Sadhu Sundar Singh (1889-1929)
Balsamlund, Elmo and Messiah Churches—Wadena, MN
June 27, 2010
"When the days drew near for him to be taken up, [Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And 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.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
When Jesus makes his mind up to do something, there’s no standing in his way. When Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem”—don’t even think of raising objections, slowing him down or throwing obstacles in his way. It will only delay him….and that Jesus will not tolerate!
At first glance it might seem that Jesus has a perverse “death wish” here in these verses from Luke chapter 9. Why is he so determined to die? Why is he so focused on wrapping his arms around the Cross that’s awaiting him in Jerusalem? Is Jesus on a suicide mission or something?
Jesus does have a death wish—but it’s about more than his own personal death. Jesus’ death is just the beginning—the beginning of the End of this old age. Jesus is eager to embrace death, all right—he can’t wait for it: the death of all that will die when he breathes his last.
Jesus is eager for the death of sin and its grim stranglehold over us. When Jesus dies, sin dies. Sin loses its grip on us. Sin’s reign over us is finished. Jesus wants that so badly that he can almost taste it here in this gospel lesson.
Jesus is ready, too, for the death of the devil—the demise of the Evil One who is always cooking up new schemes to make us miserable. Jesus can’t wait to “take him down” at the Cross—to say “enough” to the One who creates sickness and strife and storms like the one that swept through your area a week ago this past Thursday.
Jesus looks forward, with deep longing, to the death of death itself. Jesus hungers for the day when death will no longer have the last word over us. By willingly, freely dying for us, Jesus means to rob death of its power in our lives, and he can’t wait for that to happen.
So, because of all that, Jesus “sets his face toward Jerusalem,” eager to take up his Cross and embrace the death that will bring an end to all our worst enemies—sin, death and the power of the devil.
Jesus can’t wait to stretch out his arms in love for the whole human family, in compassion for the whole creation that God intends to make new. Jesus hungers for that…so he must be off….and though he welcomes company along the way, he has no room for laggards, slowpokes, or “ditherers”….certainly no room for anyone who is torn between this dying old age and the New Age of God’s Kingdom that is surely coming.
So here in this gospel we see two things playing out, simultaneously, side-by-side. We see Jesus rushing toward the fullness of God’s Kingdom….rushing toward God’s New Creation…..and as Jesus hastens headlong toward all of that….he brushes up against persons who are still caught up in, still enamored by this old dying age
His own closest followers—James and John--are eager for a little here-and-now “payback”…ready to call down fire on a Samaritan village that wasn’t getting with the program.
Wanna-be disciples approach Jesus and say that they’re with him….but first, but first they have to attend to some dealings with this old age. They’ve caught a whiff of what Jesus is up to….they’ve captured a sense that it’s about moving forward, straining ahead….and yet they’re still stuck in this tired dying age that is passing away. Some are stuck in real estate deals, others are entangled in family matters. Still others have funerals to attend—they’re stuck in the good and upright obligations that make up the fabric of our daily lives.
And Jesus can’t be bothered with any of that.
Jesus is already living with one foot fully in the Kingdom. Jesus is rushing toward Jerusalem because, in a sense, he has already left this old dying world behind. Jesus is the man--God’s man of the future.
That’s, I think, how we will best make sense out of this peculiar gospel lesson. Jesus isn’t so much giving us practical tips on how to follow him. Jesus is impressing upon us the urgency of life lived in a new key—the urgency of embracing God’s Kingdom of Life, which means starting to shuck off all the things that still chain us to this old age, which is already passing away.
I think that Jesus puts his finger on what he’s looking for in the very last verse of this gospel lesson, when he says this: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Now there’s an image that those of us who live on farms, grew up on farms, or hang around farmers can make sense of.
When I was a country boy growing up in southern Minnesota, I operated all the implements on our farm, except two. I never “graduated” to running the combine at harvest time….and I never was allowed to operate the planter in the spring. Those were Dad’s duties, Dad’s jobs—and he didn’t trust anyone else to do them right.
Garrison Keillor likes to say that farming is a spectator sport, and when I was growing up that was true in spades. My dad vied with all his neighbors for the reputation of having the straightest rows of corn and soybeans in Blue Earth County!
But there’s only one way to make that happen—and that’s to keep looking ahead, lining up that little ridge on the hood of the tractor that pulled the planter—lining up that ridge with the marker in the dirt that had been laid down by the planter on its last pass through the field.
No looking back. You can’t get to your destination, your future—you can’t get there by gazing in the rear-view mirror.
It’s all about scanning the horizon, heading toward the future, looking ahead, says Jesus.
And that holds true for us still, today. Because Jesus stuck to his guns, held his course, and made his way to Jerusalem—for us and for our salvation.
Jesus died for us—and when he did that he buried in his grave all the things that suck the life out of us.
• Jesus buried sin, Jesus swept away all that turns us in on ourselves.
• Jesus buried the devil, all the dark powers we can’t explain that wreak havoc in our world.
• Jesus buried death itself, in his own grave. Jesus defanged death forever.
And on the first Easter, when Jesus burst out of the tomb, he opened up God’s future for us and for the whole creation. In his resurrection Jesus set our faces toward that future. No looking back. Only ahead!
The problem, of course, is that you and I aren’t fully “there” yet. Sin still clings to us. Sickness and strife and storms still break out among us. The devil still prowls around like a roaring lion—a mortally wounded lion I might add!—but a lion nonetheless, who still has a few tricks up his sleeve.
And although we may have one foot in God’s coming kingdom, the other foot is firmly planted in this old, dying world. We still have to have a roof over our heads—or for some of us, after the tornado—we need to get a roof back over our heads. We’ve still got deals to seal. We still need to put our Sunday duds on and head off to the funeral home, on occasion. The Kingdom hasn’t arrived yet fully.
But despite all that--even now, we can, we will live our lives differently because we belong to Jesus and his wild way in the world.
We live our lives trusting that sin, death and the devil are defeated—they just don’t know it yet. We carry on our dealings in and with this world, but fully aware that none of those things are “final” for us—none of them are the “real deal”—the ultimate reality or goal of our lives.
St. Paul, in a memorable passage from his first letter to the Corinthians, puts it about as well as anyone could say it—what it’s like for us who follow Jesus toward God’s future, even as we live with one foot still in this old age that is passing away. Paul writes: “29I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, 30and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, 31and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.” (I Corinthians 7:29-31)
Sadhu Sundar Singh came to be known a century ago as the Apostle of Christ to India. Raised in the Sikh religion, he had a wondrous vision of Jesus, just hours before he intended to kill himself by stepping in front of a train. For Singh, the old world truly passed away, when Christ came into his life, and he lived the rest of his days inviting other Indians to follow Jesus. We remember Singh for a simple song that he wrote, “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” including this stanza that flows right out of our gospel lesson for this morning.
“The world behind me, the cross before me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
The world behind me, the cross before me;
No turning back, no turning back.”
In the name of Jesus. Amen.