Luke 9: 51-56
David A. Davis
March 10, 2019
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“He set his face to go to Jerusalem”. Jesus set his face. Set his face. Like the look of a four year old child who sets her face on not eating her peas? Maybe. Like a lover of art who stands before a painting centuries old mesmerized for what seems like hours in the museum? Maybe. Like a grandmother and a grandchild sitting at the card table pouring over piece after piece because the visit ends tomorrow and the puzzle has to be finished? Like the icy stare across the table as one member of the couple listens to the feeble list of excuses from the other who was late yet again to the dinner out. Maybe.
“He set his face to go to Jerusalem”. In the family drama of the Book of Genesis, at one point Jacob and Rachel steal from her father Laban and sneak away in what seems like the middle of the night. The narrator reports that Jacob took all that he had, crossed the Euphrates and set his face toward the hill country of Gilead. He was running away. Set his face. Isaiah, the prophet, in seeking to express his confidence in God’s help and strength and protection, the prophet says, “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint and I know that shall not be put to shame.” Set his face. Ezekiel, telling of how the Word of the Lord spoke to him and sent him with a message of God’s judgement on the people of Israel: “The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, set your face toward Jerusalem and preach against the sanctuaries; prophecy against the land of Israel.” Set your face.
A bunch of the English translations say that Jesus “resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” Resolutely. Like my father who would announce in the first few minutes of a car trek across the PA Turnpike from Pittsburgh to the shore: “Don’t drink too much because we’re only stopping at Breezewood!” Or the well-worn business traveler who steels herself time after time with the same routine, same headphones, same face way before even getting to the TSA line. Resolutely. For Jesus, it had to be more than “resolutely.” He wasn’t even going to the easiest, quickest, most common way down from Galilee to Jerusalem. If he just wanted to get there, resolutely, he would have gone along the Jordan River like everyone else.
But he took them down through Samaria. Luke tells that “they did not receive him because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” They knew his face was set. Maybe those messengers who went ahead just came in shouting: “Jesus is coming and his face is set for Jerusalem!” Or maybe there were signs, “Jerusalem or bust!” It’s not like they would been wearing special clothes for the festival once they got to Jerusalem, if there were such a thing. They still had a long way to go! Maybe it is that simple, they just told everybody where they were going. Or maybe… it’s a whole lot more insidious than that, this Jews and Samaritan thing.
The animosity, the mistrust, the arguments, the disagreements, how many generations now? The northern-southern distaste for one another. The Samaritans believed the holiest of temples was there in the north, at Mt. Gerizim. Think Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John 4: “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” For the Jews, it was all about Jerusalem. This rivalry, this feud, this hatred and bitterness, it’s more like an intramural, almost in-house drama, a theological-geographical disagreement that’s deep in the blood. Not between one faith and another. Not like early Christians and the pagans, or believers and atheists. Jews and Samaritans; it was all a lot closer than that, a family feud. And you know, sometimes, that can be a whole lot worse. The Samaritans just knew the people in the traveling party were Jewish, and they knew where they were headed, and they didn’t like it one bit.
It’s like an old New Yorker, a Met and Jet fan, running into a long-lost, much younger, second or third cousin twice removed somewhere in one of the boroughs on the morning of baseball’s Opening Day. That distant relative sees the old family member he hasn’t seen in years, and he makes the mistake of unzipping his jacket, showing the jersey, and telling the old man he was going to Yankee Stadium for the game. The young guy, whatever generation he was, was a Yankee fan. He converted. He strayed. It’s not going to be pretty.
No, the Samaritans were not going to receive Jesus ‘because his face was set to go to Jerusalem.” Of course, Jesus knew that. That wasn’t messianic-like knowledge, everybody would have known it. And he still went that more difficult way toward Jerusalem. They still went on to another nearby village. They still stopped in other places along the way. In what comes next in Luke, right in the beginning of chapter 10, Jesus sends seventy followers out in pairs to every town and place where he was going to go along the way. He told them to offer a word of peace on every house and eat what is set before you and heal the sick and announce the kingdom of God is near. If they don’t welcome you, shake off the dust, wipe of the dust that clings to your feet and tell them again that the kingdom of God is near. Then Jesus says to the 70, ‘I tell you, on that day, it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.”
Now Jesus, that sort of sounds like commanding fire to come down from heaven and consume them, right? Which is just what James and John said there at the first stop. Right out of the shoot, when the Samaritans would not receive Jesus and the traveling party to Jerusalem, James and John invoked the memory of the prophet Elijah who more than once commanded fire to come down from heaven. No breathing peace on this house. No going high when they go low. No announcing the kingdom is near and moving on. They went all in for the bitter, bloodthirsty, judgmental, generations old, stereotyped, dividing lines drawn deep within, historic Protestant-Catholic like hate-filled, always trying to demonize what and who is other, family feud.
And Jesus rebuked them. In Luke, a rebuke from Jesus is usually reserved for the demons and the unclean spirits. Just back in chapter 8, when Jesus and disciples were in the boat and the storm blew in, and the disciples got so scared, Luke tells that Jesus “woke up and rebuked the wind the raging waves.” Demons, unclean spirits, and the storm. This is the only time in Luke when Jesus rebukes any of the disciples. In fact, the only other rebuke from Jesus in any of the four gospels directed at the disciples is in Mark when Jesus rebuked Peter who had rebuked Jesus when Jesus was talking about this way to the cross, his suffering and his death.
James and John want revenge on the Samaritans. Jesus rebukes them. James and John want a win, a victory over the Samaritans. Jesus rebukes them. James and John opt for self-righteous judgment and want to decide who is in and who is out, and who is worthy and who is not, their way or the highway. Jesus rebukes them. Because of course, judgement belongs to God alone. It was Jesus who refers to Sodom in his instructions to the 70, not James or John or Peter or the disciples or the 70, or the church fathers, or the Reformers, or the tradition, or this preacher or that. It was Jesus. It was the Apostle Paul who wrote, “Who is in a position to condemn? Only Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right of God, who intercedes for us.” (Rom 8).
James and John take one huge step in the direction of their own judgement and Jesus offers a stark, quick, sharp, unique and pretty much solitary rebuke that should have echoed with a piercing clarity forever and ever down the halls of history in the Christian Church. James and John and their first step into the ever-present, unrelenting, downright sinful judgementalism of Christianity that has haunted the followers of Jesus ever since. The self-absorbed self-righteousness arrogance of James and John and the apparently forgotten there after rebuke of Jesus.
“He set his face to go to Jerusalem”. He is certainly not running away as the days of his suffering and death drew near, the days for him to be taken up. Though he must have thought about it that night in the Garden. And he was more, a lot more then resolute. Yes, his face set with confidence in God’s strength. Yes, his face set with his own selfless determination along the way of the cross, this Lukan beginning to the extended via dolorosa. Yes, his face set with the knowledge like that of an only son, God’s only Son, knowledge of God’s judgment on the broken sinfulness of humankind, a judgment and brokenness that breaks his own heart. His face was set for Jerusalem. ‘This is my body broken my you. This is blood shed for you… for the forgiveness of sins.”
I was sitting in the noon service on Ash Wednesday here in Niles Chapel. I was sitting next to a church member and her young son. Charlie told me after the service he was this old (3 or 4). At one point in worship, Andrew Scales led us in prayer from the communion table. As I started to lean forward, lower my head, and close my eyes, my seat neighbor, she opened her hands in her lap in a posture of prayer. It’s not an uncommon posture for prayer but it struck me because that’s how my wife Cathy holds her hands in prayer. Then I thought about how infrequent Cathy and get to worship together next to each other. Before I could nudge myself back to Andrew’s offering of that prayer before the Lord’s Supper, little Charlie leaned over and buried his head in his mother’s hands open for prayer. He set his face right in her hands. He set his face right in her prayer. A child’s face buried in the prayer and unconditional love of his mother as all three of us were about to taste and see the unconditional love and grace of God in Christ Jesus. It was beautiful.
There must have been some of that in Jesus setting his face to Jerusalem; Confident in God’s strength. Selfless determination. An awareness of humanity’s plight and the healing salve of his dying love. All of that, along with burying himself in the hands of God, the unconditional love and grace of God. He set his face. And here at this Table, Christ himself offers you this beautiful invitation, to just bury your face, your whole self in his unconditional love and grace.
I don’t know about you, but some days, maybe most days, I’m right there with James and John on that first step of the ever-present, unrelenting, downright sinful judgementalism of my Christian faith and the only thing I know to do, maybe the only thing we can do, the most healing, repentant, transforming thing we can do, is to throw ourselves in the open hands of our Savior.
My body broken for you.
My blood shed for you.
For the forgiveness of sins.