I have to confess that my working title for this sermon was “Oof.” “Oof,” because that’s what I thought when I read this text from Luke’s gospel. Oof - Jesus has some hard words for us. Not hard to understand, exactly, although I never want to assume I know exactly what Jesus means. But hard as in demanding, full of expectation. Jesus lays out some challenges for “would-be disciples,” - that’s what my bible titles this section of scripture - and he doesn’t really mince words here. In our closing verse, Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Oof. Am I fit for God’s reign? I’m not sure. Oof - my first response. Eventually, I had some more to say and to think about, but if your first response to hearing Jesus’ words today is “Oof” or something similar - I’m with you!
The start of our text today, the first line, actually represents a shift in the whole of the gospel of Luke. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” From this point on in the gospel of Luke, Jesus’ ministry moves from a focus on his time and teaching in Galilee to a narrative that is on the move. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. It will take him the next ten chapters of Luke to get there, arriving with the scene we hear on Palm Sunday - Jesus’ triumphant entry, followed quickly by the passion - his arrest, trial, death - and resurrection. That journey starts here, with this odd phrase, “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” It implies a resoluteness, a determinedness to his journey. (1)
The first stop on Jesus’ journey is a Samaritan town where he is not welcomed. Luke says Jesus isn’t welcomed because his face is set toward Jerusalem, although we get no more explanation on that. James and John are upset, though, reacting with their usual - lack of attunement to Jesus’ style, offering to command fire and destruction on the town. Jesus rebukes them, and they move on. Then we’re treated to several quick vignettes as Jesus continues traveling. Three times, someone approaches Jesus or Jesus approaches someone with a claim of discipleship. “I will follow you,” two of them say. “Follow me,” Jesus calls to another. But in all three situations, despite claiming to commit to discipleship, there is some barrier, or something else that must happen first. Jesus seems to warn the first that discipleship is always on the move - not for those looking for comfort and stability. The second wants to bury their father before following Jesus - a request Jesus dismisses, directing the person to go, right away, and start proclaiming God’s reign, God’s way. The third wants to say some goodbyes before following Jesus, but Jesus says that starting to plow a field and then looking back makes one unfit for the task (these pieces of farm equipment in Jesus’ day required your total attention to work properly. (2)) He implies that anyone wanting to be a disciple who looks “back” in any way is unfit for work with God.
All in all, frankly, it is a discouraging set of interactions for those of us who are trying to follow Jesus. How could any of us call ourselves “fit” for God’s reign, fit to truly call ourselves disciples? Jesus doesn’t seem to leave us any space for any excuses, for anything else to have a claim on us, for any preparation. He wants it all, and all right now - and I don’t know about you, but I’m not sure I’m “fit” by Jesus’ standards. So I wonder: Does Jesus really mean what he says? Why is he being so harsh here? After all, Jesus says he has no place to lay his head, and Jesus may not have had a permanent residence, but he did have a family home, and he did have friends and others with whom he would stay while on the road. And while Jesus speaks harshly to the one who wanted to bury his father, Jesus himself spent time mourning and weeping for his own friend Lazarus before he raised him from the dead. And while Jesus certainly never seems to turn back from his purpose, his mission, his disciples certainly seem to engage in the “two steps forward, one step back” approach to faith. They exasperate Jesus I bet, but he seems to have hope that they might yet be fit for the kingdom of God. So what exactly is Jesus saying? And who can follow Jesus if it is this hard?
I return to the unique language that sets the tone for the shift that happens in this passage, that marks that Jesus is now heading toward Jerusalem. His face is “set.” We hear that language twice in the first three verses. Jesus is resolute in his focus. The wording suggests he is unwavering - he is going to Jerusalem, and nothing will dissuade him from his intent.
Jesus’ resoluteness brings a few things to mind. There is a person in my life who loves to give you updates on her family, her children in particular. That’s no unique thing in itself. But what sets her apart is her determinedness to tell you stories about her children no matter what may be happening around you. You may be at a party or an event or with others who are also trying to get your attention; it may be difficult to hear; it may be inconvenient in your setting to listen to an extended story; no matter - she will tell you detailed stories about what her kids have been doing. She is set, resolute in her purpose. Nothing will sway her from her task.
I think about my dear friend who had a vision for her life. She decided, in her organized, planning sort of way, that she wanted to be married and to have children. So she went on a dating site, and met a man. They hit it off. She had a timeline in her mind for when she wanted to be engaged to him - and indeed, her timeline was met. She decided she wanted two children two years about, and indeed, her two daughters were born nearly exactly two years apart. She had this vision for her life and she was set, resolute in her purpose. I still tease her about how she somehow managed to will this all into being.
I think about dancers - when they do turns - pirouettes and the like - they use a technique called spotting that you start learning about as a young, new dancer. You fix your eyes on a spot, and then you try to keep your eyes on that spot, coming back to that spot everytime you turn. Returning your eyes to that spot is what keeps you centered, what keeps you from getting dizzy even though you’re spinning and spinning. Dancers are set in their focus.
I think about Olympians, how determined they are to reach the top of their field. How they train, and train, and train, and compete, and compete, and relentlessly pursue their goal - the gold. Resolute in their purpose.
Jesus is set in his purpose. Resolute - times 1000. He is headed to Jerusalem. He knows that danger awaits him there, but he also knows that his purpose - announcing that God’s reign, God’s way is at hand for us to claim and live into right now - his purpose requires that he go to Jerusalem, and announce this good news even to the religious leaders who will seek to end his life because of the way he threatens their authority. He’s determined. Nothing can dissuade him from carrying out his purpose, from fully embodying God’s unconditional love for us, from proclaiming the good news in a way that will ensure that everyone hears the message.
What about us? Are we “set”? I think that’s what Jesus is really getting at in the exchanges with these “would-be followers” of Jesus. How resolute are we in our purpose? I specifically notice that two of the “would-be” followers use similar language with Jesus: They say, “I want to follow you, but first, let me do this other thing.” They have something else that they want to put first, and then they will be set in their discipleship. God wants us to have full, abundant lives. Jesus tells us he comes that we might have just that. But God wants to be first with us. Jesus wants our discipleship to be our first priority. God is longing for us to put our relationship with God first, to pursue a closer relationship with God with resoluteness, with our faces set on God. Are our faces set? What is important enough to you that you would set your face resolutely on that purpose?
Jesus has some challenging words for us. Maybe even overwhelming. Maybe you’re feeling the “oof” that was almost my sermon title. But of course, right after this scene, Jesus sends out 70 disciples, giving them a mission to announce the good news, to share with him in his work and purpose. They weren’t always successful at keeping their face set in the direction of Jesus. They still got it wrong, so wrong, so many times. And they were still disciples, loved and treasured by Jesus. Jesus expects a lot from us. But thanks be to God, Jesus gives us so much more.
And so Jesus invites us, again and again, to join him. Maybe we’ve never been ready to set our face on God and God’s purposes. Maybe we had our faces set, responding to God’s call, but we got knocked off balance, were distracted by the many other things clamoring for our attention. Maybe we had our faces set on something else, and weren’t ready to put God first. We’re invited again, here and now: Jesus wants our all, our first commitment, our whole hearts, our faces set on discipleship. And when we fail, Jesus invites us again, as we learn to set our eyes resolutely on God, our feet on God’s path. Because Jesus’s face is set, without wavering, on a mission of good news that includes us. Thanks be to God. Amen.
(1) Brown, Jeannine K. “Commentary on Luke 9:51-62.” The Working Preacher. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-13-3/commentary-on-luke-951-62-8
(2) Haslam, Chris. “Comments.” http://montreal.anglican.org/comments/cpr13m.shtml