Turning Faces

Sermon from this past Sunday. Text was Luke 9:51-62

This passage contains one of the most significant lines in the entire Gospel of Luke. It is pretty well hidden, though, you may not have recognized it.

“He set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

This is how the New Revised Standard Version reads. The New International Version in the pews reads, “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” The meaning is essentially the same, but the NRSV provides us with an image, something to picture, it provides for us a hinge in the narrative which we can not only observe, but enter into.

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.

This is the hinge point of the Gospel of Luke. Up until now, Jesus has been preparing, the Devil tried to tempt Jesus in the desert, but he did not fall for it. He called disciples, he performed miracles, and he taught. Our passage today, begins Jesus’ long and somewhat slow journey to Jerusalem, and to the humiliation and execution and resurrection which awaited him there.

This journey continues for another fourteen chapters, so it wasn’t a direct route, and it appears that Jesus wasn’t in a hurry to get to Jerusalem. No, Jesus wasn’t in a hurry, but he wasn’t avoiding it either. You see, Jesus’ purpose on earth was not just to die, but to show us how to live as well through his life, teaching, and ministry. His death was part of that, but not the whole thing. Jesus, then, wasn’t in a hurry to get to Jerusalem. He knew that he would get there, but first he needed some more time to show God’s people what God desired, how God wanted them to live, to show us what a perfect human life is like.

He set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Jesus comes down the mountain from the transfiguration, when he was changed, his skin glowed and his clothes became dazzling white — a foretaste of what would happen in his resurrection and ascension. Jesus comes down the mountain and he casts out a demon from a young boy which his disciples could not do. Jesus predicts his death, but no one quite understands what he means. Jesus then deals with some exclusivity within the disciples. First, the disciples argue about which one of them was the greatest, and then John the disciple gets upset because he saw someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name who was not one of them. Jesus continues to try to teach them. The least among you is actually the greatest, Jesus said. Which I’m sure was met with confused looks. Jesus then reminds them that his mission is not for an exclusive few, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” You see, Jesus is for everyone, not just for the twelve disciples.

Here, there is an abrupt pause, and Jesus turns his head, southward from where he was, and looked across the flat plain. The disciples wonder what is going on, why is he gazing southward?  But Jesus knows what is happening. Jerusalem is there, and now he begins his journey to Jerusalem. The NIV says that he “resolutely set out for Jerusalem” which is a way to interpret Jesus setting is face to Jerusalem. In this action, Jesus makes it known that everything that happens following will be geared toward the final part of his mission, his death, resurrection, and ascension in Jerusalem, the culmination of his life and ministry.

The Gospel writer wants to make it clear to his reader, Theophilus, that what happened in Jerusalem, his death and resurrection was not simply something that happened by chance. It was always a part of Jesus’ life and ministry, and he always knew that it was a part of his life and ministry, and that Jesus embraced this.

He set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Here, Jerusalem is not simply a location. It is that, but it is more than that. Here, Jerusalem is not simply a city. It is that, but it is more than that. Jerusalem is symbolic. It is symbolic for the final stage in Jesus’ calling, it is symbolic for his death and resurrection. It is symbolic, here, for the culmination of Jesus’ message and the values of the kingdom of God.

Now, this passage speaks a great deal about discipleship and what it looks like to follow Jesus, but even more, I think that it speaks volumes of the all-encompassing love of Jesus.

After Jesus sent messengers into a town in Samaria — Samaritans were the much hated cousins of the Jews — they did not receive Jesus. We don’t know why, but something related to the fact that Jesus’ face was set toward Jerusalem. Now, James and John, to disciples who were very zealous and they really had, I think, decent intentions when they asked Jesus if they should call fire down onto the town and destroy it, perhaps bringing to mind when Elijah did something similar. But Jesus rebuked them. You see, even the hated Samaritans, even the hated Samaritans who did not receive him were not beyond the reach of Jesus’ all-encompassing and transformative love which is broad enough to even include the Samaritan village.

This transformative love of Jesus is much greater than any human understanding of love. The love of Jesus transforms how we understand our enemies, and those with whom we may disagree. The great love of Jesus transforms how we understand friendship, family, how we think of priorities when it comes to those things which are most important.

But what most clearly shows the love of Jesus for the world is that he set his face toward Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets. Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem to endure things that we don’t have to. Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem to show us the values of an upside-down world when death is really life, when what appears to be loss is actually victory, when the last will be first, and the first last.

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, so that we don’t have to. We, however, set our face toward Jesus. This doesn’t mean that following Jesus is easy sailing, this doesn’t mean that we will never have hardships. After all, following Jesus requires a similar singleminded determination, it often means that we will always be a sojourner, we will always be nomads, we will never have a true home here on earth. But, and this is a big but, these always follow our experience with the incredible, incomprehensible, earth shattering love of Jesus.

It is after this experience of the love of Jesus that we can understand that calling down fire to destroy a town, that going back after being called is not the way to respond to Jesus’ call, is not the way of Jesus.

Jesus can love even those who all of his family, friends, religious leaders, and culture hates. Jesus loved even those who wouldn’t receive him, who wouldn’t accept him, who didn’t understand why his face was set toward Jerusalem. Should we destroy them, they asked. But no…do not destroy them. This isn’t the point, Jesus told them.

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, and while Jesus seemed to be less obsessed with Jerusalem in Luke than in the other Gospels, this point marks a significant orientation to the rest of his life.

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. We set our face toward Jesus. Just as Jesus’ whole life and ministry is focused on the object of his gaze, our whole life and ministry is focused on the object of our gaze. For Jesus embraced the death and resurrection that was to come, but we have love, wholeness, grace, fullness of life as the object of our gaze. Jesus looked at death as he continued on with the trials of life and ministry, we look forward to life as we continue on with the trials of life and our own ministry.

This story begins with God’s love for us in Jesus Christ, love so great that he embraced the cross for the good of the world. It is only when we can perceive and experience this love that we can set our face toward Jesus and follow with a commitment.

This brings to mind a gospel hymn written in the 1920s, and the refrain goes like this:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

This is our response to God’s grace in Christ. Jesus turned his face toward Jerusalem with determination. And we turn our eyes upon Jesus, and when we do, the things of earth — vengeance, violence, self-centeredness, other distractions, will grow dim we can focus on Jesus and following him wherever he leads.

It is when we perceive and experience this love that we can begin to live into Jesus command that we love one another just as Jesus loves us (John 13:34).

Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, and because of the immense love of Jesus to set his face toward Jerusalem for us, we set our face to Jesus.

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