TO FOLLOW JESUS, KEEP YOUR FOCUS.
In the name + of Jesus.
As Jesus began making his way from Galilee in the north to Jerusalem to the south, he planned to pass through Samaria. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 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?” But he turned and rebuked them. (Luke 9:52-55) To this day, it seems nothing can get a person angry faster than not showing him the level of respect he thinks he deserves. James and John felt that way about Jesus. James and John wanted to see vengeance rain down on the Samaritans. You can imagine the conversation: “Lord, remember when wicked King Ahab sent soldiers to arrest Elijah in Samaria, and Elijah called down fire from heaven to consume them? Don't you think a repeat is in order?” But Jesus rebuked them. His goal was not to lash out judgment against those who rejected him. Judgment would come upon people at the Last Day. But Jesus was focused on his goal. Judgment would first fall upon Jesus when he suffered and died in Jerusalem for sinners.
On the way to Jerusalem, there were three incidents of people who wanted to follow Jesus. Two volunteered; one was recruited. Someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:57-58) Jesus did not refuse this man's enthusiastic plea, but he didn't automatically receive him either. Jesus answered by letting him know that following him was not going to be a life of ease.
I suppose you can appreciate Jesus' words. The world loves its own, but Christians often don't feel at home in the world. The world celebrates drunkenness, promiscuity, obscenity, and taking advantage of others. God's people repent of these things and strive to keep ourselves from them. It can feel very lonely when you take God's word seriously. Just as Jesus was rejected by the Samaritans, you may be rejected too. And while we might want to see fire rain down upon those who reject us, our mission is not to seek vengeance or to demand respect. Jesus has not called us to do that, but only to follow him. To follow Jesus, keep your focus.
The second man, Jesus recruited. To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:59-60) Now, it sounds cruel for Jesus to rebuke a man grieving the loss of his father. But if this man's father had died that morning, he would already have been tending to his burial. In other words, this man did not want to follow Jesus until later.
It still happens that people believe in Jesus but they do not want to join the church. They fear doing so will dishonor their parents or family. Maybe they will join later, after their parents have died. Our relationships influence us, too. If our family or friends are dismissive of the Bible, if they want their Sunday mornings to be about other activities, then we are inclined to give in to their wishes. Sadly, it rarely works the other way—that we would urge them to join us in church. Beware. Do you fear losing the friendship of the spiritually dead at the expense of your own spiritual life? It is far more common than most realize. To follow Jesus, keep your focus.
Finally, another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:61-62) Once again, Jesus sounds unreasonable. Why would walking out on one's family without a word be God-pleasing? God has given each of us our vocations in which we serve him, and that includes serving our family as husband or wife, son or daughter, father or mother, brother or sister, and so on. The problem was with the man's response to discipleship. “I will follow you, Lord, but...” Whenever we put conditions on our discipleship, our Lord is not getting our full commitment. It doesn't matter what condition we put on it. “I will follow you, but my family is visiting and they don't go to church. They come first.” “I will follow you, Lord, but it is really hard to put your word into practice when I am pressured to act differently.” “I will follow you, Lord, but it will cost me.” When we add conditions to our discipleship, we cannot really call him “Lord” anymore. Something else has been raised higher. To follow Jesus, keep your focus on Jesus.
As St. Luke records these exchanges, he does not tell us how anyone responded. The point is not what these men did. The question is: Where is your focus? Each one must assess himself. No matter how well you think you have done, all have fallen short. We have all found reasons that following Jesus was inconvenient, or put a strain on a relationship, or was lonely. We have all found reasons to turn away from his word and to focus on what was more agreeable to family, friends, or our own personal agenda.
To follow Jesus, keep your focus. He calls you to be separate from this world because he has set you apart from it already. He has set you apart for a better kingdom and is eager to give you better blessings. This world is passing away. Even the blessings of this world are passing away. But Jesus brings you to a life that will not even be snuffed out by death. He will bring you into a kingdom whose glory will never fade. And he assures you that, before your heavenly Father, you are always accepted, always cherished, and always forgiven.
This is because Jesus had set his face toward Jerusalem. He was focused on his mission. And you were Jesus' mission. He went there to pay for the sins of all. His innocent death atones for our guilt—for when we were focused on worldly gain instead of heavenly riches, when we found it more convenient to do what is forbidden than to suffer for doing what is good, when we found the praise of the world preferable to praise from God. Jesus has taken this guilt and all other shame away from you because he set his face toward Jerusalem to die for you. He not only willingly endured the scorn of Samaritans, scribes, and Sadducees, he also bore the wrath of God for us. He knew what he was getting when he went to Jerusalem, but Jesus was focused on our salvation. He did not lose that focus, because he did not want to lose us to death and hell.
To follow Jesus, keep your focus. Jesus has us focus on his words and promises. His word guides us in our vocations in this life so that we turn from evil and strive to do good. Our focus is to do the works God gives us to do. But we are especially focused on his promises. These remind us that we have a gracious God who works all things for our good, who pours out on us heavenly riches, and who praises us as his beloved children.
Although following Jesus may sometimes feel lonely, you are never alone. Jesus is with you, and his people meet together regularly for mutual encouragement. Although following Jesus may sometimes cost you, the only things you lose are things that will perish with the world anyway. Only Jesus gives you gifts that endure forever. Although following Jesus may result in rejection and ridicule from the world, Jesus renders the only judgment that matters. You are children of the Most High God and heirs of heaven. Keep your focus on that. Set your face toward Jesus and his word, and you will receive a blessed death, a glorious resurrection, and a kingdom that will never perish.
In the name of the Father and of the Son + and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.