Shouts of joy and victory resound in the tents of the righteous: “The LORD’s right hand has done mighty things! The LORD’s right hand is lifted high; the LORD’s right hand has done mighty things!” I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the LORD has done.
At what point would you drop absolutely everything, in the moment, and go to be with someone else? For some of you, hearing me suggest such a thing gives you an uneasy feeling in your stomach. So many people today have such tight and carefully planned schedules that the thought of dropping everything I have planned at a moment’s notice would wreak havoc on your Google calendar. So, it’s got to be pretty important, doesn’t it? If you know CPR and someone in close proximity to you collapses, in clear need of resuscitation, you don’t pull out your phone and say, “How does next Thursday look for you?” You drop everything, because this is important. Life and death is about as serious as it gets. But that might be just about the only thing that would cause us to drop everything nowadays. And I get it, it makes sense. We’re busy. We’ve made plans. We’re involved. We’ve got stuff going on and people we’re responsible for. So we’ll drop everything when we’re at the pool and someone yells, “Hey, she’s drowning!” But we’re not so quick when a friend calls out, “Hey, I could use a ride to the airport!” Those two don’t quite have the same level of urgency. What determines the “drop everything” factor for you? Is it the level of need in the situation? Is it the level of closeness in the relationship? Maybe, the truth lies somewhere even deeper. Is it worth it? What am I going to get out of this? These are the (sometimes self-serving) questions we ask ourselves as we navigate the sometimes treacherous waters of interpersonal relationships, but what about when it comes to your relationship with Jesus? Does that one have the “drop everything” factor?
In our gospel lesson today, we’re following Jesus as he makes his way to Jerusalem in the final months of his ministry on earth. And, in a sense, he’s going to put this question to the people he encounters – would you drop everything for Jesus? Luke tells us, As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village. Would you drop everything for Jesus? First up, let’s see what the Samaritans think of this Jesus character. Jesus makes an interesting choice of route to Jerusalem. Most Jews of his day would take the two day walk around Samaria, so they wouldn’t have to deal with those ethnic and religious half-breeds who just wanted to pick a fight about where to worship. But Jesus wants to march straight through Samaria – why? Because he’s committed to his mission. He’ll make his way to Jerusalem alright, but he wants to shine the light of salvation in the territory of the Samaritans, too. But the people there did not welcome him. Oh, you’re going to Jerusalem? No thanks, Jesus. Go find your dinner and motel someplace else.
Jesus had faced rejection before, but this seemed unthinkable to the Sons of Thunder, James and John. “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” Because, after all, this is what following Jesus is all about, right? Being on the right side of things and making sure everyone else knows your righteous indignation when the gospel is rejected; following Jesus must be all about stepping out in front, being head honcho, and calling down God’s wrath on those who are on the wrong side. Soon enough, James and John would come close to solidifying this way of thinking by requesting those cushy spots in the Jesus administration in Jerusalem – one on his right and the other on his left. Then everyone would know what following Jesus was all about! But Jesus turned and rebuked them. So, maybe this isn’t what following Jesus is all about. What if following Jesus is all about denying self and completely trusting in someone else’s lead? That’s not so easy. I’d rather drop fire from heaven on the sinners than drop everything (even my own thoughts of glory) and follow Jesus. This is the lesson Jesus is teaching today, and it’s a hard one to hear because it cuts completely against everything I want to think and do by nature. This discipleship thing, this business of following Jesus - it’s clear that the goals, desires, and priorities of Christians are different. After Jesus is rejected by those Samaritans, we hear Jesus have three different conversations with three different people in order to teach one important point.
The first would-be disciple came to Jesus and made the big statement of commitment: “I will follow you wherever you go.” Matthew’s gospel tells us that this man was a teacher of the law, an expert in the Word of God. By all accounts, this was the kind of guy Jesus should want to follow him - but Jesus knew his heart. “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Do you understand what it means to follow me? This is not a red carpet, lap of luxury kind of situation. When it comes to living arrangements, you realize that the woodland creatures have far nicer amenities than I do, right? Do you still want to follow me, even if it means dropping all your worldly comfort and earthly sense of security?
Would be disciple number two enters the scene, and at first, he doesn’t say a word to Jesus. Instead, Jesus calls him, “Follow me.” When he said that to his first disciples, they dropped their nets and came running. But maybe this guy has a more specialized situation, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” Sounds like a reasonable request, but it’s likely that this man’s father was probably just old and not dead. In other words, Jesus, once I get things squared away; once this stage of my life is complete; once I can make a clean break with my former way of life…then I’ll come follow you, when it fits in my schedule a little bit better. Jesus’ response pulls no punches, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” This can’t wait. The Kingdom of God is at hand. The forgiveness of sins and victory over death and hell are things that need to be heralded in the immediate present, not whenever you get around to it.
Would-be disciple number three maybe hadn’t been paying attention to what happened with numbers one and two – but he took his shot nonetheless! “I will follow you, Lord: but first let me go back and say good-by to my family.” If ever there was a good reason, it’s family, right? Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.” If you’re going to follow Jesus and constantly be looking back at all you’ve left behind to do it, you’ll never make it. And that’s the last word of our lesson for today. This is the gospel of our Lord?
What is Jesus up to here? Doesn’t he want disciples? Doesn’t he desire for more and more people to hear what he has to say and stick around and watch as he brings about the salvation of the world in a few short months? It seems like he’s picking off potential followers one by one, so who’s going to be left? Of the three interactions Jesus had, it seemed like the excuses were getting more reasonable, but Jesus’ responses were getting unnecessarily harsher. But maybe that’s the point. What is it for you that sounds perfectly reasonable, but is really just pushing Jesus to the fringes? What if I would have been “would-be-disciple number four” and came up to Jesus; what would Jesus point to in my life that I think is THE thing, but really is the thing that’s crowding Jesus out? Which of the three things that Jesus said offends you the most? Would you drop everything for Jesus? How much could he ask for before you’d push back and say, “That’s entirely too much, Jesus!” It’s uncomfortable to hear, but it’s so necessary!
You see, the problem isn’t so much with the thing itself (whatever it is in your life that’s threatening to crowd Jesus out) as it is with my attitude about it. Think of those three people Jesus encountered – are possessions bad? No. Is taking care of your father wrong? Of course not. Is it evil to want to see your family? Not a chance. So where’s the problem? It’s not with any of those good things. The problem is when those good things become “god things,” and try to take the number one priority spot in my heart. Jesus is teaching us a lesson about commitment and the level he’s looking for. And reading this lesson beats me up, and I bet it hits you pretty hard, too. Jesus isn’t looking for half-hearted, hemming and hawing, foot dragging, hands-off kind of disciples. But the law of God makes it clear that that’s exactly what I’ve been more often than I care to admit.
Reading this gospel lesson and stopping there – focusing attention only on your commitment to Christ – would be to do you a great disservice and to miss the larger point here. Do you remember how this all started out? Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And what would happen there? Nothing to look forward to, so it seems. Betrayal by a disciple; abandonment from the rest; a sham trial; beatings; flogging; mocking; three nails; a cross; and a tomb not his own. And he looks forward to that intently. Surrounded by people who rejected him and would-be disciples who said, “No thanks,” Jesus had his eyes locked on that middle cross of Calvary for you. Jesus was committed to saving you. When you think about it, you realize Jesus had every good, compelling reason not to do a thing about your sin. And don’t you think the devil loved to remind Jesus of that? They haven’t earned this! Look at that mass of humanity, going their own way, merrily marching away from God, and you want to do WHAT for them? Jesus, get real! They haven’t shaped up, they’re not the good ones. They belong with me. But no matter how many excuses the devil tempted him with, Jesus wouldn’t listen to any of them, because he had one compelling reason to do what he did - you. The One who owns and controls absolutely everything in heaven and earth was willing to drop everything, because he wants only one thing - you. And he’s willing to go to hell and back to make you his own – so that’s what he did. That’s where his eyes are fixed – on saving you. This gospel lesson is about your commitment to Christ, but in an even greater way, it’s all about Christ’s commitment to you.
This is the good news. For all my half-hearted discipleship, Jesus’ heart beats with forgiveness, covering my sin. For all my hemming and hawing about how things aren’t quite right and the time isn’t good, and the situation’s less than ideal, Jesus used his voice to proclaim the arrival of the Kingdom of God, right down to his very last breath – Forgive them! For every time you’ve turned aside, Jesus turned toward a cross. For all my foot-dragging, Jesus’ stubborn feet kept marching to Jerusalem. For my hands-off approach to following Jesus, Jesus put his hands to diligently do the work the Father had given him to do until those stubborn feet and those diligent hands were nailed to a cross instead of you and instead of me. Thank God, Jesus was committed to you…and he still is. Jesus is committed to you, and he proves it – he’s joined you to himself in the waters of your baptism, connecting you to his death and his resurrection – completely dead to self and totally alive in him. So here you stand before this altar, shoulder to shoulder with fellow sinners declared to be saints by the promise of God. Jesus comes and he gives you…what? Not part, not some, but all, his whole self, body and blood for your forgiveness. Jesus is committed to you, and he proves it! He has so arranged it that someone spoke into your ear and someone stands before you today and speaks a word – I forgive you all your sins – echoing from the empty tomb of Jesus himself. Christ has dropped everything to make you his own, and that means you’re free – not to abandon your family, but to love them. You’re free – to gladly hear and learn God’s word. You’re free – not to live so I can get, but to give. Because of his love, I can drop everything – my false attachment to the things of the world; my poor prioritizing; my sin and shame; and follow him. Christ has dropped everything for you, which means you’re free – free to live, free to serve, free to drop everything for Jesus.
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen