Deuteronomy 9:1-5, Luke 9:51-62
March 9, 2014
This story for today happened not long after the Transfiguration, which we looked at last week. There, on the mountaintop, the disciples saw Jesus transformed with Moses and Elijah, and in that experience they were confirmed in their belief about Jesus and who he was. There, they were inspired to continue following him. But what did that mean? And did they really understand? Sometimes I wonder.
After the Transfiguration passage in Luke, there follows a series of strange stories, stories which almost seem incongruous at first. The first is a story about a child that had a demon, which the disciples were unable to deal with. And Jesus reacted to that by saying these words. “O faithless and perverse generation! How long am I to bear with you. That sounds like frustration, doesn’t it? Can we picture Jesus being frustrated? Actually, with these disciples, I wouldn’t blame him!
Then after that, he tells them once again what is going to happen to him. But he doesn’t just say it. This time he shows a little more of his frustration with them. He says, “Let these words sink into your ears!” “Get this through your thick heads!” “I will be handed over to the authorities! And I will suffer!” But not only are we told that “they didn’t understand this,” but “they were afraid to ask what it meant.” That had to be frustrating to Jesus!
Then, as it that weren’t enough, we next find the disciples arguing among themselves. And what were they arguing about? They were arguing about which of them was the greatest! We can’t imagine that from our perspective. But it happens at several places in the Gospels. And in this case, Jesus shows a little more of his frustration, and he takes a little child, puts him beside him, and says “Oy Vey!” (That was left out of later translations!) “Whoever receives this little child in my name, receives me.” That was a much more harsh example than we might think. Jesus was putting their seemingly trivial argument in an eternal perspective, using as his example one of the “least” in their society. And then he tells them, “he who is least among you is one who is great!”
I think that was a very tense moment! But there was more! There was then this little exchange with John. And at first it seems odd enough. John tells Jesus, “We saw a man casting out demons in your name and we forbade him, because he was not one of us!” But that’s even more strange, because it starts out by saying, “John answered him saying, ‘We saw a man…’” This little statement about how important they were, and how they forbade the man because he wasn’t part of their little “fraternity,” makes this even more about their importance.
So, was John asking, “Were we wrong about that?” “Were we wrong thinking only about our own importance?” Do you think that was it? Or was John just trying to get a better perspective, a better attitude about this than the one they had just exhibited? I think maybe that’s what was happening. And maybe that’s a good thing. Otherwise, these stories seem a strange mix, don’t they?
Well, as we move into our passage for today, I would tell you that my Bible has an extra space before it. This is more than just a new paragraph. John seems to want to separate this out, to draw special attention to it. Or at least the editors of my Bible thought that! But remember that the original manuscripts had no chapter and verse numbers. They were added much later. The original manuscripts had no paragraph indents, and probably not even any spaces between the words! That’s how they wrote back then! It was just a long string of letters!
So I’m thinking maybe there’s a much closer tie between these other stories and our focus for today. For here we find these words. “When the days drew near for him to be ‘received up,’ he ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem.’” We touched on that a little last week. That statement was a milestone in Jesus’ ministry. For him to say that spoke volumes! Jerusalem was the hotbed of the growing controversy surrounding Jesus. It was a dangerous place to go! Several times before this, we read the words that said, “So and so made plans to kill him.”
That sounds drastic to us. But that’s what was at stake for these people! Jesus threatened the social order. He told people they needed to love those they did not love. He threatened the religious order. He questioned the authority of those powerful, respected leaders. And he threatened the political order. He threatened the tenuous “give and take” relationship that had been established between the Jews and their Roman occupiers. That was a relationship that could come crashing down at any time! So when the high priest said later, “Don’t you understand that it’s expedient that one man should die for the sake of the nation?” he was being “unintentionally” prophetic about the sacrifice Jesus was bringing. But he was also being very truthful about the need to eliminate Jesus before he caused horrible upheaval in the country!
Over and against all that, we have this statement of Jesus about his mission, about him being the atonement for humanity. And you see, I don’t think this is a separate story from the ones that came before it. This passage leaves no doubt about the true understanding of Jesus’ mission, and his humility! And we cannot separate the two. Because Jesus’ mission was about self-sacrifice! And that’s what I believe Luke was trying to show here. Jesus was indeed trying to get that to “sink into their ears.” Against these stories of the disciples’ feelings of self-importance, there is this picture of the self-sacrificial mission of Jesus. And that is crucial to understand about his mission, and his future Church. And that, my friends is us!
So I ask you, how do you think we view the mission of Jesus? Do we truly see what it’s like to follow one who said “the last shall be first and the first shall be last?” Do we know what it means to follow one who shakes to it’s foundations the social, religious, and political order in our world?
That’s what Lent is about. It’s about self examination. But it’s about self examination using the right criteria. Before we do any of that, we have to see the true nature of Jesus and his kingdom. And it’s not a kingdom that we create according to what we want his kingdom to be, but a humble understanding of what his kingdom truly is!
That’s not as easy, my friends! We need to let that “sink into our ears.” We need to know that we follow a Jesus who gave himself in atonement and self-sacrifice, whether we’re comfortable with that or not. And we need to know that we are called to take up our cross and follow him!
Frankly, I think that takes the whole season of Lent to another level. Because self-examination is one thing. We can think of our faith and our lives on our terms. But it’s much harder to think of our lives on Jesus’ terms! Sometimes I think we take this season too lightly. We think, “Ok, I’ll give something up for Lent.” And there’s nothing wrong with that! That’s a good reminder of the self-sacrifice of this time of year. (I was thinking of giving up my sanity for Lent! But I realized that I really wasn’t using it anyway! So it’s not much of a sacrifice.) But Lent is so much more. Lent is a matter of looking at our lives in light of this self-sacrificial mission of Jesus. It is remembering how, “He set his face to go to Jerusalem!” And it is understanding what that meant!
So I charge you to think in those terms. Do the “Lenten things.” Do the things that remind you, at this time of year, what Lent calls you to do. Here’s the invitation we use at the Ash Wednesday service.
“I invite you, in the name of Christ, to observe a Holy Lent, by self-examination and penitence, by prayer and fasting, by practicing works of love, and by reading and reflecting on God’s Holy Word. Let us begin our Lenten journey by confessing our sins and seeking the forgiveness and new life that is promised to us in Christ Jesus.”
Do those things. But more than that, seek to know the nature of Christ and his mission, and use that as the standard by which you make your self-examination. And know that that’s really tough! But also know, that through the atonement part of that mission, God accepts and loves you for who you are, just as he inspires you to know who he is!
Eternal God, we try to understand ourselves in light of your kingdom, but we often forget the latter. Help us to understand your love and Grace given through Jesus, and to know what it means to live our lives by his example. And give us the strength we need to do that. For these things we pray in his name, and for the sake of his kingdom, Amen.