"Jesus set his face"

Message preached March 4, 2001
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Luke 9:51-62

Order of Worship

His name was Linford Martin. We were in the same class twenty years ago, one on preaching. Learning by doing was the style, with plenty of evaluation time. His route to that point had come by way of the farm. Apparently he had struggled long and hard with his calling from the Lord to "go and proclaim the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:60b) - which meant, for him, leaving behind some things he dearly loved.

My first sermon in that class was based upon this passage from the gospel of Luke. As someone fresh out of Brethren Volunteer Service, I was still pretty zealous about the need to leave home and serve wherever God leads. What Jesus said, that "no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62), I interpreted in that sermon as a call to leave the plow and follow Jesus.

Not raised on a farm, however, I had only second-hand knowledge of what it means to handle a plow. Lindfordís hand, however, was well acquainted with its feel, as well as with the call to let it go. He understood how I connected this passage with the call of the prophet Elisha in the Old Testament. There, Elisha was literally called away from farming and, in leaving, he slaughtered his team of oxen and destroyed the plow (see 1 Kings 19:19-21). Before doing so, though, Elisha asked if he could first go and "kiss (his) father and mother" goodbye, which leads us to think that Old Testament story lies behind this morningís scripture from the gospel of Luke.

I appreciated what Linford had to say in evaluating my sermon. I too easily made a leap over a significant road block in our faithful journey with Jesus, not thinking about its deeper implications. Indeed, as Linford asked, was Jesus really saying "get out of there, drop everything, leave it all behind," make a similar radical break with the past? It was something with which Linford still was struggling. As Iíve thought about it since, I believe his comment lies at the whole crux of what it means to follow Jesus. His is a question with which we all need to wrestle.

Now, itís easier for us to agree with "getting out of there, dropping everything, leaving it all behind," when what we let go of is something harmful, like a dangerous or sin-filled lifestyle. It makes sense to make a radical break with the past in that case. But what of the helpful stuff? The disciples, for example, were called away from their fishing boats. While we probably could tell a few raunchy sailor jokes, to be a fisherman was a vital occupation. People were fed. And yet, Jesus called Peter and the rest away from their nets toward a new kind of fishing, gathering in a catch of men and women. They dropped their nets and followed.

Before that, when Jesus exited the water of his own baptism and headed into the wilderness, he was tempted by the devil (Luke 4:1-13). Some of the road blocks the tempter laid down sound reasonable. In a rock-filled land, transforming stones to bread and feeding hungry people is nothing to sneeze at. Nor is the opportunity to reveal Godís power from the highest point in Jerusalem, something to take lightly. Jesus came to proclaim the kingdom. What better pulpit than the pinnacle of the Temple? Jesus saw these as impediments to his journey, though, road blocks along the way. And he turned from them - just as he had turned away from his earthly home and family. After all, he would never be a carpenter in Nazareth like Joseph.

As Luke tells the story of Jesus, this morningís scripture is a key turning point. The Bible says that Luke was in the medical profession (Colossians 4:14), but he was also into geography, for his gospel is like a map. Following Jesus is a journey, which Luke makes very plain. Beginning with the 51st verse of the 9th chapter of his gospel, we are handed something like a AAA Trip Tik. From this point onward, it says, Jesus "set his face to go to Jerusalem." Every road he took, from there on, headed in that direction.

Mind you, this map does not present the shortest path from that Samaritan village (Luke 9:52) to Jerusalem, and the cross awaiting Jesus there. It meanders all over the place, a squiggly line no AAA agent in their right mind would highlight for tourist. If anything, this map presents an inner geography. As we seek to follow Jesus - and we all are called to follow him, not just an elite few - we each need to wrestle with the same question that Linford Martin raised twenty years ago in that preaching class. It not about agriculture, however, about leaving the farm. I believe a person can remain in the same geographic location, even in the same occupation, and still answer Godís call. For all of us, however, following Jesus involves an "inner geography." With this spiritual map in hand, we set our own face in the direction God calls us to journey. Furthermore (and I donít say this simplistically as I once did), along the way we leave behind some kind of "plow."

Brothers and sisters, on our journey together with Jesus, this week we have entered the season of Lent. Iíd like this year to suggest that we see this period of days leading up to Easter from the perspective of a "map" rather than a "calendar." I propose that we are walking through spiritual terrain as we approach the crucifixion and resurrection our Lord. This is his territory. As we journey, we need to pay attention to where we are headed, and what we are carrying with us.

Now, as a sort of "visual aid" for this journey, Iíd like you to look at the cover of your worship bulletin. How many of you pay much attention to the cover on a given Sunday morning? Usually it is a picture of some sort that attempts to illustrate something about a chosen scripture. Well, the cover for this day, as well as for the next several Sundays leading up to Easter, is taken from a 19 piece series of paintings by Paul Grout, a Brethren minister and artist, entitled "Stations of the Resurrection."

                [Bulletin cover art by Paul Grout. 
                  From Church of the Brethren Living Word Bulletin series,
                  copyright 2001. Used by permission of Paul Grout.]

In the Catholic tradition, there is a practice in which persons follow the "stations of the cross," moving around a sanctuary from one location to the next. At each stop, or station, there is a scene from the passion of Jesus, most often carved out of wood or forged in metal. A whole ritual surrounds these stations, which I donít know all that much about, nor do I think it relevant for our purposes now. What is interesting is the sense of movement, of direction that one follows from station to station, contemplating the crucifixion of Christ.

Brother Paul Grout (who, by the way, is now moderator-elect of our denomination) intentionally called his paintings "stations of the resurrection" so as not to have them confused with Catholic practice. There is, however, some similarity. Likewise, there is also a bit of connection here with the Eastern Orthodox tradition of using "icons" in worship. An "icon" is part etching, part painting of some Biblical person or scene, or even some saint from Christian history - though most often it is of Jesus.

The making of the icon is, itself, a spiritual discipline - for it is considered not so much "art" as "worship," surrounded by prayer. Now, I have to tell you that Iím really on thin ice here, for my knowledge of and experience with icons is minimal. From what I do understand, however, Orthodox Christians use icons in worship as if they were "windows" through which to see things of the Spirit or, to connect with what Iíve already said, to see spiritual geography. Now, Iím not calling us to treat this bulletin cover like a "Brethren icon," and to venerate it like the Orthodox might. But, it could serve as a "window" to help us see a bit of the spiritual geography.

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. This was not just a city. It was a destination, Zion, where his lifeís mission would reach its culmination. Everything he did, everything he said along the way pointed to this destination in some way. Jesus was fully resolved, absolutely committed to this destination. Thatís what "set his face" means. His eyes were on the prize, so to speak. In the picture on the bulletin, do you see the intensity? Nothing could divert him? Mind you, this isnít a man watching television, armed with a remote. No, this is someone who knows where heís headed and, against all odds, heíll get there.

How about you? How are you doing in the "resolve" department? Do you have a sense of direction? What is Jerusalem, or Zion to you? We sang earlier about marching to Zion, what does that mean to you? Iím not going to answer that question for you... Too many of us live aimless lives. We wander through the wilderness without a sense of direction. We donít have a goal, or if we do have a goal, it isnít the right one. Perhaps, if we are resolute, it is in our commitment to all the details along the path. We live well, ordered lives - but we have no idea where we are headed.

Whatís interesting in that picture (and Iím no interpreter of art, nor do I know what brother Paul intended) is the cross before his face. Itís not all that clear, is it? The branch in the front is much more vivid. Likewise, in the spiritual geography of our journey with Christ, the destination doesnít have to be fully in focus. Godís kingdom behind the cross is a bit of a blur to us now, isnít it? We donít know all the details, do we? But weíre being drawn there, nonetheless, like metal to a magnet.

Having a heading is so very important. Without it, how can we hear Jesus say, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it. What does it profit them if they gain the whole world, but lose or forfeit themselves?" (Luke 9:23-25) Without setting our own face, with our eyes upon Godís distant horizon, those words sound ludicrous, about as crazy as leaving a "plow" behind. Thereís that "plow" again, and the earlier question - "what do I need to let go of in order to follow Jesus?" I cannot answer that one for you either.

But together we can pray, with eyes wide open to the spiritual geography ahead, with a growing faith, as alive as that branch that overlays the picture on our bulletin cover. In fact, letsí turn to the back of the cover and pray together the prayer found there:

                                O God,
                                    I see the cross ahead
                                    I say yes
                                    I see beyond death
                                    I see life ahead
                                    I say yes                      (prayer written by Paul Grout)

The hymn, "Come, come ye saints" is an appropriate one for the journey ahead. The version in our hymnal was adapted by a Baptist pastor, replacing references to Mormon beliefs, so that it could be sung by all Christians. "With joy," brothers and sisters, "letís wend our way," faces set toward Jerusalem.

©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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