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He set his face resolutely..

Notes & Transcripts

class=MsoNormal>May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Our strength and our redeemer – Amen 

Have you ever had a moment…, an important moment in your life, when you were faced with a big decision

            A decision that ‘you knew in that very moment’ was going to define your future…?

                        In our Gospel story today we see just such a moment for some disciples of Jesus

                                    And it becomes a difficult and awkward moment - suspend in time

This passage that we have today is one of the more difficult passages of all of Jesus’ teaching

Anyone that would think of Jesus as the kind gentle shepherd leader that won’t say a challenging word – certainly gets that bubble completely burst today!

“Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” [1]

A challenging message indeed for the ‘would-be’ followers of Jesus

            A challenging message for a day with three baptisms – welcome to family…!

So what is going on here? – how are we to understand the situation?

And what does it have to do with us 2000 years later

One might ask the very reasonable question “should we just leave the moment to that situation and contextualize what is being asked 2000 years ago”

What did it mean in Jesus’ time to bury one’s father – what did that mean in Hebrew culture

One scholar reports that – ‘The practice of primary burial (in which the corpse is placed in a sealed tomb) followed by secondary burial (following a twelve-month period of decomposition the bones were collected and reburied in an ossuary or "bone box") is well attested, with the additional twelve months between burial and reburial providing for the completion of the work of mourning.’[2]

So the request to bury the disciple’s father might have been a lengthy delay – a postponing action – that revealed that the ‘would-be’ disciple had no intention of following Jesus any time soon.

Another answer is to consider a different interpretation of the passage:

“let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead”

Meaning that Jesus could see right through the all too public display of loyalty

…Yet still, the proper burial of one's parents was seen as an important part of fulfilling the commandment to "honor your father and mother" (Ex. 20:12)

Maybe what Jesus is doing in this moment - is rhetoric - hyperbole - that dramatize a point but is not meant to be taken literally, like when Jesus says: 'If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away' (Matt 5:29)[3]

The request to saying goodbye to family, although not as vital burying one parent, was still deeply important in Hebrew culture – and in the story of the young prophet Elisha who would be the prodigy of the Elijah – Elijah grants Elisha’s request to say goodbye to family

This is a parallel that would not be lost on the people who knew their Hebrew scripture – and it would be clear to all, that Jesus was demanding more than even the greatest of the prophets

And Jesus uses the moment to declare an important truth about the responsibility involved in being a true follower of Jesus

In rocky, unforgiving land which was mostly given over to sheep grazing and where agricultural farming could be a tall order (not like our well clear farm land all around us, home of Cockshut plows.

A Palestinian plow required constant attention; thereby diverting one’s attention for a moment could lead to disaster.

In both situations there is an under current message asking about priorities and call on their lives

There is the call of family obligations vs. the call to follow Jesus.

There is the call of socially accepted actions vs. the call to follow Jesus.

There is the call of being good citizens which may conflict with the call to follow Jesus.

If burying one's parents was considered obeying the commandment to honor them,

Then we also have the call of the ‘all important’ Law vs. the call to follow Jesus.[4]

If you are like me and were faced with these decisions today, I think frankly, that I would not make the cut to follow Jesus.

And maybe, just maybe, the real payout is to learn that alone we can’t

That in the end it is God’s grace and Jesus on the cross for us that is ultimately the only satisfier of such a call to follow…

Well, like any piece of scripture, taken by itself, it can be misleading… and if we are judge Jesus by this passage alone, and base our decision to follow or not based on what He said here, I think that most of us would ‘let this one pass’

Is Jesus a really bad salesman – does he need someone else with more diplomacy to be his campaign manager – like our modern day “political spin doctors” to smooth over all verbal and written communication before it reaches the would-be voters

Jesus' response to legitimate requests to postpone the journey reminds Christians in every generation that there are always justifiable excuses to defer the journey or put off the claims of discipleship.[5]

I am reminded of a story that The Reverend Nicky Gumbel tells about a certain popular, good looking young man that came out to an Alpha course

You see as the course was progressing the young man became increasingly anxious, He became anxious because he knew where the path that a Christian life was leading – He wanted to become a Christian – knew that Jesus was the Son of God and the very model for his life – a life that he wanted – ...just not yet… He wanted to continue for a little while longer in a life that he knew was not in-line with a Christian life

As Nicky tells it he didn’t hold out for much longer and to his surprise found different, deeper happiness as a Christian

The reasons for not following can be many, in a world so full of distractions – even for those that truly want to follow

This brings us to another key point in the narrative – you may have noticed that the would-be disciples are not named

I believe that this is no error of Luke, this is not a gentle way of  avoiding hurting someone’s reputation, but in fact was done for a very important intentional reason

By not naming the disciples, we don’t know if they in fact decided to follow or not

And it leaves open the place for each of us to consider our own commitment 

It calls the reader/hearer to answer the question for themselves

I believe this wrinkle in the narrative is left for all people over all time to consider their own priorities

And what if, instead of looking at this from a negative perspective we were to consider this with a sense of opportunity

As you consider my opening question of this sermon

Have you ever had a moment…, an important moment in your life, when you were faced with a big decision

A decision that you knew in that very moment was going to define your future…?

I would like to share with you a situation in which I was faced with just such a situation

I have shared with you before about how I felt called in ministry while I was in church one Sunday morning

You see, even though I knew deep down, what God was calling me into – I felt that I should not jump into things right away

                        I was married with a good job and two children, at that point.

And I thought that I should take some time to properly discern this call into full-time ministry

It just so happened that within the very next month, there was a weekend conference held in Toronto for people considering the call into ordain ministry

This conference happened every two years and alternated between Toronto and Vancouver – and yet as luck would prevail, this 4 year cycle was timed perfectly for me

On the opening day, the schedule was nicely divided up by keynote speakers to talk about a variety of topics that a life in ministry would entail

I remember clearly Bishop Victoria Matthew’s talk

She was given the task of speaking about all the pitfalls of ministry – she laid out a realistic, pragmatic description that carried with it the clear message “ministry was not for the light of heart”

But as she laid out her case against ministry – point by point, discouraging argument layered upon discouraging argument – I felt more and more convicted that this was precisely what I was being call by God into

For me – it was a moment of conviction – and I knew, without a shadow of a doubt by the time that she had finished her talk what my future was to hold for me and my family

Not all challenging messages scare us away – some can be seen as straight talk that calls us to opportunities of a future more attractive then the path of life one is presently on

Now… All of what I have said up to this point might be considered as only ‘rationalization’

            An attempt to soften what is are alarming and challenging statements from Jesus

Maybe there is some truth to what I have said – and if pushed, I would suggest that I believe that Jesus was calling more from His followers then they were prepared to give AND I also believe that Jesus was using rhetoric devices of the day – with ‘over-the-top’ hyperbole to make His point clear

But it is also important, in order to understand this difficult and challenging message, that we need to first put it in the context of the scripture around it

            The stage in the narrative from which this passage comes

Only a very short time ago, within the same chapter in Luke, we are presented with the transfiguration, where Jesus is with Moses and Elijah and is turned dazzling white, brighter than anything that Peter, James and John, who are with Him, have ever seen – and the voice of God the Father declares – “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased”

Then He Heals a Boy with a Demon - Foretells His Own Death – Is asked by James and John about True Greatness – Yet Another Exorcism – and then A Samaritan Village Refuses to Receive Jesus while he is on the way to Jerusalem

            All these dramatic moments are leading up to something big

It is a moment that many scholars have called the “hinge of Luke’s gospel – it is the moment in which the trajectory of His life changed

And the key line is found in verse 51, which began our reading today… "He set his face resolutely to go to Jerusalem"

From this point forward all the focus, recorded by Luke, is of Jesus journeying towards Jerusalem and His purpose there

In fact this year from today, the last Sunday in June till October we will be following Jesus’ purposeful journey towards His fate in Jerusalem

If this were to be a Hollywood movie – I could imagine the director zooming in on Jesus’ face looking steely eyed off to some place far in the distance

then I would imagine the camera angle to shift and move in the direction of His gaze and then travel over desert land and through small villages and then up the mountain path to the city where prophets go to die – Jerusalem

And there at the end of the shot, it would be just outside the gates of the city, around the back where the garbage is thrown out – would be Calvary’s hill

And on would be three crosses

I believe that Jesus is asking these challenging claims because His focus has changed "He set his face resolutely to go to Jerusalem"

And so these claims to follow Jesus, only shielded with conditional clauses, meet Jesus at a time where reality has set in – and He challenges only those willing to follow whole heartedly

I also believe that the radicality of Jesus' words, lies in His claim to priority over the best, not the worst, of human relationships.

Jesus never said to choose Him over the devil but to choose him over the family[6]

      Or if you like a softer message - to choose Him over excuses

I also believe that frequently, the greatest threat to the gospel is "the good" not "the evil." When we recognize "the evil" in our lives, we usually want to get rid of it.

As the saying goes – There are no atheists in a fox hole…

When you are faced with the deep troubles in life, it is more obvious to call out to God and to follow God when you are called

However, when we become content with "the good" -- the good in our lives and the good in our church - we may fail to follow Jesus and seek what is "the best."[7]

But brothers and Sisters in Christ – there is good news in the face of these challenging calls to follow Jesus – to follow with the best of all of us

In God's kingdom, the good news is that we are not defined by our past,

…But defined as Christians - by our future

      We are defined by the victory that Jesus paid for, with His life on a brutal cross

                  We are Easter people – people of the resurrection

The trajectory of the gospel is not a calling too hard to make

But the grace of forgiveness of sins … and then a call to strive to be disciples, people of the way

We are defined not by Jesus’ face set towards Jerusalem …but by His victory there

                        …Christ is Risen – The Lord has risen indeed

Thanks be to God - Alleluia


[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 9:59-62). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

[2] Green (The Gospel of Luke)

[3] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke9x51.htm

[4] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke9x51.htm

[5] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx

[6] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke9x51.htm

[7] http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/luke9x51.htm

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