Reflectionary

He Set His Face Toward Jerusalem

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

This lovely verse, found in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, is sung by a little hobbit, Frodo Baggins, as he journeys with his friends. It is a song of setting out from home, from the familiar, to seek what has been put in front of us, the unfamiliar and possibly dangerous. The hobbits are gentle creatures, about three feet high, and they are going out into a world filled with goblins and an evil wizard and armies fighting under the influence of an unspeakably dark force. Frodo gives his friends more than one chance to stay safely at home, but they continue on with him. He undertakes his hero’s journey, and his friends find they each have one as well.

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. (Luke 9:51)

In Luke’s gospel we read the story of a journey beginning, of the hero’s resolve to face whatever lies ahead, and of his attitude both toward those who will accompany him and those who will not. The passage begins a major section of the gospel, for although the beginning words make it sound as if the road is short to Jerusalem, in literary terms we are still ten chapters away: many towns, many dinner tables and much teaching lie between this introduction to the journey and its completion later. This story comes soon after Jesus speaks to the disciples about his death, and Luke is setting up a framework—all that comes in this next section is not only part of Jesus’ physical journey to the city of Jerusalem, but also his spiritual journey to the New Jerusalem, to God’s new kingdom, to the destination God calls him to reach. We know it is not just his death to which he travels, although something about the phrase “setting his face” suggests stoicism in the face of ultimate danger and suffering. Perhaps he did not know himself just what lay ahead; that is an argument scholars are still having almost 2000 years later.

We read that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem; he steeled himself to meet whatever might lie ahead. But the journey on which he sets out is meandering, to put it mildly. If you were to draw it out on a map, it would be hard to make the case the Jesus was traveling straight to his destiny. It’s not just about going forward; it’s about going deeper. Imagine setting out for Portland from Augusta, and taking a route that included Harpswell and Lewiston and Sebago Lake and Scarborough along the way. You wouldn’t get to your destination quickly, but there would be time along the journey to share and to learn and to mature. But first you have to decide if it’s a journey you want to undertake.

The energy around Jesus was attractive to many people, but not to all. We find ourselves first outside a Samaritan village, a place where he was not welcomed. We read that he was not welcome because his face was set toward Jerusalem. Last week we read the story of the healing of the demoniac and the fearful reaction of the townspeople when confronted with Jesus in his power. Here he doesn’t even do anything, but still his power and purpose are palpable and awe-inspiring. Although his disciples would like to behave like prophets of the Hebrew Bible and rain down fire and destruction on the town, Jesus rebukes them. That is not the way he has come to use his power.

And so they move on down the road to the next village, no doubt shaking the dust from their feet as Jesus had instructed them to do. Where the message is not welcome, he taught them, just keep moving. And don’t stop to punish people who can’t make the trip with us.

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.” (Luke 9:57-58)

While we might happily send our young people out to build a career by roughing it at first, how would we feel if they took off after a prophet? Would we worry that a cult had captivated them? In college I knew a girl who was seduced by a cult. They insisted that she get a job and took all the money she earned; meanwhile, she began to flunk out of school, because between the cult activities and the work at a pizza place, there was no time to study. No one warned her about the potential outcome of her commitment. But Jesus is right out front about it. “This is not a campaign internship, friend. You will not be traveling on a luxury bus, or flying on a plane, or networking at cocktail parties. Foxes have holes, and birds have their nests, but we may not be welcome anywhere.” I wonder if that person followed him? I wonder if we would?

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.” (Luke 9:59-60)

Well, now. Of all the hard things Jesus is thought to have said, that’s probably the hardest one. Let the dead bury the dead. What does he mean? Are we spiritually dead if we take the time to mourn? I probably had never felt as spiritually alive as I did after my mother’s death in 1993. The intensity of our connection in the last months and especially in the last days of her life put me in touch with the beauty of the place she was going when she left us, and it did it in a way I never would have imagined. But suppose we consider another possibility. Suppose this man’s father is not dead; suppose he is not even ill. Suppose the man is saying, “I am responsible for my parents as long as they are living; when I have finished caring for them, then I want to follow you.” That’s different, isn’t it? Jesus is warning against being so enmeshed in our family relationships that we can’t go on the journey at all, that we cannot fulfill our own destinies—that we cannot respond to God’s call in our lives. Jesus is not denigrating our family connections or responsibilities; he is making the point that as valuable as they are, God’s claim on us takes a higher priority.

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 9:61-62)

Here I think Jesus is warning about being stuck in the past, about being mired in nostalgia. Sometimes, in fact often, we have no idea what our destination is, and it would be tempting to spend a little more time saying goodbye before we hit the road, reminiscing about the good old days, but Jesus tells us to get on with it. That takes courage, a lot of courage. Things that formed us sometimes must be left behind if we are to live out God’s purpose. Early last week, I had a dream about Court Street Baptist, my church home as a little girl. In it, I was visiting with the minister and his wife, who arrived there just before I was born, as a very young couple, and who are very near to retirement now. They were a powerful influence on me, and it was my love for the wife in particular that got me thinking when I was just a tiny girl that I wanted to be the minister’s wife when I grew up! He continues to minister in that loving church that wakened in me what I later realized was a call to ministry. Now here I am looking back, when Jesus has told us not to do it! Here’s my point. As wonderful as that church was for me, staying there and remaining a Southern Baptist would have made it impossible for me to fulfill my calling, for they still do not ordain women to the ministry. I would still be waiting and trying to figure out some other way to live out my calling. But if we wait to please everyone else we may never have the chance to please God.

These three contacts Jesus has on the road teach us his attitudes toward past, present and future. He asks us, if we are going to choose to follow, to be his disciples, to accept a rigorous future, to trust in the present that if we follow him the domestic details will sort out by themselves, and to make sure we are not stuck in the past, venerating ways or relationships that will keep us from moving out ahead with Jesus. Even Elijah let Elisha go home and say goodbye! But we are being asked to do something harder. Will we set our faces for Jerusalem, for whatever manifestation of God’s New Kingdom we are being called to bring about? Jesus makes it clear that we have a choice.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

Let us go out then, and pursue the road with eager feet.

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