FOOD FOR THOUGHT
The theme for this week is taking the next right step.
- Our call to worship, Psalm 77, presents the psalmist in trouble, and he responds by remembering another time when Israel was pinned between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea, and God’s solution to their troubles was different than expected.
- 2 Kings 2 recounts the story of Elijah being taken up to heaven, including the uncertainties that Elisha faced in continuing ministry without his mentor.
- In Galatians 5, we are reminded that the freedom to love is always the best choice, resulting in the fruits of the Holy Spirit.
- And in our sermon text, Luke 9 shows Jesus’s singular focus in heading toward Jerusalem and contrasts that way of loving intentionality with our own tendency to forget to make first things first.
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
1 I cried unto God with my voice, even unto God with my voice; and he gave ear unto me.
2 In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord: my sore ran in the night, and ceased not: my soul refused to be comforted.
11 I will remember the works of the Lord: surely I will remember thy wonders of old. 12 I will meditate also of all thy work, and talk of thy doings. 13 Thy way, O God, is in the sanctuary: who is so great a God as our God? 14 Thou art the God that doest wonders: thou hast declared thy strength among the people. 15 Thou hast with thine arm redeemed thy people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. Selah.
16 The waters saw thee, O God, the waters saw thee; they were afraid: the depths also were troubled. 17 The clouds poured out water: the skies sent out a sound: thine arrows also went abroad. 18 The voice of thy thunder was in the heaven: the lightnings lightened the world: the earth trembled and shook. 19 Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters, and thy footsteps are not known. 20 Thou leddest thy people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
1 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Now the days of David drew nigh that he should die; and he charged Solomon his son, saying, 2 I go the way of all the earth: be thou strong therefore, and shew thyself a man;
6 Do therefore according to thy wisdom, and let not his hoar head go down to the grave in peace. 7 But shew kindness unto the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite, and let them be of those that eat at thy table: for so they came to me when I fled because of Absalom thy brother. 8 And, behold, thou hast with thee Shimei the son of Gera, a Benjamite of Bahurim, which cursed me with a grievous curse in the day when I went to Mahanaim: but he came down to meet me at Jordan, and I sware to him by the Lord, saying, I will not put thee to death with the sword. 9 Now therefore hold him not guiltless: for thou art a wise man, and knowest what thou oughtest to do unto him; but his hoar head bring thou down to the grave with blood.
10 So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David. 11 And the days that David reigned over Israel were forty years: seven years reigned he in Hebron, and thirty and three years reigned he in Jerusalem.
12 Then sat Solomon upon the throne of David his father; and his kingdom was established greatly.
13 And Adonijah the son of Haggith came to Bath-sheba the mother of Solomon. And she said, Comest thou peaceably? And he said, Peaceably. 14 He said moreover, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And she said, Say on.
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.
13 For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. 14 For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 15 But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another. 16 This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh. 17 For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. 18 But if ye be led of the Spirit, ye are not under the law.
19 Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, 20 idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, 21 envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, 23 meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. 24 And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. 25 If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.
51 And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, 52 and sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. 53 And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? 55 But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. 56 For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.
57 And it came to pass, that, as they went in the way, a certain man said unto him, Lord, I will follow thee whithersoever thou goest. 58 And Jesus said unto him, Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.
59 And he said unto another, Follow me. But he said, Lord, suffer me first to go and bury my father. 60 Jesus said unto him, Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.
61 And another also said, Lord, I will follow thee; but let me first go bid them farewell, which are at home at my house. 62 And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.
The Problem of Priorities
Luke 9:51-62 (NRSV)
You may remember a popular self-help book by Stephen R. Covey called The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. First published in 1989, the book sets forth Covey’s “true north” principles that, if ingrained as habits, can help people progress from dependence to independence, and ultimately, to interdependence.
One of Covey’s seven habits was habit #3: “Put first things first.” This particular principle distinguishes between what is important and what is urgent. It requires us to understand what we value and what is often a knee-jerk reaction to demands placed on us. The idea of prioritizing and “keeping the main thing the main thing” (another saying attributed to Covey) is hard for most people, and Jesus’ disciples and early followers were no different than us. We’ll see Jesus’ followers wrestling with their desires to be right, to do good, and to be thought of as good by their culture. Let’s read our sermon text for today found in Luke 9:51-62.
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’[a] 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then[b] they went on to another village.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58 And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ 59 To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60 But Jesus[c] said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ 61 Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62 Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
What can we notice about this passage?
The passage has two separate stories: The first story, which we’ll title How to Handle Conflict, is about the disciples’ reaction to the Samaritan village’s unwillingness to welcome Jesus. The second story, which we’ll call Getting Priorities Straight, is about people struggling to understand how to love God and love others as part of following Jesus.
Story #1 – How to Handle Conflict
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village. (Luke 9:51-56 NRSV)
Messengers are sent ahead to make preparations for the group’s stay in a Samaritan village, but they are not welcomed. Why? If we look at John 9:53, it says “they did not receive him because his face was set toward to Jerusalem.”
Samaria was what was left of Israel’s northern kingdom after Israel split into northern and southern kingdoms (both of which were later decimated by invaders). The Samaritans had their own sacred scriptures (a version of the Pentateuch) and held worship in a temple on Mount Gerizim. If we remember Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4-26), she asked why the Jews insisted that Jerusalem was the only place for true worship. We can surmise that the Samaritans saw Jesus’ intention to travel to Jerusalem as another slight in their long history of being treated as second-class worshippers by the Jews.
In John 9:54, the disciples known as “Sons of Thunder,” James and John, ask Jesus if they should call down fire from heaven on the Samaritan village. Jesus rebukes them and tells them to move on. We might first think that the disciples were overreacting and that we would never do anything like that. But how many times have we argued on Facebook or another social media in an attempt to justify our opinion on any number of topics? If we consider how we are often more interested in being right than being loving, we probably will realize our methods of handling conflict are not that much different than the disciples. In fact, we’ve seen it throughout the history of Christianity.
“Triumphalism” – the self-righteous idea that your doctrines, beliefs, or culture is right and everyone else is wrong – is too often seen in Christianity. Well-meaning Christians often portray that everyone who disagrees or believes differently is wrong. Christian history, from the Crusades through the Spanish Inquisition and beyond, shows some Christians resorting to violence – just like those we often condemn – when people refuse to believe our “good news.” When we find ourselves focusing on how wrong everybody else is and how right we are, we must ask ourselves, “What am I making a higher priority than following Jesus by loving my neighbor as myself?”
Not only was Jesus teaching the disciples how to properly handle conflict (with grace and patience, not fire from heaven), but he also maintained his focused intention – to head toward Jerusalem to accomplish his mission. Jesus knew his priority, and he refused to be sidetracked by the disciples’ desire for retribution.
Story #2 – Getting Priorities Straight
The second story involves Jesus’ interaction with those who wanted to follow him but who struggled to understand what that meant. Each of the three persons in the 3 interactions seemed to lack the singleness of focus that Jesus had with “his face set toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53).
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:57-62 NRSV)
Jesus’ followers experienced struggle with competing priorities, just like we do. They tried to juggle their desire to follow Jesus with cultural responsibilities and expectations.
- The first follower wanted to do good, promising Jesus “to follow you wherever you go.” Jesus’ response indicates his need for a place to stay, but the follower’s promise to follow isn’t backed up with action to help locate a place to stay.
- Two other potential followers seem willing enough. However, they appear to struggle with understanding how following Jesus fits in with their other cultural responsibilities.
[Following Christ was not the only thing the three persons had to do … They had other responsibilities and/or options … and they had to choose .. they had to prioritize.]
While Jesus’ responses can seem a little harsh, we might look at these interactions as Greek literary device called chreiae [pronounced Kray-ah] chosen by Luke to convey a specific point through a saying or action by a character in a story.
In these verses, the theme of discipleship is emphasized by phrases like “I will follow you,” or “Follow me.” Rather than taking Jesus’ words literally, we can understand that he is showing how important intentionality is to stay true to one’s purpose. In fact, Jesus is demonstrating that intentionality and focus as he travels toward Jerusalem.
Rather than saying that followers literally should not bury their dead, Jesus is showing his followers that the path to discipleship is not easy. Cultural responsibilities in Jesus’ time were important and hard to break away from.
We, too, face cultural systems that expect us to do what everybody else does, following culturally constructed roles and scripts. Jesus is illustrating that discipleship will not only require us to handle conflict differently, but it will also require us to change our priorities, particularly in how we move and operate within the world.
We might ask ourselves this question: How are we loving our neighbors as ourselves when it comes to our day-to-day interactions with family, co-workers, and friends, both in person and online? How does our discipleship to Jesus affect our political views, especially when it comes to how the poor and other marginalized groups are cared for in our society? If we answer these questions in the context of being a Jesus follower, we will see Jesus’ approach to these groups reflected in our actions.
- Recognize our tendency to want to be right more than we want to be loving. Though we can villainize the disciples James and John for wanting to call down fire on the unwelcoming Samaritan village, we must be on guard for those same tendencies in ourselves.
- Realize that following Jesus requires a singular focus and intention. This means that as a result, our priorities will be different, and our loyalties to our culture and its systems may not fit within the focus and intentionality of a Jesus follower. If we value what Jesus values – people – our actions will reflect that same commitment to love, even when it is difficult.
- Know that authenticity in our discipleship is an ongoing process of growth. Because we are steeped in stories from our families of origin and our culture, it takes time to recognize the inconsistencies between what we say and do and what we want to say and do as followers of Jesus. God accepts us as we are while encouraging us to love with Jesus’ singular focus. We are called to accept others as they are while encouraging them to accept Jesus’ love and love others in return.
Recognizing priorities and having a singular focus and intentionality were part of Jesus’s character. Jesus worked with his disciples to “put first things first,” understanding that growing in love for others includes asking us to be less steeped in our personal stories so we can follow Jesus’ lead in how we express his love to one another.
Pentecost is much more than the beginning of the New Testament church. It’s a day of change that includes reversals, firsts, fulfilled prophecy and promises, identification, affirmation, and power.
I’m one of those odd persons that loves change. Not all changes, mind you, but I love the challenge of moving forward, trying something new, doing things differently. I love what change can bring – a new outlook, new understanding, new methodology, new perspectives. Pentecost brought all this and more to the disciples and followers of Christ. And truth be told, I would have been just as excited, overwhelmed, and scared as they were. Let’s look at what Pentecost brought.
The great reversal
One of the most common understandings of Pentecost is it brought the great reversal of the Tower of Babel (see Genesis 11:1-9). The story in Genesis tells us that the people settled in a plain and decided to build a tower that would reach into the heavens – “otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” In other words, they said they didn’t want to do what God told them to do: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1 NRSV). They wanted to stay put and do things their way.
God had a quick answer; he gave them different languages and scattered them all over the earth.
On Pentecost, God enabled all to hear the same message in their own language. The great reversal is not that we all have one language again, but we have one gospel for all people and all languages. It is what brings us back together, this time though, under God’s plan and not our own.
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6)
Another great reversal is what this day points toward. The Holy Spirit is not just for a select few, but for all. Believers from every nation present heard the gospel in their own language. Christ died for all – all have the same opportunity to live in him and participate with him in doing what he is doing. The disciples, and later Paul, learned from this event and began sharing the gospel with Gentiles. Pa ul later made this very clear:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 2:28)
Through the Holy Spirit, all are included. In Paul’s day there were only Jews and non-Jews (Gentiles), so Paul is making it clear no one is excluded. All of humanity fits into these six classifications. In Christ, all are seen, valued, and heard. All of humanity died with Christ, all are risen with Christ, all are forgiven. Pentecost gives us a message of unity and inclusion.
Amid this great miracle, some scoffed and blamed the disciples for drinking too much wine. We can only surmise their hearts were so hardened against Jesus and the disciples that they were unable to hear the message. Peter stood up and said:
Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” (Acts 2:14-16)
He went on to share how David’s prophecies about the Messiah being resurrected were also fulfilled; then Peter continued to preach Jesus and him crucified. I can only imagine that Peter and the other disciples were recalling Jesus’ words about fulfilling the law and the prophets; they were only beginning to understand.
They must have also recalled Jesus’ last night with them in the upper room as he told them he would not leave them orphaned or comfortless, but he would send the Holy Spirit. They were experiencing this in real time – wind blowing, divided tongues of fire appearing and then resting on the 12, people hearing in their own languages. They knew this was from God; they knew this was what Jesus had promised. He was true to his word – he said he would send the Spirit and he did.
I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. (John 14:16-17)
But there is more. The disciples had spent three years with Jesus. They recognized him as their teacher, their Rabbi. I’m sure there was a question about who would take over their teaching, who would continue to train them. Jesus told them he would not leave them as orphans, without someone to teach them, to guide them into all truth.
But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (John 14:26)
It must have been a great relief to the disciples to experience the arrival of the Holy Spirit in such an extraordinary way. They were experiencing the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in real time. We still experience this in real time. The Holy Spirit is our teacher, the one who guides us into all truth, the one who reminds us that it is in Jesus that “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The Holy Spirit continually points us to Jesus and reminds us he is the center of the center, the one we are to preach, teach, and follow.
When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father — the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father — he will testify about me. And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning. (John 15:26-27)
Peter responds right away and does exactly what Jesus said the Spirit would lead us to do – testify about him. And the results were astounding. People asked what they needed to do. Peter responded by telling them to repent – metanoeō – to change the way they think about God. He is not against us; he is for us. He isn’t just for a select few; he is for all of humanity. The Father is not mad at us; he sent his Son to save us. Jesus didn’t come to condemn; he came to save.
When you change the way you see God, it is then you can receive the forgiveness he offers through Jesus Christ. It is then you can see that all the prophecies were about him, and he came to fulfill them for us. It is then you can see the Old Testament wasn’t about Israel’s failure; it was about God’s faithfulness to his beloved. It is then you begin to feel more like someone God cares about, pays attention to, loves – you begin to feel like a child of God. Peter calls us to repent – to change the way we view God, which will lead to change in the way we respond to God.
When we change the way we view God, and we accept the truth of our fallen nature and the blessing of our forgiveness, we want to respond in joy and gratitude. We ask, what can we do? Peter tells us to participate in Jesus’ baptism and to live in the reality that he did not leave us, rather he lives in us through the Holy Spirit.
And more …
Pentecost reminds us in a powerful way that the crucifixion was not the end of Jesus’ ministry – it was the beginning of a far-reaching ministry. It (Pentecost) reminds us that we are never alone – God is always with us via the Holy Spirit. It reminds us that we are invited to participate in the communion shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It reminds us that Jesus’ prayer with his disciples was answered.
Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. 2 For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. 3 Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:1-3)
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — 23 I in them and you in me — so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:20-23)
May God remind us of all that Pentecost fulfilled and looks forward to. May the Holy Spirit continually remind us of who Jesus is, who we are in him, and how he has called us to participate with him.