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He set his face

He set his face to go

Sermon preached at Enmore, Sunday 26th June 2016, 6th Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 2 Kings 2.1-2;6-14. Luke 9.51-62

With a federal election just one week away, it is rather appropriate that we have an Old Testament reading and a Gospel reading which describe moments of change and transition. 2 Kings 2 gives us the account of Elijah’s departure from earth and Elisha’s assumption of his master’s prophetic office. Luke 9.51 is a pivotal verse in Luke’s Gospel because it describes the moment when Jesus ‘sets his face to go to Jerusalem’: an expression found only in Luke. From this last Sunday in June until the end of October we will walk with Jesus on that journey. All of the Gospel readings for these next four months fall within Luke’s journey narrative. Within this literary framework are some of Luke’s best known and loved parables and stories but it also contains passages that will test our resolve as ‘would be’ followers of Jesus.

But first a word about the Old Testament reading. In recent weeks we have had several stories about Elijah. Elijah was not a writing prophet but the author/authors of 1 & 2 Kings give considerable attention to him. Elijah was a prophet during the reign of Ahab and his wife Jezebel, some nine centuries before the birth of Christ in Israel’s northern kingdom. The narrator sums up Ahab’s reign with the words, “Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.” Ahab encouraged by his wife, led Israel away from the worship of YHWH to worship of the Canaanite fertility god, Baal. Elijah was at times the lone prophet in Israel calling Ahab to account. A typical example of Ahab and Jezebel’s shameful behaviour is the story of their murder of Naboth and the seizure of his vineyard. Elijah outlives Ahab and by the time we come to today’s reading, Ahab has died, his son Ahaziah has also died and his other son, Jehoram is king.

In the rather odd passage before us, Elijah is nearing the end of his life and his young protégé, Elisha, suddenly becomes aware that his master is soon to depart. He is keen to savor every last moment of time with Elijah so he ignores his master’s requests that he stay behind and he follows Elijah everywhere he goes. Elisha believes that he is destined to inherit the mantle of prophetic leadership from his master so he determines to stay with him to the end. They leave the northern kingdom, crossing the Jordan in a kind of symbolic exodus and once over, Elijah asks what he can do for his young follower. Elisha asks for a double portion (literally ‘double mouth’) of his spirit. In Jewish tradition Elisha performed twice the number of miracles that Elijah performed.

The Elijah/Elisha cycle of stories are often linked with John the Baptist and Jesus. John, like Elijah, confronted the treacherous King Herod and his bloodthirsty queen and called Israel to repentance. John baptized Jesus as Elijah commissioned Elisha and Jesus received the Spirit when he was baptized as Elisha received the spirit of his master, Elijah. The story narrated in 2 Kings 2 reaches backwards as well. One writer (Rebecca Kruger Gaudino) puts it well, “Like Moses, Elijah has been working to liberate those who live under the unjust rule of Pharaoh Ahab and his consort Jezebel. Crossing into the wilderness and freedom, Elijah experiences his own exodus from a life of hard duty and threat, to the promised land of God’s own presence. Elisha’s return across a parted Jordan is a return to an Israel so like Egypt that it needs the continued service of God’s spokesman.” Why the chariot of fire and whirlwind? In those days, the pagan god Baal was thought to be the cloud riding deity. But with Elijah’s dramatic exit, Elisha is reminded that his God is the power behind the whirlwind and the rider of the chariot. The story is about continuity and God’s faithfulness in times of crisis and change. In each new generation, God raises up leaders to proclaim his voice and to offer an alternative vision to the one embraced by the dominant powers. In a world where the abuse of power remains a constant threat, God looks for those who will fearlessly speak for justice and mercy.

The theme of preparing for change is seen in today’s Gospel reading. Jesus and his disciples have been visiting the towns and small cities of Galilee. They have moved from place to place, teaching and healing and ‘proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God.’ From time to time Jesus reminds the disciples that difficult times are ahead when he will face suffering and death at the hands of his enemies but these warnings are lost in their euphoria of being in the presence of this remarkable man. Surely no harm can come to a man who can open the eyes of the blind and make the deaf to hear. But there is a definite change in key in verse 51 of Luke 9: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We are reminded of the account of the transfiguration earlier in the same chapter 9, where Jesus takes his three closest followers Peter, James and John up onto the mountain where they witness his bright shining appearance and see him talking with Moses and Elijah. The topic of conversation is ‘his departure which he was about to accomplish in Jerusalem.’ Just as the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt signified the transition from bondage to freedom so Christ’s death (exodus) will bring freedom to all those held in sin and death.

The Jesus portrayed in Luke 9.51 is a man with a mission. He knows that Jerusalem is the place where he must go if he is to fulfill the task God has given him. Luke’s Gospel begins in the temple in Jerusalem with the righteous priest Zechariah being visited by a heavenly messenger who announces that his wife Elizabeth is to have a son in her old age. The Gospel will also end in Jerusalem with the disciples worshipping in the temple after the ascension of Jesus. So we should not be surprised that the central section of this third Gospel should be narrated around the final journey to the holy city. This travel narrative has as its dominant themes the coming rejection, death and resurrection of Jesus and the demands of discipleship for those who would be his followers.

The journey has barely begun before there is opposition. An advance party sent ahead to find accommodation in a Samaritan village is turned back. Hostility between Jews and Samaritans was deep seated and ancient in origin and attacks on pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem were not unknown. For Samaritans, Mt. Gerizim, not Jerusalem was the holy mountain. Perhaps remembering some of Elijah and Elisha’s exploits, James and John filled with righteous zeal ask if they may call down fire from heaven and destroy the inhospitable Samaritans. Sadly throughout history there have been some Christians who have tried to respond to opposition with hostility and even the sword but that was not the way of Jesus. Jesus’ rebuke to his disciples condemns all attempts to promote the good news of the Gospel by force, intimidation or fear. Jesus’ journey was not a triumphant march pushing all resistance aside but was marked instead by patience, compassion and grace.

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Bonhoeffer wrote, “Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a person his life and it is grace because it gives a person the only true life.” The three would be followers of Jesus, are reminded that following him has to come before all other demands of family or society and is not to be taken up lightly. We are inclined to find Jesus’ words here, harsh and uncompromising. We would like to explain them away as Hebrew hyperbole but as one commentator reminds us, “the radical nature of Jesus’ words lies in his claim to priority over the best not the worst of human relationships. Jesus did not say to choose him over the devil but to choose him even over the family. And the remarkable thing is that those who have done so have discovered they are freed from love of possession and worship of family and have found the distance to love them.” (Fred Craddock, Interpretation Commentary)

In the coming weeks we will learn more from Luke about the nature of life in God’s Kingdom and the demands of discipleship. We will learn that the image of Jesus on the road with his disciples is fundamental for understanding the life of faith. Our journey is not from Galilee to Jerusalem but from the present to the future but the risen Christ who leads us is the same Jesus who led his disciples and the goal is the same to find our true life, security and joy in him.

Philip Bradford