Don’t Look Back!
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
In the drama of our salvation the final act opens with eight simple words: “He intently set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51)
To recap, Jesus spent his whole life in the region known as lower Galilee. Except for his birth in Bethlehem and his family’s brief sojourn into Egypt, Jesus grew up and lived and worked in close proximity to the Sea of Galilee.
When he began his ministry, he located in Capernaum and, from there, went out to preach the gospel and heal the sick and proclaim the Kingdom of God to all who would listen. But he never ventured out too far for too long. He always came back to Capernaum by the sea.
And so, when we come to this pivotal verse in Luke’s gospel, it’s no small matter, for it represents a major shift in the thrust of Jesus’ ministry. From this point, he will take his message to the heart of the Jewish faith – to Jerusalem – and to its center, the Temple.
We all know what will happen when he gets there: He’ll be confronted by the religious leaders. Within days even the masses will turn against him. Before the week is up, he will be crucified. His decision to go to Jerusalem marks the beginning of the end. This is the gravity of the situation underlying Luke’s words when he says, “…he intently set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
And this is what I hope you’ll get out of the sermon this morning: Jesus’ resolve – his sheer determination to obey God’s will regardless of the costs. And to know this: He set the example: Just as Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, so God calls us to set our set our sights on Christ and his kingdom and forsake all else for the sake of the Gospel. When we do, we taste the first fruits of eternal life.
Let’s begin: “He intently set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Why? He had nothing to gain and everything to lose. It was a suicide mission. Anyone reading the gospel knows that. Yet, Jesus would not be dissuaded. He believed it was God’s will and his destiny. Earlier, he told his disciples,
“The Son of Man must suffer many things,
and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes,
and be killed,
and the third day be raised up.” (Luke 9:22)
He knew exactly what he doing and why he was doing it. This is implicit in the language of the text. Luke didn’t say he set his face to go to Jerusalem because he ran out of things to do in Capernaum … or the Galileans wouldn’t listen to what he had to say … or he thought he might have better opportunities in Jerusalem. No, he says,
“It came to pass, when the days were near that he should be taken up, he intently set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
Paul tells us, “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.” (2 Corinthians 5:19) Here we see God’s plan of salvation in effect. Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem for one reason: He believed it to be the will of God.
This is the starting point of a life of faith – to seek God’s will over all else. Contrast that with the world in which we live. The world tells us, “Weigh the pros and cons. Keep your options open. Stick to your plan.” Jesus taught his disciples,
“But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness;
and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
One of the things I like most about the Presbyterian Church is our emphasis on the sovereignty of God and the importance of putting God first. We live by the words of the psalmist, who said:
“Unless Yahweh builds the house, they labor in vain who build it.” (Psalm 127:1)
In this spirit, we start every meeting praying for the leading of God’s Spirit, and we end every meeting praying that what we’ve decided will be in accordance with God’s will. It’s not just a formality; it’s a way of life.
This came home to me vividly one day in a hospital visit. One of my older members was seriously ill. I stood by her bedside and we talked for a few minutes and then I offered a brief prayer for healing and comfort. At the end of the prayer, this blessed old saint looked up at me and said, “And might I add, ‘Not my will, Thine be done.'”
That’s the spirit of putting God first – trusting that God not only has a plan for your life, but that God’s plan is good and perfect in every way, even things don’t turn out as you had hoped. It makes all the difference. The more you let go and let God lead the way, the more you experience inner peace and lasting joy and true accomplishment.
Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, not because it was convenient or compelling, but because he believed it was God’s will for his life. And, once determined to follow this course, he would allow nothing to stand in his way.
Luke says they reached a Samaritan village, but the Samaritans wouldn’t receive him. It wasn’t that they were inhospitable. It was that Jesus wouldn’t take the time to socialize. Luke makes this clear. He says, “They (the people) didn’t receive him, because he was traveling with his face set towards Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:53)
I can identify with this. As most of you know, I tend to be pretty intense, at times. When I get going on a sermon or a project, I lose all track of time and don’t want to be distracted. It doesn’t take long for those who drop for a chat to get the message. I used to have a co-worker who’d poke her head in the door, size things up and say, “Well, I can see this is not a good time.”
So, I think I know how Jesus might have felt. He wanted to get to Jerusalem. He didn’t have time to stop and visit. There was work to be done and a mission to accomplish.
We can all learn from this: There are times when we ought to kick back and relax, and there are times when we need to dig in and exercise greater urgency about proclaiming the Good News of the gospel.
That leads me to wonder: Is there anything you feel a particular urgency about today? Is there something you urgently want to accomplish?
I mentioned earlier that Larry Lawrence was coming to share his witness with us on May 17. I think it’s fair to say he feels a great urgency about doing this. If the medical prognosis is correct, he doesn’t have long to live, and he wants to make the most of the time he has to share his faith with others. He said he hopes that, by talking candidly about his own life and approaching death, he might inspire others to a life of faith.
Listen, there are times when you need to step up and share your faith openly and honestly with others and let the chips fall where they may. You may not feel comfortable doing this, but the truth is there are those who are eager to hear what you have to say. The problem is unless you feel an urgency to tell what you’ve seen and heard and experienced of God’s love, you’re likely to take your story to the grave. Don’t wait until you get around to it. Do it now.
The Samaritans weren’t rude. It’s just that Jesus didn’t have time to stop and visit. So, he moved on. On the way he was approached by three would-be followers. The first said, “I want to follow you wherever you go, Lord.” (Luke 9:57) He meant well, but he didn’t what he was saying. Jesus told him,
“The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests,
but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58)
Before you commit yourself to following in the footsteps of Jesus, count the costs. Jesus told his disciples,
“Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves…
for they will deliver you up to councils,
and in their synagogues they will scourge you…
Brother will deliver up brother to death…
You will be hated by all men for my name’s sake.”
(Matthew 10:16-18, 21, 22)
A friend of mine told me about meeting a young couple at a party. They were new in town and looking for a church home. They’d visited several churches already and wondering what his had to offer – Mother’s Day Out? Family life center? Personal growth groups? It’s a competitive world for churches, just like everybody else. He said, “Oh, you’ll love our church. We’ll give you a Cross to bear.” He didn’t say whether or not they showed up the following Sunday.
Christian discipleship is not for the faint of heart. Neither is it for those with a dual allegiance. The second wanna-be told Jesus, “Lord, allow me first to go and bury my father.” (Luke 9:59) Jesus said,
“Leave the dead to bury their own dead,
but you go and announce the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:60)
That sounds cruel until we realize that Jesus was not talking about funeral services, but divided loyalties. “Let me fulfill my obligation to my father,” in other words, “then after he’s gone I’ll be free to follow you.” We all know that’s not good enough. In the language of the Old Testament, “You shall have no other gods before me.” (Exodus 20:3)
Devotion to others, even those dearest to us, must come second to our devotion to God. In one of the really hard words of the New Testament, Jesus said,
“If anyone comes to me,
and doesn’t disregard his own father, mother,
wife, children, brothers, and sisters,
yes, and his own life also,
he can’t be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)
I don’t know about you, but that’s not a passage we dwelt on in Sunday school. I still cringe every time I hear it. Translating it in a positive way, what it says is this: Put God first and let others find their rightful place in your life.
The third wanna-be said, “I want to follow you, Lord, but first allow me to say good-bye to those who are at my house.” (Luke 9:61) But Jesus said to him,
“No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back,
is fit for the Kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)
Don’t look back. To look back is to invite regret, foster nostalgia and live in retrospect. It’s to lament the fact that life changes and the good ole days are a thing of the past. It’s to second-guess yourself and wonder, “Did I make the right decision?” And to play the what-ifs: “What if I’d done this? What if I hadn’t done that?”
To look back is to hold on to a memory rather than claim a promise. It’s to deny the possibility that what’s important is not only what has been, but what will be. Most importantly, to look back is to avoid living this day to the honor and glory of God.
“No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back,
is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
I’ve never plowed a field, but I’ve taught marching band, and I can tell you the only way to march a straight line is to pick out a point in the distance and walk toward it. If you look to the left, you’ll veer to the left. If you look to the right, you’ll veer to the right. If you look behind you, you’ll go in a circle. But if you pick out a point in front of you and keep your eyes focused on it, you’ll march in a straight line every time.
This is what a life of faith is all about – setting your sights on Christ and his kingdom and moving toward it, one step at a time; not letting the chaos of the world distract you, or the temptations of the world entice you, but striving by the grace of God within you to live after the example of Jesus, day by day. Paul put it this way:
“Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect;
but I press on, if it is so that I may take hold of that
for which also I was taken hold of by Christ Jesus…
One thing I do. Forgetting the things which are behind,
and stretching forward to the things which are before,
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, think this way.” (Philippians 3:12-15)
Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. He was bound and determined not to allow anything to stand in his way. In so doing, he fulfilled God’s plan of salvation: He laid down his life for the sins of the world in order that we might be reconciled to God.
In gratitude, set your sights on him. Seek his kingdom of love and righteousness above all else. Turn from the sinfulness of the world and follow his example. And above all, don’t look back. In the words of a song,
“Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in his wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of his glory and grace.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2009 Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.