To begin, I’m going to place a burden on you. I know you expect me to create sermons, but for a few moments, I want you to do the work. However, do not get too excited, this is not an open microphone moment! In your mind, I want you to do a quick reflection. In particular, recall two or three turning points – times when your life took a new trajectory…
The high school and college graduates we celebrate and have listed in our bulletin are certainly at a turning point in their lives. One of your turning points could be a marriage or a divorce or a death. It could be a new job or the birth of a child or a new awareness. What are some of your turning points that quickly come to mind?
Most of us can identify several. Life might have continued on its same trajectory, but something happened to launch it in a new direction. I hope most of your turning points have propelled you to a better place. Some may have led to hardship. My heart grieves for those who decided to experiment with drugs and became hooked; or made a bad financial decision that they are forever regretting. If you take time to reflect on your life, you can likely conjure up several distinct markers that redrew the roadmap of your life.
Today’s text from the Gospel of Luke informs us of a powerful turning point in the life of Jesus. He has been conducting his ministry in Galilee. On your mental map, Galilee is northern Palestine. He has been walking from village to village – some agricultural spots, other fishing towns – teaching people about God’s love and exhorting them to extend compassion to others. He has been healing broken bodies and mending sick souls. Then, comes a call to head on a new path. Maybe he heard God’s voice with distinct clarity; or perhaps it was a stirring in his soul or an unforgettable dream or a whisper in his mind or a tugging on his heart.
Our text captures the decisive moment in a handful of words. The translation of the Bible we generally rely on in worship – the New Revised Standard Version – says that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” If we don’t quite catch the gist of what it means to “set your face” to go somewhere, the New International Version helps out by translating the verse: “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” The Message translation leaves no doubt as to the gospel writer’s intent, saying that Jesus “gathered up his courage and steeled himself for the journey to Jerusalem.”
A colleague points out that this is not the way we generally speak about ourselves. “We don’t walk out of the house in the morning and say to ourselves, ‘I have set my face to go to the office.’ (‘Expecting a rough day, are you?’) We don’t ‘set our face’ to head to the mall to shop…unless it’s December, I suppose. And I certainly hope none of you had to gather up your courage and steel yourself to come to church this morning.”1
Of course, the gospel writer’s intent was to say that this marked a pivotal moment. Jesus stood at a crossroads where he faced a life-altering decision. He could continue to teach and heal in the villages of Galilee or he could up the stakes by marching to Jerusalem and confronting the religious and political authorities. He believed this is what God was urging him to do, so he decided to begin the journey southward toward Jerusalem. This would take several days and along the way, Jesus and his followers would pass through various villages.
Our passage notes that they were nearing a place they might stay for the night. Jesus sent a delegation ahead to see if he and his disciples would be welcomed in this particular village. For some reason, he chose a potentially unfriendly spot. He selected a Samaritan village. Jews and Samaritans had been at cross purposes for more than a century. They were the ancient world’s version of the Hatfields and McCoys. Yet, despite the ongoing bad blood between them, Jesus wanted to give this particular village a try, so he sent a few of his cohort ahead to see if they would be welcomed.
Not surprisingly, the Samaritans did not have tea and scones awaiting them. No details are given other than to say that the people of the village responded with the first century equivalent of: “Your kind is not welcome here.”
When the disciples James and John caught wind of the rebuff, they were enraged. They said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
Excuse me, but isn’t that an overreaction? The words of the Samaritans triggered an out of proportion response in James and John. I guess they thought they were expressing their fierce devotion to Jesus. “No one treats our teacher like that and gets away with it!” They imagined Jesus would be proud of them for expressing their intense allegiance.
However, Jesus did not interpret their response simply as loyalty. He knew they were expressing the all too human response to a snub: “Let’s show them who’s boss and take ‘em out!”
Rather than evoking the praise of Jesus, they aroused his ire. Rather than commendation, they received condemnation. Retaliation is not the way of Jesus. Violence has no place in God’s vision for the world. They surely knew that, but their emotions swept them away – away from the way of Jesus.
Isn’t it interesting how a personal slight can cause us to lose perspective. You won’t treat us with hospitality and kindness? We will wipe you out!
Some translations of the Bible include footnotes of particular verses. There are multiple ancient manuscripts of the Bible and in some manuscripts there are words that are not included in others. It’s possible that an ancient scribe added some words in the manuscript he was copying, but it’s also possible that another ancient scribe accidentally omitted them in the manuscript he was copying. We simply do not know.
In today’s passage, there’s an intriguing footnote to verse 55. Verse 54 is the verse where James and John say to Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Verse 55 says, “But (Jesus) turned and rebuked them.” The footnote indicates that in some ancient manuscripts, the response of Jesus was longer than that. These manuscripts say that Jesus also said, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of; for the Son of man came not to destroy people’s lives but to save them.” And aren’t those extra words in complete harmony with John 3:17 which says, “For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”
Jesus does not want us to allow personal insults to take up residence under our skin. He wants us to be on guard so that we do not allow disagreements or disinformation to ignite feelings of spite in us.
When we disagree with the view of others, it is easy to picture them as monsters that must be eliminated. Feelings of hate can flash within us and spread like a wildfire. I think Jesus is saying, “Do not allow someone who is nasty to make you nasty.”
What Jesus expects of his followers is not easy. After rebuking James and John for wishing the destruction of those who snubbed them, he illustrates just how high he sets the bar.
Jesus marched on past the Samaritan village to search for another place to spend the night. As they were walking, a man approached Jesus and said, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Wouldn’t we expect welcoming Jesus to embrace the man and say, “Wonderful, join us”? But, very blunt Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, “My path is challenging. Don’t expect creaturely comforts. Are you sure you are up for this?”
Jesus spots another man and says, “Follow me.” The man replies, “Just first, let me go bury my father.” We would expect to hear a word from compassionate Jesus: “I am sorry about the loss of your father. By all means take care of his funeral.” Instead, we hear a word from demanding Jesus: “Let the dead bury their own dead, but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
A third person appears and says, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” And instead of hearing from understanding Jesus, we hear from strident Jesus: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Before we all conclude that Jesus is unreasonably harsh and impossible to follow, let’s keep in mind that Jesus constantly employed hyperbole to drive home his point. Jesus does not want anyone to imagine that following him is easy or that you can do it with divided loyalties.
We are living in difficult days. People are divided and at great odds with one another. Every news cycle increases the anger, the anxiety, the cynicism, and the despair. Following the way of Jesus has become especially challenging. It is easy to slip into the role of James and John and pray for God to incinerate the people on the other side. I confess that I have been James and John on several occasions. But we cannot allow our anger to turn us into hateful people.
Jesus does not counsel his followers to be stooges or to let lies win the day. He does not counsel his followers to go soft on injustice or to let corruption prevail. But we can be firm and determined without giving in to feelings of revenge. Standing up for truth in the face of intimidation is noble. Allowing our emotions to sweep us away and cause us to act with malice is not the way of Jesus. We must not allow mean forces to turn us mean.
Like Jesus, we may need to gather up our courage and steel ourselves for the road ahead. We must possess a great deal of self-control and not allow feelings of hate to be our guide. We must always remember that Jesus came to save people, not destroy them, and in the end it is love that will prevail. Not a weak, lackluster love that gives in to intimidation, but a resolute love determined to strive for the common good.
I end with this brief poem-prayer by Wendell Berry. Perhaps it captures the state of mind we need:
I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.
I have no love
except it come from Thee.
Help me, please, to carry
this candle against the wind.2
Be still and know that God is here
Be still and know that God is
Be still and know
Loving God, this past week has been tumultuous for our nation. Many are anxious, many are fearful, many are angry. If it were possible, some of us would be like James and John, ready to call down a bolt of lightning from the sky to incinerate our adversaries.
Yet we know that uncontrolled anger can blind us to what you would have us do and very likely lead us down the wrong path. Bend our anger into great strength to resist and overturn injustice, but not to set out on a course of revenge.
We remember the courage of Jesus to remain faithful to you when faced with enemies of your righteous realm and his resolute bravery emboldens us to become lasers of love
exposing lies to the bright light of day,
shining truth into places of dark injustice,
igniting spontaneous acts of grace to people who suffer in our nation and in Afghanistan and Ukraine,
and revealing your will to a troubled world that has forgotten the path that leads to peace.
May we make wise decisions that are in harmony with your will,
may we possess a steely resolve when battling forces of arrogance,
and may we champion the causes of life and liberty for the good of all humanity.
Mighty God, grant us the will and the way to shine your light in a light-starved world. Now hear us as we pray the prayer Jesus taught us to pray, saying:
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.
We take your confidentiality seriously. Please know that only the Prayer Ministry Team receives this information.
We take your confidentiality seriously. Please know that only a pastor receives this information.