This sermon is based on the second lectionary Gospel reading: Luke 9:51-62.
The prophet Elijah was not exactly a compromising sort of guy. You may remember the story of Elijah who, according to biblical tradition, did not die but rather was taken up into heaven by God in a chariot of fire. And you may remember the story about Elijah and the prophets of Baal: how God answered Elijah’s prayer for fire from heaven to start the fire of offering to the God of Israel, even though the offering and altar were soaked with water?
But do you remember the story of Elijah and Ahaziah? Ahaziah, king of Israel, became involved with the prophets of the god Ekron and Elijah gave Ahaziah a prophecy of his impending death that Ahaziah didn’t want to hear. When Ahaziah sent his troops to Elijah in response, Elijah called down fire from heaven on the soldiers and destroyed company after company.
And, of course, it was Elijah who the Jewish people believed would return to earth to announce the imminent return of the Messiah.
What’s all of this got to do with today’s Gospel reading? The reading that we just heard is filled with images that a first-century Jewish audience would have understood to be about Elijah.
In fact, some of the original manuscripts add a reference to Elijah in the text. Some manuscripts have the text: ‘Do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, as Elijah did’?
And it’s not exactly an easy text to hear because the text goes on to be just as uncompromising as Elijah was. In fact, more uncompromising: in 1 Kings 19:19 Elijah’s disciple Elisha was allowed to go back and say good-bye to his family before becoming Elijah’s disciple and wandering in the wilderness with him. This evening’s text suggests that those who want to follow Jesus aren’t even allowed to do that.
No compromises. Not only are we not allowed to say good-bye to those at home, we’re not even allowed to fulfill our obligations to our family (not a message I want to hear right now!), nor are we allowed to have a home. Everything must be sacrificed for the Gospel.
Difficult, but not impossible
I hope that you don’t need me to tell you that there is a bit of the famous Near Eastern practice of exaggeration to make a point going on here? I don’t believe that these verses mean to recommend to us a level of discipleship that sounds more appropriate to obsessive-compulsive disorder than it sounds to following God.
Still, these verses are most certainly meant to emphasize the seriousness of being a follower of Jesus. To be a follower of Jesus is to understand that God’s way of life is radically different from the way of life of the world around us.
And its not just about having hope in difficult situations, nor is it about not using bad language nor is it even about following a code of ethics and personal morality that is of a higher standard than the world around us.
To be a follower of Jesus is to live a radically different lifestyle from the prevailing culture.
For those who are called to such work – missionaries, for example – it may mean not having a home or family. And it means not calling down fire and brimstone on our enemies. Because God’s way is the way of dying and forgiving, not the way of killing and vengeance.
Thy Kingdom Come
Today’s reading marks the beginning of the journey to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel. In one sense, you could look at Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem as Jesus’ own journey of discipleship. He has been called by the Father to the mission of dying and rising so that the world may be forgiven. His mission is precisely a mission of dying and forgiving.
His crucifixion and resurrection result in the very real redemption of the universe: Jesus’ salvation goes to the very being of creation. At that level, Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection usher in the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that God promised to the Jewish people, which Elijah worked for and which the Jewish people have been waiting for.
But Jesus’ mission is also an example to us and it is to be our mission as well. We cannot bring about the Kingdom of God ourselves, but we are called to live as if the Kingdom is already a reality in our lives and in the lives of others. The whole point of our discipleship, the whole point of living in the radical way that we hear about in this reading is to live as if the Kingdom is already here and to be a pointer to that Kingdom.
Jesus’ life was an example of the Kingdom life and, if we are to be disciples of Christ, then we are called to live such lives too, in order to be signs and pointers to the Kingdom. We are to live lives of ‘dying and forgiving’ rather than lives of killing and vengeance.
We are not to seek peace of mind and soul by seeking revenge or by seeking to hurt others as much as they have hurt us, but we are to seek peace of mind through forgiving them. We are not to seek peace of mind and soul by one-upsmanship or self-seeking but rather through the consideration of others. We are not to seek satisfaction in life by competition or by trying to be the top dog, but by using the gifts that God has given to us for the benefit of other people so that God may be glorified in it. We are not to use any power that we may be given for our own benefit, but rather for the benefit of other people so that God may be glorified in it.
At first glance, there may not appear to be good news in this evening’s reading, but we can’t take it in isolation from the rest of the Gospel. When we consider this text, which is exaggerating to make a point, we can find many points of good news.
The good news is that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem to die and to rise again so that we may be forgiven. The good news is that the Kingdom of God is coming and that it is a kingdom of forgiveness rather than vengeance. And the good news for those who love Christ is that we are called into God’s amazing work and that our lives not only have a purpose, but their purpose is glorious. This is a mission that is worth being single-minded about.
As we come to the Lord’s table this evening, I pray that we may be reminded of the good news of God’s kingdom of forgiveness. I pray also that we may each be filled with the kind of unswerving dedication and passion for God’s Kingdom that Jesus himself had. Amen