Sermon: "The Journey to Jerusalem"
St. Paul’s – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
2 Kings 2.1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77.1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-62
Sometimes it is good to get the “lay of the land,” to review where we have been and where we are going. We opened June with Pentecost, the outpouring of God’s Spirit upon the early church. The Advocate, the Comforter, who empowers us to change our lives and to engage in the ministry to which we are called, has come. On Trinity Sunday, we considered the divine dance of God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit – the three yet one who pour their love out to each other and to us. Last week we looked at several instances of “troubled souls” – Elijah’s despondency, the demoniac who lived naked among the tombs, and the psalmist who repeatedly asked, “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul?” In each case we heard the refrain, “Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God” (Psalm 42.6 – 43.7). Within this context, we considered what it means to sit at Jesus feet, clothed and in our right mind, to be “clothed in Christ,” to wear the robe of righteousness. Thus far, it has been a good journey!
So where are we headed now? The gospel reading begins, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9.51; NRSV). This could also read, “As the days were being fulfilled…” which points to the fulfillment of prophecy in the cross, the resurrection, and Ascension. From this Sunday through the end of October, we will be accompanying Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem as portrayed in the gospel of Luke. Jesus invites us to journey with him! But bear in mind, one who is on the way to Jerusalem will meet with opposition.
The gospel says, “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” (Luke 9.52-53). What is with these Samaritans? Why wouldn’t they receive him?
The Samaritans consisted of Jews “who the conquering Assyrians (in 721 BC) had deemed too insignificant to deport to Babylon and Gentile people whom the Assyrians had settled in Palestine” (Chris Haslam: http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/cpr13l.shtml). The Samaritans trace their lineage to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and see themselves as having maintained the true worship practices of the ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian captivity as opposed to Judaism which was brought back by those returning from captivity. The Samaritans worshiped on Mount Gerazim, the site of Joshua’s worship after having entered the land of Canaan. In contrast, the Jews worshiped on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samaritans ). In that Jesus and his “rag-tag” band were headed for Jerusalem, they were heretics, and were not received.
James and John were rather irritated by their lack of reception and asked Jesus if he would like them to command fire to come down from heaven and consume the Samaritans. Jesus rebuked them. They still had not caught the vision of love – even of one’s enemies -- which Jesus was teaching. James and John were very likely drawing upon the account of Elijah’s encounter with the messengers King Ahaziah sent to him. On two occasions, Elijah said, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you [the captain] and your fifty,” and it was so (2 Kings 1.9-16; NRSV). Let us remember that Jesus came to fully reveal the nature of agape love.
Luke then recounts how someone said he would follow Jesus wherever he went, and Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9.58; NRSV). Jesus told another to follow him, and he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father,” to which Jesus responded, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luke 9.59-60; NRSV). A third said he would follow Jesus but asked that he might first say farewell to his family, to which Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9.61-62; NRSV).
I suspect most of us find these interchanges to be rather puzzling. Some New Testament scholars have taken the position that, given Jesus’ emphasis on love, he could not actually have said these things. After all, it seems like we encounter a more reasonable approach in the story of Elijah’s call of Elisha. Elisha and company were plowing with twelve yoke of oxen (a total of twenty-four oxen). When Elijah passed by Elisha and threw his mantle over him, Elisha said, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” Elijah responded, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” Elisha then slaughtered the yoke of oxen, boiled their flesh, and gave it to the people to eat. Then he followed Elijah and served him (I Kings 19.19-21; NRSV). What point was Jesus making?
I believe Jesus was contrasting Kingdom of God values with the values of this world. Jesus had no home, for the people, especially the poor and downtrodden, were his home. It is hard to identify with the poor when we live in luxury. Concerning the request to bury one’s father, Jesus was likely saying let the spiritually dead bury the dead. The third man desired to say farewell, to which Jesus said no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God. Jesus frequently employed exaggeration to make a point – in this case, the point being, commitment to serving the kingdom of God is all consuming; this commitment takes precedence over all else.
As Eleanor Stump puts it, “Here is the moral of the story: there isn’t room for hanging back when the Lord calls you. If you hesitate, if you think of an excuse to postpone answering the call, you aren’t really hearing the Lord calling; and so you aren’t really going to follow him either, not now, not later. That is why in the Gospel Reading Jesus says that no one who sets his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven” (http://liturgy.slu.edu/13OrdC063019/reflections_stump.html).
Answering God’s call demands full commitment to kingdom values. The journey to Jerusalem is challenging. If we hesitate, we aren’t really hearing God’s call.