No Turning Back – Sermon on Luke 9:51-62 for Pentecost +3

June 30, 2019

When I was a little girl, my hometown replaced the old municipal swimming pool. It was about time. The filtration system in the old pool didn’t work very well, and the water was murky. The pool was too small for our growing community, and the diving board was … not safe.

So after an entire summer with no swimming pool, we suddenly had a new, up to date facility with twice as much area as the previous pool and not one, but three diving boards. The diving area was deep enough now to accommodate a true ‘high dive’ board, as well as two smaller ones. Kids lined up in a constantly moving stream to jump off the lower boards, but the high dive was reserved for serious divers only.

Our swimming instructor had taught us how to dive off the edge of the pool, and we had practiced that same technique for diving off the lower boards during swim class. But then one day, the swimming instructor asked who thought they were ready to dive off the high dive. Several kids jumped at the chance. Not me. I wasn’t that brave. I wasn’t alone, either. So most of us watched from the edge of the pool as a few of our classmates climbed the nine foot ladder one at a time and practiced diving from the high dive.

But you know, there’s something the teacher doesn’t tell you when you raise your hand to try this new experience. The teacher doesn’t tell you that, once your toes hit the bottom rung of that nine foot ladder, there’s no turning back. And once you get out onto the diving board itself, there is only one way to get off of it and back to the edge of the pool. You have to jump. You’ve reached the point of no return. You have to go all in.

In today’s reading, Jesus and his disciples are beginning their final journey to Jerusalem. Earlier in the ninth chapter of Luke’s gospel, Jesus has sent the disciples out in pairs to preach the Kingdom of God (9:2), he’s fed the five thousand (9:10-17), and he’s met with Moses and Elijah on the mountain of Transfiguration (9:28-36). To break up a fight among his disciples over who would be the greatest, he has made an example of a small child and said, “Whoever is least among you will be the greatest of all.” (9:48)

Jesus is making it clearer and clearer that following him requires more than gently falling into the water from the edge of the pool. There comes a time when you reach the point of no return. You have to go all in.

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:51-62)

Marilyn Salmon writes, “From the last Sunday of June to the end of October, we are on our way to Jerusalem. All of the Gospel lections for these four months belong within Luke’s journey narrative which begins [here] as Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” and concludes nearly ten chapters later (19:27) with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem.”[1]

Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. He’s passed the point of no return. Luke sets together two stories at the beginning of this journey that don’t seem to be related to each other – the story of the way the disciples respond to the Samaritans’ rejection, and the story of those who want to follow Jesus, but aren’t ready to fully commit. And as we look carefully at these two stories, we have to ask why Luke hooks them together in this way, and what does that mean for us.

It’s a long journey through these ten chapters of Luke’s gospel, but no matter how much time it takes, we have to keep in mind where the final destination will be. We will end up in Jerusalem, where Jesus will be betrayed, tried, tortured, and executed, where he will rise again from death, and where his disciples will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit after he has ascended into heaven.

Jerusalem will be the center of activity for the early church. It is the geographic location that connects the Old Testament prophecies about Messiah with the New Testament reality of Christ’s coming and the new life Jesus introduces into the world.

That new life is a complete applecart upset of everything that has gone before. Richard Shaffer writes, “Adopting a life of discipleship cannot be a part-time or momentary commitment. It is a life-changing shift in direction and priorities…”[2]

The gospels are filled with examples of people who’ve made that shift. We read story after story of people who have surrendered everything to follow Jesus. And you’d think that, after living with Jesus for three years, his closest friends would be perfect examples of the impact such a life-changing shift can have. But you’d be wrong.

James and John have just argued over who will be greatest in Christ’s kingdom. These Sons of Thunder have been jockeying for positions of power next to Jesus. So when they come into the Samaritan village as the advance team, getting things ready for Jesus to come do his preaching and healing thing, they already have a chip on their shoulders.

They apparently didn’t quite hear Jesus telling them they needed to become like little children. Or maybe, in their smug self-righteousness, they just assumed Jesus was talking to the other disciples.

So, when the Samaritans turn James and John away because they aren’t happy their village is just a pit stop on the way to Jerusalem, the disciples are offended. But get why. It’s because the Samaritans are offended.

Do you see how this escalates? We see it on social media all the time. People get offended by the way other people get offended, and before you know it, people are calling down fire from heaven on each other, convinced that only they know the right path, the right understanding, the right truth.

David Lose writes, “Even disciples can see those who thwart their plans or disagree with their convictions as the enemy. Even disciples can decide that to be different is to be less than human.”[3] Maybe this isn’t such a great example of discipleship after all.

But Luke gives us another possibility. The second section of this passage shows a parade of would-be Jesus followers who each have some obstacle preventing them from going all in. And some of these obstacles sound like genuine issues, worthy of some grace from Jesus. It’s a little shocking to hear him raise the bar, instead of lowering it.

One person is ready to follow Jesus, until it’s clear there won’t be any stops at fine hotels or restaurants. This will be more like camping without a tent or a sleeping bag. Following Jesus isn’t going to be glamorous.

Another is ready to follow Jesus, just as soon as his father dies and he can settle the estate. We don’t know if his father is already near death, or at the peak of health at the moment. “Let the dead bury their own dead,” Jesus says. “You go proclaim the kingdom of God.” Notice that Jesus first invites this would be disciple to follow him, but ends up saying “Go” not “Come.”

And then we get the one who sounds a lot like Elisha, wanting to say goodbye to his family before setting out to follow Jesus. And the way Jesus answers him reminds us of that story we heard earlier, where Elisha was busy plowing with his team of oxen when Elijah called him into service. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Ouch.

So is the lesson here all about becoming homeless, in order to go preach the kingdom while wearing blinders that prevent us from looking anywhere but straight ahead? I don’t think so. In fact, this may not be a lesson in discipleship at all. This whole passage may not be so much about us, and how we follow, as it is about Jesus, and how he leads.

“This passage is not primarily about discipleship, and it isn’t even about Jesus’ heroic courage as he sets his face toward Jerusalem, and ultimately, the Cross. Rather, it is a single-mindedness of purpose that is prompted by God’s profound love for humanity and all the world.”[4]

Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. Nothing is going to stop him from getting there. Not a village full of grudging Samaritans or a couple of power-hungry fishermen. Not a long line of would-be disciples who aren’t ready to go all in quite yet. Not you, not me. Jesus is determined to do what he came to do. He knows his mission, and nothing will stop him from fulfilling it.

And why is he so focused, so intent on getting to Jerusalem? Because God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.

Because Jesus can see that even his closest friends, who should know by now how to live in a radically different way, are still stuck in the world’s way of calling down fire on people who reject them. Because Jesus understands the desire of those would-be followers, and he knows their desire can never be matched by commitment without his help. Because Jesus sees you and me, as we struggle to love people we think are wrong without judging them. He sees how we fail at this time and again.

And he knows that, unless he gets to Jerusalem to complete his mission, we will be stuck forever in a world where dirty children can sleep on concrete floors in government holding facilities, where arguments over who is in and who is out can tear churches apart, where people who should be showing the world what it means to love each other as Christ loved you, can only show the world how wrapped up we are in our own needs and desires. Unless he gets to Jerusalem, Jesus knows we will never know just how deeply God loves us.

That’s why his face is set. There is no turning back.

I can remember singing the song, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” at church camp when I was a kid. It was easy to learn, because each verse repeated a simple phrase:

I have decided to follow Jesus. … No turning back, no turning back.
Though none go with me, I still will follow. No turning back, no turning back.
The world behind me, the cross before me. No turning back, no turning back.
My cross I’ll carry till I see Jesus. …

No turning back, I’ll follow him.

Lord Jesus, we want to follow you with all our hearts. But it seems like something is always getting in our way of going all in. We get angry when others don’t see things the same way we do. Forgive our self-righteous indignation, and teach us to love as you love. We want to follow you, but not before we take care of our personal business.
We think we need to clean up our act before we can identify ourselves as Christ followers. We forget that cleaning up our act is your specialty, not ours, and it’s only when we fully surrender to you that you can begin to do that good work in us.
Lord, we want to follow you without reservation, but Lord … there’s always a “but, Lord” in that sentence.
Give us hearts that are wholly devoted to you. Give us the will to give up our will to you. Give us the desire to keep you constantly in front of us, no turning back, no turning back. Amen.

[1] Marilyn Salmon, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=623

[2] Richard J. Shaffer, Jr., Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, 190.

[3] David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2019/06/pentecost-3-c-fire-from-heaven/

[4] David Lose, Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 3, 195.

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