A sermon by Jim Somerville, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Richmond, Va., June 30, 2013
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Luke 9:51, 57-62
It’s good to be back in the pulpit.
For the past few Sundays I’ve been having lunch with the Apostle Paul and talking about his letter to the Galatians and with Scott Spencer’s help I believe I understand Paul better and appreciate him more than ever before. I like Paul!
But not as much as I like Jesus.
Dr. Spencer and I got a chance to talk between services last Sunday and we ended up talking about the decline of the American church and how that’s affecting the seminaries, because it’s true: when there aren’t as many people coming to church there aren’t as many people coming to seminary, either. At one point we acknowledged that the future doesn’t look all that bright for preachers and Bible teachers, and that eventually both he and I may need to look for other employment. We spent some time trying to figure out why people aren’t coming to church in the numbers they once did and then we started talking about why they come at all. Is it because of the praise band, the children’s programs, the cappuccino? But then I said something like this (and I wish I could remember exactly what I said, because it sounded so good at the time): I said, “For me, it’s all about Jesus. He really is the way, the truth, and the life. And even if the way he is leads me to a locked door (though I don’t think it will) I can’t imagine that I will ever regret following him. The Jesus I have come to know through the Gospels, through some of the better teaching and preaching I’ve heard, and through my own prayers and experience is so compelling, so exciting, so engaging that I want to live for him and die for him. In the end, for me, it’s not about the praise band or the children’s programs or the cappuccino; it’s about being a faithful follower of Jesus.”
I don’t think I can come up with a better introduction to this sermon series than that one, because for the next few months we are going to be “On the Road with Jesus,” following him faithfully wherever he goes. I’m going to be preaching the lectionary readings from Luke in this section of the Gospel that is often called “The Travel Narrative,” from chapter 9, verse51, where Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem, to chapter 19, verse 27, just before he arrives. Along the way Jesus interacts with the crowds and teaches his disciples what it means to be a true follower. So, I’m hoping we can learn from him as we travel—that we will open our ears to hear what he has to say, open our minds to understand it, open our hearts to receive it, and open our souls to believe it. It may be that the Jesus we thought we knew is not the Jesus who walks ahead of us on that dusty road, and that we have to stop from time to time to ask, “Do I really want to go where he’s going?” Even so, let’s begin the series with this simple truth:
There was something about Jesus that made people want to follow.
On the front of your bulletin there’s a quote from Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel, On the Road. The narrator, Sal Paradise, is in New York City with a couple of his friends and says, “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn…” Sal Paradise says he wanted to follow his friends because they were mad, and he uses that word in its best sense, meaning they were “carried away by enthusiasm or desire.” He wanted to go with them. He wanted to follow that same bright path toward the next exciting thing, and in the course of the novel he and his friends set off on a quest for life and meaning that takes them across the country several times and finally down into Mexico. At one point his friend Dean says to him, “Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.” And Sal says, “Where we going?” “I don’t know,” Dean answers, “but we gotta go.”[i]
And so Sal went with him, looking for that thing or that place they could never quite find. He followed his friend Dean because he seemed to believe that if anybody could find it, Dean could. But why did people follow Jesus? Was it because he was one of the “mad ones”? One of those who never yawned or said a commonplace thing but burned, burned, burned? Did he have the kind of energy and intensity that made people wonder what he might do next, and made them want to be there when he did it? I don’t know, but I’ve been pondering that question for the past few weeks and I’ve come up with some possible answers.
- Maybe it was because of the things he did, and one of the main things he did was to heal people. Everywhere he went there were people who were broken, hurting, lonely, and sad, and most of the time, and maybe only because he couldn’t stop himself, Jesus healed them. The Gospels are full of accounts of people bringing their sick friends and relatives to Jesus. Sometimes there were so many he couldn’t even enter the village he was going to, and had to stay out in the fields. They came to him anyway. Honestly, if you knew there was someone in town who could heal whatever was ailing you wouldn’t you go to him and ask him for help? It explains why so many people came looking for Jesus, but it doesn’t explain why so many hung around. Wouldn’t you think that most people, once they were healed, would simply go home?
- So, maybe it was because of the Kingdom he proclaimed, a Kingdom where God would finally have his way, where there would be no more sickness, no more death, no more tears, where the last would be first and the least would be great and the lost would be found forever. I once asked you to imagine Jesus going into all those little Galilean towns and villages and pulling down the flag of the Roman Empire, and running the flag of the Kingdom up the pole in its place. That would have caused some excitement. There were plenty of people in those days who were ready to be done with the Roman Empire. And if some of them thought Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to overthrow the Kingdom of Rome and establish another Kingdom in its place they would have gladly gone with him. Much of what he said had that kind of revolutionary edge to it, as if the existing structures of government were about to come crashing down, and some people probably followed him because of that.
- But maybe it was because of the things he said, things like: “Come to me all ye who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest,” or, “Why do you worry about your life? Look at the birds of the air!” or, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus said a lot of things that were comforting, helpful, healing. He told people their sins were forgiven. He told them their faith had made them well. He said, “Let the little children come to me,” and, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled.” All of those were things that might make a person want to follow him, but he also said some things that might make a person not want to follow, things like: “Love your enemies,” and, “Pray for those who persecute you,” and, “If anyone wants to come after me let him deny himself, take up his cross, and get in line.” I get the feeling that Jesus was not as gentle, meek, or mild as we might want him to be, and that he wasn’t always walking around with a lamb in his arms. Today’s Gospel lesson is a good example:
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem… As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:51, 57-62, NRSV).
Luke begins by saying, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” We should probably stop right there for a minute. Luke seems to be drawing inspiration from some of the Old Testament prophets, from Isaiah chapter 50, verse 7 for example, where it says, “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.” And Ezekiel 21:1-2, where it says, “The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, set your face towards Jerusalem and preach against the sanctuaries; prophesy against the land of Israel.” Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem, Luke says, and you can almost see the square set of his jaw, the look of determination in his eyes. But Luke also says he did this “when the days drew near for him to be taken up.” And if you’ve been paying attention this morning you can almost see Elijah ascending in a whirlwind to heaven, and you can tell that something big is about to happen to Jesus, and that it’s going to happen in Jerusalem, and that he’s got to go there whether he wants to or not. “He set his face,” Luke says, like you might when you make up your mind to do something and decide that no one or nothing is going to stop you.
Have you known people like that? People who were going somewhere? And even if they were going in the wrong direction they had such a strong magnetic pull that you almost couldn’t keep yourself from going along. Early in the novel On the Road Sal’s friend, Dean, invites him to leave New York and come to Denver. Sal says, “Although my aunt warned me that he would get me in trouble, I could hear a new call and see a new horizon, and believe it at my young age: and a little bit of trouble, or even Dean’s eventual rejection of me as a buddy, putting me down, as he would later, on starving sidewalks and sickbeds—what did it matter? I was a young writer and I wanted to take off. Somewhere along the line I knew…the pearl would be handed to me.”[ii] Sal Paradise was looking for the pearl of great price, and he believed his friend Dean Moriarty would show him where it was. In some ways that’s how it must have been for the three would-be followers of Jesus in today’s text:
- The first one says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In other words, this journey that I’m on is not going to be easy or comfortable, necessarily. Are you ready for that?” I think of that sometimes when I’m unlocking the front door of my comfortable home or when my head drops onto my fluffy down pillow. I think about it when I go to a Baptist meeting where the hotel rooms are bigger and nicer than anything most people will ever see. What sort of sacrifice am I willing to make for Jesus?
- To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” In other words, “You’ve got to establish your priorities, and if the kingdom of God is not at the top of your list you are not taking this thing seriously. It needs to come before any other responsibility.” I think about that sometimes when I’m making vacation plans or putting other things on my calendar, things that don’t seem nearly so important.
- Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” In other words, if you start down this path without a commitment to see it all the way through to the end, you might as well not start at all, but if you do, then nothing, not even your friends and family, should keep you from following me.
I keep thinking about that scene from the movie A Few Good Men where Jack Nicholson says to Tom Cruise, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth!” I can almost hear Jesus saying, “You want to be a disciple? You can’t handle discipleship!” Because he doesn’t make it easy, does he? No place to lay your head. Leave the dead to bury the dead. Forsake your friends and family. Jesus might just as well have said, “Don’t follow me. You can’t handle it!” But maybe he knows that if he makes it sound too easy, people will fall away when it gets hard, and be no use to him, while if they didn’t think it was going to be easy, they might not be so surprised when it wasn’t, they might be able to hang in there, and keep going, even when others were falling away. It’s almost a dare, in its way, almost a double dare, almost a triple-dog dare: “You want to follow me? I’m not sure you can. I think you’ll give up, give in, long before we’ve reached our destination.” I don’t know what that kind of thing does to you, but it makes me want to prove him wrong. I wonder what it did to those three would-be disciples, because the truth is we don’t know how they responded. Luke never tells us. So, we don’t know the answer, but we know the question: “Can I follow you?” “I don’t know,” Jesus says: “Can you?”
Whatever it was, there was something about him that made people want to follow. Was it the things he did? Was it the things he said? Was it the Kingdom he proclaimed? Or was it something else, something the Gospel writers couldn’t even put into words, some indefinable quality or charisma you had to be there to experience? I’ve wondered at times what it would be like to stand in front of him on a dusty road, in the late afternoon sunshine, trying to work up the nerve to ask if I could go with him, wherever he was going. And if I did I’ve wondered what it would be like to look into those eyes as he stared me down, to feel my heart thumping in my chest as I waited for his answer. I have a feeling that if he said, “Listen, I’m getting ready to go to Jerusalem. They’re going to arrest me and try me and crucify me. Want to come?” I would want to come. And if he smiled at me, and jerked his head in the direction of the road, I would want to follow. And I wouldn’t care what was at the end of the road, as long as I got to walk the road with him.
What about you? Are you a would-be follower of Jesus, one of those who would be his follower if it weren’t so hard? Or are you a will-be disciple of Jesus, one of those who will be his disciple no matter what? Because he is still looking for a few good men, and a few good women, and a few brave boys and girls, who will make up their minds to follow him…and never look back.
[i] Jack Kerouac, On the Road (New York: Penguin Books, 1955, 1957), p. 47
[ii] Ibid., p. 8.
Jim Somerville is pastor of First Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia.