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.