The Gift and Promise of Hope – Br. James Koester

Zechariah 8:20-23
Luke 9:51-51

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,[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.[4]

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.[5] But [the Samaritans] did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11]

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?[12] For Jesus, it was no doubt an occasion of great sadness as they went on to another village.[13] 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.


[1] Zechariah 8: 22

[2] Luke 9: 54

[3] Zechariah 8: 3 -8

[4] See Zechariah 9

[5] Luke 9: 51

[6] Luke 9: 53

[7] Luke 10: 28 – 38

[8] John 4: 40 – 42

[9] Luke 9: 21; and see Luke 9: 44

[10] John 4: 42

[11] SSJE, Rule of Life, The Spirit of Mission and Service, chapter 32, page 65

[12] Luke 9: 54

[13] Luke 9: 56