Bulletin is here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This is the point at which a person might begin to reconsider: Do I really want to follow Jesus? This is the point, the pivot, on which the Gospel of Luke turns, Luke 9:51, when Jesus sets His face to go to Jerusalem. He resolves, He sets His face, to go to Jerusalem, which means He sets His face to go to the cross, to certain death. So a person might reconsider at this point: do I really want to follow this Jesus? Impending death has a way of focusing one’s attention, don’t you find? In this case, Jesus’ impending death doesn’t focus His attention. He was always focused. He has been on this road from the moment of His conception; from the manger to the cross, He has been following this road. He never swerves to the left or to the right. He has always been focused. No, in this case, Jesus’ impending death focuses the attention of those who are following Him. And we need to be refocused continually. It is hard to be focused day after day after day, in the face of the mundane tasks of life that we have been given to do. It’s hard to focus on what is essential and necessary in life, and we certainly have no lack of distractions. And it’s not going to get easier. Distractions are becoming more numerous, not less. Don’t get me wrong, there have always been distractions for Christians, pulling our attention away from Christ and His Word. Now there are simply many more technological means for those distractions to come near to us. But let’s be clear: the problem is not in the distractions themselves, it’s in our sinful flesh, which is happy to be distracted and pulled away from Christ and His Word. If it weren’t technology, it would be something else. The things that distract us are never going away in this life. So we need Jesus to pull us back onto the road, pull us back to Himself.
And death has a way of doing that. Imagine if you were told that you only had a week to live. Suddenly, things that seemed very important before would fade into the background, and things that didn’t seem as important would become that much more important. For the Christian, what is essential and necessary is Jesus. And your impending death would focus your attention. But what if, after that week was over, the doctor said, oops, we made a mistake, you’re fine. Your life goes on just as everyone else’s does. You might be able to retain the focus for a while, but it is likely that, eventually, life would go back to pretty much what it was before.
Consider the disciples after Jesus’ ascension. They were focused, they knew what they had to do, and they knew what was essential. But after their deaths, the Church has to go on, and Christians have to live in the world. Without crisis, controversy, or the nearness of death or the return of Christ, life goes on day after day after day, and it’s hard to retain that focus. We have trouble praying, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus” day after day after day for years and years. It’s not a yearly struggle, it’s a daily one for Christians: the daily struggle of the Holy Spirit of God against our sinful flesh, putting it to death day after day, and raising us to life in Christ alone.
But the difficulty of retaining that focus on Christ and His death and resurrection becomes apparent in how foreign and harsh Jesus’ words in Luke 9 sound to us. Someone says he wants to follow Jesus, and Jesus says, “You’ll be homeless, just like I am.” He tells someone else to follow Him, and the man says, “Let me go bury my father.” Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another says, “I’ll follow You. Just let me go and put my house in order.” Jesus says, “Anyone who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.” Jesus draws a line, but it’s not a line in the sand. It’s a line in the bedrock of existence, in the bedrock of human life. On one side is Jesus, and on the other side is everything else. On one side is Life, and on the other side is death. You can’t have both. You can’t serve two masters. Your life or Jesus’ life. The one who tries to hang on and save his life in this world will lose it, but the one who loses his life in this world for Jesus’ sake will save it. And the one who looks back to the things left behind is not fit for the kingdom of God. Not fit like salt that has lost its saltiness, which is not fit for anything. Like the pillar of salt that used to be Lot’s wife, who looked back to her old life in Sodom.
In Genesis 19, God had sent messengers—angels—to Lot and his family to get them out of the city that was going to be destroyed, and the angels told them not to look to the things left behind. This isn’t a Medusa situation, where, in the Greek myth, if someone looks at her, the person turns to stone. The problem isn’t in the literal looking at the city, because Abraham does the same thing and he doesn’t turn to salt. The issue is that she looks back with longing; she desires what is left behind and being destroyed.
And that is what Jesus is talking about in Luke 9. Notice what He does: He sends messengers ahead of His face, which is set toward Jerusalem. The Greek word for “messenger” is where we get the English word “angel.” Jesus sends angels—messengers—before Him, to proclaim the Kingdom of God, the end of this age come within the age itself. Destruction is coming; the things of this age and this creation are coming to an end. But Jesus isn’t the destruction of God. He is not coming to bring fire from heaven to destroy like Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed. That much is clear because James and John think they’ve got the point of Jesus’ coming, and so they ask Him if He wants them to call down fire from heaven to destroy the Samaritans who reject Jesus. But Jesus rebukes them, and they go on down the road to Jerusalem. Jesus is not the destruction of God; He is the salvation of God for those who are in the midst of what is going to be destroyed. He is the salvation of all people like the town of Zoar was salvation for Lot and his daughters.
But when Lot and his daughters are safely in Zoar, Genesis 19:29 says something strange. It says, “God remembered Abraham, and delivered Lot from the catastrophe/destruction/overthrow that came upon the city.” God remembered Abraham. Because God had made a promise to Abraham, and so everyone who is attached to Abraham is saved, too. Jesus is the fulfillment of that promise to Abraham, and now, the way you get delivered from the catastrophe of sin and death is to be attached to Jesus. To be saved from your death, you need to be joined to Jesus’ death, and so He does exactly that in Holy Baptism. And so God remembers Jesus, the fulfillment of His promise to Abraham, and He delivers you from the catastrophe that has come upon this world.
In His own body, Jesus brings an end to this age, to this creation subject to sin, death, and the rule of the devil. The wrath of God is poured out completely and Jesus is consumed. But when He rises from the dead, a new age, a new creation, a resurrection is begun. And we, who can only see the old creation, the old age, the destruction of sin and death, and our daily struggle with our sinful flesh, we need Jesus’ life. We need Him just as much as we did last week, just as much as we did a year ago, just as much as we did when we were first baptized and first believed. We need to be focused always again by Jesus death and resurrection.
But hear me clearly: this is not a sermon about how you need to put your priorities back in order. In other words, it’s not a sermon about how you and I have put other things in that number 1 place, and now we need to put Jesus back there. This is a sermon about how, in everything we do, in everything we are, we live in and from Jesus. We have been crucified with Christ, and our true life is hidden in Christ with God by faith. And yet, daily the cross is laid upon us. So going to church on Sunday is not about putting Jesus first, whatever that might mean. It is about the Body of Christ living always from Christ, her head. It’s not like putting a list in order; it’s like lungs inhaling and exhaling. It’s like a heart pumping blood throughout the entire living body. We come in to where Christ has promised to give us His life in Word and Sacrament, and then we go out in that life into the world where we live in love toward our neighbors. We are always in Christ; He is our life, and in His Words and Body and Blood, He refreshes us very literally with His saving death and resurrection. As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes. And that death has a way of focusing our attention, week after week after week, so that we live by faith in Him and in love toward our neighbor, in the daily tasks of our vocation.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7).
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 6/25/16