Sermon for Pentecost 6, Proper 8C, preached by the Rev. Daniel M. Ulrich on Sunday, June 26, 2016.
Walking in a straight line can be difficult especially when there’s so much to look at. With all the sights and sounds of the world around us, whether it’s nature or the city, there’s always something for us to look at. It’s near impossible to walk straight if you aren’t looking straight ahead...and this is how it is with us as we follow after our Christ. If we don’t look forward, setting our faces on Him and Him alone, we can’t faithfully follow after Him.
When Jesus walked the earth, He walked straight, always looking forward. From the very beginning, He was all about one thing, doing the Father’s will. As a twelve year boy He knew His place was at the Temple, and now once again He knew His place was in Jerusalem. But this time, He wasn’t going to the Temple, the place where animals were sacrificed daily. This time He was going to the cross, the place where He would be sacrificed.
Luke tells us that Jesus “set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51). Christ looked forward without distraction. He was resolute, walking a straight path toward the holy city, walking a straight path toward the cross, and nothing was going to stop Him. He was determined, unyielding, and unwavering. Christ made His final journey to Jerusalem with one thing on His mind...His never-ending and unconditional love for you. This self-giving love is what drove Christ to the cross. He would not turn aside from this path because He walked it in love for you.
Our Lord purposefully went to the cross to die for you, to set you free. His sacrificial death was and is the final sacrifice for all sin. As Jesus shed His blood on that crossed shaped altar, He paid the price for sin, for your sin. He atoned for your transgressions, and with His death He set you from death, He set you free from sin. No longer are they your masters. No longer do they consume your life. Now your life is in Christ and He has called you to follow Him, to set your face on Him, to walk straight in God’s kingdom.
As Jesus made His way to Jerusalem, people followed. More than just the Twelve walked with Jesus. One of the men Jesus met said, “I will follow you wherever you go” (Lk 9:57). This man was confident in his ability and commitment to Christ. But following after Jesus wouldn’t be easy, it wouldn’t be comfortable. Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Lk 9:58). And this is the same for those who follow Him. Jesus was a sojourner here on earth. Earth was not His home. His home is next to the Father, and so too is the home of those who follow Christ. Your citizenship is here, but in heaven. That’s where you’ll find your everlasting dwelling place, that’s where your comfort and joy is even now in the midst of the discomforts of this earth, the discomforts of sin and death.
After Jesus called this man to follow, He called to another, and this man was also confident. He also would follow Jesus, but first he had to take care of some things: he had to bury his father. But the Lord said, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:60). This man was concerned with the things of this world. His face wasn’t set on Christ, but on death. He was not ready to focus solely on Christ, to look toward the everlasting life in God’s kingdom.
Now I don’t want anyone to get confused with Jesus words. Christ isn’t saying not to bury our loved ones who’ve died. Instead, Christ’s words are a call to follow after Him first, with a willingness to put Him and His kingdom above all else, even above our family. And this is the same message He gave to the third man in our Gospel.
This man also said he’d follow Jesus, but like the second, he too had other things he needed to do. His first priority was to return home and say goodbye to his family and friends. He too was still focused on the things of this world, and again Jesus said this would not do. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:62).
A plowman who looks back won’t do a good job. Plowing is a difficult task, especially plowing by hand. It requires one’s full attention to hold the plow and maneuver the animal at the same time. If the plowman is distracted, not looking forward but backwards, his rows won’t be straight. This isn’t good for planting, and it’s certainly not good for faith. Like the plowman, we must be focused solely on Christ, setting our face on Him, looking forward.
The men in our Gospel were confident they could follow after Christ, but this was false confidence. They were incapable of setting their face on Jesus. They were distracted with everything else, with the things of this temporary world...and so are we. We may think we can confidently follow after Christ, but we too are easily distracted. We focus on the things of this world, the natural cares and priorities of this life. There is so much that demands our attention here on earth, and we attend to these things first. We believe the things of today are more important than the things of tomorrow, than the things of faith and God’s kingdom.
All our efforts of strength and determination can’t keep our focused eyes straight ahead on Christ. Our sin, the world around us, and the devil distract us. They avert our eyes to other things, to the things of the flesh as St. Paul says. They lead our feet off the path of righteousness. So we need a guide, someone to lead us. We need a helper, someone to make us fit for the kingdom of God. This someone is the Helper, the Holy Spirit. He leads you where you need to go. He leads you to Christ alone. He creates within you a new and clean heart, a heart of faith that desires Christ and His kingdom, a heart that desires to walk straight. He gives you faith and keeps you in it, and He daily and richly forgives all your sins. With the Holy Spirit leading you, you can and you do follow Christ without looking back. You stay focused on Him, looking forward to the everlasting life that He has won for you on the cross.
In order for us to follow Jesus, we have to set our faces on Him and Him alone, just as He set His face on the cross for us. We can’t be partial, with one eye looking at Him and the other looking back at our old life. We can’t be distracted with the natural cares and priorities of this life. We can’t look back to our old sinful ways and pursue them again. We can’t look at death and be afraid of it. We can’t let the world and Satan avert our eyes from Jesus. With the Spirit leading us, we must look forward with the eyes of faith that we’ve been given. We must focus our full attention on God’s kingdom, on Christ and His salvation, and on the new life that He gives to us. In Jesus’ name...Amen.