I Kings 19:19-21
Almost everyone has a cell phone – I hope yours is switched off during church. People our age(s) usually use the phone for talking, but we have all heard that our kids or grandkids prefer to send text messages.
Experts tell us that texting while driving is dangerously distracting. They even say that we drive worse while texting than while under the influence of alcohol. Most young people simply don’t believe that, so they continue to drive distracted. No surprise: lots of people still drive under the influence of alcohol as well, despite the statistics.
Perhaps we are in denial on both counts. As long as nothing happens to us, we continue to challenge the experts and ask, “What’s the big deal?” Well, is it a big deal or not? Are the people who keep preaching doom merely alarmist?
I got to thinking about distracted driving because of todays’s gospel text – first for one reason, then for another. The first reason is the sharp warning Jesus gave to anyone who would attempt distracted plowing:
62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
You can just see an old-time farmer walking behind a plow animal holding the two handles of the plow, guiding it into the earth. It looks like miserably difficult work. It also seems hard to imagine plowing in a straight line. Certainly trying to do it looking back at the farm house would mean failure. Might as well be trying to text.
The other reason is that as I was thinking about the similarities between distracted driving and distracted plowing, I thought about the level of the warnings against both of them. They seem disproportionate and alarmist to us. We don’t really believe we will get anybody killed by simply texting while driving. We don’t really believe that metaphorical plowing while looking back makes a person unfit for the kingdom of God; perhaps it makes them less successful; but “unfit”? It seems a bit harsh.
Cause for alarm – then and now
But then as I continued to reflect on this text from Luke, I began to see more. I realized that there was cause for alarm that was real in Jesus’ day, and so the alarm needed to be sounded in a loud way. And as I thought about our context and our times, I came to the conclusion that this text sounds a powerful and crucial alarm for us today as well. So, let us walk through it together.
The Journey to Jerusalem starts Here
This is Luke chapter 9 which begins Jesus long journey from Galilee in the North to Jerusalem. The story that starts here will culminate in what we know as “the triumphal entry” on Palm Sunday. This is where that trip begins.
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
What a strange and awkward way to say it! “To be taken up” – sounds like Jesus is expecting Elijah’s fiery chariot any day. And the odd words, “set his face to go” – sounds like the ancient prophet Ezekiel who wrote that the Lord told him “son of man, set your face against Jerusalem” for judgment is coming. (Ezek. 6:2)
We are right to hear the echoes of Israel’s story coming back to us in this text – there will be more – especially echoes of the great prophet Elijah and his successor, Elisha. In fact Luke is purposefully setting this story of Jesus in the context of the story of Israel because it is actually part of the same story.
In fact, the point here is that this story has come to its climax. These are not normal days, these are days of culmination of a plot that has a long history but that is finally taking a decisive turn. How does Luke make his point?
As Jesus embarks on the journey to Jerusalem, along the way, several incidents happen which all share a common theme: people getting it wrong. They think, or do, or say the wrong thing, and must be corrected.
Samaria: “us and them”
First there is the issue of traveling down from Galilee through Samaria. Jesus sent out messengers ahead of him to let the people know to expect him – since they couldn’t just text-message them – but the Samaritans balk. Jesus is going to Jerusalem where the Jew’s temple is, not to the Samaritan temple, so they give him the cold shoulder. They had missed the point of who Jesus was, and got it wrong.
Well, Jesus’ much-offended disciples remember what happened in Samaria when people gave the prophet Elijah trouble: he called fire down from heaven and consumed them (2 Kings 1:10-12).
The disciples ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” – but no, this is getting it wrong again.
55 But he turned and rebuked them.
The 3 Almost-Followers
Then there are a series of three people who each get it wrong – to their surprise – about following Jesus.
The first makes the offer to follow Jesus wherever he goes, but Jesus puts him off:
58 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.”
The second man responds to Jesus’ invitation to follow him by requesting to wait until his father dies and he fulfills his family obligation to honor his father with a respectful funeral – which, by the way, may not happen for years.
60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
What was wrong with that request; why did Jesus reject it?
The third also offers to follow Jesus, but wants to say a simple farewell to those at his home. After all, wasn’t this what Elisha did when Elijah called him to follow? Yes, he went back home, had a feast, sacrificed the oxen over the fire made from the plow, and then said goodbye. (1 Kings 19:19, ff.) But times are different now. Jesus says to him that famous reply:
62 “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Interference: distracted following
The key to all three is this: all three have some kind of correct inclination to be followers of Jesus, but all three have other concerns that interfere. Maybe under ordinary circumstances these distractions would not matter, but all of them betray one fatal flaw: the show that they do not understand the urgency of the hour.
Jesus did not come on any old day among ordinary days; he came at the climax of a story that had been building up pressure like a pot on the burner since the day God made that promise to Abraham (Gen 12). The people of Israel had a vocation, a calling to be the means by which God’s light would come to the whole world. Jesus was saying in effect, “The time is now! The kingdom of God has come! This is the urgent moment in which God is at work! If you don’t get the urgency, then clearly you have no idea what is happening!”
The Samaritans didn’t get it at all. The first would-be follower was evidently put off by the lack of a comfortable pillow. The second and third thought that they had ample opportunity to hang around home for years before getting on with it. Urgency was missing, which showed that they failed to see that the story was reaching its climax.
Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to confront the powers of evil, and to overcome them once and for all. He was going to allow “the powers” to take him up (there’s that odd phrase again) on a cross, but by that cross, they would be conquered for all time. Jesus was going to be taken up, not in Elijah’s fiery chariot, but by resurrection from the tomb on the first day of a new Creation.
Getting Jesus wrong
The message for us today starts with this most obvious fact: it is possible to get Jesus wrong. It is perhaps even likely that we will have a generally decent inclination to be followers of Jesus, but miss perhaps the crucial point – and end up failing to follow him at all.
There is one thing that is entirely different about now and then, and one thing the same that makes this text extremely urgent for us today. The difference is that the moment of urgency is of course not the same; Jesus has already come, he has been crucified and risen, and the moment of establishing the kingdom has happened.
But the thing that stays the same is the exact same set of distractions that keep people from following Jesus today just as those three failed followers in our text.
The first is the demand that following Jesus not be allowed to disrupt our quest for creature comforts. The Son of man, Jesus said, unlike birds and foxes, has no place to lay his head; is that going to be an issue for us?
What if the kingdom of God makes demands? What if following Jesus causes discomfort? What if it means not following the culture of consumerism down the aisle of every new thing that we are taught to “need”? What if it means a lifestyle that is more concerned about caring for the planet than about corporate dividends this quarter? What if it calls for sacrifice?
The Good Old Days
The second is the “looking back at home” distraction. Yes it is right to honor father and mother – of course – but the question is this: when does our need to respect the past become an excuse for not risking the future for the sake of the kingdom of God?
Of course the past is comfortable. Of course old habits die hard. Of course we like what we are used to. But the kingdom of the past is not the kingdom of God. There are things that simply must be left behind if we are to be followers of Jesus today.
Jesus is going to the Samaritans – sorry if you want to call down fire on them as the disciples did, but that is now incompatible with Jesus’ mission. Jesus calls us to be his witnesses “in Jerusalem and in Judea and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) in spite of our long family tradition of despising them for being different. Times have changed; a new openness to “the other” is now required.
And yes, there is a sense of urgency today. Across this country mainline churches like ours are in steep decline. The balance was tipped in 1967, according to statistics, and we have been loosing members ever since.
Is that because people are no longer hungry for God? No! Just browse any bookstore and you will see the hunger sitting there on the shelves in the form of every conceivable “solution.”
But if they are hungry, then why are they not here? We have the plow in our hands: perhaps we are missing them because we are so intent upon looking back towards the comforts of the old days; distracted plowing.
Hand to the plow: eyes foreword
Today is the day we decide to grip the plow in all its jerky, difficult uncertainty, and fix our eyes ahead, at the goal. We are people with a mission: it is not to be a cathedral built in memorial of days gone by, but to be the people who are fit for the kingdom and show it by our unflinching forward vision. This is the mission Jesus is calling us to today: to Love the God who is still at work in new ways today, to Grow in faithful forward plowing, and to Share Christ’s Love – even it means learning how to do it by text message.
“Just because Muzak and hard rock exist, that is no reason not to write great music today. The existence of kitsch does not mean that there is no such thing as great contemporary art. The existence of the Jesus Seminar does not mean that historical study of Jesus is a waste of time. If only people had read Ben Meyer’s great book when it was published in 1979, twenty years of nonsense could have been avoided.”
Gen. 12:1-3; 17:1-7
The “No” in Christ that means “Yes”
We are going to focus today on this amazing text from Galatians, but I want to start by thinking about our personal stories.
Everybody has a story to tell – his/her own story. We tell our stories to try to understand the meaning of our lives; why are we here? Is our life trivial or is there some deep significance we are part of?
It may be hard to know how to begin your story. Do you start with your birth? Maybe it would be better to set your story in a wider context – your families – your parents, where they came from, their origins. On this Father’s Day we think about the role our own fathers played in our lives, and how their fathers formed them a generation earlier.
Our stories make sense when we see them in the light of a bigger story. We can talk about our families as immigrants to the New World, because we are all the descendants of immigrants to America. When we first got here, our people stayed with their own kind, tried to keep their Old World traditions alive – the cooking, the language, the way holidays are celebrated, and of course religious traditions.
But their children and their children eventually abandoned German or Swedish or French or Italian or Polish or whatever and now speak English. They gave up Viner schnitzel for hamburgers, and transformed pizza into something new (and better!). They dressed differently too. This has happened with each successive wave of immigration – from Northern and Western Europeans then Southern Europeans, then Eastern Europeans, then Asians, it’s always the same pattern.
I just heard an interview on the radio of a Louisiana fisherman whose family’s business was threatened by the oil in the Gulf. This disaster may end a three-generation family business tradition. They were originally immigrants from Croatia, which got my attention. Of course, when he spoke, his thick accent was 100% Louisiana Cajun.
Identities in conflict?
When America joined the Second World War, it meant that people from German and Italian roots were going to be asked to fight against Germans and Italians. Perhaps it happened, but I never heard of problems that came from identity issues. By the time of that war, the descendants of those Europeans had not only put on the uniform of the US military, they had also put on the whole identity of being Americans. Having put on an American identity gave us an American perspective on everything. We are democratic to the core: we cannot tolerate fascism nor totalitarianism. That’s who we are now, no matter where we came from. This is now a core part of our story.
What does this have to do the Galatians text? First, it’s all about knowing how to tell our story, the story of who we are. For Paul, putting our story in a wider context of where we came from is the only way to make sense of it.
To know who we are and where we fit into this world and what our lives mean, we simply have to review the story of the family we are in – and go back to see where we came from and how we got here.
New baptismal clothing
Of course the church in the Roman province of Galatia was not a predominantly Jewish congregation, it was Gentile, like us. But they had been baptized as Christians – believers in Jesus, Christ, or better, Jesus-Messiah. Now their uniforms have been changed. Now they are not first Galatian-Romans; that was the “old world” from which they had immigrated. Now they are in a new world and the baptismal clothing they wear displays another identity. Listen:
27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.
Today, we think of “Christ” as Jesus’ surname, but of course it means messiah, so let us hear that same verse again with that in mind:
27 As many of you as were baptized into messiah have clothed yourselves with messiah.
And of course, “messiah” means God’s anointed one; the new king, so let’s put all those pieces together and hear it again:
27 As many of you as were baptized into divinely anointed King-Jesus have clothed yourselves with the identity of divinely anointed King-Jesus.
We have been clothed with a new identity. Just like German and Italian Americans in theSecond World War clothed themselves with the American identity and uniform, so we who have been baptized are also wearing a new clothing, a new uniform, a new identity. It is the identity of belonging to Jesus, God’s anointed King. There is no confusion of loyalties.
This means all kinds of fantastic things. All of us immigrants to America, whether we are from Northern Europe or Asia, have inherited the wonderful, rich traditions of Jefferson and Adams. We inherited their founding vision of being a free, democratic, independent people. So we Gentile Christians have inherited the wonderful, rich traditions of Israel.
Question: who gets to inherit things? Not friends and neighbors; normally, only family members inherit. We have become kin to Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah and Jacob and Leah and Rachel. We are family, kin to Israel.
We are now in the present generation of a family that has a story which has become our story. It is a powerful story. It is the story of people who understood that there is only One God who is morally good, who created a good physical world. He created humans, male and female in his image, and he blessed them with everything they needed.
But of course, he made them free to do good or evil and they chose wrongly, as we all have been doing ever since. That is the story we now inherit. But we also inherit the story that God did not just abandon them to their evil ways. He chose one family to be the solution. He called Abram out of his pagan world of Mesopotamia, and gave him a promise that he said would last forever. He said that he would bless his family, and that through that family he would eventually bless the whole world again – just like he had originally blessed it at creation.
Abraham’s family made a lot of wrong choices too. Nevertheless, God did not abandon us. He has repeatedly intervened, like when he sent Moses to guide the people by torah. But now the climax of the story has come. God’s plan for us was that at the right time, God would send his anointed Messiah King and establish his Kingdom, his reign on earth.
The last chapter of the story
This is what Jesus is all about: the coming of God’s anointed King, or Messiah, or Christ, to start the last chapter in the family story. To make a long story short, Jesus’ death would end the curse we had gotten ourselves into, and Jesus’ resurrection from the dead would show that this new, final chapter was real. God’s Spirit came upon us to empower us to live as blessed members of his family, his kingdom, his new world order.
Now we can see why it’s so important to understand that we are like immigrants who are wearing the clothing of a new land; like soldiers in uniform. Standing next to us, left and right in this army are other immigrants from other places, but now, like us they are wearing the new uniform, the baptismal King Jesus-clothes.
27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
We are all heirs now; heirs of the original promise to Abraham; heirs of the blessing of belonging to the people of God, the family that is now blessed to know God through the lens of his anointed King, Jesus, and know ourselves as one people.
Notice, we do not invite God to become part our our story, we come to understand that we are being invited to enter God’s story. It is a redemption story with vast implications.
Just like American soldiers fighting in Europe, we look at those wearing the same uniform as we are and realize that the things that used to divide us, no longer matter. Were you from German or Italian roots? Now you are wearing the American uniform, and so we are one. Were you Jew or Greek? Now it doesn’t separate us; we are one in our new baptismal clothing. Were you slave or free? Now it cannot separate us. Were you male and female and divided on that basis? Now male and female both know each other as equally part of the family, wearing the same Christ-clothes appropriate to their gender.
Knowing our family story and our identity makes a huge difference; now we know who we are related to; to whom we are kin. This is serious business.
We are kin to the Brazilians who worship in our building on Sunday nights. We are kin to the Hispanics who worship at First Foley. We are kin to Palestinian Christians, like the Palestinian Lutherans I worshiped with in Bethlehem. We are kin to Pastor Benny Richardson and his African-American congregation that came here last year. We are all clothed in Christ by baptism and heirs to the promise to Abraham.
Does this challenge our personal relationships? Of course it does. Does this challenge our view of the world? Certainly. Does this challenge our politics? How could it not? Does this change our self-identity? Yes, in all kinds of ways.
We can rejoice today that we, gentiles, who were formerly not part of the family of God are now in the family! We can rejoice that we have experienced the power of the Spirit and we know that God is working out his plan. We are part of God’s story, we are in the Kingdom of Jesus-Messiah. God has not abandoned us, in spite of our record of evil, of exclusivism, of bigotry, and of discrimination.
This means that our stories are not just about us, ourselves; we are part of the wider story of the Kingdom of God. Now everything we do individually has much wider significance. When we men respect the dignity of women as equals, we are not just being nobel, we are living out the values of the Kingdom. When we recycle, we are affirming the kingdom values of the goodness of this planet as God’s creation.
When we work for justice and fairness in homeowners insurance rates we are bringing Kingdom ethical standards to bear on the powers of this world. When we affirm the rights of minorities and work to make sure the hungry are fed, that there is adequate clothing and shelter for everyone, we are doing God’s will “on earth as it is in heaven.” Nothing is trivial or merely individual. We are part of God’s purpose to redeem Creation. This is the story we are in, the family we have inherited; we have been baptized into Christ; we are clothed with Christ; we are One in Christ! Thanks be to God!