Welcome, particularly if you are new here or are visiting, my name is James and I'm on the leadership team here at St Barnabas.
Over the last few weeks we have been looking at the Gospel account of Luke, and today we are looking at this very important passage which indicates a major turning point in Jesus’s ministry when he seems to turn from what seemed to be a highly successful and popular ministry which involved miraculous healing, to directing his journey towards Jerusalem where he knew he would face death. This journey itself begins in verse 51, which says, ‘Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem’, but in verses 43-45, he is giving his disciples a warning about what is to come.
I was cycling to work on one of the icy mornings last week, and I was just reminding myself that the only times I have ever come off my bike we're going round corners in conditions like this, when I gently pulled into a turn, a car slowly approached the junction, and in readjusting my turn my wheels slipped from under me in almost precisely the same way as the previous 3 occasions, grazing my knee, tearing my glove, and making me feel more foolish than I had planned when I got out of bed. When I recounted this, a ‘friend’ commented, ‘you, saw it coming and it still got you’.
The future is largely unknown to us, as those of us who followed the Federer, Rafa final today are well aware. We can hope, and we can plan, we can expect, but we can never be sure what is going to happen. We only see life backwards, after the event.
The question the disciples faced again and again in this passage was should they trust themselves and their ideas for the future, or should they trust Jesus and his plans.
For ourselves the question looks something like this. What if our life does not go according to our plans? Do we blame God for things not turning out as we’d hoped? Do we doubt God’s goodness or his kindness? We may experience life to be hard at times, and we may feel that following God makes it harder still – and we are caused to ask – is it worth it?
Our personal struggles may give us enough reason to doubt whether God really cares for us, but even if things are going well for us personally, it doesn't take much reflection to realise that the question about whether God really cares is very profound. The catastrophic disasters of the last century do not really need listing, except that by naming them we can remind ourselves of how bad things can get, from the horrors of trench warfare, to the horrific mass killings, such as the Rape of Nanking, Auschwitz, and the Rwandan genocide, and today the war in Syria is just the most prominent of current conflicts.
How do we have hope, and how do we trust God about the future when the past is so full of disappointments, and terrors? And yet we live with unparalleled wealth and health around the world. For a great many people life seems to be going very well.
Richard Dawkins, looks around the world and eloquently draws this stark conclusion, ‘In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.’
But despite this, we find it very difficult not to hope, to think that it is all meaningless, that there is no good, or evil, and nothing but indifference. We feel passionate and angry about many of the things that happen in our lives, and we don't aspire to pitiless indifference either in ourselves or in anyone else. If humans are capable of this we call them sociopaths, being pathological because it is a diseased state, rather than a good and natural state of being. Nevertheless Dawkins is pointing out that in the face of the facts it seems we are strictly all deluded to live differently as if there is such a thing as goodness or purpose.
Our passage takes us on a journey which is both very challenging and surprising in its answers to these questions. It seems to me that the most important words in the passage are found in verse 44, when Jesus says, ‘listen carefully to what I am about to tell you.’ Luke did not record these words as a sort of engaging space filler to keep our attention. He understood that Jesus said this in all seriousness, and we would do well to listen ourselves because Jesus is clearly saying something of great importance. We know that because he makes an extended point in verse 45 about how they had apparently not listened to him. He writes, ‘But they did not understand what this meant.’ And then reinforces it again, saying, ‘It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it.’
One conclusion might be that Jesus is not a very good teacher if he cannot convey such a simple message to them. But another is that there are some things that we find so uncomfortable and which have such massive implications, that even though we hear them, we may go into denial, or take a long time to accept the painful truth, or to begin to understand what the consequences are. Until the end of the chapter Jesus has a long list of such lessons which need listening too, but which are truly painful and difficult to hear and understand.
If we try and inhabit the minds and experiences of the disciples, we may begin to see why they could not grasp what Jesus was saying. Luke's words are very sparse, and we need to pause over each phrase if we are to understand what he says. In the second half of verse 43, Luke simply records the background reality into which Jesus’ words were spoken. ‘While everyone, was marvelling at all that Jesus did.’
Now we know that Jesus did have people who opposed and rejected him in earlier chapters such as his home town of Nazareth, and many religious leaders, but even here it is clear that he was having a profound impact on everyone, and it seemed that the vast majority marvelled at all he did. This made it impossible for those who would plot to harm him to do anything for fear of causing a riot and risking bringing down the wrath of the Romans who did not tolerate disturbances in their provinces.
So the disciples seemed to believe that they were following the true Messiah who had such power and such charisma that he would be able to reestablish the nation of Israel and kick out the Roman oppressors. His popular movement could not be going any better at this point. Which is why Jesus needed to ask them to listen carefully, when he predicts that he will be delivered into the hands of men.
We should not give the impression that Jesus was changing his plans at this point, rather it was the disciples understanding of Jesus’s plans that needed changing. In his early ministry his miracles were interspersed with teachings which the authorities and disciples found hard to accept. And on his way to Jerusalem he continues to perform remarkable miracles. Rather this moment was a drawing together of all that had happened and the inevitable outcome was becoming clearer, and more defined, not least in the mind of Jesus himself.
Jesus was never a populist in the sense that we have come to know populism today. Rather the opposite. Today's populists seem to say things which appeal to huge numbers of people, but do not have the capability to follow through in reality, and sometimes haven't lived lives which match up to their grand acclamations. Jesus, however, seemed to teach things which were very hard to accept, and had already predicted his death, but clearly had the power to do great things, and had the kind of life that people couldn't help being attracted by.
His miracles were of such a commanding and remarkable nature that those who witnessed them should have listened to his words more carefully. When he calmed the storm in chapter 8, he asked the disciples, ‘where is your faith?’ because they should have known by this point who it was that they were dealing with. And they asked themselves, ‘who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?’ This was presumably a rhetorical question. They knew from the Old Testament that it was God alone who controlled the wind and the waves. But they couldn't quite come out and give the answer their question demanded.
Jesus’ life and actions were of a different order from anyone else, and the disciples should have listened to his words carefully, because these were not some contestable words of some dubious populist, but the authoritative words of God himself. His miracles provided indisputable evidence that his words had authority. He is capable of removing the pains from our world, and he will do exactly that in the future, but there is a deeper problem which needs sorting out first – the problem of the human heart – and that is a problem which requires a more painful solution.
However, the disciples seem to have taken a rather selective approach to who Jesus was and what he taught, preferring to suppress the awkward bits of his teachings, and get excited by the more appealing things, perhaps because they were so impressed by the crowds who marvelled at everything he did. So for them there remained very difficult questions. How can it be that Jesus who is so loved by everyone will be delivered into the hands of men? And what about their hopes and dreams for the future? All would be lost. And so they simply could not grasp what Jesus was saying, and even if they had an inkling, they were afraid to ask about it.
Is it possible that even though we know in our heads how events unfolded, and that Jesus was crucified and then was raised to life again, that we also do not want to believe what Jesus is saying here because it is too uncomfortable for us? Jesus I think says to us all, ‘listen carefully to what I am about to tell you.’ We have our dreams and desires for what we want out of life, but this is not the road Jesus takes us down.
You see we easily doubt God's goodness when things don't go our way. This wasn't a new problem that came with Jesus, but it goes back to the book of Genesis and the Garden of Eden, which records the serpent casting doubt on God's words, ‘did God really say do not eat the fruit of any tree in the garden?’ Which of course God did not say in the first place, but the seeds of doubt were sown, and in our hearts we all have the natural inclination to doubt that God has our best interests at heart, which is why Jesus says, ‘listen carefully’. What did God really say?
Did he promise us miraculous healing and relief from the pains of this life? Did he come to swish away all our problems and give us every good gift in this present world? We have our ideas of how the future should look, and we faithfully pray for these outcomes, but we can be discouraged and even lose our faith if things don't turn out as we imagine they should if God really has our best interests at heart.
But the truth is we have never been able to fathom Gods purposes. We live on a tiny planet in a corner of a universe 13.5 billion light years across, so vast that we cannot begin to comprehend it. Psalm 8 says, ‘When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of the, human beings that you care for them?’ God’s perspective is so far beyond ours that we cannot begin to grasp it.
It doesn't take much reflection to realise this. God's creation includes genetic mutations which are necessary for evolution to occur, and yet these same mutations cause cancer which can kill us. The tectonic plates that recycle carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and make mountains and oceans also cause earthquakes which destroy. Sickness and death is built into God's world. The universe itself will die in time – it will either grow old and cold, or it will collapse in on itself. And then there is the catalogue of destruction of humans against humans that I have already listed. How do we understand God's purposes in all this? Is Richard Dawkins right? Is it just about whether we get lucky?
In the Old Testament, Job experienced a life of very great suffering, and yet he was in the end rebuked by God for presuming to question God's purposes. In chapter 42 Job says this to God, ‘I know you can do all things, I know that no plan of yours can be thwarted. You asked, ‘who is this who obscures my plans without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I do not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.’ Job concludes, ‘My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’
Is Job just being foolish? A vulnerable man who is being bullied by God, when he should just admit that God, if he exists, is a cosmic psychopath who is blindly indifferent to the sufferings of human beings?
We’ll come back to these questions, but for now we'll follow the passage a bit further.
The disciples are often unfairly criticised by modern commentators in my view for having such a vain and foolish discussion in verse 46 about who is the greatest. However, I wonder if there is not a general truth about human nature in their argument, which all of us are capable of and we would be missing the point to think they were being particularly obtuse here.
Their vision for the future sprung from their own wish fulfilment, and was therefore a human construction, in which as Jesus’s inner circle of disciples they could only imagine that they would end up with important jobs with their mate Jesus as boss. The last of the Ten Commandments is, ‘do not envy your neighbour,’ exactly because this is our natural instinct. If we do not define ourselves according to God's word, then we have to find our place in the order of things. Some have said we either reach out for demagogues or dictators who will tell us what to do, or we will follow fashion. But either way we compare ourselves with others in order to give our lives some purpose, and in doing so we feed the disappointment of realising that in such a world, Richard Dawkins is right, some people get lucky and others don't.
Jesus’ answer gently points out that they could not be more wrong. In his world it is the least who is the greatest. This again is hard teaching to hear. Humility is more important than status in his world, when we put so much effort into trying to define our place in the hierarchy. And yet within a moment they are at it again in verse 49, as someone they didn't know was apparently casting our demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus here refuses to create divisions between insiders and outsiders, but rather sees all who are pursuing the right thing as being on the same side.
But yet again the disciples failed to grasp what Jesus was saying, seeing the rejection by the Samaritan village in verse 53 as a reason to condemn because they believed they were defending their masters honour, and again Jesus rebuked the disciples. This too is a hard lesson, since they were now moving from a place where everyone marvelled at Jesus, to a place where he was not appreciated or welcomed. They still had not absorbed the truth that Jesus was to be delivered into the hands of men.
Crowds can be fickle, and adulation at one moment can turn into vitriol the next. When they were to arrive in Jerusalem, they would find that the crowds would welcome Jesus with Hosannas and palm branches and a few days later would be crying out ‘crucify him’.
The disciples themselves who were so keen to defend his honour in the Samaritan village, run away, hide, desert and deny even knowing Jesus.
The purposes of God are simply much bigger than ours. We would want to win these small victories for our own egos but Jesus knows that the biggest problem we have is the problem of our hearts, and this cannot be solved by populist uprisings or quick fixes which appeal to our vanity.
In verses 57-62, Jesus drives his message home more clearly in listing examples of what we might have to give up if we are to follow him. There is a cost to discipleship. We may have all sorts of wishes, to have the normal comforts such as even the animals have in verse 58, with fixes having holes and birds nests, or fulfilling our family duties before following him. Or we may be tempted to turn back and look at what we might have had if we didn't follow him.
The German Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a book called, the cost of discipleship. He opens his book provocatively saying, ‘Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of the church’. He argues that we distort the good message of grace to our own advantage, that Jesus has given us everything for free by dying for us, so that we do not have to do anything to be accepted and loved by God.
He writes, ‘Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance… Absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Christ, living and incarnate.’
On the other hand he writes, ‘Costly grace is the treasure hidden in a field; for the sake of it a man will gladly sell all that he has. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him…. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow,, and it is grace because it calls us to follow him.
The teachings of Jesus in this passage are therefore very hard, and the disciples and followers of Jesus were constantly looking for cheap grace, when all that Jesus has to offer is costly grace.
But it is the great paradox of this story, that the disciples did actually listen. At the beginning of his gospel account Luke writes ‘Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have happened among us, from those who were from the first, eye witnesses and servants of the word. I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning.’
So it seems certain that the only way we know about these conversations between Jesus and the disciples would be their own reports to those who compiled the gospel accounts. The disciples present themselves as stubborn fools who failed to listen to the words of Jesus. Years later, after Jesus had been crucified and raised from the dead, they did grasp and understand what he had said to them all those years before. They were no longer competing to be the greatest, or holding onto their sense of pride. Instead they had become like children, putting all their faith in Jesus alone, and telling the gospel writers just how stupid they had been. They present the story of Jesus going to the cross, not Jesus the populist.
Far from being an uncaring God who is indifferent to our sufferings, Jesus participates in our sufferings, and suffers so that our hearts may be healed of their pride and their rebellion, and that we can can follow him by serving others without regard for what it might cost us.
It would be a strange thing to do to invent a religion in which the heroes were such fools, and in which the main character is crucified. But the disciples had learnt the deep truth of costly Grace – following Jesus may be hard, but it is worth it. They could easily be quoting Job saying, ‘My ears had heard of you, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.’
Perhaps then we too should wrestle with these truths over months and years because they are so against everything that is instinctive to us. Our human inclinations are for cheap grace, for easy solutions, and for avoiding uncomfortable truths. But the costly Grace of Jesus may lead us to suffer now, for a greater prize in the future. When life seems hard, we need to remind ourselves that Jesus didn't promise it would be easy, but it is worth it because if who he is. We are asked to follow him.
Let us pray, ‘Heavenly Father we confess that we do not listen carefully to your words. We fail to see that you have warned us that there is a cost to following you, and we feel disappointed, and start to doubt your goodness when life does not go the way we feel it should. We pray that we would be reminded that far from avoiding suffering, you chose the road to the cross because you wish to solve the problem of pride in our hearts, and we know you alone have the power to do this. We pray that you would help us to listen carefully to what you say, so that we are not misled by our own desires and plans. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.’