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Excuses, Excuses

This is the message I preached Sunday, June 26 at St. Timothy Lutheran Church, where we had a wonderful baptism service. A tweaked version was preached at St. Mark. The scripture was Luke 9:51-62.


In today’s gospel, Jesus has reached a turning point. Jesus being “taken up” refers to Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension. In Luke’s gospel, everything is now directed toward that end. Jesus’ path to be the Savior and Redeemer of the world is set.
 
Jesus had a single-minded orientation. He knew that the way to Jerusalem meant the way of the cross and his death. Luke uses the expression, Jesus “set his face” to describe his determination. This expression is so important, that it appears three times in the first three verses of today’s gospel: Jesus “set his face” (51), Jesus sent messengers to Samaria ahead of him, which literally means “before his face” (52) and Jesus face was set toward Jerusalem” (v. 53). This expression is an idiom that speaks of a firm, unshakable resolve to do something.
 
Have you ever seen that kind of determination in someone’s face? You can talk to that person until you’re blue in the face and you will never sway them from the course he or she has decided upon.
 
Jesus’ course to Jerusalem and death was offensive to many, like the Samaritans. Jesus and his disciples arrive in Samaria as planned. His disciples had made the arrangements. Most Jewish people would have avoided this place, but of course, Jesus isn’t like other Jewish people. 
 
So what went wrong? Jesus was going to Jerusalem! As the woman at the well explains: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem." (John 4:20 NRS). “This mountain” is Mt. Gerizim, the place of the Samaritan shrine.

 For the Jewish people of that day, everything revolved around Jerusalem. Generations of animosity separated these two peoples. Jews looked down on Samaritans as half-breed heretics. Samaritans rejected the Jerusalem based salvation history. Jews and Samaritans had competing views of scripture, messianic expectation and what constitutes real faith before God (Joel B. Green, NICNT: Gospel of Luke). In short, the Samaritans cannot accept Jesus’ understanding and embodiment of the divine purpose. Samaria rejected Jesus.
But fear not, Jesus comes across some people that want to follow him BUT. The first man seems quite enthusiastic, but does he know what he would really be getting into? Following Jesus means persecution. Following Jesus means uncertainty about where one would sleep. Did he know what he was promising?
 
Jesus faces excuses with the next two men. The first wants to wait to follow Jesus until after burying his father. This was an obligation that was binding upon all devout Jews. They were required to care for their parents for the rest of their lives.

 Doesn’t Jesus’ response, “let the dead bury the dead,” seems harsh? Jesus’ words are better understood as, “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead. ”Those who were not following Jesus could discharge that responsibility.
 
The next man wants to say good-bye to his family. That seems fair, doesn’t it? Jesus warns that excessive concern for family ties (looking back) will [diminish] the priority of God’s rule in one’s life. The image is graphic, for who can plow straight ahead toward a goal while looking back? Discipleship cannot be double-minded  (NET notes).
The kingdom of God, God’s rule in our lives changes everything. As we saw with these excuse-filled would-be followers of Jesus, former allegiances are reorganized. These two men called Jesus “Lord,” but by attempting to delay obedience, we see the hollowness of their affirmation.
 
God’s call to discipleship is a call that supersedes all others. It’s a matter of priorities. Whether the concern is care for self, care for the dead or care for family.
What prevents us from wholeheartedly following Jesus? I dare say it’s not a matter of us struggling to choose between good and bad. Our problem is choosing between what’s good and what’s best.
 
Is Jesus saying he doesn’t care about our family obligations? No! But the issue is if they become more important to us than our relationship with God. Good things that take the place of God in our hearts are idols. God wants us to set our faces to fulfilling God’s purposes for us.

Lutheran pastor David Westphal expresses it in this way:
Jesus’ choice here in this passage is so important. Because he goes to Jerusalem, we don’t have to. He goes, dies and rises that we might not only have life, but to clear the way for us. It’s not that our choices don’t matter. They do. What it means, however, is that without the power of Christ, given through the Holy Spirit, our choice is just that: Ours. Only through Christ crucified can our choice also be God’s choice for us; and it is only God’s choice for us that ultimately matters. 


How does this apply to us at St. Timothy/St. Mark? Earlier this morning at St. Timothy, we had two baptisms. We are renewed each day in our baptismal promises. When someone is baptized, we can answer afresh the call to commitment to follow Jesus with all our heart. Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard said that Jesus wants followers, not admirers.
When Martin Luther struggled with the devil and other issues, he would say, “I am baptized!,” as often as he needed to. Because baptism makes us the Lord’s, we too can be reassured of God’s care for us because we belong to him.
Amen. 
Sources
Feasting on the Gospels--Luke, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary (Kindle Locations 9832-9836). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Søren Kierkegaard, sundaysandseasons.org
David Lose, workingpreacher.com 
Michael Rogness, Commentary on Luke 9:51-62, workingpreacher.com

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