June 26, 2016

He Set His Face to Go to Jerusalem

Passage: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14, Psalm 77: 1-2, 11-20, Galatians 5:1, 13-25, Luke 9:51-62
Service Type:

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

Facebook made public a huge trove of data about its users’ interests as part of a new tool called Audience Optimization. For the first time it revealed not only the hundreds of thousands of categories into which Facebook divides its users, but also the number of people who belong to each one. According to an article in The Verge, they found over 282,000 interest categories. Facebook says there are 88 million interested in sin, 81 million in boredom, 41 million in crying, and 28 million in envy. (Odd categories; “narcissistic parent” had an audience of 41,660). These are tiny, though, when compared to two largest categories; 839 million interested in love or the 571 million in happiness.

1. What Facebook category would Jesus be interested in? The gospels tell us. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This euphemism to “set his face to go” expresses a singlemindedness of purpose. Nothing will deflect him from his resolve to go to Jerusalem. What will happen there? The days drew near for him “to be taken up.” Our English translation misses the idea of fulfilment that the Greek word denotes. Of course we know that it is our Lord’s self-forgetful self-giving for human sin on the cross that the gospel writer Luke has in mind. The cross is where this course direction will take Jesus. It is there that Jesus, with single-minded purpose, now begins his advance.

What prompts Jesus’ singlemindedness of purpose? It is his (God’s) profound love for humanity. Though humanity is quite happy to live alienated from God indifferent to his existence God will not sit by and let humanity go on this self-destructive path. He comes for us to bring us home. The cross of Jesus Christ is the prism through which Christian faith views everything. Of our Lord’s cross the wonderful Welsh hymn says, “Here is love vast as the ocean, loving kindness as the flood. When the Prince of Life, our ransom, shed for us his precious blood.”

According to Facebook 839 million of its users are interested in love. What love are they interested in? Our Lord is single minded about his love for sinful humanity. I recognize that the man hanging upon the cross; the instrument for execution reserved for the worst among us; Jesus’ execution there looks nothing like love to us. Yet the gospels insist that it is here that we see God’s love most characteristically. Here we see that God will pour himself out without remainder for our sakes. Here is where we learn that love, true love, God’s love is a self-forgetful self-giving.

Humans were made for love; to love God and enjoy him forever. We have turned our back on that love and then wonder why we find love so elusive. We look for it in all the wrong places. We have a hard enough time with civility among family members, not to mention neighbours and communities. Humanity has been completely unable to give up its warring ways. And then, if we think about God at all, we blame God for making us this way. (Remember who Adam blamed—the woman you gave me.) Into this mess our Lord comes on a rescue mission. His love so strong for us that “when the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

One of the things that Luke wants to make clear about Jesus is that nothing will deflect him from his resolve to go to Jerusalem. Propelled forward by his love for us, not the rejection by this Samaritan village nor the half-heartedness of some who want to follow him will take him off course. Jesus Christ is the hinge of history. His self-giving will usher in the “age to come.” According to the gospel, nothing on earth or in heaven rises above this in importance. Facebook users may have thousands of interests; Jesus insists that it is of utmost importance to look to him.

2. On September 24, 2015 Pope Francis addressed a Joint Session of the Congress of the United States. In those remarks he touched on the subject of violence in the name of religion. Francis said: “Our world is increasingly a place of violent conflict, hatred and brutal atrocities, committed even in the name of God and of religion. We know that no religion is immune from forms of individual delusion or ideological extremism. … A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms. But there is another temptation which we must especially guard against: the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within.”

Jesus in on his way to Jerusalem from Galilee. The most direct route is through Samaria. However, Jews and Samaritans don’t like each other; the divide is both religious and tribal and has festered into hatred. Recall the surprise of the Samaritan woman Jesus spoke to at a well one day; “How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria?’ This is followed by the author’s interjection of an explanatory note that “Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.” (John 4:9) Because of these hostilities Jewish people on their way to worship at Jerusalem used a longer route to Jerusalem (Jordon valley) that circumvented Samaria.

Jesus, however, sends messengers ahead of him to a Samaritan village to make arrangements for accommodations for the group travelling with him. The implication is that Jesus will preach there as well. It is a large group so advance preparations are necessary since not every village may be able to host such a group. Because they are Jews on their way to worship at Jerusalem, this Samaritan village refuses to host them. James and John, likely fueled by their dislike of Samaritans, propose a “scorched earth” approach; “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Jesus rebuked them.

Here we learn that our Lord insists that the character of our proclamation of the good news match the character of the One whose good news it is. Forcing conversion at the end of the barrel of a gun or by other means of violent coercion is antithetical to the good news of Jesus Christ. God does not violate the human will he created. The text simply states that “they went on to another village.” Rejection did not halt their proclamation of the good news. They moved on to a place that would receive them. Jesus would give this instruction to his disciples as he sent them out in teams to preach that even at those villages that rejected them they were to announce that “the kingdom of God has come near.” (Luke 10:10-11)

Jesus does not coerce or manipulate anyone into the kingdom. His proclamation is, “the kingdom is near, repent and believe.” It is my experience that people genuinely loath being manipulated; I hate being manipulated. The sales pitch that begins with questions designed to lead to only one possible conclusion—the purchase of this product; “Don’t you want your children and grandchildren to be safe? (No parent or grandparent would say otherwise). Well then you need this vehicle with the highest of safety ratings.”

Sadly sometimes people equate evangelism with manipulation—not undeservedly given the practises of some evangelists. Our English word “evangel” derives from a Greek word that means good news. When Mark, for example, opens his story of Jesus with these words, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ”, “good news” translates the word from which our word “evangel” comes from. It is also translated “gospel.” In other words, the word “evangel” is a good word in the New Testament.

Christians are compelled to proclaim good news because it is part of the character that makes “good news” good. AS far as the gospel is concerned un-proclaimed “good news” is an oxymoron. Part of what makes this news good is that it is proclaimed and heard. If you never tell your spouse you love them, the silence undermines or belies the character of love you claim.

Compelled to proclaim we must never manipulate people into believing. Such manipulation is antithetical to the goodness of the news that is Jesus Christ. Yes, it is true that I can’t imagine anything more satisfying for life than knowing Jesus Christ. Believing that, if I began my sermon with this question—who here would like a more satisfying life? (Is anyone likely to say no?) This is manipulative. Yet I say to you with all sincerity that it is my experience that there is nothing in life to compare in its wonder to knowing Jesus Christ.

3. Malcolm Muggeridge was a twentieth century British journalist, author and media personality. His conversion to Christian faith was a process. As early as 1925, Muggeridge wrote to his father: “I want God to play tunes through me. He plays, but I, the reed, am out of tune.” He eventually became an influential promoter of Christian faith greatly influenced by Mother Theresa the subject of his book Something Beautiful for God. Muggeridge said, of his experience of Jesus Christ, ”I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness, or cared to live until I chose to die. For these two discoveries I am beholden to Jesus.”

What we hear in Muggeridge’s comment is the “all in” nature of his faith experience. In Jesus Christ he found something much more profound than happiness; something he called joy. He also testifies to the truth uttered by the Psalmist many centuries ago; “Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.” When you die to this life and discover there is something even more wonderful than — as glorious as experience of this life can be — then you really want to live. In the Apostle Paul’s Romans letter he touched on this when we wrote: “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:4)

As much as we might admire such “all in” kinds of statements they seem a little over the top. Too demanding. Luke tells us about Jesus’ comment to three people—two who offer themselves to follow him and one he calls to follow him. Our Lord’s call is “all-in” in nature. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God. No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Most of us know how to use hyperbole, an exaggeration of something to make a point. We utter them daily, such as, “I have a million things to do.” Clearly, when Jesus said that he had nowhere to lay his head he did not mean that his followers would never have a home; Jesus goes happily to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and never calls them to leave it. We he said to “let the dead bury the dead” he does not mean that his followers should not attend their parents’ funerals; recall that Jesus reiterated the command to honour your father and mother (Matthew 19:19); he also attended the funeral wake of his friend Lazarus. When the man asks to go home and say farewell before following Jesus and Jesus makes the comment about the importance of looking ahead to plough and not back, he is not saying that family is unimportant. Our Lord while on the cross in the language of last will and testament gives the care of his mother to the Apostle John.

I believe that our Lord can see into the hearts of each of these who want to be Jesus’ followers and senses hesitancy. The first man promises more than he knows. “I’ll follow you wherever you go.” Jesus knows he is going to the cross and that “where he is going followers cannot come.” He prepares him—there are no promised perks in following Jesus. He has no palace.

The second and third person both say “but first”. There is an urgency that our Lord insists upon. Even though their “but first”(s) sound perfectly reasonable our Lord insists that nothing else can be first. Always remember that what our Lord calls from us he both supplies and undergirds.

Another way to think about our Lord’s sayings here is to understand that we cannot exaggerate about the importance of what our Lord is resolved to do for us and the world. Deliverance from sin and death is at stake. His insistence tells us as much. He is our salvation and we only have salvation as we have him because he brings it.

As I hear these sayings what helps me in response is to remember that my Lord uttered them as he was on his way resolved to go to Jerusalem. Disregarding the cost. Nothing will distract him. Hand on the plough; no turning back. All in. Can I do less?

Our older Testament story today was another “all in story”. Elisha will not be distracted from his resolve to journey with Elijah to the end. In the response to the promise attached to seeing Elijah’s departure even as the chariot of heaven is taking Elijah away we are told, “Elisha kept watching.” (2 Kings 2:12) The writer to the Hebrews calls us to keep “looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)

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