13 March 2015

Teaching and Journeying toward Jerusalem

“He Went on His Way Teaching and Journeying toward Jerusalem”
Luke 13:22-30
Kevin Rees  •  March 8, 2015

Only Jesus knows, governs and reveals who is and who is not in the Kingdom of God.

Three billy goats—brothers with the family name, “Gruff,” as the Norwegian folktale goes—spied some luscious grass on the far hillside of the stream and grew hungry at the sight.  So, the youngest Billy Goat Gruff decided to go across the bridge first. “Trip, trap, trip trap,” went his hooves until a troll emerged on the bridge and blocked the way.  “Who is that crossing over my bridge?”  “Oh, it is only I, the tiniest Billy Goat Gruff.  I am going to the hillside to make myself fat.”  “Now I am coming to gobble you up,” said the troll.  “Oh no!  Do not eat me, for I am too little.  Wait until my bigger brother comes along, for he is much bigger than I.”  So the troll let the youngest Billy Goat Gruff pass.

A little while later the middle Billy Goat Gruff came trotting across the bridge.  “Trip, trap, trip, trap,” went his hooves until the troll emerged on the bridge and blocked his way.  “Who is that crossing over my bridge?”  “Oh, it is only I, the second Billy Goat Gruff.  I am going to the hillside to make myself fat.”  “Now I am coming to gobble you up,” said the troll.  “Oh no!  Do not eat me, for I am nothing.  Wait until my bigger brother comes along, for he is much bigger than I.”  So the troll let the second Billy Goat Gruff pass.

A little while later the biggest Billy Goat Gruff brother came across the bridge.  The bridge creaked and groaned under him.  “Who is that crossing my bridge?”  “It is I; the biggest Billy Goat Gruff,” with a voice as deep as the troll’s.  “Now I am coming to gobble you up,” said the troll.  “Well come along then,” said the biggest Billy Goat Gruff, “I’ll poke out your eyes and crush your bones to bits” rushing at the troll at full speed.  He dispatched the troll, tossed him over the bridge, and joined his brothers making themselves fat on the hillside grass—so fat that they could not fit back across the bridge.

We know this story; this folktale that has been adopted and adapted by many people groups.  This week I was reminded of the Three Billy Goats for one straightforward reason—dealing with an unauthorized/rogue gate-keeper.  The troll claimed it was “his bridge,” though I’ve never met a troll who could construct a bridge!  He crawled out of his hole and saw an opportunity to bully the country, filling his own belly in the process.  He usurped ownership of a bridge, appointed himself as a gate-keeper, and terrorized every traveler and apparently every goat.

How does one deal with a bully?  I can assure that there are many types of bullies, even spiritual bullies.  Is there reasoning?  Is there bargaining?  Is there winning a bully over with good citizenship and a firm handshake?  Or, does one lock horns with the challenger, dispatch and toss him into the river, and reopen the road to the country.

Jumping from fable to gospel is not too hard to do.  The self-appointed gatekeepers—the Pharisees, in our passage today—think they hold the power and the prestige over who is in and who is out of the kingdom of God.  But Jesus trumps them authoritatively, exposes them as frauds, and announces them as hindrances to those who are entering the kingdom of God.  He names them trolls, so to speak, and rushes at them with both horns as they seek to block his way.

I find it interesting that last week in Luke 9 Jesus deflects a confrontation, but here in Luke 13 he fully accepts it.  Perhaps the difference is because he is addressing the religious leaders directly here; those who are responsible for misguiding many from the truth to follow after man’s traditions and preferences.  Attack him personally and Jesus turns the other cheek.  Attack those who strive to enter the narrow door by faith and Jesus charges.  “The LORD is a warrior” (Exodus 15:3).  This is why his condemnation of the Pharisees is undiluted.  They are responsible for hindering thousands … millions … from the freedom of the gospel of grace with their rules, fences, and regulations.  They could have been very shepherding—helping people find and enjoy a relationship with God—but they pervert their position twisting what could have been extremely beneficial into something very wicked.

Most likely to be a trick question, someone in the crowd asks: “Lord, will those who are saved be few?”  This is the question which rabbis debate, but which Jesus answers with razor-sharp precision.  All in all, Jesus’ answer is simple to this public question—yes, few are saved.  It is not a new teaching.  At the beginning of his earthly ministry he taught the same lesson in the Sermon on the Mount—“Enter by the narrow gate.  For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.  For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14). 

Here he gives three reasons why so few are saved.  His first reason (vv. 22-24) hinges on the difference—taught in a straightforward style—between trying to enter the kingdom of God through human works and trusting entrance has been accomplished and granted by another.  Jesus’ second reason (vv. 25-30) hinges on the difference—taught in story form—between believing entrance into the kingdom of God is based on human relationships and believing entrance is based on a relationship with God marked by repentance and faith.  Jesus third reason (vv. 31-35) hinges on the differences—taught in illustration form—between the scattering ministry of the Pharisees and the gathering ministry of the Savior.

I.          Trying vs. Trusting (vv. 22-24)

22 He went on his way through towns and villages, teaching and journeying toward Jerusalem.
23 And someone said to him, "Lord, will those who are saved be few?" And he said to them,
24 "Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.

Entrance into the Kingdom of God is narrow and few are those who enter in because it is difficult to understand that trying to enter and trusting entrance as a gift are completely antithetical.

Jesus’ teaching ministry takes precedence from start to finish.  He undoubtedly did wonderful miracles, but his teaching was the heartbeat of his ministry.  The miracles proved that he was from God and therefore ought to be heeded.  Even though these population centers were probably small, there were Pharisees contending with him all along the road to Jerusalem.

In chapters 11, 12, and 13 Jesus calls out the Pharisees specifically—but they represent the entire ruling class of religious leaders—as “hypocrites” (12:1, 56; 13:15), pretenders, actors playing a part in a drama.  They feign piety on the outside but are predators at heart.  Therefore, this is not an idle question shouted in the public teaching time of Jesus; it is a plant … a trap meant to ensnare Jesus and collect evidence that can be used to condemn him in Jerusalem. 

And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’” (vs. 22)  The rabbis were debating it in the synagogues—are all Jews allowed entrance in to the kingdom of God, or just the best of the Jews?  Attempting to rope Jesus into their very ethnocentric squabble, they put out the bait.  But Jesus, fully aware of both the debate and the motive to ensnare him, answers the deeper issue that undergirds the stated question.  “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.  For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able” (vs. 23).

For years Jesus has been teaching in public of the cost of discipleship—not performance, but endurance—the life of self-denial, the inevitability of facing persecution and even death for some.  It has not been a popular teaching.  “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).  To continue to stick with his teaching of the kingdom would demand some agony—agonizomai.  Striving—personal, active response of faith to Jesus’ teaching—is parallel to what an athlete must do to compete in the games; he must say yes to the one and no to the thousand others.  There are morning workouts, strict diets, and strength training exercises (cf 1 Corinthians 9:24-27).  He is not forced to compete, but if he volunteers to compete in the games he must accept the presence of temporary agony in the training.  But ask any athlete after the completion and they will never whine about the training, for the thrill of competing and winning the contest more than compensates for the temporary agony of training.

By contrast to the few who believe and follow Jesus counter-culturally are the many who try to carve their own road to heaven.  “The many…will seek to enter and will not be able.”   No matter how you count it up, the vast majority of humans mistakenly think that they will find a way in on their own accord.  But categorically, Jesus is opposed to this belief system—it is emphatically unchristian and unbiblical.  Humans are not able to enter the kingdom of heaven through works.  It is not a matter of trying harder.  Trying to enter and trusting that Jesus provides to us entrance as a gift of grace are diametrically opposed to one another.

Every other world religion and many so-called Christian denominations have some variation on the same heresy—do in order to be.  Jesus teaches the exact, total opposite; we must first be in order to do.  The only problem, and Jesus mentions it here in our passage again, is that we cannot become anything other than that which we are—“[we] will not be able” (vs. 23) to become good on our own, to enter the kingdom of God on our own.  True, and this is the mystery of the gospel, we cannot change who we are.  But God is able and willing to change us.  God can and does change who we are—from a son of Adam into a son of God—at the point where repentance and faith in Christ meet our vast need.  Trying harder and trusting Jesus are irreconcilable opposites.

II.         Horizontal vs. Vertical (vv. 25-30)

25 When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us,' then he will answer you, 'I do not know where you come from.'
26 Then you will begin to say, 'We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.'
27 But he will say, 'I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil!'
28 In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out.
29 And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.
30 And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last."

The second reason entrance into the kingdom of God is narrow and few are those who enter in is because it is not based on lineage or proximity, but on repentance and rest.

Jesus now tells a story; a parable.  “When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, 'Lord, open to us’” (vs. 25a).  But the demand is presumptuous.  It is his door, after all.  He governs who enters and who does not.  “Then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from’” (vs. 25b).  In other words, “I don’t acknowledge your point of origin.”  The solicitors try to tip the scales in their favor: “we ate … we drank … you taught in our streets” (vs. 26).  [Can’t you hear the troll’s line in the Three Billy Goats Gruff: “Who is that crossing my bridge?”  Who’s the owner here and who’s the alien?’  So again the master emphasizes, “I tell you, I do not know where you are from.  Depart from me all you workers of evil” (vs. 27).

Salvation is not a human equation.  It is not based on human relationships.  The Jews were unwisely confident that they would enter the kingdom of God merely because they were of the (horizontal) lineage of Abraham; that they had the prophets walk their streets and had the word of God gilded in gold in their local synagogues and their national temple.  But Jesus is saying through this parable, “No!  The kingdom of God is not based on human relationships or lineage.  The kingdom of God is based solely upon a (vertical) relationship with God through faith.

Such teaching is not new to Jesus’ repertoire.  He taught the exact thing to Nicodemus back in John 3—only family members gain entrance into the house.  What do you mean, “Only family members?  We have been in this community for millennia.”  But no!  Human connections are not enough; proximity is not enough.  You have to have a personal relationship with the master before you are permitted entrance into the master’s house.”

The natural next question would be, “Well, then how do we become members of the family?”  But that is what Jesus has been teaching for over three years, and what the Scriptures had been teaching for three thousand years.  There are only two family trees in this world: there is the family of Adam and the family of Jesus.  We are all born into the family of Adam; which is a family under the curse.  But Jesus came to rescue sons and daughters of Adam’s family from the curse and transfer them—legally acquit and adopt them—into his own family (Galatians 4:4-5) by grace through faith to the glory of God.  “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.  But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:11-13). 

Jesus does not spell all of that out again here, but he does continue to dismantle their belief system that says the kingdom of God is for the physical sons of Abraham.  The kingdom of God is for spiritual sons of Abraham who believed [the promise] and he counted it to [them] as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).  So it was then, so it is now.  “[We] believe the LORD and the LORD counts it to [us] as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6).  Not works.  Not lineage.  This is hard for Jews to admit, to understand, and to grasp because to them national identity has always been taught to equal to salvation.  To non-Jews, it is also hard to accept, but for the Jews it was supremely hard because it sounded like treason.

III.        Scattering vs. Gathering (vv. 31-35)

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you."
32 And he said to them, "Go and tell that fox, 'Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.
33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.'
34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
35 Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!'"

Entrance into the kingdom of God is narrow and few are those who enter in because it all hinges on faith in Jesus Christ exclusively and uniquely.

Finally, Jesus illustrates his point that there are few who enter the kingdom of God by taking a line from the Pharisees themselves.  The Pharisees merely pretend to be helpful in hinting to Jesus that Herod wants to kill him.  They use Herod as a pretext—a red herring—to disguise their own murderous desires.  This is yet another attempt by evil to block Jesus’ road to Jerusalem. 

But Jesus weaves the words of the Pharisees into his own tapestry.  Notice one thread—the word “desire” (thelo) also translated “would,” “want,” or “willing.”  It is mentioned three times.  “Herod wants to kill you” (vs. 31).  “How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (vs. 34). 

And then finally, “[but] you were not willing.”  It sounds eerily similar to Isaiah’s condemnation on Jerusalem over 700 years previously: “For thus said the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel, ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.’ But you were unwilling” (Isaiah 30:15).  The Pharisees desire to scatter the people.  Jesus desires to gather the people.  However, Jesus will not allow anything to deter him from finishing his “course.”

How profoundly sad!  His willingness is intact, but their unwillingness is in cement.  That is enough to elicit a lament from Jesus, which he will do again when he approaches Jerusalem and again when he walks through Jerusalem bearing his cross.  “O Jerusalem, O Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stone those who are sent to it” (vs. 34). 

But the lament does not last long as his next sentence pronounces judgment: “Behold, your house is forsaken” (vs. 35), or barren.  Now his earlier parable (vv. 6-9) comes to light and we realize that Jesus has been illustrating the lostness and corruption of the Pharisees—and the majority of the nation of Israel—this whole time. "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none.  And he said to the vinedresser, 'Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?'  And he answered him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure.  Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down'" (Luke 13:6-9).

This conversation; this final journey to Jerusalem constiutes the extension given to the gardener to fertilize the fruitless fig tree for one more year before it is cut down.  But the extra gesture produces zero fruit.  A fig tree, like a grapevine, does not produce fruit until the third growing season.  It is green, but fruitless.  The fruit that God is looking for is, at the simplest level, repentance.  It is a gift of grace, a work of God in the heart of man, consistently bound to faith, and the beginning of the signs of fruitfulness.  But the Pharisees show no fruit.  They are barren.  For all of their effort to build a righteousness that impresses other humans, they are condemned by God to the burn pile. 

Jesus makes his rejection of them as clear as their rejection of him.  But amazingly, there is a sliver of hope that one day in the future they will repent.  “And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (vs. 35).  True, the crowd will speak this verse from Psalm 118:26 in a few days time, as little as they understood of its vast ramifications, but the religious rulers do not voice their consent.  They voiced their rebuke that Jesus would not stop the songs of the crowd from making this ancient verse their anthem, but they did not speak the royal line: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”  But one day they will.  The Scriptures (and I) hold out hope that the nation of Israel will look upon the Messiah they rejected and collectively repent just as God promises in Zechariah 12:10, “And I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10).

This whole time Jesus has been ripping into the Pharisees, lowering his head and knocking the spiritual bullies from their perch at the far side of the bridge.  They deserve it.  They repeatedly harden their position instead of soften their hearts to the word of God.  But this whole sermon would be a waste if it were not pointed out that we need to hear Jesus’ accusation for ourselves.  It is not just for them.  It was not just for history.  It is here.  It is now.  We often take the same precarious position at the far side of the bridge as self-appointed gate-keepers with an external righteousness that enslaves instead of sets free.  Will we harden or soften?  We are sometimes bullied, yes, but Jesus speaks directly to the proclivity that we all have to be the bully.  It stings because it is true.  We, like they, write the rules of how our club goes so that we come out on top.  But Jesus cannot, out of his great love, allow us to remain as self-appointed gate-keepers any longer.

We are called by the Savior to repent, yes, of our overt sinfulness—that is an indispensible part of the gospel.  But are we not called to repent, as well, of our attempted goodness; the goodness we try to build outside our utter dependency upon the grace of God and the work of the Spirit in our hearts?  I say, “Yes!”  I completely agree with Tim Keller who said in his excellent little book, Prodigal God—“I must repent of my goodness as well as my sinfulness.”  I must say, “I am not able” to achieve any amount of goodness on my own.  But I try.  Oh, how we try.  This trying is so seductive, so addictive, yet so damnable about the Pharisees and so damnable about us.  But our self-righteousness is not the last word on the matter.  The last word on the matter is Jesus saying, “It is finished.”  The sins that bound us are, in Christ, broken.  The deliverance we need is given by the Savior.  We are the trolls in the story if we try to redirect Jesus, or try to reroute his followers.  But we do not need to remain trolls.  Jesus can and does change us by his grace.

I cannot improve upon Charles Spurgeon (or some other famous preacher whose reference I cannot find) who quipped, “Two things will amaze us when we get to heaven; who is there, and who is not.”  The more I look into the Scriptures the more I am convinced that I do not have a shred of goodness on my own.  I do not have any claim on who does or does not enter the kingdom of God; not the least myself.  But Jesus has given me his goodness, his name, membership in his family, and entrance into his kingdom.  Hallelujah, what a Savior!

02 March 2015

He Set His Face to Go to Jerusalem

“He Set His Face to Go to Jerusalem”
Luke 9:51-62
Kevin Rees  •  March 1, 2015  •  audio file at:

The journey of a thousand miles begins long, long before the first step.

“The journey of a thousand miles,” you have undoubtedly heard, “begins with the _____ _____.”  The “first step” is, of course, how that saying finishes.  It is firmly engrained in our vocabulary and within our thinking.  Just break the inertia; just get a move on … just go.  But I must say that that is baloney!  I have made many journeys of a thousand miles and never has it ever started with the first step. 

Not once did I conjure the idea of journeying, for instance from Dyersburg to Denver which is 1052 miles, and impulsively launch out into “the first step.”  I have always found that a journey begins long, long before the first step.  There is thinking, planning, weighing the options, asking for advice, checking the weather, searching the Internet for major road construction areas, making inquiries about my bank account to see if there are enough zeros in the column to pay for such a trip, checking air and oil pressure in the car, etc.  The journey of a thousand miles begins long, long before the first step … so that when time comes to take the first physical step, I can know—by-and-large—that this is a journey I can complete.

The journey of a thousand miles begins long, long before the first step.  And with less technology the preparation time only increases.  If any of us were to travel, for instance from Dyersburg to Denver in the 1850s by coach-wagon or by horse or by mule-cart or on foot without well-groomed roads, then such a trip would be astronomically more complicated than speeding along expertly paved highways at 75 mph with cruise control and air conditioning.
The journey of a thousand miles, metaphorically speaking, might be for you only a hundred miles … or a dozen and a half steps across the room, but no matter the duration of the journey the pattern of the journeying is largely the same.  “I am here.  God wants me there.  So, what needs to happen to get me to where God wants me?”  If you are like me, then that first physical step is merely one of the middle or latter stages of that journey; after the recognizing, deciding, determining, planning, and preparing.  So it was with Jesus.  He had a journey to take.  He was here.  The Father wanted him there.   Thus, a journey was born.  It was simple and complicated simultaneously.

In the gospels, especially in the gospel of Luke, a theme emerges of the journey of Christ deliberately taking the road to Jerusalem.  True, he had been to Jerusalem several times already; arguably multiple times every year for his entire life.  But this hundred-mile trip was considerably different than all his previous hundred-mile trips to Jerusalem.  And for that matter, this trip was infinitely different than all the pilgrimages of all the other pilgrims who had ever made that journey before and since his particular journey to Jerusalem.  On this trip balanced the fate of humanity and the state of our shattered relationship with God.  But the journey began long, long before Luke 9:51 when we see it commence for one last time.  It began in eternity past, quite outside our minds’ ability to conceive it, “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4).  Finally, the first physical step was taken toward Jerusalem. 

Six times the phrase (or a portion of the phrase), “going up to Jerusalem,” appears in Luke during Christ’s climactic journey.  It works out well to coincide our remaining Sundays before Easter to consider these references sequentially: Luke 9:51, 13:22, 17:11, 18:31, 19:28, and 24:38.  They form many steps but one journey.  I think it entirely appropriate for our first journey together at Tucker Street Church to be the journey with Jesus to the cross.  How does that sound?  Therefore, let’s join his journey at the first physical step and find his cadence of determination; his rhythm of grace.  Today is the first step and it is found in Luke 9:51-56.  Jesus, at the outset of this journey, balances a fine line between a divine determination and a remarkable restraint.  Let’s walk together with him.

I.             Divine Determination (vv. 51-53)

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him.
53 But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.

Travel in Israel during the first century was a large part of the culture and the daily mode of existence.  Fetching water, collecting firewood, selling produce, returning to ancestral cities to pay taxes to Rome—people walked … a lot!  While it was possible to travel by horse or by sea, the vast majority of the people we find in the Scripture got from Point A to Point B by footing it.  Except for the very young, the very old, or the very rich, common folks burned calories walking.
The Christianity Today article, “On the Road,” points out that “one could generally walk about 20 miles a day.  […]  For Jews hospitality was a necessity.  […]  Even when Jerusalem was flooded with pilgrims during the feasts, Jews were expected to take in as many guests as possible” (, Merilyn Hargis, ©1998).  Nevertheless, traveling between towns and through the wilderness was a very dangerous activity; contending with predators, bandits, desert heat, scarcity of water, and steep terrain.

The journey from Galilee to Jerusalem was either 75 or 100 miles depending upon the route.  But all routes from all points of the compass had to rise about 3000 feet in elevation to get into Jerusalem—thus the wording in Scripture is often “going up to Jerusalem.”  If the pilgrim traveled from Galilee through Samaria and into Jerusalem from the north—which was sort of like going though enemy territory, but not as uncommon a path as some scholars have made it out to be (Hargis)—then the trip was shorter; taking about 4 or 5 days.  If the pilgrim followed the Jordan River Valley south to Jericho and approached Jerusalem from the east, then it took about 5 or 6 days.  Of course, traveling on Saturday was illegal.  The nearest geographic clue we have from the text regarding Jesus’ exact starting point is the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:28), which was in the northern part of Galilee near Caesarea Philippi—adding another 30 miles to the trek.  Jesus, this time in Luke 9, decides to take the route through Samaria.

But the scene opens in our text this morning not with the typical setting of sandals and walking sticks and a sack of trail mix in the pocket.  The setting opens on the cosmic scene.  This is not just another trip to Jerusalem; this is a trip home.  This is a trip to heaven.  “When the days drew near for him to be taken up”—ugh, that is almost a grayed-out version of the descriptive language Luke uses.  It would be closer to say, “When the days became super-saturated, swampy with fullness for his ascension.”  Even the fabric of the space-time continuum couldn’t hold this much-anticipated journey back.  The time is ripe.  The time is now.  Let’s go!  The millennia-long wait is over.

He set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  This is a fabulously stellar sentence.  We need to slow down here and soak it in since this phrase will color the rest of our journey with Jesus up to Jerusalem.  Certainly a pilgrim’s feet would normally get most of the attention when it comes to a 75 mile hike, but not so here.  The dominate feature is Jesus’ face at the onset of this journey. 

There are several layers of significance.  Look!  The “he” is actually emphatic—kind of like: his own face he set.  It seems too weak to just say, “he set his face”—as my English Bible reads.  But there is a level of determination and specificity to this action that cannot be bypassed.  He is not reacting.  He is initiating.  He galvanizes his face in a way that distinguishes his face—not in a physical sense, but in a spiritual sense.  No one else can make this journey; it is his alone.  He steels himself not against the unknown, but the known.

Jesus, however, does not take this journey unaware.  He is not surprised by what waits for him at the other end of these 75 miles.  Some over the years have tried to argue that Jesus is not cognizant of all the terror that awaits him; but that is nonsense.  Jesus is completely aware, completely engaged, and completely obedient to step down this pathway.   He is the better Isaac marching up the mountain of God fully aware that he himself is the sacrifice.  Isaac says, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Genesis 22:7).  But the first thing said about Jesus in public was, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29) as if everything between Genesis 22 and John 1 were parenthetical.

The level of intensity in Jesus’ face corresponds directly to the immensity of Jesus’ power, his righteousness, his zeal, and his love.  This is a magnetic quality to Jesus that, frankly, gets washed out in the scrubbed down version of Christ in this pluralistic age.  Unlike the politically-correct version of Christ we hear about on the television or radio, there is no compromise in the biblical Jesus.  There is no accommodation; not with regard to this journey.  There is no wavering, no delay, no nonsense, and no discussion.  He is going to Jerusalem starting right now, no matter what.  We can go with him or not, but there is no stopping him.  The significance is not lost in how we interpret; there is no interpretation necessary—“He set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

Another layer to Jesus’ divine determination is housed in the main verb of our key phrase—“he set” (sterizo)—to establish, to fix, to strengthen, to set a certain position or direction (Friberg, Lexicon) for deliberate action.  It is a strong verb.  It is not impulsive, but long planned and long anticipated.  Even before Adam and Eve ate the forbidden meal, Christ was already preparing to offer himself as the meal that imparts life.  Even before the serpent concocted his deceptive plan, Christ was already preparing to crush the serpent’s head.  Even before we emancipated ourselves from the fellowship with God, Christ was already drawing up the adoption papers to reconcile us again.  But the time for preparing is over.  Now, finally, is the time for doing!  “He set his face to go to Jerusalem.”

This term of setting or fixing or establishing or upholding is used frequently in Scripture (48x), especially in the prophets.  In judgment, God declares that he has set his eyes against Israel (Amos 9:4).  In vindication, God’s righteousness upholds Messiah (Isaiah 59:16).  In comfort, God encourages Judah, “I will not [continue to] look on you in anger” (Jeremiah 3:12), but in seriousness God warns the wicked who “makes flesh [human effort] his strength” (17:5).  But most of the occurrences of this phrase are in Ezekiel who is commissioned as God’s messenger to “set his face against” the mountains, the false prophets, the pretenders, the counterfeits; against Edom, Jerusalem, Ammon, Sidon, Egypt, Gog and Magog.  But in Luke, Jesus sets his face to go to Jerusalem; to go to the cross.

One Old Testament reference that I want to draw particular attention to is found in Isaiah 50:6-8—it hinges on the same word (in the Septuagint), “to set.”  Notice the same determination of Messiah there in Isaiah as we have here in Luke.  Notice the same initiation of Messiah to offer himself—he is not caught by cruelty, he gives himself to cruelty for his own purposes.  “I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.  But the Lord GOD helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame.  He who vindicates me is near. Who will contend with me? Let us stand up together. Who is my adversary? Let him come near to me.”

His determination is not merely rhetorical—it is directional; it is actual.  The mere idea of going is insufficient; there must be the act.  “He set his face to go.”  Once again, there is another layer of determination—to take the journey (poreuomai) himself (middle voice) toward his own death (Friberg).  It is not merely or casually or involuntarily going along wherever the road happens to go, but personally and volitionally journeying the treacherous journey toward a terrifying conclusion.  This journey is fatal, but our pilgrim-savior is not fatalistic since he knows that he holds the power over death, sin, and the grave.  Although there is no question of the victory, the pathway through death is awful.  Christ is not spared any of the agony of this journey.  It is his road, all the same.  He owns it voluntarily though he does not deserve any of it.

Finally, the last layer of his divine determination is seen in the phrase, “to Jerusalem.”  The preposition is not coincidental.  Literally, Christ must go “into” the heart of Jerusalem.  He cannot go through Jerusalem and escape out the other side.  He cannot go around Jerusalem.  He cannot go near Jerusalem or beside or even toward Jerusalem.  The journey pierces into the heart of Jerusalem, which is the lair of his enemies, his executioners, his own betrayal, and the single worst part of this journey—the moment, however long it lasted, when the Father looked away from the Son when he bore the sins of the world.

Taken together—“he set his face to go to Jerusalem”—this is a mammoth sentence that endears us to Jesus anew this season.   No one pursues us like Jesus.  No one else shoulders danger in order to rescue us in the slightest.  No one perseveres through pain like Jesus for us—his rightful enemies.  Jesus delivers what he promises.  Jesus accomplishes what he says.
The rest of the passage builds on that key sentence.  “And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him” (vs. 52).  Notice how many “road” type words there are through the rest of this passage: sent, ahead, went, enter, village.  But the tenor of the journey has already been set—a fierce determination to make this journey to its cruel end.

But the people did not receive him” (vs. 53a).  Clearly, this is not the first time that the people did not receive Jesus.  They have been curious about him on the fringes, but most have not followed him in the way that he has repeated outlined.  But look at the reason for this rejection: “because his face was set toward Jerusalem” (vs. 53b).  They could not endure his holy determination to go through with his sad journey.  Now, it may have been ethnic—the Samaritans categorically hate Jerusalem.  And it may have been irrational—the Samaritans may not have had a clue why they opposed Jesus on his final journey.  Perhaps they were fearful of being associated with him since his enemies were powerful and many.  But the reason cited in the text, for sure, is his face.  Their backs were turned against Jerusalem, but they could, so to speak, see Jerusalem reflected in his eyes.  His divine determination was compelling to some, but revolting to others.  And so it is today.

II.            Remarkable Restraint (vv. 54-56)

54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, "Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?"
55 But he turned and rebuked them.
56 And they went on to another village.

 “And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’”  The outrage in the disciples, who carry with them the nickname “Sons of Thunder” perhaps for this very reason, seems over-the-top at first.  But keep in mind that they have just seen Jesus steel his face toward Jerusalem.  Just a bit before that  they heard Jesus rebuke Peter for suggesting that he not walk this road into death’s grasp (Matthew 16:23).  And keep in mind that they have also just seen Jesus’ face transform before their eyes into dazzling brightness (Luke 9:29).  Their zeal is understandable from a human perspective, but it is misplaced and misapplied to the people in this particular village.  They probably figure, “Jesus is not to be scorned; not at this point … not at any point.”  Elijah, who with Moses had just appeared before and subordinate to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, might have placed the idea in their heads about calling down fire from heaven on the followers of false gods (Luke 9:33) harkening back to the dramatic scene at Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:38) when even the Baal-worshiping Jews of the northern kingdom admitted, “The LORD, He is God.  The LORD, He is God” (1 Kings 18:39).  Might that happen again here since Jesus is greater than Elijah?

But Jesus did another thing entirely; amazingly.  He did not funnel his determination at the people who stood in his way.  He was not focused on Samaria.  He was focused beyond Samaria.  He showed remarkable restraint, stayed on his journey, and left the challenge unanswered.  When was the last time you left a challenge unanswered?  “But he turned and rebuked them.”  He rebuked them—as in James and John—not the villagers who refused Jesus their hospitality, which was a serious insult in the near East, but the faithful disciples who were rushing to Jesus’ defense.  The disciples thought they were winning a battle for Jesus when they were really hindering the ultimate journey of Jesus.  Sometimes our help actually hurts.  Good intentions and sincerity are not enough; they are not equivalent with righteousness.  We can be completely sincere and completely wrong.

Jesus doesn’t need to be defended.  He permits us to stand with him in solidarity, as a privilege to us, but our solidarity doesn’t embolden him.  He is infinitely bold.  Jesus doesn’t need to be helped.  The faith needs to be defended at times (Jude 3)—it is part of our commissioning in the church—but Jesus himself is fully able to defend himself.  The weak ones entrusted into our sphere need to be defended at times—it part of our mandate as human beings—but Jesus himself does not need our assistance.  When he remains silent it is for his own reasons.  He is fully in control. 

Conversely, and you can make the connections to recent headline news particularly in Paris, if someone were to draw a silly cartoon about Jesus, it should not and would not and must not constitute a rallying cry for the church to avenge the honor of Jesus with bloodshed.  That is a small, small view of God and a low, low view of honor.  Jesus will settle all scores—his and ours … in his own timing (not ours).  His day of reckoning will come and who can abide the day of his coming (Joel 2:11)?  But Jesus is able to defend himself when he decides to defend himself.  But this time he decides to deflect it and continue on his more important journey to Jerusalem by another route.

And they went on to another village.”  This is one of the saddest verses in the Bible.  Incredibly, Jesus turns around and leaves taking the longer/steeper road to Jerusalem along the eastside of the Jordan River.  In effect, he gives the villagers what they want—which is the worst scenario imaginable—a Jesus-less existence, which is another way to define “death.”  Sometimes the very thing for which we clamor is the worst thing for us, yet God allows it thereby making Paul’s words come to life: “Behold then the kindness and severity of the Lord!” (Romans 11:22).  He absorbs this rejection not because of cowardice but because of self-control.  Some might have even heckled him and concluded that he is weak.  But this is strength of which the world does not know.  Jesus’ strength is an upside-down kind of strength where the last becomes first, where the master picks up the basin and the towel and serves.  He will not force his freedom on anyone.  He will not compel conversion. 

Again, and you can make more connections to recent headline news particularly in Iraq and Syria and Egypt, if someone were to demand conversion at the end of a sword or at the threat of a beheading, it is only a further indication that such mercenaries resemble, not God, but their father the devil, the murderer of old, the snake (John 8:43).  And as such demonically controlled people they cannot bear to hear the words of life (John 8:44).  We do not deserve a second chance just as we did not deserve the first chance at reconciliation with God through Jesus.  To suggest that Jesus is cruel because he will not give a third chance is ludicrous.  His holiness is not obscured; his face is set to go to Jerusalem not to wrangle over words with fools.  He gives them what they want, which is fatal, and goes another way.

Only Jesus, only in the gospel do we see a God who works for those who trust him.  All other world religions—every one—compels people to work for their god’s good favor.  Only Christianity says, “Stand still and see the salvation of the Lord” (Exodus 14:13); “From of old no one has heard or perceived by the ear, no eye has seen a God besides you, who acts for those who wait for him” (Isaiah 64:4).

III.           Appropriate Application (vv. 57-62)

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go."
58 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."
59 To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father."
60 And Jesus said to him, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."
61 Yet another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home."
62 Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

The Bible student side of my brain wants to continue to exegete the rest of the paragraph all the way to the end of the chapter where Jesus appropriately applies his divine determination and remarkable restraint to his followers—for the connection of verses 57-62 to verses 51-56 is undeniable.  But I will leave that to your consideration later into this afternoon.  When you do, pay close attention to our implied or implicit conditions given to Jesus and how Jesus deals with them.  Instead of additional exegesis, let me tie off the fragile, mysterious balance of Jesus delicately placed side-by-side in this road-worthy teaching moment.

Jesus is divinely determined and remarkably restrained simultaneously.  He is not all spit and vinegar, nor is he all roses and sunshine.  He is not like our modern-day activists who hate all things and people who are not as passionate as they are over their favorite pet issues.  Yet, he is not like our modern gurus who insist that all rivers lead to the same ocean; that all prayers find their way to God whether they bounce of the wall of a mosque, or a shrine, or a church, or a secular rotunda of the local university.  Baloney!  Jesus is unlike any other man on the planet.  Jesus is solid without being rigid.  Jesus is tender without being vague.  He is on task; on purpose.  “Follow me,” he says, “But if you come, you must come on my terms.” “If you do not come, then know that my terms still hold; and understand that it is not I who moved away from you, but you who moved away from me.   I will pursue you to the ends of the earth like a lover, but I will not hunt you down like an inquisitor.”

This combination in one person is completely otherworldly.  No one else is like Jesus, yet Jesus is still like us in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).  We are polarized.  He is singular.  We have many centers.  He has primacy.  He transcends us yet condescends to our low estate.  Without relinquishing or diluting his divinity he adds to it complete humanity yet still remaining one person, two natures—divine and human—at the same time.  Jesus is the only qualified and able to save.

This combination in one person is completely otherworldly.  No one else is like Jesus, yet Jesus is still like us in every way, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15).  We are polarized.  He is singular.  We have many centers.  He has primacy.  He transcends us yet condescends to our low estate.  Without relinquishing or diluting his divinity he adds to it complete humanity yet still remaining one person, two natures—divine and human—at the same time.  Jesus is the only qualified and able to save.

All in all, this is quite the first step that Jesus takes toward Jerusalem.  Divine determination.  Remarkable restraint.  Like Henry Blackaby said many years ago, “We cannot stay where we are and follow Jesus.”  The road of faith may not always be geographical, but it will always be spiritual; always deliberate.  We do not coast “up to Jerusalem.”  Coasting takes us away from the cross.  We march to Zion.  “Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:30-31).  Beloved, look: “This is the way, walk in it” (Isaiah 30:21).  Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.  There was no other way then.  There remains no other way today.  Jesus said, “I am the way … the road … no one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  Therefore, the only journey worth taking begins and ends with Jesus.

25 December 2014

The Rees Family Christmas Letter 2014

Grammar saves lives. 

Someone has wryly said, and millions have probably seen the clever jpeg showing the huge difference that grammar can make.  “Let’s eat, Grandpa.”  … or …  “Let’s eat Grandpa.”  Grammar saves lives; or at least Grandpa’s life.  Little things like commas are not, in fact, merely little in the unfolding drama of our lives.

In a real sense, not merely relegated to quotable quotes that English teachers might thumbtack to their classroom walls, grammar saves lives.  It saved mine.

Threads or rhythms or cadences—whatever we want to call them—pre-existing themes exist and echo throughout the human experience.  You reap what you sow.  Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.  Teach a man to fish and you feed him and his family for a lifetime.  Every culture has its version of these, no doubt.  But there is one theme that the Christmas narrative slam-dunks; and its punch is built upon grammar. 

Jumping languages and linguistic grouping from English back to Greek, back to Aramaic that the common people in Bethlehem would have called their mother tongue, we can see the dignified power that continues the theme that reverberates throughout Scripture: believing is seeing.  The counterfeit of this theme pumps its fist in the air seemingly daily—seeing is believing.  But the theme of belief unto sight is bedrock in the biblical worldview. 

Ancient Greek didn’t use commas as modern English does, and word order is not as rigid with the biblical languages as with the Germanic languages, but still there is a grammar rule that reflects the Christmas message; the tidings of great joy.

The first sentence—the initial phrase of the first sentence—that the angel speaks to the humble shepherds encapsulates this belief-unto-sight theme perfectly.  “Fear not, for behold.”  “Fear not” is a command; the most frequent command recorded in all of Scripture.  It requires an active, personalized faith.  And notice how this command arrives—“and the angels said.”  Later on, the Apostle Paul pressed the same point when he said to the Romans, “Faith comes from hearing and hearing through the Word of God” (Romans 10:17).  Belief/faith comes from/through the Word of God.  And then, but never before, comes the seeing.  It is not necessarily physical seeing, but it can include it.  The seeing that is so often repeated in Scripture is the sight that happens from the heart.  The shepherds would see the Christ-child with their eyeballs, but they would see Him with the hearts first.  Why?  Because believing is seeing.

It is a simple grammatical structure: fear not, for behold.  But it cannot be inverted and maintain its grammatical integrity.  We cannot say, “Behold, for fear not.”  The grammar simply won’t allow it and I am so glad that it doesn't allow it.  We cannot see/behold before the act of faith and the act of faith cannot come before the Word of God.  The grammar demands faith first.  Faith receives Jesus for who the Word of God says He is.  Therefore, grammar saves lives.  To get it backward; to try to see our way into faith is exactly what cannot work—not in grammar nor in theology.   Yet it makes the gospel so miss-able for us who insist that seeing comes before everything. 

We as a family are riveted to this truth this Christmas season; that belief precedes sight.  We are actively believing the truth of the Word of God is dominate and definitive instead of what we see with our physical eyes.  Our physical eyes look at the bald tires on the Jeep, the inbox full of rejection emails from our many job application attempts, the dwindling numbers in our bank account and the enemy of our souls whispers with his forked-tongue, “Now is the time to fear.”  But the Scriptures say, “Fear not” first … then there is a strong conjunction “for” … then there is the possibility to “behold” the mind of the heart of God.  

There, right there--that is our manger where the Word of God and the human experience meet.  That is our crucible where the promises of God and the fears of the unknown clash.  That is our night sky that is pierced by the Bethlehem Star.  That is our believe-and-then-you-will-see theme that floods our December this year.  Jesus is the first Word.  And Jesus is the last Word.  May all our words in the middle find Christ’s cadence … for believing is seeing.  And we are genuinely well because of that truth, built on the principles of grammar, revealed in the Scriptures, embodied in Jesus.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

Glory, glory hallelujah!
Glory, glory hallelujah!
Glory, glory hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal";
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat:
Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet!
Our God is marching on.

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave,
He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succor to the brave,
So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave,
Our God is marching on.

Glory, glory hallelujah!
Glory, glory hallelujah!
Glory, glory hallelujah!
His truth is marching on.
(Julia Ward Howe, 1861)