Sunday, June 27, 2010

Pentecost 5 Sermon -- Luke 9:51-62 (LSB Proper 8C)

June 27, 2010 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran ChurchMechanicsburg, PA

“When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, He set his face to go to Jerusalem. . . . And He said: ‘No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’”

Looking back while pushing a plow is bad form. It causes all sorts of errors, deviations from the straight rows that should mark a good cornfield. One really can’t go forward with any sort of accuracy while looking back. Eyes must be pointed forward, so that the course is kept. That is the foundation for Jesus’ statement: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” But His statement is about more than good plowing technique. It is about discipleship, what is required of those who will follow behind Jesus.

Jesus gives this teaching on the road to Jerusalem. On His way, Jesus encounters several individuals. One man promises: “I will follow You wherever you go.” Another is called by Jesus: “Follow Me.” Still another claims: “I will follow You, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Each of these are to be disciples of Jesus, individuals to be led by Him. In a manner of speaking, they are all going to put their hands to the plow, the plow that Jesus will drag in front of them. Jesus will set the way for them, and they are to keep their eyes fixed on Him and the way that He lays out. Looking back will cause their hands to steer the plow in a wrong direction or even to slip from the plowhandle altogether.

But these three men are not fit for the kingdom of God. For what happens when given the opportunity to follow? The hardships that disciples will face causes trepidation in one: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Another has family matters to care for: “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Still another wants time to give last wishes to his family: “I will follow You, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” The eyes are fixed away from Jesus, looking back. The hands are slipping from the plowhandles.

But what these three men do is no different than others who have been called to follow the Lord. The same issue was seen with the Prophet Elijah. He was called to go to Israel, to speak against the Baal worshipers, including the royalty. But when Jezebel threatened to kill Elijah, he fled. He ran off to a cave where the Lord had to confront him: “Behold, the word of the Lord came to [Elijah], and He said to him, ‘What are you doing here, Elijah?’ He said, ‘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 had been bold, had confronted the Baal worshipers, but the threat of death was too much: that threat caused the prophet to look back.

And it isn’t simply Elijah who has done so. No, the Apostle Paul had to confront the same problem among the Christians in Galatia. You heard his statements: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. . . . For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” The Galatians were under temptation to use their new freedom for wrongful purposes, to walk in a way contrary to Christ’s command. There is a struggle to be faithful followers: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” So Paul exhorts them to put their eyes back forward: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

Yet, there is one more party who also has the same problem of looking back. That party is you. You are called to follow. Jesus has put your hand on the plowhandle to hold. He tells you that He is setting out the way, leading you in the proper direction, even giving His Spirit to you. But what do you do? You see Jesus ahead of you. But you don’t follow. You get distracted by other things. Or you submit again to the yoke of slavery that sin throws back on your necks. Or you take your freedom and use it for ends opposite of Christ’s intentions. That’s the reality. Jesus can rightly say two things: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God,” and “You’re not fit for the kingdom of God.”

That is the point of Jesus’ statement. You aren’t fit for the kingdom of God. It would be a lie to say that you are. Every time you look back, look away from Christ, His statement applies to you. But it isn’t simply because you look back. No, it goes much deeper than that. It’s because of all your sins, the turning away from righteousness. The things you do display the lack of fitness. Think on the list that Paul lays out about the works of the flesh, the desires that your own nature has: “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.” At least one in the list accurately describes your works. And not only does Paul lay out what these works are, he follows them up with a statement very similar to Jesus’ statement: “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

That stark truth is critical to hear, for it dispels any thought of worthiness in you. But even more so, it reveals something true about Jesus. Remember the description of Jesus: “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, He set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus is described as having His face set like stone toward Jerusalem. He is going there, even to be handed over to the Gentiles by His own people to be crucified. But Jesus still goes; nothing will dissuade Him. Recall the statements that He made on the road to Jerusalem: “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.” These statements will not be perfectly fulfilled by those who hear them, but they will be fulfilled by Jesus, fulfilled so that you will be made fit for the kingdom of God.

There is no demand that Jesus makes of His followers that He Himself doesn’t keep. No, He fulfills them in substitution for others who cannot. That is what Jesus does when “He set His face to go to Jerusalem.” Elijah runs away when Queen Jezebel threatens his life, but Jesus travels to Jerusalem under the threat of death from Herod and the Sanhedrin. In their rage, James and John want to call down fire on the Samaritan village, but Jesus rebukes them knowing that He will be baptized with fire in His crucifixion. One man on the road is dissuaded to follow because of the hardships, another of having to leave his father, but Jesus leaves His Heavenly Father to go and lay His head in the tomb. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” But that statement of Jesus does not apply to Him: He puts Himself to the task of redeeming the world and never looks back. “He set His face to go to Jerusalem.”

Because of Jesus’ action—His unrelenting drive to His death, resurrection, and ascension—you are made fit for the kingdom of God. What Jesus accomplishes is done for your benefit. You cannot make yourself fit for the kingdom of God, but receiving the merits of Jesus’ work, you are made fit. In Holy Baptism, you have your former lives put to death, so that a new life may be found in you. As you are given Christ’s Spirit, He works in you to produce good and proper actions: “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.” That being made fit is a constant activity done in you. There is the daily drowning and rising again. Or in the language of Jesus’ statement: the daily slipping of the hand from the plow and the daily replacing of that hand, the daily looking back and the daily setting of the face.

This is what the Holy Spirit does in you. Forgiveness and restoration is given, just as it was to Elijah, James and John, and the men Jesus encounters on the road. The Holy Spirit makes you fit for the kingdom of God, to be made like Jesus, the One who was always fit. As this is done in you, now you can speak like the psalmist: “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. You make known to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” These statements are now true for you, but never because of your effort. But since Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem, putting His hand to the plow and not looking back, you are now fit for the kingdom of God.

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

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