Roger brings cultural context to a challenging and confusing exchange with Jesus and shows how it applies to our new year plans.
Meeting Jesus Along the Way
As they were walking along the road ….
That is a phrase we encounter throughout the gospels … you see, Jesus was always on the road.
It is natural at this time of year to look back to try to make sense of the past year.
What is my 2019 balance sheet?
What did I lose, what did I gain?
But today’s text reminds us that Jesus does not have a lot of patience with “looking back” questions.
That’s because Jesus is always moving, always on the way.
The Luke 9 narrative that Terry read is not as disjointed from the Nativity of last Tuesday evening as we might first think, and it is an important message as we look ahead to the New Year … yikes, the new decade!
The words of Away in a Manger are still fresh on our lips when we sang the little Lord Jesus had no crib for a bed but only a barn floor to lay down his sweet head.
Actually, the birth of Jesus is about God journeying.
But Jesus isn’t a vagabond; he came with a mission to intervene in a world that had grown dark and destructive.
Hebrews 1: 1-2 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days God has spoken to us by God’s Son … appointed heir of all things, and through whom God made the universe.
Maybe you share my frustration with people who don’t return my phone calls or texts.
I don’t call people willy-nilly – I have a reason to talk, and if people can’t bother to call me back after several attempts I have this immature impulse to delete them from my contacts.
I don’t, but you know the feeling.
All of human history is an attempt, at God’s initiative, to enter into a dialogue with humanity.
God has left countless texts and voice mails to help us in our searching, in our desperation, and even in our despair.
But we’ve been too busy or preoccupied to answer or even pay attention to God’s calls.
When God sent prophets as messengers to engage us, we ignored them, rejected them, and killed more than a few of them.
If I were God, I might have just deleted humanity from my contacts and worked with others who would at least talk with me.
But instead, God decided to try a different approach by personally getting up close and personal with us.
So, through Jesus, God left the comforts of heaven and journeyed to us … this time as a vulnerable baby born on a barn floor.
In fact, Jesus never did find rest until he was laid in the tomb.
(In) Today’s passage, Jesus’ ministry is in full swing as he continues his journey toward Jerusalem when three people consider joining him.
The first man promises to follow Jesus wherever he goes, and Jesus replies enigmatically about foxes and birds having places to call home:
Luke 9:58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Most likely, this enthusiastic man had not been with Jesus earlier when Jesus predicted his death and told his disciples that he would be “rejected and despised”,
or when he had been rejected by Samaritans.
Apparently, he withdrew his application after he realized the commitment of full discipleship.
The second man says that he wants to sign up, but later, when the time is right.
In the Ancient Near East, the first son’s responsibility to honor his parents at burial was both commanded and so important that failing to do so was unthinkable.
Not doing so would alienate him from his family for the rest of his life.
We know that his father had not just died, because in that case, he would be at home with family grieving, not out greeting Jesus – so he is buying time.
It may be that the real issue here is that leaving before his father’s death would likely cost him his inheritance.
So, Jesus replies, (vs. 9:60) “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
Here is another example of Jesus setting a high bar for discipleship: disciples are to follow Jesus here, now, and always regardless of when and where.
And, you can’t worship Jesus on Sunday but then cheat, lie, gossip, horde money, or be a racist or closet homophobe on Monday.
Jesus often used hyperbole or absurdity to make his point, which he does here.
This was most likely heard as, “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead”.
Others, who had not come alive to the arrival of the Kingdom through Jesus,
could discharge such duties – but those who responded to the call of discipleship are no longer dead.
If you’re not dead yet then what do you do?
Jesus continues, “But as for you, go and proclaim the Kingdom of God.”
That’s what people do who are really alive and following Jesus.
Finally, the third person wants to follow Jesus but only after saying farewell to his family.
I had always thought that Jesus was being a real “stick in the mud” by declining his simple request.
Well, as it turns out, this is a highly symbolic moment lost to modern readers who aren’t as familiar with Hebrew scripture as Jesus’ crowd.
In this moment, Jesus contrasts himself with the prophets who preceded him.
In 1Kings 19 Elijah calls young Elisha to take his mantle of prophet.
Elisha was plowing a field at the time, but when he asks permission to first go home Elijah grants his request.
Jesus does not.
There’s a new messiah in town.
Luke 9:62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
Following Jesus may require breaking from social norms and the ways of the past.
No one can plow a straight line while looking backward.
Taken together, these three encounters show the radical message of Jesus.
He’s not asking the three to choose him over the devil.
Rather, he’s asking them to choose him over what is already good in life – things like security and family.
On a personal level, to move forward in 2020, we have to let go of doubts, resentments, and regrets from 2019.
Some of us have grown comfortable with those familiar doubts, resentments, and regrets.
Some of us have an easier time rehashing past hurts than investing in the risk and effort to follow Jesus to a higher call.
It’s one thing to reflect on our past to learn from our mistakes and take lessons from experiences.
But it’s never helpful to lug the emotional baggage of failure, shame or betrayal forward.
I’m not thin enough, smart enough, successful enough … all those shadowy thoughts will nag at you forever until you face them, pray against them, and let them go.
As long we allow ourselves to remain anchored to some failure, some hurt, or some “if only I’d” we grow smaller, bitter and inflexible
That’s because those hurts slowly define who we are, give us excuses not to grow … and if we are honest, some of them energize our demons that cause us to act our worst.
And this is true as a nation as well.
As a society, some of us have to let go of nostalgic illusions of when “America was great”.
Those illusions are part of what’s powering the resistance to moving forward as a more inclusive society.
With little sense of history, people float the vague concept that in the 1950s and 60s families were happy, everyone had secure jobs, crime hardly existed and the nation was united under one faith and respect of the flag.
Like all times, the past was a mixture of good and bad.
It is also true that in the 1950s and 60s men could beat their wives with impunity, women were largely limited to sales clerk or secretarial positions, Billy club-wielding police raided gay bars, and a large swath of America was segregated with laws enforced by police and Klan.
Jesus was walking with people then, inspiring many Christians to risk and sacrifice to lead us to a more open and just society … which in some ways is better than then, but still deeply tainted by human sin.
We’re not in heaven yet.
The question is not whether society is marred with sin; it was then it is now.
The question Jesus poses is how we live in our flawed world today, and how (what) we do that helps determine the kind of world our children and grandchildren will inherit.
And, how we live in this flawed world determines our character – either becoming more fearful and bitter or following Jesus along the way to live with purpose and integrity in the midst of it all.
As we enter 2020, Jesus is with us both personally and as Christians embracing his call to work, risk and sacrifice for social justice.
With each of the people in today’s narrative, Jesus contrasted one of the most ingrained values of their culture and relegated it, not just to a secondary role, but to an irrelevant one.
Along the way, Jesus may meet you at your first job or to(at) your retirement party, your first college dorm or at your retirement home, but he is always there walking with you … hoping you will just fall into step with him.
Each year Jesus will ask you to let go of something else that you are carrying because it is too heavy and is weighing you down.
That’s why Jesus cautions “Don’t look back!”
It will only make the journey harder.
After the recent rains, I hiked up a nearby trail, I and found the way was muddy and quite slippery in places.
With each step, the hike became harder as my boots became heavier with mud, and each step became more treacherous as I lost the grip of my soles as their tread became mud-slick.
Every once in awhile, I had to stop, find a rock or a stick and scrape the accumulated mud out of the tread of my boots.
To journey along the way with Jesus we have to do the same – scrape away the mud of our past.
But something else happened as I did this.
The trail was windy and quite chilly but pausing for a moment I was struck by the beauty of the trail, and even in my panting, I could realize the gift of each breath.
As we prepare for a new year, those are the things I want us to consider.
What do we need to let go of to travel with God next year?
What disappointments? What grudges? What rose-colored memories?
What can we do in the coming months to remind ourselves that the path we walk – even when it gets muddy or treacherous – is a gift and that it is traveled along sacred ground?
What are just one or two things I can do in the coming months that will show honor to God, using the gifts and passions that He’s entrusted to me to express the best of myself?