Jesus has come from the dizzy heights of the mountain where he was transfigured before the very eyes of Peter James and John. It was the next day, and there are, in Luke’s story, some incidents that accentuate the deep nature of the messianic mission of Jesus and also highlight the deep inadequacies of the people around him to understand this sacred mission. And then our text. A series of discourses all pieced together, but highlighted with this: When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
Scholars tend to agree that this text represents a major shift in the Gospel. Jesus’ ministry in rural Galilee ends and he now sets his sight on Jerusalem to meet his fate. But what does ‘he set his face’ mean? It seems to suggest a resolute determination … a reading of the Greek wording confirms that … BUT does it also represent something more, something more about Jerusalem. Remember that the people reading and hearing this story are living post the time of the utter destruction and devastation of the city. In the OT the expression ‘setting his face’ can mean judgment – Is 50.7; Jer 3; and Ezekial 6.2, and 21.2 – so there is some thought this text means not just holy determination but righteous judgement, devastation, and pain toward the prized city Jerusalem.
And then there is this strange thread inserted by the writer about the cohort of messengers sent on a ahead to a Samaritan village … that the people of this village didn’t receive them, that they didn’t want to embrace Jesus. Why? Because his face was set for Jerusalem. It makes no sense. If the idea of direction to Jerusalem is about judgment and devastation then why would the enemies of Israel worry about that … they would applaud that. No idea! But is clear is that they the Samaritans are nervous about him, uncertain what it will mean for them, and so they want nothing to do with him and his venture to Jerusalem. The writer seems to infer that this choice is a mistake for later in ch 10 when Jesus despatches another cohort he tells them that it will be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for those in the towns that do not receive you.
Leaving that to one side, setting his face to Jerusalem most likely means both the determination of Jesus to set his mind toward his goal and judgement for that to which he heads. And it may be true that whenever we determine to follow a course of action there is both focus and conviction needed for the journey but there is also often a corresponding cost that we must always take into account. But go we must.
Jesus knows that he heads to a place where he will most likely die, but still he sets his face to it; Jesus knows that heads to place where there will be pain and ridicule, but still he sets his face to it; Jesus knows that Jerusalem will bring deep existential anguish, take this cup Father, why Father have you forsaken me, has this been all to no avail, but still he sets his face to it.
But let me dwell on this – something happens for Jesus. He does an about turn – it is the endpoint of his time in Galilee and now, determinedly, intentionally sets his face to Jerusalem. It was here but now he must go there! Jerusalem.
Life always brings us challenges. Sometimes they might be challenges born out of tragedy, or they might even be the slow building of something that we cannot resist any longer – whatever – there will be in the midst of those times a question for us about what we will do, or more to the point where we are to head. Our own Jerusalem. And whether we set our face to it. This morning let me ask: what would that be for you? What grips you, what burns within you, what calls you even though you know it will carry a cost?
In the Gospel story, the picture we have of Jesus in sending out the disciples toward the world is that he knew, not only that for which he would encounter and did encounter, but what his disciples would encounter as well because of their conviction. He knew the world was hostile where they would confront the recalcitrance of political officials and the intransigence of the protectors of the status quo. He knew that they would meet cold and forthright people hardened by the long winter of traditional or national or sectarian interests. So he told them: ‘Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves’. And he gave a formula for action when they headed out toward their own Jerusalem: ‘Be therefore wise as serpents, and as harmless as doves’. Be tough in mind but tender in your heart.
What is it that burns within you that looms as your Jerusalem? Be tough in mind but tender in your heart. Your Jerusalem may not be a city, it may not even be something that you want to achieve as a life goal. It may be simply something you know deep within that you must face but have avoided for so long. It tugs you and pulls at you, but it surely beckons you just as surely as Jerusalem tugged and pulled and lured Jesus. So what do we do? Deep down we know that one day we must set our face to it, and deep down we know that it will require focus and determination and a cost. But in the end we must take responsibility for it.
Two books have remained on my round desk in the office for nearly a year. ‘Man’s search for meaning’ by Victor Frankl and a book fashioned about his discovery of hope from the trenches of the Holocaust ‘Finding new meaning in Life’. Victor Frankl’s observations of a particular time and place have a universal relevance. His conclusions I believe can serve as a moral guide for us all in setting out toward our Jerusalems whatever they might be. ‘In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp’, Frankl wrote, ‘it was possible for spiritual life to deepen’. Frankl throughout his life sought to explain the well springs of making decisions for yourself and taking responsibility to act on them. To take the plunge and walk the path toward Jerusalem. ‘We are all self-determining with the ability to decide what our existence will be and what we will become in the next moment’. The power to choose is always with us. ‘Everyone’ he says, ‘has their own specific vocation or mission that calls them in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfilment’ And to that he said the Statue of Liberty nestled in the harbour of New York city be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility. All of us must choose our way, and all of us must decide to take the journey to it … live therefore as if you were living the second time and as though you had acted the first time wrongly as you are about to act now.
What burns in you desiring action? What calls you? What is the spirit saying to you that if you had your life a second time you can now do? What is your Jerusalem to which you must set your face? It will be costly, but it is right; it might be dangerous, and destructive even, but it is the call of your spirit that beckons. May you find the conviction of heart, the strength of mind, may you be wise as serpents and harmless – kind – as a dove – tough in mind and tender in heart to make the changes that you must, to set your heart finally toward that which you have put off for so long, to set your face to your Jerusalem for there deep meaning and joy awaits you. And know this: you go not alone!