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LSB Proper 8C Sermon – Luke 9:51-62

June 28, 2016

June 26, 2016 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA

“When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem.”

In today’s readings, you heard about two different reactions from people who are facing opposition. The primary comparison is once again between Elijah and Jesus. You saw a comparison between these two several Sundays ago, when the accounts of resurrections—the raising of the Widow of Zarephath’s son by Elijah and the raising of the Widow of Nain’s son by Jesus—were read. It makes sense to hear such comparisons, since Elijah is one of the chief prophets of the Old Testament and serves as a type of Jesus—the greatest of all prophets.

Recall how the Old Testament Reading began. The LORD confronts Elijah, His prophet who had run away from the nation of Israel. The LORD addresses His prophet: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” As you may know from the Scriptures, such questions from the LORD are not typically positive in nature. No, they are ways that the LORD begins a rebuke or corrective. His questions are meant to expose unrighteousness and error.

Responding to the LORD’s questions, Elijah attempts to justify his actions: “I have been very jealous for the LORD, the God of hosts. For the people of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and killed Your prophets with the sword, and I, even I only, am left, and they seek my life, to take it away.” Elijah explains that he has fled from Israel because of Israel’s reaction after the great challenge that took place between him and the prophets of Baal. Even after Baal was shown to be a non-power in that challenge, the leaders of Israel were still zealous worshipers of the false god. Their zeal was being demonstrated by seeking to take the life of Elijah.

But when the LORD hears His prophet’s explanation, He does not leave Elijah there in the cave. He will not have Elijah abandon his calling as a prophet. Instead, the LORD gives a new assignment: “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus. And when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael to be king over Syria. And Jehu the son of Nimshi you shall anoint to be king over Israel, and Elisha the son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah you shall anoint to be prophet in your place. And the one who escapes from the sword of Hazael shall Jehu put to death, and the one who escapes from the sword of Jehu shall Elisha put to death. Yet I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him.” The LORD will have His faithful people. The LORD will put an end to the Baal worship in Israel. The LORD will have His prophets complete their duties.

Moving forward through the centuries, a similar event is seen in Jesus’ life. He had been transfigured in the sight of Peter, James, and John, revealing His divine glory. But Jesus drops the reality of what awaits Him: “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” So what does Jesus do? How does He react to this? Unlike Elijah, Jesus doesn’t run to the hills and hide in a cave. He doesn’t focus on the fact that many in Israel were not receiving Him or forsaking the divine covenant. Instead, the Gospel Writer tells us: “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem.”

That verse from Luke’s Gospel is pivotal to understanding Jesus’ work. It speaks to Jesus’ steadfastness in carrying out His mission as the Messiah. That mission included offering the necessary sacrifice for the atonement of mankind’s sin. This would be demanded of Jesus. It would come through the hands of men. The leaders of Israel would conspire against Him and turn Him over to pagans. His work would include moments of great agony. But in the face of all that, “[Jesus] set His face to go to Jerusalem.” He does so, entrusting His fate to the LORD, just as the psalmist writes: “I have set the LORD always before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For You will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let Your holy one see corruption.”

But notice how the Gospel Reading did not end with the statement about Jesus’ steadfastness. There was further teaching about what is expected of those who would follow Jesus. He speaks to disciples whom He calls. When laying out the life of discipleship, Jesus hides nothing about the less attractive side of that life. Some of His statements are well known; they all speak to the demands of discipleship: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head…. Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God…. No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Jesus’ words are stark. They identify hurdles that would keep people from following Him. Those hurdles might not be as drastic as what Elijah faced, but they are hurdles nonetheless. Not having a permanent place of residence and leaving behind family are daunting. And Jesus is very blunt about people who may start to follow as disciples, but then choose to think back on their previous lives: they aren’t fit for His kingdom.

When Jesus’ words are considered, the situations that He describes are what He Himself faced. The hurdles to completing His mission were plentiful, including personally facing temptation from Satan to short circuit the entire enterprise. But in the face of those hurdles, what does Jesus do? You heard it: “When the days drew near for Him to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem.” In so doing, Jesus shows Himself to be fit for the kingdom of God. But even more importantly, Jesus shows Himself to be the One through whom others are made fit for the kingdom.

That fact must not be lost, particularly when listening to Jesus’ teaching. Think back on Elijah. He was a prophet. He was bold. He declared the LORD as supreme in the face of great opposition. And yet, even he fell victim to putting the hand to the plow and looking back. But when the LORD confronted Elijah, which was more than just pointing out Elijah’s error but also bringing His word of promise to the prophet, then Elijah could go forward again. Divine intervention allowed it, even if the LORD’s word came to Elijah in the sound of a low whisper.

The same is true for those who would follow Jesus now. None of us in this room would claim a greater status than Elijah—and rightly so! Honestly thinking on our own lives, we can identify the hurdles that we have tripped over during our walks of discipleship. And the verdict is correct: none are fit for the kingdom of God. That is what the LORD’s word points out to us, when in the midst of our sin—including backsliding—we are asked: “What are you doing here?”

Like Elijah, we have had our divine confrontations. The LORD has brought His words to us, both the word that points out our errors and the word that brings His Spirit and power to us. And that makes all the difference. That delivers the merits of Jesus’ steadfastness to us, what He earned by setting His face and going to Jerusalem. Through that divine confrontation, we are once again made fit for the kingdom of God.

In the Epistle Reading, you got to hear an expansion on this idea in Paul’s statements about the two different ways of living: “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” Paul notes the way of living opposite of discipleship: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.” This is a long list of what it can look like when a person starts to live as a Christian, but then completely falls back. And the warning is given: “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

But the apostle also speaks of what happens when the LORD’s word that carries His Spirit is brought to Jesus’ followers: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” This is what happens when Jesus again makes His disciples fit for the kingdom of God. It is the effect of having the LORD address us again, just as He has done on this day.

So we can hear the accounts of those who faced opposition. We can listen to what was said about Elijah and know that this describes our lives, including how the LORD works among us. But we can know that is all due to what Jesus did when He was faced with the hurdles placed in His way: “When the days drew near for Him to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus went to Jerusalem. He went to the cross and grave. He has risen. He completed His mission. That is how He opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. And when Jesus’ merits are given to us as His word of promise is spoken and the Spirit is received, we are again made fit for the kingdom of God.

+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

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