Our gospel reading represents a turning point for Jesus. His early ministry is over. Now he turns toward Jerusalem. Twice in this short passage, we read, “he set his face toward Jerusalem.” He is making a turn in the road, and he is setting his face toward an almost certain, terrible death.
A question is implied: Can the disciples, can we for that matter, make that turn in the road with him? As Jesus resolutely turns toward Jerusalem, he turns to his disciples and speaks of the perils of responding to his invitation “Follow me.”
Jesus turned and went to Jerusalem when he could have gone to Galilee. These are places on a map; but in many ways, they are also places in one’s soul. Galilee is out in the hinterland. Jesus came from Galilee, a place of simple, rural people, home, and safety. He spent most of his earthly
life there without attracting the world’s notice. And while the word Jerusalem means “peace,” it did not mean peace for Jesus. It was a seething cauldron of blood and death.
While Luke’s gospel doesn’t mention it, Mark’s gospel says that when Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, his disciples were “amazed.” They sensed what awaited him there. When Jesus set off toward Jerusalem, his friends were also said to be “afraid.” Afraid for him; afraid for themselves—those milling, thronging crowds in Jerusalem whipped into a frenzy by the coming celebration of Passover. Just a spark, a too passionate sermon, a wrong word here or there, and the whole thing would burst into chaos and danger.
Two words we almost never put in close proximity are struggle and spirituality. Spirituality has, for some reason, come to mean what you feel when you are at peace. “I am attempting to engage in spirituality,” one might say, “to become more centered.” Yes, that is a function of faith, to be more centered, stable. If I asked you why you come to church, many of you would say, “I come for the peace and calming of the nerves. I have stresses in my life. The ambience of this place and the music and the prayers help me settle down and be at peace.”
Luke says it was not so with Jesus. In Galilee there was time for quiet walks along the lane and meditations delivered under an olive tree. But, when he got to Jerusalem he flipped over the tables in the Temple. He prayed with great drops of sweat like blood and white knuckles in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his betrayal. The word is struggle. He didn’t want to go; but he knew he had to go. As he would later say, “Thy will be done.” So then the word was obedience.
To the end it was struggle, and it was obedience, bowing before, submission to, an unknown, unseen future, laying it all in God’s hands. No wonder his followers were amazed, or afraid, to release their tomorrow out of their controlling hands and into God’s hands. And it was about then, before the week was over in Jerusalem that another word broke in upon them, opening up struggle and obedience. Let’s call that word love. I think that the greatest sacrifices, the largest risks, the greatest ventures in the world are undertaken only in the name of love.
Biologists tell us that our strongest drive at birth is self-preservation. But if we are fortunate, as we grow, and other lives touch ours, birth is given to a higher drive, a much more noble virtue. It is the source of the best that we do where struggle and obedience melt and we are most truly who we are created to be. The word amid the betrayal and the blood and the suffering of this week before Jesus is ultimately a triumphant one…love.
The great English preacher, author and lecturer George Arthur Buttrick told the following story in a sermon at Duke University Chapel in 1961: (It reminds me of stories we heard after 9/11.)
“Some years ago there was a newspaper account of two men coming down a factory staircase and of one of them flinging the lighted end of a cigarette into what he thought was a fire bucket filled with water. The water proved to be gasoline. There was a sudden spurt of flame. And one youth instinctively ran downstairs to save his skin. The other, just as instinctively, ran upstairs to warn the people working in the factory floor above him.”
Which self takes over in such a time? The downstairs self? Or the upstairs self? The Galilee self? Or the Jerusalem self? When love goes to its deepest level, it tends to become sacrificial. Love is the deepest love when it is given away on behalf of others. Jesus went to Jerusalem, into the breach, into the fray, for love.
For you and me, this morning, there are two roads, as we heed Jesus’ call to serve him, to love God and our neighbor, no matter what: one north to Galilee, one south to Jerusalem. The Lord calls each member of the church to join him in his ministry of reconciliation. Our call is to build up Christ’s body, and not tear it down. However, just like the people in today’s gospel, we often place personal conditions on obedience to that call.
“I’ll get involved in church, but I’ve got other things to do now; I’m too busy.” Or, “I’ll help out with that project, but I don’t like the way they’re running it.” Or, “I won’t give to the church because I’m mad about this or that.” You know what I’m talking about. In other words, “God, I’m certainly willing to serve you—just as soon as you show the world that my personal beliefs and values totally sum up your truth.”
Kathleen Norris has written something to the effect that you know when you and God are on the same page when you realize that God hates all the same people you do. Doesn’t sound like obedience. Rather, it’s struggle that gives in to slavery to self-centeredness.
Paul exhorts us in Galatians to live by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16)—that is to be unconditionally obedient to the Spirit’s call to us to follow Jesus and do his will. It’s not about laws or rules—rather, it’s about struggle, obedience…and finally, great love, by exercising the gifts of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, kindness, patience, generosity. The opposite of the gifts of the Spirit are works of the flesh, as listed in our reading: those attitudes and behaviors that show anything but the love of God in us.
Friends, Jesus calls us today and every day. Yes, it’s about struggle, obedience, and finally great love, but it quite possibly might also mean sacrifice. However, we find as we answer his call, no matter where it takes us, there is nothing better. Anything less, and we won’t find our true joy or our purpose. And, as Jesus calls us to walk with him, obediently fulfilling God’s will for our lives, we’ll sometimes have to go the narrow, uncertain way to Jerusalem, instead of laid back, easy going Galilee.
Which self will respond: the works of the flesh self, or the gifts of the Spirit self; the downstairs self, or the upstairs self; the Galilee self, or the Jerusalem self?
- Adapted from “He Set His Face to Jerusalem” by William H. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, Vol. 35, No. 3, 2007 (Logos
Productions, Inc., Grove Heights, MN).
- “Unconditional Discipleship,” The Living Church, July 1, 2007 (Living Church Foundation, Milwaukee, WI), p. 4.
- Synthesis, Proper 8—Year C, July 1, 2007 (Sedgwick Publishing Co., Boyds, MD).