The days drew near for Jesus to be taken up. That means be crucified, rise from the dead, and ascend into heaven. That was His purpose, HIs mission. That’s why He came in the flesh, born of the Virgin. That’s why He was circumcised under the Law and became obedient to it. That’s why He was baptized in the Jordan. He came to be “taken up,” and to take us up together with Him. And so He set His face resolutely to go to Jerusalem. His gaze was like a laser beam, zeroed in on Jerusalem and His appointed hour.
His journey took Him through Samaria. He sent messengers ahead to prepare for His coming. The Samaritans refused Him, because His sights were set to Jerusalem. Samaritans worshipped on Mt. Gerazim, not Jerusalem. Samaritans and Judeans were at odds over this, and Jesus’ single-minded focus on Jerusalem just rubbed salt into those festering religious wounds. This was not about place but purpose. Jesus had to die in Jerusalem. It was the appointed place, the place prepared for Him. The Samaritans did not understand, nor could they. Nor did the disciples.
James and John, the “sons of thunder,” the hot-headed fishermen wanted to call down fire and brimstone from heaven. Do a Sodom and Gomorrah number on them. That’ll show them. “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” If ever there was an episode that makes the apostles look bad, this is one. They’re supposed to be in the Gospel business, and here they are, acting as if heavenly fire obeyed their beck and call!
And we too, we must admit. We forget, when we look on the world, especially those parts of the world that do not share our confession much less our “values” and opinions that these are people for whom Jesus died. He set His face to Jerusalem also for the Samaritans, even those who turned Him away and slammed the door in His resolute face. You can walk down the streets, any street at any time of any day, and look in the face of any random person, be they rich or poor, young or old, well-dressed or not, and you can truthfully say to yourself, “Jesus gave His life on the cross to save that person.” He set His face to the cross of Jerusalem to save this person. So maybe they’ve been rude to you, or ignored you, or slammed their door in your face. No matter. Jesus died on a cross to save this person.
It isn’t for us, as it was not for James and John, to call down fire from heaven to consume those who aren’t nice to us. “Judge not, and you will not be judged.” The same fire and brimstone you call down on others, they very well might be calling down on you. Mutual assured heavenly destruction. That’s not why fire from heaven exists. Fire from heaven is for God’s judgment, not our petty squabbles. And God determined to judge the world in His Son. Jesus’ grim determination to go to the cross reflects His consuming desire to seek and to save the lost. He goes to the greatest length possible, to death on a cross, to seek and to save a world lost in sin and death.
Jesus turned and rebuked James and John. There would be no fire from heaven. It was not for them to call it, much less suggest it. And they went on to another village.
On the road, three would-be disciples put in their disciple application with Jesus. It wasn’t unusual for people to step up and approach a rabbi seeking to be one of his disciples. All three have a little hitch, something that holds them back, something that keeps their commitment from being whole-hearted.
“I will follow you wherever you go,” one says. Does he know where Jesus is going? Is he following the resolute gaze? Does he realize the trajectory? Jesus clues him in, that his road has no comfortable rest stops, no comfy pillows under your head at night. At least the foxes and birds have homes to go to, but the Son of Man, God’s anointed One, the Christ, has no place to lay His head.” You want to follow me, Jesus is saying, prepare to be uncomfortable, Prepare for those sleepless nights on hard ground, cold and destitute. Prepare to join the homeless.
Another says, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” It was the honorable thing to do. The right thing. The compassionate thing. But this Jesus with His face fixed on Jerusalem seems to have no compassion for a grieving son who only wants to bury his father. “Let the dead bury their own. You go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yes, that’s right. Let the dead bury their own. Death is about to meet it’s match in Jesus. Death doesn’t have the last say here. Jesus does. The kingdom He brings with His dying and rising.
A third says, “I will follow you , Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my house.” A simple goodbye. What could be so wrong with that? Maybe a little going away party. A cake or something. Jesus says, “No one who takes up the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Any farmer will tell you that. You can’t plow straight looking over your shoulder. You can’t plow ahead while you are pining for the past.
Tough words? You bet they are! Jesus means serious business. HIs words are urgent, hard, edgy, demanding. His claim on the disciple is radical. It’s all or nothing. No halfway disciples. There are no compromises here. His face, remember,is fixed toward Jerusalem. And each of these three disciple wanna-bes, each in their own way, diminishes the cost that Jesus is about to pay. What does it mean to follow Jesus? To follow HIs rules? Well, He doesn’t have any, really. Moses had rules and we can’t keep them. The last thing we need is rules 2.0. We won’t keep those either.
To follow Jesus is to go the way of His resolute gaze. To follow Jesus is to die and rise with Jesus. To lose your life in order to save it. To become least in order to receive greatness. To become as nothing in order to receive everything. To die in order to live.
Do you know what Jesus had in His vision as He set His face to Jerusalem? it wasn’t the cross, though His vision was certainly cross-focused. It wasn’t the suffering He was to endure. It wasn’t death. It was you. It was the joy of saving you. His focus was like that of a lifeguard venturing out into the dangerous waves and currents with only one thing in his or her focus. You. The person who is drowning and in need of aid. That’s Jesus, who for the joy, that is the joy of your salvation, that was set before Him “endured the cross, scorning its shame.” The cross was the focal point through which He had to bring everything. But the focus of His gaze was you. He came to rescue you.
Just so, the disciple’s focus is on Jesus, the author of our faith, the perfecter of our faith, the beginning and the end of faith. We don’t look to ourselves. When we do, we’ll get it wrong. When the prophet Elijah, great as he was, looked to himself and started whining about how he was the only faithful one left in all of Israel and how everyone was trying to kill him, that’s when he got it wrong. He goes to Mt. Horeb (Mt. Sinai) for a little pity party. He’s upset that Queen Jezebel is issuing death threats against him. He’s expecting God to flex some muscle. He thinks he’s the only faithful Israelite left on the face of the earth. We even call it an “Elijah complex” today, when you think you’re the only one who sees it, the only one who has it right.
Elijah essentially got fired that day. God ordered him to appoint his own successor, Elisha. His work was done. Oh, he’d get a nice ride to heaven in a fiery chariot. But Elijah learned a couple of things that day in the cave. He learned that it was not about him. That the kingdom didn’t rest on his shoulders. That he wasn’t alone, though he wasn’t aware of it. Seven thousand that haven’t bowed the knee to the idol Baal. That may be a symbolic number, the fulness of the believing remnant of Israel. Or it may be the actual headcount. What matters is that Elijah was not the only one. God has his secret agents scattered all over the place. You’re one of them too.
The Church is such a hidden mystery. You can’t see it in its fulness. You can only hear the Word and see the activity of Christ in the sacraments. The Church remains hidden. The glory remains hidden. We won’t know what God has accomplished until the Last Day, and we trust that the sight will be glorious.
Elijah also learned that God works hiddenly and subversively. Elijah had seen the power and glory as fire rained down from heaven to consume the 400 prophets of Baal. But he also learned the fire from heaven was not God’s ultimate purpose. Salvation is. Eternal life. Forgiving sin. Showing mercy. Justifying sinners. God wasn’t in the strong wind, the earthquake, the fire. God was hidden in the soft whisper. We expect God to shout, and He whispers. Hiddenly, humbly, rejectibly. Almost overlooked by all the religious noise going on around him.
My friends, fix your eyes on Jesus. Jesus had His Jerusalem so that you would have your Jesus, a focal point. LIfe presents you with a whole bunch of rabbit trails, all sorts of things to worry about, all kinds of things to distract you from the one, needful thing – and that is to die and rise with Jesus. Like a sailor setting a course in the storm, or like a runner pushing toward the finish line, fix your eyes on Jesus. His cross, His resurrection. His life. His Baptism, Body and Blood. That’s where the action is. That’s where the life is. That’s where forgiveness is. That’s where He is for you.
In the name of Jesus,