Sunday, June 26, 2022
The Journey — Rev. Brent Gundlah

It’s summertime here in Salt Lake City (where at least it’s a dry heat), but if you came to church today hoping to hear something on the lighter side from Jesus — the biblical equivalent of relaxing by the pool or snacking on that fruit salad with the little marshmallows — then you’re going to be disappointed, because our reading from Luke’s Gospel is anything but light. And things already feel pretty heavy around here this week.

“When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem,” is how the story begins. To put this story in context, Jesus, Peter, James and John have just come down from the mountain after Jesus’s transfiguration — when Jesus’s face suddenly changed and his clothes became dazzling white; when Moses and Elijah “appeared in glory and were speaking to [Jesus] about his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”

And now that their time on the mountain is over, Jesus and his disciples will face the most difficult part of their journey as they begin walking towards Jerusalem and the cross. It’s daunting when you know the road that lies before you will be challenging.

It has often been said that travel is less about the destination than it is about the journey (keep that in mind as you’re sitting in traffic on the way into Yellowstone this summer). And Luke’s account of Jesus’s life reflects that idea.

Jerusalem is literally the beginning and the end of that story — it starts in the temple with Zechariah, Elizabeth and the infant John the Baptist, and it ends with the disciples worshipping Jesus, and returning “with great joy” to Jerusalem, where they “were continually in the temple blessing God.” Jerusalem is where Jesus goes to be betrayed, crucified and resurrected. For Luke, all roads really do lead to Jerusalem.

Even though this destination is important to Luke, he spends a lot of time describing Jesus’s journey there — the voyage begins in today’s reading takes up almost ten of the gospel’s twenty-four chapters.

None of the other gospel writers gives this phase of Jesus’ life the amount of attention that Luke does, and most of the details that Luke shares don’t actually appear in the other three gospels. So why does Luke tell us all of this?

Jesus has decided that he must go to Jerusalem — even though he knows that great difficulty awaits him there. And while Luke will remind us over and over exactly where Jesus is headed, it is virtually impossible to trace Jesus’s actual itinerary. We’re not given names of enough places to enable us to map his route, and there is no logical sequence to all of the events that Luke strings together. Indeed, the two stories from our reading today — Jesus’s rejection in the Samaritan village and his encounters with three potential disciples — aren’t connected in any obvious way.

But the stories Luke shares are important because they tell us so much about who Jesus is. And that’s what really matters on this particular journey.

The first place that Jesus and his disciples stop along the way is an unnamed village in Samaria, which is an odd choice because the Samaritans and the Jews hated each other (remember, Jesus and his disciples were Jews). But this is where Jesus decides to go.

He sends messengers to let the Samaritans know that he is on the way so they can “make ready for him.” Unsurprisingly, the Samaritans tell Jesus and his friends to take a hike; the reason Luke gives for their unfriendliness towards Jesus is, “because his face was set toward Jerusalem.”

As reasons go, this one is as clear as mud. Is it because the Samaritans didn’t see Jerusalem as the center of Judaism? Is it because Jesus is so focused on getting to Jerusalem that he doesn’t bother to perform healings and miracles for the Samaritans? It’s hard to say.

We do know that Jesus’s very first stop on his journey to Jerusalem is a place filled with strangers — with those “other” people, a place where he knew he wouldn’t be welcome. But there is nowhere that Jesus won’t go, and no one Jesus won’t try to reach, in order to share the gospel. And this is an important thing to know about Jesus.

The Samaritans’ lack of hospitality towards Jesus is no surprise, but James’s and John’s reaction to it kind of is. “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” they ask. I get their anger — the Samaritans were unfriendly; but fire from heaven is a little much, don’t you think? Apparently Jesus thinks so too, and so he rebukes them.

But it kind of makes sense that James and John want to summon some flames. After all, they’ve just come down from the mountaintop where they saw Jesus meet with Moses and Elijah, two of Judaism’s greatest prophets, both of whom called upon God to heap punishment upon their enemies.

And since Jesus has just been shown to be a great prophet too, James and John believe he should be able to do the same kind of thing that Moses and Elijah would; he ought to do the same kind of thing that Moses and Elijah would — because that’s what great prophets do. But Jesus doesn’t; instead he walks away. And this choice is important for two reasons.

First, it underscores Jesus’s determination to get to Jerusalem. He simply will not allow himself to be dragged into a dispute with the Samaritans when he’s got more important work to do. As he’s told his disciples before: If you are not welcomed where you go, just shake the dust off your sandals and keep moving.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, it shows that things are different now that Jesus has arrived; the old ways of being, the endless cycles of violence and vengeance that have plagued humanity since the beginning, have no place here anymore.

You see, Luke’s not trying to show that Jesus is one of history’s great prophets; he’s trying to show that Jesus is the greatest prophet. At the same time, though, Luke is trying to demonstrate that Jesus is more than a prophet; he’s God’s Chosen One. And this greatest of all prophets, this Messiah sent by God, does something entirely unexpected — he shows mercy and love toward his enemies as he does to everyone. This too is an important thing to know about Jesus.

And Jesus’s willingness to do the unexpected thing, the unpopular thing, the difficult thing — while also focusing on getting to Jerusalem, where he knows that  suffering awaits him — is what links the second part of today’s reading to the first.

As the journey continues, Jesus is approached by three would-be disciples — and his words to them are pretty heavy and harsh.

You want to follow me wherever I go? Then give up everything.

You want to bury your father before you leave? Let the dead bury their own dead.

You want to say goodbye to your loved ones? No one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

This is definitely not the best recruiting pitch I’ve ever heard, and the things that these potential followers ask for don’t seem unreasonable. But Luke wants us to understand just how committed Jesus is to his mission. He will not be distracted by anyone or anything. He gave up everything; he walked away from his friends and family. The greatest work requires the greatest sacrifices and Jesus makes those sacrifices. This is also an important thing to know about Jesus.

But what does this mean for us? It’s easy to look at today’s reading and simply see Jesus making a bunch of demands on his disciples. But that’s not what’s really going on here.

For starters, some of what Jesus calls us towards is not really all that unreasonable. Breaking out of cycles of retribution and violence, repaying indignities and insults with kindness, giving up our own material comfort for the sake of others? These things are difficult, but they’re not unreasonable.

Some of that other stuff though? Walking away from your friends and family? Heading willingly toward certain death? I doubt that I could do any of these things. It’s just so contrary to human nature, to everything we’ve ever been taught about the way the world works — look out for yourself and the ones you love; give ‘til it hurts, but not ‘til it hurts too much; take care of number one.

But what if everyone were number one? What if everyone were the one you love? How would that change the way you approach the world? Because that’s how Jesus thought about it: all are beloved by God. And that’s perhaps the single most important thing to know about Jesus.

Look, we may never be able to match Jesus’ unwavering love for all God’s people and for all God’s creation, but the glimpse of him that Luke gives us should make us stop and think long and hard about what we’d actually be willing to do, what we’d be willing to give up, and how far we’d actually be willing to go, in order to support each other in our struggles, in order to show our love for one another — because that’s exactly what God is calling us to do.

Now, some may believe that living into this call will be a burden too heavy to bear.

But don’t you see? As hard as it might be sometimes, living into this call is what will ultimately set us free.