The night we were married, Nelson’s grandfather died. I remember arriving the next morning for the post-wedding brunch, and each of Nelson’s aunts and uncles arriving with the news. I remember also the huddled conversation, as arrangements were discussed and decisions were made, while wedding guests came and wentand egg casseroles were served and gifts were opened. And then we stood on the threshold, getting ready to leave for our honeymoon, and Nelson hesitated. Should he stay? There was a funeral to attend, an honored loved one to bury,a grandfather to say goodbye to. And at the same time, there were hotel rooms booked, the Oregon Coast to visit, a marriage to begin. To which direction should he set his face?
Jesus has set his face toward Jerusalem. I think that phrase has a sense of determination about it. He has set his face to go to Jerusalem – he is determined to get to Jerusalem, to carry out the mission that he has before him.
But it’s confusing for the people around him. The disciples still have the idea that a Messiah means an earthly ruler, a revolution, overthrowing the Romans and reestablishing the Davidic Kingdom. They think this trip to Jerusalem is going to be some kind of retribution trail, smiting enemies and gathering supporters until they march into Jerusalem triumphant on Palm Sunday. As far as they can see, Holy Week is not on the radar, Good Friday is not a possibility, and the cross is not to be thought of.
That’s why this series of vignettes seems so strange.
Jesus and the people around him are working on two different sets of assumptions. Jesus knows that he is going up to Jerusalem to die.Those around him think they are marching to a human victory, the glory of battle. So when they come to Samaria, and the Samaritans will not receive them, the disciples see this as some sort of proof – Samaritans are not pure, maybe, not to be part of this new earthly Kingdom. The Samaritans, for their part, do not worship in Jerusalem, they have their own holy place, their own Temple. So when they see that Jesus is set for Jerusalem, they seem to make the same assumption that the disciples make.
Jesus is not for them.
They send him on their way. But, while Jesus simply rebukes the disciples for wanting to destroy the Samaritans, he is not done with them yet. This coming Sunday’s story is all about the Good Samaritan, and we will see that Jesus is working on a whole different level. In the meantime, Jesus is still on the move.
Next comes this weird series of exchanges.
First one person offers allegiance, “I will follow you anywhere.” For us who know where Jesus is really headed, this sounds like an audacious profession of faith. But remember that we know what those around Jesus don’t. They don’t know about Holy Week. They are still thinking we’re heading for triumph in Jerusalem. So “I’ll follow you anywhere” maybe means something more like, “I’d like a cabinet position, please.” Get in on the ground floor of this movement and good things will come! Jesus’ response must be so confusing to this person! “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”? What does that mean?What does that have to do with glory and the kingdom?
The next person Jesus speaks to is invited to follow. But when this guy wants to first bury his father, Jesus appears to have no patience. “Let the dead bury their dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God!” This feels harsh, even cruel. To tell this man to ignore the claims of family, tradition, and honor, not to mention the claims of love, much less the fourth commandment to honor your father and mother! It’s outrageous!
The third exchange is with another who is offering to follow Jesus, but first wants to say goodbye to his family. This man probably believes that he is going to Jerusalem to fight the Romans, and may not come back; this is the farewell of a soldier going off to war. And again, Jesus’ reply feels heartless and severe,even mocking. It evokes a ridiculous image of someone trying to plow a straight furrow while looking backwards over his shoulder. It would be like texting and driving. They don’t mix, sure, but to say that someone is unfit for the kingdom because of it?
Tonight’s Jesus feels different, now that his face is set for Jerusalem. It feels like he has a newfound determination – but he also feels a little testy, even a little mean. But I think that is because, even though we who are reading this story know, know what is coming, we know that Palm Sunday is only the beginning of the end; we know that before long Jesus will be betrayed by one friend, and denied by another; even though we know that by the time the passover is done, Jesus will be in the hands of the Romans,and that this will all end in death and a cross; we also know that Easter is only 6 weeks away, and that this is all leading toward Resurrection.
And still we hesitate. We stand on the threshold. Maybe it’s not as extreme or as obvious as wondering whether to bury your grandfather or go on your honeymoon. But we are all of us standing on that threshold. We hesitate to give ourselves over to the future that God has in store for us, because there is so much that holds us to our past. We’re comfortable where we are, we know this place, we know what to expect and we know what is expected of us.
Even when our past feeds us with shame and guilt, at least we’re fed;
even when the past ties us to systems of injustice and exploitation, at least we’re connected;
even when our past is the story of our rejections, our failings, our could-have-beens, at least it is known.
Jesus seems a little harsh tonight. A little cranky, maybe. But maybe it is because he knows where you’ve been, and he knows where you are called. And he knows that you need help to get there. And that’s what Lent is about.
Tonight, as you come forward to the altar rail,I will take a little bit of ash, left over from last year’s triumphant celebration of the glory of Palm Sunday. And I will rub that ash on your forehead in the shape of a cross. And I will say to you, “Remember that you are but dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is a reminder. A reminder that you came from dust, and you are going to dust. A reminder that glory is fleeting, and the palms of human triumph can be burned. A reminder that our way forward leads past the cross. But it is also a reminder of all that God can accomplish with dust. This is the God who pulled the universe together out of stardust. This is the God who gathered dust together and breathed into its nostrils, and created humanity. This is the God who changed everything with that cross, and the dust of an empty tomb.
This God gathered the dust of the world together into your self, you. For a purpose. God has decided that you are important enough, that you are worth the effort, that your matter matters. And that you are called.
You are called to follow in the footsteps of the Savior. And what you have been, the past that you are clinging to, the traditions and the laws and the obligations of honor, the shame and the guilt of the past, whatever you are looking back over your shoulder at, as you stand there at the threshold, none of that compares to what God has called you to; none of that compares to where you are going; none of that is anything next to the Kingdom of God.
And the way to the Kingdom leads us first to Jerusalem,through the dust at the foot of the cross.
That’s what Lent is calling us to this year. We are following in the footsteps of the servant, the footsteps of Jesus. The very earliest Christian Church was called the Way, or the Road, those who followed the Way of Christ. Luke begins to use that name here in tonight’s passage – on their way, as they were going along the road – we will hear this phrase over and over again in the coming weeks as we read through the rest of Luke and on into Luke’s sequel, The Book of Acts. This Way, the footsteps of Jesus, leads us to Easter, yes, to Resurrection, yes, but first, we have to go to Jerusalem. First we have to go to the cross.