Determination. Resolve. Refusing to let obstacles stand in one’s way. A young man wanted to be a famous journalist but lived in a small rural town where nothing much happened. He thought he’d never realize his dream. One day, however, the dam upstream broke and the entire town was flooded. The would-be journalist got in a rowboat and headed out to look for a story. Before he had rowed too far, he noticed a lady sitting on her rooftop. He tied up his boat and joined her on the roof. He explained that he was looking for a good story about the flood. As they chatted, they watched various items float by. When a doll floated by, she said, “Now there’s a story.” “No, that’s not a story,” the young man replied. Finally a hat floated by. All of a sudden the hat made a 180 degree turn and began to float in the direction from which it had just come. It floated a while and then mysteriously did another 180 degree turn and headed back towards them. The young man said, “Now there’s a story!” “Oh no, that’s not a story,” the woman replied. “That’s my husband Harvey. He said that he was going to mow the lawn come hell or high water.”
In today’s gospel lesson we learn something about the determination of Jesus to fulfill God’s plans for his ministry on earth—no matter what. Luke tells us that when the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. Those words remind us that Jesus will journey to his death. He will be buried and on the third day he’ll be resurrected. And ultimately, Jesus will ascend to God in heaven. For the next ten chapters of the gospel, Luke portrays Jesus on a journey that will end in Jerusalem (Craddock 140). All the lessons he teaches, people he meets, miracles he performs are told with the understanding that Jesus will be “taken up” (Craddock 140). Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem will be challenging for him. But Jesus is determined. No obstacle will deter him. Jesus has set his face to Jerusalem. He is resolute in reaching the goal of sharing God’s good news with everyone regardless of the personal cost.
Jesus’ journey begins with rejection. Jesus sends a couple disciples to a town in Samaria to make sure there is a room at the local hotel, to make arrangements for dinner, etc. Jesus wants to take his ministry to these people who are regarded as outsiders by the Jews (Craddock 142). But the citizens of the Samaritan town want no VIP visitors—especially the Jewish kind who are headed to Jerusalem. James and John are horrified at the lack of hospitality. They want to destroy the town, but Jesus harshly reprimands them. He reminds James and John of words he spoke to them once before. “If the folks in a town won’t receive you, shake the dust off your feet and move on” (Craddock 143).
Jesus journeys on and meets a person on the road who says, “Jesus, wherever you go, I will follow you.” “Really?” Jesus asks. You want to follow me? This is no picnic, friend. I have no home, no car, no money, no American Express card. We sleep under the stars, eat whatever we find or are given, and live with only the clothes on our backs. I’ve just been rejected by the people in that village and will probably be thrown out of other places before I’m finished. Do you really want to follow me? Perhaps you should count the cost first.” We never hear what decision the would-be follower makes.
Following Jesus means that life will be hard. There will be a cost to our decision. We will have to sacrifice some things. Life may become uncomfortable. We will have to stand up against some of the values our friends, our co-workers and our society have. We may have to become unpopular and be regarded as a bit odd.
Fred Craddock tells of a time when he was preaching in a university church in Norman, Oklahoma. A young woman came up to talk to him after the service. That night, Dr. Craddock had preached from the passage in which Jesus called his disciples to follow him, and they left everything to go with him. The young woman said to Craddock, “I’m in med school here, and that sermon clinched what I’ve been struggling with for some time.”
“What’s that?” Craddock asked.
“Dropping out of med school.”
“What do you want to do that for?” Craddock responded.
She said she was going to work in the Rio Grande Valley. She said, “I believe that is what Jesus is calling me to do.” So she quit med school, went to the Rio Grande Valley and slept under a piece of tin in the back of a pickup truck. Every day, she taught little children about Jesus while their parents worked in the field. She counted the cost and then dropped out of med school to follow Jesus’ call. Her folks back home in Montana are still shaking their heads and wondering, “What in the world happened?” (Graves 52–53). Jesus asks us, “Do you really want to follow me?”
Jesus encounters another person on the journey. “Follow me,” Jesus calls. “Sure,” the person responds, “but….” There’s always a but. “I have to bury my father first.” And Jesus seems harsh when he says, “Let the dead bury the dead. I am inviting you to be part of life. I am calling you to go and share the good news that God’s kingdom has come.” We never hear the answer from the would-be follower.
Following Jesus means we must act when we are called to act. If we put off following Jesus to do just one more thing, we will never follow him. Psychologists have learned that every time we have a feeling and don’t act on it, the less likely we are to act on it at all (Barclay 132). The feeling or emotion we have when we think about doing something becomes a substitute for the action. Jesus needs us to act when we are called—not later, not when we are less busy, not when our career is more settled, not when we are retired. Jesus asks us to follow him now.
A third person comes to Jesus and says, “I will follow you Jesus. But first let me go home, get my affairs in order, and say good-bye to everyone.”
“No looking back. No delays. The kingdom of God doesn’t wait for anyone,” Jesus says. We never learn whether the third person actually does follow Jesus.
Jesus had set his face to Jerusalem and his time was limited. Jesus had his goal in place and nothing was going to get in his way or slow him down. The only way to reach a goal is to keep it before us. When we turn around to look back, we lose sight of the goal and we lose our motivation. Athletes always keep their eye on the goal ahead of them. Runners don’t look back to see how far they have come. They look ahead, always pushing towards the goal in front of them.
Composer Giacomo Puccini wrote a number of famous operas. In 1922 he was suddenly stricken by cancer while working on his last opera, “Turandot,” which many now consider his best. Puccini said to his students, “If I don’t finish ‘Turandot,’ I want you to finish it for me.” Shortly afterwards he died. Puccini’s students studied opera carefully and soon completed it. In 1926 the world premiere of “Turandot” was performed in Milan with Puccini’s favorite student, Arturo Toscanini, directing. Everything went beautifully until the opera reached the point where Puccini had been forced to put down his pen. Tears ran down Toscanini’s face. He stopped the music, put down his baton, turned to the audience and cried out, “Thus far the Master wrote, but he died.” A vast silence filled the opera house. Toscanini picked up the baton again, smiled through his tears and exclaimed, “But his disciples finished his work.” When “Turandot” ended, the audience broke into thunderous applause (Brown).
Jesus’ life ended before the music in the world sounded like God wanted it to sound (Brown). And today, there is still lots more teaching, forgiving, loving, healing, feeding to do. So Jesus continues to call followers to finish his work. To complete the song of salvation, hope, and healing. Jesus calls us to follow him. But we’re not much different than the three would-be followers in today’s gospel lesson. It’s hard to drop everything and follow him right now. We have things to do, people to care for. We are procrastinators who want to put off following Jesus until things slow down in life. We find it difficult to make serious sacrifices in lifestyle, to be uncomfortable, to be different. But here’s the good news. Jesus knows all that about us. Jesus knows who we are, what we have to give, and how we will respond to his call. And yet, Jesus still calls us to follow him. In spite of our hesitation and short-comings, Jesus still wants to use us for the healing and loving and saving of the world.
When Jesus does call us, our job is to stop making excuses and at the very least, bump him up on the list of priorities in our lives (Brown). Our job is to do the very best we can to complete the music of love and justice and peace Jesus was not able to finish. “Follow me,” Jesus calls to us. “Come and follow me and be part of life.” And unlike the three folks in the gospel lesson, let’s be very clear about how we will answer Jesus’ call to us. Let’s answer, “Yes, I’ll follow you, Jesus.” Let’s offer to follow him with everything we are and everything we are able to give. Let’s enthusiastically answer, “Yes, I’m all in, Jesus!” Let’s accept Jesus’ call to be the ones who continue the work he started (Brown). The ones who complete his song of love, of justice, of forgiveness, of healing, of life, real and abundant life.
Benediction: And now wherever we go, may God give us eyes to see Jesus more clearly, hearts to love Jesus more dearly, and wills to follow Jesus more nearly. Amen.
Brown, Rosemary. “Hide and Seek.” Sermon on Luke 9:51-62. July 01, 2001. Day1.org.
Craddock, Fred. Luke. Interpretation Bible Commentary. Louisville: John Knox, 1990.
Graves, Mike and Richard F. Ward, eds. Craddock Stories. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001, p. 51. Quoted by Stephen Clyborne. “Preaching Word and Witness.” Sermon on Luke 9:51-62, Proper 8, June 27, 2010, Volume 10:4 (Year C).