On the Threshold

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.

Listen to Him

Weird things happen when you pray. I’ve never been the most disciplined pray-er. I don’t usually set aside the same hour each day to pray, sitting down with my coffee, Bible, and devotional, or journaling my prayers. For me, prayer tends to be more sporadic. Throughout the day, when it occurs to me to say something to God, I just say it. I don’t save it up for the right time or place. I just kind of spit it out as it comes to me, whether I’m in the car at a red light, or working out, or lying down to sleep. But I know that weird things happen when you pray. Because you think your life is headed one way, and then you start praying, and suddenly, you are selling your house in Seattle, moving across the country, and following a call to Missouri.

Jesus is more disciplined in his prayer life than I am. But his kind of prayer gives me courage and makes me feel like maybe I do okay with my kind of prayer. Especially in the book of Luke. Throughout this Gospel, Jesus is found praying, but it’s always in the middle of other things. He doesn’t take breaks from his ministry to pray, or maybe his ministry doesn’t take breaks for him to pray. His ministry follows him into his prayer, and when he prays, weird things certainly happen.

After he was baptized, he went to pray, and the heavens opened up and a voice from heaven came and said to him, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased.”

Then Jesus heads off into the wilderness for 40 days of prayer,and the devil follows him,and tempts him three times.

All during his public ministry, as he wanders around Galilee, he takes breaks and heads off to deserted places to pray. Sometimes the crowds follow him, and he continues healing in that deserted place. Sometimes his prayer leads him to name the twelve apostles. Sometimes his prayer leads into teaching. Sometimes he withdraws privately, and winds up feeding 5000 with 5 loaves and 2 fishes. And then there’s today’s reading.

The Transfiguration.

Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to the mountaintop to pray. And suddenly he is transfigured, so that his face changes and his clothes are dazzling white, and Elijah and Moses are standing there talking to him about his departure, his death in Jerusalem. Weird things happen when you pray.

But what really strikes me about this incident is that, though it is remarkable by itself, everything about it points elsewhere.

Jesus’ face changes, and it points us back to Moses, whose face changed after he saw the face of God.

Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white, and that points us to the images of angels standing at the tomb on the morning of the Resurrection.

And of course, Moses and Elijah point us toward the law and the prophets.

And Peter and his companions were there, but they were weighed down with sleep, which points us to another time when they can’t stay awake while Jesus praysin the Garden of Gethsemane.

And then the cloud comes and overshadows them and a voice points us back to Jesus’ baptism, saying almost exactly the same words again, but this time the disciples hear them, “This is my Son, my chosen; listen to him!”

It’s like this story is pointing out from the top of the mountain towards every other story – it points us back to the beginning of Epiphany and forward to the end of Lent, wrapping all of the story of the law and prophets and baptism and ministry and the death and the resurrection, all into this one moment of dazzling light and voices from the clouds.

No wonder Peter wants to stay there, to hold onto that moment. No wonder he wants to build a tent and hang out there on the mountaintop. When it all comes together like that, you want to grab it and cling to it. If you let it go for even a moment, it starts to fade. Like a moment of clarity that comes to you just before you fall asleep, and you think to yourself, “I’ll remember that in the morning,” but then you wake up and it’s gone, or it’s muddled, and that moment of clarity is lost. If only you had built a dwelling there, staked that out as yours, maybe you could nail it down and you could bend it and shape it to your will, and using it, you could change everything.

But that’s not the nature of prayer, is it? You don’t get to nail it down. You don’t get to use it, to bend it to your own will. You don’t get to change everything through prayer. That’s not the deal.

Instead, prayer changes you, bends you, shapes you.

Moments of prayer don’t point back to themselves, they don’t provide us with self-congratulatory hours of solitude to make us feel like we’ve finally gotten it right. Instead they point at everything but themselves, they shine outward into the world, into the past and the future and the ministry and the crowds, they illuminate us and change our faces so that we are ready to head back down the mountain and meet the crowds.

Moments of prayer prepare us for the road ahead, and they help us to understand the road behind.

Prayer, whether it is done in a disciplined way, with a journal and a Bible, and an hour each morning before sunup; or whether it is done catch-as-catch-can, as the ambulance screams by, or as the kid is tumbling down the stairs, or as the sunset catches your breath; prayer transfigures us, changes us, and then sends us.

Sends us to meet the man whose son is sick, and he just wants someone to help.

Prepares us to meet the betrayal of our Messiah.

Turns our faces toward Jerusalem, toward the long, slow season of Lent,and the weeks of carrying a cross, and the exhilaration of Palm Sunday and the despair of Good Friday.

Peter doesn’t want to come down the mountain, because maybe he senses all that awaits him down there, even his own denials that will come.

And into all that, comes God’s response to our prayer, God’s response that will carry us through it all. “This is my Son, my Chosen. Listen to him!”

Listen to him.

It is that easy. And that difficult.

It is that clear. And that muddled.

Through all of this, through all the trials and troubles of life, you are not alone. You are standing in the presence of God’s own Son, God’s own Chosen. And he is speaking to you. He is walking with you. He is coming along on the journey, through the darkest days, and through the joyous celebrations. And he is speaking words of love and of comfort and of new life along the way, leading us on through the days of Lent and towards resurrection. Listen to him!