by Chris Ritter
Today we start the final section in our study of the Gospel of Luke: “The Road to Jerusalem.” Much of Luke’s Gospel is actually a travelogue chronicling Jesus’ final journey toward the City so intertwined with God’s promises. Jesus is headed to the Empty Tomb. But for him, and us, that road travels through the Cross.
Not all the Gospels give an account of Jesus’ birth, but all give tremendous space to the story of Jesus’ death. This is certainly true in Luke’s Gospel. Luke has twenty-four chapters, but the shadow of the cross stretches all the way back to Luke 9:21 when Jesus predicts his rejection by the religious leaders, his death, and his resurrection three days later. But that would not be the only prediction in Chapter Nine. Let’s read:
43 And they were all amazed at the greatness of God.Luke 9:43-62
While everyone was marveling at all that Jesus did, he said to his disciples, 44 “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.” 45 But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it.
46 An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”
49 “Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”
50 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”
51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them. 56 Then he and his disciples went to another village.
57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
59 He said to another man, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”
62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
Have you ever set out on a journey that you knew was going to be tough? Maybe you set a goal that would be very difficult to reach. Or maybe you decided to go back to school and work on a degree. Our veterans know what it is like to “sign your life away” to the U.S. military. Or perhaps you committed to the long road of forgiving and restoring a broken relationship. I have some friends that took their grandchildren to raise knowing it would take all their resources and energies. One of the great mysteries of life is that the things that almost destroy us are the very things that often make us. We become the people we want to be by doing the things we didn’t think we could do.
For all the times I have made a difficult commitment or committed to an unpopular stand, there have been other times when I have chickened out. Sometimes we look down a long and uncertain road and decide to take easier route.
But there is tremendous energy released when we make a decision. Heaven and earth start to shake when a man or woman of God decides to forge ahead in spite of cost, in spite of the obstacles. This power is multiplied exponentially when we know that is what God is calling us to do.
In Luke 9:51 Jesus sets his face like flint toward Jerusalem: “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” This would be a one-way trip full of sacrifice and opposition. Jesus knows his destiny is in the City of David. The Galilean phase of his ministry was over.
Of course, Jesus’ disciples will travel with him. One of the famous features of Luke’s Gospel is the seeming cluelessness of the twelve. They don’t seem to be able to soak in what Jesus has been teaching them. They need constant attitude adjustments. That is why we are starting this new section of Luke with this passage in which Jesus repeatedly corrects his current and would-be disciples.
I can’t speak for you, but sometimes I need an attitude adjustment, too… especially on a long and difficult road. I call the teachings of Jesus in Luke 9 “Truths to Travel By.” The power of Jesus is on full display in Luke 9 with the feeding of the five thousand, the Transfiguration, and Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ. In the midst of their awe and wonder, they skate over Jesus reminding them of his own death and him calling them to bear their cross, too. Let’s look…
Right after Jesus predicts his own death, the disciples start to argue about which one is the greatest. They seem to do this all this time, Even at the Last Supper they were arguing about rank. Certainly, Jesus was first. But who was second? Every group of chickens has to work out the pecking order. Every group of dogs needs to determine the Alpha.
But Jesus was having none of it. He pulled a child into the middle of the circle and told the disciples they need to make themselves without rank. Their identity was to be found in belonging to him. The one who welcomes them in the the name of Jesus welcomes Jesus himself. The one who welcomes Jesus welcomes God. No other rank or station matters. The one who would be the greatest must follow the example of Jesus and be the servant. The way up is down.
The attitude adjustment here is a simply but profound truth: It’s not about you. When God has called you on a journey, it is for His Kingdom, Glory, and Righteousness. When we make it about ourselves, weird things happen. We get defensive, entitled, and burned out when things don’t go our way. When it is about others and the glory of God, we are free… free to serve, love, and obey. We are also free to trust the result to God.
The next adjustment comes in v. 49 when the disciples report to Jesus that they saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name. They tried to stop the guy because he was not part of their group. Jesus’ reply to the disciples was to leave the guy alone. If he is not against them, he is for them. I had to do some biblical cross-referencing on this one because I seemed to remember Jesus saying almost the opposite in another place. In Matthew 12:30 Jesus says, “Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.” So, which is it? “If you are not against me you are with me” or “If you are not for me you are against me?”
We have to pay special attention to the language. In Matthew, Jesus was talking about people not “with Me (Jesus).” In Luke, he is talking about people not “with us” (our group). What I get out of this is that Jesus is bigger than my group. This is why we should never look upon another church as our competitor. Our group is not big enough to hold all the work of Jesus.
I think Jesus also didn’t want his disciples to get distracted by someone else’s opportunities. Paul had mixed feelings about some of the other preachers of the Gospel. But in Philippians 1, he concludes that some preach Christ out of selfish ambition and seem to stir up trouble. But the most important thing is that Christ is preached. He decided to rejoice and leave the results to God. Peter got distracted by John’s ministry. In John 21, Peter asks the resurrected Jesus, “What about that man? What are you going to do with him?”
Jesus basically replies, “Don’t worry about him. You do what I called you to do.” When we get distracted by someone else’s opportunity, we lose focus on our own opportunities. Social media invites us to compare our families, jobs, homes, and lifestyles to others. Comparison is the thief of joy. We end up putting blooper reel up against everyone else’ highlight reel and feeling terrible about ourselves. Jesus adjusts our attitude here to stop seeing others as our competition. When you are bearing the cross, you have no time for self promotion.
As stated earlier, Jesus and his disciples was heading south to Jerusalem and the road took them through Samaritan territory. He sent a couple of his disciples ahead to see if they could make accommodations for the night. Realizing they were Jewish pilgrims, the Samaritans treated them rudely and refused their business. The disciples came back offended and offered to call down fire from heaven upon these Samaritans, just like the days of Elijah. That escalated quickly! Jesus rebuked them.
It is interesting to read the sequel to Luke’s Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles. In Chapter Two, fire from heaven does fall and it falls upon the church. They go out sharing the Gospel everywhere. One of the places impacted was a Samaritan village much like the one the disciples wanted to burn to a crisp.
Given enough time and perspective, our obstacles can become our friends. We will be rejected and ill treated. When cursed, bless in return. Burn no bridges. It may just not be time for that relationship. Keep working. Keep praying. Keep loving.
Have you lived long enough to realize that it is the tough episodes of our lives that really make us? It is probably printed on a throw pillow somewhere: Yesterday’s stumbling blocked become tomorrow’s stepping stones. I would not volunteer to repeat the past years with COVID and all the other stuff we have encountered. But I am 100% sure that God has opened new doors for us through those troubles. We reached new people, started new ministries, and tried things that had never previously crossed our minds. Given time, our obstacles can become our friends.
Luke 9 includes Jesus calling new disciples. It also records that people volunteered exuberantly. One mamn exclaimed: “Jesus, I will follow you where you go!” Jesus responded with a statement of warning. Foxes have holes to live in. Birds of the air have nests. The Son of Man has left his home back in Capernaum and has nowhere to lay his head. Count the cost. We won’t be staying in the Ritz-Carlton tonight.
This is an attitude adjustment I constantly need. Jesus has not promised me a smooth journey. He has only promised himself as my travelling companion. This side of heaven, life is going to be filled with challenges, obstacles, and enemies. But in the midst of them all, Jesus promises, “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Following Jesus is not for the faint of heart, but there are eternal blessings for the faithful.
We will close with a passage that has always bothered me. A man responds to Jesus’ call to follow, but simply asks that he be allowed to go and bury his father first. Jesus’ response is, “Let the dead bury the dead. You go proclaim the Kingdom of God.” Burying ones father is pretty important, Jesus. And dead people don’t bury dead people. It takes a living person to bury someone else. This seems insensitive.
But the dad of the man who said, “Let me bury my father first” may have been alive and well. The oldest son was expected to take care of things for the parents, concluding in their burial. “Let me complete my family duties first, then I will follow.” It might have also meant, “Wait until I get my inheritance and I will be in a financial position to travel.” But Jesus does not allow him this deferral. The Gospel is an urgent message with an urgent call.
A young man in our church, Elliott, would have loved to have come home last month for his grandmother’s funeral. But he was shipboard in dock in Virginia with the U.S. Navy. The Red Cross made the request, but the request was denied. They were under quarantine and about to get underway. When you sign up for the military, you are sacrificing many important things for something deemed even more important. Following Jesus is no different.
The enemy of our faithfulness is not always the bad. Sometimes it is the good thing that is not the right thing… the thing that God has called us to do. Disciples of Jesus don’t just have to say no to evil. We have to say no to all the lesser goods that might distract us from his purpose on our lives.
Another man wanted to say goodbye to his family first. Jesus replied that the one who sets his hand to the plow should not look back. In Luke 17:32, Jesus will give us one of the shortest verses in the Bible, “Remember Lot’s wife.” Those who decide to follow should not peek over their shoulders at what once was.
Jesus was talking to a prospective disciple. But he was also talking to himself. Our Lord set his face toward Jerusalem, toward the cross. There is no going back.
A question for personal reflection: What is the road to which Jesus has called you? What attitude adjustment in Luke 9 do you most need to hear?