Rev. Mark Schaefer
Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church
June 26, 2016
2 Kings 2: 1-2, 6-14; Luke 9:51-62
2 Kings 2:1–2, 6–14 • Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.
Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.
He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.
Luke 9:51–62 • When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And 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.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.””
So, one of the pitfalls with superhero stories is that often the story tellers can’t resist giving previously unseen powers to their heroes. Superman, for example, used to just be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound—an entirely reasonable power for someone who came from a planet with higher gravity. But that changed into the ability to fly. And then he got super strong breath. And heat vision somehow. And most incredulously of all, in one of the movies, he’s seen repairing the Great Wall of China by looking at it and firing blue colored beams out of his eyes. It’s at that point where someone might reasonably say, “I wasn’t aware that he could do that. Seems like a strange thing to be telling us about this only now.”
I have a similar reaction to James and John in this week’s gospel passage. Jesus and the disciples are on their way to Jerusalem for the events that will culminate his ministry. On the way there they pass through Samaria and are not welcomed by the Samaritans. Irked, James and John ask Jesus if they should “command fire to come down from heaven and consume them.” Now, what’s striking is that Jesus doesn’t say to them, “What makes you think you can command fire from the heavens?” which suggests that perhaps James and John actually do have the power to do this.
But this newfound superpower of the disciples is not the most surprising thing about this story. Curiously, the story does not focus on the proposed act of destroying Samaritan city and all, but simply moves on after Jesus rebukes James and John for their suggestion. In fact what’s really interesting is that Jesus does not linger in this town at all, either to judge or to persuade. The Samaritans reject him; he simply moves on.
The story then takes what appears to be an abrupt shift: Jesus encounters three different people along the road as he and the disciples travel on their way. Two people who offer to follow him and one person whom he calls to follow. In each case there is some obstacle highlighted that makes following Jesus difficult: a lack of lodging or a fixed home, having to bury one’s father, having to say goodbye to friends and family before setting off. Each presents a challenge that makes following Jesus in discipleship difficult, in fact too difficult for any of the three men to overcome.
At first glance it seems that the first portion of the narrative— the arrival in the Samaritan village — and the second portion—the encounter with the three would-be disciples—have nothing to do with one another. But both portions speak to the same phenomenon identified by the text at the very beginning of the story. We are told that when the time had come for him to be “taken up,” Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The idiomatic usage “set his face” means to be determined, to be resolute. And this winds up being the thread that connects the two different parts of the narrative. The thread that connects both the story of the Samaritan village and the disciples’ newfound superpower to destroy it, and the hurdles encountered by those who would follow Jesus in discipleship.
Throughout the text we see that there is nothing that deters Jesus from his mission. There is nothing that deter him from going to Jerusalem.
A. Anger over Injustice
At the beginning of the story, Jesus encounters inhospitality. The Samaritan residents of the village do not welcome him because he had specifically “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Samaritans, for whom the place of worship was (and still is) Mount Gerizim and not Jerusalem, saw this as an unacceptable theological position and perhaps a slight of their own religious beliefs. They reject Jesus and do not extend hospitality – a sin identified elsewhere in the Gospels as equal to the wickedness of the cities Sodom and Gomorrah. James and John seem to have made the same connection with Sodom and Gomorrah and ask if they should bring down fire and brimstone from the heavens to destroy the Samaritan village as God did to that of the Cities of the Plain in Genesis. Perhaps they are also thinking of the example of Elijah, who called down fire from heaven to defeat the priests of Baal. But Jesus simply rebukes them and they continue on their way.
The slight that Jesus himself experienced and the violation of the expectation of hospitality—those would have to stand aside; Jesus is determined to get to Jerusalem. The fact that what the Samaritans did was wrong does not change the fact that Jesus does not seek to dwell on that wrong, but seeks only to move forward.
B. Insecurity & Uncertainty
When the first man comes up and offers to follow Jesus, Jesus reminds him that unlike the beasts of the forest and field and the birds of the air, the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. We do not hear from this man again. It seems that the reminder that to follow Jesus is to embrace insecurity and uncertainty was too much of an obstacle for him. After all, the desire for food, sex, and shelter are among the basic human desires and primal needs. To forgo any one of those is it difficult and burdensome choice.
But Jesus himself is not deterred. He keeps moving forward toward Jerusalem.
C. Cares of the World
Another man approaches and Jesus invite him to follow. The man is willing but must first go ahead and bury his father. In one of the more difficult texts in the Bible, Jesus tells the man to “let the dead bury their own dead,” and instead he should go forth and proclaim the Kingdom of God. Here, too, we see another obstacle in following after Jesus: obligation, duty, at the cares of the world. Now, Jesus is not telling us that we should react with indifference or that we should forsake caring for family, but he is saying that following him creates greater and deeper loyalties, loyalties that transcend all the obligations of the world.
In this case, that calling proves yet again to be too much for the would-be disciple. But for Jesus, he remains undeterred; he continues moving forward toward Jerusalem.
The final man approaches and he is willing to follow Jesus but says that he must first go and say goodbye to his friends and family. Jesus replies that someone who takes up the plow but looks back is not worthy of the Kingdom of God. Suggesting that those who cannot quite detach themselves from the life they are leaving are unable to fully follow after him. Once again, this expectation proves to be too much.
But as for Jesus, he is undeterred. He continues moving toward Jerusalem.
III. SET HIS FACE TO GO
We are told twice in the passage that Jesus had “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” the kind of biblical repetition that reminds us of how central an idea is to a given text. The biblical authors do not waste ink and scroll space with extraneous detail. And so, the fact that we are told this more than once means it is important. And upon reflection, it becomes clear just how central Jesus’ determination to go to Jerusalem it.
The text tells us that this was before the time he would be “taken up”—an image that could refer either to his Ascension into heaven (which is how Jesus’ story ends in Luke’s gospel), perhaps his resurrection, or perhaps his crucifixion, being “taken up on a cross.” And even if “taken up” were referring only to his ascension, Jesus is well aware of what it will take to get to that point. Along the road he is so intent on traveling lies rejection, betrayal, denial, cursing, mocking, scourging, beating, and the cross. It is not a smooth road toward the Ascension that Jesus is traveling, but a road full of bumps, a path full of thorns.
And yet, Jesus is undeterred. He has set his face to go to Jerusalem.
IV. DETERMINED TO GO TO JERUSALEM
And here’s where this matters to us. We are called to follow after Jesus. We are called to follow along that road toward Jerusalem. But we are more conscious of all of the obstacles that a lie upon its path.
We are mindful of the injustices of the world and can be deterred by the wrongs and slights we have suffered. Anyone who was at Annual Conference and saw the shameful and inhospitable way that the clergy treated one of the most talented pastoral servants and grace-filled individuals the church has produced knows this injustice for sure. It’s almost enough to make you give up on the church had on our seemingly paralyzed denomination. But here is where we are called to follow Jesus. There is a vision — call it Jerusalem — of a world in which all people are welcome, all are embraced and affirmed as children of God, and all are given a seat at the table. We are called to set our face to go to Jerusalem and not to be deterred by the injustices along the way or by our own desires for retribution and destruction.
There is likewise great insecurity and uncertainty in the world today. It is fueling major political movements, international realignment, and all manner of violence and a breakdown in our social fabric. One might look at such a state of affairs and decide that it was easier to opt out, that it was easier to be a cynic, that was easier to sit back in judgment of the whole system because of this insecurity and our own. There is a vision – call it Jerusalem — of a world in which people no longer have to worry about providing for their families, in which access to resources is no longer seen as a zero sum game, a world that no longer pits us against each other. A world in which change is viewed not threatening but as new opportunity, new potential, new promise. As followers of Jesus we are called to be no less determined to make our way to that Jerusalem than Jesus was determined to go to his own.
In the same way, the cares of the world are burdens to us. We live in an age of great technological advancement that was meant to alleviate much of our work, but has only seemed to increase it, to increase demand upon us, and to fill us with anxiety and stress. There is a vision – call it Jerusalem — of a world in which technology does not increase our cares but helps us to manage them. A world in which we truly are a community that bears one another’s burdens, that helps one another out in times of distress. A world in which our cares do not isolate us from one another but bring us into closer community and communion with one another. As followers of Jesus we are called to set our faces to go to this Jerusalem, as Jesus went to his own.
And we live in a world in which we have a great many attachments. Not only to our property and things, but to our status, our reputations, our privilege, our name. All the things we are told to go after, especially in this town, the things we have such a hard time letting go of. Control, power, influence. There is a vision – call it Jerusalem — of the world in which we are no longer defined by what we own, or by what we do for work, or by our power or influence, but we are defined by whose we are and the love we witness to. To be a follower of Christ is to go undeterred, determined to go forward to this Jerusalem.
There are a number of literary allusions in today’s gospel lessons to the Elijah story from the Old Testament passage. Language of being “taken up,” connections to reigning fire down from heaven, and so on. But one theme connects both passages in a powerful way. After Elijah was taken up in the whirlwind, the mantle that he had used to divide the River Jordan, fell to the ground. Elisha took up Elijah’s mantle and used it to strike the river and cross through, continuing the work of his master.
As those who live on this side of the Ascension, who, have watched our master be taken up into the heavens, it is upon us to take up the mantle of Christ, to set our faces toward the vision of Jerusalem and to continue the journey and the work before us.
There will be a lot that will seek to get in our way. Much that will seek to derail or distract or discourage us. But no one ever told us this would be easy, folks. The Ten Commandments do not begin with the worlds: “Ten Easy Steps to a Problem Free Life: You’ll never believe number 7!”
No, the reality is that our lives will always have injustices and slights, insecurities and uncertainties, duties and obligations, attachments and burdens—all of which will seek to deter us from walking in the Way that Christ walked: with a vision for the world that God was bringing into being. A vision of a world of love, justice, hope, and peace, of community and fellowship. Of caring. A vision that was before him and a task that was required.
Having seen that vision there was nothing that was going to stop him from getting there. He had set his face to go to Jerusalem—and calls us to follow.