Up to Jerusalem
Preached by Jason Abbott
Right before Advent, when we put our study of the gospel of Luke on pause, I mentioned that Jesus was about to set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross. But, what exactly does that mean? Well, it means, for the remainder of Luke’s account, that the earthly ministry of Jesus has entered a new stage. He will now, progressively, move his ministry away from Galilee and toward Jerusalem. He’s generally moving in the direction of the cross.
Now, this doesn’t mean Jesus makes a beeline for it. It does mean, however, that the basic bearing of his ministry in the remainder of the gospel moves that way. Yet, it doesn’t just move that way geographically. It moves that way in its practice as well. So, we’ll see his teaching become more and more dedicated to his disciples, preparing them for what’s to come. And, we’ll see Jesus progressively warn the rich and complacent of the danger they’re in. Also, he’ll begin to more aggressively take on the Pharisees.1 In short, as Jesus travels up to Jerusalem, the action begins to rise, and the conflict begins to rise even as the terrain begins to rise.
Let’s read today’s text and begin to follow Jesus on this journey.
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 And they went on to another village.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 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.” 9 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 60 And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Yet 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 his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
If you’re like I am, then when you’re evaluating others, you can be harsher than you should be. You might tend to judge in ways you wouldn’t like to be judged. That’s what James and John do in this text. They set a bar for this Samaritan village which is too high. And, Jesus rebukes them for it.
And, if you’re like I am, then when it comes to your relationship with Jesus, you can perhaps be more permissive than you should be. You might readily overlook or neglect the authority Jesus has in your life. That’s what these would-be-disciples do in this passage. They’ve set the bar of Christ’s calling upon their lives far too low. They underestimate the authority of Jesus. So, he also rebukes them.
Let’s look at each of these interactions and see what we can learn.
1. A bar too high (vv. 51-56)
Each of us has the tendency to be cold-hearted in the ways we evaluate others. One way of seeing this in ourselves is to consider someone—your wife or husband, your son or daughter, your coworker or classmate—and to begin listing the positives and the negatives you see in them. You’re far more likely to remember the negatives while making the list. Studies have consistently found that we overwhelmingly recall what’s negative above what’s positive. In fact, this research suggests relationships, which are healthy, need 5 positive interactions to atone for 1 negative interaction.2 (So, even science supports that we’re black-hearted sinners!)
Moreover, remembering when others cross us is typically just the beginning. Once somebody has offended us, we’ll often quickly start to imagine and even plot how we might eventually get even.
When I was in high school, I recall asking my friends hypothetical questions. One of the best questions we tossed around was: If you could have any super-power, what one would you choose and why? (You’ve probably heard that question before. It’s a good one.) What’s interesting is that rarely did we choose a power for good—like fighting evil or feeding the hungry—usually we chose a power for selfish gain—like getting even with rival classmates. (I always wanted a 10 second time reverse. You can get a lot of revenge in 10 seconds. Maybe that’s something I shouldn’t share in a sermon…wish I had that time reverse right now!)
Well, shifting gears…isn’t this precisely what James and John are doing here? Except that the power to exact supernatural revenge is possible in the person of Jesus. This is no hypothetical! Look once again at their unhealthy desire to seek retaliation. After the town rejects Jesus because he’s going to Jerusalem, Luke records:
…when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But [Jesus] turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village. (vv. 54-56).
James and John are simply following (like you and I regularly do!) the wisdom of the world rather than the wisdom of the Lord. Their impulse, when offended here, is to turn to violence rather than turn the other cheek. Human history is chalked full of examples of people (sometimes spending their whole lives!) seeking out revenge. It’s such a natural impulse to us that a political candidate was recently able to speak at a large evangelical university and say: “Don’t let people take advantage [of you]—get even!” and, after saying it, was actually defended by the school’s administration for saying it.3
Where is “get even” taught in the gospel?!
Simply consider the irony of a revenge impulse in the context of today’s text. Jesus just set his face to go to Jerusalem—to go to the cross. And, what is the cross? It’s where the wrath of God is satisfied, and it’s where the mercy of God is proffered to sinful people—like those Samaritan villagers or like James and John or like you and me. All of us need Jesus to go to Jerusalem. None of us want God to “get even” with us. That wouldn’t be good news.
So, James and John have set the bar too high. They’ve forgotten their own sin against God. They’ve forgotten to take the plank out of their own eye before looking at the speck that’s in the eye of these Samaritan villagers. They’ve forgotten to pray for those who persecute them and to love their enemies. They’ve quickly forgotten about the grace they need. And, I wonder if we don’t quickly forget too!
Friends, in the church, among the very people who are saved by God’s grace and not by works, it’s far too common to hear those outside the fellowship described as our enemies and as despicable. This shouldn’t be the case!
Let me ask you this:
- How do you relate to your non-Christian neighbors? Are you a good neighbor to them as long as they’re a good neighbor to you?
- Do you pray for that really antagonistic coworker who is always taking digs at evangelicals? Do you imagine how glorious it would be if he came to faith, or do you, more often, think how satisfying it would be if he broke his leg?
I wonder if you’ve ever noted—while reading through the New Testament—that the harshest words which Jesus speaks are always reserved for religious insiders who treat religious outsider poorly. Jesus calls these “believers” all kinds of names—blind guides (Matt. 23:16), fools (Matt. 23:17), white-washed tombs (Matt. 23:27), snakes (Matt. 23:33), and hypocrites (Luke 11:44). The Lord Jesus is always at odds with these people. The Lord God is always at odds with the proud (James 4:6)—especially the proud who claim to follow him!
One of my constant prayers for this church is that we’d always be a welcoming and humble group of Christians. I hope we’ll always be a people who are well aware that we’ve received God’s grace and are, therefore, eager to offer that grace to others who’ve not yet received it. This epitomizes worship.
Yet, if we pursue this, you should know that our church will not remain tidy. This kind of ministry is always messy. There will be all kinds of awkward moments when we welcome the prostitutes and the tax-collectors of our day over for dinner. Some of our “Christian” friends might criticize us. (After all, they criticized Jesus when he did this kind of messy ministry.) We’ll have to have difficult conversations with our kids in order to explain things. (But, it’s far better that we explain it to them than the world.) In fact, the very individuals we’re trying to love might be offended when they find out what following Jesus actually means. (Thus, Jesus was crucified, and his followers are scorned and persecuted.) Messy, messy, messy!
So, what kind of believer will you be? What kind of congregation will we be? This is a question worth asking ourselves every single day because we easily forget. We quickly begin setting the bar too high and fashioning the outsider as our enemy. And we begin to believe that the church should be a tidy stronghold for our safety, rather than the staging ground for gloriously messy, gospel ministry.
Well, let’s move on to our second bar.
2. A bar too low (vv. 57-62)
If James and John wanted the bar for discipleship set too high, this next group of would-be-disciples want to set it too low. Look again at what Luke records:
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, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet 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 his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (vv. 57-62).
In these six verses, Jesus has three separate interactions which Luke highlights for us by putting them side by side. The first is a basic warning about following him. Someone professes he is willing to go with Jesus “wherever” Jesus is going to go, and, so, Jesus warns this man that the Christ “has nowhere to lay his head” (v. 58). In effect, he tells him to count the costs of discipleship. This seems a pretty odd thing to tell this man. When someone comes to me and says they want to become a member of the congregation, my first thought isn’t to say, “Foxes have holes and birds nests, but the members of Community Free Church have nowhere to lay their heads.” But, perhaps, it should be my first thought when responding.
Remember where Jesus is headed in this scene. He’s headed to his crucifixion. This man needs to know the costs of following Christ. When people join the church, they need to know the costs of following the Lord. They shouldn’t take membership in Christ’s local body lightly. They shouldn’t think that it’ll always be easy and fun; and, if it isn’t, that it’s disposable. Jesus tells us to count the costs.
The second two interactions are both rebukes, and each of them appears harsh to us. Jesus tells the first guy to follow him. And, the man says he wants to follow, but he needs to bury his father before he does. The second guy says he will follow as long as he can just say goodbye to family. Jesus, however, tells each of them: No. So, what’s up with this? Is Jesus having a bad day? Why is he being so demanding with these two would-be-disciples?
The answer is that Luke’s making a rhetorical point through these interactions. He’s making a point about discipleship. He’s making a point about the high cost—or the high bar—of following Jesus. So, he brings these three interactions together to highlight his inspired lesson. But, what’s the inspired lesson? Is it simply a point about the costs? No! It’s a point about who gets to determine the costs. It’s a point about who gets to set the height of the discipleship bar.
Friends, both men approach Jesus and imagine they’re at a bargaining table. They think they’re going to negotiate the terms of their discipleship. This, however, is not how following Christ works. They cannot come to Jesus with their demands as if he’s a mere employer or a simple boss. He’s God! He’s the Creator! He’s Lord! There is no bargaining.
And yet, often we come at our relationship with Jesus just as these men have. You and I approach Christ and say I’ll follow you if…or I’ll be your disciple but…. There are examples of this everywhere in our me-centered-society. We say:
- Lord, I’ll follow you wherever you want me to…as long as it’s not dangerous. So, not the Middle East or Latin America or Midtown Harrisburg.
- Jesus, you’re calling me to follow, and I will…as long as I can keep sleeping with my girlfriend or boyfriend…as long as you don’t interfere with my fun! On those terms, I’m all yours.
- God, you want me to be generous with this ministry…but I wanted to put more into my retirement fund this year.
Friends, in situations like these, we imagine we’re the ones who call the shots. We pretend we get to set the bar of obedience. And, inevitably, we set it too low! Instead, we must turn everything over to Christ and allow him to set the standards of our discipleship and empower us to live them out:
For, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, / neither are our ways his ways…. / For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are the Lord’s ways higher than our ways / and his thoughts higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:8-9).
Amen! Let’s pray that God would help us, by the Spirit, embrace his standards for our service of him.