The Thursday after Ash Wednesday feels like a hangover. Shrove Tuesday is full of excitement and pancakes. Ash Wednesday is solemn and full of reflective work. Then this Thursday comes along, and it doesn’t even have its own nickname. It’s just the second day of Lent.
In any journey, there’s always that feeling when the initial excitement of something beginning has worn off and you get a sense of how long the journey is actually going to take. It’s that part of a hike when after a mile or two you get a glimpse of the mountaintop through the trees and say oh wow, that’s a long way from here.
Six weeks from today, we Brothers will be sitting up here waiting for our Superior James to wash our feet. In between this Thursday after Ash Wednesday and Maundy Thursday, there will be six weeks of daily life and all the joys and challenges that goes with it.
It’s with that spirit of daily life that makes the readings for two day of Lent perfect. In our Gospel this morning, Jesus tells his disciples that anyone who wants to follow him must “take up their cross daily.” I love how Jesus uses that word daily. Jesus didn’t have to include that word daily. Jesus could have just said that anyone who wants to follow him has to take up their cross. The fact that Jesus purposefully put in that word daily gets at something important to the Christian experience.
In Matthew chapter 7, Jesus concludes his famous “Sermon on the Mount” with a series of contrasting images:
13-15 There is a narrow gate and a wide gate, says Jesus. The narrow gate leads to a hard road, while the wide gate opens to an easy road. The first leads to life, while the second leads to destruction.
15-16 There are good prophets and false prophets, says Jesus. The false prophets are those who come “in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.” You will be able to distinguish between them by their fruits, he assures us.
16-20 Similarly, there are good trees that bear good fruit and bad trees that bear bad fruit, Jesus tells us. The good trees remain and continue to produce good fruit, but the bad trees are cut down and cast into the fire.
21-23 Then, Jesus says, there are those who say to me “Lord, Lord” and who do the will of my Father in heaven, and there are those who say, “Lord, Lord,” but do not do the will of the Father. The first group will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the second group will be sent away.
Feast of Saint James of Jerusalem
When was the last time you wore a uniform?
I remember all the uniforms I’ve worn over the years, whether for sports or school or choir. They each signaled commitment, belonging, and interest, and equipped me for performance. I also remember something my parents told me: that when I wore a uniform, I wasn’t only representing myself—I was representing the group I belonged to. I took on the reputation of the group when I put on the uniform—and, just as importantly, my behavior contributed back to that reputation. Whose you are matters, and everything you do while wearing the uniform also matters.
I have these two themes, belonging and action, on my mind today, the feast of Saint James of Jerusalem. The early Church recognized him, as we do, as a brother of Jesus, as attested in our Gospel lesson. But he wasn’t just a relative. Other biblical texts, including our readings from Acts and 1 Corinthians, show that James was one of the leaders of the Christian community in Jerusalem. Nonbiblical sources, meanwhile, signal that James was not only one of but the leader of the Jerusalem Church, a figure of towering importance for a community that faced fundamental questions of identity and mission. In particular, James was the leader of the group that argued for continued observance of at least some Jewish laws by followers of Jesus, in contrast to leaders like Paul who advocated for the development of a Christian community free of requirements of the law.
I Come to Serve
There is a legend told of St. Edward the Confessor, whose feast we keep today, about 2 pilgrims, an old man, and a ring.
One day King Edward was out walking near his great church, Westminster Abbey, when an old beggar approached him asking for alms. The King removed from his hand a valuable ring, which contained a large sapphire, and gave it to the beggar. Years later two pilgrims from England travelled to the Holy Land, where they encountered an old man. The man revealed himself as St. John the Evangelist, gave them the King’s ring, asking that upon their return to England they restore the ring to Edward.
For a single chapter, it’s pretty hard to beat the ninth chapter of Luke’s gospel for action. There is a ton of stuff going on. What we have in tonight’s reading is just a tiny fraction of the action. If it weren’t for the fact that this rather curious, and I must admit slightly disturbing account of people’s refusal to attend to Jesus’ message, and the threatened consequence, was the assigned gospel text for today, I’d be tempted to gloss over it.
In the verses just before tonight’s reading, we have Jesus commission to the Twelve; Herod’s perplexity regarding Jesus; the Feeding of the Five Thousand; the Confession of Peter; the Transfiguration; Jesus foretelling his death, not once, but twice, to name a few. After tonight’s passage, we have some excuses for not responding to Jesus’ invitation to follow, at least not right now. And that is all in a single chapter.
As I said, in 62 verses, there’s a tremendous amount going on, much of which is perhaps more suitable for an edifying homily than what has been dished up for us this evening. Yet in spite of the temptation to avoid the discomfort this passage poses for us, we can’t, especially since it has been paired with this glorious passage from Zechariah.
From the image held before us by Zechariah, of many peoples and strong nations coming to seek the Lord of hosts in Jerusalem, and entreating the favour of God, we then hear of James and John wanting to call down fire from heaven to consume a Samaritan village, as punishment for their refusal to receive the Lord. Two, more different pictures, could not be painted for us. The first is one of welcome and inclusion, where even people who are not followers of the Lord of hosts, are drawn to worship. The second, is a picture of refusal, revenge, and threatened violence. How much more different can the two images be?
The context for the passage from Zechariah is one of promised restoration and renewal. At the time Zechariah is writing, God’s people are living in exile. All is lost. The great temple is destroyed. Jerusalem, the city of God, is a heap of rubble. Grieving, defeated, and exiled, Zechariah offers them a word and vision of hope.
Thus says the Lord: I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain… Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each with staff in hand because of their great age. And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing… Thus says the Lord of hosts: Even though it seems impossible to the remnant of this people in these days, should it also seem impossible to me, says the Lord of hosts?… I will save my people … and I will bring them to live in Jerusalem. They shall be my people and I will be their God, in faithfulness and in righteousness.
It is in that context we hear tonight’s promise, that not only will God’s people once again return to Jerusalem to entreat the favour of the Lord, but so too will foreigners from every nation. It is a vision of restoration, renewal, and hope. Sadly, not all are inclined to receive Zechariah’s message, and the fury of the Lord is kindled against them, as we would see if we continued reading into the next chapter.
All these themes, restoration, renewal, hope, and even rejection, are hinted at in tonight’s passage from Luke. And the hint comes in a little, 3 letter long word.
It’s a little word. You may have missed it. Yet it is so significant that it appears twice, in just a couple of verses. [Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem. But [the Samaritans] did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem.
In case you missed it again, the word is set.
There are many reasons for the Samaritans to reject Jesus and his message. As we know, Jews and Samaritans hated one another, so much so that Jesus used the image of a good Samaritan to shock his Jewish audience. But that does not seem to be the reason for the villagers’ reaction. Nor is it, it would appear, because Jesus was rejecting the Samaritans. He was after all about to break the taboo and stay in the village. This would not have been the only time Jesus stayed among the Samaritans. John tells us that after the encounter with the woman at the well, he stayed in a Samaritan village for two days, and many believed in him. No, the cause of the Samaritans’ rejection of Jesus was not based on deep seated prejudice and enmity, but, as Luke tells us, they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem.
By this point in the gospel, Jesus has one thing on his mind, and he tells us of it, not once, but twice in this chapter, both before and after the Transfiguration. The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. Because of this singlemindedness, Jesus’ face is set towards Jerusalem, and all which that means: suffering, death, and glory; cross, tomb, and resurrection; restoration, renewal, and hope.
These Samaritans, unlike those in John’s gospel, were unwilling to receive Jesus, not because of any historic enmity, but because, for whatever reason, they were not prepared to see in him the Saviour of the world. They were unprepared to accept, perhaps, the message of suffering, death, and glory. They could not see in him signs of restoration, renewal, and hope. Jesus, knowing he was on the path to renewal, hope, and glory, by the way of cross and tomb, suffering and death, did not want to be diverted. And so, his face was set to Jerusalem, causing the Samaritans to reject his presence, and his message.
This is not an uncommon reaction to Jesus. Many did, and many do, reject his claims. We remind ourselves of this in our Rule of Life, where we say: [we] also expect to experience failures. Some of these contain lessons that can help us become more skillful in the future. Other failures are means by which we enter further into the mystery of discipleship; we are not greater than the master, and many went on their way without accepting his words or deeds.
For many, the message of Jesus and the promise of God is ludicrous, and they can only see defeat, destruction, and exile. They can only see suffering and death. Seeing only this, they reject messages of hope and glory, and in rejecting the message, they reject the herald.
And that is where we find ourselves tonight: in the midst of a people who reject the herald, because they cannot see in him the signs of hope. For James and John this is reason enough for revenge and violence. Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them? For Jesus, it was no doubt an occasion of great sadness as they went on to another village. But what about us?
As tempting as it is to call down fire from heaven, when someone so clearly rejects the good news of God, I am not sure that is the most helpful thing. It is better, I think, to live in hope, as did the exiled people of God.
Now hope is a very strange thing, for it is often confused with wishful thinking. But Christian hope, the hope of the resurrection, the hope of the exiled people of God, is not wishful thinking. It is sober. It is grounded. It is real. The hope of the exiled people of God is real because it knows the pain of loss, and looks toward the hope of restoration. The hope of the resurrection is grounded because it knows the grief of death, and looks toward the promise of renewal. The hope of the Christian is sober because it knows the reality of suffering, and looks toward the hope of glory.
Jesus’ face was set to Jerusalem, and all the Samaritans could see was suffering, rejection, and death. And so, they did not receive him. But the prophecy of Zechariah, the message of Jesus, and the promise of God, as ludicrous as it sounds, is not one of defeat, destruction and exile, nor of suffering, rejection, and death. It is one of renewal, restoration, and glory, because it is a message and promise of hope.
And it is that gift and promise of hope which Zechariah proclaims, and Luke invites us to share, as Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem.
 Zechariah 8: 22
 Luke 9: 54
 Zechariah 8: 3 -8
 See Zechariah 9
 Luke 9: 51
 Luke 9: 53
 Luke 10: 28 – 38
 John 4: 40 – 42
 Luke 9: 21; and see Luke 9: 44
 John 4: 42
 SSJE, Rule of Life, The Spirit of Mission and Service, chapter 32, page 65
 Luke 9: 54
 Luke 9: 56
In our gospel lesson today, Jesus once again – as is so often his custom – draws on natural imagery to illustrate spiritual truth. Here he contrasts “good trees,” those which naturally produce figs and grapes, with “bad trees,” those which naturally produce thorns and brambles. A “bad tree” cannot produce good fruit; good fruit only comes from “good trees.” Similarly, Jesus says, one whose heart is good will naturally and without effort produce good fruit, while one whose heart is evil will naturally produce evil fruit. The point seems obvious. The metaphor is clear.
But there are two things to note: First, there is a difference between trees and people: A “bad tree” cannot stop producing thorns and brambles and suddenly begin producing good fruit. Because of the type of tree it is, it is incapable of bearing fruit; it can only bear thorns and brambles. But that is not the case with people. A person with an evil heart can be transformed into one whose heart is good. That’s a key difference. Someone whose life is oriented towards evil rather than towards God can change! The gospel is all about repentance, forgiveness, conversion of life, and reconciliation. Sinners can become saints – and they do!
A juggler enters a monastery. He soon discovers that, unlike the other monks, he’s not good at typical monkish things: he can’t cook, he can’t sing, he has terrible handwriting. The only thing he can do is juggle, and what use is that? In despair, he goes one night to a statue of the Virgin Mary . . . and juggles—offering to her, as his prayer, the only thing he has.
The medieval French tale of the “Juggler of Our Lady” imparts a familiar lesson: God gives us gifts that God wants us to use and to offer back in prayer and worship. Our reading from Leviticus this morning gets at something similar: “When you enter the land I am giving to you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest” (Lev 23:10). This section of the reading is from the oldest layer of this passage, and significantly is directed not at the collective, or to priests, but to the individual farmer. “I have given you, as a gift, this land—you shall give me, as a gift, the fruits of that land.”
I’m impressed this morning by the whole-hearted response of the Israelites to the Law that God gave them through Moses:
“Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice: ‘All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.’“ (v. 3)
And just a few verses later:
“Then [Moses] took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, ‘All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.'” (v.7)
Something fascinating, and even outrageous is happening here in Acts, but it is nothing new. We have seen this before. We have seen it throughout Scripture, in Old and New Testament, in the story of Jesus, and the story of the prophets before him. Once again, we see it today in story of Paul.
When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus. When they opposed and reviled him… [he] said to them…’[from] now on I will go to the Gentiles.’ Then he left the synagogue and went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshipper of God….
We often gloss over the significance of this, just as we miss the context, when we forget similar occasions when something like this happened.
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, ‘Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.’
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.
“Jesus himself came near and went with [the disciples], but their eyes were kept from recognizing him” (Lk 24:15-16).
Stop and think about that. “Their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” This was the man whom these two disciples had chosen to follow, the man for whom these disciples had given up their jobs and left their families. His good news defined their reality. And suddenly he was gone, brutally executed, his body now missing from his tomb. Imagine how they must have felt.
I can imagine these two disciples, shocked and confused by the recent events, walking down the road. I can imagine them praying the words of our psalm this morning: “The cords of death entangled me; . . . I came to grief and sorrow” (Ps 116:2). I can imagine their eyes, taking in their surroundings but not really seeing them. Is it surprising, really, that they perhaps failed to see what was right in front of them?
But is there something more going on? After all, their eyes were kept from recognizing Jesus. The word translated as “kept” can also mean to hold, to seize, to restrain, to arrest. It’s a forceful word. The disciples don’t just fail to recognize Jesus; they are actively hindered from knowing that this man walking and talking with them is their Lord and teacher, risen from the dead. Disciples in other accounts may not recognize Jesus immediately, but only here are they kept from recognizing him. Only here are the disciples’ eyes made to be closed, to be unable to perceive the reality in front of them.
So what’s happening here? In the way the evangelist distinguishes seeing from perceiving, I am reminded of how Jesus, quoting Isaiah, explains the purpose of parables: “to you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God; but to others I speak in parables, so that ‘looking they may not perceive, and listening they may not understand’” (Lk 8:10, quoting Is 6:9-10). This seems to be what is happening here. These disciples look at the man accompanying them, but they do not perceive him.