the other side.”
It had never occurred to me that way before. Of course God is almighty and sovereign but what does God in Jesus do? He lays it all down. Jesus goes to Jerusalem to be completely vulnerable. He puts himself in a position of not being able to control the fact that a close friend will betray him and his other best friends will abandon him in fear; that no one who matters will listen, or believe, or consider his truth; that he will be physically beaten and emotionally taunted; that he will want out in the Garden but the answer will be no; and finally that his flesh will be torn and his life will be taken.
Jesus knows exactly what it is to be completely out of control and he set his face toward Jerusalem so that he “could join us in our out-of-controllness, hold on to us in the midst of it, and bring us out in time to the other side.”
Life is going to do what life does but being Christ’s followers means that no matter what, we’re never alone, that we will be held throughout whatever it is, and that we will make it to the other side. That is our hope. That is the good news.
Do we believe this? Do we act like it’s true? We always have the option to live in fear, to try to keep ourselves safe, and to pray “my will be done,” but if I’m going live this life in the midst of all the things I can’t control, and not from lack of trying, I want to know that there is nothing that can pull me out of God’s love, that God is holding me in the good and the bad, and that no matter what comes I will be brought out safe to the other side. In other words, I want to be a disciple.
Be his disciples with me and let’s live large, take risks, and embrace our vulnerabilities together. Let’s give thanks that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem; that he was absolutely determined to go there and live out the most vulnerable self he could be, thus joining us in our turbulent out-of-control lives, so that we could know that he is always with us, nothing can separate us from his love, and that we will come out the other side.