Richard Maxwell

Proper 8 C
30 June 2013
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Jesus set his face to Jerusalem.

This is the beginning of an important portion of Luke’s Gospel.  In the synoptic Gospels – Mark, Mathew, and Luke – the Gospels that in essence tell Jesus’ story the same way – Jesus only goes to Jerusalem once during his ministry.  In these three Gospels, Jesus’ one visit to Jerusalem begins with his triumphal entry into the city. The event we remember on Palm Sunday.  And the visit ends, of course, with the crucifixion.

And in Luke’s Gospel the journey to Jerusalem is an important part of the story.

Before this part of Luke’s Gospel begins, Jesus has already begun to explain to his friends what the end of the journey will bring.  The disciples can’t fathom what he’s talking about when he talks about dying and rising again . . . but he keeps trying to explain, nevertheless.  It’s not as if they haven’t seen and heard enough to understand.

In addition to all the teaching and healing, in addition to all the miracles, Jesus’ divinity has been revealed to them in the Transfiguration.  You remember that extraordinary event . . . when Jesus takes his closest friends up the mountain with him and there Jesus’ clothes become dazzlingly white and his face shines like the sun.  Moses and Elijah appear.  A cloud engulfs them and the disciples hear a voice saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

All this occurs just before we’re told that Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.  Perhaps what Jesus experienced on that mountaintop is what gave him the courage to make his decision to begin this last journey.

From what I’ve read this past week about that phrase – he set his face – it seems that it’s a rather difficult phrase to translate.  Apparently the Greek implies stony resolve.  Thinking about this, an image came to me . . . the faces on Mt. Rushmore turning and heading off to Washington.  (Wouldn’t that be lovely . . . maybe Congress would get something done then.)  Another image that came to mind as I tried to understand the implications of that phrase – he set his face – was of a hatchet being thrown at and hitting a tree.  Apparently, the phrase implies stony resolve AND implacable, unstoppable motion.  He set his face to go to Jerusalem.

And this got me thinking about the human Jesus.  He knows how this trip is going to end.  Oh, he may hope for a different outcome – his prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane certainly indicate the hope for a different ending to his story.  But, in his heart, he knows what’s going to happen.  He’s been trying to explain all of this to his friends but, as I’ve mentioned, they just can’t wrap their heads around it.  And so, without the understanding or support of his friends, all alone he must make the decision to begin the end of his ministry.

What a hard, hard decision to make . . . to CHOOSE to begin a journey that he knows in his heart is going to end in humiliation, suffering and death.  I doubt that I’d be able to make such a decision.  Would you?  He set his face to go to Jerusalem.  And to go alone.  Oh yes, his friends are with him physically, but they don’t understand him . . . and to be surrounded by people who don’t understand you is perhaps even more lonely than being physically alone.  No wonder he had to set his face like stone and move with implacable force.

As Luke tells the story, the journey is even more difficult than it necessarily had to be . . . he has Jesus and the disciples travel from Galilee through Samaria on their way to Jerusalem.  As you know, the Samaritans and the Jews are not at all friendly . . . so it’s not surprising that the first Samaritan village they come to turns them away.

I think that all of these things – Jesus’ knowledge of his fate, the lack of understanding of his friends, and the hostility of the people of the land they’re travelling through – all of these things lead Jesus to give the rather harsh answers he gives to some of the people he encounters on this final journey.  “You want to follow me?  Why?  I have no home, no place to call my own, nothing.  If you follow me the same will be true of you.”  “You cannot begin to follow me and then turn back . . . if you’re going to follow me, then follow me.  If you’re going to be a disciple, then BE one.”  “Nothing is more important.  Nothing.”

And in these exchanges, I also think that Luke is trying to speak to us, to you and to me.  He’s trying to explain to us the challenge of being a true disciple of Christ.  We must make a choice about whether or not to be a disciple.  And like Jesus, we must make the choice with stony resolve and unswerving commitment.  And we must make the decision over and over again.  Every morning, every day, with every encounter, we make a decision to be a disciple of Christ . . . or not.

I have a feeling that the reason why Jesus is described as being so very, very determined as he begins his journey to Jerusalem, is that he knows – Jesus knows – that he’ll be tempted along the way.  Remember, in addition to everything else Jesus was and is, he was a human being just like us.  Which of us, making the decision to begin a journey that will end in suffering and death, would not have doubts along the way?  How could we not?  Each time he was not welcomed, each time one of his friends denied the truth of what he was telling them, each time Jesus was confronted with the truth of how alone he was, each of these times was an opportunity for Jesus to say, “I don’t want to do this anymore.  It’s too hard.  Let’s turn around and go back.”

Of course, he didn’t do that.  Jesus continued on his way, a model of courage, and determination, and grace for all of us.

The decision to be a follower of Christ is the most important decision we will ever make.  And the decision is only the beginning of our journey.  We will face all sorts of temptations and trials along the way.  At times we may feel terribly alone.  We may even be faced with humiliation and suffering and – I pray to God not – we may even be faced with death.  At some point we will undoubtedly say – if only to ourselves – “I don’t want to do this anymore.  It’s too hard.”  And over and over again we will have to make the decision again:  “Am I going to be a true follower of Christ . . . or not?”

Fortunately – thanks be to God – the way has been paved for us . . . we don’t have to hack our way through the wilderness.  Jesus has gone before us and has marked the road.  And even more important . . . we will never, NEVER, be as alone as Jesus was on his journey . . . for he will be with us every step of the way.  Christ is within us, Christ is behind us, before us and beside us.  As difficult as our journeys may be, as difficult as they may become, the way is marked and someone who loves us more than life itself is with us as we travel.  Yes, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ loves us more than life itself for he laid down his own life for us.  Let us set our faces to be his followers.

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