Monthly Archives: June 2007

Tomorrow’s Sermon: Setting Our Faces Towards Jerusalem

Luke 9:51-62

Introduction
Being a Tottenham Hotspur
supporter, I looked on with considerable unchristian glee this last week when
our deadly rivals Arsenal had to sell
their star player Thierry Henry to Barcelona. I was less impressed on Friday,
when my team signed
Darren Bent for a whopping £16.5 million transfer fee. He has only played three
times for England!

Now this may bore those of you who detest football, and you
may scoff at the ridiculous sums football clubs pay to acquire the services of
modest players. I talked about this on Friday night with the Boys’ Brigade, and
asked them what transfer fee each of them was worth. One boy said he was worth
a tenner, several mentioned sums in the millions, and one lad even presumed to
mention a figure that went into the billions.

I told them all, however, that they had all under-estimated
their value. God wanted them playing on his team and he was prepared to pay a
massive transfer fee so they might play for him and not the opposition. That
price was the giving up of his only begotten Son.[1]

In our reading, Jesus is on his way to pay that price:

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his
face to go to Jerusalem (verse 51).

Jesus knows he is going to be betrayed, suffer, be
crucified, but then be raised from the dead and ascend to the Father’s right
hand. He ‘sets his face’ towards this destiny. Similarly, when he encounters
the three would-be disciples in the second half of the reading, the setting is
‘As they were going along the road’ (verse 57). Not just any road, we are to
understand: it is the road to Jerusalem, the road to suffering and glory.

Therefore, this reading is about those who would walk that
road with Jesus. What does it mean to walk the road of suffering and then glory
with Jesus? Bluntly, what does discipleship entail?

1. Rejection
A Samaritan village doesn’t welcome Jesus’ advance party. It isn’t surprising,
really:

Jewish pilgrims regularly passed through Samaria on their way
to the Jerusalem feasts. Sometimes there was trouble that even led to massacre.
The hostility between Jews and Samaritans at that time is well known.[2]

James and John make the pastorally sensitive suggestion that
Jesus allows them to call down fire from heaven and sizzle the villagers like
sausages (verse 54). No wonder elsewhere Jesus nicknamed them the ‘sons of
thunder’. I remember one preacher saying they must have been the Hell’s Angels
of the apostles.

However, Jesus doesn’t go in for a Hell’s Angels response. He
rebukes them (verse 55) and they move on (verse 56), just as in the next
chapter of Luke’s Gospel he will tell those who don’t get a hearing for the
Gospel to move on.

The point is this: one who is on his way to suffer violence
in order to bring redemption cannot inflict violence on others to further his
purposes.

How we handle rejection is a key issue. For not everyone
will welcome the Christian message, our values or our lifestyle. The disciples
of Jesus are not to repay in kind what has unjustly been dealt to them. We are
not to engage in the spite, vilification and character assassination tactics
that are so common in our world. We are to respond non-violently, with
forgiveness. If even living differently has no positive effect, then we don’t
waste our time, we move on.

There is a time, then, to stop a certain activity, because
it is fruitless. There is a time to stop wasting energy with some people. I
remember being away on a residential training course for my job and sharing
accommodation with an atheist. We debated the existence of God, but eventually
it was apparent that he wasn’t interested in the possibility that he might be
wrong, he was only interested in winding me up and having a bit of intellectual
fun. That was the point at which I stopped wasting my time in the face of
sophisticated rejection. I did not become bitter towards him, but I left him to
the mercy of God.

The disciples of Jesus come across opponents and obstacles
on their road to Jerusalem. But Jesus teaches us that we do not have to face
down every single one of them. Sometimes we simply need to skirt around them,
with a measure of Christian grace.

2. Misfits
If you were preaching the good news of Jesus and someone responded by saying
that they would follow Jesus wherever he went (verse 57), you’d think that was
a wonderful response, wouldn’t you? Yet when someone comes up to Jesus and says
precisely that, he doesn’t immediately invite him to tag along. His response
is:

‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the
Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (verse 58)

Jesus isn’t saying, I’m homeless, you’ll always be on the
road with me, so get your sleeping bag ready. In any case, there was a stage in
Jesus’ life where he had the use of a house in Capernaum. He is saying, even
animals get a welcome in this world, but I don’t always. If you want to join me
on the road of discipleship, then be aware from the outset that we are a band
of social misfits. Not that we are lacking in social graces, but we don’t
always receive a welcome. Our lifestyle, convictions and words make people
uncomfortable. We won’t be at the heart of society; we’ll be on the fringes.

This speaks to the regular temptation to make the Christian
message acceptable, respectable and comfortable. It challenges the idea that
the way to make more disciples of Jesus is to lower the bar and make access
easier. Maybe we are tempted to make things sound easier, because we are
concerned by falling church numbers, or by the declining influence of the
church in our society. Yet Jesus warns us that if we do lower the bar then what
we shall end up with will not be disciples. He raises the bar.

What does this mean for us? It’s not a licence to be
obnoxious and offensive, but it is a call to radical faithfulness to our Lord.
In the words of Michael Frost,
we shall live like exiles
in today’s world: exiles from comfortable religion, and exiles from a worldwide
empire that worships a globalisation that feeds off consumerism, environmental
destruction and persecution. Refusing to worship the almighty dollar, we shall
be pushed to the margins. But that is where we shall live faithful lives of
witness to Christ.

3. Duty
‘Who is a funeral for?’ asked our worship tutor during my first degree.
Catholics, he went on to explain, see the funeral as being for the deceased,
whereas Protestants see it as being to comfort the bereaved.

None of which counted for anything when, in my first
appointment, I encountered Lily and George. Blunt Yorkshire people, George was
never a well man. And when he died, Lily said there was to be no funeral. In
her estimation, it was a waste of time and money. It wouldn’t bring her beloved
George back, and she had to get on with life without him. I didn’t know how to
respond. Nor did people in the church.

I think of Lily when I hear Jesus telling the man who wanted
to bury his father first that the dead should bury their own dead, and that the
man’s duty was to proclaim the kingdom of God (verses 59-60). I am not
suggesting that we abolish funerals, and I do not plan to stop accepting
requests to conduct them. I have found them important staging posts in people’s
grief, and I regularly conducted funerals for non-Christians in the last
circuit, because it was an opportunity to show Christian compassion. I knew an
Anglican vicar who refused to take such funerals, quoting Jesus’ words here,
Let the dead bury their own dead.’ I think he was terribly wrong.

However, Jesus’ shocking words force us to one unpopular
conclusion: our duty to proclaim the kingdom of God transcends all social
conventions, however important they are. The other example in Scripture is God
forbidding the prophet Ezekiel from mourning the death of his wife (Ezekiel 24:15-24). In some
social circumstances, it is not ‘done’ to talk about faith – when Alistair
Campbell was Tony Blair’s spin-doctor and told Vanity Fair magazine ‘We don’t
do God’, he was tapping into something that is widely accepted in British
society. Just as the Victorians didn’t talk about sex, so we don’t talk about
death or religion.

And indeed, I once knew a Methodist minister who proudly
told a group of teenagers that he had joined a society where the one rule was
that you didn’t talk about faith. Yet there cannot be any no-go areas for
Christians in proclaiming the kingdom of God. This is not a call to be insensitive,
it is not an appeal for Bible-bashing, but it is to say that the followers of
Jesus cannot allow society to dictate whether or when we speak about God. If
people need to hear, we shall speak. If it makes us unpopular, so be it.
Popularity is not what we court, however much we feel the natural human desire
to be liked. What counts for us is that one day we shall hear a voice saying
not, ‘Many people liked you,’ but, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’

4. Urgency
You may remember in 1983 that the Daily
Mail
ran a story about the Moonies, entitled ‘The
Church That Breaks Up Families
’. It led to the longest libel case in
British legal history, and the Mail won. The idea that a religion or a sect
could break up families was proved, and roundly condemned.

So how do we hear Jesus denying another prospective disciple
the right to say farewell to his family (verses 61-62)? Probably some atheists
would use this as evidence that Jesus is really a cultist. And in an age when
the CEO of Sony in the USA, Howard Stringer, a married man with two children,
can say at a company meeting without blushing, ‘I don’t see my family much. My
family is you’, surely we’d like Jesus to say something different? Likewise,
when the chief executive of General Electric, Jeff Immelt, can tell a
journalist he is married with an eighteen-year-old daughter, and he’s worked
hundred-hour weeks at the company for the last twenty years, wouldn’t we like
Jesus to affirm the value of family? (See Bill Kinnon.) And
wouldn’t I like help about balancing family life and ministry? But no. ‘No one
who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
(verse 62)

I conclude that Jesus is not telling us to neglect our
families; he’s telling us that people who keep looking backwards to what once
was do not apply themselves wholeheartedly as the kingdom of God requires. When
we hesitate to follow the call, we go off course. When we delay our obedience
to Christ, we steer a wonky furrow.

Therefore, when we know God has spoken, it isn’t a time for
excuses. That is to look back and skew the direction of the plough. Moreover, when
God speaks to us about something new he wants us to do, it isn’t the time to
use the seven last words of a dying church: ‘But we’ve always done it that way.’
That steers us off the course God has for us now. When we face new problems and
God takes us in a different direction, that isn’t the time to bemoan the way it
was in the good old days. Don’t look back, says Jesus; look forward. That is
the nature of kingdom obedience.

Conclusion
Preachers are trained to look at their sermons and ask where the good news is. You
might be forgiven for dwelling on the themes of this sermon and wondering where
the good news is, when Jesus spells out a journey that includes rejection,
being misfits, doing our duty in the face of social opposition and pushing
relentlessly forward, not being allowed to dwell in the warmth of glowing
memories.

However, I think the good news comes in this sense. Yes,
Jesus ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’ (verse 51), and there, he knew that
suffering awaited him. A journey like this may mean conflict, difficulties and
tribulation for us. Nevertheless, Jesus headed for Jerusalem, because it was
the place where he would ‘be taken up’ (verse 51). ‘Being taken up’ didn’t just
mean the Cross; it also meant the Resurrection and the Ascension. We too may be
on a troublesome journey at times, and like Jesus we may well want to ask the
Father to ‘take this cup’ from us. But within it lies the satisfaction of doing
God’s will, and beyond it lies the glory of God.

Let us press on, as radical disciples of Jesus, in the
service of the kingdom.


[1]
And yes, I know this analogy has all the imperfections of the ransom imagery:
to whom is the ransom/fee paid? However, it is only an image.

[2]
John Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34 (Word
Biblical Commentary)
; Dallas, Word, 1993, p537.

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Tomorrow’s Sermon: Setting Our Faces Towards Jerusalem

Luke 9:51-62

Introduction
Being a Tottenham Hotspur
supporter, I looked on with considerable unchristian glee this last week when
our deadly rivals Arsenal had to sell
their star player Thierry Henry to Barcelona. I was less impressed on Friday,
when my team signed
Darren Bent for a whopping £16.5 million transfer fee. He has only played three
times for England!

Now this may bore those of you who detest football, and you
may scoff at the ridiculous sums football clubs pay to acquire the services of
modest players. I talked about this on Friday night with the Boys’ Brigade, and
asked them what transfer fee each of them was worth. One boy said he was worth
a tenner, several mentioned sums in the millions, and one lad even presumed to
mention a figure that went into the billions.

I told them all, however, that they had all under-estimated
their value. God wanted them playing on his team and he was prepared to pay a
massive transfer fee so they might play for him and not the opposition. That
price was the giving up of his only begotten Son.[1]

In our reading, Jesus is on his way to pay that price:

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his
face to go to Jerusalem (verse 51).

Jesus knows he is going to be betrayed, suffer, be
crucified, but then be raised from the dead and ascend to the Father’s right
hand. He ‘sets his face’ towards this destiny. Similarly, when he encounters
the three would-be disciples in the second half of the reading, the setting is
‘As they were going along the road’ (verse 57). Not just any road, we are to
understand: it is the road to Jerusalem, the road to suffering and glory.

Therefore, this reading is about those who would walk that
road with Jesus. What does it mean to walk the road of suffering and then glory
with Jesus? Bluntly, what does discipleship entail?

1. Rejection
A Samaritan village doesn’t welcome Jesus’ advance party. It isn’t surprising,
really:

Jewish pilgrims regularly passed through Samaria on their way
to the Jerusalem feasts. Sometimes there was trouble that even led to massacre.
The hostility between Jews and Samaritans at that time is well known.[2]

James and John make the pastorally sensitive suggestion that
Jesus allows them to call down fire from heaven and sizzle the villagers like
sausages (verse 54). No wonder elsewhere Jesus nicknamed them the ‘sons of
thunder’. I remember one preacher saying they must have been the Hell’s Angels
of the apostles.

However, Jesus doesn’t go in for a Hell’s Angels response. He
rebukes them (verse 55) and they move on (verse 56), just as in the next
chapter of Luke’s Gospel he will tell those who don’t get a hearing for the
Gospel to move on.

The point is this: one who is on his way to suffer violence
in order to bring redemption cannot inflict violence on others to further his
purposes.

How we handle rejection is a key issue. For not everyone
will welcome the Christian message, our values or our lifestyle. The disciples
of Jesus are not to repay in kind what has unjustly been dealt to them. We are
not to engage in the spite, vilification and character assassination tactics
that are so common in our world. We are to respond non-violently, with
forgiveness. If even living differently has no positive effect, then we don’t
waste our time, we move on.

There is a time, then, to stop a certain activity, because
it is fruitless. There is a time to stop wasting energy with some people. I
remember being away on a residential training course for my job and sharing
accommodation with an atheist. We debated the existence of God, but eventually
it was apparent that he wasn’t interested in the possibility that he might be
wrong, he was only interested in winding me up and having a bit of intellectual
fun. That was the point at which I stopped wasting my time in the face of
sophisticated rejection. I did not become bitter towards him, but I left him to
the mercy of God.

The disciples of Jesus come across opponents and obstacles
on their road to Jerusalem. But Jesus teaches us that we do not have to face
down every single one of them. Sometimes we simply need to skirt around them,
with a measure of Christian grace.

2. Misfits
If you were preaching the good news of Jesus and someone responded by saying
that they would follow Jesus wherever he went (verse 57), you’d think that was
a wonderful response, wouldn’t you? Yet when someone comes up to Jesus and says
precisely that, he doesn’t immediately invite him to tag along. His response
is:

‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the
Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (verse 58)

Jesus isn’t saying, I’m homeless, you’ll always be on the
road with me, so get your sleeping bag ready. In any case, there was a stage in
Jesus’ life where he had the use of a house in Capernaum. He is saying, even
animals get a welcome in this world, but I don’t always. If you want to join me
on the road of discipleship, then be aware from the outset that we are a band
of social misfits. Not that we are lacking in social graces, but we don’t
always receive a welcome. Our lifestyle, convictions and words make people
uncomfortable. We won’t be at the heart of society; we’ll be on the fringes.

This speaks to the regular temptation to make the Christian
message acceptable, respectable and comfortable. It challenges the idea that
the way to make more disciples of Jesus is to lower the bar and make access
easier. Maybe we are tempted to make things sound easier, because we are
concerned by falling church numbers, or by the declining influence of the
church in our society. Yet Jesus warns us that if we do lower the bar then what
we shall end up with will not be disciples. He raises the bar.

What does this mean for us? It’s not a licence to be
obnoxious and offensive, but it is a call to radical faithfulness to our Lord.
In the words of Michael Frost,
we shall live like exiles
in today’s world: exiles from comfortable religion, and exiles from a worldwide
empire that worships a globalisation that feeds off consumerism, environmental
destruction and persecution. Refusing to worship the almighty dollar, we shall
be pushed to the margins. But that is where we shall live faithful lives of
witness to Christ.

3. Duty
‘Who is a funeral for?’ asked our worship tutor during my first degree.
Catholics, he went on to explain, see the funeral as being for the deceased,
whereas Protestants see it as being to comfort the bereaved.

None of which counted for anything when, in my first
appointment, I encountered Lily and George. Blunt Yorkshire people, George was
never a well man. And when he died, Lily said there was to be no funeral. In
her estimation, it was a waste of time and money. It wouldn’t bring her beloved
George back, and she had to get on with life without him. I didn’t know how to
respond. Nor did people in the church.

I think of Lily when I hear Jesus telling the man who wanted
to bury his father first that the dead should bury their own dead, and that the
man’s duty was to proclaim the kingdom of God (verses 59-60). I am not
suggesting that we abolish funerals, and I do not plan to stop accepting
requests to conduct them. I have found them important staging posts in people’s
grief, and I regularly conducted funerals for non-Christians in the last
circuit, because it was an opportunity to show Christian compassion. I knew an
Anglican vicar who refused to take such funerals, quoting Jesus’ words here,
Let the dead bury their own dead.’ I think he was terribly wrong.

However, Jesus’ shocking words force us to one unpopular
conclusion: our duty to proclaim the kingdom of God transcends all social
conventions, however important they are. The other example in Scripture is God
forbidding the prophet Ezekiel from mourning the death of his wife (Ezekiel 24:15-24). In some
social circumstances, it is not ‘done’ to talk about faith – when Alistair
Campbell was Tony Blair’s spin-doctor and told Vanity Fair magazine ‘We don’t
do God’, he was tapping into something that is widely accepted in British
society. Just as the Victorians didn’t talk about sex, so we don’t talk about
death or religion.

And indeed, I once knew a Methodist minister who proudly
told a group of teenagers that he had joined a society where the one rule was
that you didn’t talk about faith. Yet there cannot be any no-go areas for
Christians in proclaiming the kingdom of God. This is not a call to be insensitive,
it is not an appeal for Bible-bashing, but it is to say that the followers of
Jesus cannot allow society to dictate whether or when we speak about God. If
people need to hear, we shall speak. If it makes us unpopular, so be it.
Popularity is not what we court, however much we feel the natural human desire
to be liked. What counts for us is that one day we shall hear a voice saying
not, ‘Many people liked you,’ but, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’

4. Urgency
You may remember in 1983 that the Daily
Mail
ran a story about the Moonies, entitled ‘The
Church That Breaks Up Families
’. It led to the longest libel case in
British legal history, and the Mail won. The idea that a religion or a sect
could break up families was proved, and roundly condemned.

So how do we hear Jesus denying another prospective disciple
the right to say farewell to his family (verses 61-62)? Probably some atheists
would use this as evidence that Jesus is really a cultist. And in an age when
the CEO of Sony in the USA, Howard Stringer, a married man with two children,
can say at a company meeting without blushing, ‘I don’t see my family much. My
family is you’, surely we’d like Jesus to say something different? Likewise,
when the chief executive of General Electric, Jeff Immelt, can tell a
journalist he is married with an eighteen-year-old daughter, and he’s worked
hundred-hour weeks at the company for the last twenty years, wouldn’t we like
Jesus to affirm the value of family? (See Bill Kinnon.) And
wouldn’t I like help about balancing family life and ministry? But no. ‘No one
who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
(verse 62)

I conclude that Jesus is not telling us to neglect our
families; he’s telling us that people who keep looking backwards to what once
was do not apply themselves wholeheartedly as the kingdom of God requires. When
we hesitate to follow the call, we go off course. When we delay our obedience
to Christ, we steer a wonky furrow.

Therefore, when we know God has spoken, it isn’t a time for
excuses. That is to look back and skew the direction of the plough. Moreover, when
God speaks to us about something new he wants us to do, it isn’t the time to
use the seven last words of a dying church: ‘But we’ve always done it that way.’
That steers us off the course God has for us now. When we face new problems and
God takes us in a different direction, that isn’t the time to bemoan the way it
was in the good old days. Don’t look back, says Jesus; look forward. That is
the nature of kingdom obedience.

Conclusion
Preachers are trained to look at their sermons and ask where the good news is. You
might be forgiven for dwelling on the themes of this sermon and wondering where
the good news is, when Jesus spells out a journey that includes rejection,
being misfits, doing our duty in the face of social opposition and pushing
relentlessly forward, not being allowed to dwell in the warmth of glowing
memories.

However, I think the good news comes in this sense. Yes,
Jesus ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’ (verse 51), and there, he knew that
suffering awaited him. A journey like this may mean conflict, difficulties and
tribulation for us. Nevertheless, Jesus headed for Jerusalem, because it was
the place where he would ‘be taken up’ (verse 51). ‘Being taken up’ didn’t just
mean the Cross; it also meant the Resurrection and the Ascension. We too may be
on a troublesome journey at times, and like Jesus we may well want to ask the
Father to ‘take this cup’ from us. But within it lies the satisfaction of doing
God’s will, and beyond it lies the glory of God.

Let us press on, as radical disciples of Jesus, in the
service of the kingdom.


[1]
And yes, I know this analogy has all the imperfections of the ransom imagery:
to whom is the ransom/fee paid? However, it is only an image.

[2]
John Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34 (Word
Biblical Commentary)
; Dallas, Word, 1993, p537.

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Tomorrow’s Sermon: Setting Our Faces Towards Jerusalem

Luke 9:51-62

Introduction
Being a Tottenham Hotspur
supporter, I looked on with considerable unchristian glee this last week when
our deadly rivals Arsenal had to sell
their star player Thierry Henry to Barcelona. I was less impressed on Friday,
when my team signed
Darren Bent for a whopping £16.5 million transfer fee. He has only played three
times for England!

Now this may bore those of you who detest football, and you
may scoff at the ridiculous sums football clubs pay to acquire the services of
modest players. I talked about this on Friday night with the Boys’ Brigade, and
asked them what transfer fee each of them was worth. One boy said he was worth
a tenner, several mentioned sums in the millions, and one lad even presumed to
mention a figure that went into the billions.

I told them all, however, that they had all under-estimated
their value. God wanted them playing on his team and he was prepared to pay a
massive transfer fee so they might play for him and not the opposition. That
price was the giving up of his only begotten Son.[1]

In our reading, Jesus is on his way to pay that price:

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his
face to go to Jerusalem (verse 51).

Jesus knows he is going to be betrayed, suffer, be
crucified, but then be raised from the dead and ascend to the Father’s right
hand. He ‘sets his face’ towards this destiny. Similarly, when he encounters
the three would-be disciples in the second half of the reading, the setting is
‘As they were going along the road’ (verse 57). Not just any road, we are to
understand: it is the road to Jerusalem, the road to suffering and glory.

Therefore, this reading is about those who would walk that
road with Jesus. What does it mean to walk the road of suffering and then glory
with Jesus? Bluntly, what does discipleship entail?

1. Rejection
A Samaritan village doesn’t welcome Jesus’ advance party. It isn’t surprising,
really:

Jewish pilgrims regularly passed through Samaria on their way
to the Jerusalem feasts. Sometimes there was trouble that even led to massacre.
The hostility between Jews and Samaritans at that time is well known.[2]

James and John make the pastorally sensitive suggestion that
Jesus allows them to call down fire from heaven and sizzle the villagers like
sausages (verse 54). No wonder elsewhere Jesus nicknamed them the ‘sons of
thunder’. I remember one preacher saying they must have been the Hell’s Angels
of the apostles.

However, Jesus doesn’t go in for a Hell’s Angels response. He
rebukes them (verse 55) and they move on (verse 56), just as in the next
chapter of Luke’s Gospel he will tell those who don’t get a hearing for the
Gospel to move on.

The point is this: one who is on his way to suffer violence
in order to bring redemption cannot inflict violence on others to further his
purposes.

How we handle rejection is a key issue. For not everyone
will welcome the Christian message, our values or our lifestyle. The disciples
of Jesus are not to repay in kind what has unjustly been dealt to them. We are
not to engage in the spite, vilification and character assassination tactics
that are so common in our world. We are to respond non-violently, with
forgiveness. If even living differently has no positive effect, then we don’t
waste our time, we move on.

There is a time, then, to stop a certain activity, because
it is fruitless. There is a time to stop wasting energy with some people. I
remember being away on a residential training course for my job and sharing
accommodation with an atheist. We debated the existence of God, but eventually
it was apparent that he wasn’t interested in the possibility that he might be
wrong, he was only interested in winding me up and having a bit of intellectual
fun. That was the point at which I stopped wasting my time in the face of
sophisticated rejection. I did not become bitter towards him, but I left him to
the mercy of God.

The disciples of Jesus come across opponents and obstacles
on their road to Jerusalem. But Jesus teaches us that we do not have to face
down every single one of them. Sometimes we simply need to skirt around them,
with a measure of Christian grace.

2. Misfits
If you were preaching the good news of Jesus and someone responded by saying
that they would follow Jesus wherever he went (verse 57), you’d think that was
a wonderful response, wouldn’t you? Yet when someone comes up to Jesus and says
precisely that, he doesn’t immediately invite him to tag along. His response
is:

‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the
Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ (verse 58)

Jesus isn’t saying, I’m homeless, you’ll always be on the
road with me, so get your sleeping bag ready. In any case, there was a stage in
Jesus’ life where he had the use of a house in Capernaum. He is saying, even
animals get a welcome in this world, but I don’t always. If you want to join me
on the road of discipleship, then be aware from the outset that we are a band
of social misfits. Not that we are lacking in social graces, but we don’t
always receive a welcome. Our lifestyle, convictions and words make people
uncomfortable. We won’t be at the heart of society; we’ll be on the fringes.

This speaks to the regular temptation to make the Christian
message acceptable, respectable and comfortable. It challenges the idea that
the way to make more disciples of Jesus is to lower the bar and make access
easier. Maybe we are tempted to make things sound easier, because we are
concerned by falling church numbers, or by the declining influence of the
church in our society. Yet Jesus warns us that if we do lower the bar then what
we shall end up with will not be disciples. He raises the bar.

What does this mean for us? It’s not a licence to be
obnoxious and offensive, but it is a call to radical faithfulness to our Lord.
In the words of Michael Frost,
we shall live like exiles
in today’s world: exiles from comfortable religion, and exiles from a worldwide
empire that worships a globalisation that feeds off consumerism, environmental
destruction and persecution. Refusing to worship the almighty dollar, we shall
be pushed to the margins. But that is where we shall live faithful lives of
witness to Christ.

3. Duty
‘Who is a funeral for?’ asked our worship tutor during my first degree.
Catholics, he went on to explain, see the funeral as being for the deceased,
whereas Protestants see it as being to comfort the bereaved.

None of which counted for anything when, in my first
appointment, I encountered Lily and George. Blunt Yorkshire people, George was
never a well man. And when he died, Lily said there was to be no funeral. In
her estimation, it was a waste of time and money. It wouldn’t bring her beloved
George back, and she had to get on with life without him. I didn’t know how to
respond. Nor did people in the church.

I think of Lily when I hear Jesus telling the man who wanted
to bury his father first that the dead should bury their own dead, and that the
man’s duty was to proclaim the kingdom of God (verses 59-60). I am not
suggesting that we abolish funerals, and I do not plan to stop accepting
requests to conduct them. I have found them important staging posts in people’s
grief, and I regularly conducted funerals for non-Christians in the last
circuit, because it was an opportunity to show Christian compassion. I knew an
Anglican vicar who refused to take such funerals, quoting Jesus’ words here,
Let the dead bury their own dead.’ I think he was terribly wrong.

However, Jesus’ shocking words force us to one unpopular
conclusion: our duty to proclaim the kingdom of God transcends all social
conventions, however important they are. The other example in Scripture is God
forbidding the prophet Ezekiel from mourning the death of his wife (Ezekiel 24:15-24). In some
social circumstances, it is not ‘done’ to talk about faith – when Alistair
Campbell was Tony Blair’s spin-doctor and told Vanity Fair magazine ‘We don’t
do God’, he was tapping into something that is widely accepted in British
society. Just as the Victorians didn’t talk about sex, so we don’t talk about
death or religion.

And indeed, I once knew a Methodist minister who proudly
told a group of teenagers that he had joined a society where the one rule was
that you didn’t talk about faith. Yet there cannot be any no-go areas for
Christians in proclaiming the kingdom of God. This is not a call to be insensitive,
it is not an appeal for Bible-bashing, but it is to say that the followers of
Jesus cannot allow society to dictate whether or when we speak about God. If
people need to hear, we shall speak. If it makes us unpopular, so be it.
Popularity is not what we court, however much we feel the natural human desire
to be liked. What counts for us is that one day we shall hear a voice saying
not, ‘Many people liked you,’ but, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’

4. Urgency
You may remember in 1983 that the Daily
Mail
ran a story about the Moonies, entitled ‘The
Church That Breaks Up Families
’. It led to the longest libel case in
British legal history, and the Mail won. The idea that a religion or a sect
could break up families was proved, and roundly condemned.

So how do we hear Jesus denying another prospective disciple
the right to say farewell to his family (verses 61-62)? Probably some atheists
would use this as evidence that Jesus is really a cultist. And in an age when
the CEO of Sony in the USA, Howard Stringer, a married man with two children,
can say at a company meeting without blushing, ‘I don’t see my family much. My
family is you’, surely we’d like Jesus to say something different? Likewise,
when the chief executive of General Electric, Jeff Immelt, can tell a
journalist he is married with an eighteen-year-old daughter, and he’s worked
hundred-hour weeks at the company for the last twenty years, wouldn’t we like
Jesus to affirm the value of family? (See Bill Kinnon.) And
wouldn’t I like help about balancing family life and ministry? But no. ‘No one
who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
(verse 62)

I conclude that Jesus is not telling us to neglect our
families; he’s telling us that people who keep looking backwards to what once
was do not apply themselves wholeheartedly as the kingdom of God requires. When
we hesitate to follow the call, we go off course. When we delay our obedience
to Christ, we steer a wonky furrow.

Therefore, when we know God has spoken, it isn’t a time for
excuses. That is to look back and skew the direction of the plough. Moreover, when
God speaks to us about something new he wants us to do, it isn’t the time to
use the seven last words of a dying church: ‘But we’ve always done it that way.’
That steers us off the course God has for us now. When we face new problems and
God takes us in a different direction, that isn’t the time to bemoan the way it
was in the good old days. Don’t look back, says Jesus; look forward. That is
the nature of kingdom obedience.

Conclusion
Preachers are trained to look at their sermons and ask where the good news is. You
might be forgiven for dwelling on the themes of this sermon and wondering where
the good news is, when Jesus spells out a journey that includes rejection,
being misfits, doing our duty in the face of social opposition and pushing
relentlessly forward, not being allowed to dwell in the warmth of glowing
memories.

However, I think the good news comes in this sense. Yes,
Jesus ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’ (verse 51), and there, he knew that
suffering awaited him. A journey like this may mean conflict, difficulties and
tribulation for us. Nevertheless, Jesus headed for Jerusalem, because it was
the place where he would ‘be taken up’ (verse 51). ‘Being taken up’ didn’t just
mean the Cross; it also meant the Resurrection and the Ascension. We too may be
on a troublesome journey at times, and like Jesus we may well want to ask the
Father to ‘take this cup’ from us. But within it lies the satisfaction of doing
God’s will, and beyond it lies the glory of God.

Let us press on, as radical disciples of Jesus, in the
service of the kingdom.


[1]
And yes, I know this analogy has all the imperfections of the ransom imagery:
to whom is the ransom/fee paid? However, it is only an image.

[2]
John Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34 (Word
Biblical Commentary)
; Dallas, Word, 1993, p537.

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Owen Smith

I’ve just seen something that evidently hit the media on Monday: a book that uses clips from The Simpsons to generate Christian conversation. Nothing new there, but this one is for nine to thirteen-year-olds. And my interest is that the author, Owen Smith, is on the staff of St Margaret’s, Rainham, and so I worked with him ecumenically in my last appointment. Owen is a breath of fresh air and it’s great to see him not only published but getting so much publicity. Well done, Owen, I hope the book does extremely well.

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Telephone Abuse

And another thing about the last week: along with two others whose names are on a church noticeboard, I received an abusive phone call a week ago yesterday. Apparently I’d been having an affair with this man’s wife and he’d found the text messages. The nice thing was my wife’s support: she found the allegation so laughable.

Reporting it to the police  and BT (a nuisance call is a criminal offence in the UK) was interesting, though. I wasn’t surprised at all to learn that they didn’t think there was enough evidence to pursue the issue. They said it took three incidents before telcommunications abuse could be investigated. The fact that three of us were blatantly targetted by this man didn’t count: it had to be three calls on the same line. BT said the call wouldn’t be traceable (and of course the offender had withheld his number when dialling). But you can bet  your granny, your house and your own life that if I were a terrorist suspect that call would have been traced. Small-scale abuse is obviously ‘acceptable’ in the eyes of the authorities. It’s one technological version of ministers being a soft target. Debbie and I can laugh about it; others can’t.

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links for 2007-06-30

On The Lack Of Blogging This Week

This week has been mad, crazy and stressful. I have been competing for the computer with my wife, who has thrown her hat into the ring to become chair of our children’s pre-school. The current incumbent is something of a David Brent type, but is thankfully standing down. There are major budget issues to resolve.

Much more seriously, there has been a potentially major health issue to face. Last week Debbie went to the GP about a cough she has had for months, and which also now includes a hoarse voice. He said, ‘You could have throat cancer,’ and referred her urgently to an ENT consultant. Debbie saw her on Wednesday, and thankfully there is no sign of anything sinister. It could be mild late onset asthma. Much rejoicing, and a celebratory ice cream with the kids.

Ministry has been varied this week. Highlights include a fair bit of Fresh Expressions stuff. I spent Monday morning with some lay leaders of a Methodist church in Essex, who are trying to pursue new areas of worship and outreach. It was fun to share a lot of the theological principles with them: attractional versus missional church; Michael Frost’s notion that first comes Christology, that leads to missiology and only after that do you get to ecclesiology. I’m also auditing the Mission-Shaped Ministry course that Fresh Expressions is rolling out across the country. Chelmsford Diocese is running it locally. I’m sitting in on lectures (and might even give the odd one myself) as and when church commitments permit. Those on the course pay £250: I’m turning up for free. Thank you, Pete Pillinger.

Today I interrupted my usual day off for some youth stuff. I did my occasional turn on Boys’ Brigade devotions, but then zoomed up to a meeting at the Salvation Army in Hatfield Peverel where my village church is. We and the ‘Army’ have been approached by a parish councillor who wants to see a children’s club and a youth club start in the village. We both have (just about) suitable premises, and the trustees of the village hall don’t want to know, because of bad past experiences with youth. We’re willing to be vulnerable and take the risks of faith (well, subject to Church Council, of course!).

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links for 2007-06-26

Petitions

I’ve just signed two online petitions: one calling on the BMA to reject its Ethics Committee’s recommendation to campaign for abortion on demand in the first trimester of pregnancy, and the second calling for the release of BBC journalist Alan Johnston. i don’t know always how valuable petitions are, but perhaps these are my small and weak way of adding my voice to these causes.

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links for 2007-06-24

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