Sermon 06-26-2022: “‘Setting Our Faces’ to Follow Christ”

June 28, 2022

Scripture: Luke 9:51-62

Our scripture begins, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he—Jesus—set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He set his face… That’s an unusual figure of speech, but it’s used in a few places in the Bible. What does it mean to “set one’s face”? It means that you’ve decided to do something very difficult, or something very costly, or even something risky or dangerous. But you’re determined to do it, no matter how difficult, because you know it’s the right thing to do.

Jesus has “set his face” toward Jerusalem because he knows what’s waiting for him there: the cross. He’s had an appointment to keep with that cross since before the creation of the world. And now his Father has revealed to him that the time has come for him to go to the cross.

So Jesus has an incredibly difficult journey in front of him. And beginning with today’s scripture and up until Jesus’ crucifixion, Luke is telling us that every event he describes in Jesus’ ministry will take place in the shadow of the cross… 

And we disciples of Jesus Christ, who are told repeatedly that we must “follow” Jesus in order to be his disciples, who are told by Jesus that no “servant is greater than his master,” who are told by Jesus that we must “lose our lives in order to find our lives,” we disciples should expect a difficult journey in front of us—as we seek to be faithful to him.

So in today’s sermon I want to make three points about discipleship… three truths about what it means to follow Jesus. One: disciples must make Jesus their life’s highest priority. Two: being a disciple is a process. And three: being a disciple requires propitiation—what does that mean? That’s an incredibly important theological word that I’ll explain once we get there… Priority, process, and propitiation. That’s what this sermon is about.

First priority

Look at verses 57 to 62. Luke describes three would-be disciples who learn from Jesus that he requires his disciples to make following him their highest priority. Notice the second man, for instance, in verse 59: Jesus says to him, “Follow me.” And this man seems as if he wants to. “But he said, ‘Lord, let me first go and bury my father.’” Do you see the language of priority? The word “priority” literally means “what comes first.” And the first thing this man wants to do—before following Jesus—is to bury his father.

This likely doesn’t mean that his father is already dead, mind you. If he were already dead, the man would probably be too busy with funeral arrangements—not to mention grieving—to be having this conversation with Jesus right now. No, the man likely means that his father is old and infirm; perhaps he’s dying now or is already on his deathbed. He at least believes his father will be dead soon. And after that happens, then then… this man will follow Jesus. 

It was as if he were saying, “My father comes first, Jesus… My family comes first… then you.” And we completely sympathize with the man’s point of view, don’t we?

Yet Jesus responds with some his harshest words in all of the gospels: “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

Now, this isn’t quite as harsh as it sounds: Jesus understands that the most important human need that any of us has is for the forgiveness of sins and the new and eternal life that Jesus gives us when we hear and receive his gospel. He understands that apart from being born again through faith in Christ, we are among the “walking dead.” We are spiritually dead. If we don’t hear the gospel, and we don’t receive this good news by repenting and believing in Jesus, we won’t be saved! In which case, Jesus knows we’ll face something much worse than mere death: We’ll face God’s judgment! We’ll face hell… because of our sins! 

Since that’s the case, how can anything be more important, logically speaking, than doing what Jesus tells this man he must do: to “proclaim the kingdom of God,” which is, to proclaim the good news of Christ? In the interest of love for others, how can we who are his disciples not make Jesus our top priority—even a higher and more important priority than commitments to the closest, most intimate, most loving human relationships—that of a parent and child?

And if you still think this is harsh, it’s not like this is the only place where Jesus makes the point! In Luke 14:26, Jesus famously says, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Jesus doesn’t mean we literally hate our families. Rather, he’s using hyperbole, he’s exaggerating on purpose, to say that our love for Christ should be so great, that our love for anyone else should pale in comparison.

And Jesus reiterates this point with the third man who also comes at Jesus with an “I’ll follow you, Lord, but first” kind of excuse:Verse 61: “I’ll follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”

Jesus must come firstby far… Jesus must be our life’s highest priority… by far!

If we’re parents, for example, we have to decide that if Jesus is our priority, then our highest priority with our children is to do everything we can to introduce them to Jesus, to communicate to them the good news about Jesus—to show them exactly how important Jesus is to us.

I mean, think of the sacrifices parents are willing to make in order to ensure that their children are successful in life—that they succeed in school, that they succeed on standardized tests, that they participate in the right extracurricular activities, that they get into the right colleges… Parents are deeply concerned about their children’s future success in life, and rightly so. But you know as well as I do that even the most successful life in this world is only the tiniest blip of time in light of eternity.

We know that, yet we can be so haphazard about churchgoing, about praying and reading scripture, about praying with our children, about living out our faith for our children, not just for one or two hours on Sunday morning but 24/7?

Parents, what are our children learning from us about the priority that Jesus has in our lives?

Now look at verse 57. This first guy sounds like the exact opposite of these other two: he seemingly wants to follow Jesus without reservation: “I will follow you wherever you go,” he says. Some commentators have noticed that this man begins with the word “I” and doesn’t even use the word “Lord.” Not a promising beginning to his life of discipleship!

But I think it’s fair to say that Jesus discerns that this man may actually have another priority. When Jesus says that unlike foxes and birds, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head,” he likely discerns that this man might be overly concerned about his home… or his comfort… or his safety… or his material wealth.

All of these things are perfectly good, mind you—just like family and friends are perfectly good in the case of the other two would-be disciples. But they can’t take priority over following Jesus. And that’s what Jesus is putting to the test.

In summary, in verse 62, Jesus says these challenging words that apply not only to the three would-be disciples, but to rest of us disciples as well: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” In other words, when you follow Jesus, you ought to desire him and his kingdom and his glory so much that you would never be tempted to want anything else more than you want him! And if you do want something more than Jesus, well… he says, you’re not fit for the kingdom of God.

These words should terrify us, right? I’d be willing to wager that for most of us, when we hear Jesus speak these words, there’s at least a tiny part of us that wonders, “Do these words apply to me? After all, haven’t I often made people other than Jesus my life’s top priority? Haven’t I often put money, possessions, and other treasures in life ahead of the treasure I have in Christ? 

If so… am I in trouble? Am I among those who are not ‘fit’ for God’s kingdom? Does this mean I’m not even a disciple? Not even a Christian? Do I even have eternal life? Am I even saved?”

I of course can’t answer that question for you… That’s between you and the Lord. And for some of you, the Spirit of Jesus may be saying to you: “It’s time for you to start following me—to really start… perhaps for the first time in your life, to make Jesus Lord of your life.”

But for those of us who are already disciples, I want us to see how gracious and merciful Jesus is toward us, even in the midst of his otherwise uncompromising words about discipleship: Remember the ridiculous question of James and John in verse 54: “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” When we hear that, many of us probably smile or chuckle to ourselves. Because that suggestion is so outlandish… it seemed wildly, almost comically inappropriate. We know that Jesus wants to save these Samaritans, not annihilate them. How can these two disciples so badly misunderstand who Jesus is… after all they’ve seen and heard and experienced of him? They don’t get it! And it’s not just an intellectual failure on their part… We’re talking about hatred. They must really hate these Samaritans. That’s a terrible sin that Jesus says is on the same spectrum alongside murder. They have broken the Sixth Commandment in their hearts!

Yet we smile about their question in part because we think, “At least we’re not like them! At least we’re not that bad!”

Then we turn around and read, in verses 57 to 62—about these three would-be disciples—and worry: “Maybe we are like these men! Maybe we are that bad!”

But keep this in mind: James and John are not merely two of the Twelve main disciples of Jesus. They are two of the Big Three disciples—the three who are part of Jesus’ inner circle, along with Peter! They are two of Jesus’ three closest friends! Yet look how badly they failed to measure up! Look how badly they sinned!

And don’t forget Peter, the third of the Big Three, whose failures as a disciple are legendary. Next to Judas Iscariot, surely denying even knowing Jesus three times—all because you treasure your safety and comfort and life more than you treasure Jesus—is the worst sin imaginable. And not only that, he’s exactly like the first would-be disciple in verse 57. Peter himself said, in Luke 22:33, during the Last Supper, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Sound familiar? I will follow you wherever you go!”

“Oh no, you won’t, Peter.” Peter failed to do what he said he would do. How is this not an example of “putting his hand to the plow and looking back”? And James and John surely weren’t so different when they wanted to murder their enemies!

Yet none of us worries about whether Peter, James, and John are really saved… In fact, Jesus assures them in at least a couple of places that they are saved—in spite of their many sins.

And… there’s hope even for these other three. Why do I say that? Because Jesus doesn’t outright reject any of them. No, he leaves the ball in their court. “Are you willing to follow me now… with this new information… or not?” 

Jesus allows each of them to decide whether or not they can continue to be his disciples. 

And that’s right… I said “continue” to be his disciples. I’ve called these three men “would-be” disciples. But that’s not quite accurate. Why? Because Matthew’s gospel includes a parallel to this scripture… in Matthew chapter 8, verses 18 to 22. He describes the first two men, not the third… the third man is unique to Luke’s gospel. But in Matthew’s version, Matthew refers to the first two men as disciples already!

So, yes… these three disciples have reached a crossroads… Yes, they have to decide whether they can continue to be disciples of Jesus… Yes, they have to decide whether they’ll be able to follow Jesus in this new way that he’s calling them… but that doesn’t mean, according to Matthew, that they aren’t already disciples…

You know… just like Peter, James, and John are already disciples. 

Will they continue to be Jesus’ disciples? We don’t know… Only time will tell… We don’t know if by the time they reached the end of their lives they were still following Jesus. We don’t know how they responded to Jesus’ words to them. The way Luke leaves it, they could to either way.

But isn’t that true for all of us disciples?

And this is Point Number Two: Being a disciple isn’t a one time event or decision, which happens when we go through confirmation class or stand up in church and make a public profession of faith. It doesn’t happen when we get baptized. It doesn’t happen when we walk down the aisle and pray a sinner’s prayer.

No, discipleship is a lifelong process! 

Like the three men in today’s scripture, every single one of us—if we are disciples—will follow Jesus to a crossroads, or a turning point, or a fork in the road—probably many, many times in our lives… And when we face a turning point in our journey of discipleship, we will either choose to be faithful to Jesus and follow him down this new, risky, scary, uncertain road… 

Or we won’t. But the ball will be in our court.

Did you ever listen to an old Christian radio program—it used to come on a Christian radio station in Atlanta late at night, but it was syndicated nationally—it was called Nightsounds. The host—one of the great old radio voices—was the late Bill Pearce. He’s been dead for years, the show’s been of the air for years, but thanks to the magic of the internet and smartphones, I can listen to a new—old—episodes of Nightsounds like it’s 1983 all over again! I love it.

Last week, I heard Bill Pearce say the following… He said:

Some years ago… I was ushered into the beautiful, spacious home of a local, wealthy, Christian businessman. As we sat in his spacious living room, beautifully appointed, awaiting dinner, I was sort of ‘ooh-ing’ and ‘ahh-ing’ over the appointments, and the house, and the luxury. He sat down in an overstuffed chair across from me, looked me right in the eye, and said, “You know, this whole scene is God’s second best for me. He called me to be a missionary when I was in college many years ago. And I turned him down… because I went after the big bucks.”1

But that phrase, “God’s second best,” hit me like a ton of bricks! I’m someone who gets tempted—easily and often—to look over my shoulder to see how that other guy is doing… compared to me… Not based on how faithful he is running the particular race that our Lord has set before him, but, you know, based on worldly standards of comparison… like money, material success, recognition, fame and fortune… And I can far too easily fall into the sin of covetousness. 

And when I do, I’m thinking something like this: “This man, who has all these good things, and knows all these powerful people, and wields all this influence, and has all this money, and enjoys all this human love and adoration—this man obviously has ‘God’s very best’ already!”

But he doesn’t… What a powerful reminder, from someone who knows, that “having it all,” according to the world’s standards, can only ever be—at most—God’s “second best”…

As this wealthy businessman learned the hard way…

He learned that what he had to settle for wasn’t nearly as good as what he could have otherwise had.

Notice the title of our new sermon series: “Happy Is Hard: The Surprising Path to Joy from Luke’s Gospel.” The reason I’m calling it this is because this journey of discipleship is incredibly hard—as we will see… But only by taking this journey will we ever find true and lasting happiness and joy.

It’s what I want for myself. It’s what I want for y’all. Jesus knows the way to that kind of lasting happiness; he wants to take us there; he is a trusted guide; and so he says “follow me.”

This wealthy Christian businessman came to a crossroads in his life, and, by his own admission, he took a wrong turn. He repented and God redeemed his bad choices, to be sure… but even this man could see that he missed out on quite a lot.

Suppose we disciples don’t repent, however… which means, we don’t bring to Jesus our willingness to change… Suppose we disciples continue to resist Jesus, to say “no” to him, to refuse to obey him… then please heed this warning: Jesus’ frightening words in verse 62 may very well apply to us. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

On the other hand, if we continue to follow Jesus, however imperfectly, we can be confident that Jesus will make us into the kind of people who are “fit for the kingdom of God.” It may take a long, long time—indeed, even a lifetime. But he will do it.

Consider this: My wife, Lisa, and I are celebrating our 29th wedding anniversary today. We got married on June 26, 1993. When Lisa Blancato married me, Brent White, she deserved to marry a better man. I’m serious! When I think back to the person I was 29 years ago… oh my goodness… I was a mess! I’m serious!

But I didn’t know that then. If some trusted friend told me, 29 years ago today, on my wedding day, “Brent, you’re a mess. I’m afraid you don’t have what it takes for this marriage to last a lifetime,” I would have been shocked… probably scared—more scared than I already was, I mean… I would have taken this message to heart and been worried… 

But that trusted friend wouldn’t have been wrong: I was not prepared, equipped, qualified, or suited for a lifelong marriage back then. 

Or, to put it in terms of verse 62, I was not “fit” for a lifelong marriage to Lisa…

But here’s the good news: While it’s true the man that Lisa Blancato married 29 years ago would not have lasted this long, the good news is, that’s not the man she’s married to today!

I have changed! Thank God! Or I should say, God has changed me! So thank you, Jesus!

My point is, being a disciple of Jesus is like this: We are in a process… of change. If we are his disciples, the Lord is making us “fit” for the kingdom of God. It’s a process, and we can be confident that if we continue to follow Jesus, we will make it to our destination. We will become people who are fit for the kingdom.

But here’s how that happens—it’s not about what we do, but what Christ has done for us—and is doing for us and through us. It’s all about Jesus! 

And this brings us to our third and final point: about something called propitiation. We find this word, for instance, in Romans 3:25, when Paul says that God put Jesus forward as a “propitiation by his blood,” which hearkens back to the sacrificial system in the Old Testament, when a priest would burn an animal sacrifice on the altar. The animal’s blood was as the means of turning away God’s wrath, his justifiable anger toward our sin… so we could have forgiveness… so we can be reconciled to God.

And you may rightly wonder, “How can a sacrificed bull or sheep or lamb or goat make us right with God?” Well, by itself it can’t. But the whole point of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament was to point us to Jesus Christhe is the true “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”2 He is our propitiation. His sacrificial death makes us right with God.

And this brings us back to James and John asking Jesus to call down fire from heaven.3

Now I want to credit pastor Tim Keller for this amazing insight… Elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, Jesus makes reference to “fire coming down from heaven”… in Luke 12:49. He says, “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” In the context of these words, Jesus is using “fire” as a metaphor for God’s judgment. And you gotta admit, that sounds a lot like what James and John asked for. 

But what does Jesus mean? He rebuked James and John for saying it—and here he seems to be saying something very similar. Is he?

Not at all… Keller points out that the way to understand what Jesus means is by looking at the next verse. Jesus is employing what’s called “semitic parallelism”—in other words, Jewish writers and speakers would say the same thing twice in a row, using different words, as a way of emphasizing the point. The Psalms do this all the time. The prophets do this all the time. And Jesus does it here. 

So look at the very next verse, Luke 12:50: “I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished!”

Of course Jesus was baptized three years earlier by John in the Jordan—and there was nothing stressful about that anyway. But he’s not talking about water baptism. He’s talking about the baptism of his suffering and death on the cross.

And if that’s the case, he’s saying—connecting it back to verse 49—that this fire of God’s judgment that God will cast down from heaven is going to be poured out… on him.

What James and John failed to understand is this: The reason that Jesus didn’t want the fire to be poured out on God’s enemies, the Samaritans… is because he knew that he was going to receive that fire instead… in their place… and in place of sinners everywhere and for all time!

That’s propitiation… but even more… That’s love

Because of our sins, we deserved to be consumed by the “fire” of God’s judgment and wrath. Jesus received that “fire” in our place… on the cross… willingly, gladly, out of love. It’s as if he said, “If this is what it takes to save you and to make you a child of my Father and give you eternal life, so you’ll be with me forever… it is completely worth it!

And if we’ll let our hearts be melted by this kind of love, well… we will gladly follow Jesus wherever he leads us!

  1. Bill Pearce, “Lure of the Big Bucks,” 21 June 2022. From the “Nightsounds” app.
  2. John 1:29
  3. This point comes courtesy of Tim Keller’s sermon “The Call to Discipleship,” preached on 9 February 2003.

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