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
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.
Luke 6:27-38, Genesis 46:4-15
There’s an old story about the author and theologian C.S. Lewis, on his way out for drinks with a friend. Approached by a beggar asking for money, Lewis emptied his wallet and gave the stranger everything. His friend then said to Lewis, disapprovingly, “He’ll only spend it on drink,” to which Lewis responded, “If I kept it, so would I.”
Today’s Gospel reading is about love. More specifically than that, though, it’s about the risk inherent to genuine love. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. …love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” This is not just about doing good and being loving; Jesus is talking here about showing others love even when it is obviously risky, even when it obviously might result in our own pain or loss.
This is not the law and order Jesus many of us may have grown up with, the Jesus who commands us to do what is socially acceptable for the sake of a well-ordered society. Equally, though, this isn’t the Jesus we’re often likely to encounter in progressive, well-educated circles either. I grew up being told not to give money to beggars, because they should get a job. Once grown, and having rejected that teaching, and having moved from a red state to a blue state, I still get told not to give money to beggars, because I should really be giving that money to a shelter, and voting for the right people to enact official homelessness policies, because I don’t want to encourage someone not to use services that may better their situation, and I don’t want to fuel a person’s addiction or irresponsible use of money.
Have you heard the news? That question often makes my heart sink, because it’s usually bad news! The year started with the violent attack on the US Capitol. Then all those cataclysmic climate events, racial attacks, mass shootings, a deeply broken and divided nation and world. And perhaps most disheartening of all, the devastating effects of the Covid virus. Such a diet of bad news, day after day, can profoundly affect the way that we see our own lives. We can look back over this year and see only the bad news: bad news for ourselves, our families, our lives.
And if certain newspapers, eager for a story, honed in on you, wanting to dig up some bad news about you, that you’d rather the public didn’t know, I wonder what they would find? They would likely find something sooner or later, because there is bad news about all of us, if you look hard enough: things we have done or said, which we maybe wished we hadn’t, and which we’d hate to be made known.
But today is Christmas. We are here to celebrate GOOD NEWS; wonderful, joyful good news. Not make believe, or wishful thinking. The good news is this: that ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ Yes, there is darkness – God knows there is darkness, darkness and all sorts of sinful, hurtful, shameful things in all of us and in our society. But the good news is that when God looks closely at you and at me, he is not like that newspaper looking for bad news. When God looks at us he looks at us with the eyes of love. Just as when you look at the person you love, you see how lovely they are: all that is beautiful and good about them. And when the person we love – our spouse, our children, our partner, our brother – when they are in trouble, or mess up, or fail an exam, or lose a job, or do something stupid or wrong, we don’t point the finger at them, or condemn them, or tell everyone about it. No, we love them even more, and we do everything in our power to help them – because we love them. And when things go wrong we love them all the more.
When I’m working on a sermon, I usually keep a couple of questions in my mind. One is, where’s the good news? If I can’t answer that, then none of my listeners will be able to either. The other is, can I sum this whole sermon up in one sentence? If it takes me a whole paragraph to explain my sermon, then it’s not focused, it’s too complicated, or too long.
Using that same principle, I’m wondering this morning how I would sum up the entire Acts of the Apostles into one sentence. How would I do that? There is a lot going on in Acts, but in a sense there is only one thing going on. Luke tells us at the end of his gospel, and he repeats it at the beginning of Acts. You are my witnesses Jesus says to the assembled disciples in the Upper Room on that first Easter, and again just before his Ascension. You will be my witnesses.[2
If that is Acts in one sentence, what about my other question? Where is the good news? We hear it repeatedly throughout Acts, and we hear it again today. The good news of Acts is that the gospel of Jesus Christ is for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. That is the whole point of Acts, and it is certainly the whole point of the Council of Jerusalem which determined that it was good to the Holy Spirit and to [the Apostles and elders] to impose on [the Gentiles] no further burden than [certain] essentials. Had the decision been otherwise, in those days shortly after Pentecost, the tiny Christian community would have remained a small Jewish sect, probably being absorbed and finally disappearing into the dominant Jewish mainstream within a generation, and we would not be here. But this decision to impose no further burden than [certain] essentials breathed life into the Jesus movement in its earliest days.
As followers of Jesus, that remains our purpose, indeed it is the purpose of the Church, and the vocation of all the baptized: to be Christ’s witnesses. Part of our job as witnesses, is simply to state what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life, and what we know to be true. After that, we need to back off, get out of the way, and impose no further burden than [these certain] essentials. In that way we allow the Spirit to do its work in bringing people into an encounter with the living Lord, rather than our personal and singular concept of God.
That, it seems to me, is the good news of Acts, and while we have been invited to join in the work of introducing people to an encounter with the living God, it is our real privilege and great joy to step back and watch God at work, in the lives of those whom we serve.
Lectionary Year and Proper: Friday in the Fifth Week of Easter, Year 1
 Luke 24: 48
 Acts 1: 8
 Acts 15: 28
 1 John 1: 1