"Living in New Ways"
Scripture - Luke 9:51-62
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, June 30, 2013
Looking back on our lives, each of us can identify turning points that had a profound impact on who we have become. These are moments when our lives headed in a new direction and we were changed in significant ways. For many, going off to college launched us on a new trajectory. For some it was a career change or a move to a new state. Some had their lives forever altered by the death of a loved one. Many of us embarked on a new path when we fell in love with our life-long mate. Having a child is a definite game-changer! You are never the same after you become responsible for another life that is dependent on you for survival.
Sadly, some have experienced turning points that propelled their lives in a downward spiral from which they have never recovered. They decided to experiment with drugs and became hooked. Or they took money from the till and found that it became easier to do it again. They have yet to embrace the next turning point that can set them on a better path.
Our Youth Mission Team is flying back from Guatemala today, and I suspect this past week will prove to be a defining moment in the lives of many of them. They will grasp the meaning of the word "poverty" as never before. They will feel more responsibility for heeding God's call to care for sisters and brothers in need. They will gain a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. I hope some of the glimmer of material possessions will dull and they will see that happiness is not wrapped up in the next shiny object they acquire, but rather in the bonds of love they form.
In this morning's text from the Gospel of Luke, we read of a critical turning point in the life of Jesus. He has been conducting his ministry in Galilee, northern Palestine, teaching people about God's love and encouraging them to extend compassion to others. Jesus has been healing broken bodies and mending sickened souls. Then comes a call, a stirring of the soul, a whisper from God that compels him to head in a new direction. Our text captures the decisive moment in a mere handful of words. It says: "(Jesus) set his face to go to Jerusalem."
The gospel writer is not simply saying that Jesus took a right turn and began to head south toward the Holy City; he is noting a pivotal point in the mission of Jesus. The religious leaders with the most clout - those in Jerusalem - were in collusion with the occupying army of the Roman Empire. Together, through steep taxes and burdensome laws, they kept the majority of people in poverty. However, Jesus had declared himself a champion of the poor from the moment of his first sermon when he stood up in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth and read the words of the prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind and to let the oppressed go free." (Luke 4:18)
Thus far, Jesus had spent his ministry releasing people from the physical ailments that kept them captive in an unhealthy body. He had brought the good news of forgiveness to those living in destructive ways. He had taught the poor that their condition was not ordained by God, but that God blessed those who were poor and they had a special place in the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20) But today's passage tells of Jesus reaching a critical juncture - a turning point - in which he will no longer focus on the symptoms, but will tackle the causes of the people's poverty and oppression. He set his face to go to Jerusalem, to confront those who had turned God's house of prayer into a den of robbers." (Luke 19:46)
As Jesus begins his trek to Jerusalem, he sent a delegation ahead to see if they would be welcomed in a village of Samaritans. Jews and Samaritans had been at odds with one another for over a century. There was bad blood between them, but Jesus indicates that his ministry is to them, as well. No matter. The Samaritans rebuff Jesus and his followers, and when James and John discover that the Samaritans slammed the door in their faces, they flared. In the same way that the prophet Elijah called down fire from heaven on the prophets of Baal centuries earlier, James and John ask Jesus, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?"
They expose their all too human response to adversaries. "Let's show them who's boss and take €˜em out!" Jesus rebukes them for even suggesting such a thing. Retaliation is not the way of Jesus. Violence has no place in God's vision for the world.
Jesus keeps marching and along the way someone blurts out his loyalty to Jesus. He says, "I will follow you wherever you go" and Jesus responds, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." In other words, "I have no home or possessions. Are you willing to make such sacrifices?"
Then, Jesus provides a couple of vignettes to drive home the point that commitment to him requires fierce loyalty. Jesus calls someone to follow him and the man replies, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." Jesus answers, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Someone else dares to speak up, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus declares, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
Jarring words. Taken literally, it's difficult to picture anyone achieving such standards. That is why we must keep in mind that Jesus often employs hyperbole to drive home his point. He intends for his words to be provocative because he is not the least bit interested in lip service. Jesus wants to know that in the mix of things vying for our devotion, his way will be our chief priority.
Life is about choices. It's about making the right choices. Choose the right spouse or partner and life is a blessing. Choose the wrong mate and life is hell. Choose the right career and your work is fulfilling. Choose the wrong line of work and you dread crawling out of bed in the morning. Choose the right friends and they will be there for you when life falls apart. Choose the wrong friends and you will find yourself alone when you are desperate for support. Choose to follow the path of Jesus and your life is blessed with a purpose. Choose wealth accumulation or entertainment or politics or sports or anything else as your main focus and you will never experience serenity in your soul.
Jesus had to face his own moment of truth. God called him to go to Jerusalem to confront the religious and political powers - an extremely dangerous mission. Jesus had the freedom as you and I do to reject the call and stay up north in Galilee. Perhaps find a wife and raise a family. But Jesus was steadfast in his total commitment to God. He was determined to remain loyal regardless of the cost.
At the end of our passage, Jesus says, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Foremost, Jesus is talking about himself. He is not going to second guess God's mission for him. He will not be distracted by side issues. He knows what he must do and he has the firm resolve to carry it through.
But Jesus is also talking about us. To be one of his followers requires steadfast determination. "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God." Faithfulness is not primarily about what doctrines or dogma you believe. Faith is foremost about making a commitment to follow Jesus. That commitment has certain markers: joining the church, giving a portion of our wealth to the community of faith, regular participation in worship, praying and sharing God's love with people in need.
Last Sunday we talked about aligning our priorities with God's priorities by striving for the virtues named by the Apostle Paul as the fruit of God's Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When we make a commitment to God, we seek these virtues so that they can shape our soul.
Ric Elias says to imagine a big explosion shortly after take off as your plane is still climbing. Imagine the cabin filling with smoke and the engine making a loud rattling sound. He was sitting on the aisle in the first row of seats and looked at the flight attendant who was still strapped in her seat. She said, "No problem. We probably hit some birds."
The pilot turned the plane around and they could see Manhattan. Two minutes later, three things happened. The pilot lined up the plane with the Hudson River. Not the usual route. The pilot turned off the engines. Ric says, "Imagine being in a plane with no sound." Then the pilot said three words with no emotion in his voice. "Brace for impact." Ric could see terror in the flight attendant's eyes. Life was over.
Speaking to an audience for a TED talk, Ric says that he learned three things about himself that day. He thought about all the people he had intended to reach out to, but hadn't. He thought about all the fences he wanted to mend and all the experiences he wanted to have. So the first thing he learned was that he no longer wants to postpone anything. And that sense of urgency has changed his life.
The second thing he learned that day, as they were barely clearing the George Washington Bridge, was that he regrets the time he wasted arguing over things that did not matter with people that do matter. As a result he has decided to eliminate negative energy from his life. Everything is not perfect, but his life is so much better than it was. He no longer focuses on trying to be right all the time.
The third thing he learned as his mental clock was counting 15, 14, 13..." and he was watching the water coming. He was saying, "Please blow up. I don't want this thing to break in 20 pieces like in those documentaries." The third thing was that a tremendous feeling of sadness, not fear, washed over him. It pierced his soul that he would never see his children grow up.
As you know, Captain Sullenberger made an astonishing landing in the Hudson River and everyone survived. Ric says he was given a miracle that day. Not simply that he survived, but that he was able to look into the future and come back and change his life.1
Don't wait until your plane is going down to realize you need to make crucial changes in your life. This very day you can decide to ratchet up your commitment to God.
Countless concerns vie for your attention. They present themselves as vitally important and tempt you to detour from the true path. However, God calls you - God challenges you - to be resolute in your decision to follow Jesus. If you do, anxiety over a meaningful life will vanish as you discover yourself in the midst of a captivating adventure.
Prayers of the People
By the Reverend Jill Getty
You are the God of Jerusalem and Samaria; the God of the Jews and the Gentiles; the Creator of all peoples in all times and in all places.
Jesus, we give you thanks and praise for your infinite love that caused you to set your face to Jerusalem to make and become the supreme sacrifice at Passover. Thank you that your love is extended to everyone - those who believe in you and received you, as well as, those who have no faith at all. You are our radical savior who overcomes evil and prejudice; hatred and spite; slander and slurs. We bless you because you persevere even when sin has brought chaos to a situation. You are the ever-present one able to cleanse and forgive and make new.
You call us to be part of your ministry and work in the world where life can become messy and confusing. We confess that we often do not know what to do. We hear the reverberations of your message from the cross - "forgive them for they do not know what they are doing." Yet we struggle with this same forgiveness - how to forgive ourselves and how to forgive those who have hurt us. Teach us the ways of this forgiveness.
We struggle with our ideals of what makes a perfect life. We strive for perfection in our work, our family, our church, and our individual goals. Yet with all of our accomplishments and completed tasks we often feel unfulfilled - like something is missing. Forgive us for putting everything else ahead of you, dear Jesus. We often forget the place you yearn to have in our lives - the place we need you to have. Jesus, come and be at the center of our lives. Help us to learn the art of orchestrating our lives around your presence, your being, your spirit, your ideals, your morals, your love, your justice, your acceptance, and your desires. Show us how to let you become the center of our universe so that we can experience the deep abiding peace and knowledge that you are always with us - even to the last breath we take.
We pray as King David did, that you would not take your Holy Spirit from us. Enable us to feel the presence of your Holy Spirit guiding, directing and giving us wisdom in the difficult moments. Help us to lay aside everything that entangles, ensnares, and encumbers us from running the race that you have called us to run. Help us go the miles of life with perseverance, endurance, joy and hope so that when we come to the end of our lives we will know that we have lived completely and done all that is possible to glorify you and bless other people. We pray this in the name of Jesus the Christ, who taught us to pray,
Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
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