It's been a while since I've been quite as perplexed by a Bible passage - particularly a Gospel passage - as I was this week. Somehow it feels like a very dense fruitcake: there's far too much to digest in one go. It doesn't help that virtually every sentence of it is phrased in quite a tricky way. However, as far as I can tell, the basics of the passage are:
That's quite a lot for five verses - especially considering that's only mentioning the bits I found most relevant and wanted to talk about today!
During Lent we are encouraged to walk with Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem, before we put sin to death with his crucifixion and rise in new life with his resurrection. Our Gospel passage today talks about Jesus making that journey knowing what would happen when he finished it, but also knowing that it was what he must do.
I think it's fair to say Jesus knew he was going to be killed before he was warned by the Pharisees. Even if we didn't have the evidence of the rest of the Gospels, his reaction is hardly the type which you might give if you were told unexpectedly that you were in danger. He pretty much just laughs it off, virtually mocking Herod into the bargain - and defiantly stating that he'll keep doing what he's doing. The timing here - the business of finishing his work on "the third day" is obviously (to our eyes) a reference to Jesus rising on the third day. This passage occurs ten chapters before the actual crucifixion, and is actually stuck in the middle of several chapters of curing the sick and teaching people. It's almost as if Luke is giving us a sort of "Coming up later in this story..." flash forward.
Regardless of the timing, however, the important thing is that Jesus was aware of his future. He knew he would be rejected by Jerusalem - and speaks, as God, of previous rejections. He knew he would be killed there - but he went ahead anyway. Indeed, more than that: he went because he would be killed there, because that was what was required to save us all. He faced his journey, and the events he knew would occur at the end of it, with courage and determination. The problems he faced could not be side-stepped - they were part of the task he had been set.
How often do we do the same thing? How often do we take on work which we know will be difficult, dangerous even, and face it square on? Today I want us to think about our journey of faith, from sin to sharing in Christ's resurrection - a journey with a glorious ending, but with many hardships on the way.
Broadly speaking, I think we can split the obstacles in our journey into two types: distractions and challenges. As we saw earlier in the children's address, if you're trying to follow two different paths at the same time, something's got to give if the two paths diverge. We constantly have other paths tempting us away - paths which lead to more money, or more fun, or more power. These can distract us from our goal, leading us away from God. These are the temptations we looked at last week.
The challenges we are faced with as Christians can be harder to face though. The parts where the path is overgrown with nettles, or where there are tree trunks across the road, apparently barring our way. Some of these are personal barriers, and others face the whole of humanity. Most of us will never face danger or even death for being a Christian - our paths are relatively safe from bodily harm - but that doesn't mean we don't have obstacles to overcome.
We may be faced with doubt when our lives become particularly difficult, or if a friend or relative dies tragically. We may find ourselves so painfully aware of our own inadequacies as God's children that we can't bear to take the next step towards him. Like Jesus, we may find ourselves mocked and rejected by people we're trying to help in God's name. Although few of us, if any, are likely to actually suffer physical harm for our beliefs, most of us will have been teased for them, or discriminated against because of them. All of these things could make us turn away from God - and all of them make it more vital that we continue our journey. Indeed, they are part of the journey and part of what are called to do can often be turning those problems into opportunities.
Our barriers can also be those of rejection of God's will: just as Jerusalem was not willing to embrace and be embraced by Jesus, so we often shy away from even facing the work God has called us to. By ignoring our call, we are blinding ourselves from seeing Jesus properly - like two thousand years ago, we will not see him until we say, "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord" and accept what he has to tell us. Accepting his will is often difficult, but is always ultimately rewarding. In the end, God never calls us to do things which are not worth doing, or which can can't achieve with his help.
Humanity itself faces similar challenges: we are called as people to face up to the obstacles which further suffering, unfairness and pain. We must push them aside to bring the earth closer to heaven. If others in the world don't hear this call, we as Christians must fight all the more fiercely to protect the rights of others, as well as to spread the news of God's desire for peace on earth.
How are we to cope with such challenges though? Unsurprisingly, the answer is to follow Jesus' example and trust in the Lord. Just as Jesus had faith that the challenges which lay ahead of him in Jerusalem would not stop him in the end, so we must have faith that God's kingdom can be brought ever closer, and that we can finish our journey in safety, arriving at Jesus' side, saved from our sins through his sacrifice. Our journey is one from the resistance of God's will to our complete acceptance of him as Lord; from sin to perfection; from earth to heaven.
And here, finally, is where the psalm we read earlier comes in, giving us further hope and reassurance. It speaks of the goal we should be trying for, the dangers we may face on the way, the fear of failure and the assurance of success.
"One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life." When we strive towards that goal purposefully, ignoring distractions of this world, we will gain true wealth - the treasure of heaven.
We must take heart that when we put our faith in God, and trust to his strength rather than our own, our "adversaries and foes" as the psalm puts them will indeed stumble and fall; our heads will be lifted up above our enemies all around us. In short, we will smash through the obstacles in our path, drawing nearer and nearer to God. Our greatest fear should be the same as the psalmist's - that God would turn away from us in anger - but at the same time we should be comforted that this will never, ever happen. As the psalm says, even if our family were to desert us, God never will. Robert Frost said that "Home is the place where, when you go there, they have to take you in." God is like that - when we call to him, he will never turn away. He loves us no matter what we do - however many times we have taken other paths, and however hard we've found it to get past the challenges in our way, he is always ready and eager to welcome us into his arms.
Furthermore, we know that God knows what it is like to face challenges. Jesus was on this earth, as human as we are, and faced harder problems than we will ever have to. He is beside us on the journey, urging us on.
We cannot get make it through the obstacles alone. We must not ignore them and hope they'll go away. Only through the power of the Holy Spirit and the strength given by God can we face and overcome them. We can do it though, and for the sake of ourselves and each other, we must.
We all have different challenges to face on our journeys to Jerusalem. As Jesus had to face up to what his ministry would bring him to, so this Lent we must consider what is holding up our spiritual journey, both as individuals and as a community. Hold one another in fellowship; encourage one another to face challenges with God's strength, and take heart from the scripture:
I believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!