Sermon preached at St. John’s Whittle-le-Woods and Clayton Brook Community Church
This week we have all been shocked once more by images of mayhem from London, with an attempt to blow up a crowded commuter tube train, filled with people who have no other way to get into work in the capital, and leaving 29 people seriously injured. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all those involved, both the victims and the security services, who find such low-tech random attacks so hard to prevent.
In our Bible reading today, Jesus sets out on a major journey to the capital, and one which we know ended in painful suffering and death.
Journeying with Jesus
Luke 9.51 is a hinge point in Luke’s Gospel – ‘as the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven’, and having talked with Moses and Elijah about the ‘exodus’ he was about to bring to fulfilment in Jerusalem in 9.31, Jesus ‘resolutely’ sets out for Jerusalem (literally, ‘set his face towards’), on a long journey (in fact about 3 or 4 days walk) which takes ten chapters of Luke’s gospel to 19.48 when he reaches the Mount of Olives and weeps over the city
‘Journey’ is a major theme in Luke – besides this journey to Jerusalem, a large part of Acts is taken up with three missionary journeys of Paul, and then his adventures on his final journey to Rome. But for Luke and his readers the word ‘journey’ would conjure up very different ideas than it does for us. For us today, travel is generally very safe, and we travel a lot, both for work and for pleasure.
However in the time of Jesus travel was not safe, was expensive, was mostly on foot, and for that reason most ordinary people in Palestine hardly travelled at all – with one notable exception, a faith-inspired pilgrimage once a year to Jerusalem. This itself was a risky journey, as (according to the Jewish historian Josephus) Jewish pilgrims passing through Samaria were sometimes beaten up, and even occasionally killed.
The way Luke has structured his writing shows that for him, following Jesus clearly means being on a journey, of learning and discovery – there is so much teaching packed into these ten chapters, and Jesus’ route seems to meander somewhat to fit it all in. For those in the first century, a journey was a not a nice little package holiday, but a significant and costly undertaking, involving significant risks and requiring the courage to step out into the unknown.
This raises the question for us, ‘Where are we on our journey with Jesus today?’ Are we moving on in our faith and growing in our discipleship, or are we a bit stuck really, in a bit of a spiritual rut?
- Take a moment to turn to someone nearby and ask them, ‘What is the most significant step you have taken in your journey with Jesus this last year?’
If we are struggling to think of any landmark on our spiritual journey in the year that has passed, why not think ahead and plan to take a significant step for the year ahead? Perhaps decide to book in on a retreat, or go decide to go as a family to the Keswick Convention next summer, or maybe decide this is the year you are going to read the Bible from cover to cover, or maybe decide that you are going to fast one day a month, or join a homegroup
- Take a moment to reflect silently, ‘What is one step I’d really like to take to go further in my journey with Jesus, and to grow as a disciple, in this coming year?’
Maybe you could choose one thing to write down in your prayer journal – or maybe starting a prayer journal might be it! – and begin to pray about it.
Dealing with Difficulties along the way
But don’t expect that moving forward on the journey of discipleship will be smooth and easy – the title of today’s talk is ‘A Difficult Road.’ As soon as Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem in 9.51, various difficulties crop up along the way, to divert him.
First he tries to enter a Samaritan village, and they refuse to receive him, because he is heading for Jerusalem. As we know, Jews had no dealings with Samaritans, whom they regarded as being only half-Jews and rather heretical, and it is clear that the Samaritans returned the compliment.
When we set out to do something significant in our journey with Jesus, we mustn’t be surprised or caught off guard if we encounter opposition along the way. Jesus also encountered opposition, and from the most unexpected sources. After Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, Peter tried to tell Jesus that he doesn’t need to go to the cross, and the strength of Jesus’ rebuke – ‘Get behind me, Satan,’ shows that for Jesus the temptation to find an easier path was all too real. That was a test from a close friend, but here in v53 the opposition is from people unwilling to listen or receive the Gospel.
In our journey with Jesus we not be discouraged if people choose not to listen to our testimony – people chose not to listen to Jesus too, but Jesus pressed on with his journey (to another village, v56), and so must we.
But before Jesus leaves that Samaritan village he has to deal with the rather over-enthusiastic gung-ho attitude of James and John, ‘Lord, can we do the Elijah thing and zap them for you?’ (see 2 Kings 1), or rather, ‘Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?’ It was not for nothing that Jesus had nick-named them the ‘sons of thunder’ in Mark 3.17
The temptation to misuse power and to misuse spiritual gifts is as great today as it was for James and John. Church history is littered with examples of times when the Church has had real power, and has used it terribly. And more recently, the charismatic revival (to which I personally owe so much) has had times when people discover that they have supernatural spiritual gifts and this goes to their head, and they misuse their gifts or manipulate others.
Counting the Cost
The next section, vv57-62, is set as Jesus is walking along. Note that it is while Jesus is on foot that he meets people. Too often today we undertake our journeys inside a metal box, where we can’t meet anyone, or with ear-plugs in, listening to music or playing with our phones. If we are to share the good news of Jesus with our neighbours, we need to meet them first. Having a dog is one great way to meet the neighbours, another is to invite them round for a tea party…
The first encounter is a man who clearly wants to follow Jesus, but Jesus’ response is rather cautionary, seeming to put him off with a warning that life on the road isn’t glamorous, and following Jesus to Jerusalem would mean leaving his home and family behind. In our enthusiasm to make disciples, do we sometimes gloss over cost of following Jesus?
The next encounter is with a man whom Jesus invites to follow him. Imagine that, coming face to face with Jesus and being invited by him to join the in crowd, to spend time in the inner circle, eat and sleep and travel together, and yet the person says, ‘Let me first bury my father.’
Jesus response in v 60 seems at first a bit harsh, especially as in Jewish custom the responsibility of a son to bury his father was the highest duty he could perform.
But Jesus is clearly affirming that proclaiming the kingdom of God is even more urgent than the demands of bereavement and family responsibility. Even though Jewish funerals followed quickly after death, Jesus says to leave the spiritually dead members of the family to perform these tasks, because your task as a disciple is even more urgent.
The last encounter in v61 is with someone who (also) says ‘I will follow you, Lord, but first….’
We’d never let an opportunity like that slip through our fingers would we?? Hang on a minute…Have you or I ever sensed Jesus calling us to do something and said, ‘I will follow you Lord, but first…’, and made an excuse put it off?
I have to confess to you that I haven’t always responded to God’s call immediately. There have been many times when God has been nudging me to do something, and I have put it off, either because I think I’m too busy, or I put it in the too difficult pile, or I don’t really want to, and sometimes it’s happened that suddenly it’s too late, and I know I have let God down.
However, on a positive and personal note, I rejoice that when Andy and Amy, who come from my previous church of All Saints Wellington, a place I love dearly, heard God calling them to ordained ministry, they said yes, even though it meant giving up a lot of things materially – it can’t have been easy breaking the news to their parents, and going back to college when they were just starting a family. It would have been very easy to say, ‘Yes Lord, but first…’, but they didn’t.
And for me today it will be a joy today to receive communion from Andy, knowing that Andy and Amy have indeed said to the Lord, in the words of verse 57, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’
Perhaps they pondered the challenging words of Jesus in our final verse, ‘No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.’ I don’t suppose many of us have ever had to plough a field, either with a bullock and a drag plough, as in Bible times, or a modern Massey Ferguson tractor, but what farmers have told me, is that the one thing you can’t afford to do when you are ploughing a field is to look over your shoulder to check if the line is straight – simply by taking your eye off the field ahead you will go wonky.
If we are to walk the difficult road of discipleship with Jesus, the one thing we can’t afford to do is to look back over our shoulder, and have second thoughts. We have to keep our eyes on the goal and keep moving forward. That way, we will keep in a straight line, and, incredibly, as we walk the difficult road with Jesus we be used to bring the kingdom of God into our troubled and uncertain world.