Originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
It seems hard for me to believe (because it seems so recent), but over ten years ago, Honda had a certain advertising campaign on television and that featured an animated man who would talk about the vehicles and deals available during the Honda Year-End Clearance Event. Once he had told the viewer or listener about the great deals available to them, he would either “rap” the television screen or “tap” the radio microphone and state enthusiastically, “I’m Mr. Opportunity, and I’m knocking.”
Mr. Opportunity was Honda’s way of telling prospective car buyers about the cars they could have if they acted quickly. The Year-End Clearance Event wasn’t going to last forever, though, and the cars weren’t going to stick around. Just as soon as the event was over and the cars sold, Mr. Opportunity would be on his way until the next big sale. But while the sale was on, he was knocking.
In a way, Jesus, in our reading from Luke this morning, is kind of like Mr. Opportunity. He’s been going along, preaching about the coming kingdom of God, preaching repentance and healing people as he journeys toward Jerusalem where his work will be made complete. He presents an opportunity in every town he enters, an opportunity for life and healing, an opportunity for second chances and changed hearts. But not everyone who comes into contact with him is open to that opportunity. The Samaritans, theological opponents of the Jewish community, see that he’s going toward Jerusalem, the seat of their rival religion, and so they don’t let him into their town. He’s not acceptable among them, even if he is bringing with him the good news of the kingdom of God.
Some of the people who have joined Jesus on his journey don’t understand what taking the opportunity to follow him means. The man who says he’ll follow Jesus wherever he will go doesn’t understand the stakes of being a disciple. “I will follow you wherever you should go,” he says. But Jesus replies, “Foxes have dens, the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay down his head.” To follow Jesus is to leave behind everything, to give up your comforts, to become homeless in this world. Wild creatures have their homes, but not Jesus. The one who expects comfort and an easy time of it while going with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem will be sorely mistaken.
And those whom Jesus calls to follow him learn that the opportunity to follow Jesus is fleeting. Jesus isn’t waiting around. “Permit me, going [with you], to first bury my father,” says one. “Let me say goodbye to all the folks at home,” says another. But Jesus won’t give them time to do these things. “Let the dead bury the dead,” Jesus tells the first, “but you proclaim the kingdom of God.” “No one who puts his hands upon the plough and looks back is worthy of the Kingdom.” Jesus is Mr. Opportunity, and he’s knocking. He’s still heading for Jerusalem, and they either heed him or they don’t.
Of course, what Jesus tells these men who wish to follow him is a hard saying. In the case of the first, he’s telling him that following the Son of Man means becoming essentially homeless in the world. In the world of first-century Judaea, to follow a rabbi literally meant to take on their philosophies and lifestyle. Following Jesus guarantees hardship and difficulty–no earthly security, no earthly comfort. The fox has his den, the bird her best, but Jesus, and by extension, his followers, doesn’t have that comfort and safety. When Jesus calls these men to follow him, they learn that in order to truly follow him, they must have no earthly attachments. Jesus comes first, everything else comes second. Even the obligation to bury one’s father, the most important thing one could do as a first century Jew, must come second.
But surely Jesus can’t be serious, can he? That his followers are not to expect any kind of stability, that family comes second to following him, so much so that caring for one’s parents is made subordinate to preaching the word of the kingdom of God? What Jesus is doing for these men who wish to follow him is that he’s pointing out their idols, the things that keep them from committing to his call, those things that take their attention away from preaching the kingdom of God and instead focus their attention on worldly matters, those things which take Jesus’ place in their hearts, those things which keep them from fully placing their trust in him, either because they dominate their attention or because they are convenient excuses.
And that’s what Jesus is doing here. By calling these men to follow him (or in the case of the first, explaining what his call will be like), Jesus is asking them to trust him utterly, to give up all they have and to follow him wherever he goes, even to Jerusalem where he will die. But these men have other worldly cares that seem to take place of Jesus’ call. They don’t seem necessarily willing to set these things aside and throw their lot in with Jesus. They hear the call of the son of God, and yet, when they hear what’s entailed, they are reluctant. The idols in their lives–comfort, family, societal obligations–keep them from trusting him fully and taking the plunge. They don’t have their priorities straight. They try to put conditions on their following him.
It’s worth remembering that when Jesus talks to these men, he’s talking to people who haven’t yet seen his crucifixion and resurrection (though they’re looming in the distance). Looking at ourselves, what does this mean for us? We’re Christians, living in the promise of the resurrection. Most of us have been Christians since our infancy. But just because you’re in the church, doesn’t mean that you’re automatically following Jesus. To follow Christ isn’t some sort of casual activity. It’s not something that we do passively (though we can’t do it without Jesus’ help), because there are all kinds of things out there that vie for our attention and which we turn into excuses for not following him, living as baptized children of God, being the church. Maybe you’ve noticed some in your life. Perhaps it’s a desire to be comfortable. “Lord, I want to follow you, but I don’t want to take the risk–I’m afraid of the social repercussions of living out my faith publicly.” “Lord, I want to tell other people about you, but I’m just too busy making ends meet.” “Lord, I fear what others will say.” Maybe the desire for financial security gets in the way. “I want to help people as you would have me, Lord, but I want to save money. I’m worried that if I give this homeless fellow cash, he’ll spend it on drugs. I don’t want to be defrauded.” “Lord, I know we pray ‘thy will be done,’ but I really want things to go my way for once.” “Lord, I know what I should do, but I can’t bring myself to act the way you want me to.” “Lord, I believe— help my unbelief!” These thoughts and worries are all indicative of the idols we make out of ourselves, our time, our money, and our feelings, among myriad other things. They’re all things that we use to say, “I want to follow you, Jesus, but….” When we do that, we’re going back to that old familiar sin of ours wherein we trust ourselves over Jesus, or at least show that we’re not so ready to take him at his word, to trust that he is God and that, with him, we will be in his care and under his protection. We can’t put our hands on the Gospel plough and then have second thoughts about it.
Humans are creatures of comfort, after all. We don’t like to be drawn into uncomfortable situations or ones in which we are vulnerable. But that desire for comfort in the world distracts us from the fact that our Lord wants us to find our true comfort in him, not in the world. That’s the issue that faced these men to whom Jesus called along the road to Jerusalem. But the difference for them is that Jesus isn’t calling them to follow him on their own, left to struggle and puzzle out how to best follow their master by themselves. He is going to be with them! And while they may not understand who he is and what following him fully means, he invites them to trust him and follow him. It’s not unlike how the Israelites trusted God and followed his pillar of cloud and fire on their way out of Egypt in the Exodus. God called them to follow him, and they did so, trusting him the whole way. They didn’t know where they were going, but he was present with them for every step, protecting them from danger.
As it was for the Exodus-era Israelites, so it is for the men in our Gospel reading. Jesus will be with them–in fact, they’ll be with him. And if they’re with him, then he will guide them. In a sense, that’s what Jesus means when he talks about how no-one who puts his hands to the plough and looks back is not worthy of the Kingdom. If you’ve ever seen how an old plough works— the kind that’s drawn by oxen rather than horses— you’ve probably noticed that in addition to the person who guides the plough itself, there’s at least one other person to help goad on the oxen along and keep the plough moving. Jesus is like that person who guides the oxen, and when they start moving, you’d better hang on! But he keeps the oxen from going out of control and keeps the plough in its furrow.
And so it is for us. Even though there are many things that fight to control our attention and entice us to hem and haw about living as one of God’s children in Christ, Jesus invites us to trust him and follow him. We don’t have to fear or worry about discomfort or worldly obligations preventing us from following Jesus with our whole being because he will help us deal with that discomfort and meet those obligations as we follow him. As we “go along,” following Jesus, we can perform our duties and face discomfort and unsurety in the world, but motivated by a different spirit, not because we are motivated by fear or by some law or custom, but because Jesus has given us the freedom to do so. When we trust Jesus when he says, “Follow me,” knowing that the Son of God has our back no matter where we go or where he calls us to go, we can follow him without fear or worry, and we can do our best to be who he calls us to be. He will be with us every step of the way, and if we stumble in our following him, he will set us back on our feet to continue with him on his way.
C.S. Lewis once wrote the following: “If you read history you will find that Christians who did most for the present world were those who thought most of the next. The apostles themselves, who set out on foot to convert the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English evangelicals who abolished the slave trade, all left their mark on earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this one. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in.’ Aim at earth and you will get neither.”
When we remember that Jesus is with us when we go to follow him, we can live confidently in whatever circumstances we find ourselves, not worrying about discomfort, vulnerability, or fear, but living in the world while looking confidently forward toward the kingdom of heaven, made worthy of it because we trust the one who makes us worthy, Jesus Christ. Amen.