Luke 9:51–62 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them. 56 Then he and his disciples went to another village. 57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” 59 He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.” 62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is useful for service in the kingdom of God.”
Are you just a fan of Jesus or are you a follower of him? I read a sermon like that based on this Scripture. Not a bad thing to consider. Are you a fan or a follower? Perhaps you’ve even heard that sermon before. You know what I’m talking about. You’re told there are really two kind of disciples. The awesome one. And the horrible one. There is that delightful disciple that is determined, is of iron will, and always perseveres. And then there is that other kind. You know what I mean. The one that likes Jesus, cheers him on, but then turns on him when the going gets tough. She bucks some of his teachings. He doesn’t read his Bible enough. She has a sex life not yet lined up with Jesus. He has a wallet that he hasn’t yet given to the Lord. Fans. Not followers. It was interesting to me as I studied this Scripture to notice that this view of discipleship is so common in American today that even the titles in our Bibles give credence to it. I saw one translation that titled this story, “The would be followers of Jesus.” The wanna be’s. The fans. Not the followers.
I don’t buy it. You know why I don’t? If you look at this Scripture carefully, there aren’t two categories for the disciples. Look for it all you want, but you won’t find the super disciple or the one who has totally surrendered all for him or the one who’s committed beyond belief. You just can’t find that disciple here. You can find disciples here, but not that disciple. Did you notice what kind of disciple you find here? Not two categories. Just one. Disciples who aren’t all that great at discipleship. Disciples who always need to repent. In fact, I think it’s right to notice that Luke sets up this section on discipleship not with three examples of unnamed disciples who were pretty miserable followers, but with two named disciples who weren’t just bad at discipleship. No. Worse. James and John weren’t being his disciples AT ALL in the moment. They were being what we’d call today terrorists. They were praying to Jesus to call down fire on those infidel Samaritans. Obviously, that’s not positive discipleship. So Jesus rebukes them.
Jesus then goes on to more or less rebuke everybody there. Everybody. Everybody’s discipleship here gets eviscerated. James, John, and three unnamed guys – they all get eviscerated. One guy all eager beaver comes up to him and says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” (v. 57) And instead of Jesus saying, “Wow! I love your commitment. You’ll go anywhere. That’s so rare. Let’s get going.” Instead of encouraging his good intentions and nurturing that young spiritual fire Jesus seems to douse it. “Jesus replied, ‘Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.’” (v. 58) In other words, Jesus is saying, “You say you’ll follow me wherever I go, huh? Not so sure about that. I’m not exactly bouncing from Ritz Carlton to Ritz Carlton here. Why don’t you just quit before you start? You’re not going to like following me.”
Then Jesus makes it worse. He picks out one of his followers who was there. Just some random disciple. And Jesus doesn’t give him a chance to think or consider the request. He just picks him out of the crowd and makes an example of him. He said to this random disciple, “Follow me.” (v. 59) And the poor guy replies with his daddy on his soul. He very sweetly and I might add respectfully asks, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” (v. 59) Now keep in mind that his father probably wasn’t gone yet. Maybe close, but not yet gone. He probably wouldn’t have been hanging out with Jesus if his father was, in fact, in that moment dead. What he probably meant was, “Jesus, I’m totally in, but first let me take care of my dad through the funeral.” Reasonable, right? Not to Jesus. “Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’” (v. 60) He was saying, “First you’re going to make the dead comfortable? First? That’s not what I do. I don’t make dying people comfortable. I make dead people live. Let’s get after that.”
“Still another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord’ but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.’” (v. 61) Should be good with Jesus, right? “Let me just get a proper goodbye in. Let me just do some hugs, shed a couple of tears, and I’ll be on my way to a missionary life for you, Jesus.” Sounds good, right? Not to Jesus. For this guy who just wants to say goodbye is reserved the most astonishing statement of all. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is useful for service in the kingdom of God.” (v. 62) Jesus was saying, “You want to follow, but only later? Forget it. If you want to work for me, you can’t do it looking back. You’re not useful like that. You have to line up your sights straight ahead.”
And lickety-split the discipleship of three in a row is eviscerated. One is over enthusiastic not understanding that following Jesus probably isn’t going to get him a silver spoon in his mouth and a posh hotel at night. Another is willing, but only after he has already laid his dad to rest. And still another is willing, but only after he has said his proper goodbyes. Call them priorities. Call them wants. Notice it’s so often our families. Notice it can be our comfort. But above all notice this: every single one of these people had something that trumped Jesus. Every single one of them. They liked Jesus. They recognized his importance at some level. Two of them even came up to him of their own volition and volunteered to be drafted into his service. You did notice that – didn’t you? – not a single potential follower said, “no.” They all said, “yes.” Every single one of them. It’s just that he wasn’t first. First, one had to see to his own comfort. “First,” another had to, “go and bury,” his father. “First,” still another had to, “go back and say goodbye,” to the fam. First.
Boom. Three down. And three is enough. If three in the Scriptures take the stand and testify to a truth, then it’s true. And now three have. What truth is Jesus giving us? We’re all failed disciples. James, John, three unnamed guys. We’re all failed disciples. Jesus wants us to know that. He’s not here comparing and contrasting fans and followers; the committed and the wobbly. He’s just not. He’s pointing out that he’s got no one who’s following him unflinchingly, whole-heartedly, totally willingly. Perfect disciples of Jesus went extinct in the Garden of Eden. Some of us chase our careers more than him. Some of us are into our kids or our grandkids more than him. Some of us read more political stories than Bible stories. Some of us stay in the Ritz Carlton before donating to church or worry more about getting in to the seeing the doctor about the heart before getting in to seeing the pastor about your heart. What I’m trying to say is that this isn’t Jesus preaching to the choir. There is no choir. There’s just us.
You know why Jesus teaches this way? To save us from our own discipleship. Really that’s it. He has to machete our overconfidence, our iron wills, our gripping commitment. He has to reveal us to ourselves. That’s his purpose in the moment. You know why? Because in a very real way the first step to following Jesus is knowing you’re kind of bad at it. In fact, that’s why you’ll follow at all. Really. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but it’s true. Only once we know that will we follow more confidently and surely and committedly. We will follow him that way once we know how badly we need his grace. We follow Jesus because we must. We need his grace. Discipleship is always about that. Always. Following him for his grace. Obeying him because we love his grace. Grace. Grace. Grace. This has been Luke’s point the whole time. It’s not just an afterthought. It’s not just a coincidence. And it’s not just some kind of literary piece of luck the starting place for this section is Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Luke very tactically wrote, “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (v. 51)
Why? Because that is Jesus. That is who he is. That is what he does. He is The Committed One. He is the Perfectly in Pursuit One. He is always and only the Properly Prioritized One. He is the one who is always on schedule and right on point. He’s not off seeking the Ritz Carltons in life. He’s off seeking the lost. He’s not off saying goodbye to his mom, his brothers, and sisters. He’s heading off to die for them. He’s not holding out on his mission waiting until his step-dad who he loved is buried. He’s instead seeking heaven for all. And nothing would stop him. Nothing. No discouragement. No pain. None of the people in his future who would fail to follow would stop him. Nothing and no one. He, “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (v. 51) The intention of his heart got carved into face like it was flint. Jesus’ face was written in stone way before Mount Rushmore ever happened. Do you see Luke’s point? Jesus is the Savior of iron will. He would go to Jerusalem to be take all the way up. First on a cross. Then in the grave. Then all the way to heaven. He would go to Jerusalem for that. Nothing would sidetrack him. Nothing would get in his way. Nothing would else but you ever would come first.
You can be sure of it. Because nothing did. Jesus didn’t even get through the first leg of his journey before his resolve was tested. Luke did show you that. The Samaritans said to him in essence, “Hey Jesus, take a hike.” They don’t come to him. They don’t prioritize him. Not even secondarily. The Samaritans? They tossed him out of their city on his ear. “The people there did not welcome him, because he was heading to Jerusalem.” (v. 53) And so what does Jesus do with their stunning denial of discipleship? He protects them. He protects them. He doesn’t drop them. He doesn’t harm them. He doesn’t even holler at them. He does none of that. He protects them from his overconfident, judgmental disciples with terrorist impulses. James and John asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven and destroy them? But Jesus turned and rebuked them.” (v. 54–55) He doesn’t harangue the Samaritans or holler at them or drop them like flies. He protects them. And why? Jesus didn’t come to condemn. He came to seek and to save. He didn’t come to rain down fire. He came to rain down grace on everyone even those who lack commitment and will to follow him.
And that included James and John. You know what they didn’t realize? They didn’t realize that in calling down fire on the Samaritans. They were also calling down fire on themselves. They weren’t nearly so different from the Samaritans as they believe. Not nearly so committed. Not nearly so perfectly prioritized as they imagined. It would take only a little while longer for them to prove that when they also fled him. So Jesus refused to send fire not only on the Samaritans, but also on them. He sought them when they didn’t seek him. He found them when they too were lost. And so he did. He walked all the way to Jerusalem to rain down grace on his half-hearted disciples. And nothing and no one stopped him. While James and John left him in Gethsemane for the comfort of sleep, Jesus prayed alone. While the rest of the disciples fled to the hills, Jesus jumped up and went with his betrayer. While Peter denied him and Judas betrayed him, Jesus kept on to Jerusalem. The Committed One. The One with Iron Will to Save. The Perfect Follower of God.
Discipleship of Jesus claims that life as its own. First and foremost. First and foremost it says, “That’s for me.” Really, it does. Before discipleship ever says, “I’m for him.” It always says, “He’s for me.” Understand that. The discipleship of Jesus Christ is not first a more intense religious commitment or some kind of Christianized version of jihad. In fact, if there’s anything Jesus is showing us here is that his disciples are never to be confident in their iron will or reliant on their overwhelming commitment to him. Not that. Not ever. They are those reliant on him. They are those who follow him because they are those who need his grace. And that’s it. They see in Jesus this God who refuses to rain down fire on their times of non-commitment. They see in Jesus this God who instead of abandoning pushes on for them with a face like flint all alone if he must. To die. To rise. To forgive us. These are the disciples of Jesus Christ – those who have been captured by his unfaltering steps and his totally committed life. Those who say, “He’s for me.”
And they are us. We are those drawn to follow. As our faith in his commitment to us grows, we commit to him more. As our trust in grace rises, we rise to follow more. That’s how Christian discipleship works. The better you see his resolve to save you, the more resolve you’ll have to follow. Seriously. You lose interest in today’s Ritz Carltons when you’re promised a forever one there. You lose your obsession to proper goodbyes here when you know he’ll make sure you won’t have to say goodbye there. You loosen your grip on making sure the family dies well here when you realize Jesus came to give life forever there. That’s how Christian discipleship works. As you grow more deeply into how central he made you in his life, the more central you’ll want to make him in yours. So watch him today set his face to Jerusalem. To unbury the dead. To make goodbyes obsolete. To prep you your eternal Ritz Carlton. And then when you hear him pick you out of the crowd and say, “Follow me,” you’ll feel pulled. Not to ask him to go do and be with whatever is really on your heart. Because there he is unrivaled and first in your heart. The Committed One. The One with Iron Will to Save. Your Jesus. Follow on, Peace family. Amen.