Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 3/5/95
Luke 9:51 And it came about, when he days were approaching for his ascension, that he resolutely set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead of him. And they went and entered a village of the Samaritans to make arrangements for him. 53 And they did not receive him, because he was journeying with his face toward Jerusalem. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, "Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" 55 But he turned and rebuked them, and said, "You do not know what kind of spirit you are of. 56 For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them." And they went on to another village. 57 And as they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go." 58 And Jesus said to him, "The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." 59 And he said to another, "Follow me." But he said, "Permit me first to go and bury my father." 60 But he said to him, "Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God." 61 And another also said, "I will follow you, Lord, but first permit me to say goodbye to those at home." 62 But Jesus said to him, "No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God."
For the last few weeks we have been studying a transitional period in the Lord's ministry. It began with the Feeding of the Five Thousand and the apex of his popularity; it proceeded to his rejection of the kind of throne they wanted to give him, and their rejection of him in turn; and it led to his talking more and more to his disciples about the cross. All of this leads up to Luke 9:51. This passage marks the end of the Galilean ministry and the beginning of the long journey to Jerusalem and the cross. It was a long journey and frequently interrupted, but there is also an inexorability about it. It took half as long to happen and twice as long to tell as the Galilean ministry, and it constitutes the central section of Luke's Gospel.
The first act in this play had asked over and over again the question, "What manner of man is this--who heals diseases, terrifies demons, raises the dead, and bosses around the winds and the rain?" In the transition, Peter answers it: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus responds, "Yes--and that means the cross." The second act drives home with increasing, inescapable, and sobering clarity the implications of that response. And at the very beginning of that journey there are some important lessons for us. This passage illustrates two truths about the nature of commitment to Christ.
Rejection is a major theme of Luke's Gospel because it was a frequent experience of our Lord. It is interesting to note a pattern: each major phase of Jesus' ministry begins with rejection. One of the toughest to take must have been at Nazareth, his home town, at the beginning of the Galilean phase (4:28-29). His own relatives and childhood friends respond to his preaching by saying, "Who does this young whippersnapper think he is?" Now he gets a very different reception in Samaria (9:53) than when he visited the Woman at the Well. They liked him when he said you didn't have to worship in Jerusalem but rather in spirit and in truth. But now that their local chauvinism is no longer apparently being fed by his message, they turn hostile again pretty quickly. There mere mention of Jerusalem is apparently enough to set them off. Had they listened more carefully, they would have realized that this emphasis was not exactly complimentary to their hated rivals! This was a pattern--initial enthusiasm that turns to rejection--that Jesus had to get used to. No wonder John would later summarize his whole ministry by saying, "He came unto his own, and his own received him not" (John 1:11).
Jesus had human feelings like we do, sin only excepted. He could not have been unaffected by these experiences. Surely they are part of the "many things" he had said he was going to suffer in Luke 9:22. His friends, the disciples, his best friends, the Three, his own family did not understand him. It began at least as early as his conversation with the doctors in the Temple. Can you hear the surprise in his twelve year old voice at the fact that his parents did not know he had to be about his Father's business? They just look back at him, clueless. Can you hear the disappointment and frustration when he says to Philip, "Have I been so long time with you and yet you do not know me?" Can you hear his agony as he looks at the city of Jerusalem and says, "How often I longed to gather you as a hen does her chicks, and you would not"? So when he enumerates the sufferings he would undergo for our sins, surely rejection is among them, and not the least significant.
How does this apply to us as the Lord's disciples? First we should realize that it is OK to desire understanding and acceptance and to hurt when it is not received. Our Lord did! But then we must also realize that he steadfastly preferred the pain of that rejection to compromise of his principles or his mission. Are we willing to follow him in that? We must if we love him and love lost sinners. The biggest reason why opportunities to witness for Christ are missed is not our inability to articulate the Gospel clearly or handle objections to it effectively (though some of us surely need work there), nor is it our failure to care (though none of us cares enough). If we are to be honest we must admit that the biggest reason is simple fear of rejection. We are not willing to risk that pain, for it is surely among the greatest that we ever face. But let me remind you of that great basketball movie, "Hoosiers." Gene Hackman's character, the coach, does what he knows is right even though it is sure to cause him to be rejected by most of the people in the little town, even when it is sure to cause him (in the short run) to fail. He had decided it was better to fail at doing what was right than to succeed in any other way. He comes within a hair's breadth of losing his job and being seen as a complete failure. And when the team finally starts to get what he has been trying to teach them and it turns its season around and goes on to win the state championship, it becomes very clear that it was his very willingness to fail that was the key to his success. Had he not accepted the possibility of rejection and been at complete peace with himself about it, he would never have been truly accepted. Gene Hackman is a great example of this point in that movie, but I would also point you to an even greater one: our Lord himself. He was despised and rejected of men, and it hurt him more than we will ever be able to understand. But he also heard his Father say, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." He has had a mighty host of followers who were gladly ready to give their lives for him, they loved him so much. Some day every knee will bow and every mouth will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. He could never have had that joy if he had not been willing to face that pain. And neither can we.
How then should we deal with rejection as disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ? Expect it. Those who rejected him will reject us as well, for the same reasons. Accept it. The joy that is set before you, acceptance by God, hearing the Father say, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant," is not worthy to be compared with the sufferings we undergo now. And, most importantly, respond to it as our Lord did, not with rejection in turn, but with love. James and John reacted to rejection in the natural human way: they were hurt and they wanted to strike back. But Jesus rebuked them. "You do not know what kind of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them" (9:55-6). Can I love those who reject me? Can you? No. But Christ has already done it. And Christ in us can do it still. Let us ask him to do so, for the opportunity is certainly going to be presented.
I don't know which is worse: being rejected or having people make a big deal about wanting to follow you when they don't have the foggiest idea what you are really all about. Jesus had to deal with that in this passage too, and one of those men elicits from him an expression of a second form of affliction: poverty. The Son of man had no where to lay his head, worse off even than the foxes or the birds (9:57-58). Possessions are not wrong in themselves, and the Gospel is not negative about them--but following the Lord means they are not and cannot be your first priority. We had a missionary visit our church in Marietta who described the hut his family had lived occupied in Africa for awhile: mud brick walls, a dirt floor, no plumbing or electricity. Someone asked John Loshbough how his family dealt with these conditions, and he said, "We never really thought about it. We were too busy enjoying the challenges and the blessings of the Lord's work." He did not intend it so, but it was rather a strong rebuke of our materialism! Following Jesus means being willing to accept rejection; it also means being willing to accept poverty and deprivation if that is what it takes to get his work done. I doubt the Lord is asking any of us to give up indoor plumbing and electricity at the moment, but we should face the question: what have we given up so that people like John could be out there on the front lines of the Lord's service? Surely the answer should be something! This is part of what it means to follow him.
There were a couple of other people who wanted to follow Jesus--but only when it was convenient, only when they got around to it. He does not seem to have been terribly interested in or impressed by such followers. With our popularity collapsing around us, we would probably have been desperate for anybody who wanted to sign up; but Jesus was not. People are needlessly troubled by the first example. How could Christ be so harsh, so heartless, as to forbid this man from attending his own father's funeral? But the father was in all probability not dead. This man's statement was an idiom which could well have meant, "My father is getting up in years. As soon as he dies, I will join up with your disciples." Jesus' reply then means, "Let the [spiritually?] dead put me off with such excuses. You've got more urgent business with the living! Are you serious or not?" The other fellow was apparently not serious either. Once he went back to "say goodbye," there was every likelihood that his family was going to try to talk him out of it. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to be crucified! He did not have time to mess around with people who wanted to talk big about following him (and presumably get in line for some of the spoils of victory after the Kingdom came) but who were not serious about making the sacrifices required.
And what of our situation today? Is there any urgency in our period of history? Well, do we believe that men and women are lost without Christ? Of about five billion people in the world, half of them have never even heard the name of Jesus, much less had the opportunity to hear a clear presentation of the Gospel. How shall they hear without a preacher? Of about 35,000 evangelical North American missionaries, 95 % of them work with about 17 % of the world's population. Could you have accepted Christ or grown in him without any access to a Bible? Of 3,000 known languages on the planet, only a little more than half have any Scripture at all, and only about 10 % have the whole Bible. I know you've heard these kinds of statistics before, and you have probably learned to roll your eyes at them. That's part of the problem.
Jesus makes two points here about the urgency of his work. First, it comes before everything else, even the highest human obligations (vs. 59-60). Second, it demands whole-souled, steadfast devotion (vs. 62). Interestingly, in this passage it is not the man who turns back who is unfit for the kingdom, but rather the man who merely looks back (like Lot's wife). What happens if you just look back when you are plowing? You plow a crooked row. Hmmm. Interesting description of a lot of Christian lives today!
What then shall we say to these things? Understanding the urgency of discipleship should make us eager to embrace the afflictions. George Scott, a one-legged school teacher, once offered himself to Hudson Taylor as a missionary to China. "With only one leg," Taylor asked, "why do you think of going as a missionary?" Scott's response was classic: "I don't see those with two legs going!" Oh that we could see that spirit in the Lord's servants again! Here's the question: Is the Lord's work something you fit in after everything else in your life, or is it your highest priority? He set his face to go to Jerusalem for us, and we now know a bit about what that meant. Would you prayerfully consider where he would have you to go for him?
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams