St Mark's, West Frankfort--Luke 13:31-35
OK, it’s time for some honesty. Imagine yourself at the beginning of day in which you know you have a number of tasks that need to be accomplished. In my case, it could be either a day in the diocesan office, or a day off—it doesn’t really matter; you know what your own situation is. Let’s assume that some of the items on your list are things that you really do not want to do; they are unpleasant or messy or frightening, or something. Some are emotionally neutral, and others might actually be fun. Some of the tasks might require only a minute or two of your time, others an hour or two. Let’s also assume that there is no one breathing down your neck—a boss or a spouse, for example—dictating your priorities. Now . . . what are you going to do first? What are you going to squeeze into the middle? And what are you going to save for last?
There are some among us, I’m sure, who, as a result of experience and discipline, would figure out which tasks are the most demanding and/or unpleasant, and do them first. I would suspect that such persons would be in the minority. Most of us tend to attack the easy stuff first—the “no brainer” decisions, the three or four minute chores, the undemanding conversations, the enjoyable projects. On the hard stuff, our inclination is to procrastinate and delay and attempt to evade.
But the hard things don’t usually just disappear, do they? In fact, when we procrastinate, we usually just end up making things worse on ourselves. The consequence of procrastinating on a difficult task is that the difficulty is compounded—what is already hard . . . gets harder. Every time I’m in my backyard during daylight hours, I can immediately see peeling paint on the east side of my house. Whenever the wind blows hard, we find flecks of paint in the lawn. I really do not want to face the trouble and expense involved with getting my house painted, but I know that if I don’t take care of it during the coming dry season, the damage will only become worse, and I will face even more trouble and expense.
In reading the four gospels, one of the conclusions we can probably come to is that Jesus was not a procrastinator. Two weeks ago, we heard St Luke’s account of our Lord’s glorious transfiguration on the mountaintop. Luke goes on to tell us, very soon after that account, that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Jerusalem, of course, would be the site of his passion and death. There is some evidence that Jesus—by this time in his ministry, at any rate—was well aware of that fact. So we might ordinarily expect him to put “getting to Jerusalem” pretty near the bottom of his “to do” list. If there was anything else that was at all worth doing, it would be placed ahead of “getting to Jerusalem.”
But Jesus didn’t do that. He “set his face” to go to Jerusalem. He knew that Jerusalem would be the location of both the conclusion and the fulfillment of his earthly mission. When he was on the mount of the transfiguration with Moses and Elijah, this was the very topic of his conversation with them. Jesus did not attempt to evade his destiny; he embraced it. While he was en route through the towns and villages of Galilee and Judaea, Luke tells us, some Pharisees tried to deter him. Now, this is a remarkable scene, because the Pharisees are almost exclusively painted in the gospels as enemies of Jesus, but here they’re actually trying to do him a favor. “Get away from here,” they said, “for Herod wants to kill you.” We certainly can’t accuse them of being overly subtle, can we? Their point was abundantly clear.
Yet Jesus takes the opportunity only to reaffirm his resolve and his commitment to the task at hand—the task of bleeding and dying for the sins of the world. “Go tell that fox,” he says, referring to King Herod, “‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’” In effect, Jesus is saying to Herod,
“You can’t kill me now; my date with death is in Jerusalem. That’s where it’s all going to come together, and neither you nor anybody else can do me any harm until I get there.” Jesus makes about as clear a statement as we could ask for here about what he knew his destiny to be.
But if we dig beneath the surface of this account, we find an implication that affects us as well, an implication concerning our destiny as followers of Jesus. By this stage of his journey, Jesus was virtually never alone. He had a retinue wherever he went, and there were generally three layers to this band of followers. The inner core, of course, was the twelve men whom we now know as the “apostles.” Beyond them was a larger group generically referred to as “disciples.” And then there was the largest category of hangers-on, the “crowd” or the “multitude.” All these people, with varying degrees of conviction and loyalty, accompanied Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem.
You and I are invited to place ourselves in their company, to travel along with Jesus as he heads inexorably and faithfully toward his destiny, as he pursues the one item on his task list that is intimidating and frightening in the extreme. But Jesus isn’t inviting us to travel to Jerusalem with him as tourists. He’s inviting us to share his destiny—a destiny that includes suffering and death, but a destiny that also includes victory and glory. We do this—that is, walk to Jerusalem along with Jesus—in many ways. But broadly speaking, there are three:
First, we walk with Jesus spiritually. Within the privacy of our own interior life, our task is to be vulnerable, to be willing, to be open—open to crashing through what we feel like must surely be the bottom, only to discover that there are yet more depths of suffering we have not yet plumbed. But the promise we hold onto is that, by this means, we will eventually find ourselves on the roof. I know, in my own heart, when I desire a particular outcome or resolution to a situation, I often try to mentally “prepare for the worst,” to steel myself for the disappointing news, so if it comes, it won’t hurt so much, and if it doesn’t, then so much the better. But I have come to understand that this very self-protective behavior is evidence that I am holding back from God. I’m trying to grow an emotional shell, rather than being truly vulnerable and open to sharing the suffering of Christ. So I try, now, to be accessible to the pain of disappointment, to embrace it when it comes as the very cross I am called upon to bear in that moment.
Second, we walk to Jerusalem with Jesus liturgically. This is precisely what Lent is about—preparing to be with Jesus in Jerusalem when we celebrate the Paschal Triduum during Holy Week. We do this by means of our personal and corporate Lenten discipline; through prayer, fasting, self-denial, reading and meditating on scripture; Mass on Sundays, whatever midweek Lenten program we might participate in, all so that, when we sing “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” on Good Friday—either literally or figuratively—we can answer without hesitation, “Yes, I was there.” (Now . . . don’t tell anyone, but . . .this is also how we get to be “there” with the women at the empty tomb on Easter morning.)
Finally, we walk to Jerusalem with Jesus eschatologically. (That’s a high-class theological term for the realm that exists outside of time and space as we know it.) We’re all going to die. We each have our own “Jerusalem” that we’re walking toward steadily, and the inescapable fact is that every one of us is a day closer to it today than we were yesterday. The only question is, Are we going to walk this journey alone, or are we going to walk it with Jesus? He would gather us to him as a hen gathers her chicks, but we’ve got to be willing. If we make our journey his, and his journey ours, we will be among those who on the day of redemption cry, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”