Jesus Set His Face to Go to Jerusalem
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The text for today is our Gospel reading, from the ninth chapter of Luke 9, particularly verse 51: “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem.”
There are good reasons to consider this verse the turning point of Luke’s Gospel. Up to this time, Jesus’ following has been on the rise. People have thronged to hear His authoritative Word, to have Him heal their sick, blind, and lame, and to release those shackled by unclean spirits. Then things begin to change, because Jesus tells the disciples that He will soon be delivered into the hands of men. “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Throughout His three-year ministry, Jesus’ death has steadily become an explicit part of His messianic mission. From this point on, it becomes the focus. Jesus journeys toward His death in Jerusalem to offer sacrifice for the sin of the whole world: His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death.
The phrase, “He set His face,” sounds strange to our modern ears. But it is a good translation that alludes to Jesus’ prophetic role. For God to “set His face” against a person or place is for God to show His wrath. The opposite is for God to “make His face shine on you and be gracious to you.” But here, Jesus “set His face” to go to Jerusalem—not to show wrath or mercy, but to face and overcome all temptations and opposition that would turn Him aside from the cross.
Old Testament passages offer further illumination on the significance of the fact that Jesus “set His face.” In Ezekiel 3, we read that God made Ezekiel’s forehead as hard as flint so that he could endure the hostility of rebellious Israel. Perhaps that is where we get the expression “hard-headed.”
In Isaiah 50, the Suffering Servant says prophetically: “I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. I gave My back to those who strike, and My cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not My face from disgrace and spitting. But the Lord God helps Me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set My face like flint, and I know that I will not be put to shame.”
This isn’t just another journey to Jerusalem—this will be Jesus’ last. He knows that. Jerusalem is the place where the Suffering Servant will be “taken up,” that is, to be crucified for the sins of the world, raised to life on the third day, and be taken up to the right hand of the Father. Nevertheless, Jesus is determined to go to the cross, fully aware of the torture and humiliation involved. He trusts in the eventual vindication by the Father, and He knows the cross is the only way. Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem—the place of sacrifice, where God had caused His name and glory to dwell.
Even as death draws near, Jesus does not turn in on Himself. He sends messengers into the villages along the way to prepare them for His arrival so that they might believe in Him also and be saved. For Jesus is the only way to the heavenly Promised Land. There is no other option.
To get from Galilee to Jerusalem, one had to go through Samaria. There was no option there, either. All roads led through Samaria. And that was just fine, for Jesus came for the Samaritans, too. Like that sassy Samaritan woman He once met at the well, the one who had had five husbands and was shacked up with number six. She, too, was included in Jesus’ mission.
One of the Samaritan villages wanted nothing to do with Jesus. They turned His messengers away. This doesn’t mean they blocked the gates and drew swords. It could have been that they were so busy chasing personal wealth that they just didn’t have time to come to hear Jesus’ message of grace and life and salvation. Maybe they stayed out too late the night before and wanted to sleep in.
Or it could be as simple as religious or racial prejudice. Jesus was headed to Jerusalem for the sacrifice. The Samaritans had their own place of worship… not Jerusalem, but Gerazim. They had their own notions about where God was to be worshiped and where sacrifices were to be made. They even had their own version of the Bible, one that made Samaria the place to be. So why bother with Jerusalem when you can go to Gerazim? Why bother with the preached Word and Sacraments, and with that crazy congregation and all those boring, difficult hymns, when you can sit at home with your Bible and have it your way? Surely it doesn’t matter so long as you “believe in God”?
Whatever their particular reasons, we can be sure of this: The Samaritans wanted Jesus on their own terms. They wanted a Jesus that fit their own preconceived notions of who and what Jesus should be. How do I know that? Because that’s the kind of Jesus the Old Adam, that sinful nature, in each of us wants… if we want a Jesus at all.
In demanding their own personal Jesus, the Samaritans get no Jesus at all. Remember this the next time you’re tempted to roll your own Jesus. He is entirely for you, but only in the way He gives Himself to you. You may want another Jesus or another way. You may think that you know better. But you don’t, and in your sinfulness you can’t. You are dead and blind when it comes to spiritual matters. Follow your heart for the way of salvation and you will be wrong every time.
The Jesus who sets His face to go to Jerusalem is the crucified and risen One. The same One who says, “Make disciples by baptizing and teaching.” Who says, “Take and eat this is My body and blood given and shed for you.” Who says, “I forgive you of all your sins.” He is the One present in His Church, which is His body, by way of His Word and His body and blood. Any other Jesus who comes by any other way is not the One who died and rose to save you, no matter how “religious” He may seem, no matter how “good” He may make you feel.
And so Jesus moves on to the next village. But keep this in mind. It was not that Jesus rejected the Samaritans; they rejected Jesus. His going to another village is only in response to their refusal to receive Him and the messengers of His Word.
James and John are furious. They want to call down fire from heaven to consume those Samaritan ingrates. No wonder Jesus calls them “sons of thunder.” “Give ‘em hell, Jesus! Give ‘em the old Sodom and Gomorrah treatment. That’ll teach ‘em.” Ever catch yourself saying the same thing? “He’ll get hell for that. She’ll burn for what she did.” Even those who no longer believe in hell believe that what goes around comes around, that in the end, you get what you deserve.
But Jesus doesn’t send down fire from heaven to consume the Samaritan village. Instead, He rebukes James and John. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of grace. Its influence in the lives of people is established by love. It is promoted not by human pressure and force, but by the convincing power of the Spirit in the Good News of Jesus. We are not to try to force people into the Church, nor are we to forcibly oppose those who reject and work against the Church. We are not to fight fire with fire, but are to overcome evil with good.
The way of the disciple is the way of the cross, the way of Jerusalem.
Elijah learned his lesson the hard way. He had just come off of a spectacular victory over the false prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel where fire from heaven consumed 450 of them at Elijah’s prayer. Then he’s summoned before Queen Jezebel who says, “What you did to my prophets, I’m going to do to you.”
Elijah is depressed, in the throes of a prophetic career crisis. We pastors are prone to the same thing. I’m seen it happen before. Just recently felt it a bit myself. You preach the Word for years and people seem to forget everything they learned overnight. You preach the Word to seeming no effect, and you begin to wonder—does the Word really work? It happens! Martin Luther quit preaching for a year for the same reason. But that’s the devil at work on sinful flesh.
Elijah heads for the hills, afraid for his life. He goes back to Mt. Horeb (another name for Mt. Sinai) ostensibly to have a little “one-on-one time” with God. But he’d rather throw his own “little pity party.” There’s certainly enough whine: “I’m the only one left, and they’re trying to kill me, too.”
Did you know that there’s even a psychological complex named after Elijah? It’s the one where you think you’re the only one left, the only one who is faithful, the only one who gets it right. No one else sees it as clearly as you do. No one else is as pure as you are. You’ve broken fellowship with everyone else in the world. And now it’s just you and your wife at the kitchen table having communion, and she’s beginning to look a bit suspect too.
Elijah hides in a cave, perhaps the same cave that hid Moses as God’s glory passed by. And there’s a great wind, earthquake, and fire—all that good Mt. Sinai stuff. But the Lord isn’t in any of that. At least not as Yahweh, the Lord God of the covenant. And then there is a whisper. Not a still, small voice in Elijah’s head, the way some people speak of it, and some translations render this verse. An audible whisper. You see… God doesn’t have to yell to get our attention.
And Elijah gives God his little pity speech again. “I’ve been zealous, faithful, true. Your people have broken Your covenant, torn down Your altars, killed Your prophets, and now they’re trying to kill me, too.”
And God says, “Poor Elijah. I didn’t know you had it so tough.”
No! He says. “Go! Go back to Damascus. Install Hazael, king of Syria, and Jehu over Israel, and Elisha to succeed you. And oh, by the way, you’re not alone. I have 7,000 faithful in Israel who haven’t bent their knee to Baal.”
Elijah essentially gets fired that day. God orders him to appoint his own successor, Elisha. His work is done. Oh, he’ll get a nice ride to heaven in a fiery chariot and a brief return engagement on the Mount of Transfiguration over eight centuries later, but his ministry, for all intents and purposes, is done.
But Elijah learns a few things that day in the cave. He learns that it is not about him. He learns that the kingdom of God doesn’t rest on his shoulders. He learns that he isn’t alone, though he wasn’t aware of it. Seven thousand others had not bowed the knee to the idol Baal. God has His secret agents scattered all over the place. You’re one of them, too!
So remember: The way of the cross seems lonely at times. But it’s not! There are always “7,000.” You don’t know their names. You wouldn’t recognize their faces. They are the communion of saints, the sum total of believers of all times and throughout the world of which you are a part. The actual number doesn’t matter; what matters is that you are not alone.
Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem. By the time He reaches the cross there will be no one with Him. This is His to do alone. Jesus alone is faithful in his mission, the whole way. Only He is able to claim this. Only He is perfect, sinless, holy, doing the will of His Father who sent Him not to condemn the world but to save the world. With the world in mind, Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem.
There are those who would follow Him, not knowing where He was going or why. One says, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus says to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” In other words, “You really have no idea what you’re asking for!”
To another, Jesus says, “Follow Me.” But he replies, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” Now, that’s an honorable task. But Jesus says, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead.” Get your priorities straight!
Yet another says, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” But Jesus says, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” You can’t plow a straight line looking back over your shoulder. Any farmer will tell you that. Lot’s wife became a pillar of salt, a monument to those who would look back from the way of salvation.
Don’t you find this strange? Doesn’t this trouble you? Jesus wants people to follow Him, doesn’t He? So why does He stubbornly give these guys such a hard time? Why doesn’t He encourage them a little bit?
Remember the text at the beginning: “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, He set His face to go to Jerusalem.” Jesus is going to Jerusalem. But He has to go this road alone. Yes, He is surrounded by disciples, but the way is His alone. The cross is His alone. The salvation of the world is His alone. He is God’s faithful people reduced to one Man. The One who made heaven His home is homeless on the way to the cross so that you might have an eternal home with Him. Burial is not Jesus’ concern. He is going the way of death and burial Himself, so that He might raise the dead in His resurrection.
Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem, to the cross that was set before Him. He did not look back at what was, but looked ahead to what is to come. He alone is “fit for the kingdom” on His own terms. Jesus put His hand to salvation’s plow and for the joy set before Him He endured the cross and scorned its shame. For the joy of salvation, to have you as His own, He set His face to go to Jerusalem.
So set your face on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of your faith. He has brought you out of slavery to sin and self into freedom. He has rescued you from the works of the flesh to yield the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Set your face on Jesus in your Baptism, washing away your sin, renewing your life. Set your face on Jesus in His Supper, giving you the hidden gifts of His body and His blood, the fruit of His cross. Set your face on Jesus, who by His blood and His perfect life and death makes you fit for His kingdom. Set your face on Jesus, who speaks to you this Word of grace and life and salvation through His called and ordained servant: “I forgive you all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen.