Don’t Look Back
1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21
“Jesus set his face towards Jerusalem.” I love that sentence. One of the worst papers I ever wrote in seminary was an exegesis of today’s gospel reading that I chose because I love that sentence. That paper earned the lowest grade I ever got. That’s because, sitting in church every Sunday, and going to Bible study I internalized what I understood as the Church’s triumphalist story: Jesus was sent by God to overcome sin and death and he was ready to get to work. My professor pointed out that I had not taken into account either the arc of the story that this particular gospel writer was telling or how it related to the older story that was Jesus’ context.
Bob warned you last week not to take anything too seriously that the pastor says, because the pastor only sees a tiny portion of the vast mystery of God. And that is true. Let me tell you what I see in this story, knowing that I cannot read it accurately in the worldview with which it was written, nor can I completely remove the modern lenses with which I read. I have trouble separating the subtext I have learned from the words I read on the page.
To understand what is happening in this passage, we need to know that we are picking up a story that is being propelled forward by a number of miraculous events. In the space that Bible editors have divided into one and a half chapters, 84 verses, Jesus, in what looks like rapid succession:
- Calmed a storm on the Sea of Galilee
- Healed a man with mental illness, driving the demons into a herd of pigs
- Was asked to leave that place because the townspeople feared him
- Healed a woman who had suffered hemorrhaging for 12 years
- Raised the 12 year old daughter of Jairus, a temple leader, after she was thought to have died
- Sent his disciples out to practice ministry and celebrated their stories of curing diseased
- Learned that Herod, who had already beheaded John the Baptist, was searching for him
- Fed a crowd of 5,000 at the end of a long day of teaching
- Has been transfigured while he was praying in the presence of a few of his disciples
- And healed a boy with epilepsy
Each of these stories gives us insight into how Jesus understood his ministry, how he moved in the world, and how he was received. Some perceived him as a miracle worker; Peter declared him to be God’s messiah; some saw him as dangerous, even threatening. If we pay careful attention, we can see how Jesus understands the Kingdom of God to work. It was always about ministry to those who are hurting or fearful.
By the time we get to the reading for today, his disciples were heady with their own power and their proximity to Jesus. Only a few verses earlier the disciples embarked on their first missions with great success. But in this passage, they ask if they can call down fire upon a Samaritan village that rejects Jesus. Fire! Judgment! Revenge! What happened to compassionate ministry? It is amazing how quickly the disciples move from celebrating a mission of healing to being jealous of someone who was not part of their crowd healing in Jesus’ name, to a desire to destroy those who rejected Jesus. If the disciples that learned from Jesus in the flesh had a hard time keeping their mission straight, how much harder for disciples and the Church 2,000 years later!
Jesus, the rock star of his time, has people coming out of the woodwork wanting to follow him, to bask in his glow, by this time. And he gets real with them. Foxes have hole and birds have nests, but Jesus is on the move. Jesus doesn’t set up shop anywhere, but goes where the Spirit leads him, stopping every time someone asks for help. Jesus did not start a church, but rather a movement—a movement that started in the temple and quickly moved out of the temple into the world. Jesus tells all of his would be disciples that they have to follow him.
While God loves each person unconditionally, to be a Christian means following Jesus. We do not move in our own direction and ask God or Jesus to bless us and our work. We go Jesus’ way. And once we make the decision to follow, we can’t look back while we are trying to move forward. We know how dangerous that is in driving—we have to keep our eyes on the road. Jesus tells any would-be disciples that they, or we, cannot look back because it’s just too easy to stay where we are comfortable, where we know how to fit in. When Elisha decided to follow the prophet Elijah, he went home and barbequed his team of oxen so that he could not go back to farming.
I hear a message for the Church today in this passage. It is not Jesus setting his face toward triumphalist glory, but Jesus being determined to keep moving toward the vision of God’s Kingdom even when it became dangerous. I think Jesus set his face to worship and would not let fear keep him away. Worship and ministry, ministry and worship. To follow Jesus, we have to do both in ways that may make us dangerous. God is always calling us forward into a future that we cannot know, and for which we may feel ill-prepared. But we cannot look back, even as a church, at what has fed us and kept us in the past. We will always be tempted to go back to what we have known and what has been comfortable instead of being aware of what is going on all around us that is propelling us or calling us into the future. Every once in a while we have the courage to let go of the old ways of doing things so that we can find a way forward. This church does that with amazing courage. Bill Easum’s book Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers is a helpful primer on how to let go of the past so that we can move into the future—it refers to the sacrifice necessary to move forward, like Elisha barbequing his oxen. So, Vashon United Methodist Church, where is Jesus leading us today? How can we, as a church, see ourselves not as an institution that must be maintained, but as a movement that transforms the world? How are we being called by Jesus to live into God’s vision of the Kingdom here and now? The church is only as relevant as the Kingdom of God revealed.
What are we doing that is healing that may even be perceived as being dangerous? United Methodist pastor and author, Adam Hamilton, calls this kind of following “discernment by nausea.” What ministry is so daunting that it makes us nauseous to even think about? That’s where Jesus is today, asking us to follow.