Setting Your Face to Jerusalem

Sermon for Sunday, June 30th, 2013
Proper 8, Year C
2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77: 1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9: 51-62
The Rev.  Margot D. Critchfield


All week long this church has been filled with children of all ages learning the very same thing Luke is trying to teach us in this morning’s gospel: In Luke’s words, to “set our face to Jerusalem”; in the vernacular of Vacation Bible School, to “stand strong” for God.

Clearly, Luke’s gospel is a bit more sophisticated than the Vacation Bible School curriculum. It is, after all, written for adults.  And this morning’s reading is just the beginning of a particularly sophisticated literary form Luke employs for the next ten chapters of his gospel, called a “journey narrative.” So between now and October—all summer long—as we hear Luke’s gospel each week, we’re going to want to keep in mind that Luke chose and arranged each of these stories in a very deliberate and intentional way unique to his telling of the gospel:  He placed them all within the context of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem.

Now, this morning the journey is just beginning.  Here we meet a Jesus who is somewhat baffling, and absolutely uncompromising, in articulating what any of us who want to follow him can expect. Life as a follower of Jesus, we are told, is a life in which setting our face to Jerusalem—or in the vernacular of VBS “standing strong for God”—absolutely has to be our number one priority, our vocation, our very reason for being—no matter what other heartfelt desires, honorable obligations, or unavoidable distractions vie for our time, energy and attention.  And there’s a real sense of urgency about this.

It’s a mighty tall order. Jesus says as much in this gospel reading. The first one who wants to follow him, Jesus scares away with strange talk of homelessness and nowhere to rest.  From his second and third potential followers, Jesus will accept no delay–no excuses, no matter how noble— of family or societal obligation.  Jesus calls one of man unfit for the Kingdom of God while commanding the other to go and proclaim it!  Jesus is on a mission—an urgent mission—and he’s looking for followers who understand that urgency, who will likewise “set their faces” to Jerusalem, proclaim with their lives the Kingdom of God, and putting God’s will before all else.

If only it weren’t so hard!  If only life didn’t keep getting in the way!  You know what I mean?

Just the other morning I woke up earlier than usual, and thought, “Great! I can spend some real quality time with God!  I can make my coffee, read my daily meditation, write out a gratitude list, offer my intercessions, then just sit and do some centering prayer for a little while before getting ready for work.”

Next thing I knew I was answering first one and then another email, reading an article on the website Common Dreams, and checking my Face Book page.  Somewhere between the daily meditation and the gratitude list I’d gotten completely off track, totally distracted.   So much for “standing strong” for God!

This is a pretty light-hearted example, but sometimes being distracted by obligations and responsibilities can have more serious consequences.

When my daughter was a little girl I used to tell myself that once she went off to college, I’d finally have time to answer my call.  It took the shockingly unexpected and terminal diagnosis of someone I loved for me to finally realize I had to “stand strong” right then and there, even though at the time Grace was still only twelve.

Like the demons in the man from Geresene last week, our reasons for not making God our number one priority are legion. They’re not necessarily bad reasons.  In fact, most of the time they’re very good reasons.  They’re just not as good as setting our face to Jerusalem and putting God first now.

I’m guessing most of you are on journeys that, much like my own, take one step forward and two steps back, then three steps forward and one step back. It’s progress, as they say, and not perfection. We love Jesus, we really want to walk with him every step of the way, we really want to stand strong, but then….Well, there’s always a “but” isn’t there?

Now here’s the good news: All is not lost–there’s help!

I spent a lot of time this week studying Luke’s gospel and as sophisticated as Luke is—and as clearly as he nails our problem as less-than-stellar disciples who can’t keep their eyes set on– it was in the simple, joyful curriculum of VBS that I found multiple solutions to our problem.  Studying Luke reminded me that I need to follow Jesus single-mindedly, and that nothing—absolutely nothing—can take priority over God in my life.  But it was at VBS each day that I learned how to live into that singularity of focus on God, and how to follow him more faithfully.   See, Luke taught me what I needed to do, but VBS taught me how to do it!

So I want to share with you five very practical ways to “stand strong” for God that 67 children and all of us adults learned about this week at Vacation Bible School.  Here are five VBS “helps” for setting your face to Jerusalem and following Jesus:

First: Recall God’s love.  When we remember how much we love God, and how much God loves us, it puts everything else in its proper place.  It gives us perspective.  God’s love helps us stand strong.

Second: Rely on family and friends.  Be part of a Christian community and cultivate spiritual friendships.  When we encourage others and they encourage us, it helps us stand strong.

Third: Pray instead of worrying.  Writer Anne LaMott says that the simple word “Help!” is one of the most authenticate prayers there is.  She’s right. Prayer is talking to God honestly instead of lapsing into worry or fear, and prayer helps us stand strong.

Fourth: Trust God.  God loves us so much that he became one of us, suffered for us, and over came death for us, once and for all.  God has earned our trust! Trusting God helps us stand strong.

And finally: Read and study the Bible.  God’s word is a living word.  It continues to speak to us anew in our own context and in our own lives–offering us guidance and wisdom and inspiration.  Reading God’s word helps us stand strong.

Remember God’s love, rely on family and friends, pray instead of worrying, trust God, and read Holy Scripture.  There’s no formula for making perfect disciples, but if there were one, these would all be in the list of ingredients.

In the epistle we read a few minutes ago, Paul’s reminds the Galatians “For freedom Christ has set us free.  Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  Christ yearns for us to be free—free to proclaim with our lives God’s Kingdom, free to follow him with all of our heart, free to put God’s will before all else.  By his grace, may we set our faces to Jerusalem, stand strong, and respond to the urgent call to follow wherever he may lead.  Amen.


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