The opening verse of our text is the turning point of Luke's Gospel. "As the time approached for Him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem." Other translations are more literal. "Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem." Our text tells how Jesus faced Jerusalem and all that awaited Him there, and it calls us to face what it means to follow Him.
Face it; you are not the follower you should be. O you started out eager enough. Not only did you say what the man in the text does, "I will follow You wherever You go." You said at Confirmation, "I will follow you and die rather than stop." But you've never faced the true consequences of following Jesus. You're better off following an animal than you are Jesus; that's what Jesus says. Foxes have their dens and birds their nests but He has no place. Face it; we who worry about housing markets, square footage, and resale value take for granted that we will always have someplace to lay our heads. What chance do we have of remaining faithful followers when we can't imagine giving up our creature comforts?
Face it; you're not the follower you should be; you seek the faces of your family before the Lord's face. Do you think the Lord who says to a son grieving the death of his father, "Let the dead bury their own dead," has any patience with you putting your family before Him? He doesn't care that you don't come to church because you have family in town. He doesn't mind that you don't go to church when you're visiting family. He sympathizes with all those people over the years who've told me, "I'll become a Lutheran once my father, mother, grandmother, etc passes on." Face it; the Lord who doesn't accept a death in the family as a reason to delay following Him hasn't, doesn't, won't, accept your family excuses either.
Face it; you're not the follower you should be. You're forever doing an about face. The grass is always greener someplace else than where the Lord has you. The days gone by are "good ole days" compared to the here and now the Lord has brought you to. You think this a small sin if any sin at all. The truth is you're Lot's wife who looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt along with the rest of sinful Sodom. You're the people who followed Moses out of Egypt yet longed for the fleshpots of Egypt. God destroyed them in the wilderness. Think that's too harsh? Jesus doesn't. He says, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God."
Face it; you're delirious if you think you can follow Jesus and focus elsewhere. Delirious' comes from a Latin phrase "de lira" meaning "out of the furrow." You can't keep in a furrow if you're looking backwards while plowing. You're delirious if you think you can focus on your comfort and follow Jesus, focus on your family and follow Jesus, focus on anything other than Jesus and follow the straight and narrow path He leads.
Face it; you're not the follower of Jesus you should be, but face it; Jesus is. Last week Jesus told us the consequences of Him going to Jerusalem. He would be betrayed by friends, rejected by church leaders, suffer many things, and be executed by the state. Jesus knew what it meant to follow the path His heavenly Father was leading Him, and He went anyway. Not only did He know that there wouldn't be any place to lay His head, He also knew His back would be shredded by whips; His hands and feet would be nailed to a cross; and He would end up stone cold dead. Yet Jesus followed on.
Face it; you're not the follower of Jesus you should be, but Jesus does what you don't. Jesus went about His heavenly Father's business even when His earthly parents put their business first. When His family came to rescue Him because they thought He was beside Himself being too devoted to His ministry, when they tried to assert their family relationship, Jesus said, "My family is those who hear the Word of God and keep it." Though His brothers we're of a different faith, and even teased Him about it, He didn't allow them to get in the way of His following the heavenly Father.
Face it; Jesus set His face on saving you and never looked back. The rather peculiar expression about Jesus setting His face comes from the Old Testament. In Isaiah Christ says, "For the Lord God helps Me, therefore I am not disgraced. Therefore, I have set My face like flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed." In Ezekiel the Lord tells His servant, "I have made your face as hard as their faces and your forehead as hard as their foreheads. Like emery, harder than flint I have made your forehead. Do not be afraid of them or be dismayed, though they are a rebellious house."
Now put this all together. Jesus sets His face to go to Jerusalem to suffer and die for sins He didn't do but you did. He goes there in the face of disciples who will not face the true consequences of following Him, in the face of disciples who prize family more than following Him, in the face of disciples who are always looking back to something they left behind rather than forward toward Him. He goes to pour His lifeblood out for people who won't even bear being inconvenienced to follow Him. He goes through hell for people who think more of family than they do of Him. According to Psalm 129:3, Jesus knows in Jerusalem that the plowers will plow upon His back long furrows. For the sake of you who can't stay in the furrow of following Him, Jesus is going have long furrows plowed the length of His back cutting deep, exposing muscle and bone.
Face it; you're feeling hopeless about now, but Jesus isn't. According to Isaiah although you and I are rightly ashamed of how poorly, weakly, and sinfully we follow Him, Jesus knows that He will not be ashamed. His suffering and dying, bleeding and crying that seem powerless, pointless, and a downright shame, won't be. It will have its fruit in followers who will be saved. And though we are dismayed when we remember how easily we have turned from following Jesus: a slight discomfort made us turn, a family thing got in the way, something in our past shone brighter than the present with Jesus, Ezekiel says Jesus is not dismayed when He looks at us.
I know; that's radical to say but that's the truth, and this truth is connected to the last thing this text calls us to face. Not only are we to face that we're not the followers we should be and Jesus is what we are not, but we are to face the wonderful, glorious, comforting truth that Jesus gets His followers.
You wouldn't think this from where our text ends, would you? Three up and three down. You wouldn't think this based on looking in the mirror either, would you? I wouldn't. But see how Luke begins His next chapter. Right after quoting Jesus saying, "No one who looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God," chapter 10 begins, "After this the Lord appointed 72 others and sent them on ahead of Him." What's this? A 600 % increase! Jesus goes from 12 disciples to 72. How do you think that happened?
I can tell you how it didn't happen. It didn't happen by training followers how to deal with the consequences of the Christian life, how to put Jesus before family, or how to plow a straight furrow. I can tell you that Jesus didn't get a 600% increase in followers by starting a program to get that many. I can tell you that Jesus didn't get a 6 fold increase in disciples by motivating people to follow Him, by browbeating people into following Him, or by offering goods and services to attract them. Genuine followers of Jesus are never made by programs, marketing, or merchandising, but only by the Gospel.
Did you see the Gospel in this text? It's at the beginning when James and John asked Jesus if He wanted them to call fire down from heaven to destroy the Samaritans who rejected Him. Jesus rebuked them. Jesus didn't let them do that. That's the Gospel. The Gospel is Jesus passing over sins. It surely is a sin to reject Jesus. It surely is a sin to avoid suffering by not following Jesus, to choose family over Jesus, to long for something more than Jesus. And sin does deserve fire from heaven to strike you dead and damned on the spot.
Yet Jesus didn't let that happen. No instead Jesus kept on going towards Jerusalem. The fire from His Father in heaven had to fall, must fall, would certainly fall. Your sins, my sins, the worlds sins cried to high heaven for the fires of judgment to fall. And fall they would, but those fires didn't strike you or me or the world. They struck Jesus as He hung there on the cross covered with the filthy sins of the world. There on that cross is your sin of weak following, no following, and forsaken following, and there is the fire of God's judgment striking Jesus repeatedly until every last one of your sins are paid for.
James and John speaking for the Law say rightly that rejecting Jesus calls for fire, but what does Jesus do when Jerusalem rejects Him? He weeps over her. Rather than rebuke the Samaritans that rejected Him whom does our text say Jesus rebuked? James and John. Jesus rebukes the Law and goes forward to bear it's just punishments passing over the sins of the Samaritans.
This Gospel touched people. It called to them, "Follow Jesus." And they did. Even though they knew they were no better than the would-be followers who didn't face consequences, sought their families first, and were facing the wrong direction, still these sinners followed Jesus because He forgave sins. Though He had no place to lay His head, He told them He would give them rest. Though they give up a family He would give them a kingdom. Though they are unfit for service in the kingdom of God, He, God in flesh and blood, would use them as He saw fit.
Face it; how you follow is not as important as whom. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin Texas
Pentecost VI (20070708); Luke 9: 51-62