Saying Yes to God

© Michael Clarkson, 2019.  Preached at St. John’s Ithaca, June 30, 2019, for Proper 8, Year C, Track 1.  Texts:  2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1,13-25; Luke 9:51-62.  Image: Jesus Discourses with His Disciples by James Tissot.

It’s summertime.  The vacation season is heating up throughout the country.  People are spending more time outdoors, more time on the road, more time traveling.

Traveling on the road is where we meet Jesus in today’s Gospel.  This reading kicks off Jesus’ travel season.  His ministry in the region of Galilee has concluded; now he’s on his way to Jerusalem.  He’ll travel south from Galilee, west of the Jordan river, through the region of Samaria, eventually reaching the region of Judea and the city of Jerusalem.  The story of what happens in Jerusalem is familiar:  we tell it every year in Holy Week. 

But the story of what happens along the way, on the road from Galilee to Jerusalem, is one we visit less often.  Every three years, we read this travel story from Luke over the course of the entire summer and fall:  if you want to mark your calendar, Jesus is scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem in the middle of November, just before Advent.  Meanwhile, as the disciples follow Jesus along the road, we’re going to read a lot of teachings that Jesus gave about how to be disciples, about how to be followers.  Most of those teachings are found only in Luke.[1]  So, there’s a lot to look forward to in worship services the rest of this summer!  You won’t want to miss any of the exciting episodes coming soon to a church near you, wherever you might be traveling!

This week we kick off the following-Jesus season with three would-be followers.  Each of the three has their own struggles, their own reasons for rejecting the call to discipleship.  We’re going to dig into each of those in just a minute.  But first, notice what’s missing from this story:  an ending.  We don’t know what happens to any of the three.  Did they keep following?  Did they say “yes” to Jesus?  For how long?  Did they make it to Jerusalem?  Did they turn aside?  How did those choices make them feel?  How did their lives change?  It’s all left to our imaginations.

Except…maybe not.  Maybe imagination isn’t what’s needed here—maybe it’s memory:  our memories of the struggles in our own lives, past and present; of our reasons for rejecting the call to discipleship; of the choices we’ve made.  Jesus isn’t just speaking to three would-be followers; he’s speaking to each one of us, individually.  He’s saying:  “Following me means making the choice each day to say yes to God.”

Or, for another way of putting that…  I have a personal fondness—call it a character flaw if you like—for heist and espionage films (i.e., movies where people steal things).  The 2001 remake of Ocean’s 11 is one of my favorites.  There’s a scene in which George Clooney, the mastermind, is recruiting Matt Damon, a relative novice.  Clooney says to Damon, “You’re either in or out.  Right now.”  That’s what I hear Jesus saying (in Clooney’s voice) to each of the would-be followers:  you have a choice to make; you’re either in or out when it comes to following me.  But the difference between the movie and the Gospel (er, besides stealing things) is that the choice to follow Jesus is one that continually reoccurs.  Every day, every hour, there are new ways to say yes—or no.  Make no mistake, there are days we all say no.  Christian discipleship means struggling anyway to keep changing that no into a yes:  a yes to following Jesus, a yes to the presence of God.

The first of our three would-be followers volunteers to follow Jesus, but Jesus issues a warning:  “I’m homeless.  You won’t have the security and comfort you’re expecting.”  That’s a situation with which the prophet Elijah would empathize.  Here’s Elijah’s context:  Ahab had become king of Israel, making his capitol in the region of Samaria.  He married Jezebel; together they promoted the worship of Baal in Israel.  Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a throwdown:  Yahweh vs. Baal.  Whichever entity could magically set fire to a sacrifice would be proclaimed the real God.  As expected, Yahweh won.  Less expected: Elijah killed all the prophets of Baal, and Ahab and Jezebel got mad.  In last Sunday’s reading, we heard what happened next:  Elijah ran off into the desert in deep despair, crying, “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors” [1 Ki 19:4c].  (The omitted verses of Psalm 77 today are perfect for his frame of mind.)  God made a great wind to pass by, but God was not in the wind; and an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and a fire, but God was not in the fire; and finally, a sound of sheer silence.  Out of the silence, God gave Elijah a new mission:  to anoint a new king to replace Ahab, and to begin training a new prophet, Elisha.  (Was that a forced retirement?)

Elijah made a choice to say yes to God.  He was in, right then.  Even though he was homeless and on the lam in the desert.  Even though he had no physical security and was being hunted down.  Even though he had stumbled, lost faith, and ran away, he made the choice to trust God, get back up again, and get back to the hard work of discipleship.

Following Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean such epic events will happen to us.  But it very likely will entail moments of insecurity, of fear, uncertainty, and doubt.  The good news is that even during and after those, God is still calling us, still asking us to be disciples, still giving us—like the first would-be follower—the choice to say yes.

The second would-be follower is more enigmatic; and Jesus’ response, even more so.  “Let me bury my father,” says the would-be follower.  “Let the dead bury their own dead,” says Jesus.  I have to ask:  is Jesus being callous?  Maybe the father is dying, and the would-be follower just wants a few more days with a loved one.  Or, maybe the father is still alive and is going to be for a good long while, in which case the would-be follower is being reluctant; following Jesus can wait until a more convenient time.  Or—as I’m inclined to think—maybe the father is already dead, and the would-be follower wants to complete a year-long burial custom followed by Jews of that time.[2]  In which case the would-be follower is still being reluctant; following Jesus can still wait awhile; but there’s a cultural context clouding the situation.

Both those issues, reluctance and culture, rear their heads in the brief story about James and John in today’s Gospel reading.  Remember, Jesus is traveling through Samaria.  It wasn’t necessarily a safe region for Jews to pass through.[3]  There was old, bad blood between Jews and Samaritans.  Almost a millennium before Jesus, they’d all been part of the same kingdom under David.  But that kingdom split in a civil war, and a couple centuries later the northern half, including Samaria, got sacked by invaders who deported the residents and resettled other peoples there.  Later, other exiles got to return and resettle the region.  The Samaritans of Jesus’ day were descendants of all the above.  Jews regarded them as neither fully Gentile nor fully Jewish.[4]  The Samaritans worshipped at a different temple, not the one in Jerusalem; they recognized a different canon of scripture; and they had an alternative line of priests.[5]  In the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus sends out the Twelve on a mission trip, he even tells them not to go to Samaria.

But here in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus does send an advance team to a Samaritan village.  We’re not told exactly what went wrong.  Maybe it’s because they’re Jewish pilgrims on their way to a festival in Jerusalem; and the old bad, blood is racing; cultures are clashing; tempers are flaring.  Something sets off James and John, and reluctant to let it go, in righteous fury they want to launch the nuke:  “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”

I’m guessing James and John (who Jesus elsewhere nicknamed “the sons of thunder”) had Elijah on their mind.  Elijah, who had killed the prophets of Baal.  Elijah, who had called down fire not just on a sacrifice but also to kill soldiers.  Elijah, who James and John had just seen conversing with Jesus about 20 verses earlier in Luke at the Transfiguration.  In fact, if you check the footnotes in your pew bibles, you’ll see that there are some ancient biblical sources that even add to James’ and John’s question:  “…and consume them as Elijah did?”

Jesus’ response is probably not what James and John wanted to hear:  he rebukes them.  Again, there’s a footnote in your pew bibles, and it has a rebuke that Jesus might have given: “You do not know what spirit you are of, for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.”

James and John had a choice that day.  Cultural enmity and reluctance to commit fully to Jesus’ mission of salvation became their stumbling blocks.  They fell down.  But despite the shame and anger that surely caused them, they continued to follow Jesus.  They continued on that hard path of discipleship.  They continued saying yes.

Like James and John, like the second would-be follower, you and I will have days we fall down on the path of discipleship, days when culture and reluctance and trauma and God knows what else cause us to stumble.  There’s no question about that happening.  The question is, what do we do next?  Are we in, or are we out?  The good news is that even after we stumble, God is still calling us, still asking us to be disciples, still giving us the chance to say yes.

The third and last would-be follower just wants to say goodbye to their family, but Jesus says, “no one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”  This time, maybe it’s Jesus remembering Elijah, because that same story played out when Elijah called Elisha.

It happened like this [1 Ki 19:19-21].  Elisha was out plowing with a yoke of oxen.  Elijah came up from behind, took off his rather splendid cloak,[6] tossed it over Elisha’s shoulders without saying anything, and kept on walking without a word.  Somehow Elisha intuited from that strange act that Elijah was calling him as a follower.  Elisha ran after Elijah and said, “Gimme a minute, I just gotta say bye to the fam’.”  Elijah replied, “Whatever, dude.”  (Feel free to fact check that dialogue.)  Elisha slaughtered the oxen, made a meal from them to feed his friends, and left to follow Elijah.

What’s the difference between Elisha and the third would-be follower?  I think it’s that Elisha made a clean break with his past life.  There was no way he could go back to plowing the field with those oxen, not after everybody got to feast.  He was committed to following Elijah.  He kept saying yes even when Elijah invited him to go back (in the omitted verses of today’s reading).  Whereas, I suspect Jesus sensed the third would-be follower was having trouble letting go of their old life and committing to a new one.  Jesus was saying to them, “You’re either in, or you’re out.  You can’t keep looking back.  Every day you must choose to say yes to following me.”

The apostle Paul knew how hard that could be.  He wrote that we are called to live by the Spirit and give up sinning, or to use his words from today’s reading, to “crucify the flesh with its passions”—to crucify our sins—to nail them to the Cross for a decisive end.  But if we keep on sinning, if we keep on looking back, then it amounts to going back to the Cross to gaze on those dying sins as if we were somehow fond of them.[7] 

St. Basil the Great wrote, “We crucify the flesh by being baptized in the water of baptism, which is a likeness of the cross and [Jesus’] death, his entombment and his resurrection.”[8]  Following Jesus means choosing to say no to looking back fondly on our sins.  It means renouncing those sins and choosing to say yes to God.  It means proclaiming his victory over death in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.

The good news is that is precisely what we are invited to do here, today, in the Eucharist.  And what we are going to do, right now, in the sacrament of Baptism.

[We then baptized a baby whose first name, appropriately, is “Jordan.”]

Acknowledgements.

Barclay, William.  The Daily Study Bible:  The Gospel of Luke, revised edition.  Westminster, 1975.

Bartlett, David. L., and Taylor, Barbara Brown, eds.  Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, vol. 3. Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.

Olley, John W.  The Message of Kings: God is Present.  InterVarsity Press, 2011.

Willcock, Michael.  The Savior of the World: The Message of Luke’s Gospel.  InterVarsity Press, 1979.

Footnotes.

[1] The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, fourth edition, 2010, footnote on Luke 9:51-19:27.

[2] Craig A. Evans.  Jesus and the Ossuaries. Baylor, 2003, p. 13.

[3] Josephus, Jewish War, 2.12 records violence in Samaria between Galileans, Samaritans, and Judeans at the time of a Jewish festival.

[4] “Samaritans” in Eerdman’s Bible Dictionary, 1987.

[5] The Jewish Annotated New Testament, Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 542.

[6] The Hebrew word, addereth, means “glory” or “cloak”.  Elijah’s might have been more hairy than splendid.

[7] John Stott.  The Message of Galatians: Only One Way.  InterVarsity Press, 1986, conclusion of commentary of 5:16-25.

[8] Basil of Caesarea, On Baptism, 1.15.  Quoted in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, New Testament VIII: Galatians, Ephesians, Phillipians, ed. Mark J. Edwards, InterVarsity Press, 1999, commentary on Gal 5:24.